Most writers have their own special “rules for writing,” even if they don’t talk about them. I find other writers’ rules fascinating, even when I don’t agree with them. A lot can be learned by reading about other authors’ approaches to writing.
The New York Times and The Guardian have published famous authors’ answers to this question on a number of occasions. The Guardian has a very long, disorganized article that collects many of the rules, which you can read here. This article is an attempt to organize that collection and to link to other authors’ rules as well, including more recently published authors’ rules on writing.
I’m of the same mind about this subject as author and writing coach Mark David Gerson (The Voice of the Muse). His writing mantra is There are No Rules. I agree. Rules for writing seem to me about as relevant as rules for enjoying a sunset or a kiss.
For those who, like the author of this article, find the rules of famous writers to be fascinating, this post by Emily Harstone in “Authors Publish” is the mother lode of rules. You’ll find Elmore Leonard, George Orwell, Neil Gaiman, Jack Kerouac, and even Nietzche. Nietzche’s rules begin with “Of prime necessity is life: a style should live.” I have no idea what that means.
Enjoy or be driven to drink, depending on your point of view.
Every once in a while, I come across a writer who composes his/her stories on a typewriter. Growing up, the sound of a manual typewriter was the most constant sound in our house. Dad was an author and typed everything on a Royal. When IBM introduced the Selectric in 1961, I wanted Dad to get an electric typewriter.
He never would. Perhaps it was the initial cost. Or perhaps it was the fact that repairs on Selectrics–like similar typewriters made by other companies–cost more than fixing that old Royal. I used a Selectric while in the navy and at my first civilian jobs. I liked the ease of typing, when compared to a manual, and I liked the typeballs because they made it so easy to change fonts.
And, if you liked the sound, the typeball hitting the ribbon made a sound sort of like the keys on an old Royal or Underwood–only faster. And, you still had the profanity that occurred when a writer made a mistake on a clean copy while ripping the sheet of paper out of the machine and throwing it (the paper) somewhere on the floor near the trashcan. (Yes, there was a “Correcting Selectric” but if you were typing with carbon paper, the correction made the carbon copy worse.)
The good news for me was that my wife-to-be was a journalist and owned Remington’s version of the Selectric which worked just fine. Maybe that’s why I married her.
But then computers came along and people started swapping out their electric typewriters for computers with so-called word processing software. (I disliked the term intensely, but couldn’t say so because I worked for a computer company that made the hardware and software.) At that point, we not only swapped out our typewriters for early computers but traded the celestial sound of manual keys for the hideous noise of dot matrix printers.
No, I can’t go back, though if my wife’s Remmington still worked, we might use it for typing notes and addressing envelopes. My Dell computer is quiet. But sometimes I wonder if it would help my inspiration to play a sound-effects audio file of a Selectric burning ribbon at 125 words per minute. Yeah, I’d be cooking with gas then.
When I found my agent for “The Sun Singer,” the manuscript was typed on a Selectric-style typewriter. Seems like the dark ages now, even though I think the contemporary fantasy novel still reads fine in 2020.
If you’re online a lot–including social networking–you’re probably used to the fact that if you ever mention (or think about) a product, you’ll suddenly see dozens of ads for that product. At present, Facebook is deluged with ads for toilet paper. Gosh, I wonder why? Those who checked out these ads, unfortunately, found that the projected ship dates were in June.
Writers see ads others don’t see because we’re always researching something. For the novel in progress, I checked on the kind of Khaki a middle-aged person might wear in the early 1950s. Now, Khaki ads are showing up on Facebook, on news sites, and everywhere else I’m going on the Internet. At least, on Facebook, you can make the ad go away if you say you’ve already bought the stuff.
(We go through a lot to bring you the most accurate books on the planet.)
When I was researching hitmen, I started seeing ads for contract killers until finally the FBI called up and asked if I wanted to kill anybody. I said “no” and they said, “fine,” but I wonder if they’ve really gone away. No doubt the NSA scoops up my telephone calls and searches for words like “rub out,” “concrete shoes,” and “kick the bucket.”
Some writers share Facebook accounts with their spouses and get in trouble when these kinds of ads appear: “Honey, why are we suddenly getting ads for brothels?” The proper response to that is “Somebody hacked into our account.”
When writers talk on forums about their research, they wonder how many watch lists they’re on for researching nefarious stuff for their novels. While the famous writers can visit the police department and learn everything they want to know, little-known writers are stuck with Internet searches.
“Honey, I got a letter from the FBI and they told me you want to know how to kill your spouse by putting a pinch of something in his/her coffee.”
