In my post on rules for writing, I mentioned that Rule 0 is to, you know, write. Is that clear enough?
Let’s begin with the obvious: writing fiction is, generally speaking, a stupid waste of time. (My rules, by the way, have to do only with writing fiction — if you’re interested in writing experimental screenplays or avant garde poetry or opera libretti, you’re on your own.) Samuel Johnson said “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” That makes most of us blockheads. The return on investment for writing novels is infinitesimal for almost everyone; you’re better off spending those hours learning how to blow glass or becoming a yoga instructor. What’s the matter with you, anyway?
So, if you want to get into this writing racket for the money and fame, you’re not worth talking to. The ones who are worth talking to are the ones who can’t not write. This is what they do; this is who they are. For them, Rule 0 is unnecessary. Of course they write!
But there is a class of people who aren’t quite there. They think of themselves are writers; they want to write; glass-blowing and yoga hold no interest for them. But the novel never quite gets started. Or it gets started, and then they come down with the flu, or they can’t figure out what happens in the next chapter, or their girlfriend hates it, and their momentum and inspiration dissipate. And each failure makes it harder to try again.
Rule 0 may help those folks. Here are its subrules:
Write every day. Or thereabouts. Don’t write when the inspiration strikes, or when you have a couple of spare hours before American Idol comes on, or when the guilt about not writing becomes too strong. (Inspiration, by the way, is highly overrated. Faulkner said: “I don’t know anything about inspiration because I don’t know what inspiration is; I’ve heard about it, but I never saw it.”)
Write at the same time every day. Or thereabouts. Think of writing like exercise. There’s never a good time to exercise. There’s never a good time to write. But if it’s seven in the morning or eight at night, and that’s when you’re supposed to write, then you’re more likely to sit down and write.
Don’t exhaust your inspiration. Graham Greene famously wrote only 500 words a day at one point in a career, even stopping in the middle of the scene if he had reached his quota. I don’t know if I could do that, but I do know that it’s helpful if I stop at a point where I can easily pick up the thread the next time I sit down to write.
Begin by revising yesterday’s work. That’s another way of picking up the thread. And revising what you write is another rule!
Keep writing something until you finish it. I can’t make this a hard-and-fast subrule; I have certainly abandoned my share of writing projects, and we can talk about why. But some folks never finish anything — or they never really start anything; they take notes and make sketches and lose themselves in their imagination. Don’t do that. Finishing a novel is an achievement, even if it’s not publishable; not finishing is at best a learning experience — but what you may think you have learned is that you’re not a writer. And that’s the wrong lesson.
Note that, at 500 words a day (a couple of pages), an average-length 80,000-word novel would take about 160 days to finish — six months or so if you take weekends off. Not that long!
Stay tuned for more exciting rules….