Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Writers: What Are Your Rules?

Want to know a secret?

Everyone who buys Second Sight gets not only the book, not only my never-before-published talks on character, principles of plot, and voice, not only my full list of Twenty-Five Revision Techniques in one handy place, not only some so-terrible-they're-funny pictures of me -- but, at the very end, a link to a secret page on my website where I'm compiling more resources like the ones in the book. While this does include links to all my past talks and a quasi-index by subject to this blog,  these resources aren't just things that I've written. Rather, it's craft stuff that I find all over the Internet that I think writers should read. I've basically indexed Jennifer Crusie's website, too, and I should do the same for Nathan Bransford, and then there's this great post by Erin Murphy on how to define success . . . I like having this page as a list of all the resources I return to again and again; having it available to Second Sight readers is just an added bonus for everyone.

Anyway, I started a new section tonight called "Other People's Principles." Basically, I'm trying to put together a list of all of those "Rules for Writers" articles by various famous writers, for instance:

I always love reading these and occasionally adopt a rule or two for my own, though at the same time, I think those principles are best applied to the work of the writers who espouse them. . . . Contra Monsieur Leonard, sometimes books need prologues. Anyway again, in looking at this list, I realized that everyone I have on here is a writer of adult fiction, and indeed the only people who tend to write these kinds of lists are writers of adult fiction, because generally writers of children's and YA fiction aren't accorded the literary respect that would lead to their being asked "Hey, what are your rules for writing fiction?" by a major media outlet.

And you know what? That is stupid, because God knows the children's/YA world has as many smart writers with interesting principles as the adult world does, and indeed the peculiar nature of writing fiction for children and teenagers should require our principles to be more interesting than, say, "Don't use adverbs." (Which is a good principle, but one that needs to be thoughtfully qualified, as it can lead to deadly dullness.) (And you see what I did there . . .)

Anyway again again, I'm asking:  Authors of children's and YA fiction:  If the New York Times came to you and asked you to write a "Writers on Writing" essay like Mr. Leonard's, what would you say? What principles, large or small, guide your storytelling? What are your ten rules for writers? I'd like to know, and I bet other writers would as well. And I think it's a fascinating exercise always to dig down and find your unconscious lodestones. . . .

So, if you want to participate, feel free to write up and post your list of principles on your blog/LJ and put the link in the comments below; or, if you don't have a blog/LJ, you can write the principles themselves in the comments. (If you're reading this on Facebook, please click this link to post the comments on the blog post itself and not in Facebook comments; that way everyone can read them.) I will be excited to see what people say, and I hope all of us can learn new things from one another.

Thank you for your interest and participation!


  1. 9 rules I use to write YA fiction

    1. I never choose my next story; instead I let the story choose me.

    Why: because if it doesn’t choose me, I just walk around my apartment, eating snacks and thinking I should rather be a plumber!

    2. I don’t start working on a story until I can summarize it in a single simple sentence

    Why: to keep a simple compass I can use anytime I get lost during writing and resume walking around, eating snacks and thinking plumbing would have been a very decent career indeed

    3. I outline the story very precisely, and then I completely forget about the outline while writing

    4. I let my characters act and speak freely; I never impose a line of dialogue or an action on them.

    Why: because it’s incredible the stuff they come-up with when you leave them on their own!

    5. I stick to themes that were important to me when I was a teenager (romance, the on-going war against adults and parents, girls, rebellion against the machine, sex, the supernatural etc.)

    6. I don’t write for a given audience or market. I write to impress the kid/teen I used to be, and I try to make him laugh too, because he never was a very serious type of guy.

