April 20, 2015

Talking Shop: 5 Basic Rules for Writing

There are lots and lots of lists out there telling authors what to do and what not to do. Some of these cover marketing, querying, submitting manuscripts, editing...today I'm posting my own 5 Basic Rules for Writing (Anything). There's no order to these; I consider each of them highly important. If you are serious about writing, I highly, highly suggest you follow these guidelines.


1. Learn Your Grammar


I hear authors say it all the time: "I know my grammar's poor, but I'll fix it later."


Fix it now. Seriously. I'm not going to deny that grammar is tough and yes, I myself have to brush up on it now and again, because it's been over a decade since I took a grammar course and I forget what a present participle is or the specific usage of a semi-colon. But it's no excuse. Proper grammar is part of strong writing.


I don't fool myself into believing I will always have perfect grammar. Probably no one ever will.  I'm also a big fan of the old adage, "We learn the rules so we know how to break them later". Once you understand how conjunctions are meant to be used and how sentences are meant to be structured, sure you can start a sentence with a conjunction. There's a dramatic effect in doing so; you can altar the pace and focus of your reader's inner voice. You also have to know why you shouldn't do it, though, if you want to judge the best ways in which to use that broken rule.


Yes, grammar is difficult and complex. There are lots of rules. It's no excuse to be lazy or to assume an editor will clean it up for you. You call yourself a writer, so write like it. 


Do some looking around and bookmark some websites that help you understand and easily reference grammatical situations and rules you have trouble with or may forget. Do be sure these are reliable sources, of course. Or pick up a grammar guide. If there's a particular aspect of grammar you know to be a weak point (comma splices, I'm looking at you), study it until you understand.


Even if your grammar is never perfect, anyone hoping to write good books should have a much better-than-average understanding of how it works.

2. Do Your Research


This one should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway. Do not base anything in your stories on a concept you haven't spent time researching, (and on more than one website). Unless you make up a fully original historical, religious, governmental, philosophical, or social system for your story, be sure you are basing your plot in facts, or have a very, very good reason your story doesn't adhere to them.


If you're writing a story about a woman living in a big city and she has a gun for personal protection, do you know the gun laws in the area she's in? Is she breaking them somehow? If she is, why? If not a gun, how about mace? What are the rules governing mace? This could be important and have consequences to the story, if she ever reveals to anyone what she has hidden in her purse.


(Actually, I use Wikipedia all the time...
only as a starting point, not a single source.)

If you have characters who are strict Catholics, do you know the different types of Mass? Do you know some of the common prayers said by Catholics, and what situations they are used in? What is your characters patron saint? If your character is not Catholic but you want some religious presence in the story, do you know which churches follow certain expectations and which ones don't? Did you know the Episcopalian church will ordain gay clergymen, while Methodists are more likely to leave gay issues to be decided on a church-by-church basis? Do you know if the church/denomination you've chosen will allow women to serve as clergy? Even if you'd like to write about a particular congregation or priest or monk who defies certain aspects of his faith, do you know what consequences he or she faces for doing so?


Are all these things going to matter in your particular story? Probably not. You may not need to know which churches allow openly gay clergy or which ones ordain women or what patron saint your character prays to, if any. But whatever you do write about, be sure it's accurate, and be sure the surrounding details are accurate. You can't simply have a priest who openly defies key tenets of his religion and you can't have a character who owns a weapon in a weapons-free zone who gets away with flouting it openly. Actions have consequences, remember that.


You don't have to be an absolute expert in every key background detail of your story, but ground your claims (that is, your plot events and key background elements) in fact. The more accurate details you give, the more believable and complex your story will become.


Some elements I have researched at length for my stories: styles of kimonos and what they mean; geography (including the relationship of time to distance! Please know how long it will take a character to get somewhere before you claim it's just a few minutes drive!); plants and their medicinal uses or toxic effects; basic architecture; historical events surrounding my setting; types of faeries, mythological creatures, and folklore; dessert recipes; different mental illnesses and their effects/treatments; and etc.



3. Read Good Books


Do you know why good readers make good writers? Because in reading the works of others, you develop an ear and a mind for what a good story "sounds" like. Just as a good artists studies the techniques of artists before them, good writers absorb and appreciate the styles and talents of other good writers.


Notice I say "good" writers. Clearly not all books are worth learning from. Some books are perfectly fine stories, but they won't expand your inner ear and mind with that really good quality of a well-rounded, tight, and compelling style.



