Seven Serious Rules of Writing

It’s the end of NaNoWriMo season. Rather than participating, I spent my evenings studying for several reasons

1) I needed to study.

2) I have yet to reach the required word-count on any of my finished stories.

Truly, I am a well-educated and efficient author, above the need to actually write anything, but I thought, “What of those pitiful writers who have not yet reached the 50,000 word mark due to their inefficient study habits? What of those writers who could not overcome their fear of failure  to attempt NaNoWriMo?” Unfortunately for those pitiful people, I only write novellas and short stories, but perhaps my insights will help them in their quest.

1) An essay is only as good as its thesis. Likewise, a story is only as good as its dilemma. Knowledge of a life-changing dilemma is not necessary at the beginning, but a dilemma brings the story to its end. –Source: American Literature professor, Introduction to Theatre professor

2) Every story begins with false journey that leads to the real journey. The introduction to the characters and development of the real crisis takes place here. The journey to Rivendell, the discovery of Narnia and flight to the stone table, and all the events leading up to Jim Hawkins sailing away are false journeys.–Source: Bearmageddon 

3) A writer should cram a lot of information into paragraphs with short sentences. One should never trust someone who says ‘should,’ or uses bulky passive sentences frequently. Avoid backstory or start the story there. A writer would be wise to assume the reader is smart, but not smart enough to read big words.–Source: Immediate Fiction, Organic Chemistry I lab instructor

4) Include enough information that the reader can figure out what is happening. Elaborate why because otherwise the reader is confused and doesn’t actually care. Confused readers abandon stories half-way. Never generalize.–Source: American Literature professor

5) Write in passive voice.–Source: Organic Chemistry I lab instructor

6) Write in active voice.–Source: American Literature professor

7) Break the rules. Good writers are good at that. But never cite Wikipedia.–Source: Kurt Vonnegut (not the Wikipedia bit, but we know he was thinking it.)

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Shrediting

I am bad at editing. I procrastinate editing  because the process scares me. My editing has four distinct stages. In this post, I demonstrate them by tearing apart the first paragraph of a draft.

Waves swept over the boat’s side. Jill clung to the steering wheel’s post, trying desperately to stay on her feet. She had lashed her waist to the steering post but that didn’t help her keep her footing. Her legs slid across the deck, slippery with seaweed and wildlife scum. Her knees banged mercilessly against it, going numb in the icy water that sloshed back and forth. Probably a good thing. I’ll never live down these bruises. She clung to the wheel. It was useless to maintain her course. Like the green pilot she was, she had let the wheel spin the first time she fell, smashing the glass casing around her compass as she went. A ship loomed in the darkness above the waves. It was just bobbing in and out of the eyesight. It wasn’t a sea-going vessel. She glanced down at the greenery littering the deck. All hands on deck! We’re in the shallows!” Frantically, she glanced up into the gray expanse of cloud. Tall pillars of stone appeared through the mist, rising like stalagmites out of the water. They were the iconic symbols of Arcadina, wardens of the deadly shallows that appeared on good days in Arcadinan travel brochures. “Relax in sunny Arcadina” the tagline was. “I wish.” she gritted through her teeth.

Patching occurs while writing the first draft. It is like fixing a dress with duct tape because  you can not be bothered to do any sewing. Patching fixes continuity errors, inserts the right word, rephrase, and making a major name change. Patching a draft in progress is so laborious you might put it off, especially since the next stage of editing tends to introduce gaping plot holes.

