Monday, July 23, 2012

Writer's Rules Revisited #1

A while back I put down a list of 50+ rules for writing that I have been collecting over the years. You can read that post here. I've collected even more than this since then, but someone asked me why I hadn't expanded them into something larger.

Rules and one sentence missives are good, but essays on the subject might be more helpful.

I want to go through these one or two at a time at greater length until we've gone through all of them and we've added more to the list. Maybe when we're done I'll compile them all into ebook form or something.

The list actually starts out with Kurt Vonnegut's rules of short story writing. He put them down in Palm Sunday and it inspired me quite a bit. Palm Sunday was also, on some level, the basis for my own book that was a collection of essays and stories inspired by or about Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut.

Since his "rules" of writing are the first on my list and have been debated and dissected constantly, I'll briefly hit all eight of them in this one post.

1) Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. 

I think this first rule might be the most important. It's certainly helped shape my idea of what a novel is and should be. Reading is, above all things, mentally intense and time consuming. I've learned over the years that it's a lot to ask someone to read even a short story, let alone an entire novel. You don't want people to feel afterwards as if you've abused the time and trust they invested in you.

More than anything, it really means that your story needs to have a point. It needs to teach the reader or something, or reveal something about themselves. If you can't do any of those things, it needs to be, at the very least, entertaining.

As a writer, it's important to remember that you're competing for the attention of people against movies, television, video games, and every other bit of reading material you can imagine, including the Internet, which is vast, free, and can be consumed in bite sized chunks. Write material people will feel good about spending 4, 5, 6, 10 hours with.

Better yet, make them feel at the end of all those hours that they'd really love to spend more time in your world.

 2) Give the reader at least one character they can root for. 

I learned this lesson the hard way.

My first book, Lost at the Con, features a lead character that is something less than likable at the start of the book. Virtually all the criticism of that book stems from the fact that the lead character is crass and mean, and people don't want to root for him. People want to escape by reading about people they'd like to be, and it's a rare thing that you can have a character people don't want to root for. I thought I was being artistic by creating an asshole of a character and slowly gave people reasons to like him and it was a story true to my vision.

It was risky and happened to, for the most part, work, but I'm not sure it's a risk I'd take again.

If you give people a character they can root for, that will carry you through the book. Look at the most popular books in fiction today. Every single one has a character that's beat down by authority and the reader continues on, knowing that their favorite character just has to find a way through. Harry Potter. Ender Wiggin. The Pevensies. Frodo and Sam. Katniss Everdeen. The list could go on, ad infinitum. The most popular books are the ones that have characters people can root for.

Hell, take a look at characters like Holden Caulfield or Jay Gatsby or Winston Smith. They lived in worlds that were fascinating, we saw them through their eyes, and we rooted for them to get what they wanted. Which leads me to:

 3) Every character should want something, even if it's just a glass of water. 

How boring is it to have a character that doesn't want anything? Some of the best stories I read or written came from the perspective of characters who wanted small things.

If your character wants something, you can craft a story out of literally anything. Take the glass of water in the "rule" for instance. Imagine you're talking to a salesman who is trying to sell you something you're not sure you want. That's not the most exciting thing in the world. But add in the character's desire. The character has no interest in buying what the salesman is selling and your throat is getting dryer and dryer. You need to find away to cut the conversation off so you can go find a drink. But the salesman gets pushier and pushier. Your throat starts to parch, your lips crack, you'll certainly go mad if you don't get a drink. But the salesman has you backed, quite literally, into a corner. Characters that have desires, even small ones, make for far more interesting scenes and stories than characters who do nothing but what for things to happen to them.

When I'm having a problem with a scene, this guideline is usually the first one I come to in trying to fix things. What do my characters want? What can I add to their desire to make the scene more interesting?

These are the sorts of questions you really need to be asking yourself constantly to make the most interesting prose that will never waste anyone's time.

 4) Every sentence should do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action. 

While this rule might seem restrictive, it's actually quite helpful, particularly in the editing process. When you're writing a first draft, it's important to let your imagination run wild and write down everything that comes to mind. But as you turn toward editing, it's guidelines like this that help you understand what it is you should be cutting.

As you edit, your goal is to tighten and to make sure there's a point to every single sentence. You want every word to be so important to the story to the point that if you were to cut any single one, it would damage the entire piece.

And really, what else is there other than revealing character or advancing action? Revealing character isn't just about what a character is thinking or feeling, that's also descriptions of characters, how they're perceived by other players in the story, and anything else relating to things of that nature. And advancing action can be as simple as getting your character from one room to the next or as complicated as the epic battle your entire book has been leading up to.

But removing unnecessary sentences is a great step toward making sure you're not abusing the first rule about wasting the time of strangers.

 5) Start as close to the end as possible. 

This is another one I often struggle with.

When I sit down to write, I pick up the story where it seems to be most interesting to me. Sometimes that turns out to be the right place. Other times, it's far too early and I end up lopping whole chapters from the beginning of a book, or pages of text from the beginning of a short story. Writing that material was not a waste of time if that's what got you to finish your story in the first place, but it might be a waste of time for a reader.

