Last time I blogged on Five Rules about Writing I (Sorta) Disagree With. I concluded with a promise to discuss some rules of good writing I do agree with. It won’t surprise you that they’re pretty obvious. Let’s take a look at five such rules anyway.
1. The first rule is the one I referred to as Isaac Asimov’s principle: Either it sounds right or it doesn’t sound right. As a writer who wants to be read by others, you will need to write to the inner ear of the prospective reader. Some so-called “good” writing does not do this. The grammar may be correct, the words are in decent order, and the meaning may even be clear. But the reader puts the book down anyway. Why? Because the writing, as literally correct as it may be, doesn’t resonate with the reader’s inner ear. The best way to write to the inner ear of the reader is to have a strong narrative inner ear yourself. If you read with a good inner ear, it’s likely you’ll also write with a good inner ear.
2. Closely related to number 1 is that to be a good writer, you need to be a good reader. Some may dispute this rule—and in fact, one of my favorite novels was written by a man who is not a reader….at all. But in all my years of writing and editing, he is the only one I’ve met. I thus declare this to be an unbreakable rule, despite having met one exception.
Reading develops your inner ear as a writer. In fact, one of the exercises I recommend to writers as they begin their writing session (especially if they have trouble getting started) is to type word for word from the lines of one of their favorite books. They will soon pick up the rhythms of the writer and will (hopefully) continue writing in that desirable rhythm for the rest of their writing session.
Along the same line, the February issue of Christian Communicator has an article on author Dandi Daley Mackall in which she advises writers, “Read. Read like crazy. It gets the story form in your head.” Yes, that’s true. And reading also develops your inner ear.
3. A strong beginning to whatever you write—novel, article, or non-fiction book—is essential. You may have to wrestle for days to get it just right—but do it. Find those magical first lines that not only effectively invite the reader into the world of your manuscript, but keeps them there. Magical opening lines are important to you, too, not just the reader. Finding the perfect opening lines is like finding the exact loose thread in a ball of yarn that when you pull it, all the rest of the yarn (hey, that’s a pun!) follows along. In my workshops I offer up some examples of great opening lines. Below are just a few. As you read, notice how you as a reader will almost certainly go on from this line to the next…and then the next…and so on until you reach the last page. In almost every case below, you reach the end of the sentence with a “why?” or “what happens next?” on your mind. Also notice that by “magical” I’m not referring to something other worldly. For the most part, these opening lines are quite simple and uncomplicated. The point is that they arouse interest in the reader.
Author: Benchley, Peter
The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail.
Author: Bronte, Charlotte
Title: Jane Eyre
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.
Author: du Maurier, Daphne
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again.
Author: Marquez, Gabriel Garcia
Title: One Hundred Years of Solitude
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
Author: Tolkien, J.R.R.
Title: The Hobbit
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
Author: Tyler, Anne
Title: Breathing Lessons
Maggie and Ira Moran had to go to a funeral in Deer Lick, Pennsylvania.
True, some first lines that grab me may not grab you, but the idea is to create a strong enough opening that you will capture enough readers that will follow you to the end of the book…and into your next one as well.
4. There is much debate about whether it’s better to be a “plotter” or a “pantser.” The plotters are those who plot out their book (usually a novel) well in advance and pretty much stick to the plot as they write. A pantser is so-named because he writes by the seat of his pants, seldom knowing that comes next. Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser really doesn’t matter. Do what works for you. But what I do want you to commit to is to write your crummy first draft in its entirety before you go back to edit.
This rule, like some of the others, is controversial. Many successful writers feel they must get every line perfect before moving on to the next line. That may be well and good if you’re an experienced writer, but I’m supposing most of you are in the early or mid-stage of your writing career. For that reason—especially if you tend toward procrastination, as do many writers—you really need to get the story down on paper in its entirely, then go back and do as many subsequent drafts as necessary. I think Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird suggests six or seven drafts. Do not send a first or even second draft of your work to an editor or agent you’re trying to impress! If possible, let the manuscript sit for a couple of weeks or more after that first draft, then go back and do the next draft.
5. Like many writers, I collect good quotes about writing. One of my favorite relating to the writing of fiction comes from author Sinclair Lewis. He said, “People read fiction for emotion, not information.” If you write fiction, please remember that you’re not just telling a story or passing along information. Your goal is to emotionally move your reader. Preferably to tears. Doesn’t matter if they’re tears of sadness or tears of joy. Just make sure they’re not tears of boredom. The best way to satisfy a reader is touch their emotions in an unforgettable way. Do this and you’ll have a ready buyer for your next book. Of course, non-fiction can also move the reader, depending on the genre. A memoir certainly should move us, but not a how-to book. Know what will move your target reader and aim your entire story toward that point or points where you know you can have them reaching for the Kleenex.
Although I’ve limited my unbreakable “rules” to five for the purposes of this blog, there are certainly many more. The best rules, though, are the ones that work for you. When you find such a rule, add it to your list of unbreakable rules.