Rule One

I had reached the point where, as my friend at the time said, “We need to get you some publishing credits.” I had been writing for years and following the rules of Good Writing. These rules were not actually written down anywhere, but I was certain they existed, and I was going to follow them, and when I followed them strictly enough all this writing I was doing would get published.

But in the meantime, as my friend said, perhaps it would be a good idea to get any kind of publishing credit. We both needed the work, and work looked like it might be coming our way. A game company with which I was working wanted to publish novels based on their games. These would be mystery-type novels written for women. I never read mysteries, and I didn’t write for women—I just wrote (following the rules, of course), for women, men, boys, girls, cats, I didn’t care, I just wrote. The plan was that my friend and I would try to write one of these novels together.

My friend, who was more experienced than I but who had also never written mysteries or for women, suggested we start with a little research. We should read the types of books we were about to write. He gave me a list of writers I had never heard of. “These ladies are pros,” he told me. “Let’s see how they do it.”

The pro I would read first had written numerous #1 New York Times Bestsellers. She had written them under different names, and at the pace of about two books a year. This book, a romantic suspense, was different than the sorts of novels I normally read. I opened to the first page reminding myself to put aside my normal biases, to enjoy the fast-paced suspenseful romance and learn how to write these different sorts of stories.

I was surprised by what I read. This book broke all the rules I had been diligently following. It broke them page after page after page. I knew it wouldn’t be the sort of book I normally read, but I didn’t think it would be this different. How could it be? I wondered. How can you write like this and get published. Are there no standards at all?

If I had been much younger I might have chalked the answer up to the stupidity of the reading public, or the death of literature or whatever – but I didn’t. What I did was close the book and turn it over. On the back I found the full cover photo of the author, dressed in her power blouse, standing powerfully before her library, staring back into the camera with a look that said, “I make the rules in this house!”

I looked at the picture, turned the book over and looked at the cover, read the first page again, looked at her picture again, and thought, “Oh, I get it. This book sounds like her.”

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Learning The Rules

It is hard to know where one person’s memory ends and mine begins. I know the story of being at the pool when I was three, and that my mother was assigned to look after my older sister, my toddler brother, and me. And I know I was hanging onto the edge of the pool and my mother told me, “Now don’t let go,” because she had to go fetch Tommy who was wandering off. I know these things because those are my mother’s memories of the events leading up to what I did next.

I think I remember letting go of the side of the pool as soon as she was out of sight. I know that I remember floating down through the water. I could not swim a stroke, you see, and for some reason I was at the deep end of the pool. So I sank.

I remember the peace of being fully submerged. I have no memory of being worried. The water was just so peaceful, and the further down I sank, the more peaceful it grew. Gone for the moment were the rules of dry land, where one is weighted to the earth and its relentlessly horizontal options. This was like flying in reverse, with the pleasant benefit of the world being slowed within water’s fluid embrace.

Then something was happening and I was surging upwards, the water filling my ears with the sound of movement. I burst out of the water on the lifeguard’s shoulders. “Decided to take a little swim,” he said to my mother, who crouched at the edge of the pool. The lifeguard was very jolly. It was like he and I were playing a game.

My mother, however, wore an expression I had never seen before. She was not angry – I’d seen that expression before – but it seemed like I had done something wrong. I had broken a rule, and I was the sort of boy who wanted to follow the rules. There were just so many rules one had to remember that they could fill your head like noise so you can’t hear the simple sound of your own thoughts. Tempting then to let go, I suppose, and nice as well to know you have that choice. But the lifeguard was right to be so jolly. The game was still going, and I had just begun to play it.

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Look New

If rule one for most writers is, “Show don’t tell,” then rule two is probably, “Never use clichés!” The exclamation point is mine – because although I would never argue with either of these rules, it seems to me that rule two is our most punishable offense, the schoolmarm’s knuckle-cracking yardstick of writing wisdom.

I don’t believe in doing anything to avoid punishment. This to me is a backward way to go about things, since life, whether we like it or not, is always led toward and never away from. So let’s take another, more compassionate look at clichés and why our work is always better served without them.

All clichés worked once. One of my favorite clichés is, “The silence was deafening.” Isn’t that lovely? And quite deft, using the oxymoronic “deafening” to compel the reader to re-imagine overwhelming silence. The problem for writers is not that someone has already used this phrase and by doing so yourself you are committing the shameful sin of unoriginality; rather, by using this cliché you are denying your reader the opportunity to see the world new.

Whatever your readers pictured in their mind’s eye when they first read a cliché like the one above will remain with them forever, to be regurgitated whenever those words appear on a page. Whatever it is you are looking to describe cannot possibly be the very same thing your readers were having described to them when they created their mental image, and yet that is what they will see.

