writing, Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Eight Non-rules For Writing

Recently, I was browsing a website called Lithub (which I highly recommend to anyone fascinated by any and all things writing and literature related) and came across an article by Elizabeth Percer entitled “The First Rule of Novel Writing is Don’t Write a Novel.” I was intrigued. The gist of her article was that all these different lists of rules for writers miss one very important aspect of being a productive (and good) writer: that writing is an art form more than an industry. Writers are artists and need to work like artists, not accountants, or machinists.

In response to this realization, Ms. Percer came up with a list of nine non-rules for writing. I thought they were so refreshing and original, I decided I simply had to share the best of them with you (along with my own interpretation on occasion). I think you will find them as valuable as I have.

So, the seven non-rules of writing.

Don’t Write a Novel

Ms. Percer states that every time she sits down to write a novel, she gets next to nothing done. In fact, she feels she often loses some critical ground. Her point that often the pressure of trying to meet a preconceived goal can make it harder to create. Call it performance anxiety. Call it the contrariness of the subconscious mind.

For an example, the famed composer John Philip Sousa really, really, wanted to write lovesick ballads (which were kind of the pop music of his time) and he kept working at it. The thing was, the songs he produced weren’t very good ballads. But when his wife changed the time signature and tempo, they became very good marches. He was a talented composer of marches that kept trying to make them ballads.

In the same way, we writers shouldn’t sit down with a preconceived notion of writing a novel, a poem, or a multi-volume history of a fictional family. We should sit down with the idea of a particular story, or emotion, or even just a simple image and simple write the story. The story (or image, or emotion) will reveal which form it should take as it’s written.

Don’t worry about the form. Just write and the form will take care of itself.

Writing Doesn’t Always Look Like Writing

Ms. Percer states that about 80 percent of her writing looks nothing like writing. Personally, I’d put it closer to 90 percent. Writing looks like daydreaming, or reading, or gardening, or driving, or sitting in the back yard watching the birds at the bird feeder. It’s about trusting yourself and your creative spirit, not that nasty hyper-critical inner voice that tells you you aren’t working hard enough. It takes both the hard-driving professional, pounding out pages on the keyboard and the playful, curious child to make creativity work.

Books Do Not Respond to Timelines, Spreadsheets, or Graphs

Timelines, spreadsheets and graphs are very efficient tools the modern world has invented to help manage time and increase our efficiency. However, it is in the nature of art to become stubbornly distant when it is asked to punch a time clock. Sometimes, these time management tools can do more to get in the way than they help production.

Ms. Percer states that because she’d a writer and not a physicist, she doesn’t believe “writing always follows the laws of space and time.” Much more writing can be accomplished in short time periods enhanced by patience, thoughtfulness, and peace, than gets done in months of “writing time” defined by expectation, disappointment, self-loathing and a diet of coffee and Snickers bars.

Accept What Comes

This goes back to the first point. If you have your heart set on writing a bodice-ripper historical romance, but all you can really come up with is a brilliant haiku about garden peas, by all means relish writing the poem about garden peas. Maybe the world needs a book of haiku centered on garden vegetables. You may be just the perfect person to create that book.

Just like John Philip Sousa, don’t reject the very good work that occurs to you, just because you had other ideas. Sometimes the story needs to be told and doesn’t care what you want.

Procrastinate

Writers like us want to create brand new works and if we’re going to do that we need to accept that the way we work is not going to look a whole lot like the way your accountant cousin works. It’s a different kind of work. This makes a certain amount of logical sense. However, in practice this can be threatening because creativity thrives with the very behaviors that many others label as lazy, self-indulgent, or some other label that might be appropriate if we were cogs in the corporate machine like everyone else.

Creative work demands that occasionally we stop and allow the well to be refilled, the slate to be wiped clean. We need down time. The key is that only you, the artist, knows when and how much down time you might need. We all need to learn to trust ourselves and have confidence in our judgement and to know when we need down time and when we’re just avoiding the work. The ability to discern the difference involves trial and error, but will always come back to trusting our instincts.

