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.
It is now going on 11:00 on a Wednesday morning and I am writing. This isn’t the first thing I’ve written today, either. But I haven’t actually put any more words down on an existing project. How’s that? Well, sometimes, I have to write, but I never have to write anything in particular. If you get my drift.
I don’t get writer’s block. I have no idea what that is. What I am writing at the moment is just a sort of quasi-stream-of-consciousness travelogue through the town where I grew up, mostly while I’m growing up in it. I have no idea if anything will ever come out of it, but it is writing, and it keeps me in the groove. The book that’s awaiting my next brilliant plot move will wait, I’m sure.
And that is the point, simple as it is, of this week’s post. Just write something. Frankly, if your project is getting too tough for you to deal with at the moment, then for the sake of creativity and clarity, it’s probably time to back off from it for a while. Nobody will steal your idea and make a blockbuster movie out of it if you take some time away from it. I promise. I do have a discipline. I write every week day that I’m not on vacation. I prefer writing in the morning, but I’ll do it whenever I can, sometimes near bedtime when, frankly, I’m not sure the result is exactly coherent, but I by gosh write it anyway.
Readers are probably aware that I am a fan of the book 13 Reasons Why, by Jay Asher. I’ve reviewed the book on Amazon if you’re interested, although there are so many reviews, you may never be able to find it. Now the book has been adapted into a series and released by Netflix. And, of course, there are reviews of that popping up every day. I probably won’t review the series, because I don’t produce movies, but I can state, with just one episode left to watch, that I have enjoyed it greatly. I do want to talk about this one review of the series, however.
I’m honestly not sure who wrote that review. It says “revised by” or something like that at the top. But, it’s the review, which is a criticism, itself, that I am writing about. The reviewer liked the series, but not the book. And that’s fine. You can read the review to find out why, but for my purposes, I’m fine with anyone having an opinion, and offering said opinion for public consumption. No problem there. But, at one point the review states, and this is a quote, “It is not a good book.” Interesting. On the New York Times Bestseller list for years (literally,) bought by millions of people, recipient of eight (8) awards for excellence at last count, well, check out the Wikipedia page on the book to learn more. And thus is illustrated my problem with critics. Whoever wrote that review calls it a bad book, because I suppose they know better than all of those others who have loved it enough to garner for it all those awards and praise? Take a lesson, friends: remember that your opinions are your opinions, and everybody has one of those, right?
This is not the first time I’ve been offended by a critic, far from it. In college I read (as an assignment) a critique of Stopping by a Woods on a Snowy Day by Robert Frost. That critique was by John Ciardi, who, I have to admit, has cred. And he didn’t badmouth Frost at all, but he did go into painful detail as to the meaning of every line, comma, nuance, and stanza of the poem. And I thought as I read, “How dim must one be to not see what Frost is getting at, here?” Really, he means that he’s got things to do before he dies? Wowzers! How profound! I imagine that the instructor was hoping to convert some people to a love of poetry, but I don’t think that boring them with a detailed analysis of a beautiful poem is going to do the job. A poem, it seems to me, speaks for itself. If you don’t see those chickens next to the wheelbarrow, that’s okay too. Do something else.
The moral of this post is that you should, as with anything else, take what you can from your critics, and leave the rest lie. That review of the series makes some decent points. Too bad they had to spoil it, huh?
You remember last week’s post, don’t you? The title is “Go Big or Go Home,” and it’s about how I discovered how to restart a stalled idea by thinking bigger about things. Well, imagine my surprise when, in yesterday’s email, I found, in the latest installment of Writer Unboxed, an article entitled Is Your Fiction Big Enough? Hey, folks, I’m en avant, in front of the trend, setting the pace! Uh, sure, but my point is that the author of that post seems to agree with my post, and in fact puts quite a few illustrations up for consideration.
So, If’n I was ewe, I’d fer sure click on that there link and read what that other fella has ta say!
Okay, a few hints, in case your clicker won’t click, or whatever. The author is James Scott Bell, and he’s had some success with mysteries and historical fiction, and he knows how to use examples to illustrate his point. Examples from books where the action gets big, the problems get bigger, and the danger is overwhelming. Or not, because some of the examples are from the beginning of the hero’s journey, where the poor protagonist is, as it were, asking for it. And he recommends, as an exercise, writing page-long sentences to get a feel for the emotions of a scene. Heck, if you’re writing in German, that should be easy, I suppose. But, he’s right. As I started thinking bigger, my sentences got longer (no, not all of them, but some very important ones.) So, today, I say again, quit reading this (although the picture is nice, innit?) and click on that link to read what a master of the craft has to say. GO!
