Tag Archives: rules

Writing Advice

The Library Bar and Grill of Albuquerque, New Mexico

So you want somebody to use your book in a display like the one pictured above. You want to be known as the new (insert favorite wonderful author’s name here.) Of course, so far, nobody is buying what you’re writing, so there’s that. I mean, heck, somebody like James Patterson has hundreds of books for sale and you can’t manage to sell even one? That’s terrible, right? So, what do you do? You go looking for writing advice, natch. And, boy howdy (I’ve been reading Craig Johnson’s Longmire books) can you find it. Everything and anything is offered up for advice. Some successful writers even take time from creating new worlds to publish their own take on how to be a successful writer. Stephen King’s book, On Writing is a very good book. I’m not sure it’s ever helped me to write better, but I recommend it anyway because, you know, he’s a good writer. Which, of course, is the key to being a successful writer: you first have to be a good writer. Or do you?

Fifty Shades of Grey is, according to all the writing advice I’ve ever seen, horribly written. When I tried to read it, I had to agree. I don’t care how titillating it is, the writing is by turns opaque, laughable, and steadily terrible. The thing is a best seller, with sequels, and a movie. Terribly written say all the critics, but there it is. That’s a successful book from a successful writer. I think it works because the writer knows what people like to read, and how to produce that. No real secret. It was self-published initially, although I believe that someone other than the author produced the movie.

Mark Twain, in his autobiography, even the severely edited edition from the sixties, says that, when asked how to know if a book was good or not, he always said simply to “Publish it, and see if anyone buys it.”

It appears that, to be a successful writer, the only rule is to write something that lots of people want to read. Screw grammar, screw characterization, screw pacing, just put out something that people want to read. Except . . .

Even a turkey like Fifty Shades has things in the story happen in the right order, and at the right time. The reason Twain had Huck and Tom go through all that nonsense to break Jim out of his prison is simply that, at the beginning of that sequence, it wasn’t time to have him free, within the timing of the story. Know what was wrong with that last season of Game of Thrones? It was too fast! The battle of Winterfell alone should have taken two episodes, and think of the cliffhanger you could’ve put after the first part. Wowzers, huh? So, what, there are rules?

Well, let me use my favorite quote from a great visual artist: “You must know the rules like a professional in order to break them like an artist.” — Pablo PIcasso.

Yep, there are rules, and you have to know what they are. The author of Fifty Shades instinctively knew when to make things happen, so readers forgave the things that weren’t so well done. (I suspect that a tamer subject matter might have needed to be more grammatical, etc.) So, how do you get to be a great writer? It’s difficult.

First, you have to read. A lot. Preferably in the genre or at least general type of story you want to be known for.

Second, refer to the quote from Picasso above. No, your book doesn’t have to be grammatically correct, or use consistent subject/verb agreement, but you’d better pay attention to just when and why you are making it the way it is. And the timing of the story, I don’t think that’s negotiable. When PBS did an adaptation of Huckleberry Finn they used the academic’s favorite, “just get Jim out of there ’cause that’s what’s important here” ploy and the ending was flatter than a possum on a Kentucky centerline. Do not mess with the timing, or your story won’t work.

Outside of that, I think that it’s your story, and you should write it however you think it should be written. Have people read it before you proceed, but take their advice for what it’s worth, which could be a little, or it could be a lot. When you’re really ready with a good story, you’ll know that you are. And the writing advice? Like critique from your friends, take it for what it’s worth.

One Sentence?

The yellow shrubs are gorse. This is in the Southeast Highlands of Ireland.

The picture is from Ireland because so is the fellow I just read about (and I can’t find the article to use his name here) who has won a prize after publishing a one-sentence novel. It isn’t a short novel, as you might think. It’s just that there is only one sentence in it. For sure he’s Irish, and not German? Anyway, this is an illustration of my point for this week, which follows directly.

One of my favorite quotes, and my favorite from Picasso, is “You must learn the rules like a professional in order to break them like an artist.” He said that in Spanish, but the meaning carries over nicely. And he’s right: there is a good reason that The Elements of Style by Skrunk and White is the #1 recommended book on any “Books About How to Write” list. You gotta know them rules, bub! But, once you know them well, you don’t have to follow them! A one-sentence novel sure as heck doesn’t. Remember that format from school, the one where you write an introduction, a body, and a conclusion? Yeah, well, that ain’t gonna happen in one sentence, is it? But, he sold the thing, and he won an award for it. Those Irish, huh?

