Rules and Realities of Writing

I wanted to write an article on the world of writing the way I see it.  It’s negative in spots and cynical in others, but I hope this doesn’t deter anyone with the dream of accomplishing all that they want to accomplish in the world of writing.  The Leonardo da Vinci philosophy to answering a question was to ask them.  He would compose hundreds of questions to the answer he was trying to achieve, and he found that by asking himself the questions he arrived at better answers.  The key to the questions is to ask them objectively.  You cannot worry about hurting your feelings.  You cannot worry if these questions change the course of your answer one hundred and eight degrees.  The questions must be asked.

The first question that must be asked is how bad do you really want it?  Do you want to be published, do you want to achieve the completion of a story, and what are you willing to do to achieve it?  Are you the type of person who enjoys calling yourself a writer, are you someone who enjoys having another call you a writer, or are you someone who writes?

The publishing industry, or as I call them the rejection industry, will pound you.  They haven’t been mean to me, and I don’t think they’ll be mean to you, but what you’re trying to sell them just doesn’t sound like something you can sell.  ‘What the hell do you want?’ you will ask them in your head.  “And why are you hitting me?” your keyboard, wall and head will ask in unison as you work your way through the latest Writer’s Digest list of publishers that are looking for you.

Do you have the time?  Most people will tell you either I used to love writing, or I used to be a writer, but I don’t have the time anymore.  Do you remember the excuse T-shirts of the 90’s that would say: “Why I suck at bowling, why I can’t fish, or the reasons I’m bad at golf.”  I would say that one out of four people I run across on a daily basis tell me that they are a writer, used to be a writer, or wish they could be a writer.  If writers could laugh at themselves in the same manner as the golfing and bowling flunkies, the industry could make millions with ‘excuses why I am not a writer’ T-shirts.

When I was a young ‘un trying to find my way through teen trauma, I found music.  I listened to any piece of music I could find from my Mom’s Ray Coniff/Burt Bacharach/Glenn Campbell record collection to my Kiss/Van Halen/Rod Stewart cassette tape collection.  After awhile, music wasn’t cutting it anymore.  I still listened to music as often as I could in a day, but something was missing in my life.  In my twenties, I took a creative writing course in college, and I handed in some stuff that I thought was the greatest material written since Hemingway pulled the trigger.  It was pretty awful stuff, but the writing teacher said I showed some promise in paragraphs two and twelve.  I realized (thought) I had a gift.  I’ve always had a gift for observation and storytelling (lying), but I never saw an avenue for it, until that teacher told me I had some promise.  Ever since that day, I have been pecking away at various keyboards trying to make the dream come alive.

“I am not adept at punctuation and/or grammar in general.”  A caller to a radio show once informed Clive Barker.  She said that she enjoyed writing, but it was the mechanics of writing that prevented her from delving into it whole hog.  “Are you a proficient story teller?” Clive asked her.  “Do you enjoy telling stories, and do you entertain your friends with your tales?”  The woman said yes to all of the above.  “Well, you can learn the mechanics, and I encourage you to do so, but you cannot learn story telling.  The ability to tell a story is, largely, a gift.  Either you have it or you don’t.”

The next important question is: ‘Do you have an idea?’ Another important question is: ‘Is it a good idea.’  It’s not as easy as it seems, and some writers get so bogged down in the arena of idea that they end up not writing anything.  It may be a mistake for some, because they may not be writers, but others should just write.  One of the dumbest questions asked of established writers is: ‘where do your ideas come from?’  Very rarely do you hear a straight forward answer to this question.  I don’t know what the interviewer expects, but the answer is usually vague.  In my opinion, this is because an idea is borne from the activity of writing.  If you find yourself writing for hours on end day after day, you’ll find little ideas gestate into bigger ideas, and bigger ideas turn into large ideas.  To paraphrase Hemingway: “Your mind is like a muscle, and you have to work it out every day if you ever hope to hone it.”  There comes a point where you begin using that muscle so often that a little idea peaks out from beneath the covers and cries for you to hold her for a second.  It’s your job to pet her when she cries and scold her when she acts up.  She’s your baby, and you have to rear her to fruition.  The best way to see her reach adulthood is to be there for her.