Go Home! A true story from my own recent past. Besides installing flooring and preparing to be a driver for Lyft, I have been messing around with my writing by producing things that are not the novel I’m trying to get off the ground. Until yesterday morning.
Yes, morning. As I was waking up yesterday, the solution came to me. I have had the basic idea for the book since last June. The first pathetic attempt at it now has the title, “First Pathetic Attempt.” There are more attempts nestled in the directory with that one. (I use a cloud service, Microsoft One Drive, and I highly recommend that if you use a computer to produce your work, you also use a cloud storage solution. One drive integrates seamlessly into my Windows 10 installation, but any one will do you, probably.) The others have such names as, “Il ne marche pas” and “Second first draft.” One file has the same name as the now, finally, properly begun, novel. Nope. Ain’t gonna tell you. Too early, but it’ll be a good one, I’m sure.
The thing is, I tried first person with one character, then a third-person approach, then, okay, first person with another character, which is the version with the French name, and now, at last, limited third-person wherein the POV does shift, but not often enough to make me dizzy. But the big thing is that I needed some sort of real grabber to start the story with. I was seeing it as a romance, but it just wasn’t working. I had a version where a male protagonist was in trouble at the beginning, which is okay, but not for a romance. I had a version where a female protagonist tells it all, but it seemed flat. I had a character disappear out of the story, which was putting too many restraints on the plot. And then, yesterday morning, as I was waking up, BAM!
The new version, the version that I think will stick, opens with a rape. Or at least non-consensual sex, for those who like to parse meanings. That’s the thing that will carry the entire story, always under there, always causing trouble, possibly ending/changing/starting relationships. And it will justify (when I’m done with it) some pretty nasty stuff happening to the bad guy. (The guy who rapes the girl, you fool!)
So, point is, I went big, and it worked! No, no vivid descriptions of exactly what happens. Plenty of that available for free, innit? But an emotional description from her POV. Not so much of that available for free. So, it’ll be months before this thing is ready to talk about, but stay tuned, because talk about it I shall. And so shall my characters, all of whom, of course at this stage, I love.
In conclusion, if you’re having trouble starting a story, try going bigger. It costs nothing (maybe some paper and ink) but it can yield some big rewards!
Genetic testing, bought for me as a present some years back, reveals that I am, on my fathers’ side (plural intentional) Norse. I have common DNA with men in Uppsala, Copenhagen, and a couple of small villages in western Russia. I have a blood condition common around the Mediterranean, also, which, along with those Russians, indicates that it is likely that an ancestor of mine visited Byzantium and brought home a bride. Upon learning that, I became interested in Norse mythology. I’ve learned about Odin, and Thor, and Freda, and Hel (yes, the original Hel,) and many other gods worshipped by my ancestors. And I have always been curious about Ragnarok.
Ragnarok, in the short version if you don’t click the link, is a story about events at the end of the world. Thor manages to kill a monster snake, but is killed in the process. Odin dies, Freda dies, everyone in Valhalla dies, oh, it’s a bloodbath. The good guys do win, but holy smokes, at such a cost.
I always wondered why anyone would include such a terribly pessimistic story in their cultural mythos. Everybody dies! So what’s the point? Right?
Except, after reading Neal Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. (See my review on Amazon from February 18th for more.) Gaiman tells the story so clearly and enjoyably that I finally got the whole story on Ragnarok, which is darned difficult to do reading the Eddas. The fact is, of course, that everybody doesn’t die. I knew that, but I didn’t know what happened next.
Two of Thor’s children survive. Two of Odin’s children survive. One human couple survives by hiding deep in the branches of the World Tree. So, one might surmise that the Norns are still down there at the roots dealing out fate, right? And Balder, the nicest, most beloved, all-around good person of everyone at Asgard, comes back from the underworld, because, well, why not, huh? The former Asgardians set up a new city at the site of Asgard, a better one. The world starts coming back, better than ever. And one day the gods are out sitting in the grass when they notice something shining in the sun, mostly buried in the grass. It turns out to be a chess piece, representing one of the gods. They find a chess piece for each of the gods, in fact, even Balder himself. Then they set up a game, and Balder, whose smile is like the sun coming out after a rain, reaches down and makes his move. Then, as Gaiman puts it, the game begins anew.
Wow! So, there is no end to the world, really. But it is terribly, destructively, difficult to defeat evil. But, the game always begins anew, in a better place, with better players. Holy cow, does that remind you of anything?