Sometimes the best thing for our writing is binge-watching a couple of seasons of Game of Thrones. Sometimes, a little voice is telling you that the small town murder mystery you’ve been working on should concentrate a little less on the evidence of the crime and a lot more on the town’s internal politics and Game of Thrones is exactly the example you need. Sometimes, you just need to walk.

Get To Know the Demons on Your Block

Every writer’s block is different. However, most have a few things in common. Maybe you’re blocked because your standards are too high. Maybe your expectations are so extreme that your creative self doesn’t want to show up. Maybe we’re taking ourselves and our work too seriously. Maybe your creative self is fighting to get yourself to do something different. Maybe it’s telling us to forget about writing a best seller and just write the story we want to read.

Don’t Neglect The Rest of Your Life

At its core, great writing comes from an unrestrained approach to the things that make life worth living. If you are neglecting those things, guess what happens? You’ll have nothing to say. So you’ll eat too much Doritos, stay up too late watching reruns of ‘70’s sitcoms and wake up hating yourself in the morning.

In short, what Ms. Percer is saying is that we should stop working so much at writing and, instead, just write. It doesn’t have to be such a chore.

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Writing advice, Writing and Editing

8 Rules For Beginners (And We’re All Beginners)

Sir V.S. Naipaul is the Nobel Prize winning English author The Mystic Masseur and many other works of both fiction and nonfiction. As an aide to a younger writer (who was struggling to overcome the academic-style jargon of the University) Sir Naipaul wrote up seven rules for beginning writers. By following these rules studiously for six months, the young writer was able to reinvent her writing style and publish her first book.

The key here (in my mind) was that the struggling young writer was not truly a beginning writer. She already knew how to write, well enough to at least successfully complete a University education. She was not learning to write, so much as she was learning to write seriously.

I would posit that no one reading my little essay is truly a beginning writer (I doubt many seven or eight-year-olds are reading this.) However, many of us are just beginning to try our hand at serious writing. Writing stories and novels that captivate readers’ imaginations, poetry that describes the indescribable, or nonfiction that makes the universe of reality come alive on the page.

These are the beginners Sir Naipaul wrote his rules for: us.

  1. Do not write long sentences.

A sentence should not have more than ten or twelve words. It’s hard for most readers to keep track of such a complicated string of ideas. It can often be hard for the writer to do that too and it shows in the writing. I call it making the sentence work too hard. Have pity on the poor things.

  1. Each sentence should make a clear statement.

This builds on the previous rule. A sentence has one job and that is to make a statement, state one truth. By creating complex, intricate, sentences, we are often asking them to do too much. We overtax them. And like anything, when we overtax it, the sentence gets less and less efficient at its job. Short statements have power. Short sentences have impact. They are also much easier to read. If your prose seems confusing or disorganized, one of the first things to check is your sentences. You’re probably asking them to do too much.

  1. Do not use big words.

If you go back and find your word processor says your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small, common, words forces us to give great thought to what we’re writing. Though it isn’t easy, even the most difficult concepts can be expressed with small words. But it takes more work, more creativity. Do that work. Be creative.

  1. Never use words whose meanings you are not sure of.

Nothing marks an amateur than misusing words. As the movie said: “I do not think that words means what you think it does.” The writer needs the reader to believe her authority enough to buy in to their story. Using the wrong word kills that authority quicker than anything. We are writers. If want to be respected, we need to be professional users of language.

  1. Avoid adjectives and adverbs as much as possible.

Most adjectives and adverbs do little for your writing but slow it down and soften its impact. You can’t always make your project work without any at all, but you should try. Your prose will be crisper if you do.

  1. Avoid the abstract.

The concrete is always more powerful than the abstract. It’s why the folklore of virtually every culture developed fables and folktales. It is a much more effective way of teaching an audience, than simple telling them to follow a rule. Think of the fable of the grasshopper and the ant. The grasshopper lounges away the summer days while the ant works hard gathering and storing food. When winter comes, the grasshopper is starving, but the ant has gathered plenty of food. The tale is much more effective than simply saying: “You need to save for the future.” Concrete is more effective than abstract.

