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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