Monday, September 3, 2012

The Rules of Writing - Part I

First of all, I love that picture. I smiled as I read each rule on it, because I've heard them all before and actually employ many of them in my own writing efforts. Maybe you do, too.

But does writing really have rules? Do we, as authors, have to follow a set of prescribed rules to perform our jobs as writers correctly? Of course not. That's the beauty of writing. However, there are some rules, such as those pertaining to spelling and grammar that if you don't follow will make it hard or nearly impossible for your readers to understand your book. Imagine if you were to read a book with no paragraphs, misplaced commas (or no commas), or even no punctuation at all. You'd probably put it down before reading a word. So, some rules are pretty darn important, right?

While searching the Internet for writing tips, I stumbled across an English site that included several authors' self-created lists for the "ten rules of writing." I prefer to call their lists advice or the ten guidelines of writing instead of rules. Whether you want to call them rules, advice, or guidelines, what they had to say was poignant and sometimes entertaining. Below are some of my favorite "rules," as presented by the likes of Elmore Leonard, Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer, Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Esther Freud, Neil Gaiman, David Hare, PD James, and AL Kennedy.

  • Avoid prologues...A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. [DL: This is not the first time I have heard this piece of advice. Since a lot of readers don't read prologues, it's best to include the information in your prologue as part of the story. Yes, you can do that. You're a writer. It's up to you to find a way to do that.]
  • Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. [DL: Again, I've heard this one many times, usually from editors.]
  • Keep your exclamation points under control. [DL: I've been told only to use them when your characters are yelling.]
  • Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
  • Avoid detailed descriptions of characters or places/things. [DL: A sure sign you're telling a story and not showing it.]
  • If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.
  • Read it aloud, because that's the only way to be sure the rhythm of the story is correct. [DL: This piece of advice came up over and over on the list from several authors. This is something I do when I'm in final edits, and I can assure you, it works.]
  • Cut. Get every inessential word out of your story so that every essential word counts. [DL: This is another piece of advice that comes up repeatedly, stated in different words, but with the same message: get rid of the fluff.]
  • Give the work a name as quickly as possible so you can own it and see it. [DL: I do this and it really does help guide the story.]
  • Finish the day's writing when you still want to continue. [DL: I've heard this one before. The idea is you'll be ready to go the next day if you follow this rule.]
  • Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. [DL: One read-through of your manuscript before you publish it isn't enough. If you want to be serious about your writing, you need to reread/edit/proof your manuscripts 5-10 times before they're ready, and even then it may not be enough. I've read a couple of mine upwards of 15-20 times.]
  • Join professional organizations which advance the collective thoughts of authors.
  • Do it every day. [DL: Writing is your job. If you worked in an office, you would be putting in 8+ hours per day. Why shouldn't you treat writing the same way? If you love it, putting in those kinds of hours shouldn't make you groan about not wanting to work that hard, because it wouldn't feel like work even if you spent 12 hours a day doing it].
  • Only bad writers think that their work is really good. [DL: Usually, it's the writers who don't feel their writing is up to snuff who are the best writers.]
  • DON'T READ YOUR REVIEWS. [DL: Yes, yes, yes! Follow this rule unless you want to get caught up in a mess of pain and shattered confidence.]
  • Likewise, don't write reviews. [DL: The rationale is that your judgment's tainted. This is one reason why I don't write reviews.]
  • Finish what you're writing. [DL: Don't start edits until you've finished the first draft. NO EXCEPTIONS! Editing and writing happen on two separate sides of the brain. You can't edit when you're trying to write, and you can't write when you're trying to edit. Choose one and finish it before starting the other. Trust me. You'll understand once you do it. This is another rule that is repeated over and over on the list.]
  • Increase your word power. [DL: Buy a vocabulary builder, take a class, read books outside your genre, make a list of words you find interesting, etc.]
  • Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious. [DL: Just read. A lot.]
  • Open your mind to new experiences. [DL: Each new experience is a plot bunny.]
  • Have humility...then have more humility.
  • Be without fear. [DL: Fear will kill your creative process. I know. I've been down that road recently.]
  • And last but not least (at least for today's installment), remember you love writing. It wouldn't be worth it if you didn't. If the love fades, do what you need to and get it back.
These are just some of the pieces of advice given on the website. If you want to see the full list, the link is Ten Writing Rules by Authors . Take a look at what other authors have to say. I know I found a couple that have already helped to improve my writing, so perhaps you might, too. 

With that, I'm off to employ my own rules of writing and get back to work on my next AKM novel, Return of the Assassin. Have a great Labor Day everybody. Can you believe it's almost autumn? Wow.

Oh, and before you go, tell me what your favorite "rule" of writing is? Do you have one? 

Happy Writing!


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