Stephen Leigh

S.L. Farrell

Matthew Farrell

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I hate rules.  have a healthy distaste for 'cookie cutter' art that slavishly imitates everything that's gone before it. I prefer work that attempts to be original or different or personal. I even detest following recipes when I'm cooking. I love tales of artists who break the bounds of the ordinary to create something special and new.

Writers who follow rules might get published, but they're also aiming squarely at bland mediocrity. People who blindly follow rules, recipes, and formulae rarely create anything unique.

So why the hell am I writing an essay outlining a few rules for beginning writers? Because they aren't rules. They're not even nuggets of advice. They're just shards of advice-ore which you can choose to heed or ignore. You can smelt them down into personal rules or you can toss them aside.

It's your choice.

Here's a background tale... In my undergraduate days, I was a "Fine Artist." I studied painting and drawing, sculpture and Art History. I even imagined myself as Very Good, though in reality I was Very Mediocre. I had, however, the wonderful opportunity to study with an excellent teacher, a painter named Robert Fabe. One day, Fabe walked into the studio where we were painting and looked around at all the canvases. Without exception, each of us were doing abstract work, with bold colors and broad strokes. He grunted and left the studio, returning a few minutes later with a book. He called us around and showed us several paintings--realistic work with attention to the proper proportions of the body. "Do you know who did these?" he asked us. We shook our heads. "It's early Picasso," he told us. "The stuff you never see. Look at these sketches--that hand there could have been done by Michelangelo or Da Vinci or Raphael or Dürer. Picasso was an illustrator first. He knew how to draw or paint what was in front of him."

Fabe set the book down and looked around the room again. "So when I look at Picasso's later work," he continued, "I know that he drew both eyes on the side of a head because he wanted the painting to look that way. If a face was blue, it was because he wanted it to be blue. If the body was stretched and deformed and wrong, that was deliberate." He tapped the book. "Picasso had the skill and mastery and knowledge to paint any way he wanted to paint. He started painting abstracts because he chose to paint that way. He broke the rules knowing what the rules were in the first place. I look at your stuff here and I wonder: are you painting this way because that's the way you want to paint, or are you painting that way because you don't have the ability to paint any other way?"

We grumbled and argued, but afterward&emdash;when I could think about the comment with some distance and less heat&emdash;I realized that Fabe was largely right. Most of us couldn't have painted a realistic landscape or a convincingly realistic figure. To a large extent, we were painting the only way we could paint.

If we were breaking any rules, it was because we didn't know them in the first place. If our artwork was good, it was largely accidental and probably not reproducible.

I've also made a living as a musician, and I found this same trait in self-taught musicians of my acquaintance. Mind you, I do believe you can become an excellent musician, visual artist, or writer without formal training, a teacher or a mentor&emdash;if you have the disciple, the determination and the perseverance to undertake a study of your discipline and the techniques and processes of those who have mastered it. But that's often easier to do via lessons and classes and the help of someone who knows the craft. Several of the self-taught musicians I've known had natural talent and were very good, but they were also limited... because they've never learned the 'correct' way to play. If you don't know the 'rules' of fingering, your facility and speed are compromised. If you don't know the 'rules' of reading music, you're limited to playing by ear. If you don't know the 'rules' of other kinds of music than the type you're playing, you're limited to one style. I wonder just how fantastic those musicians with tremendous natural talent would have been if they'd actually studied music...

If they'd first learned the rules.

I've been teaching fiction writing at the college level for several semesters now, and I'm feeling a bit like Robert Fabe when I read the student work I'm getting. A few of the stories have been excellent because the writers have a great deal of natural talent. They have an "ear" for writing. The vast majority of the fiction, though, is somewhere on the scale from "OK" to "Dreadful." Most of the fiction breaks the rules... and as a result, fail as a story.

The students are writing the way they write because it's the only way they can write.

