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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):

 

ELMORE LEONARD

  1. Never open with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Only use ‘said’ to carry dialogue.
  4. Don’t use adverbs to modify ‘said’.
  5. Limit exclamation points as much as you can.
  6. Never use phrases like ‘suddenly’ or ‘then all hell broke loose’.
  7. Use regional dialect sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, either.
  10. Leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

 

STEPHEN KING

  1. First write for yourself, then worry about the audience.
  2. Don’t use passive voice (eg. Not ‘the body was placed on the floor’, but ‘they placed the body on the floor.’)
  3. Avoid adverbs.
  4. Don’t obsess over perfect grammar.
  5. The magic is in you – fear is the root of most bad writing.
  6. Read a lot.
  7. Don’t worry about making other people happy.
  8. The first draft of a book should take no more than three months.
  9. Find your own style. Do not try to be another author.
  10. Leave your first draft for a couple of months at least, before you start editing.
  11. Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings.
  12. The research shouldn’t overly saturate the story.
  13. You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot.
  14. Don’t write for money.

 

RICHARD LAYMON

  1. Write what you would like to read.
  2. 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.””
  3. Be truthful.
  4. Finish what you start.
  5. Keep your projects to yourself.

 

ERNEST HEMINGWAY

 

  1. Use short sentences.
  2. Use short first paragraphs.
  3. Use vigorous English.
  4. Use positive language (don’t say he wasn’t lazy, say he was active).
  5. Tell the truth.
  6. Study the best literary models.
  7. Master your subject through experience and reading.
  8. Work in disciplined isolation.
  9. Begin early in the morning and concentrate for several hours each day.
  10. Begin by reading everything you have written from the start or, if engaged on a long book, from the last chapter.
  11. Write slowly and deliberately.
  12. 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.
  13. Do not discuss the material while writing about it.
  14. Do not think about writing when you are finished for the day but allow your subconscious mind to ponder it.
  15. Work continuously on a project once you start it.
  16. Keep a record of your daily progress.
  17. Make a list of titles after you have completed the work.

 

KURT VONNEGUT

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  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.
  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.
  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.

 

NEIL GAIMAN

  1. Write.
  2. Put one word after the other. Find the right word, put it down.
  3. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Keep moving.
  7. Laugh at your own jokes.
  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.

 

CHARLES BUKOWSKI

  1. 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.”

 

  1. 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.”

 

  1. 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.”

 

  1. 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.”

 

  1. 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.”

 

  1. 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…”

 

  1. 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.

 

DAVID MORELL

  1. Know your motives. Why are you writing what you’re writing?
  2. Know the genre’s history.
  3. Do your research.
  4. Be yourself.
  5. Don’t let your genre restrict you.

 

RAYMOND CHANDLER

What a good mystery must do:

  1. It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.
  2. It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.
  3. It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.
  4. It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.
  5. It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.
  6. It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.
  7. The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. It must be honest with the reader.

 

GEORGE ORWELL

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least six questions, thus:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
  5. Could I put it more shortly?
  6. 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:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

 

JOYCE CAROL OATES

  1. Write your heart out.
  2. The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written. FIRST DRAFTS ARE HELL. FINAL DRAFTS, PARADISE.
  3. You are writing for your contemporaries not for Posterity. If you are lucky, your contemporaries will become Posterity.
  4. Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.
  5. 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.)
  6. Unless you are experimenting with form gnarled, snarled, & obscure be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.
  7. Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!
  8. Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader or any reader. He/she might exist but is reading someone else.
  9. Read, observe, listen intensely! As if your life depended upon it.
  10. Write your heart out.

 

DENNIS LEHANE

  1. Read whatever you can get your hands on.
  2. There’s nothing wrong with a big ego.
  3. Know you’re writing something good even if no one else does.
  4. Have an ear for dialogue.
  5. Parental approval isn’t that important.
  6. Write a scene that breaks your heart.
  7. Ignore the critics.
  8. Don’t get comfortable with success.

ANNE RICE

  1. Rely heavily on concrete nouns and action verbs. Nothing conveys immediacy and excitement like the concrete noun and the action verb.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Be generous and loving with adjectives and adverbs. These words give specificity to the narrative; they make it vibrant.
  7. When you repeat yourself in a novel, acknowledge it, as in “Again, he found himself thinking, as he had so often before . . .”
  8. If the plot takes a highly improbable turn, acknowledge that through having the characters acknowledge it.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. First Person single point of view can take the reader not only into deep love but deep antipathy. Great ExpectationsDavid Copperfield and Lolita are shining examples.
  17. 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.
  18. 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.
  19. 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.
  20. 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.

