Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing and my thoughts on rules

I picked this up from the Brain Pickings website. You can click the link to see it there, but I wanted it permanently copied onto my site too, because this is good stuff.

Usually I have issues with all these “rules of writing”. Seriously, fuck the rules. Write the way that works for you.

For example, so many people say, “You must write every day!” I say, bollocks. You may not being able to write every day, and that’s okay. There’s no point in berating yourself and having writerly existential crises if you don’t or can’t do that. Sure, you should write as often as you possibly can. If that’s every day, then bully for you. If that happens to be every Friday evening and Sunday afternoon, that’s fine. Just make sure you actually make time to write as often as you can, because you won’t find time. No one has spare time just lying around.

There are so many other rules out there and you can drive yourself batshit lala trying to adhere to them all. In truth, rules are there to be broken. More often than not, they’re designed to give you a framework that gives you the best chance of succeeding as a writer. And remember, kids, succeeding as a writer is first and foremost writing. If you write regularly, instead of just talk about being a writer, then you are a writer. If you write, you are a writer. Simple as that. How far you get with it is something else entirely. So when I see lists of rules that put all this pressure on people, it gets my back up and I get all, “Fuck the rules, man!” Just like I did in the paragraph above this one.

So why am I reproducing Neil Gaiman’s rules? Well, yes, it’s partly because I’m a total Gaiman fanboi. But I would still argue with his rules if I didn’t agree with them. As it happens, Gaiman’s “rules” are actually the best, most simple writing advice I’ve ever seen. There are no hard and fast directives, and every part of it is something that I can vouch for as being effective in my own writing life. Remember, if it doesn’t work for you, that’s cool. Don’t worry about it. The only one of these eight rules that absolutely applies to everyone is rule 1. But I do agree with the others too. I particularly like rule 5. Here they are:

1. Write.

2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.

3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.

4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.

5. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

6. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.

7. Laugh at your own jokes.

8. 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.

See what I mean? That’s good advice, right there. And don’t forget to check out Brain Pickings, as there’s plenty of other good stuff there too. But really, this is all you need. Now go and write.


George Orwell on his own writing

I think we should file this one under ‘B’ for Bitter old Bastard. George Orwell had this to say, about his own writing:

All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a POLITICAL purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

I can’t say I agree with all of that, not by a long way. But it does provide some interesting food for thought. I came across the quote on Cat Sparks’ Facebook wall and I think Margo Lanagan summed it up best in her comment:

Second half is halfway sensible; first half—well, wasn’t HE a drama queen.

Yes. Yes, he really was. Writing a book really is hard work, and you often question your sanity in the process. But it’s bloody brilliant too. Nothing horrible about it. Of course, our real underlying prime motivators for writing are obscure. Most of us may never really know exactly why we do it, other than that we simply can’t not do it.

Anyway, as I said, an interesting quote and it’s given me pause for thought. If nothing else, there’s one line in there that’s absolute gold:

Good prose is like a windowpane.

Meditate on that one, Grasshopper.


RIP Anne McCaffrey, Vale Dragonlady

anne-mccaffreyWhen I got up this morning I was checking through the social networks over breakfast and saw from Trent Zelazny’s Facebook page that Anne McCaffrey had died of a stroke yesterday. It hit me like a speeding a truck and a small part of my childhood died too. To say that Anne McCaffrey was instrumental in the person and writer I have grown up to be would be an understatement. I immediately put my condolences out through Twitter only to realise that the news hadn’t spread yet. I’m usually a bit behind on this stuff, but suddenly I found myself being the first person people had heard the news from. It was an unusual experience for me, but a profoundly touching one as I saw the massive heartache that Anne’s passing caused, saw so many other people as deeply affected as I was.

I discovered McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books when I was a child, maybe ten or eleven years old. Already a voracious reader, I was always on the lookout for the next great story. McCaffrey’s books transported me. When I realised there were several of them, I couldn’t believe my luck. I felt like a prospector striking gold. Always a fan of dragons, here were books that made dragons into something nobler and more beautiful than I could have imagined. Here was a world so rich in detail and populated with such wonderful characters that I truly wished I could slip between and go there. If someone had offered me a one way ticket to Pern, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it.

dragonflightAt about 12 years of age, I wrote my first ever fan letter to an author. I needed to tell this lady how much her books meant to me, how wonderful they were. In the back of one book I saw a note, with an address for any correspondence. I found it hard to believe that such a thing was possible, but I sat down and wrote my letter and asked my mum to post it off. Weeks passed. Weeks are a long time for a twelve-year-old and I thought, Oh well, it was worth a try. It was no surprise that someone as magical as Anne McCaffrey wouldn’t have time to write to some precocious kid in England.

Then a postcard arrived. It had dragons on the front. On the back was a handwritten response from Anne McCaffrey, telling me how pleased she was that I’d enjoyed her books, and how much she appreciated my letter. I was stunned. In my letter I’d told her how I wanted to be a writer one day too, and that I hoped I could maybe write books as good as hers. In her reply she said, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t.” That still resonates with me to this day. I do write books now, and maybe one day they’ll be as good as Anne McCaffrey’s.

I wish I could find that postcard. I kept it safe, but it was close to thirty years ago and I’ve moved many times since then, to the other side of the planet. If I ever find it, I’ll scan it and post it here. Regardless, it lives on in my memory as one of the most important things I’ve ever owned. It shaped me as much as her stories did.