That's not really a bad thing. To realize that, all I have to do is read the stories I wrote in high school and college. When I wrote them, I thought they were fantastic. I read them now and I see how sad and fatally flawed and poor they actually were. That's normal: if you continue to study, if you continue to practice your craft, you generally get better at it. You learn a few things.

What did I eventually learn? Well...

First Scrap of Ore: "Learn and Practice The Rules"

So what are these mythical rules? Where do I find them?

Every writer will give you a different set of vital commandments (just ask 'em--most writers will happily reel off their personal Laws of Good Writing). Every writer might also be absolutely correct, even if their rules directly contradict each other. There's no hard and fast list of essential rules; rather, there are lots of 'em.

Personally, I'd suggest you go read Damon Knight's still-excellent book Creating Short Fiction: The Classic Guide to Writing Short Fiction (Third Edition, St. Martin's Griffin, 1997). Damon's guide is well-worth reading and re-reading, but there are other good books out there as well. There are workshops (you might try getting into Clarion), there are classes, there are writer's groups. If nothing else, study and dissect the works of great writers. All of these avenues will give you a unique interpretation of "The Rules of Good Writing."

I will say, however, that you should be skeptical while you're searching for these rules. Some of these books, workshops, classes, groups, and teachers are excellent; some are mediocre; others are useless (and sometimes expensive) rip-offs. How do you know the difference? Let me ask this: would you want someone who has never performed an operation to teach you how to remove an appendix?

Well, then why would you consider following the novel-writing advice of someone who has never sold a novel to a professional market? Look at who's giving you these rules--if it's someone with an extensive professional track record and someone whose writing you admire, then it's likely to be good advice. If not, caveat emptor certainly applies...

I'm not saying that someone who hasn't published can't give you good advice. To use music as an analogy again: any non-musician with a decent ear can tell whether a musician is playing in tune, but the likelihood is that they couldn't actually tune the instrument themselves. A good reader can tell a writer that a story isn't working, but I'd be suspicious about any advice they offered on how to fix it. Still, if you're in a writing workshop and 75% of the people there give you the same advice, chances are they're right...

Some of the truly basic rules are simple (and are can be found nearly anywhere---I'm not going to give them here). Heeding them will greatly enhance your chances of publication. Here's a quick sampling:

    * Put your manuscript into proper manuscript form.

    * Perform a basic spell-check of your manuscript, and then re-read it yourself to catch what the spell-checker can't.

    * Follow the rules of proper grammar (and if you don't know them, find someone who can proof your manuscript for you).

    * Don't shift tense.

    * Don't shift viewpoint.

    * Avoid clichés

    * Avoid indulging in overblown purple prose

There are a hundred more rules, and you can find them in any decent basic book on writing or learn them in any basic class. Find them. Learn them. Know them. Understand them. Why? Because breaking these basic rules lowers your chances of success: there's a reason the rules are the rules. Poor storytellers break the rules without knowing or understanding them.... and thus don't get published. Excellent storytellers bend and break the rules all the time and get away with it... because they know the rules intimately.

Breaking the rules of writing (whatever they are) is like driving the wrong way down a one-way street to get to your destination. You have several possibilities when you do that: you might meet a car coming the other way and have to back up; you might get ticketed; you might have an accident and ruin your car and someone else's; you might injure or kill someone else; you might end up dead or injured yourself. But... if you're lucky and good... you might also get to where you're going faster.

However, when you break the rules--especially when you break them without even knowing you're breaking them--chances are that you'll fail.

Second Scrap of Ore: "Plot" is a not a synonym for violence and/or sex.

The plot is the path your characters are taking through the setting of your story and through the crisis or situation in which they've been placed. In much of the student fiction I've read however, one might suspect that the only path through a fictional world involves lots of bodies: either in parts or unclothed.

Believe it or not, it is possible to write a successful, publishable genre story where no one is killed messily or even hurt, or where no one makes love on stage in front of the readers. This is not to say that you shouldn't use violence and/or sex where it's appropriate--you should... if the characterization, plot, or setting absolutely demand it. But too many new writers use blood, gore, and/or eroticism as substitutes for interesting characters and situations. If your characters seem to have no interest in anything but gratifying their baser desires, or if the only way you can seem to inject a little tension in the story is through bullets and sharp objects, then perhaps you don't know your characters well enough to be writing about them.

