Between writing my own work, and teaching composition, I wind up thinking about writing most of my day. How to do it, why we do it, ways to do it better, etc.
One of the things I tell my students is to be wary of books about how to be a better writer by authors they've never heard of. The logic there should be self evident.
I recently saw this posting on another blog. I've been thinking about it ever since I read it.Of them all, the one that strikes home most for me is Neil Gaiman (and that's no surprise). He has 8 rules for writing well:
- Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
- Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
- Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
- Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
- Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
- Laugh at your own jokes.
- The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
In response to that excellent post (really--take a moment and go put it in as a bookmark in your browser and come back to it often--there are a lot of writers collected there, and a lot of wisdom in the posts from each), Here are my own 6 rules (that I've discovered so far) for writing:
- Be Clear. The hardest thing in the world is to be clear. Don't get that twisted: even very complex sentences can still be clear. Sentences are like greased pigs--they want to get away from you, and they will do their best to do so.You wrestle them best by remembering
- Run It By Someone. If you're writing isn't for other people to look at, then what are you doing it for? Far too often, writing can be like a child--you're too close to it, love it too much, to see it clearly. Sometimes you have to ask someone else what they think in order to find out your little darling is actually a serial killer.
- Edit Mercilessly. The sentences that took you so long to lovingly craft must be hacked and slashed at until they are clear. Sentences are like Bonsai trees--they only take on beauty when they are meticulously pruned and sculpted. Remember when you are editing that nothing is sacred, not even the central idea of the work--sometimes we only find out that the map was wrong after we started on the journey. Don't be afraid to tear up the original map in favor of the new one. Remember, too, that no one has ever done anything perfectly first time--there is always room for improvement by going through another draft (or 7).
- Patchwork is Okay. Don't be afraid to skip around when the idea for a scene or a line strikes you. Trust that you'll be able to patch it together at some point. Quilt makers have been doing it for centuries, and they're not wrong. Write scene 35, then scene 2, then scene 78, and trust that at some point, you'll figure out how to stitch them all into a cohesive whole.
- Be Thou Not Afraid! Don't be afraid of what you've created. Remember there is must as much art in the creation of a Samurai sword as there is in a Picasso. There will be an audience for what you produce. If a work needs to be disgusting, let it be disgusting. If a work needs to be sugary enough to cause cavities, let it be. Don't be afraid to write the most ridiculous idea you can think of, either. Remember that, before Fight Club, the idea of a fight club was far fetched. Just make sure that you use steps 1-3 above to make it THE BEST example of that kind of writing that it can be.
- Clean and Clear. Writers who think they need drugs or alcohol to create are idiots. Let them worship Hunter S. Thompson like idiots while the rest of us know better. You don't need an altered consciousness to write.
I wish I'd given myself this advice 6 years ago, to be honest--there are still sentences, paragraphs, and in a few cases, whole pages in Stealing Ganymede that make me cringe. This is why I'm so excited for Silencing Orpheus finally coming out this year. It's still old work, but I had learned a lot in the intervening 2 years between the writing of the novels.
If you're a writer, what are the rules you have for yourself? Comment here or tweet at me on Twitter