Okay. So “rules of engagement” may not be wholly accurate, but it sounds cool, doesn’t it? Really what this is, is a list, in no particular order, of things I find useful when trying to engage in writing. So, yeah. It works. Kinda. Just keep reading.
- If you’re not careful, a metaphor will become an off-balance washing machine, clunking across your page. Similarly, a badly rendered simile can be like a kiss from Granny where she slips you the tongue. If you’re not clear on the difference between the two, please re-read those last sentences. Yup. I did that. Both have their places in fiction. Both can enrich your story. But, tread lightly when using either. Use a gentle touch. Okay. I’ll stop.
- Don’t use exclamation points! Seriously! Don’t! Do you see why?!? They! Are! Jarring! As! Hell! (Really, though. Don’t. Like, ever.)
- “Let’s talk about dialog for a minute.”
“It’s important, all right?”
She tapped her foot twice.
Okay. A lot of people tell you what you can and cannot put into dialog. Some say you should only ever use “said” and for the most part, I agree. “Said” is invisible. We don’t notice it. The dialog should also convey what the characters want and how they feel. Look at the example above. I named no one, yet it is clear that the people talking have a relationship. He wants to discuss dialog and she clearly does not. I don’t come out and say that, however. I use actions: he sighs; she taps her foot. She uses one word when she speaks. She seems kind of pissed, huh? But, I didn’t have to tell you that, right? I also didn’t use any dialog tags, not even “said.” You don’t have to.
I’ll give you an example of one thing not to do. Now, I love the Harry Potter books, but several times, Hermione has told someone something “warningly.” (eg. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Hermione said warningly.) Whenever I come across this, I gnash my teeth and want to throw the book through the wall. Don’t do this. We know it’s a warning. Don’t assume your readers are morons. Give them some credit. After all, we’re readers, too, right? Right? If not, walk away from this and go get a book. Now. If you don’t read, you have no business writing.
Dialog should also have a point. It needs to move the story along, or provide exposition, or create tension. If your characters are talking about nothing just to hear themselves talk, cut it. It’s useless. And your reader’s eyes are glazing over and they’re thinking about what to make for dinner.
- Jump right in. Start the story in the middle. This is especially true for short fiction, but applies to novels, too. Find that point where you, the writer, start to get excited about the story and cut as much out before that as you can. How many times have you seen great opening lines quoted? Don’t you want to see your own stuff on that list someday? I sure do. That first line is your way to get the reader’s attention. And, bonus: if you’re trying to sell your fiction, that first line is the first (and sometimes only) thing an editor is going to see. Some editors have admitted that if the first line doesn’t grab them, they’ll stop reading right there. Having had some of my own stuff rejected in an hour, I believe it.
- Keep it simple. I read a lot of fiction. I read nonfiction, too, mostly about writing, but some other stuff, too. But, I write fiction, so I read a ton of it. Some of it’s good. Some of it’s great. A lot of it is mediocre and some of it’s terrible. I tend to write dark stuff mixed with humor. So, I end up selling my stories to horror-themed publications more than anything else. I always read the other writers with whom I share pages. For one thing, I want to know who I’m standing next to. I’ve made some good friends this way. One of them I teamed up with to write (and sell) a short story. After that, we co-wrote (and sold) a novel and we’re writing the sequel. So, yeah. Good things can come from reading other people’s stuff.
But, I digress. The original point I was trying to make is to keep it simple, keep it readable. You don’t want your reader slogging through heavy language, pausing to look words up in the dictionary every sentence. I’ve seen a trend among certain horror writers, particularly newer ones, to try to emulate H.P. Lovecraft or Poe. We live in the 21st century. Thanks to television and now the Internet, we have seven-second attention spans. You’re already bored by this paragraph, admit it. Use language you use in real life. Use a voice that engages people. Make it interesting without being pompous. You’re not Lovecraft. You’re you. Be you, only, you know, better.
- Have fun with it. If you’re enjoying what you’re writing, odds are pretty good other people will, too. If you feel like writing is a ten mile hike knee deep in human feces, maybe you’re in the wrong game. If you’re writing something creepy, it should make you shudder a little. If you’re writing sex, you should be aroused. If you’re not, you ain’t doing it right. If you’re writing creepy and sexy at the same time, you should feel really dirty and gross. It’s a weird, but kind of awesome feeling. Believe me. I feel kind of dirty just thinking about it. *Shudders* *Grins*
- Write outside your comfort zone. If you’re a mystery writer, do a western; if you write romance, write horror (when I want to be horrified, I read romance. Kidding. Not really kidding.) Science Fiction? Write mainstream. Also, write poetry. I hate writing poetry (unless it starts with “There once was a young man from…”), but it’s a good idea. It forces you to use the fewest possible words to get across your ideas. It encourages use of imagery and metaphor (you remember, the clunky washing machine?). These are good exercises for your writer brain and will likely carry over into your fiction. But, like I said, I hate poetry (I like some poetry, but that’s reading. I don’t write it unless I have no choice), so I understand if the idea makes you want to puke. Do it anyway. Suck it up. It’s good for you.
And, yeah. I’ll do it, too. Fine. Whatever. Get off my back.
- Assume something is wrong. After you write that first draft, there are going to be errors. And, you won’t be able to see them. Walk away for a couple days. Longer if it’s a big piece like a novella, even longer for novels. When you come back, you’ll see some mistakes. Great. Fix them. Go over it one more time. Fix the new ones you caught. Read it out loud. You’ll find even more things that suddenly sound terrible, even though they looked fine on paper. Fix those. (Note: I went back and reread this after it posted and fixed three errors I had missed.)
Okay. Now that it’s in as good of shape as you can make it, find someone else to read it. This can be a family member or a friend. I strongly recommend another writer. They’ll see things most readers won’t. A good thing to do is to find writers who will do this (it’s called “beta reading” because you’ve already done the alpha reading yourself) in exchange for you reading their stuff. I do this all the time. Bonus: you get to read stuff before anyone else. Cool, huh?
So, once you get feedback from another set of eyes, and you’ve fixed any problems they’ve found, then you can submit it to an editor. They will either accept it or, far more commonly, reject it. Either is fine. Rejections help keep us humble. I am very humble. Not really, but I’ve had over a hundred chances to test that. But, before I started submitting fiction, I was an actor. Before that, I was a teenager trying to get a date. Rejection and I go way back.
All right. That’s it. For now anyway. I sat down to jot down a few ideas and I rambled on for over 1500 words. Go. Write. Enjoy yourself. And, please don’t be afraid to ask other writers for advice. When I started out, I got so much help. I couldn’t believe it. It’s a good community of mostly friendly people. We are riddled with doubt; we all wonder if people are going to like our work; we all strive to be better than we are, to constantly improve. And, that’s key. Your next work should always be better than your last. Challenge yourself. Stand out from the crowd. Don’t so much write what you know, as write what you love. Put your passion into it. Put your heart in the words. Bleed on the page. Make hot, ugly, sweaty love to your characters. Write.