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Writer's Rules Revisited #15

It's time again for a new installment of writer's rules. It's been a while, but I've been very busy. And I think this is pretty much the last bit of procrastination before I have to finish my next novel. I've got ideas for short stories and a new book waiting to come out, but I need to finish this last one before I can move on.

But all of that is just a distraction from why you're here.

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,  Part 13 here, and Part 14 here.

48) Story isn't alchemy and inspiration. It's a craft, like engineering or mechanics. There are parts to everything and nothing extra. Learn your trade with this in mind.

For some reason, people equate the ability to write with the ability to read. But that's like equating the ability to write music with the ability to listen to music. It's like equating the ability to watch a commercial on television with the ability to produce that commercial. It's simply not a reasonable expectation. With all of discipline and craft that goes into film production or music creation, writing is no different.

Sure, there is lots of reading to do, but that's no substitute for actual study. You can't substitute reading for study, and you can't beat learning the nuts and bolts of storytelling. Sure, there's an element of alchemy and inspiration involved, but you're going to need to know what tools to use and how to use them properly. You need to know your way around a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, a metaphor, and a simile. You're going to need to know how to adjust your language to eliminate a passive voice and pace your work so people keep reading. You need to learn why a sentence works and keeps a reader excited and hooked. Kurt Vonnegut likened every the creation of prose to building a mouse-trap and he gained that experience through experience and study.

In Conversations With Kurt Vonnegut, he told an interviewer:

"One reason I'm grateful for my magazine experience is that I was forced to make up actual stories, to invent them like mouse traps, and I regard inventions such as Frankenstein or Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde as simply marvelous inventions; they're great gadgets and they make such clear comments on life."
Every story is a specific invention with proper working parts that snap together to trap the reader into something, whether it's a point your story is trying to make, an emotion you want to convey, or an experience you want to have come across. It's not just throwing spaghetti at a wall and seeing what sticks. I love this analogy because it truly gets to the heart of what storytelling is: building a machine with a specific purpose.

Even if that purpose is simply entertainment, it's a specific set of tools and building materials you'll be able to use. Knowing the rules of a specific genre will largely tell you what sort of building materials and layout you're dealing with. It's architecture. Your outline is the blueprint you craft your house from. Or the chunk of marble from which you cut your sculpture.

Study every different method you can. Study every writer and their view on craft. Study the how and why of a story as much as the story itself. Reading a book passively for nothing but enjoyment won't teach you as much as dissecting every line in your favorite piece to discover why it's there and why it works the way it does. If you can find a line that doesn't have a purpose, there's two possibilities. One: you have more to learn; or two: you've learned so much that you've found what could be a mistake or an extra line in one of your favorite works of art.

49) Learn to do everything you can in the world of writing on your own. If you don't believe in your work enough to bleed for it in every way possible, why should someone else?

This point is extremely important to my mind. There are many writers who naively think they can just concern themselves with the business of writing a story and nothing else. I think those days are long over. Even if you don't want to publish your own manuscript, knowing how the business works, from first draft to eventually making its way into the hands of a reader in a different part of the world, will allow you to make better decisions in both schools of book publishing, independent and traditional.

It would be a dream for me to just crank out a manuscript, hand it to someone else, or some massive corporate machine to turn into something fit for the consumption of the world and just collect a nice paycheck. But things don't work like that. You need to be knowledgable at every level of production so you can ensure that you're not getting cheated out of royalties, lied to about sales figured, messed around with in contracts, or any other bit of standard shenanigans in any business where making money relies on the work of an artist.

For that reason, I'd suggest every writer at least once go through the system producing and publishing their own book. Hire an editor and a cover artist. Work with them to produce something marketable. Hire a publicist and craft a marketing message for your work. Go out and book your own interviews and even place your book on store shelves all on your own. It's not impossible. I've done it with my first book. And doing that gave me a greater understanding and appreciation of what goes into manufacturing a book into a final piece. I learned much about the business and wouldn't trade that knowledge for the world. I made mistakes, I learned from them. I did many things right and I learned from that, too.

But because I've gone through that trouble myself, I feel like I'm in a position to make better decisions when deciding where to place my next piece of work.

And there's something attractive in controlling every aspect of production on a piece of art you created. It's comforting to know that if the traditional publishing houses all went out of business tomorrow, you'd still know how to get a book to market and continue to earn a living as a writer. Self-reliance really does feel good.

Aside from that, it's impressive and worthy of respect to know you've cared enough for your art to get it out there all on your own. Blood, sweat, and tears for even what might objectively be a mediocre project is still incredibly impressive.

Bleed for your art and learn how to make it top to bottom. That's never bad advice.

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 12Part 13, and Part 14 hereIf 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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