I’ve heard people talk about writer’s block.  I don’t believe in writer’s block.  I think people who have writer’s block expect to write Crime and Punishment or War and Peace, and they’re frustrated when their story turns out to be ‘My day at the Supermarket.’   Writers write.  To my mind, if I want to be a writer, I will write anything and everything.  I will write something if it’s great, and I will write something if it sucks, and they do suck.  But, as Charlie Sheen once said, “You have to create a lot of manure to fertilize that one flower.”

When that eventual idea peaks it’s little head out at you, in the midst of writing, it may be important to trim the fat that got you there.   I believe it was Anton Chekov who said that every writer should take the first three pages of their manuscript and chuck them.  He said that it takes a writer about that long to get into a proper flow.  In the first few pages, you are laying the foundation for your eventual story, but it should only be a foundation for you to begin your work.  You shouldn’t burden the reader with this unnecessary fluff that helped you get over the hurdle of a beginning.

Are you Kerouac or Joyce?  These two authors insisted on a form of writing called stream of consciousness writing.  History has treated both of these authors with kindness, but they are the exceptions to the rule.  For the rest of us, a golden rule applies: Your words are not golden.  Delete the dumb words.  Take out the sentences and paragraphs that make no sense, or they bore the reader.  To paraphrase Andre Agassi: ‘Pace is everything’.

If in your quest to completion, you are able to go back and admit to yourself that you are not a man of golden words, then you will find yourself nearing the golden chalice.  If you can delete large chunks of your work, then you may be momentarily defeating the complimentary Golem that has been chasing you thus far.  I can’t delete large chunks.  I put too much work into it to just throw them away, but I have created an Extras file that I dump this material in.   Nothing is worse to a reader than when a narrator leads you to girl falling off the cliff, and then the narrator decides to put in three pages of fluff on his idea of the meaning of life.  Teasing is all right, but do not forget to make the minutiae in the middle interesting.  Remember pace is everything.  If your pace if purposefully plodding, then go with plodding, but remember the risk you’re running.

What is the goal?  If you want to enter the craft of writing to be a star that is chased by paparazzi, then you may want to re-think your plans.  John Irving called writing the loneliest profession of all.  He said the writer is usually locked in a room pounding out ideas with no one to talk to about it.  This is John Irving, one of the few men that could be called a literary rock star to my mind, and he said this a couple years ago.  He said this about eight to nine books into his profession.  Forget the paparazzi, forget even being noticed on the streets, and you can probably forget about readings that are specifically directed to you and your book(s).  This happens to a very few in the profession.  If you are one of the lucky ones, in this regard, I dare say that it won’t be because you were driven to stardom.  I think the Irvings and the Koontzs and the Kings were driven by one thing early on: the desire to tell a great story.

I think the desire to be a best seller is also not a good reason to get into the profession.  I think that’s a tad bit lofty.  I think that’s too far in the future.  That’s something that you can’t control.  Plus, this mentality may lead you to change chapter two and four, because you don’t think the people will like it.  You have to trust your judgment and entertain yourself.  If you’re not entertaining yourself, chances are no one else will be entertained either.

On that note, another question should be asked: ‘Do you have a specific take on life?’   A grade school teacher once informed me that an opinion piece I wrote was: “Too mealy mouthed.”  I told her I had no idea what that meant.  She said: “If you’re going to be wrong, be wrong with conviction.”  In writing a novel, one cannot put their finger to the wind on every plot variable, every twist, every line and piece of punctuation.  The writer needs to take charge of their novel and let their experiences dictate that which they enter into it.  How many people could’ve written Old Man and the Sea?  How many people could’ve written it the way it was written?  Hemingway’s experiences entered into it.  You are who you are based on your experiences.  You shouldn’t be afraid to let this enter into your fiction.  Only you can write this particular novel.

