Sunday, March 29, 2009

John's Writing Guidelines

I figured that I needed to post my writing rules and guidelines. So here they are. I'd like to say that I follow them faithfully, but I don't.

Like many aspects of one's life, you are the one who cares the most about your writing. Not your spouse, not your critique group, and certainly not an editor or your fans. (OK, the fans who might care more about your writing than you do are the kind of fans who require restraining orders.)

A writer's job is to write stories, produce professional manuscripts, send manuscripts to markets, and to collect rejection slips. A writer's job is not to spend time in bars, bookstores, coffee shops, cafes or on-line complaining about writing (or not-writing).

Write well and entertain the reader. Be specific with details; avoid weak words and phrases; use active action to move the plot forward.

Make the reader care about the characters.  Make the protagonist active and show their loves, hates, and dreams.

Make the protagonist's problem something the reader can emphasize with.  All problems are a result of the protagonist's goals being frustrated -- clear goals will make it easier for the reader to identify with the protagonist.

Avoid vague or "grey" words. Specific details are your friends. "He stood outside the building" vs. "Jerry slouched against the blue tinted glass of the Franklin skyscraper." "A bird" vs. "a crooked-beak raven."

Trouble words and phrases to excise from your prose (I once transcribed a person complaining about her life in a café and she used many of the following examples; so if you are writing dialog you can get away with some of these).
  • Weakening modifiers: only, kind of, just, sort of, really, almost, quite, rather. These modifiers signal that you need to choose a clearer word.
  • Words that end in "ly".
  • Combinations of was and a verb: was swimming, was driving,
  • Over-used words that bug me (sigh; yes, I probably want to be a language-cop): swirled (when describing non-liquid things moving in a chaotic fashion), pixilated (when describing something not seen on a computer or television screen), morph (when describing the transformation or metamorphosis of some non-virtual object), orb (my personal over-used word), bloody (as in "bloody hell", used by non-English characters in a generic fantasy or pirate genre, or anachronistically by mediaeval English characters), ridiculous (when used to describe something which is merely over-the-top, inconvenient, or irritating, but not worthy of scorn and ridicule).
  • Redundant phrases: she thought to herself.

Read your prose out loud to give your ear a chance to catch the errors your eyes missed.

Enjoy what you write. Write what you enjoy.

Only you can write the stories that you write. While you can write in their style, this means that Stephen King can only write Stephen King stories and Ursula K Le Guin can only write Ursula K Le Guin stories.

Don't try to write what's "hot." The time lag between when you write it and when it gets published will make it seem dated. And besides, does the world really need another cyber-pirate-vampire (and the people who love them) story?

Don't look for an external muse.  Although the romantic image of The Artiste enraptured by the glimpse of Truth with a little help from absinthe, tequila, Pepsi, or chocolate is seductive, I've found that I am only able to write about my current altered state (and how Truth looks and feels like at that current time) or else about how much I want sex.  Sorry, no sequels to Kublai Khan here. I suppose if I trained to be a priestess at Delphi....

A good critique group can provide useful practice for critiquing one's own stories. A bad critique group, or one that is a bad match, will waste time at the least and confuse one's voice at the worst.

Without going too far into the art / business dichotomy; it takes a lot of words (and marketing) before an author becomes "an overnight success." Writing is like acting, singing, or Olympic sports: a few really good folks at the top work really hard for a really long time and make a real living. The rest of us do what we can and get five cents a word if we're lucky. To quote Ursula K Le Guin, "I have won the lottery in that people are willing to pay me for stories that I like to write," and "Writing to make money is a damn-fool idea."

In terms of marketing; if you can spend two hours and write a 1000 word story which results in a $50 payment, that should give you a target for how much time you spend marketing with your electronic media.

Sending e-mail is not writing. Updating your blog, Twitter, Facebook profile, or web page is not writing (although it can be useful marketing).

Set a daily limit; either an amount of time you spend daily actually typing (or writing) or else a word count. It is helpful to have a specific place where you write (and only write). I try to write something every weekday for about two hours (some of this is affected by things I can't control, but still...). I am amazed at my fellow Wordos Devon Monk and Jay Lake, because it seems like they spend a whole lot more time than I do in terms of duration and frequency actually writing.

Remove the things that are between you and you sitting down creating stories. Get regular sleep so you can focus. Eat right so hunger or crashing blood sugar levels don't distract you. Walk around the block or schedule some regular excises -- it's hard to write if you have to go to the hospital.

About every hour, take regular five-to-ten minute breaks from the keyboard to stretch, go to the bathroom, and reheat your tea.

Sometimes life intervenes. Family members get sick. Your car stops working. The sun goes away for 201600 very long minutes. While there are strategies for working around life's little set-backs, stressing out about the negative impact of things out of one's control on one's writing will not improve one's ability to write. Focus on the tasks life thrusts upon you and write when you can. This is both forgiveness for taking care of yourself and family at the expense of writing and an instruction to create and seize writing opportunities.

For some people, writing is The Pearl of Great Price; they sell everything to have this Pearl. Other people have a different Pearl of Great Price (and that's okay). It is helpful in terms of time, guilt, and frustration management to know ahead of time what your Pearl is and act accordingly.
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