Everything I believed about writing when I was young turned out to be wrong. Do precisely the opposite of what I tried to do, and you’ll be on the path to literary enlightenment.
The first law of writing
Writing is NOT about words. Writing is about ideas.
It took me decades to realize that. I thought great writers used great similes, metaphors and adjectives. I focused on the language rather than the true currency of writing: ideas.
Language and writing are vehicles to convey ideas; nothing more, nothing less. Without ideas, your writing’s going to suck eggs. It’s like that seventh-grade book report you wrote on a book you never read. You changed the font to courier (size 28) and expanded the margins to 3 inches just to hit your page count. You didn’t have anything to write because you had no idea what the hell to say. You lacked ideas. You violated the first law.
The second law of writing
Your writing must be clear. Clarity should trump all else. It should trump style, diction and mood. If a single reader gets confused by a single sentence, you have failed – assuming, of course, that your reader is of average intelligence. Dullards get a pass.
Your duty as a writer is to convey information. That means if a reader misunderstands something you’ve written, it’s not their fault, it’s yours.
Engineers are paid to build bridges. If there’s a gap in the bridge, they’ve failed. Any lack of clarity in your writing is a failure equally as grievous.
The third law of writing
Writing isn’t about the muse, it’s about putting words on paper. Writing is a muscle. Use that muscle to strengthen it. Some people write everyday (check out my post: How I get myself to write every single day). Some people force themselves to sit in front of a blank sheet of paper at the same time every morning. Some people take a week off work and crank out a 70,000-word novel in seven days.
The how doesn’t matter.
What does matter is that you sit your a** in front of a computer and write. After all, 81 percent of Americans claim they “have a book in them.” How many of them have started writing chapter one?
The fourth law of writing
Writing requires conflict. That’s so important I’ll repeat it. Writing requires conflict.
I didn’t know that when I was young. All I needed to do was make up an imaginary character and put him in a difficult situation. That’s ALL it takes to hook a reader. That’s conflict, and conflict is what makes kids stay up past their bedtimes yelling, “One more chapter! One more chapter!”
The more extraordinary your conflict, the more extraordinary your writing. If you think you’ve put you character in a tough situation, think about how you can make it even tougher. Make it so tough that you can’t even imagine how your character could get out of said situation. If you can’t guess your book’s ending, your readers certainly won’t be able to, and that’ll keep them turning those pages.
Conflict is so important, it can sell books even if your writing style is … inelegant.
Dan Brown (author of the Da Vinci Code) is often scoffed at by writerly types as a “bad writer.” In the words of one critic: “Brown’s writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad.”
I would point out that Brown’s sold over 200 million books. He understands what critics don’t: conflict.
The fifth law of writing
I used to think writing was hard; that we should brood over our words like masochistic poets. I’ve since realized writing should be more like sex. If you aren’t having fun, you’re not doing it right.
Why write something that bores you? Stretch your imagination like taffy. Write about monsters, hackers, plagues, aliens and communists. Put yourself in the shoes of the hero.
Writing is, after all, the ultimate fantasy fulfillment device. Yes, readers talk about escaping into new worlds, but as a writer, you get to create the very ground upon which they tread. Make it a wondrous place. Make it a magical place. Make it fun, and the rest will fall into place.
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