“Don’t worry, sugar, I saw that in a movie called ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ when I was a kid. The FBI has me mixed up with somebody else.”
Malcolm R. Campbell’s short story collection, Widely Scattered Ghosts, is free on Smashwords during the company’s “give back” sale.
If you dabble in anything writing, you know it shares a similarity to any ordinary business – seasons. Businesses experience boom or recession; writers experience feast or famine. To escape this cycle, writers capitalize in two ways: finding retainer clients and collecting a plethora of clients. But do you know there are other options that can help beat the challenges of seasons?
Here are six alternative revenue sources to engage in as a writer.
Derick Omondi’s guest post presents some workable ideas. If you’ve been writing a while, and especially if you keep up with publicity techniques, you may have seen these ideas before. If they’re new for you, all of them may not apply, but some will.
A helpful and knowledgeable post from the Funds for Writers blog.
However, I think many webinars crafted for aspiring and emerging writers are taking a lot of our money for very little information.
How much does the webinar cost? $150. $250. $500? That seems to me to be a rip off from the outset inasmuch as those producing the webinar could sell the same number of tips in a paperback book or even a downloadable PDF for a lot less.
When you look at the number of facts in a webinar, you’ll quickly see that the number of words is very low when contrasted to, say, a pamphlet about the same material. Writers don’t earn a lot of money, so I wonder why we are being gouged with high prices.
Most webinars are not closed-captioned. So, if you’re hard of hearing–and if no transcript is offered–you’re paying for a presentation you cannot hear. That is to say, it’s worthless.
Webinars are linear. That is, they’re like a tape recording. You have to listen from beginning to end. That means you’re forced to hear the information you already know. Unlike feature films on CD, webinars usually don’t include a table of contents or any other way to access specific parts for the information you want.
When webinars include guests or panels, a lot of the introductory minutes are used up with that we used to call happy news chatter. That is, the participants introduce themselves, talk about each other’s work, and spend a lot of time (and your money) saying how nice it is to see each other.
If the information in a webinar we produced in print (or PDF) in a magazine format with subheads, you could quickly go to the information you don’t already know. That is, your eyes could see the entire presentation’s format in a fraction of the time it takes to laboriously listen/view the whole thing from beginning to end.
One thing many webinars don’t acknowledge is that some promotion techniques lend themselves more to nonfiction than fiction. So, they present promotion as an outgrowth of one’s business. This doesn’t work for fiction writers. Don’t get rooked into spending on a webinar focused on business owners who write books about their businesses when you’re looking for help with a novel.
Like many written presentations, webinars often spend a lot of time rehashing what aspiring writers already know. If the production included a table of contents, you could see how much of it was new and how much was old before you spent your money.
Frankly, I don’t understand the popularity of webinars. Other than the fact they cost a lot more money than the same facts in printed form, most of us can read faster than we can listen. We can scan a page of type in seconds, but a webinar moves along (relatively speaking) at a snail’s pace.
The advertising for webinars typically suggests that when you pay to listen/view, you’re going to see and hear secrets that are only known to those who created the webinar. Seriously, what a joke. Do you really want to believe some author you’ve never heard of when s/he says his/her webinar will turn your book into a bestseller? Let’s not be naive.
Sometimes a disagreement gives me pause to explore how I see a certain style of writing and why. In this case, a member of my critique group and I differed on the use of italics for inner dialogue, or thoughts. He hates them. I use them. It has caused some strong discussion. (Yes, we remain good friends.)
Basically, how you approach a character’s thoughts comes down to personal preference unless your work is going to a publisher with a strong editor and/or a strong style sheet.
In my novel Conjure Woman’s Cat and its two sequels, I used italics to indicate that the cat was using telepathy to talk to the conjure woman. My editor thought I didn’t need to do that, but I didn’t want to go through entire pages of “thought speech” with “Lena thought” and “Eulalie thought” tied onto all the lines. That might make readers think they were just thinking about those things when they were communicating them.
Italics becomes a bit of a problem when passages become lengthy. It’s generally considered harder to read–or a “put off” to readers–when it covers entire pages.
This piece in Indies Unlimited is, I think, a catalyst for us to think about what we’re doing when we write.
C. Hope Clark has been advising authors through her weekly newsletter “Funds for Writers” for twenty years. I’m a long-time subscriber and look forward to Fridays and the arrival of the newsletter in my in-basket because it contains nuts and bolts tips, writing ideas and inspiration presented with a positive can-do attitude, and lists of upcoming writing opportunities.
