Some Rules For Writing Fiction

A very cool discovery from my substitute teaching:

Ten (plus a whole lot more!) Rules for Writing Fiction (and for writing in general)

Some of my favorite rules:

From Elmore Leonard: “Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ‘full of rape and adverbs’.”

From Margaret Atwood: “You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.”

From Geoff Dyer: “Do it every day. Make a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct. This is the most important rule of all and, naturally, I don’t follow it.”

From Neil Gaiman: “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.”

From AL Kennedy: “Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.”


Favorite Poem of the Week: Woodchucks by Maxine Kumin

I’ve had the privilege of substitute teaching a beginning creative writing class for one of my professors several times this summer. It’s been a fantastic experience. Such brilliant students. Such great material to teach. Getting paid to talk about one of the things I love most in this world: writing. Yesterday we discussed “Woodchucks” by Maxine Kumin. I’ve read the poem many times, always enjoyed it, but never has it spoken to me and echoed my thoughts as it did this week.


Gassing the woodchucks didn’t turn out right.
The knockout bomb from the Feed and Grain Exchange
was featured as merciful, quick at the bone
and the case we had against them was airtight,
both exits shoehorned shut with puddingstone,
but they had a sub-sub-basement out of range.

Next morning they turned up again, no worse
for the cyanide than we for our cigarettes
and state-store Scotch, all of us up to scratch.
They brought down the marigolds as a matter of course
and then took over the vegetable patch
nipping the broccoli shoots, beheading the carrots.

The food from our mouths, I said, righteously thrilling
to the feel of the .22, the bullets’ neat noses.
I, a lapsed pacifist fallen from grace
puffed with Darwinian pieties for killing,
now drew a bead on the little woodchuck’s face.
He died down in the everbearing roses.

Ten minutes later I dropped the mother.She
flipflopped in the air and fell, her needle teeth
still hooked in a leaf of early Swiss chard.
Another baby next.O one-two-three
the murderer inside me rose up hard,
the hawkeye killer came on stage forthwith.

There’s one chuck left. Old wily fellow, he keeps
me cocked and ready day after day after day.
All night I hunt his humped-up form.I dream
I sight along the barrel in my sleep.
If only they’d all consented to die unseen
gassed underground the quiet Nazi way.

Maxine Kumin


As I’ve read news about the massacre in Aurora, Colorado, I’ve been thinking about human nature. And violence. And our society. My heart is broken. I hurt for the victims and their families. I hurt for the family of the gunman. I hurt for the gunman, for the deep, dark place he had to visit to do something so horrific.

I have seen opinions for and against gun control.

“If the theatre hadn’t been a gun-free zone, someone with a legal gun could have taken him down.”

“If gun control were tighter, someone would have questioned why someone had acquired so much weaponry.”

Here’s my thought:
Do we really have to live in a world where we even contemplate using guns against each other for any reason, a world of such deep antagonism?

I know that sounds very hippy-dippy, very “all you need is love,” but it all just baffles me.

Guns don’t bother me. I grew up with a dad who was a gunsmith, a hunter. I’ve grown up around law enforcement. Guns are not scary to me. What baffles me is that people I know to be kind and compassionate own handguns, expecting they will need to use them to protect themselves or others. People carry concealed handguns into church, just in case. Very good people spend a great deal of time contemplating the killing of another human being, in self-defense, because it seems a given that it will be necessary at some point. Why is violence the answer? Why aren’t we questioning what makes guns necessary, trying to fix that? (Both the NRA team and the GunControl team seem to support the violent status quo in one way or another.)

I am baffled by a society that glorifies violence in Batman movies, gritty violence that should utterly shock and sadden us. We pay big money to recreate it. We ask for it.

Then we are surprised when Aurora happens.

I don’t know the answers. I want to think that humanity is generally good. But I also know that Maxine Kumin was onto something in her poem. Whether it’s gas, or gun, or both, even in confirmed pacifists lies the potential for violence.

And I wish I knew what we could do to make that not so.

Update: This is a start. I am very touched that Christian Bale took the time to visit victims and first responders in Colorado.

How Does One Relearn Living?


