I do some freelance blog writing for companies, and everyone believes lists draw eyeballs. I’m not a social media marketing expert so I’ll take their word for that. Assuming it to be correct and hoping to add some eyeballs to my little thoughtvomit, since I have a book release on the horizon (in case you’re the one person in the world I haven’t told), here’s a list!
Writers get lots of advice, often unsolicited, from other writers, readers, people who don’t read, teachers, family, pets…maybe it is only my dog who gives me a disapproving look when I use the passive voice. I’m as qualified and unqualified as anyone so here’s my ten rules of writing:
1) You need an MFA…or you don’t. This is an ongoing debate about whether art can be taught or whether MFA programs homogenize fiction writing. I have an opinion on this that I’ve written about before, but my rule stands. You do need one, or you don’t. Only you can weigh the merits and detractions for you.
2) This is a corollary to rule uno. Art can not be taught. However, craft can be taught. I’m not Saul Bellow or Shakespeare. I don’t even pretend that I produce art. I am a reasonably good writer, and I strive to produce well crafted fiction. Always work to improve your craft.
3) Which leads to rule #3…Be serious about your writing. This does not mean you have to write about war and pestilence and the decay of society. Write about unicorns and shiny vampires and antics in high school or whatever story you want to tell, but you enter into a contract with the reader when you publish. Your obligation is to have made the best story you could for them.
4) Which leads to rule #4…Don’t publish just because you can. The publishing industry is in a sea change of business model revolution brought about by technology. Today, anyone can self publish anything. You may want to rebel against the system or feel you can reap more profit from going on your own. Good on ya’. If, however, you have never had anything accepted by a professional whose job it is to read, you may not be misunderstood. Your work may not be very good yet. Go back to rule #3 and pay an editor. Polish that thing.
5) Write every day…or don’t. There are many examples of advice on this. I don’t know the right answer. I would argue that the more you write, the better you become. That said, I often go weeks without writing anything more than facebook status updates then explode with 10K words in a day. Find the system that works for you and stick with it.
6) Revise, revise, revise, and then revise some more. Unless you’re a true artist and the words flow from the universe to your keyboard, you’re a craftsman or craftswoman or craftsperson. Craft your writing finely with care and dedication.
7) You can break all the rules. There are countless rules. Don’t use flashbacks. Don’t use expository dialogue. Show, don’t tell. Avoid adverbs. Outline. Don’t outline. Don’t use exclamation points. They go on and on. You’re the writer. Do whatever you want. If it works, you win. If it doesn’t, you should have followed the rules. All these rules exist because they’re generally good advice. So, when choosing to break one, consider what you’re trying to achieve and if you can.
8) You don’t need inspiration to write. One of my very best teachers, the inimitable Merle Drown, said, “Put ass in chair and fingers on keyboard.” Just write then go back to rule #6. Don’t wait around for the magical muse to infuse you.
9) Read. Read a lot. Read classics, contemporary works, plays, poems, essays, the crappy romance novels they sell in grocery stores. Read deliberately. Pay attention to what the writer is trying to do. How would you do it differently? What works? What doesn’t?
10) Make your own rules. Use mine…or don’t (except revision. I’ll fall on the sword for that one) James Joyce, Nabokov, Sartre, Hemingway, Faulkner, Milton, and countless others marched to the beat of their own drummer. It is your work and your effort. As part of your rules, you get to decide how much you care what others think of your writing. If you care a lot, or want to get paid, maybe stick to the rules…or don’t and maybe do something brilliant.
And a bonus rule from Elmore Leonard who wrote a much better list of rules, “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”