My Rules for Writing

 

summer officeWhen you write, do you: identify with a character? Relate to a character? Care about a character? Hate a character? Judge a character? Objectively describe the character and then let the reader decide? Does it matter what the author intends? The answer is “No”. In the end only the reader’s reaction matters. Not the reader’s interpretation (That only matters if your book is being taught in somebody’s English class.) The reader’s reaction matters because that’s what drives them to keep reading (unless their teacher has assigned it). And that’s what authors want, for readers to read their books. If you want something else, quit now. If you’re writing to show off your vocabulary, share your philosophies or display your superior craftsmanship, quit now. Because if no one reads your books, it doesn’t matter what you write or how you write.

So what are the rules? What should writers be doing? How can writers engage these readers?

Here’s a list of famous writers’ rules for writing:

Neil Gaiman: 8 Good Writing Practices
P.D. James: 5 Bits of Writing Advice
Jack Kerouac: 30 Cool Tips
Ronald Knox: 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction
Elmore Leonard: 10 Rules
Michael Moorcock: 10 Tips for Good Storytelling
Andrew Motion: 10 Techniques to Spark the Writing
George Orwell: 6 Questions/6 Rules
Edgar Allan Poe: 5 Essentials for the Better of a Story
Annie Proulx: 5 Techniques for Good Craftsmanship
Zadie Smith: 10 Good Writing Habits
Strunk & White: 11 Composition Principles
Kurt Vonnegut: 8 Basics of Creative Writing
Billy Wilder: 10 Screenwriting Tips
Rejection: 3 Methods for Coping
Tracy Kidder & Richard Todd: 10 Writing Insights
Joyce Carol Oates: 10 Writing Tips from Twitter
Henry Miller: 10 Writing Tips
John Cage: Ten Rules for Students and Teachers
Margaret Atwood: 10 Rules for Writing

Here’s one example. Elmore Leonard. He’s old but he still gets published. He writes mystery/thriller-type page-turners. Even though he writes popular bestsellers, critics and writing teachers respect him.

Elmore Leonard started out writing westerns, then turned his talents to crime fiction. One of the most popular and prolific writers of our time, he’s written about two dozen novels, most of them bestsellers, such as Glitz, Get Shorty, Maximum Bob, and Rum Punch.

What’s Leonard’s secret to being both popular and respectable? Perhaps you’ll find some clues in his 10 tricks for good writing:   *

  1.  Never open a book with weather.
  2.  Avoid prologues.
  3.  Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4.  Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
  5.  Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6.  Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7.  Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8.  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9.  Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  10.  Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

* Excerpted from the New York Times article, “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle” – (I only included this part because I love the word “Hooptedoodle”.)

Ten minutes ago, I took a peek at my first to-be-published novel ENTER IF YOU DARE. I used the word “suddenly” seventeen times. Took a peek at HER EVIL WAYS (just signed the publishing contract)…30 “suddenlies” Yikes! Color me stupid. Fortunately, I can still edit the damn thing before it goes to print. Phew!

So, even though I’m an incredibly clueless writer of monsterful schlock…

Here are some of my rules:

  1. Tell a story the way you want to tell it. It’s your story. Nobody should try to make you write LITERATURE if no one reads LITERATURE unless it’s assigned.
  2. This doesn’t mean you should throw out all the rules and ignore advice from people who are good at what they do (people who have readers…because that’s what you want…readers. Let’s put that in all caps: READERS).
  3. What you want is 21st Century READERS because, after all, it’s the 21st Century. Duh. One writer whose rejection letters had offended her, recently complained online, “Charles Dickens would get rejected by (whatever publisher or agent had rejected her).” And, she was right. He’d get rejected. No one reads Charles Dickens anymore. He’s brilliant. He’s immortal. Students of Literature read him and their teachers, but no one else. He’s too wordy. The stories move along way too slowly, bogged down by thick swamps of description and figurative language. We might study him. We might watch the film versions of his work. We might read the Cliff Notes for one of his books. But most people don’t read him anymore.
  4. Open your veins and let the words pour out. Don’t edit until after. Spill your passion across the page. Don’t over-think ever. If you do, you won’t write. You’ll just dream about writing. You’ll read people’s books and criticize them and say things like, “That stupid book is a bestseller! I could do better than that.” You’ll never do better than that if you never pick up your metaphorical pen, which is really whichever electronic device you use for writing, because you’re a 21st Century writer. Don’t let your own inhibitions and judgments constipate you. Pick up your ideas and your device and go!
  5. Be ready for criticism and rejection. Don’t let it tie you up and gag you. Whoever wrote 50 Shades has been the recipient of crap-loads of criticism. Most of it deserved. (I snobbishly refuse to read it, but I respect the author’s success. And my 83 year old aunt has read it.) Naysayers be damned. Man your word-torpedoes and full speed ahead.
  6. Let people read your work and if they compliment it, use these compliments to construct a humongous skyscraper of confidence. You’re gonna need it when you start getting all those rejection letters and criticisms.
  7. If you’re lucky enough to receive any criticism (most agents and publishers just say NO (not even “no thank you”)) (Double parentheses, not even sure if that can be done. But I just did it.) take the criticism seriously, only if it contains advice. One editor told me that the story (ENTER IF YOU DARE) began when the two main characters met. So I took out the first 10,000 words of the book. And now I have a publication date: August 2014.
  8. At the end of the list: Just because you’ve read a book doesn’t mean you can write one. So instead of reading crappy books and saying, “I can write better than that.” Pick up your device and write this “better book” you’ve been bragging about.
  9. Be sneaky. Spy on people and listen to their conversations. Someone once called Mark Twain a “prodigious noticer”. I would like to be called a “shameless eavesdropper”. Wear sneakers, tiptoe up as close as possible to people. Then look and listen. You’ll develop a better ear for dialogue and this will make its way into your writing.
  10. Write stuff down as soon as you think of it. Eminem has shoe boxes full of rhymes. However, don’t try this while you’re driving. You can do it at red lights, but everybody beeps if the light turns green and you’re still writing.

