"The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it's definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I'm not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter." — Neil Gaiman
"Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong." — Neil Gaiman
"Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." – Anton Chekhov
- Start with tension
- Know what your characters’ wants are
- End each chapter on a cliff
- Give your characters obstacles
- Understand your audience
- Take an hour and write a one-sentence summary of your novel.
- Take another hour and expand that sentence to a full paragraph describing the story setup, major disasters, and ending of the novel.
- For each of your major characters, take an hour and write a one-page summary sheet that tell name, summary of the character's storyline, motivation, goals, conflict, epiphany, one-paragraph summary of the character's storyline.
- Take several hours and expand each sentence of your summary paragraph into a full paragraph. All but the last paragraph should end in a disaster. The final paragraph should tell how the book ends.
- Take a day or two and write up a one-page description of each major character and a half-page description of the other important characters.
- By now, you have a solid story and several story-threads, one for each character. Now take a week and expand the one-page plot synopsis of the novel to a four-page synopsis. Basically, you will again be expanding each paragraph from step (4) into a full page.
- Take another week and expand your character descriptions into full-fledged character charts detailing everything there is to know about each character. The standard stuff such as birthdate, description, history, motivation, goal, etc. Most importantly, how will this character change by the end of the novel?
- Make a spreadsheet detailing the scenes that emerge from your four-page plot outline. Make just one line for each scene. In one column, list the POV character. In another (wide) column, tell what happens.
- (Take each line of the spreadsheet and expand it to a multi-paragraph description of the scene. Put in any cool lines of dialogue you think of, and sketch out the essential conflict of that scene. If there’s no conflict, you’ll know it here and you should either add conflict or scrub the scene.)
- At this point, just sit down and start pounding out the real first draft of the novel.
"Tell your story. Don’t try and tell the stories that other people can tell. Because [as a] starting writer, you always start out with other people’s voices — you’ve been reading other people for years… But, as quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell — because there will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you … but you are the only you."
Ten rules for writing fiction
"Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary."
"Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful."
"Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants", what do the "American and the girl with him" look like? "She had taken off her hat and put it on the table." That's the only reference to a physical description in the story."
"The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page."
"Only bad writers think that their work is really good."
"If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane."
This is a formula, a master plot, for any 6000 word pulp story. It has worked on adventure, detective, western and war-air. It tells exactly where to put everything. It shows definitely just what must happen in each successive thousand words.
No yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell.
The business of building stories seems not much different from the business of building anything else.
Here's how it starts:
- A DIFFERENT MURDER METHOD FOR VILLAIN TO USE
- A DIFFERENT THING FOR VILLAIN TO BE SEEKING
- A DIFFERENT LOCALE
- A MENACE WHICH IS TO HANG LIKE A CLOUD OVER HERO
One of these DIFFERENT things would be nice, two better, three swell. It may help if they are fully in mind before tackling the rest.
A different murder method could be--different. Thinking of shooting, knifing, hydrocyanic, garroting, poison needles, scorpions, a few others, and writing them on paper gets them where they may suggest something. Scorpions and their poison bite? Maybe mosquitos or flies treated with deadly germs?
If the victims are killed by ordinary methods, but found under strange and identical circumstances each time, it might serve, the reader of course not knowing until the end, that the method of murder is ordinary.
Scribes who have their villain's victims found with butterflies, spiders or bats stamped on them could conceivably be flirting with this gag.
Probably it won't do a lot of good to be too odd, fanciful or grotesque with murder methods.
The different thing for the villain to be after might be something other than jewels, the stolen bank loot, the pearls, or some other old ones.
Here, again one might get too bizarre.
Unique locale? Easy. Selecting one that fits in with the murder method and the treasure--thing that villain wants--makes it simpler, and it's also nice to use a familiar one, a place where you've lived or worked. So many pulpateers don't. It sometimes saves embarrassment to know nearly as much about the locale as the editor, or enough to fool him.
Here's a nifty much used in faking local color. For a story laid in Egypt, say, author finds a book titled "Conversational Egyptian Easily Learned," or something like that. He wants a character to ask in Egyptian, "What's the matter?" He looks in the book and finds, "El khabar, eyh?" To keep the reader from getting dizzy, it's perhaps wise to make it clear in some fashion, just what that means. Occasionally the text will tell this, or someone can repeat it in English. But it's a doubtful move to stop and tell the reader in so many words the English translation.
The writer learns they have palm trees in Egypt. He looks in the book, finds the Egyptian for palm trees, and uses that. This kids editors and readers into thinking he knows something about Egypt.
Here's the second installment of the master plot.
Divide the 6000 word yarn into four 1500 word parts. In each 1500 word part, put the following:
First 1500 words
- First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved--something the hero has to cope with.
- The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.)
- Introduce ALL the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in action.
- Hero's endevours land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of the first 1500 words.
- Near the end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development.
