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A couple of days ago, I linked to the Ten Rules for Writers in the Books section of the Guardian. They’re fun to read, completely contradictory, and simultaneously wonderful and irrelevant. (Wanna make a sour face over them? Head over to the Globe and Mail.)

But why should those writers have all the fun (just because they’re all incredibly successful)? I can write a contradictory list of rules for writers, and so can you. So, I’m going to whip up ten useful and useless “rules” that work for me (except when they don’t) and I recommend everyone do the same.

(It’s a meme!)

By the way, I’m using second person in these rules, but the “you” I’m addressing is the confused-looking guy in the mirror, not any of my readers.

1- You can’t “find” time to write; you can only steal it. In short, you have to give something up. If you find you can’t give anything up to make time for your book, good for you! Your life is too awesome to be wasted writing books.

2- People are more interesting than monsters. Sometimes the person is monster-shaped and sometimes the monster is person-shaped, but the rule holds.

3- No rituals. Try to avoid having any habits you associate closely with writing. If conditions change and you have to drop the habit–even if it’s something as innocuous as “play quiet music”–you may find it hard to put words on the page.

4- Blame yourself. If you get a rejection, always assume it’s because of something in your writing, even if it’s not objectively true. The person who takes the blame is the person who has authority and responsibility, and when it comes to writing, that should be the writer. Blaming others gives away your power.

5- Don’t cheat the concept. If the reader is thinking “Oh my God, is he going to go there?” The answer should be “Yes! He went there!” Don’t shy away from uncomfortable implications of your concept.

6- Cheat the concept sometimes. Don’t be an asshole about rule 5. If “going there” means being lurid, tedious, cliche, or repulsive, figure out a better way.

7- Text is very linear and artificial. Use that to your advantage.

8- Never put the word “into” immediately after the word “and” except in the dialog of an annoying character.

9- Talent is accuracy. In writing, talent is accurately predicting what effect a particular string of words is likely to have on a reader. The more rare the string of words, or the more rare and powerful the effect, the more talent the writer will be thought to have. And yeah, by my definition, it’s the reader who determines whether a writer has talent, and the thing people call talent can be learned. (Isn’t that good news?)

10- If you feel mildly bored with a scene you’re writing, stop working and go do something you hate as punishment. The only real “rule” in writing is Be interesting. All the rest are tools to be used or discarded as needed. (Tools, not rules!)

So, write and post your own ten rules. Why not? They don’t have to be useful to anyone except you.

Mirrored from Twenty Palaces. You can comment here or there.


( 23 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 1st, 2010 02:14 pm (UTC)
These are awesome.
Mar. 1st, 2010 02:19 pm (UTC)
You should write a list too! I'd love to read it.

And thanks!
Mar. 1st, 2010 02:48 pm (UTC)
I did--aware that they would all change tomorrow.
Mar. 1st, 2010 02:58 pm (UTC)
Cool. I'm already trying to think of what I should cut to incorporate your first rule.
Mar. 1st, 2010 03:28 pm (UTC)
except for 5
There is an even better alternative: oh, my, yes, you could there instead, that works but I never saw it coming.
Mar. 1st, 2010 07:16 pm (UTC)
Re: except for 5
That's for number six, I think. Some people will cheat the concept in a trite way--how many times have we seen a fight to the death!! that ended with the hero refusing to kill, but the villain dies anyway because he accidentally fell on something sharp.

Which is the bad version of "rule" six, granted. Putting your protagonist in a terrible bind where it seems that something terrible is truly inevitable, only to have them innovate a solution that Averts Disaster, is a powerful thing. An incredibly powerful thing. Audiences love it. I love it.

But I expect it, too. I expect that the story will avoid the trite, groan-inducing twist and achieve the surprise twist. What I almost never expect to see is that the story will go as far as it could.
Mar. 1st, 2010 03:32 pm (UTC)
and the thing people call talent can be learned

Yes! Yes, it is.

Oh, I so agree with number 2. SO AGREE.

And number 3 is one I hadn't thought about and haven't heard a million times before, so I liked it.

Numbers 5 and 6 I'm very curious about. I think I don't quite understand. Can you give an example. What's a concept, here? Do you mean things like, "Is he really going to have the hostage fall in love with her captor"-type thing?
Mar. 1st, 2010 04:11 pm (UTC)
Hmmm. 5 could be a lot of things. Everything from giving a character a quirk that ought to affect stuff to working on the implications of your world-building.

Where I see it violated the worst is in plots that do not answer the question posed. A man was replaced with a doppleganger. When, oh when, will his best friend realize this? And then he doesn't -- he gets handed it on a platter.

Or a man loses his memory and falls among his enemies, who urge on him that he is their friend, and another force urges him to think for himself, and while he is wrestling with the little info he has, his true friends show up and say they have come for him, and while he is still deciding, someone murders him.

Perhaps something more precise was meant. . .
Mar. 1st, 2010 04:15 pm (UTC)
For some reason your second example put me in a fit of giggles. Someone murders him. LOL!!
Mar. 1st, 2010 08:23 pm (UTC)
Well, it is funny in its incongruity. If it weren't for the residual annoyance at the way they dropped the ball (plus my annoyance at knocking off a good guy for no good reason) I might even find it funny.
Mar. 1st, 2010 07:38 pm (UTC)
Both of these are good.