“Fight tooth and nail to find time, to make it. It is our true wealth, this moment, this hour, this day.”—Anne Lamott

“Life is a choice. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly. Choose happiness.”—Bronnie Ware

Exactly one mile west of my house a cottonwood towers over a field of blooming sunflowers and queen anne’s lace. I run to that tree at least once a week and stop to place my fingertips and cheek on its rough bark, to breathe its hundred years of wisdom. Sometimes I take a leaf with me for the next few miles, roll it between my fingers like a talisman. At least once this time of year, I drive to that field with scissors, come home with an armful of flowers. I always tell myself I ought to go back and get another bunch for a friend, but I never have. This year, perhaps.
Just an hour ago I walked barefoot in warm rain puddles, marveled at the wonder of rainscent beneath a sun-brightened blue sky. I love this world unwaveringly, the sights and smells and touch and taste of it all. I love its people. I love learning new things, the heft of new library books in my basket, the sting of bloodshot eyes at two a.m as I thrill to new discoveries. I love teaching. I love writing, the leaping and pirouetting dance of placing words on a page, twirling them through the air in spirals until I find the ones that sing my inner life. I love children, especially mine, especially the way my Ammon’s blue eyes this summer have held all the answers to all the questions in all the universe that I could ever ask.

Here’s the problem: I have forgotten how to live this life I love. I have let its frenzied voices shout at me. I have forgotten how to hear quiet voices, to know, to love and believe. Oh, how I have forgotten to believe, substituted agreement or disagreement for faith and wonder and surety.

It’s a common problem, I think. Facebook. Twitter. CNN. Tumblr. Life Hacker. How we survive as intact selves in these gale-force winds is beyond me. Maybe we don’t survive intact. I know I haven’t.

This year has been a year of questioning for me. Radical questioning of nearly everything less provable than gravity. It’s had my husband worried about me as I question every tradition, every normal, every common thing. So many things I once believed have proven flimsy and false in my journeying lately, so I am trying to rebuild my life around what I know is true, what I do believe. And the hailstorm that is the internet has often gotten in the way.

I do not believe in facebook.*

  • I believe in God. I do.
  • I believe in cottonwood bark and sunflowers.
  • I believe in poetry and blue eyes and rainstorms.
  • I believe in the goodness of those around me.
  • I believe in loving.
  • I believe in the Jesus who said “Love one another.”
  • I believe in Phillip Hallie’s philosophy on hospitality, and justice, and ultimate kindess.
  • I believe in friendship, in beauty.
  • I believe in family and love.
  • I believe in finding family and love and life all around me.
  • I believe in speaking love from the heart, with voice, with action, with fingertips.
  • I believe that life is good and that I don’t want to miss any more of it.

*Of course, there is irony here (and how I love irony). The two blogposts that sent me over the edge, brought me the final realization that I must change my life, were posted by friends on facebook. (Thank you CAK and MN!) And when I finish writing this, I will hit the little button below and invite my facebook friends to read it. For now. So it goes. I think my main concern is to no longer be a passive, constant consumer of social media, to not let it get in my way.

Poem of the Week: “To a Daughter Leaving Home” by Linda Pastan

Early yesterday morning, Jeffrey and I woke in dark to take our oldest, our sweet daughter to the airport. We put her on a plane to fly across the country for a prestigious and exciting summer school program being held at Princeton.

As I watched her bobbed hair and her teal cardigan and her white flip-flops move away from us, through the gate, down the concourse, I thought of this poem. I thought of all the little leavings my daughter has done, will continue to do over the next few years until she’s ready to head out our door and into the world on her own. I’m not sure I can handle it, the idea of her leaving for good, but like Linda Pastan, I have pictures of her flying away from me, again and again, stored away in my head and heart. And pictures of her beautiful smile and her comings-home. I keep reminding myself that parenting is the act of learning to let go, that the best homes are made with leaving in mind, that her independence is a sign that I’m doing my job.

To A Daughter Leaving Home

When I taught you
at eight to ride
a bicycle, loping along
beside you
as you wobbled away
on two round wheels,
my own mouth rounding
in surprise when you pulled
ahead down the curved
path of the park,
I kept waiting
for the thud
of your crash as I
sprinted to catch up,
while you grew
smaller, more breakable
with distance,
pumping, pumping
for your life, screaming
with laughter,
the hair flapping
behind you like a
handkerchief waving

by Linda Pastan