Rules for Writing

Neil Gaiman (neilgaiman.com, @neilhimself) is one of my favorite authors. He wrote American Gods, The Graveyard Book, Anasazi Boys, and Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett). I heard an interview with him (maybe about him, and unverified, so consider this as such). In the interview he mentioned that he never shows his first draft to anyone – it’s for him alone. He writes fast and, amazingly, by hand – no laptop and word processor. Then he does a second draft thinking of his fans. The third draft he thinks of the haters – what’s in the story that they could legitimately gripe about? I looked for the interview but gave up when I found his rules for writing.

  1. Write

This one seems easy but is surprisingly hard for me at times. Life nibbles away at time.

2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.

Gaiman and Neal Stephenson (another favorite author) are masters at this. My vocabulary expands when I read their work.

3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.

Where does the story end? How do I get there? Is the story really finished, or is it simply time to stop?

4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.

This will be an entire post later – mistakes I’ve made with writing groups and volunteer draft readers.

5. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

Ouch. Interesting thoughts. The sense and knowledge that something is wrong or not working is better feedback to the author. “Do it better.” Great advice and drives me to think more deeply about the scene and characters. “Change ‘happy’ to ‘glad,’ and replace this entire block of dialogue with…” just pisses me off. “Boring” I can deal with. It feels harsh at first, but is helpful.

6. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.

I’m guilty of endless tinkering with a story. Solar Prime was on its eighth draft before I sold it and my publisher said “stop messing with it.” A ton of revisions are coming, but under the gentle tutelage of Inklings, not the random, middle-of-the-night “oh, I need to change that” thoughts.

  1. Laugh at your own jokes.

Good rule. I think I’m funny. Some of my writing group friends disagree. My family often disagrees. For an audience consisting only of me, I’m perfect.

8. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) 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.

You can’t take everyone’s advice. If you do, it’s no longer your story.

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