Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own. – Bruce Lee.
By PJ Parrish
A couple years ago, I decided I needed to get back in shape. I had gotten lazy, a little flabby and sort of depressed about it. So I decided to go to a personal trainer. John was just what I needed — a kick-butt no-nonsense guy’s guy who knew a lot about how the human body worked. He also knew a lot about how the human mind worked.
Or in my case, didn’t work.
It hit me somewhere around the second month of training that my brain was out of shape. I had lost discipline, fallen into bad habits, and was locked into an inertia of inaction.
You probably know where this is going. I am talking also about my writing life.
My writing routine had gotten slack. My output had declined. I was making excuses to not write. I was getting down about the whole thing.
John was big into martial arts, and his hero was Bruce Lee. He talked often about Lee’s discipline and his approach to his “art.” I pretended to listen as I did my curls and crunches. But stuff started to sink in and I did some research on Bruce Lee. Pretty amazing life, that guy. He was famous for developing his own brand of martial arts called Jeet Kune Do. He took techniques from a wide variety of other disciplines and discarded many of the “rules” of traditional martial arts.
But here’s something that really resonated with the writer in me: Before he got to this point, he spent years training in all the traditional styles like karate, aikido, judo. To find his own unique style, he did all the “basic training” and took no short cuts. He was a little like Picasso, who painted this
Before he painted this
Writers talk a lot about rules. We here at TKZ talk a lot about rules. Maybe it’s because what we do is not easy to learn, even if you are a “natural.” We go to workshops and conferences, read how-to books, underline passages in Stephen King’s On Writing, looking for tips and techniques to help our writing. We want to get better, always, at what we do. We want to know the rules, because if you learn the rules, maybe you can get in the game.
Don’t use adverbs!
Don’t use passive voice!
Keep backstory under control!
Write every day or you die!
It’s a wonder we get anything down on the page. Except maybe our own blood.
Writer’s rules aren’t anything new. A guy named S.S. Van Dine’s set down his Twenty Rules For Writing Detective Stories in 1928. (“There must be a corpse, and the deader the corpse the better.”) Many other famous writers have been compelled to weigh in with their own lists. Here are a few tidbits I culled:
- Margaret Atwood: Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
- George Orwell: Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Jonathon Frazen: It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.
- PD James: Don’t just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.
- Joyce Carol Oates: Unless you are writing something very avant-garde – all gnarled, snarled and “obscure” – be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.
- Ian Rankin: Have a story worth telling.
- Zadie Smith: Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
- Hilary Mantel: Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there.
- Henry Miller: Work on one thing at a time until finished.
- Mark Twain: Write without pay until somebody offers pay.
- Richard Ford: Don’t have children.
I can agree with most of that. But then again, I have dogs. There are some rules, however, I found that I can’t endorse:
- Mario Puzo: Never write in the first person.
- Robert Heinlein: You must refrain from rewriting except by editorial order.
- Jack Kerouac: Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind.
If someone can explain that last one to me, I’d be grateful.
It used to be that you had to read a book to get advice from the famous on writing. When I first read Annie Dilliard’s The Writing Life, I didn’t learn how to write but I was relieved to learn I wasn’t alone in my self-doubts. But now, thousands of writing tips are available to us at the tap of a finger, and anyone can hang out a how-to shingle. So how do you sift the wisdom from the chaff? I remember when I was first starting out in the romance field, I read dozens of Silhouettes, went to the RWA convention in New York, and searched for the secret formula that would make me rich and famous. I had to learn to write sex scenes, which I hated doing, and back in the 80s, there wasn’t much help on the internet. I could have really used blogger Steve Almond back then. He calls himself “an internationally famous author celebrated for my graphic portrayals of amour.” He wrote a blog detailing his rules for writing sex scenes. Here’s one of his rules:
Never compare a woman’s nipples to:
b) Cherry pits
c) Pencil erasers
d) Frankenstein’s bolts
Nipples are tricky. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and shades. They do not, as a rule, look like much of anything, aside from nipples. So resist making dumb comparisons.
If you want to read his other tips, click here. But be warned, they aren’t all PG-rated.
Rules can be confusing, arbitrary, and deeply frustrating. I guess the only good advice I can offer is what Bruce Lee suggests in the quote at the beginning of this post. Adapt what you find useful, reject what is useless, and find your own path. I’ve been writing novels professionally for about thirty years, and whenever I see someone — famous or not — laying down rules, my hairs go up. Still, I have discovered a few “rules” along the way that I have found deeply useful:
Kurt Vonnegut: Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. This taught me to dig deep for motivation for every character I put on the page, especially the villains. Later, I heard Les Standiford preach the same principle when he said that until you understand what your character wants, not just on the surface but at his deepest levels, you can’t write a good story.
Linus Pauling: The way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas. This taught me that not every story idea will work. Some are good maybe for a short story. Some are ugly babies that might need a few years to blossom into beauties — ie, you might not be ready to tackle that story at that point in your life or technique. And many ideas are just dumb or dull and you have to let them go. Sometimes you have to drown them.
David Morrell: Know your motivation. I’ve heard David speak at conferences about this and he has lots to teach writers. But this one always stuck with me. Here’s more from him: “Before I start any novel, I write a lengthy answer to the following question: Why is this project worth a year of my life? If I’m going to spend hundreds of days alone in a room, I’d better have a good reason for writing a particular book.” I urge you to click here and read the full post. It’s instructive and poignant.
Ernest Hemingway, who didn’t put his rules on paper, but did confide this to his friend Fitzgerald: “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of sh*t. I try to put the sh*t in the wastebasket.”
So yes, study the rules. Learn the rules. Many even write a few unpublished stories that adhere to rules and old formulas so you can see the departure point. But then have the courage to break the rules. I don’t read much sci-fi and I don’t read any YA. But this blog was inspired by a story I heard about recently about a debut author named Marissa Meyer. She wanted to write a Cinderella story. Pity the girl…not even published yet and she was breaking a big rule: Don’t rely on stale old plots! Agents and editors want something fresh!
Meyer’s book is called Cinder. Yes, it’s based on the old fairy tale — Cinder is an outcast with nasty stepsisters. She’s also an Asian cyborg. The book became a New York Times bestseller. Why did I like this? Because one of my “rules” is to say something unique or say it uniquely. This is what Meyer did – took something old and made it new and her own. She broke the rule. And somebody came up with a slamming cover.
One last rule. It comes from one of my favorite new-to-me authors:
Neil Gaiman: The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
What are some “rules” that you’ve found that work for you? What are the ones that you’ve rejected? And how did the rules help you find your own way?