Like how the Great Depression and World War Two ushered in a newer, better, world, based upon the virtually total destruction of an old one? The Renaissance? The Industrial Revolution? Today?
Like all stories, Ragnarok is a metaphor. In this case, it is a lesson in how tough it is to put down evil and build a better world, but that in spite of that, good always triumphs, and a new, better, situation emerges. If we give it our absolute all. Damn, but I felt better after reading that book!
And there you go! Metaphor! Sure, there are people who don’t get it. Well, too bad for them, huh? But for the rest of us, we can march into Ragnarok fully knowing that a bit of what we hold dear will survive, while our enemies (whatever that means in a given case) will be wiped out. Take that, snake! I’m not saying that you should consciously insert metaphor into all of your stories. I’m saying that if they are good stories, the metaphor will be there, and be what’s making them so good. Wow. And all about reading about a mythical battle at the end of the world!
*In case I haven’t mentioned it in too long a time, all of the photographs on this site were taken by myself unless they are otherwise labeled.*
I am the coordinator of the Las Vegas Writers’ Group. I will be presenting to the group in April on “The Rules of Writing.” Feel free to drop in, but in case you can’t make it, here is a short summary. I promised them that I’d hit all of the rules, but for you, I’ll keep it lighter. Ready? Begin . . .
You must know the rules like a professional in order to break them like an artist.” — Pablo Picasso
My favorite Picasso Quote. A mistake new writers seem to make a lot is to not follow the basic rules of writing. They notice that the big, successful writers don’t always follow the rules, so they don’t either. But, what they fail to do first is to learn the rules so well that they can follow them without even thinking about them. Then, if clarity demands it, rules may be broken. And the first, and most important, set of rules are the ones your high school Language Arts, or maybe English, teacher made you repeat back to him/her week in and week out. Here are a few, to remind you.
I before E, except after C, or when sounded as “A” as in “neighbor” and “weigh.”
The Oxford comma, which is to put a comma before each single entry in a list, even the very last entry. An example is one, two, and three. Is it okay not to use an Oxford comma? Sure, but when is it okay?
Parts of speech: nouns, verbs, pronouns, subjects, objects, prepositions, and the rest. When do you use “who” and when, for pity’s sake, does one use “whom?” Why is that?
Two, to, and too. Their, they’re, there.
Is it its it’s? (I’m actually kind of proud of that one.)
Which witch is which?
You get it. All that stuff from school. True, most people forget more than you have to know. And that’s okay because most people are not professional communicators. But you are! Once you know all those rules, and there are many that I did not list, you are ready to break them as needed.
But, when does a writer need to break the rules? Simply put, when clarity demands it!
If Huckleberry Finn spoke good English, nobody would read that book. If Holden Caulfield spoke properly, nobody would know who that even was. In both of these instances, clarity demanded that various traits of the protagonists be demonstrated in their speech. So, rules out the window; they talk like they talk. So, the first rule beyond those from school is that Clarity is Primary!
One of the primary ways a writer can be more clear is to, as they say a lot, “show, don’t tell.” I like jokes, so here is a quick illustration of what “show don’t tell” means, using a joke.
When I die, I want to go peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather. Not screaming in terror like the passengers in his car!
That is a joke because of its structure, but it also is an excellent illustration of showing something rather than telling it. When you read that, you know what happened. But, look again. Nowhere is that tragic event actually mentioned. Not a word about what happened, really. As a reader, your own imagination fills in the terrible details, and a joke is born. If that joke were to be explicit about actual events, it would be the news, and not a joke. Keep that in mind when writing a description. You can show it to us, rather than tell us about it. Readers don’t need the news, they need to see the story in their own minds.
This post up to now is the basics of how to actually write a good story. There’s more, such as story arcs, character goals and motivations, conflicts, dangers, and other specific elements, that I have not covered. Don’t proceed just on the basis of what I’ve written here. Read everything that you can about writing before you begin.
Beyond the Basics
Rule the First: Only write things which you like to read!
By writing what you like to read, you automatically have a leg up on the process because you are familiar with the conventions and genres of your favorite topics.
What you know? (I hear you.) The fact is, if you don’t know something, you can learn it. If you only write what you know, you are severely limiting your range of subjects, places, and character types. Research has gotten much easier in recent years, so take advantage of that, and learn what you need to learn in order to write what you know. Then write it in a way that you’ll like reading it.
