5 Writing Rules I Like To Ignore

If you Google ‘writing rules’, you’ll find that there’s no shortage of writing-gurus out there telling you their top 5, 10, 25 or 100 rules for how to write a killer story. All very useful stuff. I definitely recommend taking their advice on board. In fact, I’ve been known to write a few posts like that myself (though I am not a writing-guru by any stretch of the imagination).

Sometimes, however, you just need to rebel and write according to your own darn rules. So what follows are my top five common story-writing rules and wise sayings which I frequently bend, break and flat-out disagree with.

1. You Must Write Every Day

This is often put forward by some writers as the golden rule all serious writers simply must follow. The idea goes that if you want to be a real writer, the only way to do it is by writing every single day for the rest of your natural life. Personally, I find that rule more of a hindrance than a help.

Don’t misunderstand me. I do believe it’s fundamental to write often and especially to write regularly. I write every weekday evening (I have a day job) and I write all day on Saturdays. But on Sundays? Nope, no writing for me on Sundays. Sunday is my day off. Come hell or high water, Sunday is a no-writing day, except for scribbling down any ideas that pop into my head so I don’t forget them.

When Monday comes around, I’m invariably the better for having rested.

2. When You’re Not Writing, You Must Be Thinking About Writing

Yes, you got me. I’m paraphrasing Eugene Ionesco who said, ‘For a writer, life consists of either writing or thinking about writing’. And while what Ionesco said wasn’t exactly a rule, many would-be writing-gurus like to turn it into a rule. And understandably so, because it’s a catchy soundbite with that wonderful absolutist quality that we writers love to use, because it makes us sound just a little bit supernatural. It creates a nice little distinction between Writers and Lesser Mortals.

Now I can only imagine what it must have been like to be Eugene Ionesco. Maybe he really did spend his entire life in a perpetual state of writing or thinking about writing without a moment of interruption. Maybe lots of writers are like that. I don’t know. If so, good for them. Far be it from me to comment on the lives of others.

But for me personally, writing is only part of my life. It’s a huge part, but only a part. I’ve got a wife and daughter. The day I got married and the day my daughter was born, my story didn’t get a look-in all day. I’ve also got a part time job. When I’m there, I’m not allowed to write and the job requires too much of my concentration for me to spend the whole afternoon daydreaming about my story.

And you know what? I think it’s perfectly healthy (vital, even!) for a writer to have room in his life for other things. There. I said it.

3. You Must Only Write About What You Know

Writing what you know is great. It’s hard to go wrong writing stories based on real jobs, relationships or experiences you’ve had. I’m all for that. If you read through my stories (especially my flash fictions that I post on here), you’ll find a lot of them seem to be set on public transport. That’s because I spend an average of ten hours a week travelling by bus. But I also like to write about spaceships, wizards and fantastic worlds of my own invention. You may recall I once wrote about what it is like to be a mouse. These are things I simply can’t experience — and so, I imagine.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to check out your facts before publishing anything and a good way to research your facts is through gaining firsthand experience. I’m not saying you should write in ignorance. But a writer is nothing if he can’t use his imagination to fill in the blanks.

4. You Must Write First and Edit Later

‘But we’ve heard you preaching this rule before!’ I hear you cry.

Yes, you’re right. In general, I absolutely believe that if you want to get anything done, you need to resist the urge to edit until the draft is complete. But on very rare occasions, when I’m discouraged with the draft I’m working on and thinking about giving up… I do find doing a cheeky little edit perks me up and gets me back in the zone.

Still, it’s a nasty habit. Don’t do it.

5. You Must Ignore The Rules

An alarming proportion of the ‘writing rules’ you’ll come across on the internet (including mine) conclude with this altogether unoriginal rule: ‘ignore the rules’.

The idea behind this ‘rule’ is simply this: since there aren’t really any rules for writing, it doesn’t really matter how you write. Just as long as you do write.

Well… sometimes (not always, but sometimes) I like to ignore the ‘ignore the rules’ rule, especially if I’m having a bad writing day. After all, these rules exist because they work, right? So if you get stuck (and we all do from time to time), there’s no shame in taking a bit of instruction from those who know better. Only a fool would spurn their wisdom out of hand.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what bends your rules.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

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Hey Author, Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

‘Oh, so you’re an author then? Where do you get all your story ideas from?’

