Some Rules on Writing

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In 1947, author Robert A. Heinlein published “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction.” In it, he made clear his now-famous 5 rules of writing.
  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you write.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
  4. You must put the work on the market.
  5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.
As my husband would say, these are all of them SIMPLE RULES but none are EASY. There’s a difference. In theory, anyone CAN do these things but that doesn’t mean they are easy to do well, consistently, and with passion. And that’s the kicker, isn’t it? These all require more than passion. Passion will kick-start a project but only perseverance and dedication can see you through a novel manuscript or the fifth re-write of your short story. So keep going.Keep writing, keep editing, and keep trying to sell your work!
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Don’t Take it So Personally

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My writing group is publishing a short story collection and I’m excited to have one of my pieces in it. Unfortunately, not everyone else is. Something about the style of my post-zombie-apocalypse short story just struck a few of our beta readers badly. One even said she hated it. Hated it! It scared her off from reading the rest of the collection.
That, if I am being truthful, hurt a little bit. That was some serious language being used. But you know what? I like the piece. Others like the piece. One reader said she loved it and that the final lines gave her cold shivers. So I’m not alone in my loyalty to the piece.
Here’s the thing: people who liked it gave me great and productive notes that I took into account as I re-wrote and re-re-wrote the story BUT people who didn’t like it couldn’t seem to provide notes on how to improve it. They just hated it and gave me a grammatical line note somewhere and shrugged me off as a lost cause.
Remember: there’s a difference between someone being critical of your work and someone critiquing your work. One is helpful, the other is not. Listen to critiques. Let criticism pass you by.
Clearly, on my case, this was a matter of stylistic preference. My story is divisive among readers. That’s fine. I wasn’t looking to please everyone; I was telling a story. I made it the best I could with help from others but some people don’t and never will like it.
I can live with that.

Character Creation

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Dress it up all you wish, but stories are about people. This makes characters perhaps even more important than plot or setting. After all, if we don’t care about what happens to the characters in the story, why should we keep on turning the pages? Without someone to identify with, any story is likely to fall flat in the eyes of the reader.

As a writer, coming up with a new and fascinating character is the beating heart of creating a tale. To be honest, it’s a little bit like falling in love. We’re thrilled and fascinated and we need to know more. It’s an obsession, discovering this new person. That he or she doesn’t live in the flesh doesn’t matter; their home in the hearts and minds of writer and audience makes the character really breathe. The writer puts pen to paper to get to know this enticing new creature.

The protagonist (regardless of what he or she IS or DOES) is the beating heart of the story. I have read many drafts of short stories or novels, all with fabulous concepts that drive them onward, but with flat characters that offer nothing of interest to the reader. Without people there are no stakes. If story-telling is about anything at all, it is about stating and then raising the stakes for your character.

There are some important questions a write must ask herself when creating a character:

1. What does your character want overall? In this scene? In this precise moment?
2. Does he get what he wants? How does he react to that? If she doesn’t meet her goal, how does that affect her following actions and choices?
3. Do you understand and accept the motives of your character WITHOUT judging him?
4. What traits most clearly define your character? Compassion? Greed? Loyalty?
5. Are her actions consistent with her desires and motives throughout the story?

Character arcs can be very tough to write, no doubt about it. But they are crucial to the progression of the plot. Remember that stories about about CHANGE. Not only must change occur around the protagonist but he himself must also change, perceptibly, by the end of the tale.

If there are no people, there are no stories. We need to care. We need to fall in love. We need to hate. We need to fear. Without a person to guide us through this treacherous journey, we would wander an empty land with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Without characters that live and breathe against the backdrop of an environment, there is no reason for a story to proceed. People your world with interesting characters and it will reward you with exciting new stories to tell.

No Writer is an Island

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“Be careful. You don’t want your work to be derivative.”

