I’ve noticed a number of authors putting their own spin on Jonathan Franzen’s 10 rules for writing, because nothing deepens a creator’s appreciation for their beloved medium than a set of strict limitations. Well worry not dear parishioners for the good reverend Drew has been to the mountain and he’s come down with his very own commandments for writing.
Screw the Noun, Do the Verb
Austin Kleon once wrote “Lots of people want to be the noun without doing the verb. They want the job title without the work.”
Trust me, introducing yourself as a writer is an invitation for embarrassment until you’ve gotten something published. For every minute you spend talking about your writing you need to spend an hour with your ass in the chair actually doing the work.
Trick yourself into writing
Day jobs can be emotionally exhausting leaving you with only so much creative energy to write with. I’ve found the easiest way to play double duty is to trick myself into thinking I’m not. I do this by taking all the formality out of my process. I make do without a silent writing room, a bottle of wine, or a fixed amount of time.
I’ve tapped out a short story on the bus by convincing myself it was going off the rails so I might as well sputter out with it. After a few edits it turned into something I really liked. I’ve dictated descriptions of creepy environments as I’ve walked through them. I’ve written dialogue on dance floors.
Inspiration doesn’t always strike under controlled conditions. (It does the more you put yourself in the conditions, but you get my point.)
Wait to tell people you’re writing a novel
First drafts are fragile things, especially when you’re laying the foundation. It’s good to be excited about your blueprint, but resist the urge to share that vision too soon. Pitch to the wrong person and that castle you’re building will fall apart like a house of cards.
Try to approach writing a novel like quitting smoking. Don’t tell anyone what you’re doing until you’re too far into the process to turn back. You’ll feel less ashamed if you falter and friends will take you far more seriously if you see it through.
Don’t give anyone other than your editor veto power
I’m a horror author in that I write supernatural fantasies not slasher-centric torture porn. That distinction might seem toothless, but aspects of my subgenre get me into trouble with my politically correct peers. Horror authors are shameless for mining other people’s strongly held religious beliefs for monsters, misrepresenting easily accessible information with a shroud of mysticism. Yeah, we’re probably the reason that Gypsies are still associated with curses, or that nature loving neo pagans are mistaken for devil worshipers, or that Voodoo dolls have anything to do with true Haitian Voodoo. Sorry. Our bad.
As new school horror writer I’m trying to be as progressive as possible. Historically if I felt iffy about an aspect of my stories I’d survey my friends. What I found was that the dismissive blanket term “problematic” came up when people had a bad feeling about a pitch but didn’t know how to put it into words.
Others were better at elaborating what was off about an idea, proposing alternatives and suggesting research avenues for me to pursue. When you ask for people’s opinions it’s on you to critically consider them, just don’t grant everyone veto power over your writing or you won’t dare write anything.
There are two types of feedback to consider
The first type is emotionally reactive feedback like, “This is garbage” which tells you nothing. Every pore of the Internet is clogged with emotionally reactive “feedback.” Trolling, name-calling, and dismissive blanket terms are the kinds of feedback worth ignoring.
Feedback worth considering comes in a longer form from people with the credentials to recognize what you were going for and the know how to fix it. It’s constructive.
Recycle your darlings
You’ve heard the phrase, “Kill your darlings.” As an editor you’ve got to be merciless, gutting your some of your favorite b-plots to keep the a-plot flowing. That said, don’t just highlight and hit DELETE, not when it’s an entire subplot that’s got to go. COPY and PASTE that into another document so that one day it may be recycled into something else.
Repurpose your fanfiction into original works
Face it. As an unknown author no one is going to license shit to. Mulder and Scully won’t be yours to order around. The mayor of Silent Hill isn’t giving you the keys to the city, and a new Highlandermovie is already in development rendering your fanfiction irrelevant.
It’s fun to fantasize in established universes because all the world-building and characterization has been done for you. All you have to do is come up with the situation. If you find yourself visiting someone else’s intellectual property in your mind I urge you to transpose your original situations into something that’s yours to copyright.
E.L. James did it with her Twilight fanfiction and look where that got here. (Not my favorite example, but it’s the first one that comes to mind.)
Be mindful of your soundtrack
Orchestral film scores that are too emotionally engaging have a way of tricking me into thinking I’m writing more effective scenes than I am. My hero’s emotional revelation might seem melodramatic without the soundtrack.
Find a soundtrack that leaves room for your imagination. I like dark wave synthesizer film scores and noir piano jazz. Both genres fit the tone of my writing and both are slow and repetitive enough to fade into the background when I need them to.
Creating the perfect playlist can devolve into another distraction from your writing. Case in point: the playlist for my first novel is a nonstop month of instrumental music. These days I usually go to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s Spotify page and hit PLAY.
Hold something back
I feed too much of my art into the gapping maw of the Internet with its insatiable appetite for fresh content. I want people to check out my books, but I’ve found the only way to get them to look in my direction is to post something on the blog. Sometimes that’s an on brand article and sometimes it’s a short story I probably should’ve sold to somebody. I’ve given too much of myself away for the short-term benefit of a few measly clicks.
It’s gratifying to get an immediate reaction from something you’ve written. Try finding that gratification offline. Find a writer’s workshop or pass printed copies to friends.
Your writing should be a collaboration with your readers
Leave room in every story for your reader to make a contribution. You don’t need to play costume designer by describing every stitch of clothing on your characters. Give a partial description, like an idea of the character’s fashion sense. Leave it to the reader to choose the garments. Describe your settings to a point, but leave some abstractions for readers to fill in. You can describe the look on a character’s face without explaining the meaning behind each micro expression.
If your writing is entertaining readers will want to suss out the subtext and add their own meaning. So let them.
Meet Noelle, a Hollywood transplant that’s been subsisting on instant ramen and false hope. She’s on the verge of moving back into her mother’s trailer when her agent convinces her to take a meeting at the Oralia Hotel. Enchanted by the art deco atmosphere Noelle signs a contract without reading the fine print.
Now she has one month to pen a novel sequestered in a fantasy suite where a hack writer claims he had an unholy encounter. With whom you ask? Well, he has many names: Louis Cypher, Bill Z. Bub, Kel Diablo. The Devil.
Noelle is skeptical, until she’s awoken by a shadow figure with a taste for souls.
Desperate to make it Noelle stays on, shifting the focus of her story to these encounters. Her investigations take her through the forth wall and back again until she’s blurred the line between reality and what’s written. Is there a Satanic conspiracy, is it a desperate author’s insanity, or something else entirely?