Ten Rules for Writing

It’s the beginning of a new year, but some are still looking back and assessing the old in hopes of improving in various ways. Long ago someone asked me for ten rules of writing. Over the years since, I’ve mentally amended the list; when the question came up elsewhere on the net during March of 2010, I posted my list so far:

They will probably change, but hey, that’s what these end of year reviews are for, right?

1. Try to spend more time writing than cruising the Net, and that includes reading chat about writing.

2. Write what you love. If you’re not excited about the story, there’s a good chance no one else will be, either.

3. Learn to revise, which means making your text available to the broadest number of other reader brains.

4. Networking is good, but it’s better when you’ve done your daily word quota.

5. Read widely, and that means outside your genre, and as far outside your socio-economic-ethnic pool as you can get.

6. Observe real people. (As opposed to TV simulacra.)

7. If you have the burning need to Say Something, try to put someone just as smart in the piece who wants to say the opposite. Or you may as well strip out the three walls of fiction and preach at your reader in an essay.

8. Variation in mood and tone is like the spice in food–the better blended, the greater the flavor.

9. Research is good, but unless you’ve been researching a time, place, group, or paradigm for your entire life, try to get someone who has to beta read for you, and listen to what they have to say.

10. Anent 9, trying to achieve the resonance of the real among the trappings of the fantastic is what makes art. (But be aware that definitions of art are going to vary.)

Check out Sherwood Smith’s ebooks at the Book View Cafe ebookstore.



Ten Rules for Writing — 24 Comments

  1. Number 8 got me thinking. Abrupt changes in tone can be so jarring that they throw you out of the story, but do you think something can be **too** blended?

  2. Asakiyume: I guess that’s a matter of taste. How are you defining blended?

    Two things come to mind. One, a blendedness of tone–so that the entire work is one mood. I happen not to like that if that mood is dark. There are some well-praised people whose work I can’t read because it all seems one mood: dreary and dark, however poetic the word choices.

    Then there is the blendedness of time, like a historical novel that meshes a sense of history and the cadences and word patterns of now. So difficult!

  3. An excellent list! Number 1 is especially practical and applies to other artistic endeavors besides writing. (In my own case, not enough time sewing because I’ve been reading too many quilt blogs.)

    I would expand #5 to also include reading widely the works of authors who write much better than oneself.

  4. Sherwood–Yes, I’m not sure how I’m defining it! I guess…. okay: a good example and a bad example. Good example first: A friend of mine wrote a Yuletide fic for a short story (Which I’d never read, but she told me about it), “Sword of Welleran,” by Lord Dunsany. In the original, there are bad guys who are hill tribes, who are just like generic “natives” or like Indians in early cowboys ‘n’ Indian’s stories. In the fic, she gave a window into their way of life and their outlook–which was totally different, of course, from the (nominal) hero’s. I really liked it: it felt culturally different and added real variety, and yet the story was still allowed to be the hero’s. Now the bad example: there was a fantasy trilogy that one of my daughters’ friends gave to me to read, in which a girl from the slums gets to go off to train to be a magician because she’s got so much magic talent, etc. In the second book, she travels to a couple (or at least one–my memory is hazy as the book started to lose my interest and I started skimming) different cultures. One was very anti-gay and restrictive of women (it was sort of equivalent, in cultural markers and visual cues, to North African/Middle Eastern societies). Although a very different culture was being described, it felt very surface–there was no real entering into it; I didn’t **feel** it. Theoretically it was variation, but it didn’t feel like variation.

    But maybe that’s not a good example of overblended; maybe that’s just a case of not-vivid-enough writing, or of me not being the right reader.

    I guess, speaking in the abstract, I could imagine that if the writing style always stayed the same (always long, reflective sentences, or always short, declarative sentences), then the novel or story might feel overblended even if the events or the emotional tenor was supposed to change.

  5. I know what Asakiyume is talking about. There’s a difference between a writer deliberately throwing the reader a curve and bad structure. The former can be pleasurable; the latter boring or annoying.

