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Criticism, Fiction, The Writer's Life

And Finally, 10 More Rules for Writing — Mine

In the last two weeks I’ve reprinted some rules of writing offered by successful writers. Some I’ve found encouraging, and others I’ve found frightening. They’ve made for interesting advice and good discussion.

But when it comes to writing (or just about any other endeavor), each of us must find our own way, and make our own rules. The following list represents just a few things I’ve learned while trying to establish myself in the writing biz. You can call them rules, or guidelines, or advice, or you can ignore them completely. I view them as writing realities. They seem to work for me.

Please post a rule or two of yours in the comments. I’d love to hear what works for you.

  1. Take criticism sparingly. Consider the source. Everyone wants to give criticism, whether it’s founded on good writing theory or not. Make sure the advice you choose to accept makes sense for you and your writing. The worst thing you can do is accept criticism from someone who clearly doesn’t understand your work.
  2. Give criticism sparingly. See above. It works both ways.
  3. The 50 percent rule. If 50 percent of the people who read your work like it, you may not want to change it. There will always be some who don’t like your writing. Don’t let them have undue influence.
  4. Unless you want to be a teacher or an editor, don’t read slush. If you’re a beginning writer, it can show you what doesn’t work, but if you have begun to develop your voice, too much slush can erode the good techniques you’ve learned.
  5. Don’t withhold. Nothing turns me off more than a writer whose story keeps a secret from the reader for too long. My rule is to get it out there. If the character is a closet transvestite, make it clear as soon as it’s necessary for the reader to know. Why? Because that’s not your story. Drop the bomb and see where the story goes from there—you’ll be amazed at what you come up with, and then you’ll discover the real story.
  6. Pay attention. This sounds simple, but sometimes we forget to observe the world around us. For example, when I drive to work I take a slower route than necessary, on surface streets through several towns and cities. Another “writer” didn’t understand why I wouldn’t just take the freeway to save time. Sure. And stare at rear bumpers instead of noticing people and storefronts and the transitions between affluent communities and poor ones. My commute has been the genesis of several short stories, and has helped inform my novel in progress. In other words, stories are out there, if you care to notice them.
  7. In your writing, ignore, as much as possible, popular culture. It’s more annoying than interesting, and has no lasting value. You’re a writer—think bigger, think in terms of the long term. This may sound contradictory to the rule above, but my advice is to watch people, not what they watch.
  8. Writing is perhaps the only endeavor that disproves the saying: “Do what you love and the money will follow.” But you already knew that.
  9. Writing is not a hobby, or a craft, or a profession. Writing is a life. It is part of you every minute of every day.
  10. Never give up. No one who was ever successful gave up. Ever. If writing is a life, then writing is constant frustration, inexplicable rejection, and occasional depression. It is also irresistible passion and rare joy. If you are a writer, and you stop writing, you commit intellectual suicide. Personally, I can add this: from among journals and agents and editors, I’ve received hundreds of rejections, brushoffs and non responses. But William Saroyan received seven thousand rejections before he sold his first short story. Alex Haley wrote for eight years before publishing his first story. Me, I’m just getting started. Bring it on.

BTW: I’m out of town and may not be able to respond to comments right away, but I will get to them.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


26 thoughts on “And Finally, 10 More Rules for Writing — Mine

  1. Hi, there. I hope your time out of town is for a happy reason, and that you are enjoying the vacation. The rules are all sound, as far as I can see, except perhaps #5. This is only because I read something just yesterday (and I really wish I could remember on what website I read it, it was a very fascinating set of statistics and essay). It said that if you wanted to create sympathy for a character (or for real people) who had an alternative lifestyle to what many readers often have or expect, that you should build a lot a reader sympathy before letting your readers know that the person is a transvestite, is gay, or whatever. Though this seems a bit odd nowadays with so many people out of the closet and proud of their own ways, it caused me to ask myself if maybe I had released the info too early in a novel I’ve written, “Babson Fitterley and the Perfect Woman,” in which I mean the gay characters to be sympathetic. It’s known from the first scene that one character at least is gay, and I now wonder if it works for my readers the way I meant it to. But aside from the self-obsessed issue, I guess it may be a matter of judging what your main audience may be composed of in terms of character types, and playing to that audience long enough to “hook” their interest before you release any bombshells (and yes, sadly to some people these days it’s still a bombshell that people can be gay or transvestite!). What is your take on this kind of consideration, i.e., about motivating sympathy before giving the character’s alignments in all of their glory?

