My Rules for Writing

Jackson Pollock
Life will descend into chaos around you while you write.

This week the Guardian published a piece in which 29 writers give their rules for fiction writing. Here are mine:

1. Realize no one cares about your stupid novel. Seriously. Even if it gets published. Even if it wins the freakin Nobel Prize for Literature, most people you pass on the street are never going to read it, have never heard of you, and could care less. The exceptions are (a) your mom and possibly your sister, although they are mostly just pretending to be interested because they like you and are nice people, (b) your spouse and/or child(ren), but mainly in the sense that they wish you stop all this writing nonsense and do laundry more often, unless you happen to write a bestseller, in which case they will want a bigger allowance; and (c) people upon whom you have based a character in the book, although mainly in the sense that they are either flattered or slightly creeped out to realize you were paying that much attention.

2. Write your novel anyway. Whatever else happens, it will be an adventure.

3. Look into the motivations and fantasies that drive your writing, and try to fulfill them outside your writing. Do you write because you’re lonely? Try to make friends in real life. Want to make someone fall in love with you? Send the person that love poem you wrote. Long for excitement and travel? Go somewhere exciting. Once you do that, you might find you lose interest in writing, but if so, it’s probably a good thing. And if you still want to write, you’ll have more experiences worth writing about.

4. Struggle against entropy. While you write, life around you descends into chaos. Dishes pile up, underwear goes unwashed, your toddler paints your couch in purple lipstick, e-mails from people you care about go unresponded to. You have to emerge every now and then to put some order back into your universe. It’s an eternal Sysiphean struggle, but one you have to persevere in to keep yourself and your loved ones sane.

5. No detail is too small to sweat over getting right. Every comma, every conjunction. The smallest mistakes can ruin an otherwise good piece of writing. One “off” word choice can turn an effective paragraph into an embarrassing mass of purple sentimentality. One wrong comma placement can make a beautiful sentence into a hideous one.

That’s all I got.

A quick book review. I am picky enough about books that although I read promiscuously, it’s rare for me to find ones that I really, really like. But I was lucky and recently came across The Evening and the Morning by Virginia Sorenson, published in 1949, which was all the more surprising because so far as I can tell, it’s kind of an obscure book. I hunted it down while I was doing research on ex-Mormon authors. The author is an ex-Mormon, and the main character of the book is a women born in the last years of polygamy, who goes on to marry monogamously and have an long affair with a neighbor. The writing is gorgeous and the story compelling—this women is like an ex-Mormon Virginia Woolf, if Virginia Woolf had more interesting plots. I’d recommend it to my ex/post/alumni-Mormon friends and acquaintances as well as non-Mormon readers. Believing Mormons interested in an ex-Mormon perspective could find it interesting too.

Lastly, now that I’ve figured out how to link to songs, I thought it’d be fun to put a few at the end of each post I do. This week’s theme is Some Obscure Songs I Never Would Have Heard Of If It Hadn’t Been For Pandora, Part 1. (Of course, obscurity is always relative, but these were obscure to me.) Enjoy.

3 thoughts on “My Rules for Writing

  1. Regarding point #1:

    I’ve met the type of writers you mention, but its not so much No One Cares about Your Novel but rather, No One Cares About Your Novel-in-Progress. Every blogpost, Facebook status update, tweet etc…is about the writing of their novel-in-progress, e.g ‘Another 5000 words by tonight!’ ‘Doing research for Chapter 3-who knew the Romans built roads?’

  2. Hi EeLeen! Yeah, it’s hard because when you’re in the middle of your draft, it’s all you really want to talk about, and absolutely no one wants to know – at least that was the case with me both times I did a first draft … I think it’s a bit like being a programmer who wants to talk about all kinds of obscure highly technical coding problems, but the problem is no one else has ever heard of the code and you are pretty much on your own with it. No wonder they say writing is a lonely business … you’d think writers would be interesting people to talk to, and they turn out to be no better as conversationalists than a bunch of shop-talking computer geeks.

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