Waves swept over the ship’s side. Jill clung to the wheel, trying desperately to stay on her feet. She had lashed herself to the wheel, but that did not help her keep her footing. Her legs slid across the deck, slippery with sea scum. Her knees banged mercilessly against it, going numb in the icy water that sloshed back and forth. Probably a good thing. I’ll never live down these bruises. She clung to the wheel. It was useless trying to maintain her course. Like the green pilot she was, she had let the wheel spin the first time she fell, smashing the glass casing around her compass as she went. A ship loomed in the darkness above the waves. It was just bobbing in and out of the eyesight. It wasn’t a sea-going vessel. She glanced down at the greenery littering the deck. “All hands on deck! We’re in the shallows!” Frantically, she glanced up into the gray expanse of cloud. Tall pillars of stone appeared through the mist, rising like stalagmites out of the water. They were the iconic symbols of Arcadia, wardens of the deadly shallows that appeared on good days in Arcadian travel brochures. “Relax in sunny Arcadia” the tagline was. “I wish.” she gritted through her teeth.

Focusing the argument and organization. This is like going back to alter a dress you have made (or patched)  because it does not fit. You tear out characters, get rid of nonessential events, re-arrange everything, and stitch it carefully back together. You might have to do this several times before it fits. And it looks horrible.

A wave crashed over the ship’s side. Jill clung to the wheel where she had lashed herself. She slipped on the sea scum littering the deck, and banged her knees on the deck. She pulled herself up, but not before her knees had gone numb in the icy water. “Cold is good, or I’d never live down the bruises,” She reminded herself. It was useless trying to steer. Like a novice, she let go the wheel the first time she fell, and landed on her compass, smashing it. Jill spotted a lantern in the dark, bobbing  in and out of eyesight over the waves. It wasn’t on a boat. She glanced at the seaweed littering the deck. “All hands on deck! We’re in the shallows!” Tall pillars of stone rose through a low-hanging mist. They were wardens of deadly shallows and icons of Arcadia in colorful travel brochures with the slogan “Relax in sunny Arcadia!” “I wish.” she gritted through her teeth.

Pulling out the extra sentences comes next. It is like cutting off rickrack off a dress, ripping out bright red basting stitches, or fixing the hemline. You make it look nice. Pulling omits any nonessential word or phrase, eliminates sections emphasizing or telling the audience what to think, and adds explanation where plot holes exist. It hurts.

A wave crashed over the ship. Jill had lashed herself to the wheel, but she slipped on the sea scum littering the deck, banging her knees. Her knees were numb with the icy water before she could pull herself up. “Cold is good, or I’d be covered in bruises,” She muttered. Trying to steer was useless. She had let go the wheel the first time she fell and smashed her compass on the deck. Jill spotted a steady light in the dark visible between the waves. She glanced at the seaweed littering the deck. “All hands on deck! We’re in the shallows!” Tall pillars of stone rose through a low-hanging mist. They were wardens of shallows and icons of Arcadia in colorful travel brochures urging, “Relax in sunny Arcadia!” “I wish.” Jill muttered.

Grammar and punctuation are very last. This stage is like cutting all the loose ends on a finished dress. You must still delete commas, add periods, eliminate fragments, fix run-ons, and correct faulty pronoun association problems. Then you are done…right?

A wave crashed over the ship. Jill had lashed herself to the wheel, but she slipped on the sea scum littering the deck. Her knees were numb with the icy water before she could pull herself up. “Cold is good, or I’d be covered in bruises,” she muttered. Trying to steer was useless. She had let go of the wheel the first time she fell and had smashed her compass on the deck. Jill spotted a steady light visible between the dark waves. She glanced at the seaweed littering the deck. “All hands on deck! We’re in the shallows!” Tall pillars of stone rose through a low-hanging mist. The monoliths were wardens of shallows and icons of Arcadia in colorful travel brochures that urged, “Relax in sunny Arcadia!” “I wish.” Jill muttered.

cutting up a book

Many writers get stuck at the editing stage, and shred their work before it’s even written; others don’t edit if they can help it. I fall into the latter camp. I always save a copy before I start. Editing is stressful because you have to decide what’s important before deleting a third of your draft. In the examples above, I went from 210 words to 134. A guideline is the shorter, the better.

Unfortunately, editing never ends. However, editing has its benefits. Edited passages emphasize action, look cleaner, cost less to print, and are easier to read. Hopefully, this post has made editing little less scary. It’s daunting, but everyone could benefit from a little editing.

