Writers are fond of finding exceptions. It’s part of who we are, I guess. I mean, if we were people who liked following rules we’d already be in a more “normal” profession. We’d be doctors. Or lawyers. Or terrorists. Anything but these free-wheeling weirdos for whom “Pants Optional” is a huge job perk.
So good luck finding a “writing rule” that really IS a rule.
IMAGINARY CREATIVE WRITING CLASS:
Imaginary Teacher: In writing we never use run-on sentences.
Imaginary Student Writer: Unless you’re Shakespeare. He did it. Like, all the time.
IT: Yes, well. Of course. So I guess you can use them. Just don’t use sentence fragments.
ISW: Everyone speaks in sentence fragments. And poets pretty much only use them.
IT: Of course. But one rule is that we never start sentences with a conjunction. And the reason for that is –
ISW: Uhhh… you just did that.
IT: Get out of my class before I kill you.
And the student leaves, usually makes a comment in his mind about how the teacher is teaching because he couldn’t make it as a writer, and goes off and, you know, writes. Usually breaking as many “rules” as possible for spite.
Upshot: no rules.
Except. There are. There really are. Just a few.
Just three. And you can’t break them. Not ever. Not and hope to keep an audience.1
Before we get into those three, let me give you a quick rundown of who I am. Not to brag, but so you know that, unlike the Imaginary Teacher, I’m not a bitter crab of a human who is preaching from a pulpit built of broken dreams and angry might’ve-beens.
I am a bestselling author, a produced screenwriter, and one of Amazon’s Most Popular Horror Writers (for well over a year now). I belong to the Writers Guild of America, which requires you to have sold numerous professional works and is statistically harder to get into than Major League Baseball (no joke). On the Amazon bestseller lists (the big ones, like Horror, Thriller, Sci-Fi, etc.; not the ones like “Bestselling Novels About Cats Named Eugene Who Are Transgender Spies For Unknowing Government Agencies) my books have spent a cumulative total of years (not bad for lists that update hourly). As of this writing my twenty-fourth (or is it –fifth?) book, Crime Seen just came out, and two of my books were just put on the preliminary ballot for this year’s Bram Stoker Awards. Again, not bragging, but so you’ll know when I’m talking about rules I live by, I’m talking about rules I use to actually DO this stuff.
And here they are. There are three. Only three, no more, no less. And every other skill I know, every other technique I use, hangs on the framework provided by one or more of these rules.
1) Bore Me And Die
2) Confuse Me And Lose Me
3) Make Me Better Or Leave Me Alone
Let’s talk about each.
1) Bore Me And Die
This is first because it MUST be the first consideration of any storyteller. It may not be the most “important” from a cosmic “will I be remembered when I die” sense, but it is first from a “will I even sell a book to anyone in the first place” sense. People come to fiction for many reasons, but the thread that runs through all them is this: they want entertainment. They want to experience new things, to go to places and see new things and be new people they have never been.
How many of you have ever looked for a new and exciting book? Whoa, don’t crowd me!
How many of you have ever gone on a quest for a boring book about things you do on a daily basis – something titled, perhaps, My Day Eating, Then Making Breakfast, Then Going to the Bathroom, Then Working a Lot at a Job I’m So-So About, Then Eating Some More, Maybe Another Bathroom Break (or Two Depending on if my Fiber Bagel Kicks in), Then Home, Then….
Yeah, you get the point. You probably phased out around the third “then” in the title. That was intentional.
You gotta excite your audience. Not just once, but over and over. Every page, and more than that (since pages for a lot of people are largely a function of how big or small they set their text function on their Nooks or Kindles), every sentence.
Bore me and I’ll put the book down.
Bore me and I’ll look for entertainment elsewhere.
Bore me and you’ve lost my interest as a reader.
Bore me… and die.
2) Confuse Me and Lose Me
This one is a natural extension of the first. You have a riveting story. There’s action, suspense, intrigue, a quirky secondary character with a funny name who collects artisanal bongs and believes the government is secretly stealing his skin. It’s all there.
And the first page starts out:
Dell couldn’t believe it. He was sure it was him that had followed him. Because she was on it when it happened, and she wasn’t there with her. The thing she believed most of all – that God had transported from space and was now there with her – was troubling, but not enough to keep Dell from defending herself from the robot ninja dinosaurs.
Okay, so if you’re like me, you instantly zeroed in on the fact that God came down from space – a highly bizarro and (possibly) fascinating concept. Also, there were robot ninja dinosaurs. Which, as everyone knows, make everything Instantly Awesome.2
But I had NO FROIKIN’ CLUE where these character/set pieces/flaming hot piles of radicalness belonged in the story. I THINK Dell is the main character. But I’m not sure if Dell is following or being followed. I don’t know what “it” she was on, or what “it” happened. Heck, I don’t even really know if Dell is a boy or a girl.
Now a sad reality of life is that books are becoming viewed more and more as consumables, less and less as treasures. A few hundred years ago if you could read and you bought a book and it was difficult, you muscled through it. Because it was something that educated people did and because you wanted to be able to impress yon maeiden faire with your impressive myte and knowledge, true. But also because it was likely the only book you could afford, or even the only one you were going to see for a while. It was a treasure.
Now, books are less and less treasures and more and more consumables. That is great for authors in that people like to read and are plowing through tons of books. It means, though, that a lot of people are going to take any confusion as an excuse (if only subconscious) to put the book down. They’ll watch a show, or feed the kids, or even get another book. Because it’s easy to do all those things, and why try to figure out Dell’s relationship to the robot ninja dinosaurs if there’s probably a TV show on that will explain the legend of RNDs for her, no thinking required?