Whatever you read for fun, be sure you get some books in there that stand above others. This doesn't necessarily mean only "The Classics" (books you might read in a historical literature class) or literary award winners suggested by Oprah. I think the Harry Potter series is a particularly good example of excellent writing style and voice, terrific for helping to tune an inner ear. JK Rowling has a great sense of storytelling, especially foreshadowing and clever use of details introduced early on (and with smooth integration into the story), in order to bring them back later with powerful results. Stephen King has a way with creating very real, well-fleshed out characters, as well as being able to write a huge plot, with many, many players, in a very tightly-woven, well-rounded package (see The Stand and Under the Dome). Naomi Novik is amazing with period language and historical setting. Sarah Waters has an exceptionally poetic "voice" and sets vivid scenes with great description and detail (which, by the way, does not necessarily mean every detail...sometimes less is more, of course).


You can also learn from bad writing. I've finished the entire Twilight series, and I only finished it as a means of learning what not to do. I could only stomach one of Laurel K. Hamilton's Anita Blake books, but once I realized just how awful it was I started taking notes on its numerous errors and terrible prose (yes, Guilty Pleasures is awful, it's one of the only books so bad I refused to read any more of the series even as a learning experience. It made my ears bleed, and its one of the only things that can make me appreciate Stephenie Meyer's writing).





4. Learn Some Techniques in Literary Composition


While I don't think literary composition is quite as important as grammar is, on a universal level, I still think having some education in it benefits serious writers immensely. Even if you don't think you're writing something "literary", things like theme, symbolism, literary device and allusion/allegory are just a few concepts in literary analysis that can really drive your story above and beyond the typical tale, even in genre literature.


Literary device is an important one. Literary device provides the building blocks of a three-dimensional story. Knowing at least some of the major techniques (things like personification, hyperbole, characterization, rhythm and rhyme) can help you do more than just tell a story, but give readers the experience of it. Devices such as asyndetone and polysyndetone are lesser known, but they can help you manage the reading pace of a sentence, making the piece speed up or slow down focus. Euphony and cacophony can influence how a reader feels about a setting or image. Anestrophe, caesura, and periphrasis are some techniques one can use to sharpen dramatic focus or obscure it. By this point you may not even recognize these terms, but that's okay. They're not mandatory...they just help craft a more complex bit of writing.


I suggest taking at least one class in literary composition and analysis, and keep a reference of literary devices handy. Know how to use them to effect, and you can create a much richer experience for your readers.




5. Don't be Proud


It would probably be best to say, "don't be arrogant", but sometimes a over-inflated sense of pride is not as blatant as real arrogance. Of course any author should be proud of what he or she has created, as long as it's something they've really crafted well. What one should not do is become a "helicopter parent" over each and every aspect of the book being dictated by you or left unchanged. Don't assume you have created a perfect "child" that cannot be questioned. Be open to the wisdom of others.


Here's one way in which I am always running up against this. When I've read my own work over and over--which I do, as I'm writing it--I can lose sight of some aspects which may not be as strong or as developed. I've grown used to them and accepted them. Or maybe I find a particular segment, or even just a turn of phrase, incredibly clever or poignant or hilarious or purposeful. Then, a beta reader or an editor gets a hold of it and has no idea why it even exists in the manuscript.


Rather than assume all readers must adapt their reading style to "get" your intent, adopt a habit of reviewing your work from the point of view of others. Trust in the reading instincts of your support network--especially an editor--enough to question yourself. This doesn't mean you should blindly accept any and all outside suggestions. I've had to return more than one manuscript to my general editor with the note that the line editor obviously wasn't reading closely or paying attention. I usually reserve this for when I know a suggestion is actually, factually incorrect, not just a difference of opinion. It does happen, however. And I do come across disagreements with my own editor or beta readers where I certainly don't accept their suggestion.  But I do consider them. I recognize my eyes and ears are not infallible, and even though I am the only one who can truly, intimately know the ins and outs of my story, if I've communicated it in a way that confuses or fails to interest readers, I pretty much shoot myself in the foot. So you have to find a happy medium, when it comes to polishing your work to the best outcome.



These are some of the most important things I consider as a writer. The fact is, there are lots of writers out there, both skilled and unskilled, and their work shows it. I can appreciate writers who might not be the most talented and devoted users of these same tenets, but I always find writers who take the time to educate themselves in these ways bring about the kind of writing that affects readers most. Those who ignore them entirely, or assume that writing is easy and requires no technical boundaries, tend to write the worst kinds of stories. They may be memorable, but not for the right reasons.



If you're looking to refine your skills into a real craft, and create writing that is complex and truly stands out, I believe you should do more than pick up a pen and put down words. You need to know more about the real art of what you're doing.


  1. I don't understand why I still haven't read one of your books yet.

    Great post, btw. I needed this. I'm currently editing a story of mine that I hope to make publish worthy, with beta beta-reader support, of course.

  2. Well, thank you much! I'm really glad if these guidelines help you out. I wish you luck with your efforts in editing and publishing the story. Put your best foot forward!


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