Tension and conflict are necessary in a plot, yes. But tension and conflict can be injected through thousands of other means: worry, nervousness, anxiety, stress, strain, pressure, apprehension, disagreement, argument, discord, verbal clashes, inner doubt, incompatibility, distaste, love, flirtation, mourning, loss, fear... the list here is virtually endless.

Being truly creative means digging deeper than the first thoughts that occur to you.

Third Scrap of Ore: A small plot can fit in a big book, but a big plot won't fit into a small story.

I can fit a thousand marbles into a shoebox. If I try to cram a thousand marbles into a ring box, I have a disaster. What I can do with a ring box is nestle one marble in the black velvet and have it represent all the rest of the marbles...

A common new writer mistake is having far too wide a field of view. Saving the world or the universe in the space of five thousand words.is generally a bad idea. Trying to stuff the entire scope and grandeur, the full drama, heroism and tragedy of World War II into a ten page story isn't going to work. Taking your protagonist from birth to death over a span of three-quarters of a century using a paragraph a year won't result in a compelling read.

Tighten the focus. Choose a protagonist who can serve as a metaphor or symbol for the greater conflict occurring outside the window of your story. Concentrate not on the entire sweep of a character's life, but instead show the arc where her attitudes or beliefs or fate changed. In a short story, large events can take place but we tend to see the effects on a smaller scale. Look at your own life so far: there probably was a moment where your perception of life shifted, where the world seemed to change around you and you saw everything around you with new eyes. That's the essence of short work: let us see that time for your character.

Fourth Scrap of Ore: All the puzzle pieces must be in the box.

Few things are more annoying than spending hours and days putting together a jigsaw puzzle only to find at the end that a few pieces are missing. Nothing is less satisfying than reading a story only to have the solution appear unforeshadowed as a deus ex machina at the conclusion.

All the information needed to put together your plot's solution must be in your story. All the elements critical to the conclusion must have been seen before. All the personality traits or responses must make logical sense because of how we've seen the protagonist react in the past. You can hide or disguise the pieces of the puzzle, but they all have to be there so that when the readers reach "The End," they can say "Ah, so that's why that was there..."

There's an old adage that goes something like this: "If you show a gun on the mantle in Act One, you must fire the gun in Act Three." The reverse corollary is this: "If you use a gun in Act Three, it must have been on the mantle in Act One." The gun can even be a deliberate red herring to add tension because you're actually going to use the butter knife the protagonist used for his toast as he ate breakfast--but the gun has to be there for a reason.

Every detail in your story should be there because it is necessary and to not have it there would result in a weaker story. Details can advance the plot; they can help the reader understand the character/plot/setting; they can add a layer to the story; they can be necessary for the satisfactory conclusion of the story. Details that fail to do one of those tasks should be excised. Ruthlessly.

But... every necessary detail must be there!

An excellent story contains no more nor no less than it needs to contain.

Fifth Scrap of Ore: When in doubt, work it out.

Writing a story in the first place is only half the work. The real work of writing is revision.

There are several corollary pieces of ore here, such as:

"If your characters don't feel convincing to you, they won't convince the reader." If you have the sense that your characters are wooden, or if their actions don't quite make sense, or you feel that they're 'resisting' your efforts to make them move in a particular direction, perhaps you haven't quite down your homework. You need to go back and understand your character(s) better.

How? Here are some tactics I've used.

    * Write their backstory --not as fiction, but as an essay. You may never use any of this information (see Rule #4 above about necessary details) but the more complex and real your character is, the better you'll be able to describe, motivate, and move her.

    * "Interview" your character. Yes, that's right; just like you're a reporter. Ask him the questions to which you need the answers and listen.

    * Consider that maybe you're using the wrong character. Maybe the story you're telling would be more effective if someone else were in the spotlight. Ask yourself this question: "Who does this story most affect?"

