The “Rules” of Writing

(This article is a “reprint” from our first year of operating Book View Cafe—2008)

Robert Heinlein posited that there were two rules of writing:

1.  You must write.
2.  You must finish what you write.

That’s easy enough to say, but how does one go about it?

Well, let’s look at Heinlein’s first rule of writing: you must write. I suspect every writer comes to a point in her life when she asks, “Do postcards and letters to mom count? How about shopping lists—do shopping lists count?” In my opinion the answer is no, though I admit I get a real charge out of producing a particularly well-constructed To Do list.

The unspoken conclusion of the sentence, “You must write,” are the words “something publishable.”  The last time I checked shopping lists and letters to distant relatives fail to meet this important criteria. Although, I suspect that there are authors out there who, if they wrote a shopping list, someone would publish it and pay them a million dollars for the privilege. (Ahem. Let’s not go there.)

Writers love to talk about writing—else, I wouldn’t be writing this blog—and writers love to give other writers advice and encouragement to help them adhere to Rule One.  It ranges from the esoteric to the practical. Here’s some of the advice I’ve found the most thought-provoking.

“No one on earth can keep a writer from writing,” says mainstream writer Deborah Hecht.  I think she stopped just short of the truth. There is one person who can do this—the writer himself.

“The natural state for a writer is writing,” says Lawrence Block, crime author. He’s right, but how often are we allowed to be in our natural state when some of us have full time or part time jobs, and a wide array of people who, for some peculiar reason, expect us to come out of our fictional worlds and interact with them. (What’s up with that?)

I’m a full time writer/editor and I’m still struggling to balance all the non-writing things that writing entails. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I’m just saying. I think that what these statements do for me, is force me to to focus—to remember that writing is my natural state.

On the more practical side, we have: “A goal is something you want and are taking realistic steps to attain. A fantasy is something you want. Period.”  Lawrence Block, again. Really, this guy has more words of encouragement than you can shake a pen at. And this is profound. I can’t tell you how many aspiring writers I’ve had come to me with manuscripts held together by verbal silly putty and the expectation that regardless of how poor their craft, there is some magic wand, silver bullet, or mathematical formula by which they can be published without having to work at that craft.

ClipboardTo them, I also quote Gerald Brenan: “It is by sitting down to write every morning that one becomes a writer. Those who do not do this remain amateurs.” This is true. But I think we must start by acknowledging that the more you desire to write, the more life will try to get in the way. This means the writer must learn to be clever at deking life so that it occasionally fails to stop the writing process. Here are a couple of things that have worked for me.

  • Be prepared. Always have some way to record ideas—notepad, iPhone, tape deck, sticky notes. Don’t let any ideas get away, because if you do, someone else will catch them.
  • Be primed. Carry certain facts about your characters or your world or the next scene in your story around in your head and contemplate them while you’re driving, doing laundry, taking a walk, attending a boring meeting, etc. Then when you’ve got five minutes of lull anywhere you can swing into action and start writing (see a. above).

This last one has become, for me, a mental exercise aimed at reducing the barriers between me and the words that need to come out. It’s been the most important to me, especially when it comes to working on projects that have deadlines.

Okay, so now you’re ready to write. Your butt’s in the chair, your fingers are poised over the keys, or clutching pen or pencil, you’ve got a block of time and … your mind’s a complete blank. How do you generate ideas?

I have a few suggestions—things that have worked for me—that I’d be happy to share in a future article.



The “Rules” of Writing — 3 Comments

  1. Thanks- just what I needed to here. I’m struggling with the too busy part to sit my butt down in the chair and write. I do write in my head quite a bit, while doing the everything else. I’ve got to learn to take advantage of those 5 or 10 or 15 minutes and jot it down. I write better by longhand rather than in front of the white screen. Off to reorganize my priorities. 🙂

  2. My advice to writers:

    0) Understand the concept of story structure. Study this. Know how the Aristotelian “W” plot works. You can’t break the rules until you know how a story is supposed to work.

    1) Write from beginning to end, or from end to beginning, before you attempt to rewrite anything.

    2) Throw out the first four to six pages and read it cold starting on page 5 or 7. You’ll be astonished at how much of the first 1000 to 1500 words you write is authorial throat clearing.

    3) Make a copy of the file. Do a find & replace for “*ly” and “very”. Replace them with ‘poodle’ or some other noun that won’t show up in your book. Any time you can remove a poodle from the middle of a sentence without changing the meaning, you’ve made the sentence better. (Most writers over use adjectives in their first drafts by a factor of 20 or more.)

  3. Dictation software is also very handy – it can even be used to turn notes you record on the fly, on your iPhone, into a text document you can edit. All time-saving – at least until it comes to the editing process – but it definitely allows you to brainstorm scenes or snippets of dialogue in a way you’ll be able to use later on. Just my 2c!