Ughhhh! Stop asking me that! I don’t know! If I knew the answer to that, I’d probably have more ideas!

Er-hem.

Okay, so for reasons best known to yourself, you want to know where to find the House of the Magical Idea Wizard and think that perhaps I, or one of my author colleagues (you know, the ones that have actually got a few novels published), might have the answers you seek. I know I’m not alone in having people ask me about this. Writers’ blogs seem to be replete with authors whining and complaining about how often their family, friends and fans (those of you who have fans) ask them this same question.

Well… today, O seeker of insight, I am going to attempt to answer this singularly annoying and misguided question in the only way I can: from my own narrow experience.

The first thing you need to know is that there is no Magical Idea Wizard. Or at least, if there is, I’ve never met him. Plot bunnies are certainly real enough, but they are not bred by any one person whom you can purchase one from, nor do they grow on a special tree. In fact, between you and me, I’m not even sure plot bunnies are all that useful. They’re certainly not to be relied upon if you plan on making a career out of story writing.

‘Hold the bus for just a minute!’ I hear you cry. ‘What on earth’s a plot bunny when it’s at home?’

I’m glad you asked. A plot bunny is a story idea that pops into your head and won’t go away. They tend to appear out of the blue. For example, I recall on one particular occasion I was sitting on the upper deck of a bus coming home from the hospital where I work. At one point, while we were stopped at traffic lights, I noticed a Chinese takeaway and I was struck by exactly two thoughts:

  1. Mmm… salt and chilli chips…
  2.  If I ever figure out how to invent a time machine, I’m definitely going to keep it a secret. Then I’ll open a takeaway and be able to trump all the competition by travelling back in time to get all my orders to my customers mere moments after they make the order.

The first thought was mere gluttony. I ordered a takeaway when I got home and that was that. But the second thought was a plot bunny par excellence. For months I turned that strange little notion over in my mind, convinced that there was a story in it (for in itself, it was not a story but just a premise) but I just couldn’t make it work. Nevertheless it was a persistent nuisance in my brain, demanding to be written but it was a whole year before I was able to actually turn it into a story. More often than not, however, I find most plot bunnies come to nothing.

So… it is possible to be struck with sudden waves of inspiration, but they’re often unproductive in the long run and — more importantly — there’s absolutely no way to simply snap your fingers and make plot bunnies come to you on demand. In a word, plot bunnies are utterly unreliable.

Wise authors know that if you want to be able to write stories on demand, you need to be deliberate and methodical in developing your idea from the tiniest seed. That ‘seed’ could be anything. For me it’s usually either a theme I want to write about (e.g., my current novel started as a simple desire to write a story about rebellion) or else it’s a character looking for a story to belong to. But where does that ‘seed’ come from?

It’s not magic. All you need to do (boring though this sounds) is to make a deliberate point of setting aside time to sit down and be proactive in developing an idea from scratch. I don’t just hope for ideas to come to me on the bus, on the toilet or anywhere else (though I certainly write down any that do pop out of the blue). I set aside regular time to sit down at my desk and produce as many ideas as I can. Coming up with story ideas is not a supernatural gift that strikes without warning; it is a discipline which can be learned through practice and patience. I can play the trumpet, not because every now and again musical talent strikes me, but because I have devoted time and effort to regularly practising my skill. I started off rubbish. Over time, through regular practice, I became an accomplished (perhaps even good) trumpet player. If I stop practising for any length of time, my ‘talent’ gets noticeably rusty. The same is true of coming up with story ideas.

For me, I find the best way to come up with ideas is to brainstorm. I sit down with a notepad and give free reign to my thoughts, omitting nothing that comes to mind. Often I will find myself inventing characters who I can then audition or ‘interview’ in different settings and situations (the main antagonist in my current novel came about this way). Journaling can also be helpful. Scribbling down all my thoughts, feelings and opinions about politics, family, philosophy, religion, humour, music and whatever else comes to mind can often help me to discover new themes to explore in a fictional setting. I then question and experiment with whatever comes to mind. From there, it’s a simple matter of taking the time to refine my ideas. If I really, really, really can’t think of anything, there are plenty of prompts available online which you can use as a springboard into creativity; however, I tend to rely on these only as a last resort.