    * Role-play: get into your character's skin and see what it feels like. Be the actor you always wanted to be.

    * Ask several people how they would react in the same situation. You may get a dozen different answers from a dozen different people, but if they all say the same thing, then perhaps that what your character should do as well.

    * Be willing to hurt your characters. Sometimes a story can fail because you're not willing to have anything bad happen to the character you love. As a result, the story's not convincing and there's no tension because the reader knows that the hero won't be scratched, wounded, or injured.

    * Remember that your character isn't (necessarily) you&emdash;is your character unconvincing because you're having him do what you'd do in that situation, not what he'd do?

    * Write the main character's "arc." Where does the character start, and where does she end up?

    * Remember Newton's law: "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." If something happens to your character, he will (and must) change as a result.

"If the plot doesn't feel right to you, it won't feel right to the reader." Does what happens in your story seem trivial or wrong or contrived? Maybe, just maybe that's because it is... And again if you feel that way, chances are so will your readers. Here are some quick tactics to respond to that:

    * Outline -- yep, the old A, 1, I, ii thing you've done a thousand times. Hey, sometimes it works. If nothing else, it will start you thinking about what "B" happens as a result of "A" and what effects that has.

    * Write a plot summary -- literally. "This story starts when Ann meets Bob at the Laundromat..." and follow through to the end.

    * Write a scene-by-scene synopsis. I once did the outline of each scene on a novel on index cards...

    * Abandon everything but the beginning scene, chart out as many possible 'branches' from that as you can, and choose the most interesting -- maybe you're writing the 'boring' branch. Remember, the first thing that occurs to you is often not the best choice. Brainstorm all the possibilities first, no matter how wild or improbable.

    * Work backward from your ending. Sometimes you can best see where you came from by looking behind you.

    * Get a dozen readers to give you their (honest) opinions--workshop the story with some trusted first readers and let them tell you where they think your tale doesn't work. If there's a consensus, then they're probably right... and you know where you need to look.

    * Let the story sit and compost and allow your subconscious work on it--sometimes the subconscious will come up with the answer; you just need to allow some time for the solution to percolate up to your consciousness. Occasionally, a flawed story that sits in a drawer for a month or two will "fix itself"--you'll re-read it, smack yourself on the forehead, and say "Now I know what to do! Why couldn't I see that before!?"

    * Remember that a story should be as complicated as life. Think of what happens to you in a year: the number of people you might, the changes that take place, the events that occur. That's a novel. Think of what happens to you in an hour. That's a short story.

"If the setting doesn't feel real to you, it won't feel real to the reader." Nothing will pull a reader out of the story faster than a setting that doesn't convince. That can consist of everything from using a "generic" backdrop to poor science fictional or fantasy world-building to getting the details wrong with your character's profession. Once the reader has decided they don't believe your setting, they will believe nothing else about the story. How to fix it?

    * Go and do your world-building. That's a whole topic in and of itself. There are entire books and a thousand articles on the subject. Go and read a few! (And if you'd like to see the world-building I did for one of my novels, CLICK HERE...)

    * Research, research, research. If your protagonist is an Arson Investigator, you don't have to necessarily know enough to convince a real Arson Investigator that you spent a decade on the job, but you do have to know enough to convince the average reader with average knowledge that you have the smell of smoke on your clothes. You can read about it; you can interview people who have done it; you can ask a real investigator if you can ride along--but you have to do the research. You can't simply make it up.

    * Draw or sketch your landscape. Sometimes if you can see something in physical form, you also see it better in your fiction. The drawing doesn't have to be good, nor do you ever have to show it to anyone. The sketch just has to help you see the setting.

    * Take a walk and jot down everything you see. I mean everything. You'll be surprised how much detail there is in the world around you. A few well-selected details (see Rule #4) in your story can add an amazing solidity to you work.

