This Writing Thing – Rules and Tips – Part One

Another post likely to bore readers . . . except them who desperately seek easy answers and an easy path to becoming great, famous, and humble writers.

In the course of doing research on writing answers, I came across numerous references to Rules of Writing.

My first thought was the rules addressed the mechanics of writing. Like, for instance, do not scratch the inside of your ear with the pointy end of a pencil; use the eraser end, and don’t jam it in there too far. Also, don’t use the eraser for erasing again.

But no; these rules were aimed at amateur writers. Written by established and successful writers, these rules are meant to turn everyday-writing-rubes into literary giants.

Well, shoot! I’m an everyday-writing-rube! Let me be look at them here rules.

 . . . I never realized so many publications pressured established writers for 8, 10, or even 12 rules or tips on writing.

Neil Gaiman is someone I like, although I’ve not read anything of his. I think the name sounds cool, and I hear good things about him as a person. And, oh yeah, people seem to like his writing. Gaiman had 8 Rules of Writing solicited from him by The Guardian. I presume The Guardian be a publication of sorts, probably foreign and therefore inconsequential.

Still, Gaiman. Rules . . . Let’s see if I can master these rules and harness the power of the written word; I hear said power turns words into cash.

1.  Write.

Wow! I can feel the wind fill my sails. I mean, I already write; so far this is pretty easy. I’m going to be rich!

2.  Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.

Hmm . . . that sounds suspiciously like a longer version of Rule #1. Also, what exactly is the “right” word? I hope it’s not broccoli; I hate broccoli.

3.  Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.

Uh-Oh . . . I have a number of things in limbo. Good ideas I put on paper as a way to anchor them in reality. Well . . . ‘good ideas’ is a strong qualifier. Let’s just say ‘ideas’.  On the other hand, I finish most of what I write. I’m giving myself this one.

4.  Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and like the kind of thing that this is.

Wow . . . that . . . that sentence is a tad awkward. I would simplify and correct it, but who am I to correct Gaiman? As for the advice itself, I can see a major obstacle. Actually, a number of major obstacles. I can put it aside, but reading it while pretending I’ve never seen it is not going to work. I don’t ‘pretend’ well.

Then there’s the ‘friends’ bit . . . I’m not exactly awash with friends. Well, OK; a few friends. However, friends being a rare thing for me, I don’t like burdening the relationship by saddling them with arduous tasks. Plus, I don’t know what my friends read; I don’t want to seem pushy by prying into their affairs.

I’ll have to settle for just letting the writing sit for a while and then re-reading it.

5.  Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

. . . ah . . . eh . . . er . . . most of the time people tell me they like my stuff. I receive very few negative comments, and then mostly only about my personal hygiene. Even if someone hints at something they did not like, they rarely have any suggestion for fixing the writing.  

A typical exchange goes something like this:
“I had trouble with pages 1-59,” they say.  
“There are only 32 pages,” I reply.
“Exactly!” they answer.
“OK, thanks,” I finish.

Perhaps in the workshop (if I get accepted) I’ll get instructions on fixing stuff people don’t like. I mean, it’s practically their job not to like stuff the participants write, so I’ll have plenty of advice.

6.  Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.

This seems like conflicting advice. “Fix it” is straightforward, probably referencing Rule #5. But then it gets murky; no dateline given but still advised to start the next thing.

Hmm . . . I’ll have to ponder this.

7.  Laugh at your own jokes.

I got this nailed! Often I’m the only one, but laugh I do.

8.  The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

Okay then; I got this covered. I’m there. I’m in the groove. My aim is true, my heart is pure, my vision is clear. I’ll be rich in no time.

. . . except . . . I already do that in life; last I looked, I’m nowhere near able to afford my own island and a long way from attaining my goal of getting away from the things of man (you need lots of money to do that).

Still, I get it; be true to myself. I should, and do, write what’s inside me, and I do write it the way I think it should be written.