Hence, my ten rules. Follow them or not. The choice is yours. Because it’s your freakin’ book if you ever get off your butt and write it.

 

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Blog Post #4 … It’s Killing Me

Usually the realization that it’s Saturday morning fills me with joy. I roll over and go back to sleep for another half hour. I make a pot of coffee and an extra piece of toast. I play Words With Friends in one of the ongoing games I struggle through with a friend who always beats me. But it’s a huge thrill when I actually win one against her because it’s only about five percent of the time. The rarity of my victories makes them all the sweeter. Also on Saturdays, I write. If my husband tries to talk to me I put in my earbuds and I visit another world. A world I love where everything’s less stressful because it’s not real. I made it up.

Except now this world is real to me. And, more important, the people are real to me, too. They’re no longer characters. They’re walking, talking, kissing, running, breathing, fighting, struggling human beings. And the best ones deserve to win their battles. I finished the first two books in the series. The first one comes out this August. I sent the second one in to my publisher a couple of weeks ago. I’m working on the third. Hence, the stress. It’s killing me.

I don’t have writer’s block. I know where the book is going. I’m about 3,000 words in and feeling pumped to write the next 70,000. The research will be fascinating: Native North American legends, spirits and lore; falconry and fencing. An epic battle of Good versus Evil, as every third book in a series should be. The characters from books one and two are all in their places, like chess pieces arranged on the board. The new characters are about to enter the story. A mixed bag of quirky and romantic, fascinating and unpredictable people. There’s only one giant, elephant-in-the-room type quandary.

This is the third book, and, even if I never become a Suzanne Collins or a Veronica Roth, someone has to die. Someone important. Someone I love. I’m not anywhere near writing the pages where this character breathes his (or her) last. But the stress, the anxiety, is killing me. I haven’t even decided who, yet. But I promise it will never be the dog. I’m thinking of putting all of their names in a hat and just picking one. Then whacking him, as the mob says. Or her. I might have to sacrifice more than one person. HELP!

I saw an online joke where a bunch of famous authors are playing cards and the loser has to kill off a character, chosen by the winner. But I’m not a famous author and I don’t play cards with any famous authors. Probably because I don’t know any. Oh, wait… T. Jefferson Parker once commented on something I posted on his Facebook page. I don’t think that counts as a friendship, though, and I don’t think there are any card games in our future. I don’t even play cards, not since Crazy Eights, with my kids when they were little. I do like cards, however, and if card games didn’t involve staying up way too late, I probably would play. But I’m digressing, because I don’t even like writing about the possibility of killing someone I love, never mind actually wielding the knife, or the gun, or concocting the freakish accident.

So instead of deciding who to kill off, right now, I’m going to do something I’m really good at…procrastinate. I’ll do some research, write a few thousand more words and worry about death another day. Ugh. Damn. This could ruin my whole summer.

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Blog Post #3

Titling and Naming

Sometimes books are born with a great title. Not mine. My first book’s first title: Opening Doors. A terrible title for a ghost story. Not scary. Bland. Generic. Opening Doors eventually evolved into Enter If You Dare. Same idea but much scarier. Open the door to the haunted cell in the old abandoned insane asylum. Then enter, if you dare. When the title of the book appears in the story, the reader should perk up and think, Something significant is happening here. I’d better perk up and pay attention. Also, the title is often closely related to the theme.

Unless you’re already a popular author, your title needs to be part of your marketing strategy. You can’t afford to be self indulgent or pay homage to some esoteric and impressive bit of knowledge that you’re proud to possess. For quite awhile, my book bore the title Wild Wood, taken from Kenneth Graham’s novel The Wind in the Willows, one of my favorites. But, it’s not very scary or attention grabbing. So I changed the title but kept it as a name within the novel. I expressed my love for Badger, Mr. Toad and Mole by naming the haunted asylum Wild Wood Psychiatric Hospital. There, anyone who’s a Kenneth Graham fan will be pleased and I didn’t sacrifice the chance to frighten people with my title.

“It’s your last chance to make a good first impression.” My husband always says this to our kids. They ignore him and roll their eyes. Authors who are titling a book should not. The sequel to my first novel is called Her Evil Ways. The story is about the vengeful spirit of a woman who had led an evil life. When she rises from the grave, she wreaks more evil upon the innocent citizens of Eastfield (named after my hometown, Easton).

As for naming characters within the book, it can get confusing when the word count piles up and the story gets more complicated. I try to make associations, like naming the pediatrician in my first book after my kids’ pediatrician. I also throw in the names of my friends, families and students, book characters, authors, artists, poets. No one’s safe. The love interest in my first book was called Christian Silver until Fifty Shades of Grey came out. Then I changed his name to Wyatt Silver. There are some associations I want to avoid even if they’re accidental.