If you have  insights, critiques, suggestions, or stories about shrediting, feel free to comment.

Photo credit: Liz Henry, some rights reserved.

Writing Stories: The Two Page Rule

Last week my inspiration wrote about the characters she’s creating for her politically charged fantasy story. Since this is her first major story recorded on paper, and I’ve been nagging encouraging and advising her to write for a long time, I’m not a little pleased with the results. However, as always, there are significant barriers to the success of any story.

1. One of these is the two page rule. (of which my inspiration is now thoroughly sick)

“Most stories will never be finished unless the author can get past two pages of ten-point Times-New Roman font with a 0.79-inch margin in a single sitting or three pages with Word.”

The two page rule is my creation and thus prone to exception and error. I realize that the two page rule is highly arbitrary. It is based on my own limitations and my habit of writing stories in ten-point font with Open Office  standard margins. I cannot exactly predict how much someone else must write in a twelve-point Ariel to get past their own walls. I use ten-point in recognition that seeing large chunks of the story at once will help me make it more coherent.

Now obviously, all finished stories of significant length must get past the two page rule in order to be of significant length. One reason behind the two page rule is that unless the author has an idea of where the story is going and how to get it there when he/she is first inspired, it’s unlikely that inspiration will strike later. (Do not despair. There are exceptions. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote only the first sentence of the hobbit in the middle of grading.)

2. Another reason for the two page rule is unless the author has created characters who can talk to each other, not talk to each other, or think about anything and everything for two pages straight, the story has some serious problems. If the characters are not developed enough, at least in the author’s mind, to act like people, then they probably will not be entertaining, or even come up with coherent things to say, for the rest of the story. This is especially true for character-driven stories.

  • One way to get around this obstacle is to make up a list of character desires, traits, and biographical facts. Even if the author never includes these, it will help them make informed decisions about what the character will say next.
  • Another work-around is to enlist another person to role-play a conversation, making it up as they go along, and to steal their way of saying things and arguments when you write the conversation. In essence, get someone else to create and embody the character.
  • Writing as long a drabble as possible in a limited time period is a good way to loosen up. As I have discovered, it is difficult to write a deadly serious story. Loosening up and not caring what one produces is a good way to improve the quality of one’s writing.
  • A third–although possibly useless–method is to draw a picture of your character. If, like me, your drawings are few and far between, I suggest using a character generator, such as tektek avatars, and the hero-generator. Name generators and characterbasis generators. The d&d-playing world makes a lot of these. These generators can be addictive, clichéd, and unhelpful. However, if they can also be entertaining and offer a welcome distraction.
  • Limiting the number of characters in the story increases the amount of time one has to focus on them, and develop them. While reading Terry Pratchett recently, I noticed that he tended to limit the number of main characters in to about nine. (Stories in settings other than Ankh-Morpork may have fewer.) Thus, the nine character rule was born.

    “In general, use no more than nine well-developed characters, and often three will suffice.”

    A successful story may have more than nine main characters, but amateur writers should think long and hard about using that many, especially about starting out with that many. Characters tend to pop up naturally along the way; there’s little need to laboriously generate them.

3. Finally, many writers write in the dark. (In both senses of the word.) If, after hours of twilight scribbling, one still has no idea whether the story is fit for human consumption, an author may show it to a trusted other. The downside is that the sort of critique (or lack of response) that one receives can be devastating. The important thing is to continue writing: it may be worth something eventually. I learned this lesson in a beautiful way when my father was writing my transcript. Learning that I had read several books on fiction-writing and written a monstrosity entitled The Castle at Exeter, he incorporated it into my transcript. He hasn’t seen much of my creative work. (And I’d be embarrassed to show him.) Regardless, he encourages me to write, even hauling me along to his law class so I could learn to read quickly and write technical assignments. Dad, not many people get that sort of attention. Thank you for caring enough to give it to me. Happy Birthday.