Rules of the Game
It seems like every writer out there has a set of hard and fast rules that they deem indispensable to creating good work. Either that, or every interviewer asks them the same question: ‘What are your top ten rules for writing, Mr. Famous Author?’ And they’re forced to come up with a list of ten points that somehow summarise everything they’ve learnt over their twenty or thirty years of practice.
They contradict each other, some of them are out dated, and some of them will simply not work for you because of who you are and how you write. It doesn’t matter, you should read them all anyway, and decide for yourself which ones to discard, which to take with a grain of salt, and which to take as gospel.
Either way, ignore such wisdom at your peril.
Here they are, the many Rules of Writing (Not necessarily direct quotes):
- Never open with weather.
- Avoid prologues.
- Only use ‘said’ to carry dialogue.
- Don’t use adverbs to modify ‘said’.
- Limit exclamation points as much as you can.
- Never use phrases like ‘suddenly’ or ‘then all hell broke loose’.
- Use regional dialect sparingly.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
- Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, either.
- Leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
- First write for yourself, then worry about the audience.
- Don’t use passive voice (eg. Not ‘the body was placed on the floor’, but ‘they placed the body on the floor.’)
- Avoid adverbs.
- Don’t obsess over perfect grammar.
- The magic is in you – fear is the root of most bad writing.
- Read a lot.
- Don’t worry about making other people happy.
- The first draft of a book should take no more than three months.
- Find your own style. Do not try to be another author.
- Leave your first draft for a couple of months at least, before you start editing.
- Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings.
- The research shouldn’t overly saturate the story.
- You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot.
- Don’t write for money.
- Write what you would like to read.
- Learn how to write. “At a cocktail party, a famous writer (possibly George Bernard Shaw) was told by a famous surgeon, “When I retire, I plan to write a novel.” Said the author, “When I retire, I plan to operate on people.””
- Be truthful.
- Finish what you start.
- Keep your projects to yourself.
- Use short sentences.
- Use short first paragraphs.
- Use vigorous English.
- Use positive language (don’t say he wasn’t lazy, say he was active).
- Tell the truth.
- Study the best literary models.
- Master your subject through experience and reading.
- Work in disciplined isolation.
- Begin early in the morning and concentrate for several hours each day.
- Begin by reading everything you have written from the start or, if engaged on a long book, from the last chapter.
- Write slowly and deliberately.
- Stop writing when things are going well and you know what will happen next so that you have sufficient momentum to continue the next day.
- Do not discuss the material while writing about it.
- Do not think about writing when you are finished for the day but allow your subconscious mind to ponder it.
- Work continuously on a project once you start it.
- Keep a record of your daily progress.
- Make a list of titles after you have completed the work.
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Put one word after the other. Find the right word, put it down.
- Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before.
- 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.
- 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.
- Laugh at your own jokes.
- 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.
- Give yourself time.
“Well, I’m 34 now. If I don’t make it by the time I’m 60, I’m just going to give myself 10 more years.”
- Submit work constantly.
“I remember when I used to write and send [Story Magazine] fifteen or twenty or more stories a month, and later, three or four or five—and mostly, at least, one a week. From New Orleans and Frisco and Miami and L.A. and Philly and St. Louis and Atlanta and Greenwich Village and Houston and everyplace else.”
- Sometimes you have to write a lot of bad stuff to get to the good stuff.
“I’m not one to look back on wanton waste as complete loss—there’s music in everything, even defeat.”
- Don’t worry about grammar.
“Thank you for lessening the blow on my weakness of grammar by mentioning that some of your college friends have trouble with sentence structure. I think some writers do suffer this fate mainly because at heart they are rebellious and the rules of grammar like many of the other rules of our world call for a herding in and a confirmation that the natural writer instinctively abhors.”
- Don’t overwork your writing. Often, the first is best.
“I have not worked out my poems with a careful will, falling rather on haphazard and blind formulation of wordage, a more flowing concept, in a hope for a more new and lively path.”
- Work all the jobs.
“Worked in slaughterhouse, dog biscuit factory, Di Pinna’s of Miami beach, copy boy on the New Orleans’ Item, blood bank in Frisco, hung posters in New York subways 40 feet below the sky drunk hopping beautiful golden third rails, cotton in Berdo, tomatoes; shipping clerk, truck driver, horseplayer ordinary, holder down of barstools throughout a dull alarmclock nation, supported by shackjob whores; foreman for American newsco., New York, Sears-Roebuck stock boy, gas station attendant, mailman…”
- Don’t get an MFA (Writing degree).
“Your criticism correct: poem submitted was loose, sloppy, repetitive, but here’s the kernel: I cannot WORK at a poem. Too many poets work too consciously at their stuff and when you see their work in print, they seem to be saying… see here, old man, just look at this POEM. I might even say that a poem should not be a poem, but more a chunk of something that happens to come out right. I do not believe in technique or schools.”
“Also got your new card today, must agree with you that one can talk poetry away and your life away, and I get more out of being around people—if I have to—who never heard of Dylan or Shakey or Proust or Bach or Picasso or Remb. or color wheels, or what. I know a couple of fighters (one with 8 win streak going), a horseplayer or two, a few whores, x-whores, and the alcoholics; but poets are bad on the digestion and sensibility, and I could make it stronger, but then they are probably better than I make them, and there is a lot of wrong in me.
