As part of a larger creative-writing exercise in drafting my own “rules of writing,” I started with a blank sheet of paper and just kept going until I thought I had exhausted the most significant guidance I could offer. Ended up at 36 points. These three-dozen little maxims are the “big ideas” I share with early-career authors eager for advice about the craft of fiction writing.
In no particular order:
- Critique groups are your friend. No author is as good in real life as he is in his own mind. Get a peer-review team. Use it. Respect beta readers’ guidance. If other people haven’t weighed in on your story, then you’re not yet done with it.
- Write your story, instead of the Cliff’s Notes abridgement of it. Particularly in short fiction, some authors are so eager to stuff a novel’s worth of content into a novelette that the end result is a story synopsis instead of a real story. Slow down. Write your stories and let them flow as long or short as necessary. The slogan “show, don’t tell” gets drilled into workshop participants, and the dictum can be extended to the point of purple-prose ridiculousness, but the concept is sound: It’s better to reveal something happening than to simply assert that it did, and it’s more respectful to the reader to hint or imply behaviors instead of definitively ascribing emotions. Speaking of which:
- Embrace the reader as a co-creator of your universe. The best stories invite the reader to play along in her own mind. As such, over-prescribing the content — with too much concrete description or mental narration, mostly — deprives the reader the right to participate in your creative endeavor. You need not affix every detail in an attempt to clarify “authorial intent.” Be vague, sometimes. Let the reader figure things out on her own. When you hint and suggest, you allow for a richer diversity of emotional engagement than when you assert facts definitively. For example, it’s better to describe an old man as slumped in a chair absently stroking a dog-curled photograph and staring into the sunset, than to just stipulate that the man is sad. We readers know that he’s sad. But we can also infer wistfulness or melancholy or denial in the stroking and staring; however, when we’re told he’s sad, that’s it. One emotion, and we’re not allowed to draw any other conclusion. How depressing for a reader! Authors plant seeds in the minds of their readers; the readers water those seeds and let their own little gardens bloom. Respect the garden, and the reader will remain loyal to the author. If you dictate the shape and size and smell of each flower — then why should the reader bother with tending the garden in the first place?
- Villains aren’t always ugly. A novice writer reveals herself through heroic main characters who are perfect in every way; those beautiful heroes are opposed by villians who are very obviously physically or emotionally deformed. Stop it. Some of the most beautiful people in the world can be villains (see: Justin Bieber) and the most humdrum can be saints (see: Bl. Theresa of Calcutta). Virtue and vice are not correlated with beauty or emotional stability.
- Writing is a discipline. It’s not a hobby. It’s not something you do when you have free time. It’s something you do.
- Read your archive. Instead of tossing your old material and misguided drafts, save them. Then, every so often, pull those notes and deleted scenes from the file drawer and read them. You may be surprised to see how you’ve grown — or how you’ve backslid. Deletion is for the weak.
- Write with cats and martinis. This point should be self-evident.
- One perfect word is better than a litany of pedestrian phrases. Although writing with a thesaurus leads, almost inevitably, to purple prose, writing solely with ESL words and their attendant circumlocutions is almost as ineffective. Rare words are fine as long as they’re rare; they need not be entirely absent.
- .“Just Say No” to rape as a plot device. Rape is serious; it’s not a cheap ploy you can trot out when you write yourself into a plot hole. Also: People don’t magically “get over” having been raped.
- Produce content, not manuscripts. Compelling stories with clean prose, rendered simply on the page, far outshine humdrum stories with weak prose presented on the page with graphical elegance. In other words: No one cares about your font choice or drop caps or embedded tables. Just write the damn story. If it gets published, it will not be published in Microsoft Word.
- Drink deeply from your own well before appropriating others’ experiences. Your life is too precious to ignore it as a source of inspiration. Write what you know and avoid trying to build pseudo-literary street cred by writing what you don’t know. If I had a nickel for every upper-middle-class author writing gritty first-person stories about drug culture, when it’s obvious that the author couldn’t tell the difference between marijuana and oregano ….
- Strong writers develop strong plots; weak writers develop plot twists. Twists work in certain genres, but as a general rule, if you have to twist then you didn’t plot it right in the first place.
- People rarely do things for just one reason. Avoid suggesting that characters have just one all-encompassing, obvious, well-understood and transparent reason for doing things. The ocean of motivation is filled from a thousand different streams. The exploration of a tributary or two often leads to fruitful sharpening of conflict or enrichment of plot arcs.
