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Writer's Rules Revisited #12

It's been incredibly busy 'round these parts lately. I've finished two more short pieces for eventual publication since last I posted. And I've been working with the artist for the cover for the next novel I'm putting out. I've also started revising that book pretty heavily based on notes from a couple of trusted advanced readers who saw...lots of room for improvement. 

I've also been pretty focused on launching a new project. It's a Star Wars based podcast called Full of Sith. Our third episode just went live and I couldn't be more proud of how the show is turning out. I hope you'll check it out.

But I didn't want this to stagnate, so here we are with another installment of this writer's rules series.

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 herePart 10 here, and Part 11 here.

These next four parts are each in a drastically different direction. I assure you, though, they're all important, even if they all veer off in different directions.

37) Fairy tales and kids stories should have frightening things in them.

I believe it was Guillermo Del Toro who said that and I think it's true. If you're writing a kids story, it does everyone a disservice if there is nothing for the children to overcome. All of the best children's stories and movies I read and watched as a child had frightening elements that I had to get past.

Though it was frightening in the near term, it gave me something to feel good about when all was said and done. The more evil and tortured the event in the story, the more of an impact good overcoming will have.

Take, for example, The Empire Strikes Back. That film is nothing if not a dark and frightening fairy tale. And it has the most awful things happen to the young hero. As a child watching the film for the first time, it was crushing. But it was a lesson that carried on and helped make that saga one of the most formative of my youth. That was the story that got me thinking about all the other horrible things that happen to characters.

When you think about it, it's all the stories with the most frightening things happening to the protagonists that are the most popular. What do Ender's Game, Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Star Wars all have in common?

The protagonists all have horrible and unfair things happen to them that were frightening to an audience. It forces us to empathize. With Luke, we're shown the murdered remains of his aunt and uncle. With Ender Wiggin, we're shown the bullying he endures, not just at school, but from his brother, and even in the training center that's supposed to turn him into a hero. Katniss Everdeen lives in a society where she literally has to fight to the death in gladiatorial combat for the amusement of a corrupt government to provide food for her family. Harry Potter is so discarded as a boy, his parents are dead and he's forced to live under a staircase, and when he finally escapes from that, he's tormented by schoolmates and Professor Snape.

All of these are possibly frightening to kids. And in every case these books and stories have turned into the best of what they have.

Vonnegut said (at the beginning of this list, too), "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." I think this holds doubly true for stories for or about kids.

How much do you think you'd have cared about Harry Potter if everyone were nice to him? Admit it. You hated Delores Umbridge more than Lord Voldemort. Not because Voldemort wasn't evil or terrifying, but because it was more uncomfortable to watch someone that was supposed to be a teacher and a nurturer be so mean and unfair to the hero.

But what about actual frightening images and scenes? If you can get their blood boiling, they'll be dying to get through it, just to make sure everything is going to turn out all right.

So the takeaway is to do awful things that are unfair to your characters. Don't be nice to them and have them face off against the horrifying. It'll make people like them and you'll have a better story that more people will want to read.
38) The ego is the enemy of the writer. Listen to what others have to say about your material, even if you don't agree with them. Don't assume you know better than they do.

The only time you're allowed to have an ego about your writing is when your door is closed and you're working on a first draft. If that's what you need to allow yourself to put down on paper the first draft of a work, that's what you need to give yourself. But as soon as you open that door and rejoin the real world, full of people and other writers and editors and the like, that ego needs to go away.

Nothing is more obnoxious than dealing with a fellow writer (or anyone for that matter) with a sense of entitlement and an ego the size of Gibraltar. It's worse when they try to rationalize why they don't have an ego, claiming the're some sort of Human Vulcan, relying only on logic and wisdom. It doesn't exist. There is no good reason for arrogance and your readers and your peers will be turned off by it.

As a writer, you're presumably going to be in situations where people disagree with how you've crafted your work. Here's a secret I'll let you in on: Their opinion is valid and they're probably right.

You don't have to like that assessment. But it's probably true. There are still going to be a lot of people who like your story and there will be some who don't like it. We don't write to please everyone. We write to please ourselves and one audience member. If our one audience member likes it, we're a success and the rest is icing on the cake.