You asked me earlier whence ideas come. The simple, boring and profoundly mysterious answer is that they come from your own mind. There is no magic, but the everyday magic of that lump of slimy grey matter in your skull which, by some inexplicable design, is able to invent entire worlds and people from nothing and to use those inventions to communicate all manner of beliefs and philosophies. If you have a brain, you have ideas. You have all manner of ideas every day, both good ideas and bad ideas. You’ve probably had dozens of ideas already today, about a whole range of subjects. Turning these ideas into stories is simply a matter of practice and patience.

Keeping a Writer’s Journal

There are a some folk out there who will tell you that if you don’t keep a journal, you are doomed to never, ever be a writer of any kind. In fact, you will probably fail miserably at everything you ever set your hand to, both in business and at home. Others just get very snooty about the ‘right’ way to keep a journal (as if writing something simple like ‘I ate chips for my tea. That’s all I can think of to write’ means you have failed at journaling, and therefore, failed at life).

Obviously, that’s a load of poppycock.

However, even if you’re not the sort of person who normally bothers to keep a journal, you might find it useful as a writer to at least keep a writer’s journal— especially if you’re working on a large writing project such as a novel.

‘Oh nooo!’ I hear you cry. ‘That sounds too hard/time-consuming/pointless’ (delete as appropriate).

It needn’t be. You don’t need to fill it with epiphanies written in flawless iambic pentameter, you don’t need to handcraft your own leather bound volume to write in and you don’t need to write ten thousand words a day (having already written ten thousand words in your actual story). In fact (just between you and me), you don’t need to keep a journal at all if you don’t find it helpful, though I would recommend giving it a bash for a week or two to be sure that it’s not for you.

All that matters is that you do what helps you to write, and in my experience, journaling can be profoundly helpful. How you do it, however, is entirely up to you! You can write in it as often as suits you; it can be long or short; handwritten or digital; illustrated or not; written in all, some or none of the colours of the rainbow and best of all, it can be as messy as you like. No one’s going to mark it. No editor will ever read/watch/listen to it. No publisher will ever publish it. All that matters is that it helps you to write.

For me, I like to keep a written note of how many words I write each day. It’s encouraging to have evidence of daily progress when you feel like you’ve been writing forever and getting nowhere. More than that, however, I find it helpful to express all my thoughts, feelings, ideas and problems relating to my story in some way. Externalising all that stuff once a week, or thereabouts, usually suffices and it helps me to think through it all in a way that sitting staring at my manuscript does not.  If I don’t write it down, I tend to end up boring my wife to tears by talking at length to her about my characters, my setting, my story arc, my word count or whatever else it might be.

If you’ve got a thick skin and are not too worried about who gets to read your journal, you might even find it useful to start a blog (or Twitter account, if you agree the brevity is the soul of wit). While it isn’t why I started Penstricken, my regular readers (God bless you patient and forbearing people) will be able to testify that I frequently do use my blog as a place to rant and rave about things I’ve learned and the problems I’ve encountered and solved while writing. Often the posts I categorise as ‘writing tips’ are aimed at myself as much as they are at anyone else. Another big perk to this kind of public journaling is that you get a little bit of feedback (hopefully from people who care about you, your story or creative writing in general) and it will hopefully serve to motivate you to journal regularly if you have regular readers who will be expecting you to post something every day/week/month/decade.

If you’ve never tried it before, why not start now? To make sure you get the most out of it, take a little time to ask yourself a few questions such as:

What should I write in my journal? Are you wanting to keep a detailed log of your progress (i.e., daily word counts, problems encountered, feedback received and so forth) or would you prefer to use it to express the enjoyment/fear/doubt/despair you experience while writing? Perhaps you might even find it a helpful place to scribble down plot bunnies for future reference.

How often can I commit to keeping a journal? It needn’t be excessively frequent. However in my experience, it is far easier and more enjoyable to keep a journal if you do it on a regular basis. Daily, weekly or even monthly- whatever you can stick to.

What format should my journal take? It’s your journal, for expressing and exploring what’s going on in your own writer-brain. Will it be kept private or will it be online for the great unwashed to view? Will it be in written, audio or video form? Try to use a format that allows you to express yourself as freely as possible – and most importantly, which compliments your writing.

What do I hope to get out of this? There are many possible benefits to journaling: catharsis; developing your skills; tracking your progress; etc. What you are hoping to get out of journaling will probably impact on how you do it. For instance, if you’re using it mainly as an outlet for your self-doubt and frustration with your novel, you probably won’t want to publish it online. It’s not likely to improve your sales figures if ever you do publish your novel.

