11 February 2010

Five Rules for Writers

by guest columnist Paul Klein.  Follow him on Twitter.

Perhaps I’m jumping on the “List O Rules” bandwagon, but I find these lists endlessly entertaining.  My Rules are the product of good advice I’ve received over the years, supplemented with my own experiences.  Although I’m not so conceited as to think my list will solve all of your writing dilemmas, I do hope that at least one my methods resonates enough that you’ll give it a try—and that it helps.

At the very least, I hope you’re entertained.

Rule #1 – Don’t be afraid of the monster.

The monster is your first draft.  Marry your monster.  Devote time to it every day.  When it leaps out and tears half of your face off, praise it.  Pet it gently.  And, never, EVER, abandon it.

First drafts suck.  They do.  They’re hard to write, they shred your ego, and they’re thankless sons-of-bitches.  Sure, once in awhile you’ll crank out something that really makes you smile—that, by God, you actually like—but, nine and a half times out of ten you’ll end up cutting that stuff when you edit (see Rule #2).

Good writing happens through diligent editing.  And re-editing.  And re-editing.  By the time you’re done—I mean, really done—with a piece, you’ve whittled away the monster’s horns, its ugly scars, its crooked teeth.  You’ve groomed it, washed it, taken it to dinner.

Hell, you’ve even loved it.  You must love it.  Which is why you don’t give up—because in the end you realize all of the discomfort is worth it.  And you can’t wait to do it again.

Rule # 2 – Kill your darlings.

I know you know this.  But there’s a difference between knowing and doing.  Do it.  Don’t think, “but this one’s so pretty.”  That’s the monster working its evil magic on you.  If it helps, don’t just kill your darlings—torture them first.  Take a cue from Mr. Cheney and waterboard the shit out of them.  If you have a particular phrase you tend to use, or a particular adverb, go into the AutoCorrect feature of Word and tell it to shoot laser beams at you if you type that phrase or adverb (thanks to @spyscribbler for the tip on this one).  Because if you don’t, that “pretty” little darling will fester and grow, and by the time your story is finished you’ll have an enormous, infected wart on your hands.  And warts, like most fungi, tend to sprout up in the most obnoxious places.

So, do yourself (and your readers) a favor and kill those darlings.

Rule #3 – Don’t let the word count make you its bitch.

In the interest of disclosure, I’ll admit that I’ve done this.  It even helped me finish my second novel.  I set out to write 1,000 words a day, which, considering that at the time I was a graduate student and working full-time, was probably a bit ambitious.  I didn’t hit that mark every day, but I almost always made up for it the next time.  I had a first draft within four months.

So why don’t I advocate this approach?  One simple reason—the word count creates a goal that favors quantity over quality.  When you’re stuck at word 100, you start to feel that itch in the back of your brain, the one that not-so-helpfully informs you that you’re only a tenth of the way through the day’s count, that the dog needs a walk and you haven’t eaten in eight hours, that you kind of have to pee, and besides, you’re just dying to check out the New Super Mario for the Wii.  So you cheat.  Your brain checks out, leaving your fingers to do all the heavy lifting.  And fingers, as you know, aren’t very good at story.  They’re great tools, but without any direction, they tend to do terrible things, like type www.facebook.com into your web browser.

“Yeah,” you protest, “but doesn’t Rule #1 say I should embrace my monster?”  Sure does.  But that doesn’t mean you should punch it in the face.  It’s ugly enough without you; don’t make things worse by engaging the autopilot.

I’m not suggesting that “structure” leads you astray.  Instead of letting the word count make you its bitch, try using the clock.  Sit down, decide how long you can coherently commit to your monster, and have at it.  Maybe it’s twenty minutes, maybe it’s two hours.  In the end, you’ll find that the experience was more enjoyable, and the final product will be in better shape, too.

Rule #4 – Try something new.

Sure, writers like James Patterson and John Grisham make millions publishing the same thing with different packaging.  But you don’t write because you want to make millions (and if you do, see Rule #5, then slap yourself upside the head).  You write because you’re driven to write, because honestly, you’d go mad if you didn’t write.  If you end up with a yacht, great, congratulations.  But here’s a news flash: owning a yacht won’t make the writing any easier.  It won’t make it any more fun, either.

Writing is tedious work.  It’s not as glamorous as non-writers tend to think.  I’ve found that the best way to stay fresh is to experiment.  Pretend you’re in college again and sleep around.  Sure, the monster will make you pay, but in the end you’ll learn something new.  And your writing will stay fresh and exciting.  Remember, if you’re boring yourself, you’re boring the rest of us.

Rule #5 – Check your ego at the door.

Chuck Palahniuk has enough ego for all of us.  He tells a great story, but here’s something he’ll never admit: he still writes shit.  I guarantee it.

Perhaps the greatest failure in success—if you define “success” as “being published, a dubious definition at best—is the notion that everything you write is gold.  Another news flash: it isn’t.  Your first drafts still suck, as do some of your final drafts.  Once you fall into the trap of thinking everything you write is publishable solely because you published something in the past, you’ll lose the critical eye.  You’ll kill fewer and fewer darlings, you won’t edit as effectively, and you’ll find yourself wooed by yet another poisonous magic—the publishing monster.

While I can’t guarantee my Rules will help your writing, I can tell you that they’ve helped mine.  Feel free to give them a try (if you don’t use them already).

Who knows?  They might help you work your own magic on those monsters.

Paul R. Klein is a writer and soon-to-be-lawyer, although he hopes you’ll forgive him the latter.  Paul’s fiction, creative non-fiction and photography have appeared in several literary and genre print- and Internet-based publications.  Currently, he’s collaborating with Tyler Weaver (@tylerweaver) on a film project that’s so intense there’s blood all over the logline card.  Stay tuned by following Paul on Twitter (@kleinpau).


Natasha Fondren said...

The monster freaks me out. And then I torture myself over word count, and have a panic attack when trying something new.

I don't know how I get through this business, LOL! #5 is so true, oftentimes!

Jessica said...

It's all about rule #2: Kill your Darlings. Good advice.

The Dark Scribe said...

Natasha - the monster scares everyone. Getting away from the word count has been immensely helpful for me, though. Makes the monster a little less scary, too.

Jessica - Rule #2 is probably my most difficult rule to follow. But it's also the most essential. Thanks for the read!

Karen Quah said...

Six months ago, I would have agreed with Rule#3. But since completing NaNo (National Novel Writing Month) - 50K in 30 days, have witnessed the benefits of this kamikaze approach. It seems when you can't afford to censor, amidst the shit are nuggets of pure gold. And the monster seems the perfect place for this. No room for ego either. It's kinda liberating. Like swimming naked in the ocean.

The Dark Scribe said...


I have wanted to try NaNoWriMo for years, but, law school exams are always right around the corner at that point. There is definitely something to be said for the "full-speed ahead" approach. As I said, I used to use it religiously. For me, though, the word count method works best if I have a deadline - like NaNoWriMo. Without it, I tend to sacrifice story for words.

Thanks for the read and the thoughts! No final exams this November/December - maybe I'll finally try my hand at NaNoWriMo :D

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