Rules for Writing — Rule 2: Revise

Here’s another in an intermittent series of my randomly (and repetitively) numbered rules for fiction writers who aren’t quite good enough to get away with breaking all the rules.  If you’re reading this post, I’m talking about you.

First, let’s distinguish revising from rewriting.  The distinction is a little arbitrary, but for my purposes, revising is taking what you’ve written and making it better; rewriting is taking what you’ve written and writing it all over again.  On a computer, when you revise, you’re working on the same file; when you rewrite, you’re opening a new file and labeling it “Chapter 1 Draft 2” or something.

I’m inclined to believe that everyone revises; I’m not so sure that professional authors cranking out multiple books per year are doing much rewriting.  But anyway, in my opinion, revising is the most fun you can have as a writer.  Staring at a blank screen can be intimidating and discouraging; the blinking cursor seems to tick away the seconds of your life.  But once that screen is filled with words, it’s much easier, and more satisfying, to mess with those words and make them better.

As I mentioned in my post on Rule 0, it’s helpful to begin a writing session by revising your previous day’s output.  But there’s really no bad time to revise; it’s just a question of deciding when to stop.  Somebody once said that he knew he was done with a story when he’d go through it and take out some commas, and then he’d go through it again and start putting the commas back in.

Revising is mostly about style; rewriting is mostly about plot and characterization.  So revising involves applying all them grammer and spelling rules that you learned in Rule 7, but it also involves going beyond them; you want to make your prose sing (or, at least, to keep it from wandering off key).  How do you do that?  A good place to start is with George Orwell’s rules for writing (from his essay “Politics and the English Language“):

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I don’t know to what extent Orwell intended these rules to apply to fiction, but I’d say that Rule 6 is even more applicable to a novelist than it is to a non-fiction writer.  There are times when you’re striving for an effect that may require the passive voice, or a foreign phrase, or a cliché, particularly in dialog or a first-person narrative.  But it’s a good idea to be aware of Orwell’s rules, even if you decide to break them.

Orwell’s rules don’t cover something that is central to revision but that’s hard to put into into a rule: the rhythm of your words.  Sometimes, for example, you want to repeat a word for an effect; sometimes the repetition just sounds stupid or awkward.  Sometimes you want to start a bunch of consecutive sentences in the same way; sometimes that’s just an oversight that needs fixing.  I’ve heard of writers who read their words aloud to check how they sound — that’s certainly a good idea for dialog.  I don’t do it, but I sound out everything in my mind.

And there’s a related rule that I’ll talk about more someday: Show your work to someone else. Sometimes the words that sound just right to you will provoke a violent allergic reaction in your friends. Better to know that before you’re finished than after.

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Rule 7: Learn all them grammer and spelling rules

Here is some prose Ernest Hemingway scribbled on the envelope of a letter he wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald:

What about The Sun also and the movies? Any chance? I dint put in about the good parts. You know how good they are. You’re write about the book of stories. I wanted to hold it for more. That last one I had in Cosmopolitan would have made it.

(The letter itself is wonderful, and you can read it here.)

I dint put in?  You’re write?  Of course, Fitzgerald was a notoriously bad speller himself.

If you are as good a writer as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, you can spell however you please.  Why are you paying any attention to me?  Go back to your novel!  But if you’re not, do yourself a favor and learn how to spell.  And learn the rules of grammar, even if you choose to break them.  Clearly I’m still learning.  But this stuff matters.  The site I linked to above says of Hemingway:

Whenever his newspaper editors complained about [his poor spelling], he’d retort, “Well, that’s what you’re hired to correct!”

But editors aren’t doing that anymore!  The editors didn’t pick up the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Harvard English professor’s misspelling of “Ptolemy.”  No one noticed the grammatical errors and the misspelling of “rarefied” in Lisa Randall’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door.  I was looking at the résumé for a technical editor a few months ago, and I noticed he had misspelled the name of the college from which he had graduated.  “Rutgers” just isn’t that hard to get right!  Even when their spelling is OK, some of these editors don’t seem to notice when they use the serial comma in one sentence and don’t use it in the next.  Make up your minds already!  Microsoft Word helps, but notice that its spellchecker wouldn’t have picked up “dint” or “write” in the Hemingway quote.  (It did pick up “Rutgars” though — the “editor” didn’t even bother to spellcheck his own résumé!)

Writers are pretty much on their own nowadays, particularly if they are going the self-publishing route with ebooks.  And that means it’s up to them to get the basics right.  If they don’t bother, they better hope they are as talented as Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

Let’s all write an extra book a year!

