Every time I’m on Pinterest it seems I see some sort of infographic offering “rules for writers.”
Some of them are solid, and some are kind of infuriating – but then, I have never liked being told how to write. I have avoided creative writing classes, workshops, and clubs like the plague because the idea of a group of people sitting around telling me what’s wrong with my work gives me the stabbities. For me the whole writing process is deeply personal – and I defend my personal space, both literal and figurative, fiercely.
The idea of rules for writers kind of stuck with me, though, and I found myself listing my own rules in my head. Since I know a lot of aspiring writers I thought I’d share my favorites – maybe you’ll find some useful, or at least entertaining.
1. No character hopping mid-scene.
Point of view was one of the first things I learned as a young writer – I turned in a story and the teacher showed me how I was jumping from one pair of eyes to another in the same scene, sometimes the same paragraph. It keeps the reader from engaging fully; it makes the scene confusing; and it’s a big blinking sign that says AMATEUR.
2. Encourage werewolf philately.
If you want people to care about your characters, they have to be real people – they need flaws, things they suck at, hobbies. Your lead werewolf collects stamps. Your vampire warrior loves Doctor Who. You don’t have to belabor the point, but if you mention that your character hates the smell of popcorn or has the hots for Tina Fey, you add more dimension to the image forming in the reader’s mind, which gives them a richer experience in the world you’ve worked so hard to create.
3. “Said” is just fine. Don’t freak out about it.
Every time I see those lists of “words you should use instead of said,” I have to snort. It’s good to use descriptive terms, but the thing is, if you stuff your story full of those conversation verbs, it sounds like a thesaurus barfed on it. The reader’s eye glides right over the word “said” about 80% of the time. It’s the words around it that make it interesting or repetitive. If you use more dynamic verbs the other 20% of the time, you jazz up the writing without turning it into a word salad.
4. Never delete a scene.
Cut it and paste into a separate file and save it – you never know when you might want to harvest a paragraph or phrasing. If you really want to when the project is done you can get rid of it, but if you’re doing a series you might need it later. Regardless,
5. Back yo shit up.
Get a Dropbox. Run Time Machine. Email the file to yourself. Make absolutely sure there is more than one copy of your current work in existence. Do it frequently.
6. Remember there are two basic types of stories: someone goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.
They are essentially the two halves of one story. From Frodo’s point of view, he’s off on a journey; from Elrond’s, these hairy little short dudes are coming to town. Sometimes if you need to get into someone’s head, it helps to know which side of that story they’re on – this is particularly useful for nailing down a villain’s motivation. Are they conquering, or do they view themselves as defending?
A single story can be both – Gandalf shows up at Bilbo’s door and next thing you know Bilbo’s on a pony, hauling ass for Erebor. It’s just a way to organize things in your mind – to know if you’re coming or going.
7. The first question to ask is, “What could possibly go wrong?”
Nothing happens in a story until something goes wrong. Something has to make the main character’s present circumstances intolerable so she’ll seek to either fix it or change it, thus beginning her journey. When you’re conceiving a character but don’t know what to do with her, ask yourself what could fall apart. It doesn’t have to be a big thing to start the dominoes falling; it just has to matter to that person. What earns a shrug from one would earn smirking revenge from another.
8. Reject your first and second idea.
The very first answer to #7 that occurs to you is probably a cliché. The second one is probably a variation on or the polar opposite of the first (and therefore probably still cliché). You can come back to either later, or combine them with the ones that come after, but never take the first idea until you’ve thought of at least two more.
9. Haters to the left…
…especially if there’s a cliff to the left with a pack of ravenous dingoes at the bottom.
People are going to love your work and people are going to hate it passionately for reasons that strike you as unfair or completely nonsensical. They’re going to say nasty things about you. They’re going to tear apart everything you love about your craft. You have no control over this. To accept that, I had to stop reading reviews entirely – good ones, bad ones, and anything on Goodreads or Amazon. Don’t try to argue with haters, and don’t get a big head over lovers. It’s very easy to let people’s opinions creep into your writing until it ceases to be yours anymore. To the left, to the left.