Anne McCaffrey was a class act. An absolute legend who touched the lives of millions. It’s a world worse off without her in it, but we’ll have her stories forever. When I read the news over breakfast this morning, it was raining heavily. I sat at the table, staring out the window at the lancing rain and thought about the thread. I imagined riding a dragon out to burn the thread before it could harm the people below. I remembered just how magical those stories of dragons and guilds were. And all her other stories too, the Crystal universe and Ireta, Talents and Freedom, and so many more. Vale, Anne McCaffrey. If you listen really hard, you can hear the dragons keening.


Vale Sara Douglass, and powerful words on dying

I heard the news this morning that Australian fantasy writer Sara Douglass died around 5am. It’s absolutely gutting news. I didn’t know Sara personally, but her work has been a part of my life for a long time, and not just her fiction.

Her fiction is fantastic in every sense of the word, and well regarded. She won many awards and accolades for her work, and rightly so. She was probably the first truly successful female Australian fantasy author (please correct me if I’m wrong on that) and I know she was incredibly influential to many other authors, men and women alike.

But it was her fight against cancer that really stood out for me. If you’re a fantasy fan, you absolutely should read her novels. If you’re a human being, you absolutely should read her words on terminal illness. Sara was an amazing role model for dealing with illness and her words on dying really rang true for me. I’ve experienced a lot of death in my time. I’ve seen terminal illness run its course in many forms and seen people die as teenagers and adults from a variety of terrible and debilitating conditions. When I read Sara’s blog post about dying, it hit me hard – it was just so fucking right. She opened with:

Many years ago I did an hour long interview on Adelaide radio (with Jeremy Cordeaux, I think, but my memory may be wrong). The interview was supposed to promote one of my recent publications, but for some reason we quickly strayed onto the subject of death and dying, and there we stayed for the entire hour. I proposed that as a society we have lost all ability to die well. Unlike pre-industrial western society, modern western society is ill at ease with death, we are not taught how to die, and very few people are comfortable around death or the dying. There is a great silence about the subject, and a great silence imposed on the dying. During the programme a Catholic priest called in to agree with the premise (the first and last time a Catholic priest and I have ever agreed on anything) that modern society cannot deal with death. We just have no idea. We are terrified of it. We ignore it and we ignore the dying.

She goes on to talk about how we praise people these days for dying without complaint, when really there should be shrieking and hair pulling.

When it comes to death and dying, we impose a dreadful silence on the dying lest they discomfort the living too greatly.

This is so true and really, fuck that. So often, people suffering greatly are doing their best not to discomfort those people who come to visit. When the terminally ill would rather be howling their grief at the stars or simply be left the fuck alone, they’re instead being brave for other people. Those people who visit now and then without really doing anything to help the dying.

I agree with Sara completely that the dying absolutely should not keep silent for the benefit of the un-dying.

I am tired of being made to feel guilty when I want to express my fear and anguish and grief.

I am tired of keeping silent.

And I’m so glad she didn’t. Everyone should read her words.

The original blog post is here.

The follow up blog post is here.

Read it. Digest it. She’s right.

And you know the best thing? Sara’s body of work will live on even though cancer took her from us way too soon. She was only 54, but her fantastic writing is eternal.

Vale, Sara Douglass. You were a role model and an inspiration, and may your words never fade.


Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest 2011 Results

SnoopyThe Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is one of my favourite literary events. It’s a brilliant idea. It stems from the awful writing of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. You probably think you’ve never heard of him. But I can almost guarantee you have. Here, see if this is familiar:

“It was a dark and stormy night;”

Yep. You know him. But did you know just how bad he was? Here’s the rest of that line, from Paul Clifford (1830):

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

Holy crap.

It’s writing like that which gave rise to the contest. During his studies Professor Scott Rice of the English Department at San Jose State University unearthed the source of that famous line, “It was a dark and stormy night”, as being the opening of the Edward George Bulwer-Lytton novel, Paul Clifford. And it is a very famous line. After all, Snoopy uses it all the time and that Beagle knows his shit.

For all his hideous writing skills, Lytton coined some phrases we all know well. Among them “the pen is mightier than the sword”, “the great unwashed”, and “the almighty dollar”. He’s had an impact, has Bulwer-Lytton.

So Professor Rice, with the help of San Jose State University, has, since 1982, put together the contest which seeks the worst opening lines to the worst of all novels. You can learn all about the contest here:

Meanwhile, the 2011 results are in. The winner this year is the shortest entry to ever win the contest. It comes from Sue Fondrie of Oshkosh, WI. (Yeah, I thought that was a children’s clothing line for people with more money than sense, but apparently it’s a place too.) Here’s the winning line:

Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.

Top work, Sue. Congratulations.

Rodney Reed of Ooltewah, TN takes out the runner-up prize with this one:

As I stood among the ransacked ruin that had been my home, surveying the aftermath of the senseless horrors and atrocities that had been perpetrated on my family and everything I hold dear, I swore to myself that no matter where I had to go, no matter what I had to do or endure, I would find the man who did this . . . and when I did, when I did, oh, there would be words.

There are other winners in several categories (Adventure, Crime, Sci-Fi, Vile Puns, etc.) and they’re all listed on the contest site here. Go and have a read. They’re hilarious.