Jun 26

How To Write

The first law of writing is: There are no laws.
The first rule of writing is: “Anyone who tells you there are rules is a dumbass!” (My rules are at the end of this post.)
Look on the Internet and you’ll find rules for writing by some very well known, successful writers. Pick any of them, follow their rules to the letter and you’ll be a flop as a writer. You simply can’t do it somebody else’s way. Their way is just that – “their way.” Writing is all about finding out how you can best do it.
There are some guideposts, some logical, common sense, fundamental principles which might be of some help, but in the end, even some of these are not going to work for you.
John Grisham (The Firm, The Chamber, The Client, A Painted House, The Pelican Brief, The Rainmaker, The Runaway Jury, A Time to Kill and others)says you should “Start with action; explain it later.”
Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Hombre, Mr. Majestyk and Rum Punch and many others) believes you should “Never open a book with weather.”
George Orwell (Animal Farm: A Fairy Story, Nineteen Eighty-Four) thought that “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”
Mark Twain held that “When the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.”
Science fiction novelist Robert Heinlein (Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and others) said, “Finish what you start.”
I could go on and on. You might find it helpful to Google your favorite author and see if he or she had and rules or commandments for their work. It’s the kind of thing I find reading and knowing very interesting but there are so many exceptions to ever rule that you must keep in mind that “rules are made to be broken.”
You can’t even rely on someone else for the nitty-gritty of how to get your words on the page. Agatha Christi kept 72 lined notebooks with plot lines, story ideas, character names and even questions to herself about who would be the best character to accomplish certain elements in her stories.
I think it was Phillip Roth (Goodbye, Columbus, and Portnoy’s Complaint) who decided that writing on a computer made him too wordy because it was so easy to insert words into a sentence after the fact. Finally he gave up the computer and returned to his yellow legal pad and had a secretary type his material into a word processor for editing.
Many of us have grown up using a computer or at least have made the switch from the typewriter to the computer in their lifetime. (I can remember when I thought the Correcting Selectric typewriter by IBM was the ultimate writing instrument.) So, many writers today are either PC or Mac people. But there are still those who prefer pen or pencil and paper to any keyboard. J.K. Rowlings (Harry Potter) does.
‘Don’t like yellow legal pads? Ever try the blue one? How about the pads that aren’t legal size but just standard or smaller?
Perhaps you’re someone who dictates better than you type. Try one of the speech-to-text programs like Dragon NaturallySpeaking.
I’m currently reading about Agatha Christie and all her notebooks. During WWII when paper was rationed she has to double up and use the back sides of page from previous notebooks and even wrote sideways in the margins sometimes. The big takeaway I have from what I’ve read about her prolific career was that she wished she had been more organized.
In a Distinguished Speaker Series at the university were I taught for 30 years, Larry McMurtry (The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, Lonesome Dove) told the audience he completely left out a major event in Lonesome Dove because he lost the note he’d made to himself about it. He was talking about what would have been an important milestone on the cattle drive in the novel, when the characters should have crossed the track for the Continental Railroad which had been laid only a couple of years before.
This speaks to my point about being organized. Not everyone is and disorganization may be a key to the way you work but imagine leaving out something significant like McMurtry did.
Here are some guidelines that work for a myriad of writers and which may be of help to you. Please take them for whatever they may be worth to you.
1. If you’re going to be a professional writer, treat your work professionally. Show up at the same time on a regular basis (daily or at least several days a week) at your designated place and work at your writing.
2. Know where you’re going before you start. If you’re going on a trip and end up in the Arctic or the desert you’ll need different clothes all along the way. Knowing where you’re going helps you at least pick up what you need as you go.
3. Keep the tools of your trade close at hand all the time. I like 3 X 5 note cards and new Sharpie retractable fine point pins. I have a stack of cards in my vest with a pin at all times, another stack and a pen on the back of the toilet, on my bedside table and some extra cards in the glove compartment of my truck. I don’t have to wake up enough to turn on my I-pad to make myself a note in the middle of the night, and I can scribble down an interesting name or story idea sitting at an intersection waiting for the light to change.
