My 10 Rules of Writing (Warning: may contain inadvertent life advice)

There’s a meme going around the other VP alums about our personal 10 rules of writing. I tried to go for something more meta and focus on the hard-won lessons I’ve learned over the years. Part of being a writer is reaching out for human connection, and one of my primary motivators is a hope to guide others so they won’t make the same mistakes I did. That way maybe they’ll find themselves a little faster than I did.

That being said, onto the meme!

1. Fear is for suckers.

I was depressed for a long time when I started writing again. I thought it gave me this amazing connection to the pain of being human and that if I lost it, my writing would suffer for it. But I hung a lot of my self-worth on my writing, and I feared that if I struck out to do this writing thing and failed, I would be left with nothing. I don’t have to tell you how toxic that was. I’m amazed I was able to write anything during that time. As a result, I changed my life drastically (which was terrifying in and of itself) so I could stop being depressed and have more headspace to write. It took about a year after the change to stop feeling that way, and I found I could actually focus. And the best part? All that raw emotion and intensity I thought I would lose? I didn’t. Because I can remember it. It’s like they say in yoga, “Acknowledge the thoughts, then move on.”

Which brings me to

2. Reflection

This is a given. Writers are meant to show people parts of themselves they didn’t realize were there, but had been there all along. I talked to Brust for a bit at VP about what I love in stories and what I hope to accomplish in mine. For me, it’s all about the epiphanies – those one or two sentences that can fundamentally change the way you see the world. And for me, the best ones are the ones that aren’t even a main focus of a story. They’re the ones thrown in casually, that side-swipe you so thoroughly, you’re left standing with your tits out in the middle of a public park. I want to become a master of this kind of “insidious epiphany.”

In order to be able to elicit an epiphany in someone else, you MUST reflect. Reflect on moments. Reflect on emotions. Reflect on reactions and postures and adrenaline and joy. If you don’t understand why you’re feeling or reacting to something, you’ll never be able to convey it to someone else. I have probably gone through every event in my life with a fine toothed-comb. I’ve sorted, analyzed, re-sorted, twisted and inventoried every single thing I can remember and I am constantly building a running narrative (A led to B led to C led to D led to me standing here in front of you right now). I can’t really help doing this – I like to search for spurious meaning in my life, almost as much as I like to find patterns in the mess. We’re human. It’s what we do. And though I know life is random and chaotic and there is no meaning to be found in it, when enough coincidences happen to prop up a FEELING of meaning, I’m happier than a pig in shit.

Which brings me to my next one -

3. Be a five year old: Ask, “Why?”

Why, why, why. I love this question. I became a scientist for this question. There’s a reason kids love this question too. It goes back to what I said about patterns. Human beings LOVE patterns. And once a pattern is discovered, they love to EXPLAIN the patterns. And patterns only can be explained if you have enough relevant data. This is a survival trait. If, way back in our evolution, someone wandered into a particular area of brush and never came back, the folks that recognized that “going into THAT brush” = “never coming back,” I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this. Survivors possessed this logic, which means every single human being today does, too.

“Why” should infect every aspect of a story, and you should be able to trace down the string of “Whys” for every single aspect (until you get down to the details that don’t matter). For example, “Siri sat on the hull of the starship, clipping her toenails and flicking them into the vacuum.” Does this make sense on first read? I mean, sure. On a certain level, someone HAS to be sitting to clip their toenails, but on the hull of a starship? If you can give me an explanation why she’s sitting there (personally), why she could be sitting there (physically), why the world she lives in is the way that it is so that she could be sitting there (historically), you’ve stopped lying and you’ve built something real.

(Incidentally, this is why I love science fiction, fantasy and horror so much: I want someone to lie to me so beautifully that the lie becomes more real that life itself)

If you’re writing and you don’t know why something happens in the story, stop for a minute and figure it out. Your readers will thank you for it.

Which segues nicely into -

4. Thinking about writing is okay, so long as it’s not an excuse not to write.

I love to think about things. Stories, characters, plot elements. I like to read non-fiction, blog posts, listen to Podcasts, with a particular story in mind to see if I can work those awesome details into the story somehow. I think about my fake world, its history. I like to think about how I’m torturing my characters and how I could make it, much, much worse.

But thinking is my number one form of cat-waxing. I will happily read and think until I’m dead, because it’s easy. It fills my head with possibilities. I love thinking, “If I can pull this off, this fucking story is going to be a KILLER.” But the reality of putting your butt in the chair when you’re that over-stimulated will ALWAYS be disappointing. You’ll start writing and realize you didn’t get the whole picture. Or other problems start arising in the story logic. Or that your prose can’t quite capture the essence of the shiny thing in your brain. You get frustrated. And what’s the solution?

Go off and think some more!

Resist this. I’ll tell you from experience that this will send you down a rabbit hole of research you’ll never return from. Because in all of that research, you’ll find a NEW shiny thing you want to write about in a NEW shiny story. This is a great way to never finish anything. Instead, add a note to come back to this thing later and let your hindbrain chew on it for a while. A lot of the time your subconscious will spit that shiny thing back into the story in a way you would never be able to force.

Which leads into:

5. Read. A lot.

I once met an undergrad who told me he never read because he didn’t want his unique and genius voice to be tainted by others. This is ridiculously stupid because you’re setting yourself up to reinvent the wheel. (See: The Shaggs – a band never allowed to listen to music and asked to write songs).

Read. Read everything you can. Read things you like. Read things you don’t like. Read things people you like like. And what people you hate like.

Then think about what you liked. What you didn’t like. What you absolutely hated or loved. Then think about why.