- You probably shouldn’t discover your characters as you write them. I hear writers say things like, “By the time I got to the middle of the story, I learned that my character likes cheddar cheese.” Bollocks! If you don’t know a character until the middle of the story, then what the heck was the character doing at the beginning of the story? Clearly, the beginning of the story requires a 100-percent rewrite — now that you know your characters.
- Ellipses are the devil. Ellipses are, of course, a valid form of punctuation. But used too often — i.e., more than once every 50,000 words or so — they signify over-prescription (see #3, above). You don’t need to explicitly tell the reader about every pause or trail-off a character experiences in dialogue. Mentally, the reader will fill that gap — and even if the reader doesn’t, it’s not important enough of a detail to belabor. If the trail-off is absolutely relevant to the plot, and it probably isn’t, indicate it with narration instead of through punctuation.
- You should probably be ashamed of your first five manuscripts. If you don’t turn cherry-tomato red at the thought of publicly reading your early work, then either you’re a literary genius or you have a strongly underdeveloped sense of introspection. Writing isn’t like a switch you flip on and off — it’s a discipline (see #5) that improves with practice. In a sense, writing is like learning karate. You can’t master black-belt forms until you’ve looked like an idiot tripping over basic white-belt stances. But you should learn from your early work. Let it serve as a living testament to how your discipline has honed your craft over the years. The corollary: Don’t expect your first work to be worth publishing. Or even your second or third. Unless you’re an absolute genius (and you aren’t, statistically speaking) you’ll have to put in your time on the practice mat before you’ve earned your master status. The other corollary: Keep writing. It gets better and easier and faster the more you maintain your discipline. Honest.
- Remember thy cloud drive and keep it synced. There is never an excuse to lose your work. Keep your stuff on your hard drive (don’t bother with flash drives) and keep that folder synced to the cloud using Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox, Box, OwnCloud or whatever service you prefer. Local copy + folder sync = bliss.
- If your last paragraph renders all preceding paragraphs moot, you’re doing it wrong. Attention flash writers: The whole “I’m going to shock you with a final sentence that completely changes the story” trope is old, tired and damned irritating. Bait-and-switch is just as disreputable for writers as it is for advertisers. If you go to the effort to create characters and a plot and a clear arc, let that work culminate in closure for the reader.
- You can’t sleep with your main character. As with #4, avoid developing a main character who’s basically the best-case respondent to your Tinder or Grindr ad. No one’s perfect, not even a hero, and sometimes the savvy reader can sense when an author has fallen in love or lust with a favored character.
- “Said” is your best friend. No need to declaim or exclaim or shout or whisper orsuggest or whatever. Just say. The word blends into the background as a train conductor, so your reader doesn’t get derailed from the story by means of unfortunate synonym-hopping.
- If you torture an animal, you deserve to be punched in the genitals. If I read another submission to The 388 Review that explains in excruciating detail how horrible it was to have shot a deer without immediately killing it–argh. As with rape, the torture or mutilation of animals offends many readers and signifies a writer who cannot understand the difference between gratuitous shock and plot pivot point. I understand that sometimes people like to write about how they learned the nobility of nature or bonded with their father or whatnot over a weekend spent at the hunting blind. Fine. Then shoot the animal and give it a fitting, quick death. But to dive into excruciating detail about how it bleeds and moans and labors to stand and breathe — that kind of writing borders on the sociopathic.
- The more you try to sound transgressive, the more you sound like a fool. Experimental styles are extremely difficult to pull off and typically work well only with experienced MFA-prepared authors. A lot of the stream-of-consciousness approaches, with myriad mental asides interspersed with first-person narration and inconsistent punctuation and italics, doesn’t come off as trendy, it comes off as tedious. It’s difficult to read and it tends to take the reader out of the story, forcing her to be a meta-reader instead. Master Standard English before moving on to advanced case studies.
- Good editors check facts. Your editor will verify universal truths about the world, so it pays to get the details correct during the drafting process. Even in an invented world, the world itself must be internally self-consistent, and a good editor will spot inconsistencies. It’s usually better if those flaws don’t make it to the editor in the first place.
- Semicolons are your friend only if you know how to use them properly. Colons andsemicolons aren’t interchangeable, and a semicolon cannot set off a sentence fragment.
