What are your rules for writing?

  writerI’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?

Top Ten Most Influential Books

bookmagicIt’s been a while since I’ve accepted a tag, but this one has to do with books! Not just books, but the ten most influential books I can think of. This is not going to be easy, but I’ll do my best. (I’ll probably end up listing ten books, and then realizing tonight that I left out five other, more important ones; but life goes on.)

I should also note that I’m not including books written by any of my friends. I want to keep this a fair fight.

1. William Bennet’s Book of Virtues. Growing up, this is the book I have the most distinct memories about. It’s a thick, almost Dictionary-sized volume, filled with stories and poems both famous and obscure. It carried tales about everyone from Icarus to The Cobbler and the Brownie to Oedipus and the Minotaur, and I know it shaped the way I think and write, even now.

2. The Narnia series. I know this is an entire series, but I grew up on it. I remember the day my mom brought home The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It didn’t take us long to finish all the books, and they’ve remained a heavy influence.

3. The Hobbit. Another book I grew up on, this book showed me that you can have fantasy, humor, adventure, danger, intrigue,and  a large host of characters without sacrificing a solidly good story filled with subtle virtues. (I would include all of Tolkien’s other books, but I don’t want to be too obvious.)

4. The Inkworld trilogy. It seems like forever ago that I first read Inkheart and got hooked. Those books showed me how to craft words like magic, how you can have an alternate world in your novel without following a set pattern, and how characters, through the most subtle gestures, can become the deepest and most memorable.

5. The Hollow Kingdom trilogy. Beauty and the Beast meets Labyrinth; this series is all but perfect. Everything about it, from the Goblin King to the main character (with whom I always identified very strongly) is beautiful; and the fact it was written as a series of letters gives it a thoughtfulness many books don’t have.

6. I Capture the Castle. I read this book, along with the Hobbit, every year. There’s something so unique and fascinating, something almost fantasy-like about this novel even though there’s nothing fantasy about it. I have my friend Cassie to thank for introducing me to it, and I’ll never be able to repay her.

7. The Grand Sophy. This book was better than Jane Austen – I’ve never finished a Jane Austen book. I’ve seen all the movies and miniseries, but none of the books ever captured me like The Grand Sophy did. I recommend Sophy to almost everyone I come across, if books come up in the conversation.

8. Tahn. This was the first time I realized that I loved tortured heroes with tragic pasts. That, quite obviously, influenced my writing…a lot…

9. The Riddle-Master Trilogy. Patricia McKillip became one of my favorite authors of all-time after I read this novel. Her colorful characters, her lyrical writing, her complex and beautiful plots – she is a complete master of her craft, and someone I look up to.

10. A Wrinkle in Time. This is another novel I grew up with, and it became as much a part of me as my skin and bones. A bizarre but relatable tale about love and everything that implies. I read this almost every year.

I know I left out many authors and novels that I would also like to list, but if I made a COMPLETE list it would be probably eighty books long. What about you? What books have influenced your life and writing craft?

Less is more

01-8ohYkDid you ever hear the phrase less is more? I remember the first time I heard it. I was ten or eleven, and I came downstairs with probably fifteen different barettes in my hair. Mom took a look at my feral head and remarked, “Less is more, you know.” I had no idea what she meant. Then my older sister came in from outside and said, “Ever hear that less is more?” I figured it had to be pretty important, so I puzzled over it until I understood what they meant. (I took out two of the barettes and felt like a better person, all-around.)

Less is more. It’s a truth universally acknowledged, with very few exceptions (books, mp3 downloads, and caramel pieces being a few of them) – but there’s one area where it’s very easy to forget said truth. And that area is – writing! I used to have no happy medium – either my writing was too sparse, or it overflowed with useless details that nobody cared about. No one wants to know the name of each blade of grass, trust me. (It’s my main problem with the writing of both J. R. R. Tolkien and Stephen Lawhead. I love them both dearly, but  they could have used some less-is-more.)

I would swing back and forth between these two extremes, and I had no idea how to regulate it – until I read Stephen King’s On Writing. Out of that entire novel, the thing that I remember the clearest is this: He was talking about a short story he had written about a serial killer. A woman called him one day and told him she couldn’t condone the story, as there was too much graphic violence. She claimed there was ‘too much blood and gore.’ He pointed out, ‘Ma’am; I never even mention blood in that story.’ And it was true – the most graphic, violent thing he said was ‘he clubbed them to death like two baby seals.’

He never mentioned blood – but what does that phrase bring to mind? Something violent, probably bloody, distasteful – and therefore effective. Now, while I’m definitely not a Stephen King advocate (I don’t even recommend On Writing to most people because it’s liberally sprinkled with foul language) this stuck out to me more than any other piece of writing advice I have ever received. Essentially, he was saying, ‘less is more.’

I took this to heart when writing Monster. Even now, when I look back on Monster and re-read my favorite parts, I think two things – One: Wow, this was a year ago and I could write it better now, and Two: I’m happy with how I portrayed the violence.

And it’s thanks to the woman who called into Stephen King with a bone to pick. Now, don’t think the rule only applies to violent situations – that isn’t true. As a writer, you have to be responsible with the ideas and images you put in readers’ minds. Do it gracefully, do it with tact, do it efficiently, and remember that less really is more.

NOTE: I’m not downing detailed, intricate writing style. Some of my favorite authors write in this style. I’m just giving you a tip I found extremely helpful when portraying ideas or particularly nasty scenes. ‘Less is more’ is not an infallible rule, but as a rule of thumb, I’ve found it to be wonderfully useful.