Rules for Writing – Rule #8 – Thou Shalt Know When to Trust Thy Self

In the film When Harry Met Sally (still the only Romantic Comedy that matters), the character of Sally explains how she is decidedly not high-maintenance by referring to herself as simply ‘wanting things the way she wants them.’

That’s easy enough to understand, isn’t it?

As writers we are, alas, always learning. We never ‘get there’ and every project set before us presents us with challenges unique and particular to the project. Added to that is the complication that we need feedback from others before we release our ‘completed’ projects into the readership wilds. These notes can be high-level and conceptual, or these notes can be minute, specific, nit-picky, painfully on-point.

Recent New Yorker pieces by John McPhee (Writer Extraordinaire) and Mary Norris (Comma Queen) instruct the writer on how to conduct oneself when constructing works amidst the critical flood-plane 

Style, which flows from big concept down to comma placement, from blueprint to individual nail as it were, must be alternatively unique and standard. We must uphold, and we must innovate. This is no less true of the writers as it is of those who edit our work.

In Norris’ words: ‘One of the things I like about my job is that it draws on the entire person: not just your knowledge of grammar and punctuation and usage and foreign languages and literature but also your experience of travel, gardening, shipping, singing, plumbing, Catholicism, Midwesternism, mozzarella, the A train, New Jersey.’

What’s fascinating is the implicit lesson that there is a certain amount of subjectivity when discussing style and grammar. There are rules. And then are…rules. Some are meant to be adhered to and some are meant to be challenged, fought against, broken.

For that latter category, the writer has to stand firm, to be high maintenance, and declare – I want it this way because I want it this way.

It’s not always the most advisable or defendable stance, mind you. I learned from my mentor Richard Cortez Day that consensus is important. If one person tells you a description is lazy or doesn’t make sense, you take note, but if five people tell you the same, you revise. Most of the time—probably 98 or 99 percent of the time—you should take the feedback your beta-readers and trusted opinion-givers provide and make the changes they offer.

But there are times to push back. There are instances when you the writer—because you are uniquely you and you think of things the way you think of them—wants it the way you want it.

High-maintenance? Of course. We're writers.

Rules For Writing - Rule #7 - Thou Shalt Create Compassionately

To state the obvious: writers are fallible human beings who bring to their art a unique and special brand of contagious insanity. It’s why as readers we follow certain writers – we fall in love with their foibles, their prejudices, their obsessions. Their brand of crazy becomes our brand of crazy in an intimate symbiosis that can rival a love affair. (And when it goes bad...look out.)

Less obvious: Creative writers are not reporters. In art there is not just reflection but also aspiration, and because of this, writers consciously or unconsciously attempt to accomplish two near-impossible feats at the same time --

Show the world as it is

Show the world as we want it to be

Regardless of genre, a writer has to make aesthetic choices that are inherently ‘real.’ Real to the drama, real to the characters, real to the setting. This doesn’t mean realism—the genre—this means internal realism, realism that follows the conventions of the established narrative, realism that reflects the truth of the characters. A couple arguing about finances at the kitchen sink or a couple arguing about how best to cast the spell of Machaca against the ancient evil known as Booger Man must ring true to the reader or the illusion fails and the reader is lost to us.

Fine. Internal realism is a difficult task, but it’s doable. It makes sense.

More difficult then is how to show the world as we want it to be. This could be setting based—the idyllic farm in a verdant valley—this could be character based—we really want these two characters to end up together—this could be plot-based—we decide not to kill a character who by narrative rights should die. At some juncture what separates the creative writers from the journalists is this. We side-step reality and imagine. We play God.

But this same imaginative aspect that makes creative writing so fabulous is also fraught with complication. Let’s focus on character and say as the author, you’re a vegan, but your work presents you with an unrepentant meat-lover. Or let’s focus on setting and say that you’re a conservative who believes the government has far too much presence in our lives, and you really want to idealize the life on a small farm, but you just can’t ignore how subsidies keep many farms afloat. If you don’t do your job as a writer, the danger is that your personal views will interfere with the work. Fiction will become a political treatise, a personal manifesto. These have their place, but neither is art.

The way into this mess, and the way to make art from it, is through compassion. Not weak, I’m OK you’re OK apologetic acceptance, but the more difficult exercise of finding where in the other person or situation exist our own touch-points, the places where we can connect and understand. We will find not just commonality but also an appreciation and respect for the differences.