- A character’s inner voice probably shouldn’t sound like MST3K commentary. Contemporary fiction, alas, seems to favor first-person points of view with ample internal dialogue. Fine. But the risk for the author arises when that the interior dialogue starts to sound like either the author himself, or the sarcastic overdub à la“Mystery Science Theater 3000.” The sarcastic inner dialogue (and it’s almost always sarcasm that’s the offender) often stands at stark contrast with the character’s overall nature and outward demeanor. Inner and outer dialogue should at least cohere in terms of tone and voice. Outwardly meek souls, for example, rarely run a simultaneous witty monologue in their own heads during a group conversation.
- Let descriptions evolve over time. There’s probably no need to lard 274 descriptors into a paragraph. Sometimes doling out little bits of information over time helps the reader co-create the world while minimizing the narrative disruption that attends to explicit scenery info-dumps.
- Only masochists enjoy lectures about morals or politics. Especially in fiction, overt didacticism may prove off-putting to readers who would rather be entertained instead of harangued. Certain genres admit to didactic works (sci-fi, in particular) but in general, think twice before using a work of fiction as a vehicle for proselytizing some moral, religious or political conviction.
- Almost no one “suddenly realizes” things. Avoid the crutch of introducing some fact that a character “suddenly noticed” or “quickly remembered.” This approach suffers from two flaws. First, it tends to support a poor-man’s transition into unnecessary backstory, and second, it suggests some sort of perceptual schizophrenia wherein voices (i.e., the narrator or the author) insert data relevant mostly to the reader, in the form of memory or perception experienced by the character. Stuff like “Jane slipped on the rug, then she suddenly realized that her ankle had given out” or “Bob quickly remembered that three weeks ago, Sally had given him the combination to the lock” comes off as amateurish writing.
- Journal frequently. Even though you should read your archive (see #6), you should also keep a writer’s diary. Record the stuff you do. Your blocks. Your insights. Your ideas. Your submissions and their responses. Just as you cannot become a master scuba diver without a logbook justifying your diving history, you cannot become a master author without a journal justifying your writing history. A writer without a journal is like
a clown without a van filled with candy parked down by the rivera plumber without a wrench.
- Excessive parentheticals suggest a disorganized writer. Parentheticals in blog posts or non-fiction work are one thing; adding them to fiction is a different thing altogether. People can write with em dashes and parentheses, but we don’t speak with those marks, so interspersing them in dialogue or narration suggests a rewrite opportunity.
- Adverbs aren’t your friend. Slash every modifier that’s not essential to the story. Draw the broad, simple outlines of the story and allow the reader supply his own baroque ornamentation.
- Seinfeld rarely translates effectively to print. A story about nothing offers very little payback for the reader’s time. Slice-of-life vignettes can be pretty, but unless they’re sublime, they tend to lack resonance because they don’t feature well-defined conflict arcs. A typical story features a plot with characters, setting, conflict and conflict resolution. Subtract any of those elements and you arrive at stories that are fundamentally about nothing at all. So why should the reader care? Why should the reader invest her time?
- No one cares about the backstory, including your characters. Authors who take great care in the creation of their fictional world often want to share their labor of love with the reader. The reader, by and large, doesn’t give a damn. Many stories, including some short stories, clock in with so much backstory that the plot arc gets fundamentally twisted. Rule of thumb: You don’t need backstory. If it’s relevant, it’s not backstory and should be interspersed like normal. Avoid data dumps, including dumps cleverly disguised as reminiscences — because people really don’t spend a lot of time discussing or thinking about specific truths about the past that ever-so-conveniently happen to dovetail with a yet-to-be-revealed near-term future.
- Respect the eye in the sky. The narrator — the “eye in the sky” — has a specific tone and voice and background knowledge based on the major mode of the story’s point of view. Keeping POV straight can be a real challenge, especially within stories with several POV characters.
- Punctuation goes inside the quotes. Use double quotes to set off spoken dialogue but italics without punctuation to render mental dialogue. Punctuation goes inside the quotes. There is never a circumstance in standard fiction writing wherein a period or comma will fall on the outside of a closing quotation mark.
- People control their bodies. A person looks around a room; a person’s eyes may be the instrument of that vision, but they eyes themselves aren’t doing the looking as if they’re autonomous agents in their own right. Constructs like “his eyes scanned the room” are common as a literary device but when used to excess, they suggest a sloppiness that confuses whole-vs-part agency. Body parts generally function under the jurisdiction of a person and rarely act of their own volition.
So. Thirty-six rules. What do you have to add? With which points might you quibble? It’s worth sharing, as a disclaimer, that the points reflected above are my own and do not reflect Caffeinated Press policy.