  1. Every day, practice writing this way.

Small words; clear concrete sentences; one idea at a time. It is training you in the use of the language.

These rules are intended to help with those periods (which we all have, sooner or later) when we get bogged down in some writing project or other. Often it’s because we have lost focus. More often, it’s because we have overestimated our own writing abilities and have tried to do too much. Returning to these basic rules can often show us how to work through our problem. As with much in this life, simple is often better than complex and that’s the gist of these rules: try to simplify.

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Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Tips on How to Be a Writer (from Rebecca Solnit)

  1. Write.

There is no substitute. Start small, write a good sentence, then a good paragraph, and don’t be dreaming of writing the great American novel. That’s not what writing’s all about and it’s not how you get there from here. The road to great writing is made of words and not all of them are great, well-arranged words.

  1. Writing is not typing.

Writing is thinking, researching, contemplating, outlining, maybe with some typing, then revisions, deletions, additions, and setting the project aside and returning afresh; typing is just a minor transaction in between two vast thought processes.

  1. Read. And Don’t Read.

Read good writing and don’t restrict yourself to the present. Literature is not high school and it isn’t necessary to know what everyone else around you is doing. Worse, being greatly influenced by people who are currently being published can make you look just like them, which isn’t often a good thing. Originality is your gold standard. Write from the universal human experience. Write a true human story and write it well; it won’t matter what genre it may take place it.

  1. Find a Vocation.

Talent is overrated and is often mistaken for style. Passion, vocation, vision, and dedication are much more rare, and they will smooth out the rough spots when your talent will not give you a reason to get out of bed and stare at that problem manuscript for the hundredth day in a row. If you aren’t passionate about writing and the world and the things you’re writing about, why bother? It begins with passion even before it begins with words.

  1. Time.

It takes time. This means you have to find the time in your life. Don’t be too social. Live below your means. You probably have to do something else for living, but don’t let your job (or your bills) grow so much that they squeeze out time for your writing.

  1. Facts.

Always get them right. No one will trust you if you get them wrong and any author is doomed if the reading public can trust him. No matter what you’re writing about, whether it’s nonfiction, fiction, or poetry, you have an obligation to get it right, for the characters you’re writing about, for the readers, and for the record.

  1. Joy.

Writing is facing your deepest fears and all your failures, including how hard it is to write a lot of the time and how much you detest what you’ve just written and that you’re the person who just created all those flawed sentences. When it totally sucks (and it will), pause, look out the window, and tell yourself you’re doing exactly what you want to be doing. You are hanging out with the language. I am following in the footsteps of Shakespeare and Flaubert. Find pleasure and joy. Find joy in the work, just as a master carpenter does theirs. Enjoy the process.

  1. Success is very nice and comes with lovely byproducts (like money), but success is not love.

At best, it is the love of the work, not love of you. The process of making art is the process of becoming a person with agency, with independent thought, a producer of meaning, rather than a consumer of meanings. And, if you are writing to gain the acclaim of a fickle public, you run the risk of pandering to what you think will be popular. That will often end up seeming shallow and artificial. Instead, write truth. As Ernest Hemingway said: “Write one true sentence. Then write another.” If you write the truth of the human condition, the rest will take care of itself.

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Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Write Descriptions like Raymond Chandler

Lately I have been reading Raymond Chandler again, specifically Farewell, My Lovely. For those who are not familiar with Mr. Chandler and his work, he writes what is called the “hard-boiled” detective stories. In fact, Raymond Chandler and his colleague Dashiell Hammett, pretty much invented the genre. Hammett had Sam Spade, of The Maltese Falcon fame, and Chandler had Philip Marlowe. Both are cynical, world-weary detectives without a tract of romanticism between the two of them.

But even if you don’t particularly like the hard-boiled detective genre, Raymond Chandler is still worth reading, just because he is so good at what he does. He’s a very good writer who is often overlooked by those who don’t consider him a “serious” writer.