If you approach the opinions of others with anything less than gratitude, though, how long do you think people will care enough to read your work to give you an opinion?

Not very long.

It's even more important to strangle your ego when you're listening to feedback from other writer's about your work in its rough form. You want to defend every choice you've made, but you can't. You need to take their feedback and simply craft something better. Defending your work isn't a valid use of time. That's your ego stealing time from you that is better spent writing or revising.

And really, it all comes down to Wil Wheaton's Prime Directive: Don't be a dick.

39) Have fun.

If you're not having fun, what's the point?

Writing hurts. I get that. Hemingway said, "There is nothing to writing. All you have to do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

And it's true. But understand that we're all sadists. We get off on the pain of that hard work and find the fun in it. If we didn't find fun in it we wouldn't spend so much of our waking hours doing it. Lawrence Kasdan, one of the greatest screenwriters who ever lived, said, "Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life."

And that's true, too.

But we're that extra-studious kid who is thrilled by the act of learning.

One of the things I've learned if I catch myself not having fun with my writing is to write something else for a little while. I'm usually in the middle of a couple of different writing projects. That way I'm always working on something. But sometimes, when you're in that slog of your novel, writing some of those horrifying things you're putting your character through, you need to take a break and write something fun. This is what I love using short stories for. It allows me to put a different flavor in my mouth and have some fun writing again.

By the time I've finished the short story, my mind is itching to get back to the manuscript proper. And by then, I've given myself enough of a breather that I've worked out what's going to happen next and am excited to write it. But it's important to constantly find ways to reinvigorate that fun you felt when you initially decided to write the story. Even if the story itself isn't fun, the act of writing it should be, even though it's hard.

I know it's a confusing balance, and sometimes the cognitive dissonance of it is too much, but there it is.

Have fun.

If you're not having fun, you're wasting everyone's time.

40) Wait a while before you think you're finished with something. After a time away from the material you'll see problems you hadn't seen before.

My mind is blown every time I hear of someone who doesn't adhere to this rule. When you've just completed a manuscript for the first time, be it a novel, a short story, or a screenplay, you're still in the warrior mentality for the project. You think it's the greatest thing ever, and you're supposed to.

Optimally, you need to forget as much of it as you can so you can attack it in the next revision with a clean pair of eyes that are objective and willing to make the hard decisions. The closer you are to the first run through, the less you're likely to fix in revisions.

It is never a good idea to race a book out immediately. Give yourself time away from it, then come back after you've learned a thing or two.

In fact, for my process, I'm usually at least a book or two ahead of what I'm publishing. So far, in my writing career as a novelist, I'll write a book, then write another one before coming back to revise the first. In the meantime, I'll have been workshopping the second book in its rough state and learning things from other writers. I'll be reading books well above my level and learning tricks from there. I'll be studying writing and learning more about storytelling. And then, usually after about a year, I'll come back to it. After that much time, I'll have learned so much more about writing that I'll see mistakes I simply wouldn't have known existed if I'd've revised it immediately after finishing the first draft.

This is why you always cringe at work you've published earlier. I love Lost at the Con. I love the experience it's given me. I love how much email I get from people who loved it and I love how much attention its received. But when I go back and look at it, I cringe at things that I should have done differently. Not because the book is bad, but because I had more to learn as a writer when it was published. Everyone should be going through this. If you don't suffer from this, something is wrong and you're not learning.

Giving yourself that buffer between drafts allows you to minimize that effect. For example, the book I'm revising now, The Serpent's Head, is a book I drafted in late 2011 and I'm just now getting back to it. There are things I simply didn't know when I started it that I know now that I'm able to incorporate into the new drafts. It wouldn't be as good of a book if I would have started revising in early 2012. And the book I've been drafting now will benefit greatly with some time and experience between me and the next draft. But since it's being written at the cutting edge of my ability and skill, I'm not going to find room to improve it for a good, long while.

So, my advice is to not rush what you're working on. Give yourself some time to grow, then come back. You can attack your work with objectivity and do what's best for it, not what's best for your publishing schedule.

And what better incentive is there to get the next book done if you don't let yourself go back and revise the last one until it's drafted?

It's a brilliant scheme, really.

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, Part 10, and Part 11If 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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