Rules For Writers

by
Charles Martin
Rules For Writers

Readers often ask me my thoughts on writing.  Here lately, more than a couple.  With that in mind, I’ve included some random thoughts.  Lessons learned.  Proceed at your own risk…

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 several million 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. take Where the River Ends.  Is it possible that a dying woman could make that trip down the St. Mary’s River?  Yes, I pushed the envelope and some have argued that I pushed it too far but before I sent that manuscript to my editor I gave it to two doctors and asked them to give me a medical thumbs up or down.  Secondly, and just as if not more important to me, is this question—is it emotionally true?  Does it resonate with me?  Emotively?  Do my insides tell me ‘yes that works’ or ‘nope, it doesn’t?’  This is a biggy and totally a ‘feel’ thing.  I can’t give you a checklist here – I either feel it or I don’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 book out there on writing.  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.  (I still have the letters.)  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.
  • Writers block is real.  I didn’t used to believe this.  Then ‘it’ happened.  There are two types of medicine I recommend.  First, push back, turn off the computer, and take a hike.  Get lost.  Go do something else.  Go for a long run.  Plant an enormous garden.  Get your hands busy doing something other than writing.  This might take a month or two or three.  If the problem takes a year, I doubt the problem is writers block.  Second, plant your butt in that seat and write.  Write something.  Write anything.  Sweat.  Cuss.  Drink coffee by the pot.  Potato chips if you have to.  Chocolate if you need it. Stay away from Scotch.  Copy paragraphs out of your favorite books – word for word.  Not to steal them, but to hear the author’s voice in a way you haven’t before.  But, whatever you do, do not get up from that seat until you’ve met your quota –- any quota.  Oh, and the medicine you take depends on you.  Most writers that I know who’ve experienced a block of some sort, end up taking both medicines and the order doesn’t really matter.
  • Ask yourself, ‘why do I write?’  I’m speaking primarily to fiction writers.  If the answer has something to do with making money or you’re impressed by the sight of a smoking jacket, a pipe and little groveling people interviewing you in a hotel lobby’s while you take a break from an exhaustive 36-city book tour, and asking you to talk about your life and what makes you you, then these ‘rules’ won’t do much for you because you and I are about different things.  You should probably make up your own rules because I doubt seriously that you’re interested in being a writer and you certainly can’t help me.  But, (and there are a lot of ‘right’ answers to this question) if your answer has something to do with because you can’t NOT do it, and if interviews scare the hell out of you, (and yes I cussed, but you got the point didn’t you?) and if you don’t own a smoking jacket and never had a taste for a pipe, and sometimes your fingers say what your heart feels better than your mouth, and if writing is like taking a deep breath— then hold on, because you might just be a writer and you might should pay attention to the last ‘rule’ because it’s where the rubber meets the road.
  • Go back to #1 and start over.  Read through them again.  And again.  And again.  The mistake we makes as writers is to think, “Oh, okay, I’ve got a handle on those remedial skills.  The beginner stuff.  Now maybe I should focus on the really important ones.  The skills that all great writers finally ascend to once they’ve mastered the minors.”  I’m not sure there are minor and major skills.  They may all be minors.  I’m reminded of what Lombardi said about football – fundamentals win.  It’s all x’s and o’s.  Same is true in writing.

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