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Writer's Rules Revisited #14

I've been catching up ever since I got back from SheVaCon, where I had a great time talking about writing. It made me realize very much that no matter how many answers I had to offer others for their writing, I would never be 100% sure of those answers in my own writing. I don't think any of us can be. We're all searching for that extra help or bit of guidance that will put our stories over the top, but we're too close to them and so we have to rely equally on our knowledge of the craft and the opinions of those we trust.

But that's neither here nor there, I suppose.

Also, for those interested, there's a new interview with me about Operation: Montauk at Indie Author Land. 

And for you Star Wars fans, be sure to check me out on the Full of Sith podcast which seems to be taking on a life of its own that I can't explain.

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 herePart 11 here, Part 12 here, and Part 13 here.

44) Know your mythology. Know your classic story structure. Know your Robert McKee, know your Joseph Campbell.

This one seems easy, but a lot of people seem to forget it. And while these specific examples might not ring true for you and your writing, you need to find mentors somewhere, whether its in the printed word or in person.

Knowing your mythology and your fairy tales is important. Although as writers it might feel like we're constantly reinventing the wheel, we're really not when it comes to many of the ways stories are put together. In classic mythology and fairy tales, things are tackled in a different direction than we're used to and you'll never know when an established story tool or trope is lurking for you to discover that will help you unlock the problem you're having with your current story. I'm amazed at how often I can get stuck on a story and go back and revisit tales that seem completely unrelated. Though I might not find my specific answer, reading one story will get my mind thinking and spin off another great idea, then another, and soon enough my story problem is solved.

This is where Joseph Campbell comes in. Know his work inside and out. His book The Hero of a Thousand Faces ought to be required reading in writing classes. It dissects what similar traits heroes of different archetypes all share through mythology and modern stories. Studying Campbell, in my opinion, will help you dissect and hone your craft in a way that is invaluable. If the book seems to dense for you, fall back on his PBS special with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth. That PBS special taught me as much about writing and myself as much as any creative writing course or seminar I ever took.

Aside from knowing myths and legends, knowing the art of story structure is equally important. When we build a story, we're building something of a house. And though the architecture can vary, there are hallmarks to all styles of architecture you need. We need the foundation of character, walls built of action and dialogue, and a roof of rising action and a climax. Knowing the ins and outs of story structures that can work and have worked through recorded time can help you get through points in your story where you're stuck as well. Even though you might want to drag things in a different direction, going back and relying on your craft might keep you on a path that will give you a better and more disciplined story. Read lots of books and find the spines of their story, dissect them. Watch lots of movies and do the same thing. Examining what has worked for others and applying that to your work will help you immeasurably.

That brings me to Robert McKee and his incredible book Story. Read this book. Download the audio book and listen to it in the car. Consume it. McKee is one of the most talented teachers I've ever come across. Granted, his approach is geared primarily to the art of film, but many of those principles of storytelling apply to all mediums. I'll often re-read this book as I'm in the midst of plotting a new story or screenplay, asking myself questions about it as I read McKee's analysis of stories and films through time. It's an invaluable resource and happens to fit with my views and philosophies on writing. It might not be for you, but it's worth checking out for a different perspective one way or the other.

There are a few more books I'll recommend that every writer read.

Plotting: A Novelist's Workout Guide by Aaron Allston - Aaron is a friend and I was graced with an early copy of this book and found it immensely helpful. In the same way McKee's book got me thinking about my story, Aaron approaches it from a slightly different but equally valid and important approach. This is a must read.

Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman - Goldman is responsible for some of my favorite books and movies, from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance  Kid and Marathon Man to The Princess Bride and All the President's Men. His view on writing, Hollywood, and screenplays is fresh and an entire course in writing in a neat little book. Also check out the sequel to this book.

There are plenty of other books that have inspired me as a writer, but if I were picking the top four, these are the ones I'd force on you.

45) Irvin Kershner, director of The Empire Strikes Back, said, "A director is always guessing." So is a writer.

I can't emphasize enough how often we don't know the answers. We just don't have them all. We're guessing. And once we realize that we don't have the answers, we open ourselves up to find the answers.

It's why we're all constantly studying. It's why we're all constantly learning.

But it also goes back to what I've said in previous rules. We look for every excuse to not start writing. Hell, me writing this series has been a massive dodge to make me feel like I'm still writing when I should be working on my novel. But one reason we don't keep writing is because we feel out of control, we feel like we're guessing, we don't feel like we know all the answers about our story. Guess what: we don't.

The part of my writing I guess and second guess the most are my beginnings. The first lines of a story are some of the most important and I get too focused on getting them right the first time. But until the story is written in full and we chisel down the marble stone of that rough draft into something presentable, we have absolutely no idea what that proper starting point might be. Sure, maybe we got it right the first time. But maybe we didn't. Intellectualizing the knowledge that the words you put down first might not be the right ones but that you can come back to them later when you do know what the right words are is incredibly helpful.

You're just guessing. We're all just guessing.

Don't let that get in your way.

46) Read your dialogue out loud to yourself to make sure it's natural. That's what Tennessee Williams did and look at how that turned out.

This rule was originally written down in my notebook when I was focusing on screenwriting. I, like many other writers, I think, are fascinated by the processes by which other writers produce their work and one day I happened upon Tennessee Williams's method of dialogue. For those who don't know, Tennessee Williams wrote some of the best plays-turned-movies you've ever seen. From A Streetcar Named Desire to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the man had an ear for dialogue and character that is hard to match.

I read that he would speak all of his dialogue to himself, tweaking it with every pass until it sounded right. And it really blew my mind at that point. Sometimes, approaching your words in a different direction or a different means of communication helps you see things you simply couldn't before.

I've since applied this to my novels as well. I'll read through whole chapters out loud, looking to fix dialogue and errors. Errors that never seem apparent on the written page always hit like a record scratch when you're reading out loud. And it forces you to evaluate every single word, which is important if you've seen a particular chapter in your book a thousand times and tend to gloss over it because you "just know that part is still right."

Do everything you can to change up how you're doing things or hear things in a different voice and think about them in a different way.

It will pay dividends in the finished product.

47) If it helps, write parts for dead actors you admire, then rewrite them in your revision for living actors. It gives you two different perspectives on the character and adds an extra, easy layer of depth.

This is a trick that I used a lot when I was starting out as a writer and still use it occasionally, but not as much. I used it primarily on screenwriting, but have done it now and again in my prose. I tend to lean on Peter Lorre far too much. 

We all have our favorite actors and performances and it's very easy to visualize them doing a wide array of things. We can hear them clearly and know what they would and wouldn't say. If you have side characters that you're running into problems with, this could add that extra oomph into your descriptions of them and their dialogue that will get you through your draft.

But afterwards, you don't exactly want them to be easily recognized as the actor you fashioned them after, so in revisions, tweak and revise with a different actor in mind. How would Phillip Seymour Hoffman interpret a part written for Peter Lorre? How would Harrison Ford reinterpret a part written for Cary Grant? 

It causes fascinating juxtapositions and gets your mind moving in a way that lets you get through your drafts on autopilot. Through a third or fourth revision, those problem characters should have taken on a life of their own that you won't need that Hollywood crutch, but it's a powerful tool to place in your writer's toolbox. That's the most important thing about writing is having as many tools at your disposal for as many problems as you can think of so you don't lose your momentum on a piece. It's relying on structure, craft, storytelling, character, and every trick you can think of to get that first draft produced. Until that's done, you've got nothing. With cheats like this, you're much more likely to get to that point.

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 10Part 11Part 12, and Part 13If 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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