Read a Lot
Practice (write) a Lot
Get a lot of Help
Books on writing
People whose opinions you trust
People you will critique in return
To find critique partners
To meet kindred spirits
Meet fellow writers
Meet successful authors
Meet (and pitch to) agents and editors
And at last we come to Marketing, which I’m not going to cover in this post. Just know that, if you succeed, you will have done, and continue to do, a lot of marketing of yourself, your brand, and your writing.
There! Now, go forth and write! You now have no excuse for not being a successful author!*
*For free information on a fabulous bridge, contact your author.
Some people may be uptight enough to iron their shorts, maybe even put plenty of starch in ’em, but not me. But, in response to some reading I came across extolling the virtues of writing short stories, I wrote my first one in quite some time. And it came out fine! So, in spite of the fact that I wrote it with absolutely no idea of what I was going to do with it (specifically at least,) I wish to add my voice to those encouraging short story production.
I have for years admired poetry. William Carlos Williams creates an entire world in a few lines simply by describing a wet, red, wheelbarrow in a chicken yard. In prose that might take a couple of paragraphs, but in good prose, say in your earth-shattering novel that will no doubt redefine American literature for the balance of this century, it may take only one, two, or three words. If your novel is really good, that is. A novel, even a short story, contains a lot more information than a poem. Williams did describe the city of Patterson, New Jersey, at length, in a long poem. But he had to use just about as many words as would a novelist describing a day in the life of said city in any sort of detail. By which I mean, I don’t want to stretch my “poetry as the essence of storytelling” idea any further. I confess, I’m not much of a poet. I can’t even write a serious song, but I can write a short story. And it is great practice for the longer stuff.
In a short story, you can’t spend a lot of time on background, exposition, or extended character development. The reader has to see the character, figure out what she is immediately, and develop sympathy for her predicament within the first couple of paragraphs. That doesn’t require that you be a great poet, but it does require that you write very well. 250 words in, we should know who this is, what her problem is, and what she’s doing about it. You can put the thrilling climax right up front if you wish, and fill us in on how it came about. Or, you can do the more traditional thing and put that thrill just before the end (don’t have time for much denouement, either.) A few writers have gotten away with putting the big moment smack in the middle of the story. If you think you can pull that off, please go ahead. (I like putting it up front as a teaser, leaving the resolution for the end.) You must show everything, because there is no time for telling. She’s nervous? She has a tic, or something, right? He’s mean? He shoves a kid out of his way.
And that is by way of saying that, if nothing else, writing short stories will give you practice on the tight writing you need to extend throughout your entire earth-changing novel! The one I just finished is based on the same social situation as the YA novel I’m shopping around. But, it is only 2500 words, and it has different characters, only one of which is the POV we see, and it’s a completely different story, in several senses of that phrase.
So, what they hey, give it a try! You have nothing to lose but, oh, I dunno, superfluous modifiers? Happy writing!
If you’ve read a few of the things I’ve posted here, you may have noticed that I enjoy travel. One of the things I’ve found that helps make travel more enjoyable is learning some of the language of the place I am going to visit. Prior to visiting Cancun a few years ago I studied up on my Spanish. Prior to visiting Rome I learned enough Italian to become terribly confused, as it is too similar to Spanish for me to always tell them apart. (But I did learn to hear words, and was amazed that, in fact, Italians, at least Romans, tend to speak rather slowly.) Prior to visiting Germany last year I studied German. We are planning to visit England this Spring, so maybe I should study English? Since a writer is concerned with language (or else they’re not a very good writer) I find it interesting to see how languages other than English are put together and used. Here are a few observations from my time in other countries.
As I pointed out above, not knowing a language at least a little can lead you to some plainly wrong conclusions. Such as thinking that Italians speak very fast. Actually, every word ends in a vowel in that language, so it can be difficult to tell when one word ends and another begins. Also, most words have a lot more syllables than they need, so if you can’t hear the words, it sounds fast. French is special to me because it is the only language besides English that I started learning by immersion. I got off of a train in Calais at 4:30 in the morning. The train to Paris left at six. I needed coffee. I was hungry. To hell with what they think of my accent. I asked my companion how to say various things, and, eh voila, I got my coffee and pastry. To this day, French is the easiest foreign language for me to use, probably because I started learning it from the ground up.
Spanish, though, was my first. My sister was taking Spanish in college, and she taught simple Spanish words like numbers and other single-syllable things to my seven-year-old self, in order to help herself learn. Well, she still speaks some Spanish, and by cracky, I do too. Unfortunately, we can’t hide anything from her son, my nephew, because he speaks Spanish better than both of us put together. Lo siento, Ed.