4. Keep track of different projects. I know one writer who uses plastic coffee cans for several novels he has in mind. Whenever he gets a thought for any one of them, he jots a note and drops it into the right can. When he finished his current project, novel or short story, he looks around to see which can is the fullest, picks that one up and dumps it out on the floor. Then he sorts his notes on scenes, characters, incidents, pieces of dialogue, locations and whatever else he’s collected. Then he begins his next story.
5. Don’t stop until you’re finished with a story. I’ve had screen plays in which I’ve reached a point of getting my characters into a mess but I had no idea how they got out of it. I did know that the next scene of the story involved them being somewhere else but I didn’t know how they got there. This could be called writer’s block – but I refused to let this happen. I just put a series of dashes across the page and wrote, “Somehow they get out of this and get to town” and I put another set of dashes across the page under this. Several days later it occurred to me how they got out of their mess, so I went back and plugged that material in.
6. Amuse yourself with what you write. If you don’t keep surprising yourself, you won’t hold the reader’s attention either. Assume your reader is as smart as you are and don’t write down to them.
7. Write about what you know about – but this also means if you want to write about something you don’t know about, research it and get to know it. Edgar Rice Burroughs never went to Africa and yet he wrote the whole Tarzan of the Apes series and he never went to Mars but wrote a whole series about that, too. Of course Burroughs put tigers in Africa when they were only found in India, but that just makes the point about doing your research before you write.
8. Write dialogue the way people speak, not the way they force you to write in “Bonehead English 101.” Author Leon Uris Battle Cry, Exodus, Trinity and others) once said that “English (meaning the study of writing the language in school by teachers and/or professors) has nothing to do with writing.” Writers often use sentences fragments, begin sentences with conjunctions, and end them with prepositions. See William Safire’s Rules for Writers for a humorous look at what teachers of English always tells us.
9. Do understand the basics of English grammar before you submit your work to the reading public. Do you put the question mark in dialogue inside or outside the quotation marks? How do you end a sentence of dialogue when the next paragraph is a continuation of the same dialogue only on a different subject? If you don’t know these things, just look at some example in novels or scripts that have been published.
10. Read what you intend to write. If you’ve never read a screenplay but have seen a great deal of movies, you got to understand how what appears on the screen is written. Especially in screenplay, your understanding of formatting will set you apart as a pro instantly to a producer, director, actor or professional script reader.
11. When you quit at the end of your daily writing period, stop in the middle of a sentence you already know the ending of. Tomorrow you can pick up by finishing that sentences just to get the juices flowing. Some writers like to go back a couple of pages and retype a previous page or two to get back in the rhythm of the story.
12. Don’t do rewrites until you’re through. Get to “The End” or you’ll be polishing the first line or first chapter forever.
13. When you proofread, be aware of the parts you tend to skip over. This is telling you these parts need rewriting – they’re boring you and will do the same to the reader.
14. Give your hero hell. Don’t ever make it easy for the hero to achieve even the slightest goal. The reader is onboard for the struggle so make sure and give it to him. If just the right tool happens to always be hand, this does not help reveal the true nature of your character.
15. The first line sells the book or the script. Go to a bookstore and just go down the line the books of the type you want to read. Open each and read the first line and put the book back up. After 10 minutes or so look back and see which books you want to read – which first line grabbed you. Remember, often, the first line is the very last thing a novelist or short story writer writes.
16. The last line sells the next novel, short story or script. Make it a zinger.
17. If any part of your story goes where it logically should go, that equals boring. Look again at the movie Romancing the Stone. It’s a great example of a story in which every scene goes somewhere other than where you expect.
18. Read a lot of what you want to write. Know what’s going on in your field and learn who else is doing what you’re doing. Only another writer like you can truly understand what it is that you go through to get the book or the script written.
19. Write your own books and scripts, not someone else’s. We all tend to emulate our favorite writers, but don’t try to write what they would write. The world already has or has had your favorite writers and they write or wrote whatever they loved. Why should you do any less. Your best work will always come from your heart. Be true to that.
20. Don’t read your reviews. Reviews are written by people who are frustrated because they can’t write anything but nasty things about the work others are able to do which they cannot. Screw’em.
If any of this helps; great. If not, never read it again. Go make up your own rules and them break them when you find a better way.

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