A recent New York Times article highlights the increasing pressure on successful writers to produce even more content to satisfy their readers’ demands for more stuff.

They are trying to satisfy impatient readers who have become used to downloading any e-book they want at the touch of a button, and the publishers who are nudging them toward greater productivity in the belief that the more their authors’ names are out in public, the bigger stars they will become.

“It used to be that once a year was a big deal,” said Lisa Scottoline, a best-selling author of thrillers. “You could saturate the market. But today the culture is a great big hungry maw, and you have to feed it.”

Writers are even being encouraged to come up with digital-only 99-cent short stories to keep their names before the public.

One word that doesn’t occur in the Times article is quality.  This is about writing as business, not writing as art.  One writer complains that “You don’t ever want to get into a situation where your worth is being judged by the amount of your productivity.”  But what else can it be judged by, if you’re pumping out thousands of words a day?

When I get around to writing up more of my rules for writing, Rule 2 will be “Revise” and Rule 3 will be “Rewrite.”  But these two rules assume that quality figures somewhere in your rationale for writing.  At a certain level of professionalism, you can create a reasonable novel in a single draft with minimal revisions — especially if you’re working in a formulaic genre like romance.  But the resulting product can’t possibly be as good as you can make it.  The ability to make a good living off your fiction is in this respect antithetical to the ability to make good fiction. I have never been able to figure out how to make that tradeoff; and that’s why I have a day job.

Rule 5: Outline

Continuing with our rules for writing:

Imagine that you’re about to start on a long car trip — one that might take you a year or more.  It’s dark out.  You have only a vague idea what your destination is, or how to get there.  What should you do?

  • Turn on your headlights so you can see the next hundred yards or so, and hit the accelerator. Or:
  • Write yourself some directions before you even get into the car.

Rule 5 says you should write yourself some directions.  I’m sure some writers can keep entire plots and all their characters in their heads, either because they’re really smart or their novels are really simple.  Or the plots and characters just work themselves out as the novel progresses, and there are a minimum of dead ends or wrong turns along the way.

None of those characterizations applies to me.  I have started adding some review quotes to the descriptions of my novels hidden under “Books” at the top of this blog.  It’s surprising to me how many times reviewers point out the twists and turns of my plots, even for novels that I don’t recall as being especially complicated.  But even if you don’t have to carefully plant clues or plan out multiple plot twists, you’re going to have lots of things happening in your 80,000+ words, and it’s helpful to figure out as much of that action ahead of time as you can.

There are two problems with writing an outline for a novel:

  • You won’t get it right.  What works in an outline won’t necessarily work in a novel.  Characters turn out differently; scenes suddenly pop into your head that demand to be included.  (Again, maybe some writers can get the outline completely right; that ain’t me.)
  • You’ll get bored.  You didn’t get into this business to write outlines.  At some point you’re going to need to put the outline aside and start doing with what you really want to be doing.

Still, you’re better off with an incomplete, inaccurate outline than none at all.  What I’ve typically done is something like this:

  • Take notes about plot elements and characters until that becomes boring.
  • Start an outline, and keep fleshing it out until that gets boring.  (It has to take me from beginning to end; it’s the level of detail in between that’s at issue.)
  • Start writing the novel, keeping the outline at hand to make sure I don’t leave out anything important.  I’ll occasionally add to the outline if I get a bright idea for later in the novel while I’m working on an early chapter.

I write the outline as a narrative of the events, just like a novel — this helps maintain my interest. Some of the sentences in the outline may even end up in the novel.  Typically the outline ends up being between 20 and 30 pages.  At that point, I’ve had it; I’ve got to get to “Call me Ishmael.”

Update: MaryA, who apparently never forgets anything, let me know that I cribbed the idea of writing as driving in the dark with your headlights on from E.L. Doctorow, who had a slightly different point to make:

It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

He also had this to say:

Planning to write is not writing. Outlining …researching …talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.

Clearly he is a believer in Rule 0.

Rule 37: Use names that don’t confuse your reader

You’ll notice that I have skipped ahead from Rule 0.  Like NCIS Special Agent Gibbs, I won’t dole these rules out in numerical order. The numbering should reflect the rule’s overall importance, I guess.

I was reminded of this rule when I was rereading Senator and I noticed that I had one character named Danny and another character named Denny.  Why did I do that?  Danny is a major character — the Senator’s brother; Denny is a staffer who appears in a couple of minor scenes.  The chance that the reader will be confused is slim; but still, that’s the sort of thing a writer should avoid.