    * Remember all your senses! Too often, we rely only on sight. Take another walk, and this time concentrate not on what you see but what you hear, taste, smell, feel. Using the other senses can sometimes evoke an amazing reaction in your readers.

The bottom line is that fiction is unlike life in one crucial aspect: you get to revise it if it doesn't work out the way you like! As the author, you get to play God for your characters and your fictional world; you choose the path for them knowing the consequences. You may choose to be a benevolent or vengeful or neutral or evil deity--they have no choice but to follow your dictates. But to get other non-fictional people to admire your handiwork, you need to do the best job as Creator that you can: the world and the characters and the situation must be whole, complete, and believable. Polished and shining. Gleaming. The best you're capable of doing.

Perfection rarely-to-never happens in a first draft. Perfection rarely happens without effort. Perfection rarely happens quickly.

Sixth Scrap of Ore: It's the characters, stupid.

Former President Bill Clinton reportedly kept a sign on his desk to remind him constantly that no matter what he talked about or what he did, there was one vital bottom line to the voters: "It's the economy, stupid." Whether you liked the politics of Bill Clinton or not, his adherence to that one constant allowed him to be elected twice.

For writers, there's a similar vital bottom line to all readers: "It's the characters, stupid." Readers turn the page not because you have a fascinating backdrop, not because you come up with an intriguing puzzle, but because they care about the characters.

That's why series fiction (and television) is so popular--the readers want more stories featuring the characters they've come to know and love (or perhaps hate). Think of your favorite book or story: chances are what you remember best are the characters. You almost certainly have an excellent visual picture of them in your head; in fact, how often have you read a book then gone to see the movie and said "that actress doesn't look like her at all..." or "Man, he's perfect for that part!" You loved the story because you cared about the characters and what happened to them.

You can diagram as story as a triangle with the two sides being "plot" and "setting." But the base on which the triangle always rests is "character." You can probably sell a story with a mediocre plot if the characters are fascinating and compelling... but it's damned hard to create a successful story with a crackerjack plot if your characters are wooden and bland. You can probably sell a story with a 'stock' setting if the characters are realistic and richly drawn... but it is damned hard to create a successful story no matter how fantastic the world if it's populated by cardboard drones.

In Creating Short Fiction, Damon Knight says "If you don't believe in your characters and feel deeply about them, nobody else will either." (page 101) That's succinct and true. If your readers don't care about your characters, they will stop reading.

Oh... (and I mention it because I've seen it too many times): be true to your characters' personalities. Don't make an intelligent character act like a moron. How many bad horror movies have you seen where, after the killer has already dispatched two or three comrades, an otherwise normal character decides to walk into a dark room alone without even a flashlight because they heard a noise? If your characters do stupid things, it's not their fault but yours.

Seventh (and last) Scrap of Ore: Have passion!

Listen to someone who feels deeply about the subject she's discussing. Watch a video of a musician who is playing a song he believes in. Look at a piece of art in which the artist has invested belief.

You can feel passion in those cases... and you can feel it when you read something by a writer who has passion--just as you can feel its lack when that same person is only going through the motions.

Now, passion isn't necessarily a synonym for either "deep" or "serious." It can be and often is, certainly, but the best comic pieces are also passionate, even if their intent is only to entertain and make the reader laugh. The genre or type of story doesn't matter. If you're writing a romance, make it the best damn romance you can write. You should invest it with every last ounce of your energy. your will, your talent and your dedication.

To be harsh: if you don't burn with the desire to write that story, don't write it.


These aren't rules. They aren't even guidelines. And they're by no means all that you should think of when you're putting together a story. But they are the bits of advice I'd give to a new writer who wants to know where they should put their attention when looking at their fiction.

Every writer writes differently. Every writer would give you correspondingly different advice. I might give you different advice if you ask me tomorrow. But listen to the advice you get from trusted sources. Try it. What works for you, keep. What doesn't, discard.

It's that simple. I wish you luck!




Stephen Leigh

S.L. Farrell

Matthew Farrell

The Blog

Press Kit

On Writing

Steve's Music

Exit Strategies