For example: In Operation: Montauk, the original, early drafts started with the main character, Jack Mallory, in a top secret military base on the eve of his mission to travel back in time. It was full of nervous energy and anticipation, leading up to when he got into the time machine itself and made his way back to pre-historic times. He blacks out and wakes up to find the rest of his team dead, being made a meal of by a pack of Velociraptors.

The more interesting opening was the one that got the story on its feet the fastest and enabled me to hook the reader better. I cut all of the time spent on the military base and the time travel and rewrote my opening so Mallory wakes up 65 million years ago and is trying to piece together what the hell is going on.

Had I started the book earlier, I would have bored people to tears, no matter how interesting or important that background material was to me.

The starting point is different for every story, and the place where you start writing might even be different than that. But be aware, in any case, that you need to start as close to your end game as possible. That's when the most interesting choices will be made on the part of your characters.

 6) Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them--in order that the reader may see what they are made of. 

How popular do you think Harry Potter would have been if he didn't have to deal with his evil Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon? Then, when he got to school, had absolutely no conflict with Professor Snape or Draco Malfoy? It would have been boring. We loved Harry because we saw what he was made of because so many other people were available to kick him down.

What about Peter Parker? Would his story be half as compelling if he didn't have to hide his alter ego from his Aunt May and everyone else? Would he be half as interesting of a character if his parents weren't absent and he lost Gwen Stacy to the Green Goblin? Would Superman or Batman be one-fourth as interesting if they didn't both tragically lose their birth parents?

How much would we have cared about Luke Skywalker if Uncle Owen hadn't torn him down, then got burned to a crisp? How much more limp would the ending of The Empire Strikes Back be if we didn't find out that the single most monstrous person in the galaxy turned out to be Luke's father?

The more we like a character, the more adversity they must be put through. Conflict is something that's important in storytelling.

Alfred Hitchcock once said that drama is life with the dull bits cut out, and that's what we aim to do every day as storytellers. We ignore or minimize the dull bits and put our characters through the paces.

Think back to the most dull movies and books you can think of. Chances are the reason you think that they're dull is because there weren't enough awful things happening to the people you wanted to root for.

Always be thinking of ways to make lives of the characters your readers are rooting for more difficult.

The more they have to overcome, the sweeter the victory.

 7) Write to please just one person. If you open the window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. 

This rule is one of the most important. Too often, people want to write for as broad an audience as possible. In doing so, they tell very generic stories that won't resonate as classics (or even as readable) next year, let alone five, ten, or a hundred years from now.

Hell, people won't even remember they exist if the story is told poorly and it's made for the lowest common denominator.

It's true that you need to consider your audience when you write, but each individual person is different and writing for too many different sorts of people will confuse your readers and kill your story. Pick that one person you know you can make happy with your writing.

For Operation: Montauk that barometer for me was my 10 year old son. I wanted to read to him a bedtime story that felt as fast paced as the John Carter books we'd been reading as bed time stories and I wanted to include all the elements he and I liked in storytelling. It has Nazis for bad guys, spaceships, dinosaurs, time travel, World War II, and a monkey, among other things.

When I handed him the first proof and he spent the next two days reading it, the smile on his face getting bigger and bigger, I'd won. My audience of one liked it. I was fortunate for the fact that he, in turn, took copies to school and his friends liked it, too. For me, my job is done. If I get a bad review of the book (which I haven't yet, so far), it won't matter because the audience I wrote it for loved it.

That's a very important tool in coping with bad reviews.

If the audience you wrote it for likes it, your job is done. People wonder how Stephanie Meyer can sleep at night for foisting Twilight on the world, but she wrote a book for an audience and they lapped it up. She did her job, regardless of how bad the rest of us think that job might have been.

So my advice is to pick your person, or a few people, your advanced readers (or beta readers, they go by many names) and if you trust them and you can make them happy, you'll be a happy writer. And there are only so many types of people out there. If your story can resonate with one person, it'll resonate with many who are like-minded.

 8) Give your readers as much information as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such a complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Of all of Vonnegut's rules, this is the one I struggle the most with in terms of understanding. I think it's very dependent on the sort of writing you're doing.

For Vonnegut, he had such clear dilemmas that the freight trains he set up on either side of the tracks in his story were bound to collide at some point and we simply had to wait for it to happen. (Like Breakfast of Champions or Player Piano.)

But this doesn't work for a thriller or a mystery story, per se. Sure, when you get into a mystery story, whether you have the last few pages or not, you'll know the hero probably figures out the riddle and saves the day. But you'll still want details.

For me, I've interpreted the advice as being able to end the story on a note that readers can imagine the scene that happens next without me having to write it. Sure, some people want the author to spell it out for them, but that's not always appropriate.

There is a piece of this rule, though, that I think speaks directly to the need for clear and concise writing. People need to understand what's going on. If you're vague and don't give all the details they need to understand the story, they're not going to care about the story.

It's something very important to keep in mind.

And that's about all I have to say at the moment on Vonnegut's rules of writing. I'll tackle more of them as time goes on. If you want to check out the whole list, you can find it here. And while you're thinking about it, feel free to order a signed book from me, or check out my collection of work that's available digitally.

Click here to read part 2.
Click here to read Part 3.
Click here to read part 4.

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