SO FAR: Does it have SUSPENSE? Is there a MENACE to the hero? Does everything happen logically?
At this point, it might help to recall that action should do something besides advance the hero over the scenery. Suppose the hero has learned the dastards of villains have seized somebody named Eloise, who can explain the secret of what is behind all these sinister events. The hero corners villains, they fight, and villains get away. Not so hot.
Hero should accomplish something with his tearing around, if only to rescue Eloise, and surprise! Eloise is a ring-tailed monkey. The hero counts the rings on Eloise's tail, if nothing better comes to mind. They're not real. The rings are painted there. Why?
Second 1500 words
- Shovel more grief onto the hero.
- Hero, being heroic, struggles, and his struggles lead up to:
- Another physical conflict.
- A surprising plot twist to end the 1500 words.
NOW: Does second part have SUSPENSE? Does the MENACE grow like a black cloud? Is the hero getting it in the neck? Is the second part logical?
DON'T TELL ABOUT IT***Show how the thing looked. This is one of the secrets of writing; never tell the reader--show him. (He trembles, roving eyes, slackened jaw, and such.) MAKE THE READER SEE HIM.
When writing, it helps to get at least one minor surprise to the printed page. It is reasonable to to expect these minor surprises to sort of inveigle the reader into keeping on. They need not be such profound efforts. One method of accomplishing one now and then is to be gently misleading. Hero is examining the murder room. The door behind him begins slowly to open. He does not see it. He conducts his examination blissfully. Door eases open, wider and wider, until--surprise! The glass pane falls out of the big window across the room. It must have fallen slowly, and air blowing into the room caused the door to open. Then what the heck made the pane fall so slowly? More mystery.
Characterizing a story actor consists of giving him some things which make him stick in the reader's mind. TAG HIM.
BUILD YOUR PLOTS SO THAT ACTION CAN BE CONTINUOUS.
Third 1500 words
- Shovel the grief onto the hero.
- Hero makes some headway, and corners the villain or somebody in:
- A physical conflict.
- A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad, to end the 1500 words.
DOES: It still have SUSPENSE? The MENACE getting blacker? The hero finds himself in a hell of a fix? It all happens logically?
These outlines or master formulas are only something to make you certain of inserting some physical conflict, and some genuine plot twists, with a little suspense and menace thrown in. Without them, there is no pulp story.
These physical conflicts in each part might be DIFFERENT, too. If one fight is with fists, that can take care of the pugilism until next the next yarn. Same for poison gas and swords. There may, naturally, be exceptions. A hero with a peculiar punch, or a quick draw, might use it more than once.
The idea is to avoid monotony.
ACTION: Vivid, swift, no words wasted. Create suspense, make the reader see and feel the action.
ATMOSPHERE: Hear, smell, see, feel and taste.
DESCRIPTION: Trees, wind, scenery and water.
THE SECRET OF ALL WRITING IS TO MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT.
Fourth 1500 words
- Shovel the difficulties more thickly upon the hero.
- Get the hero almost buried in his troubles. (Figuratively, the villain has him prisoner and has him framed for a murder rap; the girl is presumably dead, everything is lost, and the DIFFERENT murder method is about to dispose of the suffering protagonist.)
- The hero extricates himself using HIS OWN SKILL, training or brawn.
- The mysteries remaining--one big one held over to this point will help grip interest--are cleared up in course of final conflict as hero takes the situation in hand.
- Final twist, a big surprise, (This can be the villain turning out to be the unexpected person, having the "Treasure" be a dud, etc.)
- The snapper, the punch line to end it.
HAS: The SUSPENSE held out to the last line? The MENACE held out to the last? Everything been explained? It all happen logically? Is the Punch Line enough to leave the reader with that WARM FEELING? Did God kill the villain? Or the hero?
My favourite Joanne Harris rules
- 1. Authors, even successful ones, often worry whether or not they are "proper authors." DON'T.
- 2. Use the right vocabulary. If you're published, you're an author. If you write, you're a writer.
- 3. Stop using terms like "aspiring writer" that make you sound as if you don't take your writing seriously.
- 4. Don't put yourself down. If you tell people "I write, but I'm not very good," they'll believe you.
- 5. Don't be over-confident and arrogant, either. It makes you look insecure and amateurish.
- 6. Learn to read your work aloud. Not everyone is good at this straightaway. It takes practice.
- 9. Talk to other authors. You'll find that your experiences are not as different as you might imagine.
- 10. Be yourself. Trying to be anyone else is a waste of time and energy.
- Make sure what you describe is what you really feel - not what you've been told to feel.
- Stop writing when you've doing good and could still write some more. That way your brain isn't emptied when you'll start the next day. You keep thinking about how you'll go on.
- Before starting to write, read what you've written the last day and correct as you go.
- After finishing a story put it in your desk for 2-3 months before you rewrite and publish it.
- Use slang only in dialogs and even then you should think twice - it may soon be old-fashioned slang.
- Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive voice where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.