    Posted by shadowoperator | October 6, 2012, 1:47 PM
    • One of my mentors, Bruce Holland Rogers, best explained how to handle the type of information you’re talking about: Don’t tell it until the reader absolutely can’t wait another minute to find out. Build the tension and the sympathy about the character until it hits the breaking point, but don’t delay any further. To do so risks the reader’s interest. What I’m referring to deals more with stories that try to maintain secrets for the sake of the secret. Get that secret out there and see how it changes the story. It’s not the secret that’s the climax of the story, but how the secret affects the characters. As you mentioned, how an audience will react has a lot to do with their makeup. A good general approach is to let the characters reveal information about themselves when they are ready–in other words, let them live their lives like real people. They’ll divulge the truth eventually, when they can’t hide it anymore.

      Posted by jpon | October 6, 2012, 9:19 PM
      • this advice was given by Tod Goldberg as well. Blow it up, kill it, abduct it, burn it down and then look for the new secret/surprise that emerges. It sounds crazy but it totally works.

        Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | October 7, 2012, 6:40 PM
  2. Of the three lists you’ve posted, this is by far the best and most useful. Each of your items may be intuitively obvious, but seeing them together creates a much more concrete understanding of the mindset, the scaffolding, the roadmap, of a writer’s mental structure, or at least what it could be. Do all ten things apply equally to all writers and all writing? No. But it’s easy to see why and when a difference between, say, you and me, makes sense.
    Number 7 for instance. Much of my writing not only mentions pop culture, pop culture observations are the point of what I’m saying. But even there Number 7 holds truth, in that I need to concentrate on the points I’m making and not wander off to follow the other bright lights.
    I like the way you think about writing. (Hmmm…I think i burried the lead.)

    Posted by Jon Zech | October 6, 2012, 2:51 PM
    • Thanks, Jon. I was thinking about adding that these are rules for me, as a not yet successful writer. Maybe the things I need to concentrate on are different from the accomplished authors. I noticed none of them was concerned about criticism, for example.

      Posted by jpon | October 6, 2012, 9:22 PM
  3. Hey Joe. I’m enjoying what you have to say. I, too, have focused exclusively on writing the past five years, primarily as a speech writer. One rule I try to remember is that the speech doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to the speaker. It’s important to get across what the speaker wants to say, in the delivery style
    that is most comfortable to that individual. Works for me. I’m jealous about your creative work. That’s next for me. Cheers! Lovetta

    Posted by Lovetta | October 6, 2012, 2:54 PM
    • Thanks Lovetta. I have a feeling the creative will come easily for you. I know you’ll enjoy doing it. Please share a link when you start to publish your creative pieces.

      Posted by jpon | October 6, 2012, 9:25 PM
  4. These are really good rules. I would say that it’s important to notice pop culture but not become obsessed with it. Pop culture can furnish really good, telling details. I think the most important rule for me on here is the one about observation. I so often don’t notice what is going on in my world. Any suggestions for how to become a bettter observer?

    Posted by Meg | October 6, 2012, 3:16 PM
    • There are two ways to become a better observer. The first is to grow up a social outcast, like me, so that all that’s available is observation. Second is to recognize the fear most of us have of being different and alone, and to shut it away. Then, stepping back from the group to observe becomes easy.

      Posted by jpon | October 6, 2012, 9:31 PM
  5. I love your list, Joe.

    My main rule has become this: Take Yourself Seriously. Everything else follows from there.

