Writing Principles

I recently discovered the Aerogramme Writer’s Studio along with io9. Both have been very interesting fodder for the writerly mind. Aerogramme has been putting up a number of rules of writing, etc. Here are some they’ve cited.

Among others.

I’ve read a number of sources on how to write well. My favorite is probably John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing.

Most of the above “rules” are about mechanics. Make sure the story has a spine. Kill your favorite scene: likely you’re not objective about it and it will free you to make necessary changes. I particularly like Whedon’s “finish it.”

But these are largely mechanical principles.

When I was in graduate school I was speaking with my adviser and he had this idea of how degrees worked. A Bachelor’s degree insured basic competency– the moral equivalent of completing an apprenticeship. Journeyman skills. A Master’s degree denoted what the term “master” implied: a master of the craft. However, the “Doctor of Philosophy” degree suggested that not only were skills mastery but the fundamental principles behind the skills were understood. These divisions of approach were why Ph.D.’s were often considered prerequisites to be taken to be scientifically serious. If you weren’t advanced enough in your understanding to see deeply into your subject matter how could you contribute meaningfully.

Now, I don’t completely subscribe to the association of skillset and certificate but I do like the different levels of understanding.

The “rules” quoted above would belong in the journeyman or master level of writing. But what are the philosophical principles behind them?

Bradbury seemed to be thinking in this way in Zen. He formulated three principles within the book that I very much liked:

  • Relax
  • Don’t think
  • Work

To paraphrase, and thereby deliver incorrectly, what he said in his book. Relax: release any anxiety of accomplishment. Don’t think: don’t get in your own way. Work: perform the task.

I’ve come up with my own principles over the years. Like everything else, it’s changed. One of the transitions from being young in the craft to being an fat old man like myself is how to view the mechanics. Mechanics are important. The reader never gets to see inside the writer’s head. All he gets is what’s on the page. But mechanics is a means to an end. It’s stage craft. It’s how we communicate the vision. It doesn’t necessarily inform how the vision is created.

Three principles keep recurring to me when I think about writing so here are my three rules of writing:

  • Write from who you are
  • Write honestly
  • Nothing is wasted

Write from who you are: One of the most irritating and useless memes that floats around writing is write what you know. I’m largely a science fiction writer and, sorry, have no particularly good clue about what’s really happening in the future. So that little meme wipes out SF. It also wipes out fantasy, historical drama and biography of deceased figures since one can’t really know anyone. But you can know who you are. You can (and must) write about what is important to you. For my own part, I’m interested in moral decisions. When do they occur? Why they occur? What leads up to them? What are the consequences? The trappings change from story to story. My take on them them change. But the core of my work seems to revolve around my wish to understand this most human of activities.

One of the core issues with the “write what you know” meme is that it implies that no one can write about material they have not personally experienced. You can’t write a black character without being black. A Jewish character without being Jewish. A white character without being white. An abused character without being abused. This is a truly insidious problem. On the one hand it trivializes the ability of the writer because the implication is that if you haven’t experienced it you can’t write about it. No man can write about a woman. No woman about a man. Every writer just writes about the narrow window of their own lives. On the other it destroys the broadness of any world described by the work and diminishes us as readers. It prevents both writers and readers from growing as human beings.

Write honestlyCaliban Landing was my first novel. I wrote a study of it and gave it to a friend of mine. She read it and told me that one of the characters reminded me of a woman I used to be involved with. The breakup had been pretty bad. This surprised me– as these sorts of things tend to do. The mind is not truly knowable. I thought about this for a long time and decided to go with it. But I had to treat her honestly. She was no more a villain in her mind than I was. This is a fundamental character principle. Characters have their own lives within the work. If you make a man stubborn to a fault there has to be a reason for him to suddenly become pliable beyond the author needs for it to happen.

I believe that one of the fundamental differences between fiction and propaganda is whether or not the material is treated honestly. If you have a fundamentalist preacher as a character, he can’t just be a foil for an anti-religion rant. If you want to have a story in which the holocaust didn’t happen there has to be a reason it didn’t and there has to be consequences to the world that it didn’t happen. (See Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.) I have written thousands of words about someone only to discover that, well, that character would never have really done that. The only way to manage that is change the plot or change the character. Both of which have real issues.

Nothing is Wasted: This was brought home to me when I read The Color of Light by William Goldman. Usually, I avoid writers writing about writers like I avoid dead and decaying fish– yet another reason not to follow the “write what you know meme.” But I was persuaded by my admiration of William Goldman. Essentially, the lesson of the book is that any writer worth a damn brings everything they have to the table. This means that all your experiences– every book you read, every idea you had, every conversation you had with a friend, every relationship gone sour, every shameful act– can be mined and be made useful. It both informs the writer’s mind and provides material.

I wrote this nasty story once about a man whose wife had been brutally killed. My wife noticed the woman in the story bore more than a passing resemblance to her. I was gratified it didn’t bother her. Important note to spouses (and children) of writers: sooner or later you’ll see yourself and/or someone you know in there.

Similarly, something that you write that doesn’t fit or just plain isn’t good enough will eventually be used. It might not be used in the way you wrote it. Often, I’ll find some tidbit in my old material that I can identify now but hadn’t realized it at the time. Material gets recycled whether you know it or not.

So those are my rules. At the moment. Today.

Who knows what tomorrow will bring?





Writing Principles — 3 Comments

  1. Cara’s advice for getting a PhD:
    Don’t think too hard about whether or not your research is important/useful/going anywhere.
    Finish your dissertation.


  2. Read, and very much appreciated. I am very enthusiastic about your replacement for ‘write what you know.’ Thank you for that!