  6. Asakiyume and Pilgrimsoul: I think the confusion is in the word blended, which seems to be mapping over a bunch of different things. (Or maybe they don’t map differently for everyone, that’s the vexing thing about writer and reader talk, our terms aren’t like math, where an exponent is always an exponent, and most everyone agrees that 2 + 2 = 4.

    Asakiyume, that example of the fantasy you didn’t care for sounds to me like faulty world-building, in which it’s fairly obvious someone either read a short book about another culture and cherry-picked some of its outer trappings, otherwise making the people generic pre-industrial fantasy characters, or else the author decided to go the allegorical route, and create The Country of the Bigots, and slapped together some trappings from a culture the person thinks of as bigoted in that way over generic fantasy trappings. In such a situation, for me at least, the problem is NOT blending. It’s like throwing oil into water and adding clumps of broccoli in order to make a “good for you” drink, but the oil floats around in globules, and the broc sinks to sludge at the bottom (or else floats in a mess at the top, not sure about the actual displacement here!)

    Do you mean “blended” in the sense that the world building strikes you as generic, because trappings of the past are mapped very strongly over the present paradigm?

  7. The more I think about it, the more I realize my thinking is confused–in my own mind, I’m jumping from concept to concept.

    Let me back away from the worldbuilding example, because I think I was barking up the wrong tree with that, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that I want my worldbuilding very well blended indeed–like you say, otherwise it’s like water and oil.

    I think maybe I’m getting at something as superficial as varying your sentence lengths and word choices and characters’ voices, and not wanting everyone to sound the same–which, as I think about it, is such a basic thing–I mean, good writers don’t do that *anyway*. You know, things like having the elderly immigrant grandfather and the little girl from the suburbs and the teenager from the streets of the inner city all sounding more or less the same. I think I’m thinking of that as “too blended” whereas really it’s just poor characterization. Same with if you used the same leisurely writing style for an action scene as for a reflective inner monologue–that would be “too blended”–but who would do that?! No one.

    So yeah, I think I was equating blending with smoothing out distinctive details, when really it isn’t at all.

  8. A good list to ponder, a great place to start with my own Writing-Life Goals for 2011. Got the internet browsing under control, but workshopping stories definitely needs some more push, including expanding the circle of Trusted Beta Readers.

    Small, manageable steps.

  9. 1 and 4 are my downfall.

    Number 7 got me thinking! I’d love to hear more about that. Why opposite? Does that provide variety? Open up your perspective on the subject?

  10. Owl: doesn’t have to be opposite. And others might disagree, but I tend to find fiction really taxing that tells me how to think. I’d rather see the questions raised, and characters dealing with those questions, and coming to conclusions without one side all being the heroes and morally on the high ground, and the other side one dimensional characters who stick to really stupid reasons for their opposition.

  11. Overblended: Vampire Diaries. Studied most carefully and then constructed out of chosen elements of Buffy, Sex aqnd the City, Angel, True Blood and Twilight. Stirred together, baked, comes out as emo counterpointed with blood-violence. You never have a single, “I never saw that coming but it is perfectly right, o my ghod!” moment with Vampire Diaries.

    Contrast with the so often perfect blend of Buffy herself.

    Love, C.

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  13. Excellent list! Someone linked to it on twitter today, and I had a very serious fangirl moment that involved something resembling a squeal. I was re-reading Crown Duel on a long train ride last weekend, and discovered the girl I was sitting next to had just finished it. We ended up having a long conversation about Vidanric. Mostly about how much we love him.

    Which doesn’t really add to the wonderful conversation happening here, but I couldn’t resist saying hello!

  14. And I’m learning to amend #6 to “a variety” of real people.

    About revising lists, though…I think that’s a good thing. In switching up the rules we impose upon ourselves, I think it heightens our awareness of them…which then pushes us farther.

    Well, that’s the optimistic way of looking at it. Sometimes, I just want to swear at the failing I insist on doing daily. 😛

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