Lest you think I’m arguing that authors check their individuality at the doors of their writing rooms, I’m not. Your particular brand of nuttiness will still shine through your works even when you practice compassionate creating. Your voice will still sound throughout. This can’t be helped. But to serve the work, to reflect the world as it is AND as we wish it to be, we have to open ourselves, be willing to learn and to listen, and be ready to take on ideas and concepts that are frightening and foreign to us. 

As in life, so in art.

Rules for Writing – Rule #6 – Thou Shalt Do It Before You’re Ready to Do It

It took a few weeks for me to recognize that I was encountering the same concept—this idea that we must embark on a task, a project, a journey, before we feel we are ready—in a variety of areas of my life. With an inevitable confluence, many of the articles I was reading and many of the podcasts I was listening to, echoed this same idea.

Typically, I assign the concept of doing-before-knowing to my attempts at living a more present and mindful existence. One of the tenets of Buddhism, upon which a mindfulness practice heavily relies, is that you are ready to be mindful right now, you have what you need right here, there is no amount of training or preparation that can give you the inner resources that you don’t already possess.

In writing, doing-before-knowing can manifest itself in myriad ways depending on the writer. Maybe it means writing a novel before we’re ready. Maybe it means writing a character with a different ethnicity. Maybe it means finally writing that epic, book-length poem (God help you.)

Specific to writing—because it overlaps so with academic work—you can research yourself into paralysis. And, sorry to break it to you, but you will never know everything about your subject. There will be holes. Those holes—however small—will betray themselves in your work. Yeah, try to fill them, try to know what you can, but here’s the thing:

Writers are illusionists, enchanters, conjurers – not founts of encyclopedic knowledge.

Think over the most influential authors from your own life, and although you may well have learned a thing or two from them, that’s just a happy accident, because what we carry with us still is the residue of the spell that they cast upon us, the way they transported us, transfixed us. Tricked us into seeing our lives in a tweaked, technicolored way.

Do we need to climb a mountain in order to describe climbing a mountain? Experience helps, sure, but a litany of mountain-climbing details without artistic intervention is going to make readers want to gouge out their eyes with a crampon. The gimmick is to make the reader believe she is climbing a mountain, and there is no number of mountains you can climb that will prepare you to do that.

Practice instead the subterfuge. But be wary, for here, too, lies another trap. We all carry with us the ever-running ‘Rocky Montage’ where we locate our inner tiger-eye and overcome our fear and train and train and train AND THEN we go beat Clubber Lang in the ring. Sure, we all need to hone the fundamentals and, yes, there is validity to practice—because we will get better the more we do something—but remember: Clubber Lang putting the hurt on us is an essential part of the journey. We evolve by the surviving, the overcoming, not by what we knew before the match started.  

Attend to the skills of writing, pay attention to the details, learn what you can upfront, but if we want to write works that will transport readers—and these are the only works worth writing—hone how you incant, how you mystify, hone how you conjure that spell.

The ability to do so is already within you. 

Rules for Writing - Rule #4 - Thou Shalt Not Use a Douchy Author's Photo

I know.

This has nothing to do with the actual act of writing, nor does an author’s photo correspond to a writer’s facility with language or how superbly s/he might evoke an imaginary world. I suspect that the majority of the terrible author photos floating about the interwebs are not the fault of the writers themselves but of their publicists.

But still. 

In this self-publishing age where writers are increasingly responsible for the promotion of themselves as a ‘brand,’ there’s no excuse for allowing a douchy photo of oneself to make it into the public sphere.

A bad author photo can cause the writer true damage. I still won’t pick up a Sebastian Junger book after having seen his 1990s-era shirtless author photo promoting ‘The Perfect Storm’ – a photo so smug, so rippling with prep-school educated, elitist entitlement that my only reaction was to want to smash his face. Over and over.

(To be fair: My sense is that Junger has transformed in dramatic ways as a writer in the years since because of his war correspondence. My point is that I’ve avoided an author I may well have enjoyed because of his self-aggrandizing author photo. Interesting aside: the photo didn’t appear in my Google search.)

As a rule we don’t necessarily expect our authors to be photogenic (although in some genres—such as Bigfoot Erotica—being photogenic is certainly a plus one). We do, however, expect our author photos to convey a sense that said writers are approachable, compassionate, intelligent. Yes, that’s a difficult balance, but it’s a balance we should all strive for.

