Random Rules For Writers

by
Charles Martin

I’ve been asked to speak at a few schools lately.  The topic has centered on writing and my process.  With that in mind, I’ve written my “Random Rules for Writers.”  You may or may not find them helpful but I’ll post them here for you to look at.  Comments welcome.

“Random Rules for Writers”

I am guilty of breaking all of these.  But having broken them, let me offer a few:

NOTE: This list is not all-inclusive. Nor should it be.  Nor should you print these out, paste them to your monitor and write under their shadow.  Don’t do that.  I’m putting them here because I’ve learned, through the process of writing millions of words, that these are some of the things I do, both consciously and unconsciously, to improve my writing.

  • Don’t make it more complicated than it has to be.  Don’t use 8 words when 2 will do.  And better.
  • Don’t say the same thing two or three times.  We heard you the first.  I often do this with repetitive sentences.  As in, two or three sentences in a row will hammer the same point.  Less is more.  I.e. look at this ‘rule.’  How many times have I said it?  The one caveat would be if you are teaching then I’d suggest you follow the old Baptist preacher adage: tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.  Then, maybe you should take questions.
  • Give the reader credit – for understanding what you’re saying.  They can fill in some of the blanks.  If you don’t understand, see my next note/
  • Drop breadcrumbs, don’t spoon-feed.  Part of the fun is figuring it out. If we want to be told what to think, we can go other places.
  • Tell the truth.  Especially in fiction.  If you don’t believe it, neither will we.  I.e. my last book – is it possible that a dying woman could make a trip down the St. Mary’s River.  Given the medication I’ve got her taking, yes, but what’s more important to me is this: is it emotionally true?  Does it resonate with me?  Do my insides tell me ‘yes that works’ or ‘nope, it doesn’t?’
  • Kill your passive verbs.  Only resurrect them if nothing else will do.  I live and die with my verbs.  They are my scaffolding. Framework. Everything else builds up from there.  Weak verbs = weak prose.
  • Cuss words?  Real people do in fact cuss, and sometimes there’s nothing better than a well-placed cuss word, but can you cut them out and still get your point across?  Profanity is too often a crutch.  Anybody can write it.  Most do.  And in my book, many do poorly.  I’m not convinced it makes your writing better.  My litmus test is,  “What will my kids think when they read this?”  Note: I haven’t said ‘don’t write cuss words.’  I’ve said choose wisely, pick your battles and work on your craft so profanity isn’t the attraction it becomes.
  • Read it out loud.  Read it out loud. Read it out loud.  Read it out loud.  (What your eye misses, your ear will pick up.  This is THE BEST advice I’ve ever been given about writing.  If it’s good enough for Michener, it’s good enough for you and me.)
  • Read Stephen King’s book, “On Writing.”  Best out there.  King says “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”  He’s right.  Throw them out.  Cut the tether.  They are an emergency blanket you don’t need.  Take the word ‘immediately’ and eradicate it from your vocabulary.  Right now.  Immediately.  ;-)
  • Cut.  Cut.  Cut.  Nothing is sacred.  When it comes to words, you can always rewrite.  You’re not Shakespeare, not Milton, not Name-your-icon.  Neither am I.  Words are like Isaac.  Be willing to raise the knife.  Sometimes, we as writers need to get out of the way the last 5000 words we’ve written, in order to get to the 500 that really matter.
  • God gave you your ‘voice’ for a reason.  It’s the only one in the universe.  You’re the only one that sounds like you.  Don’t try to be somebody else.  Don’t follow the pop-culture icons and emulate.  Anybody can do that.  You’ve heard it before…”to thine own self…”  Use your voice.  The world will be better off if you do.  You, too.
  • Writing is a lot like life, 90% of the job is showing up – day after day after day.  Rejection after rejection after rejection.  My first book was rejected 86 times.  So, if you really want to write, turn off the TV, turn off your i-pod, turn off your phone, turn off your e-mail, turn off the static and noise, and write.  Then do it again.  Then return tomorrow, and do it again.

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