If you write to avoid shame, all your efforts are, in the end, selfish in the very worst sense of that word. There is no satisfaction in selfishness; selfishness satisfied is only fear delayed. But when you write generously, you write toward the gift and not away from the shame. Your gift is vision, to see clearly what has always been directly before us, and in so doing remind the reader, and yourself, that every silence and every flower and every person defies the confines of a single idea.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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Uncertain Victory

I come from a family of gamers. Growing up we played everything from whiffle ball and football, to Monopoly and Canasta, to the more obscure Rail Baron and 1776, to the iconic Dungeons & Dragons. My childhood sometimes felt like a search from one game to the next, those open, shapeless hours in between remarkable for their shameless lack of formal purpose.

In many ways, our lives are like games. That is, we make up the rules. Every single society is a great collection of rules of our own invention, both written and unwritten, that we choose, more or less, to follow just as the baseball player agrees to round the bases counter-clockwise. Following the rules allows one to play the game, and playing the game allows one to create. I play by the current rules of the English language, for instance, not because I am afraid of receiving a bad grade from God but because I wish to have what I write understood by others.

Where games diverge from life is in the winning. In actual games, the winning gives the games a focus and a direction. The clarity of goal lines and checkmates is addictive. Why can’t life itself have such clarity? There are days I have yearned for one eternal competitor to defeat, a foe against whom to hurl all my creative energies and whose demise will bring about a triumph of everlasting contentment, as if I had enacted my own private Second Coming.

Writing can provide such illusory goals. The agent, the publishing deal, the award—each objective can appear trophy-like from a distance. Yet the moment I view any part of life itself as a game to be won I feel the hollowness of loss. In that moment I lose the freedom to create, for I have called the world a place where any creation can be judged as valuable or valueless. Now I am no longer free. Now I must win to be happy, for those are the new rules of the game. The price we pay for such imposed certainty is far worse than the hours of boredom or uncertainty; now it is as if we have chained our wrists to the bedpost so as not to risk painting something ugly.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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Butt In Chair

Ask a dozen writers for the first and most important rule of writing, and ten of them will likely quote, sometimes grudgingly, that old workhorse aphorism: Butt in Chair. I never cared for this rule; it made writing seem like drudgery. Until, that is, I remembered writing my first novel.

I was in my twenties, and I had already written plenty of short stories, poems, plays, and screenplays. But I’d never attempted The Novel. So I made myself a schedule: Monday through Saturday, 7:00 AM to 9:00 AM. Non-negotiable. If I have no other talent, it is a mule-like stick-to-itiveness, and so, lo and behold, after six months of adhering to this schedule I had a 350-page draft of something resembling a novel.

I found it strangely miraculous, that all that was required to finish a draft of a novel was to work on it every day. In fact, there was a woman with whom I worked who had expressed an interest in writing romance novels. I revealed to her my secret as if I’d found the fountain of youth. “All you need to do is write every day!” I exclaimed. “That’s it!”

Of course, there was a bit more to it than that, but the point was that the size of the novel need not intimidate. And while I thought I had learned a great lesson about novel writing, I had in fact learned a great lesson about life itself. Namely, whatever we put our attention on increases.

What is Butt in Chair really saying but that? If you put your attention on the novel every day it will increase. In fact, the only way for that novel to grow to completion is to put your attention on it again and again and again. So it is with everything. Everything from our marriages to our gardens to writing. But don’t stop there. Put your attention on, say, the sour state of the economy, and it will increase, if only in your imagination. Put your attention on rejection letters and you may find they increase as well.

It is as if the universe is saying to us, even with all these supposed “bad” things we make: Look. You can make anything with your attention. Even crap. Isn’t that great news?

Yes it is. So put your butt in the chair of your life. Everything you want is waiting to be written.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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Five Rules

A regular reader of this space may have observed that I eschew writing rules. While I am a full proponent of showing instead of telling and decent grammar and so on, I think it best to let folks find their own way. Chances are we will all arrive at more or less the same place. That said, I have accrued my own vague lists of rules that I try to follow each time I sit down to work. Here they are:

1. Feel first; Write Second. When I find myself hating what I am writing it is always because I am not feeling anything. If I feel nothing, then there is actually nothing to write, and so what I am writing is just an imitation of what I sounded like when I did feel something. Sometimes I need to feel the energetic flow of the story, and sometimes I need to feel what the characters in a scene are feeling – either way, until I feel something interesting, it’s best to avoid writing anything. Of course this wouldn’t be a problem if I followed rule number 2 . . .

2. Be Patient. Stories take time, characters take time, even sentences can take time. Like most writers, I enjoy writing, only so much so that I get myself into trouble by diving in before I actually have something I want to say; or I beat myself up for not finishing a book in six drafts; or for only writing two pages in a day. There is a profound difference between procrastination and patience: one is avoiding, the other is waiting.

3. Be Humble. When I’m on the beam and the good stuff comes, I say, “Thank you,” and back away. Writing is a hands-off operation. When I start congratulating myself I get my hands all over what I’m trying to do, and this only gets in the way of more good stuff coming.

4. Be Compassionate. Every time I criticize someone else’s work, I am criticizing my own work. Every time I allow someone else to make their own mistakes, I allow myself to make my own mistakes.

5. Stick the Landing. Good stories are about good endings. The ending is the gift and the reason the story is being told. I am never finished telling a story until I know why I am telling it.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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