At VP, someone (I think it was TNH) said, “Voice is the thing you can’t help doing.” And this is true. Voice is style. Voice is word choice. Voice is the details you focus on. There’s an exercise you can do to shine a little light on your voice (if you don’t have a good feel for it yet). Read a section of a story. Then sit down and rewrite it from memory. The differences are your voice. And the conglomeration of all of those idiosyncrasies that comprise a voice comes out of reading really awesome things that other writers have done before and subconsciously emulating them.

Man, I’m on a role with these transitions -

6. But don’t ever compare yourself to others, only to yourself.

This is another toxic thing. You’re never gonna be Neil Gaiman, so just give that up right now. You’re only ever gonna be you, so why not try to be the best you ever? The best way to stop writing completely is to compete with someone else. Everyone has different problems with their writing because everyone sits down with a completely different toolbox in their head.

I’m never gonna write prose like Bear. I’m never gonna do plot like Chabon. I’m never gonna blow minds like Gaiman. But I can write prose, plot and blow minds like Kelly. And the better I can get at being me, the happier I’m gonna be.

Ooh, another somewhat relevant segue!

7. If you love it, so will the reader.

I love the minutiae of biology. I love that everything on earth is fundamentally the same. I love that if you dig deeply enough into anything, anything can become anything else. From this, I can pretty much take any two things I love and mash them together into a single story and make it work (I love the challenge of that – like this one story I wrote a while ago that mashed up dancing and math). I mean, there’s beauty in everything and so long as you’re motivated to work to find it, if you write about it, your passion for it will come through.

If you’re interested in something, that means it’s capable of being interested in. Got a thing for tropical fish? How about breeding lima beans? Or rolling the perfect cigarette? Or keeping bees? Ask yourself what it is you love about it. If you tease that idea out far enough, you’ll get into the meta-details of the activity (the challenge of creating an ecological niche, playing God, artistry in everyday life, fostering something simultaneously larger and smaller than yourself). In those meta-details, you find the beauty that everyone can relate to.

Here the clever segues end and the hard work begins:

8. If you don’t write you’ll never get better.

This advice is both the sagest bit of wisdom and the dumbest piece of shit ever. Of course writers write. So how come everyone gets so fucking neurotic about this? Samuel Delaney had an astute observation about learning: to learn means to admit ignorance and to see the hard road ahead (I’m paraphrasing). Some people see the amount of work they need to do to get to where they want to be, and they balk. They can’t see the payoff from their effort. They never get past the “that sounds nice” phase of interest.

Making art means becoming painfully aware of your inadequacies. Don’t balk. Embrace. Grow. And you’ll always have something to strive towards for the rest of your life.

9. If you don’t submit, you’ll never get rejected.

Once you get over that hump where you DO actually write, send it out. Rejection is part of growth. Be proud of it.

I went to the Grand Canyon for the first time with my family last summer. The guide told us that of the thousands upon thousands of people visit the park every year, only 3% ever go IN the canyon. And only 1% only ever goes more than a few meters down.

It’s perfectly fine if you get enjoyment out of writing for yourself (that’s why I blog). But if you want to write for others, you have to put yourself out there. And it WILL hurt. But it won’t destroy you. Being rejected teaches you to have a thicker skin, which will help you to improve your craft. Have other people read your work. Read the nascent work of others. You’ll learn so much more that way (also you’ll get good practice in “Why” and “Reflection” when you’re forced to tell people what did and didn’t work and why).

97% of people that start writing never submit. And of the 3% that do, maybe 1/3 of them will keep submitting. In the antithesis of the Occupy movement, don’t be a part of that 99%. (And remember what Patrick and Teresa said: of that 1%, half are a bit off their rocker)

10. If you don’t get rejected, you’ll never get published.

Do you want to be published? Ask yourself this seriously. Do you want your work out there for others to see? If the answer is yes, you have to submit. Best to start getting over it.

Because you do have something to say. Something important. Something other people want or need to hear. Don’t let neuroses get in the way of human connection because, if you think about it, that’s all we really have.

* * *

So that’s my 2 cents (or 200 dollars worth, based on how long this post wound up being).

I know it’s all well and good to say these things, but it’s an entirely different thing to absorb them. I know. I’m a junkie for writing about writing. I’m addicted to the act of trying to understand an inherently incomprehensible art that’s primarily driven by the beast within. But I only could really absorb and understand these lessons when my mind was primed to be responsive to them. Cliches ARE wisdom, once you’re in a position to really understand what they mean. Give them time.

And they’ll explode in your face when you least expect it, like the “insidious epiphanies” I hope they are.

For further reading:

Tucker weighs in, and L. Blankenship, Alec, and Ann.

This entry was posted in Process Geekery, Viable Paradise, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to My 10 Rules of Writing (Warning: may contain inadvertent life advice)

  1. i think if you only kindle, you wont get rejected and you could be published.
    If i was going to add anything it would be to have your manuscript technically edited by a real editor before sending it out.

    • Kelly says:

      That would be invaluable – having a professional editor take a red pen to a manuscript. But that only shows you how to fix that story and unless you’re friends with a (very patient) professional editor, that kind of feedback’s gonna be hard to come by on a regular basis.

      It’s hard to know where your weak spots are if you don’t get consistent feedback as you go. It’s not impossible, sure. There are exceptions to every rule, but if you’re still in the thick of your “million words of shit,” no amount of red ink is gonna help the underlying problems.

  2. Pingback: Meme Post: 10 Rules for Writing « fran wilde

  3. Thanks for sharing your journey! I’m currently a satisfied, rejected short story writer; those publishers can’t hold out forever.

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