Earlier today I came across a Daily Writing Prompt that said: "Write your top 10 rules for writing fiction." I immediately sat down and did so. Perhaps you've already seen the picture of my rules floating around on Pinterest.
|Making this image big would negate the point of this post so HA.|
Well I want to expand on those and give detailed descriptions to each so that you can have a grounded basis for why those are my Top 10 Rules. So without further ado...
S. Alex Martin's Top 10 Rules for Writing Fiction
RULE #1. USE THE SIMPLEST WORDS POSSIBLE
When it comes to reading a book, people want it to be two things: easy and clear. Unless you are a scholar studying ancient or classical literature, you'll probably stop reading a book that has huge words that you keep opening a dictionary to figure what they mean.
Let me just lay this out for you: the other day I was browsing Facebook and came across a post on a writing group where the person was trying to sound professional and important...but done in such a ridiculous way that he lost all credibility in one paragraph. The post has since been deleted, but I've been using it for examples of what not to do. I'm copying it exactly how the person wrote it, so here it is:
"I read some stuff you guys wrote here with venerate. I joined this group for a reason, You see I have been vacuous for some time now, my mind is undulate I can't write no more. It's a bit confusing for me has anyone else here been through this feeling?
my thoughts were ubiquitous and now my mind seems numb of ideas. I think my mind transmuted. What i wish to know is as you all are writers and you all know the beautiful feeling to put down emotions on a paper, how wonderful it is."
Be honest. You brain hurts, too. Not only did he use those huge words incorrectly, but they just wouldn't make much sense to begin with even if he had used them correctly. It's a struggle to read that. Writing should be easy. Use simple words with strong meanings. Don't say, "I took the gun from him." Say, "I swiped the gun from him." It conveys so much more meaning and is still easy to read.
A good rule to follow is: when writing fiction novels, keep the writing at a fifth-grade level. It doesn't have to be complicated to be good. Don't fall into the trap. You'll just look silly if you start spouting out words you don't even know the definition of.
RULE #2. DON'T INCLUDE EVENTS OR DETAILS THAT AREN'T IMPORTANT TO CHARACTERIZATION OR PLOT
This is easier said than done. Especially when we write early drafts, we tend to stuff in as much information as possible. It might be our innate instinct toward world building. We want to stuff our readers' heads full of the world in our story. We want them to know EVERYTHING.
Well...sometimes less is more. The people critiquing my novel, Embassy, made good work of pointing out things that just weren't important. For example: is it important to learn that the home city of Arman, my MC, has two libraries? What's more, is it important to find that out more than halfway through the novel, after they've flown away from that planet? No. The fact that Cornell has two libraries doesn't matter one single bit.
Try to include details that characterize or advance the plot. When you meet Glacia Haverns, my FMC, she is described as "...Cornell's ambidextrous Hologis junkie....in fact, she's so well known that six people groan when she walks into the waiting room." That's eight pages into the book, and it's all you need to know about her for a while. You understand she gets a thrill out of Hologis (a futuristic sport in my book) and she has a reputation surrounding it. Those are the details you want to include.
(Since then, Embassy has been edited 13 times)
(Since then, Embassy has been edited 13 times)
RULE #3. USE ACTION TO EXPLAIN EVENTS WHERE POSSIBLE
Which would you prefer to read: a paragraph explaining the climatic fight scene, or several pages showing the injuries and punches and bullets flying? The second one, right? Should be.
Action is exciting. Not just fight scenes, but seeing interaction between characters, an argument, a race, a living maze...draw these events out and make them come alive. Show us what happens as it happens. Gets our hearts pounding. Make us smile. Let us hear the angry voices.
Readers want to get as much as possible out of books, so learn what's important to show over a couple pages and what's acceptable to describe in a paragraph.
RULE #4. WRITE AT LEAST 90% OF THE STORY IN THE ACTIVE VOICE
I'll keep this one plain and simple: statistics show that books written somewhere between 90--95% in the active voice sell better than books written with any lower percentage. Passive voice is wordy. Say what you want to say, and be done with it. If you want to see an example of active vs. passive, it's your lucky day because I'm about to give you an example.
ACTIVE: "She carried the bucket to the barn."
PASSIVE: "The bucket was carried to the barn by her."
ACTIVE: "I'm not selling those books."
PASSIVE: "Those books aren't for sale."
What? Wait. Why is the passive voice of the second example wrong? Okay, to be honest, this is one of those that you can be lenient about. It means exactly the same thing as its active voice equivalent--except in one way. Nothing is doing the selling in the passive voice. The books aren't being acted upon. That's what's wrong.
