I’ve been asked that question enough times now that I feel I should respond. I have to stamp a disclaimer on this post, however, because honestly, they’re more like guidelines than actual rules. And I say that in all seriousness. Carry on.
1. Write what you want. When I was just taking up the craft, I devoured books on writing and, consequently, learned a lot and was very confused. It was like having my mental limbs tugged in four different directions, and finally I threw up my hands with the cry, “I do what I want, Thor!” (Alright, I did not actually address Thor. But still.) People will tell you to write what you know, and to some extent, that’s true. Imagine how Percy Jackson would have come out, had Rick Riordan not known anything about Greek mythology. The key, though, is not to write what you feel is ‘in demand,’ but what strikes your fancy.
2. Write with a moral compass in hand. I know many, many excellent authors who write excellent books. I might finish one of their novels and be inspired by the colorful characters, the witty lines, and the unique ideas – but if there was no moral center, no groundedness, no literary centrifugal force, then I won’t have taken away anything really worth knowing, and that is a disappointment.
3. Kill your darlings. “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” – Stephen King. I was talking to a friend the other day, and she was asking for plot advice, how to ‘up the stakes.’ I said, ‘kill someone. I’ve never read a book that left an impact on me where nobody died.’ And it was true – even when I was little, stories never really left a deep impression on me unless someone was killed off. It adds an element of reality, of emotion, that stories don’t have otherwise. Even though it hurts (oh, it hurts).
4. Skip the boring parts. I don’t know how many novels I’ve read that just dragged. The story might have been good – excellent, even, ex. The Lord of the Rings - but who wants to slog through a long description of the road on which travelers are travelling? Not everyone wants to know each shade of a certain character’s hair every time the sun catches it just so. If you want a reader to keep turning the pages, to devour the book, then skip the boring parts. There is an episode of Doctor Who where the Doctor says a day is going to be ‘a big day.’ Amy asks, ‘aren’t they all big?’ and the Doctor replies, “I have a time machine; I skip the little ones!” This is the attitude a writer should have.
5. A character is nothing without backstory. You can’t just plop a character into your universe and march them forward. They have to come from somewhere. People are shaped by their past. If they have trust issues, there must be a reason for them. If not, the character is two-dimensional and cardboard at best. Often, an entire novel comes to me simply because I’ve plotted out a character’s backstory. Fun fact: Backstory is often what makes a character worth knowing. If I want an audience to really fall in love with a character, I first introduce them - and little by little, hint at their past. It works, I promise.
6. Know the difference between inspiration and comparison. This is a tough area, and one I constantly struggle with. You know how it goes – you watch an amazing movie, or a particularly good episode of your favorite show, or you read a book that kept you hooked from intro to end, and you think, “I want to write this.” And so you begin it – but you aren’t really writing your novel. You’re writing someone else’s idea, and the work you were so inspired to begin falls flat and hangs unfinished because it was a hair’s breadth from plagiarism. If you constantly compare your work or style to someone else’s, you are not doing justice to your gift – and consequently, God, yourself, or your readers.
7. Characters are the most important part of the novel. Others might disagree with me and say plot or dialogue are the most important, but I will stick to my guns on this one. In almost twenty years of life, I have never found an exception to this rule. I will put up with a lot of sub-par material if the characters are worth my time. Make them interesting, make them broken, make them heroic, make them real, and they will cover a multitude of literary sins.
8. Take a break after finishing the first draft. It’s excellent for clearing cobwebs from your mind, so you can return to revision and editing with a clear, (near-) impartial eye. I recommend a month – any shorter and the job is not done, any longer and you may give up any thought of revision entirely. Plus, I generally find that a month is the right length of time to grow excited about the novel again.
9. Kick writer’s block to the curb. It’s a real thing, writer’s block, and unless you’ve struck a deal with the devil, you will have it. You will sit staring at the page and wondering why all the ideas in your mind refuse to flow down your arm and out the pen or onto the keyboard. It’s a monster, but there are ways to defeat it. The most effective is to simply write. Continue writing, no matter how terrible or stilted it is, and you’ll find dogged determination will often shove the block out of the way. Another way to beat writer’s block is to refuse to write in the document for a week or two. You’ll want to, and by the time your hiatus is over, you will be pawing the ground in anticipation.
10. Don’t let yourself be bullied. There will be voices everywhere, telling you how to write. Even your Word document will underline words in red and tell you that they’re wrong; that it’s a partial sentence, that you need an ‘and’ between ‘then’, and a host of other petty complaints. The truth is, it is your story. I have a picture in my room that says ‘pluck a feather from every passing goose, but wholly follow no one.’ I keep it because 90% of the time, it’s a true and helpful phrase, especially when it comes to writing.
11. Adverbs aren’t so bad. I used to think they were, and then I read Diana Wynne Jones. Her use of adverbs adds amazingly to the charm of her novels. I realized, adverbs are just a part of the English language, not hell-spawn. They should be used sparingly, because too many can be a sign of lazy writing, but don’t avoid them entirely and don’t stress over them. If you feel you’ve used too many, you can weed them out when you revise.
I’m sure this is not a complete list, but are they ever? ‘Rules’ are constantly growing and changing, especially when it comes to writing and how you look at it. I hope this was in some way helpful. Are there any rules that you write by?