Do you keep a writer’s journal? Do you find it helps you to write or do you just find it a big old slog keeping it up to date? Share your insights with the rest of us in the comments section below and we can all benefit from each other’s wisdom!

Until next time!

3 Ways to Ignite the Imagination

The Parable of the Cars

by A. Ferguson

There were once two brothers who lived in Glasgow, who both managed to get jobs in Edinburgh. This was not a problem, since they both held full UK drivers’ licences, which they had acquired at about the same time and they both owned the same make and model of car. The eldest brother was wise. He set his alarm early in the morning and as soon as he was in his car, he turned on the ignition and drove to work in plenty of time.

The younger brother was foolish. He did not get ready for work until it suited him to do so, and when he finally did make it into his car, he sat there for a few minutes waiting for the ignition to turn itself on – which never happened. ‘Maybe it’ll come on tomorrow.’ he thought. ‘I’d better go back to bed in the meantime.’

He lost his job without ever setting a foot in Edinburgh.

* * *

A common mistake amateur writers make is to believe that they cannot write a story unless an idea – or inspiration – comes to them heralded by a chorus of angels. Like the foolish brother, they have all the necessary equipment (in the writer’s case, a brain with an imagination) but do not realise that to get any benefit from it, they need to make the effort to turn on the engine/imagination themselves.

Now, as we all know, turning on a car’s ignition doesn’t immediately take you where you want to go. It simply starts the engine, allowing for the possibility of motion. In the same way, igniting the imagination (to continue the metaphor) does not immediately give you a fully formed story. It just gives you the idea, allowing for the possibility of a story. Perhaps I’ll talk about turning your idea into a story next week, but this week, I want to focus on that all important first stage: going from having nothing to having something.

There are many different things you can do to spark the imagination, none of which involve sitting down and waiting for inspiration to strike. You can…

Read history, the news or even mythology. Just think for a moment about how long humanity has been around for and how many different things happen all over the world at any given time. Wars, disasters, weddings, funerals, births, deaths, financial meltdowns, lottery winners, crime, charity and a million other events besides. As if that were not enough, most societies throughout history come with a catalogue of myths, legends and fables that you can also delve into. If something from history grabs your interest, you could write it as a piece of historical fiction or you can simply borrow a very small element of it to inspire a whole new story. If you’re into character driven stories like me, and have the patience to do so, I would particularly recommend trying to find old letters, journals, newspaper clippings (particularly advertisements and letters from readers) and other primary sources to draw on because these give a much richer flavour of what kind of people lived in the time and place you’re reading about and what mattered to them.

Try using a resource especially designed to provoke creativity such as Oblique Strategies, Story Dice or even random title generators. If you ask the internet, you’ll quickly find that there are loads of tools out there like these, especially designed to help spark the imagination. Some are especially aimed at writers, some are not; some are very cryptic, some are very clear; some are very expensive, some are free. It can be trial and error finding the right tool(s) for you but they can be a wonderful resources to have when you find the right one for you. However, whether you’re the sort of person who likes cryptic prompts such as ‘change nothing and continue consistently’ (Oblique Strategies) or very precise ones such as ‘in 100 words or less, write a story that includes the following: a poet who always speaks in rhyme, a pill bottle, a luminous feather’ (Writer Unblocked) – or even pictures, like I used to inspire my 6 word stories, it is still ultimately down to you to come up with your own idea. See that you don’t fall into the trap of thinking any of these tools can tell you what to write. They cannot. Even very explicit prompts, such as the Writer Unblocked one I referred to, still leave it very much up to the writer to turn that prompt into a usable story idea.

‘Pantsting’, even if you’re more of a planner can also be a good place to start. If you’ve got nothing, then make up a person – any old person. You might even want to base him on a real person that you know well (though be very, very, very careful about doing this in your final story). Then just write and see where he takes you. Maybe he’s going to the chip shop but… is abducted by aliens. How does he escape? I dunno. Just make it up as you go along and edit nothing. It doesn’t matter if you hit a dead end or if you end up writing a really rubbish story, since this is simply the writer’s equivalent of doodling. What matters is that you keep making stuff up. Most of it will be chucked out but some of it might contain the golden nuggets of inspiration. I once ‘doodled’ a story about a guy who was in prison (in fact, he wasn’t even the main character of this particular ‘doodle’) and now, he’s the main antagonist of my novel and possibly one of the characters I’m the most proud of creating.

