Over the years, I’ve noticed that I follow some unacknowledged “rules” in my own writing, especially in fiction. So over the last few months, I started writing them down. Here’s what I got so far.
Bren’s Rules (actually, they’re just guidelines) for Writing
The first rule is that you should fall in love with words, languages, and storytelling. Your language both limits and liberates you. Know how it works. Be a serious student of words, sentences, paragraphs, catchphrases, proverbs, tropes, neologisms, alliteration, rhyme, syllables, phonemes, definitions, propositions, arguments, fallacies, and speech-acts. Be a lover of the best of them; be the nemesis of the worst. If you do not care about your language – if you are not interested in what words can do and not do, and what they can be twisted into doing – then you should try a different field of art.
Find the words in your language that can do what you need done. If those words do not exist, invent them.
Write as if every word is inevitable.
I have two languages in which I’m fluent: spoken English and written English. These are two different languages. Learn the difference; play in the space between them.
Read what other people in your field are writing. Know the climate and the weather of the intellectual environment in which you are working. It is also the environment in which you are thinking. And it is the environment where your audience lives.
Do your homework. Even fantasy fiction, which doesn’t take place in the “real” world, requires research.
Do not waste time, procrastinate, or distract yourself. But do not force the creative powers, and do not rush. Do whatever you must do to put yourself in the mind to create, and then take your time. Treat the work as if it is a living thing, with its own requirements, and its own gifts.
Don’t write about magic, or technology, or political ideology, or the like, even if you’re writing fantasy, sci-fi, or a thriller, or whatever. Instead, write about people – people who happen to live in a magical, or high-tech, or power-shifting world, as the case may be. Let these things stay mostly in the background, where they can serve the story about the people.
Decide early which characters are smarter than others, stronger than others, more dominant than others, and why. Decide who looks up to whom, and who looks down on whom, and why. Even a fairy tale is full of power relations.
And some of those power relations will not be obvious to the characters themselves.
And some of those power relations will change.
Be a serious student of human nature, even if there is no such thing.
A stumbling block in the plot, or a bout of writer’s block, is a sign that you should go back into an earlier point in the story, and change something.
Build a world that readers would want to explore. Make sure part of it is inviting enough that readers would want to live there. The world doesn’t have to be completely safe. It just has to be interesting.
Don’t write “strong female characters”. Instead, write female characters who are interesting. The so-called strong female character often ends up being nothing more than a woman who is good with a weapon and quick to anger. Such characters are ultimately uninteresting: they serve only to fill a kind of quota. Instead, be aware of your own background and experiences, and write about interesting people who have different backgrounds and experiences: different genders, different cultures, different ethnicities, different religions, than your own. But don’t make them different for the sake of being different: make them different for the sake of being interesting.
Characters are interesting because of the way they change over time. Write about how and why those characters change.
If you are depending on the character’s appearance to make him or her interesting, then you are not really writing; you are costume-designing. And there’s nothing wrong with costume designing; but don’t let it do all the work of character designing.
For that matter, make all your characters interesting. Even the villains. Especially the villains. Nothing is worse than a boring villain.
Write interesting heroes, too. Heroes who are unambiguously good are not truly interesting. Heroes who are conflicted, morally compromised, weak or foolish or afraid, or even sometimes un-heroic, are at least interesting. But if you write heroes who are in some way un-heroic, then be sure that they change in a way that redeems them.
Unless, of course, you are writing an anti-hero. But in that case, you still need something in the hero that the reader can see in herself. Heroes, even anti-heroes, must be identifiable; that is, the reader can identify with her. That, too, can make them interesting. Let the reader see herself in an amazing place, doing amazing things.
Characters have reasons for why they change. They might be simple reasons, silly reasons, illogical reasons, even selfish reasons that make your readers mad at them. But they have their reasons, nonetheless.
Those reasons have to make sense. Readers will accept a foolish reason or a complex reason, but they won’t accept an unintelligible reason.
That’s what a story is, after all. A story is a character who changes over time.
Write about characters who have problems. Sometimes the problem is the villain; sometimes it’s an event in the world; but sometimes the problem is something within the hero.
Problems have to be rational, too. They have to be the kind of problem that a reader could recognize in the real world. Even if it’s the kind of problem that could only exist in a science-fiction futuristic world, or a magical fantasy world. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It just has to be not-stupid.
