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.”


The Voice

No, not the Adam Levine, Christina Aguilera Voice. Not that one.


I’ve heard some writers say you find your voice. Some say that a writer’s voice is a creation, that it changes over time as the writer changes, that we can always choose. The most important advice I’ve received recently, though, is that it’s important to know it when you hear it.

A few weekends ago I attended a Q&A with Ted Kooser, one of my favorite poets, a poet who feels like a mentor whenever I hear his words. This instance was no exception. A few things he said have stuck with me. He encouraged us to read and read and read and read. One hundred poems read for every one written. He said that the more we read, the more we learn to write like ourselves, instead of writing imitations. He told us to listen to our writing until we find a comfortable, authentic way of speaking to the world, until our poetry sounds like us, like the way we would talk to the world.

I think I’m beginning to find that in my poetry. I think I’m beginning to trust it. It surprises me.

It doesn’t sound like my outside voice, like the voice I use to talk in every ordinary day. It is the voice I speak inside my head, the things I want to say to others but always feel too embarrassed and emotional and earnest to say out loud. It is joyful, full of wonder, excited, sometimes childlike. It says things like: “You come too. Let’s borrow Einstein’s bicycle, make it a tandem, and ride a  beam of light.” It is also somber, disappointed, even angry sometimes: “I found a black and white picture of shame.” It tries to play, but always takes itself a bit too seriously.

It’s an interesting thing to read my poems, especially those most intimate and dear to me, especially after it’s been a while. I know I’ve hit on something good when I read my words and it feels like coming home, when I read my words and I feel like I’m standing naked in front of a mirror and smiling because I like myself the way I am.

For those of you who also write, how do you know when you’ve got it right? How do recognize your own voice speaking through your writing?

On Authenticity in Art

I am at a poetry festival today. It’s one I’ve attended every April for five years now. Aside from the poetry feast, I love the people here, not least of all because they love me.

Tonight I received an award for and read a poem that is deeply important to me. Oh, it also uses dirty words for female body parts, as well as their anatomically correct counterparts. It is a prose poem that speaks to our culture’s views of a woman’s body. Many people are very comfortable hearing swear words regarding a woman’s body, but not comfortable with words like vagina and breast. For me, they are sacred words. My body is a sacred place, a gift that I love. I hate the profanity, the making profane that happens around a woman’s body. I think that much of the reason women are treated so poorly during childbirth is because of this attitude toward women’s bodies. Because childbirth is a deeply physical, primal thing, all of our attitudes regarding women, sex, worthiness come into play. It makes me angry. The last few lines of the poem: “I want to say: Mothers are people. I want to say: Birth is a feminist issue. First I’d have to convince them; feminism is not a dirty word.”

It is one of the most brave, honest things I have ever written. It is an angry poem. It is a truth-telling poem. A friend of mine came up to me after I’d read it and said “I don’t know who wrote that poem.” It was clear that he was disappointed.

This is hard for me.

I am in the process of writing some of the most courageous, honest work I have ever written. It is hard for me. I have always been authentic within my poetry, but there’s been a huge part of myself that I have not disclosed. Now, I look at the stuff I am writing and I am so very pleased with it. It has been so fulfilling to write it.

At the same time, I worry that my friend’s reaction will be repeated over and over again. That my authentic self (or the parts of my authentic self) revealed in my poetry will be disappointing, rejected.

But, as May Sarton says in “Of the Muse”: “There is no poetry in lies / but in crude honesty / there is hope for poetry.”

Raw Journal Passage: On (Not) Writing

“Why do I choose not to write?

  • Because I feel like I don’t have enough time for it.
  • Because I worry that my ideas are stupid, that I’ll never be good enough or have anything worthwhile to say.
  • Because I fear my own inability, my mediocrity.

As long as my ideas for poems and stories and essays remain in the realm of ideas, I can still believe in their beauty. I can convince myself that I am (or will be in the future) a brilliant and successful and talented author. I don’t have to own up to the fact that I feel like I’m wandering around in a cold, damp basement maze in the dark with my arms cut off.

If I don’t face this awful, awesome task of writing, I don’t have to face up to the fact that I don’t have and fear I’ll never have the skill, the words, the ability to take this precious, overwhelming, beautiful world inside me and find some way, any way, to make it real.

Writing is a way of grounding my rich and wild (and, frankly, schizophrenic) inner life in a reality. It’s taking what is in my head and attempting to make something real out of it, something others can touch or feel and love or hate or use or ignore. It is scary. I fear that nobody else will care or that they will hate what I have to say or how I’ve said it or that they just won’t get it.

It’s more than that. Writing means taking the spirit of my inner self and ideas and giving them a body. And once they are fully formed, body-spirit-soul, I am out there. I am, in my writing, a body that can be bruised, broken, hurt, raped, hungry, thirsty.

The art of writing is much like the act of giving birth. It is a choice to pull something pure and beautiful and spiritual into this dirty, difficult, physical realm. It means to clothe intelligence, that airy creature, in flesh and blood, and expose it to the world, which is not always a good place. Only I am not really taking another spirit, snatching it from the ethereal realm and gifting it with a body. I am taking pieces of my self, tearing them again and again from the place where they live and throwing them into the cold and the fire.

Writing is like tearing my fingernails out one by one and giving them away in hopes that someone else will make them into gold. Then, I stare at the bloody stumps and watch, wait through the pain in hopes that more fingernails will grow back whole so I can do it all over again.”

Taken from my green journal. Dated May 28, 2011. As true to my feelings about writing today as it was a year ago. Writing is hard sometimes. And yet, it is as vital a part of my being as breath. Even when it’s difficult, I can’t not be a writer.

The First Post

One must always start somewhere, and I choose here. I have blogged before. This is, in fact, the fourth blog I have started. Each time I’ve chosen to start anew, it is because I feel the tug of a different path, a new voice that wants to speak from me.

I don’t fully know this voice that is begging to leap out of breast, my fingers, my body/mind. This blog will be an opportunity for me to get to know her along with you. My hope is that it will be a worthwhile journey for all of us.