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Writer's Rules Revisited #11

I've taken some time off of this series. I'll be honest: I was using this column to procrastinate on a difficult stretch of my novel. I'm still doing it, but whenever I write one of these I turn around and put another significant dent into it. I'm almost done with it and  a couple more short stories. And I've begun revising the novel I'm going to be putting out next.

Things are getting busier for me, but that's always a good thing.

For those new around these parts, a brief explanation is in order. A long time ago I posted a list of rules and guidelines I've been collecting in my notebook over the years as a writer. I put together the list on the blog and it was fairly popular. (You can read the whole thing here) But there's only so much that comes across in a simple bullet point list. I wanted to expand on it and we've been doing it two or three at a time ever since.

If you want to catch up on the series:

You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 herePart 4 herePart 5 here, Part 6 herePart 7 herePart 8 herePart 9 here, and Part 10 here.

34) It's helpful to write scenes to music of a similar tone. It will give your scene a beat and pace you don't have to think about.

This is a rule that certainly helps me out on occasion. Sometimes, when you get stuck you need to evaluate what's going on around you. Sometimes just changing the tools you're using or the tone of the music you're playing in the background is enough to help you get past a difficult moment.

Music is something incredibly subjective, though. I could give you an idea of the sorts of music I listen to to help me get into scenes, but your mileage may vary because of your own musical tastes. Really, the point of the music is to help set your mood so you can set the mood in your story.

It's remarkable how much that can work. If you need to write a scene that's morose, you find music that makes you feel that way and soak it in.

That sounds like a really basic thing that should be common sense, but I marvel at how many people haven't made the connection. Since you're reading this, I'll assume you've probably already put this one together.

But I can't tell you how many times I'll get stuck writing and know exactly what needs to come next but the words simply won't come. If you change something, just one thing, your brain is thinking from a completely different spot and you can move on. Change the music you're listening to. Put on some movie soundtracks. Anything by John Williams or Bernard Herrman is always a good bet. Howard Shore can be useful to get you into a fantasy mindset. Need something a little fun and possibly romantic and silly? Henry Mancini is your man. If movie scores don't do it for you, don't hesitate to fall back on the heavy hitters: Mozart, Beethoven, Bach.

It's amazing how much that can free your brain.

If that doesn't work, change something else, too. I'm a big believer of shutting off the computer and working in longhand or on a typewriter. It's amazing how much your word count can suffer with just your computer on and your email going on in the background.

35) Qui-Gon Jinn said, "There's always a bigger fish." You will never be the best writer. There's always someone better. Learn from them.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Qui-Gon Jinn gave great advice to everyone except Obi-Wan Kenobi, vis a vis, training Anakin.

"There's always a bigger fish," he stated matter-of-factly. And the same is true of writing. You're not the best. There is no such thing as "the best." Even if I were the best at some aspect of writing (and I'm not), there would be someone else who could beat the pants off of me at another aspect. We all have weaknesses and there are people out there who have strengths in those same areas.

I've seen too many writers convinced they were at the top of their game and too choked up on their own egos to recognize the qualities they could learn from a peer. Your ego is your enemy when it comes to writing. You're not better than anybody and there's something to be learned from everyone, even if it's what not to do.

Everyone can be your teacher if you can approach them willing to learn. No one is your teacher if you're closed off from that because of an over-inflated ego.

And I understand the desire to have an ego in this game. There is nothing that makes you more vulnerable than bleeding tears onto a page and showing the words to someone else. An ego can be the armour you put on to prevent all the heartache involved in every other aspect of the writing. But it's not going to help you be a better writer.

Writer's feel. We take those feelings and translate them into words in the vain hope that we'll communicate them to others and give them an understanding and the illusion of emotions they aren't physically experiencing, but the experience is no less real. If we wall ourselves off with ego and don't feel emotions, then we're not going to be good writers. Feel everything.

Take that on as a personal challenge for yourself. Find a writer whose work you despise, whom you're convinced you're better than, and find something appealing about what they do that is better than your own craft. Then, only then, will you be open to learning from them.

36) George Lucas told Irvin Kershner, "Don't expect things to work." That hold true of writing and filmmaking in every aspect, starting with the first words you put down on the page.

This rule is incredibly important for the sorts of writers who find that everything needs to be perfect by the first draft. Don't expect things to work though.

If you don't expect them to work right off the bat, you won't be put off by the toil of making it work later in the revision process. If you're convinced that it's perfect from the get go, that endless process of refinement will wear you out and you won't have the stamina to get the final product where it needs to be.

Bearing in mind that things might not work from the beginning is also permission to experiment. If you have what could be a brilliant idea, but you're not sure, it doesn't matter if you do it wrong the first time. Don't expect it to work. If it does, score. If it doesn't, you didn't expect it to work in the first place and you're not disappointed.

So much of writing is coming up with ways to tell yourself to write whatever you think of without censoring yourself. Censoring yourself in the first draft is, in my view, some sort of enemy to creativity. You need to give yourself all the license you need to ensure that you put down what your first instincts were. Then in the first round of revisions you'll over-intellectualize them and force craft and form on them. Then in the second round of revisions, you'll take the more clinical version you made in the first round and do your best to marry your first instincts to the more proper structure and form.

It's always a possibility that things won't work. You need to be ready for that eventuality.

If you can admit it to yourself from the get-go that it's an experiment and doesn't have to be permanent, it's easier to fix it when it's wrong and it's a sweeter victory when it turns out to be right.

The last bit of rule thirty six, that it starts with the first words you put down on the page, might be the most important. The first words of any text might be the most important. They draw the reader in. And what are the right first words? Or last words for that matter. The correct answer, for a first draft anyway, are any words that get you writing to the second sentence, then the third, and so on. If you expect those words to be wrong, you can always find the exact right words later.

More than anything, this is permission to keep going without fear of screwing up. 

And sometimes that's just the push you need.

And that concludes another session of these writing rules. Please don't hesitate to let me know if these have been helpful, and any suggestions for more rules will be greatly welcomed.

Be sure to check out Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4, Part 5,  Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9, and Part 10If 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.
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