Sunday, September 4, 2011

My 10 Rules for Writers

I've officially begun my third semester of grad school!  Classes are mostly fun, reading lists are long, and I'm generally having a better time than I thought I would.  While the said reading list doesn't bode well for my free time (or ability to blog), I'm going to keep trying to find the time to write, submit stories, and keep you guys updated.  To that end, here's something interesting that I was asked to do for my memoir writing class.  Our assignment for the week was to write 10 rules for writing.  I had a pretty easy time with this, since I've thought long and hard about this type of question before.

All you writers out there, chime in!  What are your rules for writing?  Here are mine:


Jenni's 10 Rules for Writing

1. Tell a story because you have a question you want or need to answer, not because you want to provide a moral, teach a lesson, or make a point.  Plots, settings, and characters can’t breathe if they’re suffocated by a pre-determined message; things that can’t breathe usually die as a result. 

2. Avoid having your characters answer each other directly or say exactly what’s on their minds.  Characters should almost always hide something, misdirect other characters’ attention, tell half-truths, or flat-out lie.  Clear, precise answers are for police interrogations, not creative writing. 

3. Never tell your reader what you, the narrator, or any of your characters are feeling. Avoid naming feelings altogether.  Describe emotion or reveal it through action.  You lose too much mystery by naming it. 

4. Be archaeological in your descriptions.  Excavate people, places, and things to find out what’s beneath—then describe those things.  Instead of describing skin, for example, think of what’s beneath the skin—blood, bones, atoms, marrow.  Instead of describing the sky, think of atoms refracting, particles shining, ether, matter, etc.  Don’t settle for describing the surface.  Think about what’s happening on the inside of things, not just the outside.

5. Visualize everything as you write it.  You have to be aware of every movement your characters make in a room, what they’re wearing, what they’re carrying, which car they’re getting out of, etc.  Everything, from cars to clothing to positioning in a room, has to obey the rules of physics and logic.  If you describe a character carrying six grocery bags and a cup of coffee, for example, he better have a really hard time ringing the doorbell or digging out his keys. 

6. Describe what’s unique, not what’s ordinary.  If you want to describe a dorm room, for example, modular furniture, dirty clothes, and textbooks are probably a given.  If there’s nothing unusual or important about them, don’t describe them.  Instead, tell us about the things we wouldn’t ordinarily see or the things that we need to know, like the laminated cardboard jewelry box with corners that have been reinforced with three different kinds of tape.

7. Don’t wrap up your ending too neatly.  People rarely exit life-altering moments with complete satisfaction, complete despair, or a complete sense of their place in the universe.  Characters who vow to be different from that point forward, or narrators who learn the true meaning of really big concepts like love, hope, or faith are probably deluding themselves—and you.   

8.  Avoid tricks or cliché endings.  These include the “it was all a dream” ending, the “it could have happened that way, but didn’t” ending, and the “Tyler Durdon is only a personality inside my head” trick.  If a reader invests in your story, these endings can obliterate that investment and make the reader feel cheated.

9. Grammar or proofreading mistakes are never allowed unless they are purposeful, to characterize a narrator or character. 

10.  Revise to eliminate redundancies.  Ask yourself whether multiple adjectives are really necessary—or does naming the object itself already express these characteristics?  (i.e., “soft, fluffy, kitten,” “hot summer afternoon,” “Italian Ferrari,” “obnoxious telemarketer,” etc.).  Ask yourself whether the verb itself already conveys the adverb (i.e., “ran swiftly,” “whispered softly,” “screamed loudly,” etc.).