Write On: Rules for Better Pagecraft
Why should you care what I have to say about the craft of writing? Well, I don’t know. I’m hardly a household name, but I’ve been at the writing game for a while. I’ve published a bunch of short stories over the years (even had a collection of them put out by a reputable small-press publisher before it was forced to close its doors by economic circumstances) and written a couple of (so far) unpublished novels. I’ve learned a lot about writing and publishing, though I have plenty more to learn. I hope that never changes. That’s the right way to feel, I think.
Like most writing advice, my ideas aren’t meant to be sacrosanct. They’re meant to fuel your engine, and this post, especially, is more of an espresso shot than a thermos full of truck-stop java intended to get you halfway across the country. You might discard one of the ideas below straightaway because you’ve already hammered out your own method for addressing the same problem. Maybe another one of these pieces of advice is already in your toolkit. Others might slide onto your back burner and bubble over when you least expect, like when you’re wrestling with a difficult scene. Rules can be broken, too, of course, but you might as well do it consciously. I’m here to help.
Here, then, are ten of my rules ...
1. There’s no substitute for writing every day, even if it’s only two hundred words. Two hundred words in the hand are worth a hundred thousand in the bush. In other words, thinking about your story doesn’t count as time spent writing. Cold, hard words. That’s what I’m talking about. Some will flow like melted butter over a warm crust of bread; others you’ll have to excavate from petrified wood with a table knife. Too bad. Nobody said this was going to be easy. Be hard on yourself. No exceptions, at least for a year. Maybe one day you’ll write three chapters and a blog post, the next only a stanza of doggerel. So be it. You’re writing. Every day. That’s the point. Despite all the distractions and frustrations of the world, you will have given your words special priority. If you can’t do that, why should anyone else? At the same time, don’t hang yourself if you miss a day, especially if it’s for a good reason. Life gets in the way, and writing is a second job for most of us. That adds up to a lot of additional work-related stress over time. Set the goal of writing every day, and be rigid about it. But don’t be fascist. There’s enough of that going around.
2. Don’t be afraid to follow your instincts, at least in a first draft. Maybe you’ve just read an article that extols the virtues of avoiding the twist ending, or strongly suggests that revenge stories are the lowest form of literary art. And yet there you are, knee deep in a revenge story, and you just thought of a killer twist for the end. Might as well chuck it, you tell yourself. Wrong. Finish that sucker. You can always chuck it later, but let’s at least get it written. There’s still room for revenge tales, and twist endings. Just make sure the story is being served, and that it’s got your stamp of originality on it. No one else can write quite like you, after all. If it doesn’t work in the end, you might at least have a pretty full understanding of why, which is one step closer to not inducing history to repeat itself. Put another way, if you don’t finish the story, you’ll never know whether or not it might have worked, or why, and you’ll carry that ignorance into your next attempt.
3. Character and plot are tightly intertwined, so go ahead, let a handful of well-rendered characters move you through your story. They’re not pawns on a chessboard. Well, they are, but you have to hypnotize yourself into thinking they’re not. A plot that develops from characters as you’re writing them—surprising you as much as you hope to surprise your readers—will likely prove more satisfying than a plot that is slavishly transcribed from an outline. I don’t mean that you shouldn’t know the milestones of your plot when you sit down to write. That’s just as deadly as having every last detail mapped out. But your job is to find the middle road.
4. Let a story idea sit around for a while before you start writing it out. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve known it was time to set pen to paper when two or more of the ideas in my notebook—which, these days, is usually an online document—came together to create a whoosh! of certainty in my brain. The reason for this, I think, is that a good story is more than an idea; it’s the dramatic resolution of conflict. For me, conflict implies the presence of two or more ideas rubbing against one another, creating tension. Waiting to start writing until you feel a kind of frisson from recognizing a full-fledged premise also helps you to avoid entering your story at the wrong spot, or making it about the wrong character.