This is, after all, the person we readers are inviting into our imaginations to tromp around for pages and pages (for weeks and weeks potentially), and when we take a break from the words and consider the latest theme or plot-twist and we gaze upon to the author’s photo, we don’t want some pretentious douche-bag preening back at us.

A horrible and distracting author photo is the visual equivalent of ‘poetry voice’ – that monotone bah buh bah buh bah buh bah that is as excruciating to listen to at a public reading as it is difficult to vanquish from your ears once you’ve heard it. (MFA students and University writers, pointing at you here.) A bad author photo is daring the reader to read the work despite appearances, as if the author is saying,

“Hey, I got published. I can make you look at whatever photo of me I want you to.”

As readers we owe writers nothing. This isn’t college. We’re not required to read anything. If your author photo is repelling me, I may never come back around and judge your work on its own merits, which is what should happen in an ideal world, but can’t.

I did find some interesting links regarding author photos here and here. Certainly worth considering before deciding on the photo that will grace your mighty labors.


Rules for Writing - Rule #2 - Thou Shalt Write Fiction That Propels

I've finally eluded the curse of the recovering English major: After having my first child, when my personal time dropped to precious increments of minutes rather than entire hours or days, I decided that I don't have to read every piece of fiction I slide in front of my eyes. I can behave like that theoretical reader authors write to, the one who gives writers all of a single sentence to either draw the reader in or push the reader away.

If a piece of fiction doesn't grab me, and grab me quickly, I give up on it. 

Here's today's Rule of Writing Fiction - Thou Shall Write Fiction That Propels Not Repels

Pick your engine: character, plot, description, voice. Of course every work of fiction has healthy doses of all these and more, but one engine will purr and hum as the primary force driving your piece, and for you the writer, recognizing that primary engine will help you to shape the work appropriately.

Character: A common piece of advice is for the author to allow her characters to guide the direction and shape of the story. This isn't exactly wrong, but strict, character-driven pieces can quickly become tedious, especially if they are devoid of a compelling voice or plot. And by all that is righteous and holy if you write a piece solely to highlight what the kids call 'an unreliable narrator' you are forever banished to the Phantom Zone. Here's a secret that's not really a secret: all characters and all narrators are by definition unreliable because they are human incarnations with limited perspectives. Just like all of us. If 'unreliable narrator' is all you've got, you've got nothing. Find some other way to make your characters interesting.

Plot: Literary fiction more than most genres is allergic to plot, and I've never understood why. (It probably explains my attraction to the genre forms and comic books and 'Twilight Zone' episodes - the plot in these works is the thing. And while such an approach has obvious flaws, I'd rather read or watch something that has a plot than something that does not.) Take some time to ask yourself what the ending of the piece should be and how it is you are going to get there. Throw in some interesting twists and curves (your characters, if written well, will assist you in going places you didn't think you were going to go). Don't be afraid to plot. It's going to be OK.

Description: Writing a piece of fiction with the aim of showing off your poetic prowess is an egregious sin. Write a damned poem if that's what you want to do. Fiction needs to be about something, and that something is not pretty words. A well-placed, just right description can make a piece of fiction resonate to transcendent levels, yes, but burdening each and every paragraph with neck-deep adjectives and similes and metaphors bogs down the narrative flow--stalls the engine as it were--and keeps the reader spinning in some eddy when the reader should be flying along the rapids of your narrative. 

 Voice: Voice is the most elusive, mysterious and integral driver within a writer's propulsive devices. How or why some writers have a compelling voice while others do not is one of those wonders that draws us to art in the first place. Is it talent? Skill? Who knows. I don't. But I do know when I read a work that has a compelling voice, because I will follow that writer and his or her story anywhere s/he wants to take me. If you are a writer with a compelling, naturally propulsive voice, you need only sprinkle in character, plot and description to bolster your momentum. I hate to even write this, but I think voice is the one part of writing that can't be taught. It can be acquired through practice and absorption, but no person can teach another how to evoke voice. 

There are, or course, other engines that a writer can use to propel rather than repel his readers. I've only highlighted the few that occur to me during my bleary first cup of coffee. But the overall point and takeaway is that a reader's time is precious, and they do not owe you nor your fiction that precious time and energy unless you give (and give everything) in return. Yes, we writers must serve the work--that is our task--but the work must serve the reader. Without the reader what we do simply doesn't matter.

We owe those readers fiction that moves them.