As to German, it is common to think that German is the closest thing to English, and in some ways it is. However, more than half of our English vocabulary comes from French, as do our verdamt (get it?) spelling rules. A thousand years ago, English and German were the same language, more or less. Now, not so much. But some words are exactly the same in German. Words like active, relative, and the like, except that they’re spelled “activ” and “relativ.”
All of my three non-English languages do have something in common that English has lost: personal versus formal second person pronouns. That is, if you know somebody well, you use one word for “you” with them. Otherwise, you use a different word for “you.” But, hey, the personal “you” does exist in English, even though virtually nobody uses it any more. Oh really? Really! And thou dost know whereof I write, dost thou not? Sure, and if I hadn’t studied at least one other language, I would never know what that “biblical” or “Shakespearean” language was really all about. It comes, one way or another, from the German: Thou hast looks a whole lot like du hast, doesn’t it? Especially the “hast” part!
So I’d recommend studying another language if you want to write English. It really helps to understand how language is structured and used, which of course just what you’re trying to do when you write, fiction or non-fiction makes no difference. As Twain observed, The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is the difference between the lightening bug and the lightening! Oh, isn’t it, though?
I’d like to close with an observation about the French language. I used to say that the French didn’t know how to spell, because what they write doesn’t match what they say. However, in recently starting some formal studies, using Duolingo*, I have learned that in fact, I had that backwards. The French spell quite well. The verb conjugations and the various inflections are familiar, not at all unlike Spanish and Italian words. But what is pronounced is more of a sloppy creole of only vaguely comprehensible syllables, when they use syllables, that is. I read a theory that English is a creole, and maybe it is. And maybe we got that, along with a lot of our words, from the French. Merci boucoup, mes amis!
*Duolingo is a free online language course that I highly recommend to anyone wanting to learn a new way of speaking. Not quite as good as getting off a boat in the middle of the night in Calais, but close, very close.
I’ve been thinking about paying attention for the past few months. Yes, it is a strange obsession, maybe. I’ve read articles from those extolling the virtues of the practice. I don’t have any idea what is meant by “Mindfulness” in it’s current popular use, but I suspect that originally the term had something to do with simply paying attention to what’s going on.
Paying attention can have some definite value for a writer. By paying attention to conversations you hear, you can get a better sense for the rhythm of language as it’s really used. By carefully re-reading your projects and paying attention to the rules of writing (someday, I’m going to write a book!) you can cut a lot of time and frustration off of the publication end of the process. Most people only consider paying attention to be critical to certain occupations. Airline Pilot comes to mind. Or the carney operating the tilt-a-whirl. If those people don’t pay attention, other people will die. But writing, too, is a profession where paying attention is critical. Because, if you don’t pay attention, your story will die, and all of the people in it.
Paying attention isn’t common. Here are two quick examples from commercials and their use of music. For instance, there is the Beatle’s tune Getting Better, which has been used in more than one commercial series. The next line after the one you hear in one of the commercials is “Can’t get no worse!” Really? Your product is as bad as it gets? Do the people who produce these ads ever listen to themselves? Maybe not. I had a boss back in the 70s who owned a pizzeria in a college town. M.A.S.H. was popular then, so he used the theme song from M.A.S.H. in his commercials. The title? Suicide is Painless! Not sure about that statement in the first place, but it really doesn’t put any kind of restaurant in a very good light does it? In this case, I pointed this fact out, but the boss didn’t care. Maybe because he knew that very few potential customers were paying attention, do you suppose?
Why ever, at least some clients noticed, of that I’m sure. And I’ll bet they ordered from the shop down the street, where the pies wouldn’t kill you.
As a writer, you must pay attention to how you are writing. I’m possibly the greatest violator of this principle that I know, but if that’s true, then consider that I know whereof I write, okay? If you are telling us things all the time, and your reaction to that being pointed out is that, “the reader has to know all that to understand what comes next,” then you need to do some serious study to see how to show us all that before whatever comes next, um, comes next. If you have characters who all talk the same way, you’d better believe that you need to pay attention to manners of speech in order to differentiate them one from another. And so on.
Paying attention, even if it isn’t what people mean by “mindfulness,” is an important component of a productive project or life. I’m running out of space here, but trust me, I could cite examples until my ISP fined me for taking up all of their disk space. So, this week’s advice: Simply Pay Attention!
And don’t get me started about paying attention on the road! Yoiks!