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.
- 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.
- Give criticism sparingly. See above. It works both ways.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Writing is perhaps the only endeavor that disproves the saying: “Do what you love and the money will follow.” But you already knew that.
- 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.
- 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.