Why do I consider Chandler so good? Because of the prose he produced. Yes, it might have been pulp fiction and is still considered (by those who spend way too much time sorting novels into particular boxes) “genre” fiction. And yes it is genre fiction, but it is very good genre fiction. There are a couple of reasons for this.

His description is uniquely interesting.

Part of the tradition in hard-boiled detective fiction is that the narrative is told in the first person, ostensibly by the detective. In Raymond Chandler’s case, Philip Marlowe. Part of that narrative is to portray the detective as jaded, cynical, and world weary, reflecting the detective’s low expectations of the world around him. Chandler does this better than anyone else and does it with nearly every single word he puts on the page.

Consider his description of a showgirl:

From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away. (The High Window)

Or a building:

The Belfont Building was eight stories of nothing in particular… (The High Window)

The very descriptions give the impression of a narrator who is more than a bit of a smart ass and not impressed by much anymore.

Another building, this time a mansion:

The house itself was not so much. It was smaller than Buckingham Palace, rather gray for California, and probably had fewer windows than the Chrysler Building. (Farewell, My Lovely)

As a person who enjoys sarcasm myself, this is someone I would enjoy spending some time with. Chandler uses sarcasm to great effect, as well as understatement, and exaggeration. Each working double duty, telling us what is going on as well as Marlowe’s attitude towards what is going on.

Perhaps Chandler’s greatest gift though, is in the use of similes. They are unique, surprising, and yet perfectly in character. When describing the aftereffects of being knocked out:

My stomach took a whirl. I clamped my teeth tight and just managed to keep it down my throat. Cold sweat stood out in lumps on my forehead, but I shivered just the same. I got up on one foot, then on both feet, straightened up, wobbling a little. I felt like an amputated leg. (Farewell, My Lovely) (the bold is my own)

The passage not only conveys what is happening, it conveys the narrator’s attitude toward what is happening with a wonderful economy of language. The narrator reports what is happening in a unique voice, then comments on it in a way that intensifies the characterization.

And he does this throughout the novel, with impressive consistency.

A man in a striped vest and gilt buttons opened the door, bowed, took my hat and was through for the day. (Farewell, My Lovely)

There was a cornflower in the lapel of his white coat and his pale blue eyes looked faded out by comparison…he had the general appearance of a lad who would wear a white flannel suit with a violet scarf around his neck and a cornflower in his lapel. (Farewell, My Lovely)

And this is all fine and dandy for those who are writing hard-boiled detective fiction, where the narrator or main character is supposed to be cynical, expecting the worst from humanity because that’s usually what he sees. But I’m writing a romance, or a historical family drama; how does this help me?

Because every scene you write, is written from someone’s point of view. It is narrated in someone’s voice, usually the voice of the main character. Having that voice obviously change as the point of view changes goes a great way toward showing your reader the character.

A room described by a Marine Corps Gunnery Sargent is going to be different than that same room as described by a twenty-year-old kindergarten teacher and animal rights activist. They will each notice different things. Their vocabularies will be different. The aggression (or lack thereof) will be different. It’s an extreme example, but the principle is there. Use your description to help create the character’s voice.

Reading Raymond Chandler’s novel is one way to see just how a master does that and does it well.

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writing, Writing advice

Generating Ideas, Part Two

Last week I shared a productive exercise I learned in a workshop at the South Coast Writers Conference. The workshop, instructed by Bruce Holland Rogers, was devoted to producing ideas and chock full of methods to do that. Some of them (like the one I told you about last week) I really liked and will probably use in the future. Others, not so much.

Today I’d like to share another method that I like, but not as much as last week’s. Mr. Holland Rogers called it “Arbitrary Beginning.”

In this method, we took the first sentence of an existing story, without the title or context, and attempted to finish the story. In the workshop example, we were given this first line: “Clara, neither the first nor the most loved, was the one that showed me I could withstand the pain.” (I apologize for not writing down the title of the story, or its author). Again, we were timed. Again, we were freewriting, taking the information and conflict we found in that first sentence and building upon that to create a story.