RULE #5. DIALOGUE IS THE STRONGEST FORM OF CHARACTERIZATION
There are so many ways to characterize through dialogue, it's not even funny. Speech patterns, quirks, stutters, slurs, screams, whispers, catch phrases, monosyllabic word choices, evil words, heroic words, funny words, sad words. All of that and more inside a pair of quotation marks. It's literally a perfectly acceptable form of telling.
Of course, don't do too much telling. You still want the speech to sound natural. But that's the beauty of it all. Get to know the ways each character talks, and the characterization possibilities are endless. Harness that power. Use it wisely.
RULE #6. MAKE SURE SOMETHING CHANGES BY THE END OF THE STORY, PREFERABLY THE MAIN CHARACTER
If you send readers on a journey with a character who learns nothing whatsoever...you're going to lose a lot of readers before the end. Something has to change. Whether it be a power struggle, a noble death, coming-of-age...doesn't matter. If readers can compare and contrast the characters as they were in the beginning of the story versus how the characters were in the end, you've done your job right.
Make the changes and transitions natural. Don't rush. People don't usually change overnight. A series of events happens and they learn things from those events. Oh, and make the change logical. Think of Star Wars. Anakin was supposed to become a Jedi, but the way events unfolded made him succumb to the Dark Side.
RULE #7. IF YOU CAN'T AVOID A CLICHE, DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT WITH IT
These days, you see all these books with love triangles. The girl can't choose which guy she wants, blah blah blah. Or the MC is actually some prophecized hero who will one day save the world. Or a guy falls into a vat of radioactive acid and becomes a superhero/villain. And then what happens?
Events unfold EXACTLY as we predict they will, making the story boring.
The love triangle becomes the focus of the book. The hero develops the most powerful abilities any character in the world has ever seen. Another guy happens to develop superpowers at the exact same time as the guy who fell into the acid. Didn’t see THAT one coming, did we?
Get creative, people. If you have to recycle plots, add your own twist. Please. I beg you.
RULE #8. IF YOU CAN'T DECIDE WHETHER YOU LIKE WHAT YOU WROTE -- REWRITE IT
You're going to have days where you write a scene, maybe a few pages...heck, even a full chapter, but it just doesn't feel right. Something doesn't fit, or this stretches too far or completely deviates from the plot.
Imagine it like this: you've been looking forward to seeing a movie, but when you walk out of the theatre, you don't really have anything to say about it. You want to like it because you waited so long, but when you're honest with yourself, it just wasn't that great. THAT is the feeling I'm talking about.
If you aren't sure about what you wrote, go and rewrite it. Maybe change everything, maybe tweak a few things. Let yourself find the flow of the story. I deleted 190 pages of Embassy in the fourth draft because they didn't fit...and sometimes as I made the rewrites, I found things I still didn't like. What did I do? Scrapped them and rewrote those scenes.
I probably rewrote close to 250 pages of Embassy out of the final 300 pages (aka almost everything after page 146) by the time everything was said and done. The plot had changed and things just didn't fit like they did before. But now I like what I have and it works so much better.
RULE #9. FIND OUT WHAT TIME OF DAY YOUR IMAGINATION REACHES ITS PEAK AND MAKE SURE TO ALWAYS WRITE DURING THAT TIME
If you want to be productive as a writer--this is crucial. First off, I encourage you to write every day, and whenever you can every day. But if there's one point of the day that you MUST write, it's when your imagination reaches its peak. This is pretty easy to figure out: what time of day do the words just spill off the tips of your fingers with ease?
My imagination reaches its peak between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. So every day between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. you'll find me writing. Something. Anything. Homework. Book. Whatever. My mind is a broken dam between those hours. The ideas and words literally flood my head. I don't have to worry about being "uninspired." That's the sure-fire time for me to write. Even if I've gone all day with zero ideas, I can GUARANTEE the minute 11 p.m. rolls around, my imagination will explode.
|And there goes your brain.|
RULE #10. KEEP A ROUTINE UNTIL YOU FINISH THE DRAFT
Keep a schedule. I repeat: KEEP A SCHEDULE. When you write a book, the best thing to do is set aside time every day to write. Try not to change the time. If two o'clock in the afternoon to three o'clock is the only available time you have, make sure you write in that hour. Maybe on the weekends you can set aside a block of four or five hours to write.
Whatever your plan, STICK TO IT. Discipline is essential. You're going to hate it some days, but who cares? That's life. Finish the draft, whether it be the first, second, or fourth, and then give yourself a well-deserved few weeks (or months, if you'd like) away from that project. Go out for a fancy dinner. Pat yourself on the back. Eat some Ben & Jerry's. Go watch a sunset.
Enjoy this post? Check out these others:
While you're at it, check out my New Adult Science-fiction novel, Embassy.