Ray Bradbury once said, “I don’t tell anyone how to write and no one tells me.” Yet, when pressed, he produced eight “rules” for successful authors.
In fact, if you Google your favorite author together with “writing rules,” you’re likely to discover links to that author’s answer to the question, “What are your rules for writing success?” Try it. I found rules that ran from two items for Robert Heinlein to twenty-four for Dashiell Hammett. That may say something about their respective styles, or maybe about how much self-reflection went into their writing, or something else. But still, there is some wisdom to be garnered by looking at these lists.
Not all Writing Rules are equal. Hammett’s, for example, are detailed, but in such a way that they apply primarily to detective novels of his era. Here’s his first rule, for example:
There was an automatic revolver, the Webley-Fosbery, made in England some years ago. The ordinary automatic pistol, however, is not a revolver. A pistol, to be a revolver, must have something on it that revolves.
This is interesting, but it’s not exactly advice. Of course, the point is that authors shouldn’t confuse a “pistol” with a “revolver.” More generally, authors should use technical terms in an accurate way. This more general form of the rule would include, for example, don’t confuse a unit of distance, like “parsec,” with a unit of time, like how long it takes to make a journey.
At the other end are Heinlein’s two rules.
1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
These certainly clear, and they apply to all authors and all genres. But they are so general as to be useless. For example, they don’t tell you how often or how much you should write, nor how to know you’ve finished. He eventually expanded this to five rules, including that you should never rewrite except to editorial order, but even that is not specific enough to be helpful. We also know, from the correspondence in Grumbles from the Grave, that he in fact did cut his manuscripts, which is certainly revision.
Tom Clancy proposed five rules.
1. Tell the story.
2. Writing is like golf.
3. Make pretend more than real.
4. Writer’s block is unacceptable.
5. No one can take your dream away.
What? Like golf? What he means is that if you aspire to become a golfer, you practice. You might even take lessons from a pro. What you don’t do is read a book on how to play golf, or watch people playing golf, and then think you know the sport. You learn by doing. With respect to rule three, Clancy once opined, “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.” That’s one way to make fiction more than real. For rule four, he clarifies that he means to write every day, whether you feel like it or not. Treat writing as a job. Finally, in rule five he says don’t let naysayers destroy your dreams. This is all good advice. Remember, J.K. Rowling went through twenty rejections for the first Harry Potter book before she found a publisher.
Hemingway proposed four rules.
1. Use short sentences.
2. Use short first paragraphs.
3. Use vigorous English.
4. Be positive, not negative.
These give clear instructions. They provide a basis for writing and revision. Anyone who has read Hemingway could deduce the first three rules. The last rule is the only one that might require some explanation. In rule four, he means describe what something is, not what it is not. He does not mean “be Pollyanna.”
The main problem with Hemmingway’s set of rules is that they are incomplete. Of course, any set of rules for writing is likely to share this flaw, but there are sets of rules that both serve as practical guides and are more comprehensive.
Kurt Vonnegut produced eight rules for short story authors, but they have value for novelists as well.
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible.
To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
I’ve gotten particular inspiration from rules two, three, and four on this list. Write at least one character readers will cheer for, give every character a goal, and always advance character and plot. If you can follow these three rules, you’ve got a leg up on a good story.
Elmore Leonard also produced a succinct set of rules.
1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Again, these are clear rules, things you can bring to the page as you write.
Raymond Chandler gave us many amazing mysteries, but he also wrote advice on a what makes a good murder mystery:
1. It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.
2. It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.
3. It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.
4. It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.
5. It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.
6. It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.
7. The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.
8. It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.
9. It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law…. If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.
10. It must be honest with the reader.
I like these rules because they easily generalize to other genres. For example, change a word here and there and you’ve got a guide for a good science fiction story.
Stephen King has given us twenty writing rules. These are also quite good, and replicate some of the advice above, especially about adverbs and leaving out the boring bits. King also takes the interesting view that writing is like archeology in that you are discovering your fictional world as you write, much like an archeologist discovers, potsherd by potsherd, a village in ancient Mesopotamia, Mongolia, or Mesoamerica.
Can we find truth in these writing rules? Sure. There’s the truth about how these individual authors view writing. There’s truth in that there is some agreement between this diverse set of authors, although agreement doesn’t necessarily imply a deeper truth. But there’s truth in the diversity of opinion, too. Each of these successful authors found their own truth. If you want to be successful, you have to find yours, too.
Isaac Newton wrote, “”If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” As you seek your own truth, you can build on the shoulders of these authors. Starting with their wisdom, find your own truth.
You can find the Writing Rules mentioned above in various sources. Here are the ones I used.
Max writes horror and science fiction stories, often with a dark twist. John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction is the single most important influence on his thinking about the craft of writing. Authors as diverse as John Updike, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, and Lawrence Block inspire and inform his literary style.
Max Griffin is the pen name of a mathematician and academic. He has retired from his positions at a major university in the Southwest. He is the proud parent of a daughter who is a librarian, and the grandparent to two beautiful little boys. Max is blessed to be in a long-term relationship with his life partner, Mr. Gene, who is an expert knitter. To learn more about Max Griffin, please visit: https://new.maxgriffin.net/