 

 

Since the beginning of my obsession with writing, I have sought the secrets of the great writers, those rare people who managed to give me real nightmares, who haunted me so effectively. I never cease to be awed when I find myself genuinely disturbed by a book. (This is unfortunately a rarer experience as I get older. Horror is like drugs, or hot chillies: the more you consume, the more you’ll ultimately need to get you to the same place.) How was it, I always asked myself, scrutinizing paragraph after paragraph, that this person could evoke such a primal reaction in me, an emotion so powerful it can save your life or kill you – with nothing more than words on paper?

The most recent idea I’ve come across, and one I’ve used time and again to my delight, like a child with a new toy, I learned from one of my favourite books on the subject: Sol Stein’s Stein On Writing. Among countless useful lessons in the book is this gem (not a quote): Your goal is not to describe emotions, it is to evoke them in the reader.

Duh, right? It’s a deceptively simple thought, and it seems completely self-evident – and it should be, too, since every aspiring writer has heard the phrase ‘show, don’t tell’ more times than they can count.

And yet it is so easy to make the mistake. I made it, many times, and though I try hard to catch myself before my work gets out, I still make it now and then. You can find examples of this error in just about any amateur work. The tell tale signs are descriptions of madly beating hearts, characters turning pale and getting dry mouths, cold sweats and the all time favourite goose bumps.

Of course, your character may well experience all of these things, and maybe for the benefit of sympathy or characterization it could be worth detailing whichever symptoms may be present… But the writer would do well to remember that describing fear does not create fear. Telling you that the main character is terrified does not, by extension, make you terrified – and that goes for all the emotions, by the way. I can’t make you feel happiness by describing the main character grinning and dancing in the sun, either. If emotions were that easy to manipulate there’d be no need for psychiatrists.

So what is a struggling author to do?

The simple answer is: whatever works. Think about the books that terrified you when you read them. Find the specific scenes. I think you’ll find that in almost every case the thing you found so scary had nothing to do with the emotions that the characters involved felt, but a number of other things.

Here’s a fun game: next time you write a scene or a short story you wish to terrify someone with, forbid yourself to describe the symptoms of fear in your characters. No screaming, no clammy hands, no shaking knees. Go one further – make it so your main character doesn’t even have a reason (from his/her point of view, at least) to be afraid at all.

The reason this works so well is that now as a writer you can’t cheat emotions by describing them – by telling. Now you have to try to create the emotions in the reader, and in doing so you will realise that all those other things are not only not necessary, they can even get in the way of the desired effect.

Recall one of my most beloved scenes in horror: The final showdown in Silence of the Lambs. Jodie Foster is in Buffalo Bill’s pitch black basement, her gun out and ready, searching for him. We see most of it through Bill’s night vision goggles as he darts in and out, a pale hand occasionally reaching out and stopping just short of touching her.

She is surely terrified, but she isn’t cowering in the corner, shaking, and that isn’t the point of the scene anyway – it isn’t what makes us cringe on the edge of our seats. What gets to us is what she can’t see – that he’s right there with her, close and dangerous.

Another example can be found in Coraline, a famously creepy story and one of my favourites. Coraline herself is rarely scared and in fact is quite brave, yet we as the readers have spiders running up and down our necks throughout. Coraline doesn’t bat an eye at half of the insanely creepy shit in the beginning that raises warning flags in the reader, and because she is so sympathetic we fear for her and put ourselves in her shoes. Coraline is brave; we are not.

The beauty of this idea is that it applies to every emotion, not just fear. If you describe character A in love with character B, you are not making the reader feel love for character B, you are making them sympathise with character A. If it was love you wanted to inspire, you should have made B a lovable character. If you want to make the reader laugh, describe a funny situation, and remember that the characters involved do not have to be rolling around in fits for the scene to work, and in fact some of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read were not funny at all to the people involved.

So, next time you sit down to write, ask not how to describe emotions in the characters, but how to create them in the readers.

 

Tell the truth. I read this advice from so many authors, and I never understood it. I mean, the truth about what, exactly – isn’t fiction essentially a lie? For a long time, I thought it was meant the same way as write what you know, which I also had difficulty understanding. What if you wrote fantasy? I was sure it was very important and potentially useful advice, but I couldn’t get a handle on what it meant, and therefore had no idea how to apply it to my writing.

In fact, truth can actually damage your writing, as I discovered on several occasions. The heart of the problem is that fiction isn’t meant to be realistic. I mean, it is, but it isn’t. Dialogue is the clearest example I can think of. When you speak in real life, your sentences are full of ums and ahs and interjections and tangents. Not so in a good book – unless the author is using it for a particular character to make them seem nervous or uncertain. If you read a book with ‘realistic’ dialogue, you would get irritated.