I’m not part of the camp that says there’s no such thing as an original idea (there must be millions out there crawling around!) but it’s hard to pretend that ideas don’t come from other books, movies, games, and comics that have already been published. If you ask me, there’s nothing shameful about picking and digging through existing works for inspiration.

Drawing inspiration, of course, is very different from “paying homage to” or “borrowing ideas” or “lifting characters from.” There’s a work that is derivative and then there is a work that is unoriginal. Derivative, I would argue, is nothing to be ashamed of when done well! Can’t we say that most modern and post-modern fantasy is derivative of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings/Middle Earth? And does that immediately devalue every fantasy novel, story, or game created since 1937?

I was given the above warning when workshopping a fantasy novel. I’ve spent countless hours world building for this piece and working hard to subvert traditional fantasy genre expectations and create races unlike those I’d read about before. When I was warned I might be too “derivative” I came to a realization: maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Some of the best told stories aren’t original ideas anyway.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet might be the best example of a derivative work that stepped out and away from its origins and paved a new path through the craft of writing and creation of memorable characters.

In no way do I or any respectable writer condone plagiarism or the taking of other writers’ ideas. BUT don’t let the fear of being labeled “derivative” scare you away from the ideas that move you the most.

To Prologue or Not To Prologue

If you ask me, it’s not much of a question at all. As writers, we are all tempted to include still more information for the reader to take in and there are few simpler tools with which to do this than a prologue that shows a (usually) different perspective on the story than the body of the manuscript will.

It may come from the eyes of the villain, a scholar who’s discovered an ancient text, a minor character, a parent, or an unrelated narrator but, no matter what, its goal is to give the reader another peek behind the curtain of the world that the writer has built.

Unfortunately, these are rarely successful in modern Young Adult, Popular, or Literary Fiction. More often than not, the prologue jars or upsets the modern reader. She opens a book and begins to read a story and is dismayed, several pages later, to discover that she’s just turned the page to Chapter 1. How disoriented and confused she must be. I know more than a few avid readers who’ve felt a bit betrayed by a prologue and been put off the book because of it.

Be warned, fellow writers, that the prologue takes a lot of art to execute properly (if at all, and I continue to recommend not at all). There is no hard and fast rule set about prologues as far as I am concerned, but I think the most successful I have read are short, not so different from the book itself, and immediately engaging.

As with any First Five Pages, a prologue MUST have a hook. It should, if at possible, begin with one. It must make readers eager to continue reading the story. Perhaps the prologue asks a question that the book will answer. Maybe it opens with a mystery or some newspaper clippings that set up the murder or robbery case. There may be hints of a conspiracy brewing in the prologue, the results of which are made apparent in the book itself.

Whatever approach you choose, do so with care. Ask yourself, fellow writer, some important questions before you decide whether or not to include a prologue in your manuscript:

1. Does it grab the reader’s attention?
2. Does it include information that could not possibly have been included elsewhere in the manuscript?
3. Does it create too much distance between the reader and the story he came to read?
4. Is it even one word longer than it absolutely needs to be?

There are a fair few things that K.M. Weiland of Structuring Your Novel and I can be said to disagree on but prologues are not one of them. My final word, fellow writer, is this: unless you deem it absolutely necessary, skip writing a prologue.

Shaky Hands Can Still Type

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We all have our vices. Writers aren’t known as drunks, madmen, and emotionally unstable nocturnal beasts creeping around the edge of society for nothing. Drinking, drugs, and dying young are some of the many curses that the artist suffers. But delving into the dark depths of the mind can be unsettling and we must find ways to cope with it.

Lately, I’ve chosen coffee and sweet snacks. I’ve been able to kick the sweets (and am on my way to losing some much-un-needed weight) but the coffee is my crutch. More so than even red wine (which I drink many nights when I am writing), that black brew calls out to me with a siren song that I cannot ignore.

If I’m not drinking wine for creative work, I’m drinking coffee to straight up take care of business. It’s not the best but it can’t be all bad: I’m not dead yet and I’m almost 30. That’s pretty good for an artist.