This is, of course, only a small selection of things you can try. No doubt if you ask the internet, you’ll find dozens more. Perhaps you even invented a few techniques yourself that you absolutely swear by. Do let us know about anything which works for you in the comments below!

Ideas from the Everyday

There’s a very old and tired adage that authors should only write about what they know. On the whole, I don’t think this is really the best advice in the world but when you’ve not got any ideas about what to write, it’s often a good place to start.

‘Oh yeah,’ I hear you cry, ‘Well I’ve just got a humdrum run of the mill every day 9-5 sort of life and I don’t know nothing about nothing so how can I write an interesting story?’

I’ve often wondered that myself. I, too, have a very ordinary life which I doubt they’ll ever make a movie about it – and I should add, that I’m very grateful for that! But unless you happen to have experienced something truly remarkable, I find it highly unlikely you’ll ever be able to simply recount your life story and expect it to sell.

That doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you are able to start writing. Once you start, you can go anywhere. Even the most boring events in your life can become a wellspring of inspiration. The important thing to remember is this:

Not everything you write needs to be published. Therefore, it’s okay to write rubbish.

For example, a few years ago, on one particularly snowy winter, I got stuck on a bus for fifteen and a half hours on what would have normally been a twenty minute journey. The true story of what happened was pretty boring. I sat there for fifteen and a half hours, trying not to think about toilets and amusing myself by watching people building snowmen on the motorway. When I finally got home (after I had had something to eat and a good night’s sleep) I went about the business of trying to turn it into a work of fiction.

It wasn’t easy. The simple truth is, it was a tedious experience which came slap-bang in the middle of a fairly bog-standard week of studying for my exams and attending my office job. To this day, I’m not satisfied that it was ever really finished. But it was not a wasted effort, not in the slightest. By writing this boring little story based on my boring night on the bus, I created a protagonist I was immensely proud of. His name is Dr. Henry Barrington-Smyth; a reclusive, socially awkward man who has devoted himself to the study of theology and philosophy, with a particular interest in ethics.

When I first created Henry, he was a fairly shy, mild mannered sort of man who developed a friendship with one of his fellow passengers on the bus through their mutual boredom.

I know. Rubbish.

But from that rubbish little story, I was able to expand far beyond what happened on the bus that night and create something new. When I re-wrote this story, I made Henry an altogether more aloof figure. While all the passengers on the bus began to chat and make friends, Henry was deliberately resistant and was downright rude to the woman he had befriended in my previous draft (all the while, reading a scholarly work about what constituted moral goodness).

Still rubbish, but I was starting to like Henry. So I gave him a bad guy to deal with. Someone else on the bus (Dave) was drunk and was behaving in an aggressive manner towards the passengers and the driver. Also the woman he had previously befriended became unwell. None of this happened during my true experience on the bus, but it gave the protagonist something to do. If you remember my previous post about how I like to audition characters, this is very much the same sort of thing. Characters can develop quite naturally if you are willing to test them in various situations, especially crucible situations from which they cannot escape (such as being stuck on a bus).

Since then, I’ve tried Henry out in a whole bunch of different scenarios at different stages of his life, from childhood right through to the death of his wife when Henry was 72. I invented a fictional home-town for him and am now working on a mystery story set in that fictional town which is altogether more interesting than the story I originally came up with based on that one boring experience I once had.

Don’t set out to only write about what you know. Unless you’ve experienced something truly amazing or horrifying, you’ll probably just get bored and/or frustrated.

Don’t set out to only write something especially clever, either. That kind of perfectionism will hinder you from writing that all important rubbish first draft.

Just write about whatever you happen to think of. If all you can think about is your boring day at the office, then write about your boring day at the office. If all you can think about is aliens stealing bananas to power their spaceship, then write about banana stealing aliens. If it’s good, great. If it’s bad, that’s great too. What matters is that you write something. Anything. You can throw out the things you’re not proud of and you can refine anything that’s got rough edges later. What matters is that you start to write and persevere, no matter how many scrunched up paper balls you surround yourself with.

You’ll be amazed at what you can end up with.