As a counter point to that point, can you distance yourself in the creation of a character?  Our family and friends all believe that they live the most fascinating lives on the planet.  How many times do they tell us that we should write a book about them?  In truth, their lives may not even be fascinating to us, but your life is probably not fascinating to us either.  This is where the stew comes into place.  Your job as a writer is to take your experiences and combine them with fascinating stories.  Does this mean that you embellish on your life?  Well, some of the best writers used to be some of the best liars in life.  They just learned to channel their embellishments to something productive.  Does this mean that your character has to do exactly what you would do in a given situation?  Yes and no.  You don’t want to stray too far from the core of who you are, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have your character do something that fascinates you.  Larry David, of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm fame, states that the show Curb Your Enthusiasm is based upon experiences that have occurred in his life, except that Larry has the character on the show say things that he wishes he had said in that particular situation in his life.  In other words, you should write characters that occasionally do the things that tick you off the most.  You should have your characters do things that are immoral and spiteful.  At times, you should even have your main character do such things.  Some people avoid having their characters do stupid things.  Most men fear having female characters do stupid things, because females get offended easily when men stereotype them a certain way, but women do stupid things everyone does.  Most authors stridently avoid having their characters do stupid things, because these are images we have of heroes in one way or another.  If male characters have men do stupid things, it’s usually to promote the intelligence of the female counterpart, or it’s done to produce an effect that the character will eventually avenge.  I say that you should allow your characters to do stupid things because it’s funny, it adds definition, and it allows the reader to better identify with the character.

There are definitely guidelines, and there is a right way to do things and a wrong way of doing things, but the name of the game of fiction is that there are no rules.  Do what you do.  Let your freak flag fly.  Non-writers get bogged down in the detail.  They buy all the magazines on the best way to lead to conflict, the best way to get out of that conflict, the best way to provide character to your character, the best way to start, and the ten best ways to conclude a best-selling novel.  Take a look at some of the names of the people who have written these pieces, they know as little about writing a best-seller as you do, but more importantly they don’t know how to write your novel.  Some of the writers do have best-sellers on their resumes, but do they have a novel similar to yours?  Do they have the novel that you wish you would’ve written?  If that’s the case, follow their template.  I don’t know how far it will get you, but if you have confidence in the fact that they can lead you to the Promised Land better than your own intuition, then by all means fork over your seven dollars.  My point is this is your game.  This is going to be your book, and wouldn’t you rather succeed on your own?  I’m not saying that their advice is without merit, but don’t let yourself get bogged down in the detail.

The final question that must be asked is: ‘Should you just give up?’  This may seem antithetical to everything I’ve just written, but it is a vital component to writing fiction.  It involves the story that is going nowhere.  I don’t know how many stories you have going at once, or if you only have one, but there comes a crossroads in every story’s life.  You were inspired up until you reached point F of the process.  Now you’re stuck.  You can’t think of what to do at this point.  The non-writer will give up the craft entirely at this point, and maybe he should.  Maybe it’s too hard for him, or maybe he just wasn’t meant to be a writer in the first place.  It’s a very important crossroads for you.  If you have the temerity to push ahead, there are a few things that I’ve done to keep ‘it’ all shiny and honed.  First, you can just force your character through the keyhole, and see what happens.  This has never worked for me.  It has left me more muddled than I was when I hit the crossroads in the first place.  You can go back and edit what you’ve already done.  Editing helps you retrace the steps that led you to the crossroads, and it can help you remember all the characteristics of your story that led you to the crossroads.  On a number of occasions, I’ve added a tweak here, deleted an adjustment there, or scrapped the story entirely.  Again, it’s important when to know when to cut your losses.  Are you going to give up writing altogether, or is it just this particular story that isn’t going the places that you hoped it would?  It’s decision time for you and your story and your career.  The other thing you can do, if you’ve decided to keep writing, is paint fruit and flowers.  It used to drive me nuts when I would go through the catalogues of the famous painters and see all these beautiful works of art broken up by paintings of fruit and flowers.  It’s my contention that these artists couldn’t think of anything to paint for stretches of time, so they painted fruit and flowers.  They did this, I believe, to keep their skills fresh for a time when inspiration struck them.  You need to find your fruit and flowers.  Is it other meaningless stories, political blogs, blogging in general, or book and album reviews?  What is it you might enjoy writing about while that story remains at a crossroads?  Whatever it is, write it and keep the muscle honed.

One thought on “Rules and Realities of Writing

  1. Hey there,

    I am an old country doctor, and I play bluegrass mandolin on the weekends. I call my genre physician bluegrass fiction. It explores the relationship of medicine and the arts, with an emphasis on the healing power of music.

    As far as I know I am the only writer in this genre.

    I suppose it is a narrow niche, but I figure if you are the only Eskimo in the world who writes a book on how to train your pet seal someone will read it out of curiosity if nothing else.

    My book, ‘The Mandolin Case,’ is due out in 2010. I hope you will come visit my blog at

    Dr. B


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