Books don’t have to be dumbed down. They can be challenging. But I firmly believe that they should say something clearly. If you want to build in layers so that the reader discovers more under the surface on a second (and third and fourth and fifth) read-through, then by all means, do that!
But the first read-through should be understandable. Not just on a macro-level, but a micro-level. Chapters should contribute clearly to the work as a whole. Paragraphs should contain coherent thoughts. Sentences should be phrased so there is no question as to what pronoun refers to what antecedent. Words should be chosen with absolute care.
A few “writers” get all testy about this. “But… but… that’s so much work.”
Yeah. Being a writer is a LOT of work. I used to be a big-city lawyer. Now I’m a laid-back writer. Guess which “me” works longer hours. If you’re afraid of spending time getting it right, go do something easier. Brain surgery, or quantum physics.
You’re a writer. Suck it up.
3) Make Me Better Or Leave Me Alone
A few of you might have noticed that these rules are NOT written from the point of view of the writer. No, they’re written from the point of view of the READER. From the perspective of our AUDIENCE.
This is intentional.
Because the reader is the person on whom I am going to inflict my work. The person who will enjoy my triumphs, but who will have to suffer through my mistakes. And I’m not talking about typos here. I’m not worried about whether I used a semi-colon correctly or if I misspelled “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis.”3
No, I mean that every work that goes out into the world should go out with the intention of improving the world. Of making the world we live in, this lone and dreary place, a little bit better. A little bit closer to Paradise. A little bit closer to God. Even if you don’t believe in God as a reality, just as an abstract – an all-powerful, all-knowing being who wants nothing but the best for us.
Who does that sound like? An author, perhaps? You, if you wrote your story correctly?
That’s intentional as well.
You are the god of your story. You craft and create a world, organizing all the ones and zeroes of your computer program into something amazing. Out of the quantum nothing of computerized chaos emerges character, setting, plot.
And what then?
What is the purpose, the point?
Some of you may be turning up your noses at this point, saying, “This is none of his business. I write what I write, and I don’t worry about whether it improves the world. It’s art, dammit!”
But I hope not, because I’ve heard that line of reasoning before, and it always makes me sad. Here’s why: because I have a psychiatrist.
Wait, I’ll explain.
Mental health issues don’t run in my family. They gallop. And then periodic wind-sprints with the song “99 Luftballoons” playing in the background. I don’t know why.
So a lot of us have to see a mental health care person. A therapist, a psychiatrist, or a combination of the two. And they all have one thing in common: they expect US (the patients) to pay THEM (the person listening). Which I think is weird, being as how we’re doing all the talking, but whatever, it’s the way things work I guess.
What does this have to do with writing? Everything.
I think “artists” – meaning people who do creative stuff and expect others to look at it – have a responsibility to leave their audience better than they were before reading it. This doesn’t mean “shiny happy feel-good” necessarily, but BETTER. Sometimes this means challenging them to look at the world in a different way, sometimes it means giving them hope in the darkness, sometimes it means just allowing them some time to escape and enjoy something for a few hours of pure fun.4
But I am disheartened when I hear “artists” talk about how they create without regard to what their art will do or what effect it will have. I have to admit that I always have the same thought when that happens: “You’re not an artist, you’re an a**hole.”
And here’s where the part about my crazy family comes in: if someone is creating without regard for their creation’s effect on the outside world, then what they’re doing isn’t art, it’s therapy. They’re working out their issues, figuring out their damage, opening up their baggage. They just happen to be doing it for all the world to see. Unfurling their dirty underwear and waving it around in the front yard like… well, like a crazy person. And then holding out a hand and saying: “This show is $4.99!”
And remember what I said about therapy? Remember who has to pay? That’s right: the person getting treated. So airing your dirty laundry and then expecting an audience to pay for it isn’t just wrong, it’s bass-ackwards.
No, if you are going to create art and send it into the world, it isn’t for you anymore, it’s for everyone. Don’t say otherwise – if you do you’re either selfish or a liar. And if it’s for everyone it should make everyone better. It should improve the universe that it has become a part of.
It should represent you, and in so doing, should be your agent for positive change.
There really aren’t many rules that you CAN’T break as a writer. But there are a few.
Three, to be exact.
Break any of them and you’re still writing. But a WRITER?
1. I’m assuming you are interested in being a professional writer here. And by “professional writer” I mean “gal or guy who writes creative fiction that people will pay for.” And by that I mean you tell stories, people buy ‘em. Technical writing and the like is slightly different, though it often adheres to some of these rules as well.
2. If you do not believe this, you have no soul and I pity you.
3. I didn’t. I rock at that word.
4. Just relaxing is important sometimes. Try clenching a muscle and keeping it tense as long as you can, then see how it feels the next day. Ouch! Brains are like that, too. Only it’s messier when we try to bench press something with our minds.
Michaelbrent Collings is a #1 bestselling novelist and produced screenwriter. His most recent novel, CRIME SEEN, is a paranormal thriller.
He hopes someday to develop superpowers, and maybe get a cool robot arm. Michaelbrent has a wife and several kids, all of whom are much better looking than he is (though he admits that’s a low bar to set), and much MUCH cooler than he is (also a low bar).
Michaelbrent has more writing advice at his website, michaelbrentcollings.com also has a Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/MichaelbrentCollings and can be followed on Twitter through his username @mbcollings. Follow him for awesome news, updates, and advance notice of sales. You will also be kept safe when the Glorious Revolution begins!