Another famous Irish author who ignored every rule he could think of (seemingly) is James Joyce. Oddly, I don’t find his Ulysses difficult to understand. There are long passages that are basically the thoughts of the principle, but that’s easy enough to follow. Heck, his thoughts are tame, compared to some of mine. But, I digress. Joyce actually, of course, broke those rules like an artist, which is to say, deliberately, and to excellent effect. Without a complete grounding in the Strunk and White stuff, a long run-on sentence is just a mess. Ask anyone who has tried to read one. Or, tried to write one before they knew the rules as well as did James Joyce. Joyce is deservedly praised for being a great writer. I’ll bet he didn’t thumb his nose at the rules when he was in whatever passed for middle school in those days. He knew them well, and he ignored them properly.

And that, readers, is my pedantic rantlet for this week. Stay in touch — you never know what somebody with Irish ancestry will come up with next!

Some Truth About Writing

Inside the, well what do you think it is? In Peach Springs, Arizona, on Route 66.
Inside the, well what do you think it is? In Peach Springs, Arizona, on Route 66.

Newer writers always have a lot of questions about writing, and the process of writing, and whether they really are writers, that sort of thing. Well, friends, you are in luck, because this week, I’m going to answer some of those burning questions so that you can rest easier knowing, well, knowing this stuff:

1. Am I Really A Writer?

Well, let’s think. Do you sit down at a blank screen or paper, and leave when there are things written on the screen or paper? If you do, then, yes, you are really a writer, whether you get paid or not, whether you feel compelled or not, even whether you enjoy it or not, you are a writer. Next question.

2. When Will I Know that I Have Succeeded as a Writer?

When you accomplish what you’ve set out to accomplish. If that’s publish a book, then when your book is published. If it’s make a living at writing, then when you can quit your day job. If it’s get rich like John Grisham, you could be in deep doo doo. Hey, gotta be realistic.

3. What Are the Rules of Writing?

There aren’t any.
Except that there are.
Your high-school English teacher mentioned a lot of them.
Even though they don’t matter.
My favorite quote about rules is from Pablo Picasso:

You must know the rules like a professional in order to break them like an artist.

4. Should I Publish My Own Work or Get an Agent and/or Publisher.

Yes. Definitely.

5. Isn’t Publishing My Own Stuff a Lot of Hard Work?

Of course it is. That’s why you get such stingy royalties out of the big publishers. If you decide to go to the expense yourself, of course, you get 100% of the net proceeds from the sale of your books. You choose.

6. Are there Any Good Books on How to Write?

Yes. Yes, there are.

7. Which Books Are Those?

The ones you learn valuable lessons from.

8. Are You Serious?

Yes I am. This is all the true state of the art of writing.

9. When Is Your Book on Writing Coming Out?

Sometime after I write it. I’ll get back to you.

10. Anything Else to Add?


The Rules

A Resident of the Butterfly Pavillion in Westminster, Colorado. They have a million of 'em!
A Resident of the Butterfly Pavillion in Westminster, Colorado. They have a million of ’em!*

A popular quote amongst writers goes something like this: “There are two rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.” It is always attributed to somebody who should know, but as I don’t have it exactly anyway, I’m leaving that blank. It could be apocryphal anyway, for all I know. My point being that statements like that are simply false.

As far as how you write, when and where, the tools you use, whether you’re sober or caffeinated or drunk or hungover, sure, no rules. Whatever works for you is fine. But, in the end, you need a product that will pay for your computer, paper, coffee, Jack Daniels, or whatever. And if you want to do that, yes, there are rules.

I have a whole darned PowerPoint about the rules, but I won’t burden you with all of that. The rules are quite simple, based upon rule number one: Only write stuff you like to read!

If you write stuff you like to read, you have some distinct advantages. You know your audience (people like you,) you know your subject matter, you know the conventions of the genre, and you know where you can break the rules and get away with it.

The rest of the rules you should have learned in High School English class. Seriously, you should have. And, you can never break those High School English rules in a query, cover letter, any marketing materials, or at any time other than when you are breaking them for the sake of art. Beyond that, read a lot, write a lot, get critiqued, learn how to promote your work, and don’t stop. Those are the rules for writing anything.

You must know the rules like a professional in order to break them like an artist. — Pablo Picasso



*Learn more about the Butterfly Pavilion by clicking here.