Characters pose another issue. The world is full of people who would not make good characters in a story. Not everyone is willing to take action to change themselves or get the things they want. The real world is, I hate to say it, full of boring, timid, or otherwise unheroic people. It would be realistic to include one or two such characters in your book, but honestly, why the hell would anyone want to read about that?

In light of these unfortunate facts, for a long time I set truth in fiction aside as something to be treated warily. The writers I admired were obviously referring to some other definition of truth that I had yet to discover.

At last, my friends, I know. I get it. And it’s all thanks to a single quote from our good friend Ernest Hemingway, and lots of deep thought. I can tell you what writers mean when they say ‘tell the truth’ and I’m happy to report that it isn’t the airy fairy directive I once thought it was. I used to put that advice in the same category I put things like: ‘Let the muse take over,’ and ‘Sit back and let your characters tell the story.’ Romantic ideas, but not useful to someone like me, who needs nuts and bolts and concrete examples. No, as it turns out, truth is something you can actually use to write better.

So here’s the Hemingway quote: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” Straight forward enough, but still useless. Go ahead, try it, write a true sentence. Oranges are orange. I love bacon. Doesn’t give you a riveting story, does it? So what’s the deal, Ernest? Why so vague?

Here’s what I worked out. When he says one true sentence, what he means is think of a meaningful statement about life, something important to you, that you truly believe. Keep in mind that part of the uniqueness of your story will come from this – the fact that it’s the truth as you see it, not as you think others see it.

Here are some of my own True Sentences:

  • Some stones are better left unturned.
  • If you don’t overcome fear, the consequences are ultimately worse.
  • The war between good and evil is often internal

So think of one of your own, and write it down. Something you believe is true about life, an important statement you would want to pass on to your children, perhaps.

Now delete it.

Why do we delete the true sentence? Because to write it would be telling, and we are writers, so we must show. Now your whole story, whatever it may be, is about this sentence. Sure you’ve got action, love, death, etc. happening, but ultimately the point of your story is to explain to the reader your sentence. You are demonstrating why your truth is true.

So why bother? Why can’t you just write an awesome nuts space cowboy epic with heads exploding and monsters and other awesome stuff without any underlying deep truth? Well, you can, and it might even sell, but it will seem meaningless and shallow. That’s cool too, I mean look at Matthew Reilly and Clive Cussler. Those guys are the Michael Bays of the book world. They provide action and adventure, badass heroes, and lots of explosions. Nothing wrong with that for some light reading.

But make no mistake: it is what it is, and nothing more. And what it is, is a sequence of crazy and meaningless events. That’s it. The characters move from one plot point to the other, and a bunch of insane stuff happens, and it’s entertaining on a basic level, and then you finish the book and forget it within a day. It leaves no imprint on you, and you don’t think of the characters, events or anything else about it ever again. In my opinion? Better off watching Transformers. At least that has cool special effects.

It’s not just for the reader, though. Having a true sentence helps you as the writer because it gives you direction when you are lost. If you are floundering in a sea of plot lines and characters and don’t know what to do next, now you can ask yourself a simple question: What event or action will help me get across my true sentence without actually saying it? There’s no guarantee you’ll write a good story, of course, but even if you write a bad one, at least it will mean something. At least it will be true.

Go ahead and mess around with cool scenes and crazy characters; make your stories as zany and hilarious as you want…

Just make sure you tell the truth.

They tell you to write every day, no matter what. They tell you to revise endlessly, to omit needless words and to trim your work down; correct your grammar, close your plot holes. What they are actually telling you is that much of what you write will be total trash.

It’s just mathematics. A certain (large) percentage of what you create is junk. No one sits down and just churns out reams of gold plated words. If anything, the greater quantity of words you produce on a daily basis, the percentage of bad writing rises until, like someone in a Mills and Boon Romance Factory, you’re frantically slamming out a novel per week which consists of one hundred percent shit.

Here’s the thing: up to a point, it’s not only okay to write badly, it’s necessary, and next time you sit down to write you’d do well to remember that. If, that is, you are in the habit of editing more than once or twice. If not, then you’re better off writing no more than one or two hundred words a day and making sure they’re exactly the right ones in the right places, but minimal editing is generally a bad idea; there are some things you just don’t see in first draft.

Even the top writers at the top of their game occasionally drop something so bad it makes their own fans shake their heads in wonderment. What the hell was he thinking? I’ll tell you what – he’s reading the same book you are and shaking his head for the same reasons. He’s muttering to himself: ‘Damn, what the hell was I thinking?’