    Posted by Teri | October 6, 2012, 4:11 PM
    • Yes, I can see how your main rule would be very, very important, because it’s through taking oneself seriously that one learns perhaps to take the obligation to the reader seriously; this means that one turns out better work, and doesn’t get sloppy.

      Posted by shadowoperator | October 6, 2012, 5:19 PM
    • You’re so right, Teri (and Victoria, above). And for a very long time I didn’t take myself seriously enough. A lot of that was concern over what other people might think. As I’ve matured, that’s become less important to me. That’s another thing that allows me to step outside the group and observe (see above).

      Posted by jpon | October 6, 2012, 9:41 PM
      • This is exactly what I mean by taking myself seriously, Joe. That this is not a hobby; that I don’t need to apologize for it; that it doesn’t matter if anyone else dismisses it; and that it’s also not necessary for me to justify how much work it is or how I spend my time.

        Posted by Teri | October 7, 2012, 1:38 PM
  6. Funny, my main rules are: 1. Don’t take myself too seriously, the work, yes, myself, no. 2. I am the author, therefore I am God of my universe, the plot, the characters, and the critics must ultimately bow to me. 3. Write and then write some more.

    Posted by jetepper | October 6, 2012, 7:05 PM
    • I understand what you’re saying, Jeanne, but I’ve come to think that the self and the work are one. Sure, if someone wants to heap praise on something I’ve written, I have a hard time taking myself seriously. But when it comes to sitting down and writing, a serious belief in myself gives me the confidence to write from deep down inside.

      Posted by jpon | October 6, 2012, 9:44 PM
  7. Hey, Joe, great stuff! Great comments! Love the post, especially 9 and 10.

    My main-est rule is simply: write. :-] Sounds obvious, but the old joke is that writers have the cleanest house around, the best kept lawns. And no e-mails awaiting response. When you write, and if you’re “serious” about it (pardon the pun), you will make yourself get better and do whatever it is that entails YOU to get better.

    Writing is a way of life, you’re always thinking about it. Always. And you can never give up–giving up is okay if you aren’t or *don’t want to be* a writer. Just like other ways of life, it’s not for everyone. But for those it IS for…it is a *way of life.* IMHO, there is no separation between writing and the writer. No “jacket” to take off at the end of the day. There is a little piece of us (many times MORE…) in everything we create.

    Again, great series of posts (and comments!), Joe. Bring, it, baby! :-]

    Posted by fpdorchak | October 6, 2012, 10:53 PM
    • May be an old joke, but I hadn’t heard it. That’s hilarious and so true. Yes, being a writer is unlike anything I’ve ever “been” before. Believe me, I never woke up in the middle of the night to write down ideas in any other careers. Thanks for your kind comments and encouragement. Wishing you the best in your writing too.

      Posted by jpon | October 7, 2012, 12:53 AM
  8. Wonderful advice. Great blog. Thanks.

    Posted by Nadia Ibrashi | October 7, 2012, 3:57 PM
  9. I’ll add my cyber-voice to the many who have commented here. these are great rules. 1 and 2 are super important. if you’re critiquing, try to limit yourself to 3 things, then try to limit it down to 1, so you might get that one heard. thank you very much for being here. the William Saroyan is story is certainly worth repeating. perhaps that’s why his writing feels so humble.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | October 7, 2012, 6:41 PM
  10. Nice blog and discussion. I find my inner compass the hardest to steer by, and your rules relate back to it in a variety of empowering ways. Thanks!

    Posted by Claire Gebben | October 8, 2012, 9:55 PM
  11. I especially like #7. Every now and then I meet writer who try to explain what they’re working on in relation to TV shows that I’ve never seen, and it’s a turn-off. Of course, I imagine it would be a bigger turn-off if I’d actually seen the TV shows.

    Posted by Marc Schuster | October 9, 2012, 11:40 AM
    • No doubt. I find pop culture a self-referential (and self-absorbed) world. Something like that can’t add to the larger discussion.

      Posted by jpon | October 10, 2012, 9:16 AM

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