You don’t want to risk confusion with last names either.  A rule of thumb is to avoid having two characters whose last name starts with the same letter: Maloney and Mackey, for example.  That’s hard to manage in a novel with a large cast, but you can vary the number of syllables and the vowel sounds: Maloney and Meade, let’s say.

Another subrule is to be careful if you refer to a character in a lot of different ways: Katherine and Kate and Mrs. O’Connor, for example.  You sometimes need to do that in dialog or when you’re using multiple points of view, but it can be troublesome for the reader.  Think of those Russian novels where a character is Vladimir Vladimirovich in one scene and Volodya in the next; this problem crops up in Summit.

A couple of related rules, which don’t merit a number:

Don’t end a character’s name with an “s” — this gets awkward if you have to use the possessive.  Senator O’Connor’s ex-law partner is named Roger Simmons.  Again, why did I do that?  Now I have to write a phrase like “Simmons’s wife,” which sounds awful, or recast the sentence to avoid the possessive.  In this case, it’s a first person narrative, so the senator always refers to him as “Roger,” which mitigates the damage.

Don’t use an ethnic name unless the ethnic identity is part of the characterization. The reader is going to expect that. The police lieutenant in Pontiff is named Kathleen Morelli.  The fact that she has an Irish first name and an Italian last name has some significance to who she is, and I have to draw that out at some point in the novel.  Senator Jim O’Connor’s Irishness is a part of his identity, although I think the publisher made too much of it with the bleeding shamrock on the book’s cover.

A big problem with names (at least for me) is that a character’s name quickly become deeply entwined in his or her characterization, and if I finally notice a problem — like the final “s” in Roger’s name — it’s hard for me to do anything about it.  He just feels too much like a “Simmons” to me.  Which is odd, because “Roger Simmons” is an utterly bland name.  It’s not like Pecksniff or Gradgrind or a hundred others out of Dickens.  Of course, Roger Simmons is an utterly bland character compared to anyone in a Dickens novel.  But he’s my character, and that’s his name.

Rule 0: Write

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….

In which I harmonize with NCIS Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs

People are always coming up to me and saying, “Rich, you are a moderately successful writer of genre fiction–what’s the secret of your moderate success?”

OK, that sentence is pretty much entirely a lie.  But my post on Chekhov’s gun reminds me that there are rules for writing that it would behoove writers and would-be writers to follow.  And I know some of them!  I may have made up some of them myself!  So maybe I should devote an occasional post to elucidating those rules.

Which in turn reminds me of NCIS Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs.  Gibbs is of course the platonic ideal of an NCIS Special Agent (he may in fact be the platonic ideal of American guy-ness).  Men want to be Gibbs, especially when he strides into headquarters and sneaks up on the other special agents as they are exchanging some mildly inappropriate office banter and says, “Grab your gear — dead Marine in that park where there is a dead Marine almost every week.”  Women want to be with Gibbs; especially if they can be like Abby, when he brings her a cup of Caf-Pow and then pecks her on the cheek after she tells him that the knife wound that killed the Marine could only have been made by a knife manufactured in some obscure knife factory in Sarajevo, which means the Marine’s killer was that minor Bosnian character none of us had suspected was the killer until that instant.

Anyway, Gibbs has rules, which are explained in hilarious detail on the NCIS wiki. If you want to be like Gibbs (as an agent and as an American guy), follow his rules (like Rule 8: Never take anything for granted).

Now of course, as the wiki makes clear, Gibbs is allowed to break his own rules, because he is Gibbs.  If you are Shakespeare or Dickens (or, I suppose, Hideki Murakami), you don’t need no stinkin’ rules for writing.  Or, if you have them, you can break them when it suits you.  But you and I are not Gibbs or Dickens; we are Tony DiNozzo or Timothy McGee, just regular ol’ special agents trying to learn from the master.  (By the way, just because I know some rules doesn’t mean that I always follow them.  I’m more like Agent McGee trying to pass the rules along to a new probie so that he can avoid the mistakes that McGee has made and the inevitable headslaps from an exasperated Gibbs.)

So, since this is a C-based blog rather than a Fortran-based blog, let’s start with Rule 0: Write.

There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?

“Writing” doesn’t mean writing blog posts about what you’re going to write about.  It doesn’t mean writing notes to yourself about what you’re going to write about.  It means, you know, writing.

I think I may need to expand on Rule 0, but I’ll do that in another post.