Like last week’s exercise, it is meant as a way to step around the critical self-editor that so often paralyzes us. As such, it is particularly useful when we find ourselves (as we all do at one time or another) fighting writer’s block.

Sometimes, what we need is an exercise to work around that critic.

Another, similar exercise is to read a book or short story by an author you admire, but have not read before. At some point a sizeable way into the work, pause at the end of a scene or chapter. Now, knowing the author and his/her style, ask yourself what will the next scene entail? If you were writing this work, this story, what would you have happen next? Write that scene. When you have finished, compare your scene with the one the author actually wrote. Were they similar? Did you take the story in an entirely different direction?

In a similar way, find a story that interests you. Read it half way through. Now put the story away and finish writing it, using your own imagination. How does your story compare to the original? Do note that yours will be a rough draft while the author’s is a polished, finished work, with several drafts behind it. The object is not to compare your writing with that of a professional author, but to use another author’s inspiration to jumpstart your own.

It is pretty much the basis for all the many forms of fan fiction, right?

Another exercise is what Bruce Holland Rogers calls “Collaborative Writing.” This is like the old game of “telephone” except that each person has more invested in the final product. For this exercise, you need a small group of willing participants. Your writer’s critique group is good for this.

Choose one writer at random. He or she writes the first paragraph (or few paragraphs) of a story, then hands it to the second writer, who writes the next paragraph, then hands it to the third writer. The story should make at least three rounds of the writing group (to keep anyone from getting too absurd during their part) and the object is to end up with a coherent, unified story. You may not be able to do it, but the object is to let your imagination feed off and be reinforced by each other.

But that’s the purpose of all of these exercises, isn’t it? They are designed to get our imaginations up and running when they don’t really want to. They are to help when our creative juices need a jump start.

So start.

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writing, Writing advice

Generating Ideas, Exercise One

I didn’t post last week, but not because I was lazy, or had nothing to say. (I almost never have nothing to say). I was busy attending and hosting the 22nd South Coast Writers Conference, in Gold Beach, Oregon. A good time was had by all.

And I have lots I will share with you over the next few weeks.

The most memorable workshop I attended was called “Writing from Zero” and presented by Bruce Holland Rogers, creator and host of www.shortshortshort.com and a specialist in flash fiction. As indicated by the title, the workshop concentrated on techniques and tools to generate ideas. (Something every writer at some point struggles with; the battle with the blank page is a universal one).

Today, I’d like to share one of the techniques we tried during the workshop that worked much better than I’d expected. It’s called “Arbitrary Subject.”

What you’ll need:

Ten random, unrelated nouns and noun phrases

Ten slips of paper

A timer

Your writing materials: notebook or paper

How it works:

In the workshop we generated the ten nouns by having the class suggest them, but you can generate them in any number of ways: the third noun on the hundredth page of ten books, the seventh noun on random pages of a dictionary, or you could use a computer application to generate the ten subjects. They can be as interesting or mundane as you wish. Some of the subjects we started with were: a neighbor, a ghost, and picture on exhibition.

Now you write the subjects on the slips of paper in order to randomly draw the subject you will write about.

Do not look at the subjects until it’s time to write. Part of the effectiveness of this exercise is the inability to over analyze what you are about to write about. You need to be surprised.

Now set the timer for two-and-a-half minutes. It helps if you have a timer that can quickly and easily be reset because you will need to reset it twice, for two-and-a-half minutes each time.

The object of this exercise is to write a complete story, with beginning, middle, and end, in seven-and-a-half minutes, based on the subject you randomly draw from the ten subjects you began with.

Draw a subject from the ten you began with. (In our case, it was “Picture on Exhibition.”) Start the timer and begin to write your story’s beginning. When the timer goes off, two-and-a-half minutes later, reset the timer and move to the middle of the story. When it goes off the second time, reset the timer and move to the end of the story. When the timer goes off the third time, stop writing.

