Ten Rules of Writing

A “how to” guide detailing my ten rules of writing, how they will help, and why you should consider applying them.

People often ask what the main rules for writing are, and that can be a hard one to answer. There are some fundamental principles that I want to talk about and give my opinions on.

Rule 1: Show and tell

Most writers will say, “Show, don’t tell,” but I stand by Show and Tell, because when writers put their work out into the world, they’re learning. There will come a point when showing becomes natural as your writing develop, but as it does, focus on the story first and show and tell in whatever measure works, then read it back and see where you can make it better.

Rule 2: Don’t go searching for a subject

Let your subject find you. You can’t rush inspiration. How do you think Terry Pratchett came to create the Discworld series? Danielle Steel was a famous observer of people and her stories came up from the world around her. Whether it’s a harrowing account of a serial killer, a botched Everest expedition or a colourful family of singers trying to escape from Austria when the Nazis invade, you can’t force it. Once your subject finds you, it will be your constant companion – stalking you, making you wake up at 3am on a rainy Sunday morning as it thuds against the base of your skull. Don’t be afraid of it: this is your story.

Rule 3: Write what you know

I strongly believe that fiction is payback for those who have wronged you. When people read my books, they’re often surprised when I tell them they contain an autobiographical element. I know what I want to write about because it interests me; if I’ve not lived it personally, can I research it and live it?

Rule 4: Never use three words when one will do

Be concise. Don’t fall in love with the gentle siren song of your long prose. I found this beautiful story of the editor-author relationship between Gordon Lish and Ray Carver when they were working on Carver’s celebrated short story “Those Life Preservers Are Just for Show.” In the climax, two drunken fishermen try to calm each other after their dinghy springs a leak. In the original last lines of the story, Nat, the salty old part-time insurance agent, reassures his young charge as they cling to the beer cooler: “We’ll get help when we hit land. I’m sure of it. No more big waves, no more sharks. We’ll be safe once again. We’ll be home.” If you examine the Lish papers in the Lilly Library at Indiana University, you’ll see how, with but a few deft strokes, Lish pared that down to create the now legendary ending: “Help — land shark!” It wasn’t what Carver intended, but few could argue that it was not shorter.

Rule 5: Keep a dream diary

When we’re asleep, our brains are unconstrained by the logic of the external world around us, and we’re free to consider different perspectives, look for solutions to problems in creative ways, and sometimes our dreams are just damn good ways of coming up with new stories.

Rule 6: What isn’t said is as important as what is

In many classic short stories, the real action occurs in the silences. It’s a bit like Method acting. Simply let this thought guide your every word and gesture: “Something is wrong — can you guess what it is?”

Rule 7: Writer’s block doesn’t exist

You might struggle with a particular piece of work, but that doesn’t mean your creativity is completely stifled. Write something else; a shopping list, a short story, a novelette, anything. Come back to your magnum opus when you’re good and ready.

Rule 8: Have adventures

Or, to put it another way, live your life. Enjoy it; see things. Ask questions. Enjoy things, times and places. It’ll be worth it.

Rule 9: Edit

Then edit again. Destroy your work and then rebuild it.

Rule 10: Ignore the rules

It’s possible that all of the above is complete nonsense. There are no rules except the ones that make your book better and the best quality it can be. Most importantly, just be yourself.

Thanet-based author Matthew has two novels published by Inspired Quill, is an inveterate blogger, and writing is his passion.

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