My five favourite writing rules

I say rules, they’re more guidelines…

Two from Jack M. Bickham’s The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And how to avoid them)

Don’t duck trouble.
Bickham says: “Although most of us do everything we can to avoid trouble in real life, we must do just the opposite as writers of fiction.”

I find this especially useful when brainstorming on a plot for a story. Whenever I find myself making things too easy for the characters, or have them fixing problems without too much effort I think “Never duck trouble” and start chucking sugar in the petrol tank to cause them grief.

I’m doing some brainstorming on an upcoming idea right now, for a series set on a trading starship. And at first I thought, “oh, it’s a plum assignment for the new captain, it’s the best ship in the fleet.” Until “Don’t duck trouble” came to me and I decided I should make this a ship with problems, a ship with big challenges ahead for the new captain. It’s not a plum assignment, it’s the crappiest one for a guy who’s new to the company and has no clout yet.

That’s inherently more dramatic, but even better, it gives me much more material for ongoing story ideas. The problems won’t all be solved in one story, so that contributes to series continuity. Starting out as the best ship in the fleet gives me nowhere left to go – except down and that’s just depressing. I don’t want the characters to fail. I want them on the best ship in the fleet. But they should be the ones to make it that way by the end of the series – that’s much more fun! And all stemming from thinking “no, I’m making this too easy for them. Don’t duck trouble.”

Or possibly I just really enjoy making characters suffer…

Don’t be afraid to say ‘said’.

This is in Bickham’s book, but of course is everywhere else too. Stephen King certainly mentions it in On Writing, but I can’t even recall where I first read it. And I’ve had some long – ah – discussions over the last couple of years with other writers who don’t believe in this rule. And they have a right to that belief of course. The idea to use “said” for almost every speech tag may be a mere passing fashion. But even if that’s the case, that’s the way it’s done right now and it will put an agent or publisher off if that’s violated without very good stylistic reasons.

There are several bugbears I have with the breaking of this rule. It’s usually a form of telling not showing, and one of the things it’s telling us may be how we’re supposed to view what the character said, rather than letting us draw our own conclusions from what they said. My favourite one to cite is “whined” instead of said. That’s instantly making a judgement on the character and what they said, and therefore telling us how to think and feel about them. That’s clumsy. The reader should be able to read that dialogue and think “that’s whiny” without being told to think that way. If readers don’t think that then the dialogue isn’t conveying whining effectively enough and no amount of telling us they are whining will be convincing.

The other thing I don’t like about it that it distracts away from the dialogue itself and that’s what’s most important. I’ll either be trying to figure out what fancy word meaning “said” will pop up next, or I’m wondering what this latest bizarre word culled from the thesaurus actually means and I’ve forgotten the cool dialogue.

Two from Browne and King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

Resist the urge to explain.

Or R.U.E. for short. There are times I have a big chunk of text crossed out on my editing copy and the letters R.U.E. written beside it.

Explaining can take the form of short bits like “His heart pounded in his chest.” Where “in his chest” isn’t needed, because the reader doesn’t need an explanation of where people keep their hearts. “He picked up the phone and held it to his ear.” If he’d stuck it up his nose it’s worth mentioning where he put the phone. Or if he put it on speaker, or did something else slightly different than usual, mention it, but since everyone knows that people generally talk on the phone by holding it up against their ear, resist the urge to give the reader full stage directions.

I’ve seen the urge to explain resisted beautifully in movies and TV the last few years. I once called Heroes “haiku storytelling” and Star Trek 2009 “Twitter Trek”, because of how lean the storytelling is. A few years ago scenes would have been longer, or there’d have been more scenes in-between showing more of the sequence of events. But viewers don’t need them. Spock says “Get him off the ship.” Bam – cut to Kirk getting out of an escape pod on an ice planet. Nothing needed in-between – we get it without that.

The great thing is that resisting the urge to explain lets you get more of the good stuff in the same amount of space. Trim the flab and get more muscle in there.

Once is usually enough.

I read a book recently which I enjoyed but got quite impatient with the repetition of the reminders of the mission the heroine had set herself and why she was doing it and why it was so important to her. Various things happened that put obstacles in the way of pursuing that mission and I didn’t feel I needed a reminder of why this was a problem. I hadn’t forgotten what she was trying to do. I understood that the obstacles would hinder her.

Sometimes it isn’t that large in the story, but it’s saying the same thing twice in one sentence even! “He was gloomy and miserable all day.” That’s fine when drafting, but when it comes to editing, choose one and trim the other one out.

And finally – Don’t be an ass.

Some excellent general advice from Mur Lafferty of I Should Be Writing podcast fame, not for writing as such, but for being a writer at large in the world.

It’s especially relevant to being on the Internet, because your being-an-ass can go viral and be all around the world in hours. And of course, the Internet never forgets. Years down the line something jerky you did when you were nobody may come back to bite you in the arse. Better not to be an ass in the first place.

Good quote about how the Internet has changed things: “Back in The Day, you had to work hard to let all your fans know you’re an ass. Now you can do it in a weekend tirade on Twitter.”

Well, those are my five golden rules for writing. What are your own favourites?

In next month’s writing post I think I’ll discuss my own personal golden rule – “everything in the story is connected to point of view.”


4 thoughts on “My five favourite writing rules

  1. All excellent rules – I’m about to launch into sorting out a draft of a novel that doesn’t have enough conflict. Sometimes we love our characters so much and want them to be happy, it feels cruel throwing more obstacles in their way. It’s good to remember, though: it’s how they deal with those obstacles that makes them memorable and lovable. Give your heroes a chance to rise to the occasion… so to speak 😉

  2. I like all of yours 🙂 I think my number one rule is ignore what the experts tell you to do. Sounds daft, but so many writers pick a favorite author or agent or blogger and make them God. And then, of course, someone else chooses their God – and the two Chosen Ones offer completely opposite advice/opinions on how one should write. So I guess what I’m really saying is write your story, consider the advice of experts, and if it feels right for you and this particular story, follow it. Otherwise, save it for some other story.

    Second: Don’t listen to anyone who says “Everyone says…” or “Nobody does…” Absolutists like that are typically referring to their God (see my rule #1).

    Third: e-publishing and self-publishing are not the same thing. Think ‘snake oil’ when you hear someone infer that they are.

    Fourth: Prologues are not inherently evil.

    Fifth: There are thousands of methods for writing a story. It doesn’t matter which one you use – just finish the damn story!

    1. Absolutes are definitely something to be wary of. There’s no absolute rule for success. If there was a rule everyone would be following it and succeeding!

      I obviously agree on the e-publishing and self-publishing. People are always conflating them and they aren’t the same thing at all. They’re not even the same TYPE of thing. Self publishing is a type of publishing, e-publishing is a type of distribution.

      Just finish the damn story any way that works is a good one. The reader isn’t going to know or care as long as it’s good.

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