But all those cavets aside, there are rules, spoken and unspoken to writing. Rules like: don’t bore me. That’s a good one for all writers. But I also have rules for myself. Like a lot of my advice, I don’t always follow my own rules, but my writing is stronger when I do.
So here are mine:
1. Pay attention to spelling, grammar and sentence construction.
2. Create characters readers will identify or sympathize with.
3. Grab the reader with the first sentence.
4. Break scenes/chapters with a hook.
5. Treat every character as a real person.
6. Make action clear, vivid and plausible.
7. Specific details beat generalities.
8. Write dialog that sounds like the character might actually say it.
9. Everything has consequences, often unintended.
10. Make the stakes high and personal
11. Pick the exotic over the mundane.
Ok, now that I have the list done, let’s talk briefly about each one.
You have to write cleanly first of all. Nothing will throw a reader faster than bad spelling/word use, clunky or run-on sentences and random punctuation. Now I do tend to write a sentence fragment or two but I do so deliberately. I don’t try to write paragons of prose but I try to avoid mistakes. (though, as this now doubt blog proves, I still make them.)
Second most important thing to me is characters. I have to like a character to want to read about them. I should want to be them, want to know them, want to protect them. Ideally, my characters should be sympathetic but if they aren’t, they’d better be cool.
I’m a believer in the great first line. A great first line will definitely make me want to read more. Dean Koontz did this to perfection, especially in his early books. The first line should be bold, intriguing, make you want to know more. It should never confuse the reader.
Related, breaking a scene with a hook or stinger will make it much easier to keep a reader’s interest once I have it. The last line of your scene or chapter should raise a question the reader wants answered immediately.
There are no throwaway characters. Everyone that appears in a story should have a life ‘off stage’. They all should have reasons for what they’re doing or saying. If the plot demands they do or say something, I make damn sure I know why they do it. If you treat your characters with respect, it’ll show through to your readers.
I like action in my stories. But fights (whether gun-, sword- or fist- variety) need to serve a plot purpose and they need to be easy to visualize. That’s how I write them, by seeing the fight and then describing what I see. I try to keep the sentences short and keep internal/external dialog to a minimum. (again, something I don’t always succeed at). Finally, I try hard to make each fight plausible. That can mean physically blocking out a fight sequence, heading down to the range or using after action reports from police and military sources.
This is something I often need to fix in revision but specific details beat general details every time. A man giving a woman a flower means less than Davide giving Michelle a daffodil. Mention street names, building names, character names every chance you get without bogging down the flow. I have characters point a Glock 21 at someone, not just ‘a gun’. The more specific your details, the more vivid your story.
Dialog is something else that matters to me. It needs to sound real. Most people don’t speak in complete words and complete sentences. And when a character of mine does so, it should be for a reason. Similarly, dialog needs to match the character; an educated person will use different words from a street thug, though if the thug likes to read fantasy novels in his spare time, that may toss in a quirk or two, dialog-wise. Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake and David Simon (creator/writer/bottle washer on The Wire) do dialog very well for contemporary fiction. George R.R. Martin comes to mind as someone who writes fantasy dialog well. Those are my models. Find authors who do dialog well and read them compulsively.
Every decision someone makes in a story should have consequences. Best of all are the consequences that are unintended. A fun way to do this is to imagine how thing can go wrong. Then ask how they can get worse. Then see if you find something worse (or funnier) than that. I want to write stories that feel real but take place in a heightened reality. Unlikely but cool/terrifying/horrific consequences will grab readers much more than pedestrian choices. Every decision needs to matter. Even small decisions can lead to interesting plot developments. Oh and before I forget: each decision should have a clear, believable motivation. Character’s shouldn’t take actions just to make the plot move. See rule #5.
This is related to rule #9 but try to make the events in your story matter. For every decision, ask ‘so what?’. If your protagonist fails to stop the killer, ‘so what?’ What happens if the character fails? What happens plot-wise and, what happens to the character, personally. Have the character’s decisions make a personal difference. Your character should have skin the game, so to speak. A politician with a child in the combat arms who faces a vote on a declaration of war is much more interesting than some fat, entitled scion who’s never worked or served a day in their life. Choose characters and plots that will matter to the character. It will make the decisions matter to the reader as well.
This comes down to the stories I choose to tell. I want a sense of wonder, a sense of ‘that’s cool’ in my stories. I want to see magic, high technology, strange and unusual worlds. I doubt I’ll ever make a great contemporary mystery writers but if you set a mystery on space station or in ancient Rome, I’m immediately interested. It also helps that I like (and do a pretty good job at) world building. But when you’re building your world, make interesting. Show us something that’s different from every-day life. That’s one of my beefs with ‘grim and gritty’ fantasy. Who wants to read about the legitimately crappy lives of the serfs? A farmer who works his whole life IS heroic but it takes a better writer than I am to make it riveting reading. (Edward Rutherfurd can pull it off)
There we go. My rules of writing as of 2012. We’ll see if my rules change. I’m sure they will, they already have since 2010.