Clark, who is also a novelist (The Carolina Slade Mysteries and The Edisto Island Mysteries) brings the best contest-related ideas from her newsletter to Writing Contests with Hope that was released in paperback and e-book in February. “This book has been a long time coming, “said Clark. “It speaks of the myths of contests, and shows how amazing contests can be for your career.”
From the Publisher
Everyone loves winning, but nobody enjoys losing. Writers are no exception. Contests in the writing profession offer opportunity in many forms, but so many writers fear entering. Whether they fear scans, rejection, or being judged, they hold back. On the other hand, others throw caution to the wind and enter every contest in sight, likewise winning nothing. Contests are a serious venture. They can catapult a career if entered thoughtfully with serious intent. Yes, intent. Contests aren’t a whimsical endeavor. With planning, practice, and research, writers can enter contests and genuinely improve their odds of success.
A lot of writers I know don’t enter contests. That makes sense in they’re busy finishing their latest novel or meeting a deadline for a magazine article. Otherwise, I don’t understand why they don’t do it. Hope understands: in the book, she discusses some of the usual reasons writers don’t enter any of the dozens of competitions available each year. If you have concerns about contests, take a look at the What’s Inside feature on the book’s Amazon listing. The point of view there may change your mind. If it does, this book will increase your odds of success.
Every week on Facebook and in my e-mail in-basket, I see the following:
Podcasts and videos that promise to show me how my next book can be a bestseller.
Free PDF downloads that promise to show me how to get better coverage on Amazon and in Google searches by changing the keywords I use in my promotion copy–and even in my book title.
Publicists who want me to gamble, say, $5,000 to hire them to get more reviews, articles, TV appearances, and other promotional exposure for my novels.
Some of these people mean well. Perhaps most of them mean well.
But I’m tired of all the offers because: (a) There are so many of them, (b) A large number see books as a value-added extra for people whose real business is doing something else, (c) They’re focused on non-fiction, (d) Use videos that are not closed-captioned, meaning that they are of little value to those of us who are hard of hearing, (e) Use podcasts that, while very popular, present information in a linear fashion that means–even if I could hear–I’d have to wade through the whole thing to get information I could see on a webpage in a fraction of the time.
There’s an old joke that people selling shovels made more money than those heading out as part of the gold rush. This seems similar to those promoting writers’ tools. People wanted to strike it rich in the goldfields. Apparently, writers want to strike it rich–or, at least all these sellers of so-called helpful information think we want to strike it rich.
Many of us on Facebook joke about the fact that whenever we go out on a website to buy gifts or check on prices for something we need, our Facebook screen is filled with advertisements for that very thing the following day. Maybe that’s why writers see all these promotions. The promoters find out we’re writers, so they display “how to write” advertisements in our e-mail in-baskets and Facebook timelines.
Frankly, I think a lot of these promotions are looking for writers with a short attention span, the writer who don’t want to “pay their dues” working their way up, and so we’re offered promises of instant riches. The whole thing would be amusing if it weren’t for the possibility that a lot of writers are paying money for “all this help” that probably won’t get them anywhere.
I wonder, how naïve can a person be who has just graduated from high school, self-publishes a book, and thinks that with a small investment of, say, $5,000 s/he will suddenly be in the stratosphere of writers by listening to a podcast? Yes, it could happen. But for most people, it won’t. The lottery probably has better odds of success.
My publisher and I joke about when Oprah will select one of my books for her book club and when Viola Davis wil read Conjure Woman’s Cat and want to play the role of Eulalie. Sure, these are nice dreams, but I can’t base my writing career on waiting for them to happen. Or, on thinking I can pay somebody to make them happen.
Writers everywhere are asking what it takes to get more reader reviews on Amazon, reviews in prestigious review sites like Publishers Weekly and Booklist, how does one build a platform that major publishers and major critics and the book-buying public notice, what does it take for a word-of-mouth campaign to bring in sales, and similar questions. When all of this is discussed online, it brings you a host of ads and purported deals that claim to help you get those things.
In most cases, they won’t. And, I think that the majority of people who spend money on such services are spending more than their books are likely to earn.
Yes, I think you can build a platform. I think you can do yourself a lot of good submitting short stories and essays to carefully chosen contests and magazines, I think you can make comments on the Facebook status updates of other writers as well as their blogs, I think you can develop a niche for your own blog and website that sooner or later captures the attention of readers, editors, and agents. But, there’s nothing certain about this process. Keep your day job and keep at it, and look at all those people selling shovels with a sceptical eye.