It’s More of a Guideline

Everybody in this  business, it seems sometimes, has a set of Rules for Writing that they swear by.  In no particular order, then, here’s my own set of ten (bearing in mind that this list, like all such lists, should be regarded as having a bright red In My Opinion Only/This is How it Works for Me sign posted above it in flashing letters):

1. Never trash your out-takes. (See the adventure of the five chapter nines.)  You never know when that scene you removed from the first draft because it didn’t work might turn out to be the precise scene that’s needed in the third draft to fix something else.

2. Don’t worry if you’re not a published-at-eighteen barely-postadolescent prodigy. Blooming young is for poets and mathematicians; novelists are in it for the long haul, and the more life experience you have, the better.

3. Know your own hesitation marks and makeweight-words, so that you can search for them in the second and third drafts and eliminate or fine-tune them ruthlessly. (My first-draft brain has an excessive fondness for “just” and “only”; my co-author, for some reason, has a thing for “swirling” in the early drafts of action sequences.)

4. Learn languages, if you can; there’s nothing like a second language to give you a handle on seeing the world in more than one way. If your brain isn’t wired up to learn languages easily, don’t sweat it; history and anthropology are other handles on the same thing.

5. Corollary to the above: there are worse things for a writer to do than to get a traditional liberal-arts education. The good thing about a traditional liberal-arts education is that you can do pretty much all of it on your own with the aid of a library and some reading lists. And, these days, of course, the internet.

6. Don’t fetishize your tools. If you get too attached to working in a notebook in longhand, you’ll have the devil’s own time switching to a keyboard; if you fall too much in love with keyboarding, you’ll be in bad shape if carpal tunnel syndrome forces you to switch to using speech-recognition software instead. In fact, the fewer fixed habits you associate with your writing, the better, because life changes things on us all the time.

7. Listen to real people talking, as much as you can. That way, when you go to write dialog, all your characters won’t speak in the same voice. What this means: Eavesdrop shamelessly whenever you’re out in public. (Remember not to look towards the conversation you’re eavesdropping on. It’s a dead giveaway, and “I’m a writer, honest, I’m just working on refining my craft!” isn’t going to get you very far if you’re spotted.)

8. Don’t expect to get rich doing this, or famous either. (The typical working writer has a lifestyle far closer to that of the Prophet Chuck on Supernatural  than to that of Rick Castle.) If the work isn’t its own reward, you’re probably not meant to be doing it in the first place.

9. Be kind and polite to your readers, even if they sometimes drive you nuts. Remember, they’re reading your stuff when they don’t have to, in a world that puts never-ending demands on their time and attention. Even if they don’t like what you’re written, and say so at length, they’ve still given your words weight. Disagreement and dislike and passionate argument aren’t what matters in this trade; it’s indifference that kills.

10. No matter how great the temptation, never ever ever respond in public to a personal attack or a bad review or an accusation of wrongthinking. (Accusations of actual wrongdoing  are iffier — but in my opinion, anyhow, if the accusation is serious enough to require a response then that’s what lawyers and agents are for.) Complain mightily to your friends all you want; scream and rant in private journal posts if you must; but stuff a sock in your mouth and sit on your typing fingers before saying anything out loud where the general public can see or hear it.

2 thoughts on “It’s More of a Guideline

    1. Everybody has their own quirks. I tend to love semicolons not wisely but too well — I have to keep reminding myself that if I’ve got a three-sentence paragraph where every sentence balances on a semicolon like a plank on a see-saw, then I should consider the possibility that I’ve actually got a five or six sentence paragraph instead.

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