Friday, September 14, 2012

Writer's Rules Revisited #5


I've been out of commission for a while, out of town, and catching up on deadlined projects. I went to Star Wars Celebration VI and Dragon*Con, speaking on panels at both about Star Wars, writing, and books.

Now that I'm back and starting to catch up (slowly but surely) I thought it would be the best time to come back with another piece in the writing series. As you know by now, I'm sure, these "rules" (more like guidelines) come from a list of fifty rules I've been collecting as a writer over the years. These have been helpful to me and I thought they might be helpful to you.

Originally, I thought the list would be enough, but as I've talked to people I've realized that I have a lot more to say about each one of these than just what's written.

Like I say, these are guidelines based on my personal philosophy on writing, and that's subject to change at a moments notice. I'm constantly learning as a writer and I don't ever plan on that not being the case.

If you want to catch up on the series:

You can read Part 1 here.
You can read Part 2 here. 
You can read Part 3 here.
You can read Part 4 here.

Now that that's all out of the way, we can get to the heart of the matter:

18) Be true to your characters and your story. Let them write the text.

To me, this is one of those guidelines that seems rather obvious, but it's something that took me a long time to wrap my head around. I went through a period of time where I would just let them meander through a loose world I had created, just to see how they'd react. It wasn't a very efficient way of storytelling, but I was exploring this rule and trying to find its limits.

But that's not what the rule is really about. You have your story, and you need to tell it. But you need to create characters three dimensional enough to react to everything you throw at them in a way unique to them. If you've got a character who has a gun pulled on him, do they keep their cool or lose it? Do they laugh at the gunman or do they wet their pants? Can you plop a different character to the situation and they'd react the same way?

You want to maintain enough flexibility in your story to alter things based on the organic actions your characters take. If you have an antagonist that wouldn't break the law to save her life, it wouldn't do well for your story to have her casually bribed and change her mind. To serve the story and the character, you'd need to build it up and make it a choice the character is forced to make for a thousand good reasons. If it's not true to the character you've established, her actions will ring hollow and the readers will feel cheated.

At the same time, don't let things come to easily to your characters. They can be good people, but we want to see them struggle and overcome because it's more satisfying to read.

You've chosen your characters to be the window through which the reader sees your world, you need to make sure there is nothing false shown through that window. A false move from your character is going to read as a smudge on that window. And the more they do that's out of character, the dirtier that window gets.

This doesn't mean your character can't change. It's essential your character does change, but if the change is so drastic and without proper motivation and reasoning, readers will tune out.

I suppose what it comes down to is this: your story needs to be flexible enough to allow your character to behave naturally. Don't be so rigid in your original idea. If it ruins what made you happy about your story in the first place, back up and figure out how you can make the character behave the way you need them to. It's out of those creative solutions that some of the best pieces of writing come from.


19) Care deeply about each word and line. Details down to every word mean something, own them and care about them.

Every word you write means something. Why do you choose an active word instead of a "was"? Why did you pick this word instead of that one? Why do you rewrite and revise things? It's because you care about every single one of the building blocks you use to tell your story.

And you have to care.

Because no one else has to. If you don't, no one else will.

In these times, it's very easy to view words and lines as disposable. Sometimes, I think this very series as disposable. This blog. Big Shiny Robot! Everything I've done for Huffington Post. Often times, the words are crafted in a rush to get a story up on time. A piece of prose is rushed for a deadline. 

I do a lot of reading of material that's considered old fashioned. Not just prose, but old reference books, newspapers, original sources of history, and so on. I've found something about the prose in most of these places: everything was written with a flourish, as though it was worth the time to set into print. Think about how much you'd care about every sentence you wrote if you knew that someone was going to have to assemble it, letter by letter, into a tray for printing. In an era with no computers, try fathoming how hard it would be to get your words mass-produced in a way people would see them. Do you think being cognizant of that much effort would make you think harder about every word and sentence in your piece?

One place I've found a lot of inspiration for turns of phrase and styles of writing that I love are the Federal Writers' Project's state guide series. Google your favorite state along with "Federal Writers' Project" and you'll be able to find them online. Back during the Great Depression, in order to put talented writers out of work in the terrible economy, the government put them to work creating exhaustive guides of each state. It employed hundreds and hundreds of writers (even the likes of John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald found work in this way) and they churned out some of their best work.

Go ahead and google your favorite state's guide and start reading.

You'll find passages like this one from Maryland's State Guide:
That they need not look for 'any other Terrestrial Paradice, to suspend or tyre their curiosity upon' was George Alsop's assurance in 1666 to prospective settlers of Maryland. Three centuries of settlement have dispelled the primitive charm of the early days, but the State's actual endowment of natural wealth and beauty is only a little diminished.
It's just elegant, well edited, and well put together. You can read any passage in the book and it would be the same way. It's because there was a much harder effort to get your words to a reader.

Here's the opening of Utah's State Guide:


The Mormon habitat has always been a vortex of legend and lie. Even today, as the state settles down to gray hairs, there lingers something wonderful and outrageous about Utah, a flavor of the mysterious and strange. Many still journey to Utah to see a Mormon. 
Even if there had been no background of Joseph Smith, Angel Moroni, and the book of Mormon, Utahns would have been incomprehensible, misunderstood and lied about, because they set down in the book of Western history the most stubbornly, cross-grained chapter it contains.
There is so much to be learned even in those few, sparing sentences. Is it a bit flowery? Sure. But the people writing it put an effort into it to match the effort of bringing it to people.

Reading these books and old newspapers and anything else I can find from an era where words were more valuable has taught me a valuable lesson: in your writing and (mainly) editing, craft every sentence as though it would be worth the trouble of setting, letter by letter, into type.

Think about that. Care about each word and make sure none get through unless they absolutely need to be. It's harder to be brief. It really is. Brevity is efficiency and it takes far more work.

Pascal once wrote to a friend: "I am sorry I have had to write you such a long letter, but I did not have time to write you a short one."

That about sums it up.

Be sure to check out Part 1Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

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.