Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Rules to Write by

Writing is one of those things that you don't know how you do. Or at least I don't.

The cliche is that it's like riding a bike. A skill that you can't demonstrate until you do it, and that after an absence you may start to lack faith in your ability to do again... except that when you try you always find you can. Woohoo! Look at me, Ma! I'm riding! I'M RIDING!

The trouble is that if you're struck by a sudden crisis of confidence in your cycling ability... if you know that you once could ride a bike but you're not sure how exactly you did it and now think that maybe you no longer can... just pop outside and give it a try. Pick a quiet street. No one will see you. And bingo, ten minutes later your faith in the ability of conservation of angular momentum to keep you off the concrete is restored.

Writing is like riding a bike, except that you do it with a ton of people staring at you (if they're not interested you're doing it wrong). Also the gap between peddling and finding out if you're moving forward or toppling sideways is about a year for a published author. Additionally, if you fall off... you die. Or at least that's likely the end of your career.

Pat Rothfuss recently said that one of the great things (from a writer's point of view) about short stories was that they allow you to fail. You can experiment in a short story and if it doesn't work you've only lost the days it took to write rather than the year a book might take. Moreover (and this is my addition) because the readership for short fiction is so much smaller than that for novels and the readers' investment in time is also less, you've not lost/alienated your audience (or at least not much of it).


The one-novel-a-year model is of course far less forgiving. Produce a book that isn't excellent - that doesn't have readers raving about it... just one such book, and it's likely to be the beginning of the end. Produce a book that's an actual stinker and it's game over, man. Best take off and nuke the planet from orbit just to be sure.

So, since we're talking about the riding of bikes &/or the writing of books. Both things that we don't really know how we do. Let's look at the mechanics.

You'll notice that there are rather few books on how to ride bicycles. Chapter 1, Keep turning those pedals. Chapter 2, What to do if you start falling to one side. Chapter 3 yadda yadda.

There are however many books on how to write. These offer some comfort in the scary business of 'putting it out there', but may ultimately be of as little use.

Here are my thoughts on 'not falling off'.

Compared to a lot of research scientists I’m neither methodical nor thorough. The kind of abstract mathematics I look at to solve problems, the coding of it into algorithms, and the interactive development against data do not typically tend to invite intuition. However I do seem to have built a reputation for feeling my way to solutions and then inventing the proof after the fact.

With writing I seem to sit at the same slightly maverick / under-serious end of the spectrum.

I once went to creative writing lessons. I took an evening class, once a week for thirteen weeks, held in a port-a-cabin in the car park of a local college. It proved very useful in making me think about the act and art of writing, and more importantly the reader.

I once read a book on writing. It was called ‘On Writing’ and I enjoyed it a lot – mostly because Stephen King told a lot of anecdotes in it and didn’t say much on writing.

I see a lot of writers blogging about writing. Some of them have almost made a second career of it. And the thing here is that in order to have much to say about writing (unless you’re going down the autobiography / anecdote route that King took) you really have to be in what I call the ‘mechanical school’. This doesn’t mean that your writing will be in any way mechanical, simply that you deconstruct the writing process into many parts and for each part draw up rules / methods / exercises and the like.

A lot of new writers are drawn to these approaches because they give you something to hang onto. Writing can be a scary prospect for someone taking up the pen for the first time. Having a set of instructions can be very comforting.

Three often seen pillars of writing advice are:
i)                    Write every day. Set yourself word-count targets.
ii)                  Plan out your story. Keep notes on the characters. Plot a path.
iii)                Your first draft will be shit. Revise, revise, REVISE!

These are perfectly good pieces of advice. I’m not going to argue with them. I will simply point out that writing is not a science and that everyone’s experience with it is different.

My own experience is:
i)                    I don’t write every day, or even every week. I don’t keep track on my word-count.
ii)                  I don’t plan my story. I just start typing and see where I get to. Generally I don’t know what the next page will bring, let alone the next chapter.
iii)                My first draft may or may not be shit, but it’s the only one I write. Much later I check for typos, change the odd adjective, and send it off. I’ve tried revising work before and it feels like chasing my tail. I’m unable to tell if version 2 or 3 is better than version 1. So I don’t bother.