5. Assume that the reason you aren’t getting into your favorite markets is that your writing isn’t good enough yet. It may not always be true. There are elements of chance and editorial proclivities to all of this. But it’s probably true most of the time. Think of it this way, if your favorite markets were a breeze to get into, it wouldn’t say very much about your tastes, would it? Rejection doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be aiming for those markets, though. You should be. But you should also be improving your craft each month and each year. That’s what will increase your chance of acceptance. (See Rule Number One above.)
6. Don’t fall for trends. Most are fleeting, and those that aren’t were probably stripped of the last vestiges of merit long ago. Writing is a slow process, requiring deep reserves of patience. From the time you write a story to the time it sees the light of day, months can pass, sometimes years. If you’re always writing for yourself, none of that matters. Your fiction will have a more timeless quality. If your focus is on fitting into a trend, on the other hand, you’re almost doomed to be left behind on the pier, waving both arms in a crisscrossing motion to try to get the ship to come back for you. It won’t.
7. Don’t pin your fiction too firmly to the here and now. Question your use of brand names, technology, contemporary lingo, and other temporal markers. Some of them may be crucial, or at least beneficial, to a given story, but many of them will not be. Your style, choice of subject matter, approach to genre expectations, and overall attitude can also date your writing, but cutting out the obvious offenders is a good place to start implementing corrective action.
8. Experiment with longhand. Maybe it isn’t for you, but when’s the last time you gave it a try? I’ve employed different combinations at different times, but these days I seem to have fallen into the habit of writing first drafts of short stories in longhand and pretty much everything else on the computer. My point in bringing this up is simply that it has made me look at the differences between the two practices. As a result, I try to bring some of the precision of thought that comes from the snail’s pace of longhand to the anything-goes, mile-a-minute tendencies of typing. And vice versa.
9. Don’t read crap. This is the easiest piece of advice to follow because you get to be the one who determines what’s crap and what isn’t. You generally know by the end of page one whether there are warning signs or not. At the close of the first chapter, there should be little room for doubt. If you continue reading despite a tingle of suspicion at your nape, you’re cheating yourself. A bad movie only costs you an hour-and-a-half or so. A bad book, on the other hand, can claim days or weeks of your life. Besides, good reading begets good writing. If you’re going to engage with a book, make it a good one.
10. Read outside of genres, periods, and countries of origin that are comfortable to you. There’s no better way to prove to yourself that quality is its own yardstick. You’ll find a vein of magic that runs through horror, realism, drama, poetry, science fiction, humor, postmodernism, westerns, fantasy, and Victorian novels in equal measure. You will sometimes find it lacking in those categories as well (with the exception of the Victorians, perhaps, who seem to have signed a pact with the devil, the lot of them). And this isn’t to say you’ll ever outgrow your pet genres or favorite authors. It’s possible to get better at reading without turning your back on old comforts. In fact, maybe some of the dog-eared treasures of yesteryear deserve another read. You might find previously undiscovered value in them.
Here’s hoping you’ve found something of value here as well, or that you will upon reflection. These rules are road tested, so I suspect they’ll resonate in one way or another. I’ll close with a piece of bonus advice. Consider it your reward for having read this far. Maybe I’ve saved the best for last, actually. Are you ready? Here it comes: grammar matters. A lot. Reading poetry is perhaps the most enjoyable way to study grammar. You should read it for other reasons, too, but read it for grammar. Poets often use, or eschew, grammar in surprising ways, and punctuation tends to take on even more weight than it does in prose. There’s some dogma out there with respect to grammar and punctuation, of course, and it’s possible to adopt bad habits along the way (especially if an editor reveals a preference for something you’ve always thought of as verboten, so you decide to change course). But if you become thoughtful about these things, and develop your own leanings based on solid examples and reliable reference materials, your confidence will grow, and so will your writing.
That’s all I’ve got. Now it’s time to plunk yourself down and string some words of your own together in a satisfying arrangement. Maybe one day I’ll be reading your published final draft. Until then, sharpen up those pencils. You’re going to need them.