10. Watch DVD commentaries.
I’ve mentioned before that in my head, my stories are movies. I think about things like camera angles and lighting and music – and yes, those things influence how a scene is written. You’re the director and the camera itself – so if you were looking down at a scene from above, you would describe things differently than if you were looking at it straight on.
I learned this by watching the DVD commentaries of my favorite movies – the writers/directors/editors’, not the actors’. Whoever was the main creative force behind the film will be the one to give you the most insight as to how and why it was crafted.
11. Want to know your characters? Write your own AU* fan fiction.
What would happen if your characters had to go to WalMart? Or if they went bowling with the characters from another book? What if I wrote the characters from the BBC Sherlock into my Shadow Agency series? (Um…I am actually doing that, but I don’t know if it’ll ever see the light of day.) Pick up your characters and plop them down somewhere ridiculous or in a survival situation and see what they do. You don’t even have to write it down, just imagine it. You never know – I actually used one of the ideas from an exercise like this in Shadowbound just to add a little humor to a very serious storyline.
12. Try not to punch people who say “I’d love to write a book, but I just don’t have time.”
Also try not to punch people who ask how much money you’ve made or how many copies you’ve sold. Normal people have no idea what life as a writer is actually like, and many don’t really think of it as a “real job.” All you need to write a book, apparently, is time. I wouldn’t tell somebody “You know, I would totally be a tax accountant if I just had time.” But those misconceptions are even more glaring these days when traditional publishing has taken an arrow to the knee and the life of a writer is even less glamorous than it was in the 90s.
13. Aw, fuck it, go ahead and punch them. Too much sex gets really, really boring.
Unless you’re actually writing porn, don’t go into lengthy detail in every single instance of boinking – you can be romantic and sexy without describing every thrust. Save the detail for a really important scene – a first time, a last time, the time with the gallon tub of Greek yogurt which led to the invasion of Poland – and cut at the foreplay for the rest. Fight scenes are the same way; they require a difficult balance of suggestion and choreography. You can’t describe every single swing of a sword – it’s as tedious to read as it is to write. Go for the broader strokes and let the reader’s imagination do some of the heavy lifting.
14. Don’t quit your day job.
The truth is, for most of us, writing is a great second income and a dreadful primary income. Why? For one thing, it’s inconsistent; you never know how much you’ll bring in from one reporting period to the next. But more importantly, the first thing that will kill your inspiration is turning your art into a dollar sign.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get paid – you should absolutely get paid, fairly and on time. It means that you shouldn’t have to be focused on the money. And if you are constantly worried about making rent, it’s damn near impossible to focus on anything else. Eventually you start putting so much pressure on yourself to earn that you squeeze the “you” out of your work. Keeping a day job isn’t selling your soul. When you make story decisions based on how they will affect your sales, that’s selling your soul.
Trust me on this one. The best thing to do is have more than one income stream. That doesn’t have to be a crap office job; you could write novels, work part time as a juggler, and host Fuckerware parties selling “adult novelties.” Writing is demanding and draining even when it’s fun. Don’t put any more stress on yourself than you have to.
15. You can break any rule, including this one, as long as you’re good at it.
Writing is like jazz. Before you can improvise and splendidly bend the rules, you have to know how to play your instrument.
Both writing and reading play into this – read a variety of works in different styles and learn to see what works and what sets your teeth on edge. Some people are great at storytelling but utter crap at writing, and vice versa. Some people violate grammar egregiously and strew commas like Comma Appleseed (myself among them – every time I edit I make it a policy to remove half the commas I used because, after all, commas are not merely decorative). But there are skillful ways to do those things, and there are clumsy ways that make you look like a seventh-grader on her first 500 word essay. So learn the rules, compare them to how you already write, and see if you want to concentrate on any particular alterations (like removing commas) going forward. Even if you’re already awesome, there’s always more to learn.
* alternate universe