For example: ‘I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit.’ That’s a hell of a percentage. Whoever said that has to write ninety two books before they have a decent one, or revise the same book ninety two times. Who said that, you wonder, Stephanie Meyer? Nope, Hemingway.

So accept that you will write badly, and often, if you’re a beginner. In fact, I have a suspicion that I may be writing badly this very moment. That’s alright though, because I plan to edit this a few times. But the point of the post is to explain why this truth is a blessing in disguise, and that you should stop beating yourself up about it and in fact acknowledge it as a necessary part of the process.

Here are all the ways writing badly has helped me.

Lately I’ve been making a lot of false starts. I don’t like false starts. Once I’ve begun, that should be it, goddammit. There is nothing more irritating than writing five thousand words of what will probably be a seven thousand word short story and then realising that it sucks so bad you have to start again. But it happens to me all the time, and it will continue to happen. As much as I dislike it, however, I need to do it. Why? Because false starts help.

To toot my own horn, one of my recent stories, Fear, went down extremely well with my beta readers. One said it was the best thing I’d ever written, and another said it was the scariest (same thing). I was happy with it too, especially since it took me three and a half false starts before I got going. The first one, I wrote four thousand words before I deleted everything. The half is because the fourth time I did that, I just changed the title (it was originally called Pool. I know, right? Three rewrites and the very first word still sucks.)

But here’s the kicker: important things happened during those rewrites. In the first one, one of the characters tells some freaky stories in detail to the protagonist. The existence of those stories was necessary, but the thousand words detailing them was not. In the end, I allude to the stories only in a couple of vague sentences, and the effect was much stronger. In the second rewrite, I found myself overly describing both characters: who they were, what they looked like, etc. In the final draft, I don’t spend that much time on their daily lives, thoughts or appearances. But I needed that failed draft, because I had to know those things. Each time I got a better picture of what was going on, what I needed to say and what I could leave out, and when I finally got going, a lot of it was fixed in my mind.

There are many things that require a restart: you’re writing from the wrong point of view, you’ve started in the wrong place or time, your characters are badly thought out, etc. The trick about writing badly is a simple but difficult rule: know when to fold ‘em, folks. Sometimes I write a story which I think is great, and after I’ve sent it to everyone I know I start to get a sour feeling in my stomach, and a week later, even if no one’s said a word, I know it was bad. Other times, I think it’s awful initially, and everyone raves about it. If you can catch the rotten things before they escape into the world, you’re doing well.

Extensive editing is one way to do this, but it doesn’t always work. I do find, though, that I’m more likely to be so disgusted by something I’ve done during the editing phase that I won’t let it see the light of day, and that’s probably for the good. Once I wrote a six thousand word short story, spent a week thinking about it, and then deleted the whole thing without so much as a second glance. To return to the poker analogy, it’s like learning not to cling to your flush draw when all the signs are telling you to fold and cut your losses. And like I said, even the pros get it wrong now and again – didn’t Stephen King throw the first fifty pages of his breakout novel Carrie in the bin?

The best way I’ve found to make the decision to cut your losses is to get out of it with something good. Look hard at the bad things you write, and ask yourself ‘what did I do right?’ Then when you start the rewrite, you’ll be able to home in on that one thing and bring it to the foreground.

You must accept your propensity to spill offal onto a page. This will eliminate the fear of daily writing. When I used to be more erratic, I would excuse myself from writing on a given day because I was tired, or sick, or at a loss for ideas, knowing that whatever I created would probably be sub-par. Once I accepted that sub-par was going to happen and I could always improve it later, I was able to write day in, day out, just like the pros. The fear of failure was gone, and ultimately, I’ve had a lot of good days at the keyboard which I thought were going to be terrible.

Failure in general, while unpleasant, is a learning curve, just as natural as a child skinning his knees learning to ride a bike. It stings like hell, but if you don’t fall you won’t get anywhere. The real crime is not learning.

Finally, we have my favourite mining analogy. If you mine for gold, you must excavate large quantities of worthless mud. It would be nice if you could just reach down and pick it up off the ground, but the good stuff is buried way down there, and if you have to dig through an acre of putrefied faeces, you will, because it’s worth it. In writing, sometimes you’ll do a scene or have an idea or even make just a sentence, and it will be excellent and at the core of what you wanted – and you will realise that you couldn’t have got there if you hadn’t first written a bunch of other bullshit.