It's really meant to keep me from withdrawing from the difficult implications and story ideas. That doppleganger may have a boyfriend. He and his boyfriend live together.

At which point the writer sucks air through his clenched teeth and thinks sex with the doppleganger is really freaking creepy, and not at all what he'd planned to write about. Should the boyfriend and the doppleganger get it on or should one of them beg off, because... medication? the flu? a convenient fight? "It just doesn't feel right?"

Those aren't easy questions, and if you're me (and you're not, but go with me) it's tempting to cheat it.

Will you be making a list?

Edited at 2010-03-01 07:42 pm (UTC)
Mar. 1st, 2010 08:20 pm (UTC)
I think so.

Make no promises about its having ten items.
Mar. 1st, 2010 08:22 pm (UTC)
Several of the lists in the article were under ten.

Me, I need 20 or 30.
Mar. 2nd, 2010 02:45 am (UTC)
my rules
Well, I posted them. here
Mar. 1st, 2010 07:31 pm (UTC)
For number five, I mean something like this: In nature, it's common for predators to cut young, weak prey from the herd. In a book, where humans are the prey, with the monsters "eat veal?"

There's a tendency in some stories to shy away from things that would be too awful, too intense, or too upsetting. Me, I think the world is upsetting, and people can do extreme or extraordinary things, even people we think of as heroes.

As an aside, in my next book, due out in August, the creature doesn't "eat veal" (even though it's not really eating). Throwing kids into the mix was not just a matter of honoring the concept, but also made the story too damn grim. She suggested (wisely) that I cheat the concept, and she was right. Luckily it was a change that feels very organic to the story.

I'm sorry if that's too vague. Let me know!

Will you be making a list?

Edited at 2010-03-01 07:39 pm (UTC)
Mar. 1st, 2010 07:58 pm (UTC)
This is good; I get it. An implication of the concept that a creature treats humans as prey is that it will go for the easy targets, i.e., children, but having a creature prey on children was wrong for your story, so you had to find a way to cheat the concept that still worked well with the story--yes?

That makes sense--both no. 5 and no. 6 make sense now.
Mar. 1st, 2010 08:08 pm (UTC)
1. and 4. 4. 4. 4. yes 4.

Here by direction of sartorias.

Mar. 1st, 2010 08:21 pm (UTC)
Yes, four was an important one for me.

Will you be making a list?
Mar. 1st, 2010 08:44 pm (UTC)
LOL I might. Am reading through Sherwood's and her flist. So many of hers smack me (in a good way) as I've made some hard decisions this last week re: writing--freeing decisions though. Definitely freeing.
Mar. 2nd, 2010 04:47 pm (UTC)

#2 is beautiful, and particular necessary for spec-fic writers.

Re #3, I actually do have rituals, but I change them up frequently. I'll go through spates of stuff, and when they stop working, I come up with new rituals. Any given ritual works for about a month, and then my brain wants something different.

#5 is superb. Speaking as a reader, I hate it when authors pull their punches. I have at least one major, best-selling book that I couldn't love as much as I think I would normally have, because the author backed off at a very key moment. It was about 1/3 of the way in, after a lot of buildup, and it just soured the whole thing for me. I couldn't trust the book (or sequels) after that.

I'm not certain going and doing something you hate is a proper punishment for being bored with a scene. I usually go make myself write a different scene, and see if that one's more interesting. Often it turns out that the reason I was bored with the previous scene is because it doesn't need to be there.

Also, when I'm bored with a scene, I follow Raymond Chandler's advice and bring in a man with a gun.
Mar. 2nd, 2010 06:48 pm (UTC)
I used to have rituals and little things I needed to set up in my environment to do my work. Everything had to be just right. Then my life began to strip them away one after another. At one point, my in-laws came for a six-week visit (9 people + 2 bedroom apartment = 1 living hell) and I couldn't do any of the things I needed to prep for writing. Instead, I fled to the Starbucks and spent hours hiding writing.

Now I can write with any music Starbucks plays, with screaming kids or fidgeting obsessives nearby. A chaotic, uncontrolled environment actually helps me, because it gives me something to deliberately ignore in favor of my book.

And I have been all about rule five, right up to the point that my agent explained rule six. I'm still trying to work out the path between not pulling punches and being an asshole.
Mar. 2nd, 2010 05:27 pm (UTC)
I Liked rule #4

I've read a lot of lists and I've heard a lot of whiny folks. I think the buck does stop with you. If you are sending a story out to a magazine that publishes 10 out of every 1,000 submissions that you had better be in that top 1% percent. If you aren't it can't be anyone else's fault but yours. It was your choice to send it to them, so just deal with what you have done.

Mike Griffiths
Mar. 2nd, 2010 06:52 pm (UTC)
Re: I Liked rule #4
Thanks, Mike.

I should add that it's possible to have the best story in that pile of a thousand and still get a rejection. Your story might be too similar to one in the issue about to hit the stands, or it may have a story element in it that this particular editor hates, or who knows?

There are a lot of reasons a story could be rejected and usually a writer can't be sure what it is. That's why I behave as though I'd have made a sale if I were a better writer. If nothing else, I get some self-improvement out of it.
( 23 comments — Leave a comment )