My approach may seem unprofessional (it is) and sloppy (it is) and before I was published I was told quite regularly that I was ‘doing it wrong’. But here’s the thing: there is no ‘doing it right’. The stuff I write means something to me – there’s heart and passion behind it – and the emotion clearly reaches a good number of the people who read it. There’s no right and wrong. The advice you see is worth trying, but if it doesn’t fit... drop it on the floor. The only test of whether your way is working or not is whether your readers want to read more.

I also see a lot in writing circles about:
The importance of networking.
The art of pitching.
The magical secrets of the query letter.
How to work a book convention.  
Snagging an agent.

I’m sure that all of these things can help you and may reward study. However – they are not laws – they are not the only way.

I wrote my story. I sent it off at random to a small number of agents I’d never heard of and whose details I got from a list on the internet. I hadn’t ever been to a convention. I cobbled together a cover letter at the point of writing the ‘dear agent’ email.

I post this simply to register the fact that there are no rules. You can succeed (or fail) howsoever you choose. There's no game being played against you here, no in-crowd you need to be in with, no secret handshake, no formula.

Someone once asked me for 5 writing tips. I gave them:

5 things I did writing-wise that may or may not be of interest.

i)-- don't write because of something you want to be or some place you want to get. Write because right now, this moment, you need to. ...For the minutes or hours you're writing, the thing in front of you should be the most important piece of fiction you've ever written. 

ii)- be honest, call upon yourself, write as if you're the only one who will ever read this - risk ridicule and misunderstanding.

iii) join a critique group and develop skin thick enough to take the sting from contrary opinions whilst being sufficiently thin to admit any persistent lesson.

iv)- consider your work on both the grand and small scale. Story is important, plot and character are important, but so is each line. There's a power in the language that can be exploited in almost every sentence to propel a reader on.

v)-- if your writing doesn't move you, it won't move anyone. It's incredibly difficult to push strong emotion through into another human's head simply by the ordered depression of plastic letter keys. If, added to this difficulty, what you're writing isn't even important to you ... well, let's just say it won't end well!

In the end though, it’s practice, aptitude, luck.


  1. Interesting blog post. Many valid points, but I do have to disagree with you about the one novel a year model and the novel is a stinker it could doom a writer's career. If the new writer wrote a stinker for a first novel, then I would agree with your assessment.

    I don't think this model is the same for established writers. If an established writer with a substantial back list, one stinker is not the death knell. I have read novels from some of my favorite authors that have been stinkers, but I continued to read their books.

    Shoreline, WA

  2. Interestin'

    I think each writer's rules are personal to them, for the most part -- there's as many ways to write a book as there are writers, possibly more because each book is different. I don't plan, for instance, but I know plenty of people who just can't write that way.

    I think there's a few that could be across the board

    1 - If it works do it (addendum, if it doesn't work, delete that sucker and try again)

    2 - Don't bore your reader

    3 - Write what excites you

    Everything else is more of a guideline that may, or may not, work for any individual writer.

  3. Good article. Much enjoyed, Thanks

  4. Thanks for that. I might be "doing it wrong" too. One thing I really hate reading in all the blogs about writing from successful authors, especially self published ones is how you are suppose to do all this research on the industry, do all this sucking up to people (ie networking). I can't be bothered with all that. Just sit in a room and write. Its not business, its art.

  5. My writing process is more like yours and GRRM's combined: No outline, writing scenes out of order, not writing every day, overall slow speed, only one draft (though I tend to revise scenes a bit more). 'It works for GRRM' has always been my excuse. :P

    I have tried outlines and some of the other stuff writing sites suggest. I won't exactly call it a waste of time, but I can only advise people not to stick to something they feel to be wrong. Fortunately, my sticking times were brief, and now I've finally figured out my personal writing process, I get things done.

    Oh, and I hate the 'you have to write X words a day or you are no writer'-bovine poo.

  6. Knowing we have similar creative approaches has made me feel a whole lot better. Tired of seeing the formulaic (and necessarily subjective) dos and don'ts of novel writing.

  7. Thank you so much for this article, Mark. It makes me feel so much better about writing in general and it is awesome to hear someone that doesn't feel like people have to write the way most people determine to be the best and only ways of writing.