So next time you start something and find you have to delete it over and over, or you’re hesitant to start your daily one thousand, just remember that it is okay for you to do a bad day’s work. Try to catch it before it gets out though, because you should also remember that the same guy who wrote The Old Man and the Sea also wrote The Green Hills of Africa, and the same guy who wrote The Shining also wrote Maximum Overdrive.

First Million

‘Everyone has to write a million words of crap before they can start producing good fiction.’ – Raymond Chandler

‘Write one story a week, for a year. It may be difficult to write one good story… But I challenge you to write fifty two bad ones.’

Ray Bradbury (Paraphrased)

So most people interested in writing have probably heard both of these quotes, as well as the much quoted Malcolm Gladwell directive: practice something for ten thousand hours and you’ll be really good at it. No shit.

I write first drafts at a pace of about one thousand words per hour, which means that I’d have to hit one thousand hours to follow Raymond Chandler, and Ten million words to follow Gladwell. But here’s the catch: it only works if you do it carefully. Anyone can churn out a million words if they don’t give a damn – the trick is doing it and trying to get every word just right along the way.

On the internet, there are plenty of budding writers, and a lot of them are prolific as shit, if you take their word for it. Some claim to slam five thousand words or more in a day, and I can believe that, though whether they do it every day or not I’m not so sure. Some can press out a fifty thousand word novel every month or two. So here’s my question: do these guys actually improve significantly? If they keep it up, will they get pro enough to make it?

Nope. Because giving someone a word goal of X million and saying they’ll be good at the end is like telling a carpenter if he just saws enough planks of wood and nails them together he’ll be a master at the end of it. My point being, it’s not the whole story. There is truth to it, though, because I bet every master carpenter actually has sawed and nailed together a whole bunch of wood. The thing is, they did a whole lot of other stuff, too.

Look, here are two guys. Guy A writes a thousand words a day for exactly one hour. Guy B averages between two and four thousand a day. Guy A spends two to three hours a day reading, plus a little extra time editing what he’s written in the past. In fact, he edits quite heavily, spending as much as or much more time rewriting than he did drafting. Guy B doesn’t read, or rewrite at all, and when he’s done, he just ships it out, without listening to anyone else’s opinion. Guy A thinks hard about his ideas and often ponders and refines plot points in his mind in his spare time. Guy B just gets the words down.

Now fast forward ten years. Guy A has written approximately three million words, and Guy B has more like ten million, the proverbial ten thousand hours of practice. Now: who’s gonna be better?

My own experience has been closer to Guy A than B, but I’ve had plenty of B periods, believe me, and you know what? I loved them. Slamming a first draft novel and then forgetting about it in my early teen years was great fun. There’s something freeing about knowing that what you’re doing is going to be trash no matter what – you’re just out to please yourself and you can say whatever you want. But you still have to try. You have to focus, and make yourself better with each successive effort, or it’s wasted practice. Luckily, the desire to improve in any possible way was always there for me, and I gave my trash to anyone who’d read it and drank in their criticisms hungrily – the harsher the better.

I can’t vouch for the ten thousand hour rule. After all, how do I know what to count? Should I count hours I’ve spent reading? Or rewriting? If so, I should be pro already, right? Should I only count hours spent writing in which I was completely focused, and not the hours I did just for the hell of it, without caring what I was doing and just having fun?

I can vouch for the million word rule, though. When I was fifteen I read the Raymond Chandler quote from above, and decided to gun for it. I tallied up everything I’d done since I was ten (something like three hundred thousand words), and counted everything thereafter. In 2012, after thirteen novels and a few short stories, I reached one million words, and I can definitely say that they were pretty much all garbage. I started this website then, and started pumping out short stories, and to my amazement, some of them weren’t that bad. After years of dreaming about publication, the very first story I wrote after that million words got published twice. I kept going and got more success – I measured my ratio at about ten rejections for every acceptance. So I feel I can say this with confidence: If you try hard to improve, edit at least a little, and listen closely to what people say about your work, and read a ton (I average about six to eight books a month), and write a million words… You will become competent. Not necessarily good, but competent.

Competent does not pay the bills. Competent means that when people read your work, they say ‘hey man, that’s pretty good!’ and go about their day. If that’s all you want, congratulations! You only have a few years of diligent practice to achieve it. If, like me, you want to be a professional writer who can actually make a living from the craft, then you should get to competence, and then prepare to start working.

I’m currently sitting at one and a half million words, and gunning for ten. I have no idea what I’ll do if I’m not any good by the end of that ten million. Probably just despair, and up my caffeine and alcohol consumption to lethal levels. Will I stop writing, though?

Shit no, I love this job.

 

 

 

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