Well, crap! I should be rolling in dough, but instead I can’t get more than four people to read my stuff.

There’s got to be more to this . . . ah! Kurt Vonnegut had 8 Tips on How to Write a Great Story.

So – not rules on writing, but rules of story-telling. I can dig it!  . . . let’s see.

1.  Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

Ah . . . this sounds a lot like “don’t suck”. While helpful in general terms, it’s not exactly giving me a tool I can use.

2.  Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

Duh! I write for myself, writing what I like. I root for all my heroes. They are, after all, my heroes; I write them so I can root for them.

3.  Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

I think there are nuances here that he skips over. Looking at my characters, I would summarize them as wanting to live life with as few complications as possible, but jerks interfere. As Gaiman might put it, that’s also the case in real life.

4.  Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

I think I’m covered here. Except . . . I get feedback I should be more descriptive. Screw it! I have a Vonnegut in my corner.

5.  Start as close to the end as possible.

Another statement in need of expansion. I presume he means don’t write a saga, but then again, we are talking books here. I mean, taken literally, my flash fiction fits this very well, but I don’t think anyone is going to buy a one-page book.

6.  Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

Hmm . . . Kurt was occasionally a dick both in real life and to his fictional characters. I think I can have things happen, test my character’s metal, so to speak, without being a sadist to said characters. But, point taken.

Just don’t be all Whedon-like and kill characters off for no reason other than for imagined “realism”. Sorry Joss; killing Wash did not make me forget it’s a movie; it just pissed me off. Rather than enhance the story, it ruined my enjoyment of it.

I got to go against Kurt on this one. Test, not torture your characters.

7.  Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

Again, I think I have this covered. I write for my pleasure. Although it would on occasion be nice if the world made love to my story. Wearing protection, of course, and none of that 50 Shades of Gray stuff, either.

8.  Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

See, this does not seem right. Certainly it’s not true of the stories he wrote. Otherwise, I would never have finished any.

I’ll have to think about this.

Let me take a breather as I ponder the advice of these two very different writers.

Wait . . . There’s Six Tips on Writing from John Steinbeck. He’s a good writer, right? He did alright in his career, right? I mean, I’d be happy to sell 14 million books.

1.  Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

Wow . . . this is going to piss Gaiman right off.

But, I know what he means. As a seat of the pants writer, I have no clue where I am going with the story until I suddenly slam into the ending.

2.  Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

Double WOW! . . . it’s like if I’m channeling Steinbeck. That’s exactly how I write. Feeling more confident about this writing stuff. I mean, I might not have liked his books, but on this writing craft thing we’re in lockstep, Steinbeck and me.

3.  Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

Holy crap on a cracker! This is starting to be scary. Scary and spooky. It’s like if he’s here in the room with me as I write my stories. *shivers*

4.  If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

Ah . . . no can do, John. I’m a bit of an OCD guy. I’m going to power through. On the plus side, when I’m writing I rarely get stuck. Stuff just flow out like . . . well, let’s just say it’s an unrestricted flow.

5.  Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

John? John? . . . are you there? Oh, why? Why hast thou forsaken me?

See, I think this conflicts with Tip #3. I write for one reader; me. If I get rid of scenes that are dear to me, I’m not gonna wanna read the stuff I write. The whole idea, the whole impetus for me writing is to eventually read exactly what I put down on paper, what I can’t read elsewhere.

6.  If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

John! My long-lost bud; you’ve come back to me!

I tend to write dialogue as I hear it in my head. As a stutterer, I am particular about the choice of words, sentence structure, pauses, and running out of breath while speaking (running out of breath is a bad thing if you stutter; you might not be able to get going again once you lose your air). I tend to keep dialogue simple and be mindful to sound as people speak.

Wow . . . this is a lot to think about.

On the one hand, I feel as if I have miles to go before I am recognized for the writing genius I think I am.

BUT . . . on the other hand, I think Steinbeck and me are best buds. That’s gotta count for something, right?

That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.


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