That, too, is part of what a story is. A story is a character with a problem.
Don’t include characters from marginalized cultural, gender, or ethnic backgrounds for the sake of filling some kind of quota. There is no quota. But do include characters from different backgrounds when doing so would make the story interesting. And be aware of the actual state of cultural diversity in the real world around you, and reflect it in what you write.
All characters have voices. Even the secondary and tertiary characters have voices. Make sure those voices are heard. Make sure they, too, are interesting. At the very least, give them names.
If there are political or moral statements to be made, let the characters make them, from their own perspectives. Don’t put it in the narration. Don’t turn the whole story into a polemic.
But do decide early how much the narrator will know. The reader will see only what the narrator reveals. So decide whether the narrator is omniscient or not, and decide what will happen “off stage”. Whether you write in first person or third person, decide whose point of view will be featured, and whose thoughts the reader will hear.
Every character wants something. And every character needs to deal with other characters to get it. The different ways characters deal with each other to get what they need – whether it’s cooperation, or aggression, or trade, or threats, or seduction, or whatever – is part of what makes them interesting.
Every chapter must end on one of the following notes: an advancement of the plot, an important revelation about a character’s life, a moment of peace and beauty, a decent cliffhanger.
Keep the expositions short; and when they are done, up the drama.
Let your most important phrases, proverbs, and statements appear in a character’s dialogue, and not in the narration.
Do not, do not, and I repeat DO NOT end the story using deus ex machina.
Let nothing get in the way of your writing time. Not even your best friends. Turn off your phone and internet while you’re writing. Let friends and loved ones know you will be unreachable for a certain length of time. Be willing to decline invitations to parties or dates in order to make time to write. Writing is an inherently lonely activity. (It’s reading, not writing, which is social.) If possible, write in a place where you can be fully alone. For my part, I find it almost impossible to write with anybody nearby, even if they’re in another room and behind a closed door.
While writing, don’t play music with lyrics. You need the part of your brain that processes language to write your book. If you must have background music, choose instrumental music, or music in a language you don’t understand. I usually write with classical music in the background, or with silence.
Know who you are writing for. And “writing for yourself” isn’t enough. Have some person or group of people in mind. Use the work as a way of telling that person you love her.
But don’t assume they will read it. In fact, assume they won’t read it. That way you won’t worry about pissing them off. So, write as if you are speaking to a particular person or a particular audience that you want to reach but probably never will.
If that last “rule” seems absurd, that’s okay. Trust me when I tell you, it works.
Once in a while, write during the wee early hours of the morning, after having had just-slightly-but-not-quite-almost-too-much-to-drink. And if what you’ve written still makes sense the following morning, then keep it. If it doesn’t, cut it out.
Don’t be afraid to make cuts. Not all your work will be genius. A lot of it will suck. Just accept that a lot of the time, your work will suck, and You will suck. Except when you don’t suck. So mercilessly cut out the parts that suck. Save them elsewhere if you think you might be nostalgic about them. It might be the case that a piece of writing sucks only because it’s in the wrong place. The right place for it may present itself later.
Avoid encouragement-memes. Avoid “tips for writing” articles that offer no more than cheerleading and self-esteem-building. You should be strong willed enough to motivate yourself without it. And that kind of help often makes people feel worse, not better, about their work. That said, it’s okay to seek help and advice from others. You should seek that kind of help often. But look for specific practical help, not amorphous pop-psychology.
Trust the intelligence of your readers. Write as if they are at least as smart as you are, and probably smarter. If you use a cheap trope in your story, assume your readers will see through it and that they will be pissed off. Don’t play to the lowest common demonator. No, I did not mean to say ‘denominator’.
Write to address yourself to something happening in the real world that you want to change. All good writing is activist writing. It wants to think about things in new ways. It wants to show us something that we might have never seen before, or that we might not want to see. Good writing wants us to do something or try something we might not have done, or tried. Write something which speaks to a real debate, a real controversy, a real injustice, a real problem, in the real world.
Write as if what you’re writing doesn’t matter at all – but if you don’t write it, you will die.
Following these rules won’t make your book awesome, not on their own. You may be an awesome writer, but you still need an editor.
And pursuant to the last point: want to help me hire one? Click here to support my Kickstarter campaign! There’s some great exclusive rewards, including audiobooks, and a never-before-seen novella. And please spread the word, too!