We did this three times, with three different random subjects, over the course of thirty minutes. Somewhat to my surprise, it was fairly effective. Of the three stories I produced during the exercise, none were finished, polished stories, but that wasn’t the point. The point of the exercise was to get the creative process started. In that respect, the exercise was very successful.

Of the three stories I generated, one was a throwaway, but another had a solid kernel I think I can polish and revise into a good story. The third, was not as good, but still holds the promise of being something I can work into an acceptable story.

So in this thirty minute exercise, I generated one pretty good story and another moderate one. That’s a pretty good success rate, in my humble opinion.

For those who might be keeping track, the good idea was for “Picture on Exhibition,” and the moderate one for “Ghost.” I didn’t have much for “Neighbor.”

The object of this exercise is to combine the benefits of “free writing” with the motivational benefit of a deadline. By drawing a subject at random, the hope is to bypass our critical self-editor and tap directly into the creativity of our subconscious. Of course, for this to work well, you have to write continually (as much as possible) and continuously (as much as possible). Do not worry about grammar, spelling, or logic; just get the ideas on paper as quickly as they come to you. This is a first draft; grammar and spelling can be fixed in re-write.

The timer gives you the incentive to do it now. Something, personally, I truly need more.

Like I said earlier, I was mildly surprised at just how productive this exercise was. I will use it again in the future. You should give it a try.

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Writing advice, Writing and Editing

After Rereading Hemingway

Last week I read Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I had read it at least once before, during my pursuit of a University degree in Literature and it had impressed me, primarily because its style was so different than most novels that had come before. However, it had been a while, like (I hate to even say it) thirty years.

It would appear that I have changed a bit over those thirty years.

Why? Because as I read what is often considered Hemingway’s best novel, the work that almost single-handedly changed the way the modern novel is written, I found problems. They weren’t major problems, mind you. But there were problems. Often the very same problems I work to eliminate from my own writing.

Thirty years ago, as a young student and writer, I had read the novel in something like a religious awe. This was HEMINGWAY. This was a master. Everything about his novel had to be—by definition—perfect. I dedicated myself to reproducing his style.

Apparently, I have grown some, both personally, and as a writer.

So what problem did I find in The Sun Also Rises? Nothing terribly earth-shattering, but a problem nonetheless, in my opinion.

Hemingway is reknown for his spare, understated prose. He often tries to employ innuendo and nuance to tell the story as much as he does verbs and objects. And he pulls it off very well. Most of the time.

For example:

“The road came out from the shadow of the woods into the hot sun. Ahead was a river valley. Beyond the river was a steep hill. There was a field of buckwheat on the hill. We saw a white house under some trees on the hillside. It was very hot and we stopped under some trees beside a dam that crossed the river.”

Very simple, but effective. Compare his description with anything by Henry James, or F. Scott Fitzgerald. He uses no similes or metaphors, just simple, declarative sentences.

But sometimes it falls short, as in this conversation between Jake, the narrator, Mike, and Brett:

“I’m a little tight, you know. I wouldn’t ask you like this if I weren’t. You’re sure you don’t mind?”

“Oh, shut up, Michael,” Brett said. “How can the man say he’d mind now? I’ll ask him later.”

“But you don’t mind, do you?”

“Don’t ask that again unless you want to make me sore. Bill and I go down on the morning of the 25th.”

“By the way, where is Bill?” Brett asked.

“He’s out at Chantilly dining with some people.”

“He’s a good chap.”

“Splendid chap,” said Mike. “He is, you know.”

“You don’t remember him,” Brett said.”

What bothers me about this passage is the question of who, exactly, says: “He’s a good chap?”

At first reading, I wasn’t sure who is saying it. I’m still not absolutely sure, but think it’s Brett. In my opinion, this is a mistake. If someone has to pause to figure out who is saying what, the writer has not properly done his job.

Anything, that bumps the reader out of the flow of the narrative, is, in my opinion, a problem for the writer. This happens a handful of times in The Sun Also Rises, always in the dialogue. Mr. Hemingway occasionally writes so sparingly that we are left trying to figure out who is speaking.

Other than that, I thought it flawless.

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