It’s interesting to talk about the writing process because it differs from writer to writer. Let’s take a look at rules some famous authors have given themselves:
Here’s how John Steinbeck, author of Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath, fills his blank pages:
Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theatre, it doesn’t exist. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person – a real person you know, or an imagined person – and write to that one.
If a scene or section gets the better of you and you still think you want it – bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
If you are using dialogue – say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club and Choke, offers some pretty solid advice:
In six seconds, you’ll hate me.
But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.
From this point forward – at least for the next half year – you may not use “thought” verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.
The list should also include: Loves and Hates.
And it should include: Is and Has, but we’ll get to those, later. Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write: Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”
Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like: “The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave. Never his.”
Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them. Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it. Instead of saying: “Adam knew Gwen liked him.”
You’ll have to say: “Between classes, Gwen was always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it. She’d roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume. The combination lock would still be warm from her ass. And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”
In short, no more short-cuts. Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling.
I attempted this advice about ten years ago – upon a first reading of these rules, I doubted Palahniuk’s belief that I would hate him and believed these rules to be easier to implement. However, upon application, I was left with head in hand and an aching pain in my neck. He knows what he’s doing.
Ernest Hemingway’s, A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises, five rules reflect his succinct writings:
Use short sentences.
Use short first paragraphs.
Use vigorous English.
Avoid the use of adjectives.
Eliminate every superfluous word.
Vigorous English? I suppose a sprinkle of “go to Hell” has the possibility of livening up any writing. Joking aside, I’ve found Hemingway’s advice useful and best suited for a second-round edit (for me, at least).
Stephen King, The Shining and It, has a lot to say about the rules on writing. More in-depth advice can be found in his book, On Writing. For now, here’s twenty of his rules:
First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience. “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
Don’t use passive voice. “Timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason that timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.”
Avoid adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend.”
Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said.”
But don’t obsess over perfect grammar. “The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story.”
The magic is in you. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”
Read, read, read. ”If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”
Don’t worry about making other people happy. “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”
Turn off the TV. “TV—while working out or anywhere else—really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs.”
You have three months. “The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”
There are two secrets to success. “I stayed physical healthy, and I stayed married.”
Write one word at a time. “Whether it’s a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ the work is always accomplished one word at a time.”
Eliminate distraction. “There’s should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with.”
Stick to your own style. “One cannot imitate a writer’s approach to a particular genre, no matter how simple what that writer is doing may seem.”
Dig. “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.”
Take a break. “You’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience.”
Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings. “(kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.)”
The research shouldn’t overshadow the story. “Remember that word back. That’s where the research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it.”
You become a writer simply by reading and writing. “You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.”
Writing is about getting happy. “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”
Besides the advice of reading his work four times through, William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, has seven fairly reasonable rules:
Take what you need from other writers: “I think the writer, as I’ve said before, is completely amoral. He takes whatever he needs, wherever he needs, and he does that openly and honestly because he himself hopes that what he does will be good enough so that after him people will take from him, and they are welcome to take from him, as he feels that he would be welcome by the best of his predecessors to take what they had done.”
Don’t worry about style: “I think the story compels its own style to a great extent, that the writer doesn’t need to bother too much about style. If he’s bothering about style, then he’s going to write precious emptiness–not necessarily nonsense… it’ll be quite beautiful and quite pleasing to the ear, but there won’t be much content in it.”
Write from experience: “To me, experience is anything you have perceived. It can come from books, a book that–a story that–is true enough and alive enough to move you. That, in my opinion, is one of your experiences. You need not do the actions that the people in that book do, but if they strike you as being true, that they are things that people would do, that you can understand the feeling behind them that made them do that, then that’s an experience to me. And so, in my definition of experience, it’s impossible to write anything that is not an experience, because everything you have read, have heard, have sensed, have imagined is part of experience.”
Know your characters well and the story will write itself: “I would say to get the character in your mind. Once he is in your mind, and he is right, and he’s true, then he does the work himself. All you need to do then is to trot along behind him and put down what he does and what he says. It’s the ingestion and then the gestation. You’ve got to know the character. You’ve got to believe in him. You’ve got to feel that he is alive, and then, of course, you will have to do a certain amount of picking and choosing among the possibilities of his action, so that his actions fit the character which you believe in. After that, the business of putting him down on paper is mechanical.”
Use dialect sparingly: “I think it best to use as little dialect as possible because it confuses people who are not familiar with it. That nobody should let the character speak completely in his own vernacular. It’s best indicated by a few simple, sparse but recognizable touches.”
Don’t exhaust your imagination: “Never write yourself to the end of a chapter or the end of a thought. The only rule I have is to quit while it’s still hot. Never write yourself out. Always quit when it’s going good. Then it’s easier to take it up again. If you exhaust yourself, then you’ll get into a dead spell and you’ll have trouble with it.”
Don’t make excuses: “I have no patience, I don’t hold with the mute inglorious Miltons. I think if he’s demon-driven with something to be said, then he’s going to write it. He can blame the fact that he’s not turning out work on lots of things. I’ve heard people say, “Well, if I were not married and had children, I would be a writer.” I’ve heard people say, “If I could just stop doing this, I would be a writer.” I don’t believe that. I think if you’re going to write you’re going to write, and nothing will stop you.”
Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye and The Handmaid’s Tale, seems to believe in keeping track of hard work:
Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a memory stick.
Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
Prayer might work. Or reading something else. Or a constant visualization of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.
Overall, these authors agree that finishing a first draft is overcoming the biggest part of the hurdle. They value throwing words on a page to fill it and then returning to condense/edit. While the same rules don’t work for every writer, it seems that completing a first draft is a struggle many share.
One of my rules is to eliminate “very” and commas from my writing – blog posts excluded. What are some of your writing rules?