- Know your motives. Why are you writing what you’re writing?
- Know the genre’s history.
- Do your research.
- Be yourself.
- Don’t let your genre restrict you.
What a good mystery must do:
- It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.
- It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.
- It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.
- It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.
- It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.
- It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.
- The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.
- It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.
- It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law…. If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.
- It must be honest with the reader.
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least six questions, thus:
- What am I trying to say?
- What words will express it?
- What image or idiom will make it clearer?
- Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
- Could I put it more shortly?
- Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
JOYCE CAROL OATES
- Write your heart out.
- The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written. FIRST DRAFTS ARE HELL. FINAL DRAFTS, PARADISE.
- You are writing for your contemporaries not for Posterity. If you are lucky, your contemporaries will become Posterity.
- Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.
- When in doubt how to end a chapter, bring in a man with a gun. (This is Raymond Chandler’s advice, not mine. I would not try this.)
- Unless you are experimenting with form gnarled, snarled, & obscure be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.
- Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!
- Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader or any reader. He/she might exist but is reading someone else.
- Read, observe, listen intensely! As if your life depended upon it.
- Write your heart out.
- Read whatever you can get your hands on.
- There’s nothing wrong with a big ego.
- Know you’re writing something good even if no one else does.
- Have an ear for dialogue.
- Parental approval isn’t that important.
- Write a scene that breaks your heart.
- Ignore the critics.
- Don’t get comfortable with success.
- Rely heavily on concrete nouns and action verbs. Nothing conveys immediacy and excitement like the concrete noun and the action verb.
- Rely heavily on short sentences and even fragments. Long complex sentences, especially when filled with abstract nouns slow the reader and even confuse him or her. Break up these sentences. Or balance them with short ones.
- Don’t hesitate to write one sentence paragraphs and short paragraphs in general. Never, never bury a key revelation or surprise or important physical gesture by a character at the end of an existing paragraph. Move this to a new paragraph.
- Go easy on conjunctions such as “but,” “and,” “yet,” and “however.” The prose may feel fluid to you when you use these; but if you go back and simply remove them the prose may be even more fluid.
- Repeat a character’s name often in dialogue and in straight narrative. Don’t slip into “he” or “she” for long stretches because if you do many fast readers will find themselves having to go back to determine who is speaking or feeling or viewing the action. Punch the proper names.
- Be generous and loving with adjectives and adverbs. These words give specificity to the narrative; they make it vibrant.
- When you repeat yourself in a novel, acknowledge it, as in “Again, he found himself thinking, as he had so often before . . .”
- If the plot takes a highly improbable turn, acknowledge that through having the characters acknowledge it.
- In writing intense action scenes, avoid slipping into “ing” words. It may feel “immediate” to use these words, say in a sword fight, a physical brawl, or an intense confrontation, but if you stick with simple past tense, you will actually heighten the action.
- Remember that in writing a novel, you are crafting something that must be fully understood and experienced in one reading, yet stand up to innumerable readings in the future.
- Never underestimate the power of the two line break. You may not want a new chapter but you want to cut away from the scene. Make the two line break.
- Never get trapped into thinking that if you have a character open a door, he necessarily has to close it later on. You are creating a visual impression of a scene, and you don’t need to spotlight every gesture. And you can cut away from a scene in progress.
- Paragraphs again: they are the way you engineer the page for the reader. That’s why I say never hesitate to make one line paragraphs and short paragraphs. You’re punching action or an emotional moment when you set it off in a paragraph. And you want to make things easy for the reader. Long paragraphs always impose something of a burden. The eye longs for a break.
- Multiple point of view can be very energizing for a reader. The switch in point of view can be exciting. And multiple point of view gives you a chance to reveal the world in a way that single point of view cannot. Favorite multiple point of view novels for me are War and Peace and The Godfather.
- A single point of view throughout is the best opportunity a writer has to get a reader to fall in love with a hero or heroine. The limitations are obvious; you can’t go to “another part of the forest” to find out what’s happening. But you have immense power in single point of view to get into the thoughts and feelings of your champion.
- First Person single point of view can take the reader not only into deep love but deep antipathy. Great Expectations, David Copperfield and Lolita are shining examples.
- If you find yourself becoming bored, then do what you must do to make the novel exciting again for you. Never keep building a scene because you feel you must. Think of some other way to solve the problem that is goading you to write what you don’t enjoy.
- When you feel yourself getting tired, stop and read something that is energizing. The opening pages of Stephen King’s Firestarter always refresh me and send me back to the keyboard. So does reading any part of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. So does reading The Godfather. So does reading a Hemingway short story.
- Keep going. Remember that you must finish the novel for it to have a chance in this world. You absolutely must complete it. And of course, as soon as I do I think of new things. I go back, refining, adding a little. And when I stop feeling the urge to do that, well, I know it’s really finished.
- If these “rules” or suggestions don’t work for you, by all means disregard them completely! You’re the boss when it comes to your writing.