Friday, April 21, 2006


Had to write this for 518. Some of you will find it horribly dull. Others may find it mildly interesting.

Rules of Thumb

1. Write everyday. I don’t, but I’m still a believer. I find that the weeks and months where I establish a pattern of writing regularly become much more enjoyable and productive. I feel confident. My story starts to fill the background of my daily grind, I think about it in the car and walking across campus. When I sit down at the computer I feel ready. I had a teacher in California who used to say he needed to get home and write because his characters were “digging up !&*% in the backyard.” They were a part of his everyday reality. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a good thing, but hey.

2. Close the door and don’t come out. Stephen King talks about this in his highly readable memoir about writing. When the door shuts, don’t come out for anything; not until you’ve achieved something. Of course, King also says if you haven’t finished a novel in three months (first draft), it’s not worth finishing.

3. Write whatever the hell you want. Contrary to the popular maxim, “Write what you know,” I say if you can dream it, do it. Of course, drink responsibly. You may have to do some research. But just because I’m not a ninja, don’t know any ninjas, and can’t name any famous ninjas, doesn’t mean I can’t write about them.

4. Don’t be afraid of being earnest. I don’t know, maybe I’m off on this one, but it seems like everyone wants to be “biting” these days. Biting is awesome. But there is nothing wrong with sincere emotion when a story calls for it. I try to be as jaded and post-modern as the next guy, but, secretly, I like to cry as well.

5. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read.

6. Don’t ever write in a coffee shop while wearing a black turtleneck and tinted spectacles. Just . . . don’t.

7. Listen to music for inspiration. OK, maybe it’s just an excuse not to write, but I know that when I feel discouraged or lost with a piece, music can electrify me and set the tone for creativity and productivity. It’s a tonal thing. The creative nonfiction writer Patrick Madden is rumored to have said that the band Rush has influenced his writing as much as any other thing.

8. Always write with a thesaurus close by. I like, with both a dictionary and thesaurus online. I’m not looking for the most obscure word, just the right word.

9. Think about form. When I get stuck, I try to think about ways to change the form in order to spark progress. Do I want to be in the narrator’s head? Is it better told through dialogue? How about letters? A collection of vignettes? First person? Third person? A play? A film script? You can only go so far with different options, but sometimes it helps to take a different approach and see what comes out.

10. Let yourself write garbage. This is another commonly expressed sentiment that I first heard from the famed compositionist Peter Elbow, or St. Elbow as I prefer to call him. He was talking about freewriting in the classroom. The same applies for everyone, from Hemingway on down. In fact, Hemingway partly killed himself because he wasn’t able to stomach this one, wasn’t able to write garbage. I am not a prodigy, and I know that some, if not much, of what I write may be subpar, unimportant, and incomplete. Let it out, man. If you beat yourself up every time you fall short of a Pulitzer you’re going to be a sore, lonely human being.

11. Get to know your characters. Related to #1. I like the fact sheet approach suggested by many writing teachers where you writing a bio of your character that exists outside of your actual story. Knowing how your character will act or respond in certain situations saves a lot of time on the back end trying to revise and correct inconsistencies. Of course, this is largely subjective and should only be carried so far (unless you’re writing a biography or something), but it helps. Sometimes.

12. Turn it over to the character. Related to #12. One of the most important lessons John Bennion learned in Houston and passes on to his students. If you’re unsure of how to play, or explain, a certain situation/scene, make a conscious effort to let the character work it out on the page. How does the reader know how to understand/interpret certain acts or phrases? Let the characters give cues on how to read it. What are they thinking or doing that points the reader in the right direction? Am I making any sense? This is new advice for me, so I’m not sure I even totally understand what I’m trying to say.

13. Don’t worry about publishing. Go with your gut. Constantly skewing and tweeking your work according to some perceived secret of what “publishers” want will send you in circles and suck the blood out of your manuscript.

14. Worry about publishing. (i.e. Make some money!) Artistic integrity aside, I would gladly be a tool of the publishing industry if it meant making insane truckloads of money off my writing. Nobody wants to eat sawdust and shoe leather. Send out your work. There is nothing wrong with wanting to make money, even insane truckloads of it. Just be prepared not to.

15. Cut. Slash. Revise. Reduce. Ken Rand calls it “the 10 percent solution.” Stephen King says something similar. Basically, the idea is that no matter how good or tight you think something is (especially an early draft), you can probably always cut out more. Rand says 10 percent: 10,000 words to 9,000. William Faulker’s much-quoted “kill your darlings” line comes to mind. This depends on the writer, and the piece. I don’t follow any mathematical formula, but like to keep the principle in mind.

16. Eat rejection. My aunt, Karen Joy Fowler, is a fairly successful and critically-acclaimed novelist. She started writing on her 30th birthday and is now 53. This, she has said, is her secret to success. She started out in a class that later turned into a writing group that has been together for over 20 years. They still meet at her house every Thursday evening. But she is the only one in the group who has enjoyed any kind of success (measured externally). She told me, “I wasn’t the most gifted in the group, or even the hardest working, but I was the one who was able to take rejection and keep on going.” She waded through years of disappointment, peppered with modest successes, before she began to emerge. There are many reasons for writing, but if part of your goal is to produce great art and be recognized for it, then don’t give up after a year or two.

17. A man is never a prophet in his own country. Don’t be upset if Mom and Dad don’t appreciate your genius. They love you anyway.

18. Have kids. One of the biggest sources of material for many writers I know. Probably not the best reason to have them though, I admit.

19. Love it. There should, for at least a moment, at some point in the process, be a feeling of joy.

20. If needed, break any or all rules. I know, I know, this sounds like a title for the last chapter of a shameless self-help book. But I figure I need to cover my butt, since I can often be found not following my own rules of thumb. We all know life is an improv thing. Whatever works, you know. OK, self, now get out there and do something with your life.