    7. I try to picture three of four highly dramatic moments that will take place during the story.

    Why: because sometimes I keep writing just to be able to reach one of those moments

    8. During the story, I try to transform everything from one thing to its opposite (the weak become strong, the strong become weak, the living become dead and the dead come back to life, etc)

    Why: because any good story is about something transforming into something else; the caterpillars figured that millions of years ago

    9. This is not a rule, but a fact: whenever I start a new story, I feel like I’ve never read or written a single sentence in my entire life, and I’m scared shit less that I will never be able to do it ever again… and then I go back to rule number 1

    Gary Ghislain – Author of “How I Stole Johnny Depp’s Alien Girlfriend” by Chronicle Books – May 2011

    And thanks Cheryl for this post... I love Vonnegut's check list... but then again, I love Vonnegut full stop :)

  2. These are my fundamental rules for writing - the ones that don't vary, no matter what the subject matter or the form.

    1. Always be writing. Always.
    2. Never leave a piece unfinished, for good or ill.
    3. Serve the story, not the ego.
    4. Bring your passion to the table.

    Thanks for this! B.A. Chepaitis, author The Fear Principle, Feathers of Hope, and many more. (wildreads.com)

  3. I think "rules" are silly-- people like formulas, but formulas don't always work. Especially not with something like religion, relationship, or art.

    But I guess I'd say:

    1) Write a lot.
    2) Don't condescend.
    3) Don't worry.

  4. I love this post. You've really got me thinking. Here's my blog post:

  5. Read others. But.
    Know thyself.
    Write thyself (reincarnated or no).

  6. Munk Rules!...er... Munk's Rules.


  7. Love these links - thanks for posting them. I heard you speak at a conference in Missouri in 2006. My boys are that much older now and just beginning to read the Harry Potter series. I was so thrilled to brag on having heard you speak. Loved your insights then, and I love them still. I need to accomplish a few more finished projects before I settle on my rules. I follow a few though, the main one being that I want to write characters who are earnest. One of these lists worded it this way: Every character should want something. I like that.

  8. Janni Lee Simner had some wise words on the subject of writing rules in general on her blog: http://janni.livejournal.com/725580.html

  9. This question could not have come at a better time. Thanks Cheryl, and everyone, for pushing me to find my "unconscious lodestones." I posted mine at http://bethanydellinger.blogspot.com/2011/04/guidelines-for-writing.html

    Hope to see you there.

  10. 1) Trust your voice.
    2) Find alternatives to the stereotype of absent/checked-out parent. There are ways to neutralize parents besides killing them off or making them dreadful.
    3) Don't try to impress your readers with the superiority of your writing. Most kids are smarter and more savvy than you. They can spot a fake on the first page.
    4) It's a big responsibility to write for children. Be careful to create the effect you intend.
    5) Don't work too hard at giving your story a moral. A well-written manuscript will have one naturally.
    6) A teen's world changes hourly. If you want to stay relevant, let willing teens alpha-read your book.

  11. Great job, Eliza T.

    I did some more thinking and wrote a second, follow-up post this morning. Hope you don't think I'm too greedy:


  12. Here are mine: http://cynthiaswanson.blogspot.com/2011/04/finding-write-rules.html

  13. I think the best rule for me, or at least the one that sticks in my head is simple:

    Butt in chair!

    Researching, planning and talkin', talkin', talkin' is good and necessary but does not produce a written story.

    (Cheryl, I enjoyed reading the above entries. Now... armed with these rules, I am typing away to corral my WIP, thanks.)

  14. Thanks, Cheryl. I'll be thinking of my list. Fitch's list is hard to beat. Loved your book!

  15. I am not qualified to write an original post on this subject, but I read Ray Bradbury's,
    "Zen in the Art of Writing"
    He wrote this:

    "Tell me no pointless jokes.-
    I will laugh at your refusal to allow me laughter.

    Build me no tension toward tears
    and refuse me my lamentations.-
    I will go find better wailing walls.

    Do not clench my fists for me and hide the target.- I might strike you instead.

    Above all, sicken me not unless
    you show me the way to the ships rail.
    For understand,
    if you poison me, I must be sick."

  16. I love Vonnegut's 8.

    I don't have a set of rules written down, but here are the principles I write by.

    1. There are no rules! Whatever works,works.
    2. Write what you love.
    3. Writing is personal. Whatever route will take you from nothing to complete polished manuscript is the right route.

    Thanks for this!