Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Ten Rules for a New Writer

So, you may have seen this before when I posted a link to the interview outtakes on Craig Gidney's blog that I'm cribbing from. But I thought I'd bring it over here to stand as an intro to a sort of Writing 101 series of entries. Once this is posted I'll be wiring it into the menu above, and if you look under the Analysis menu option you should see a Writing 101... option, with a submenu for entries in that series. I'll be looking to click into that series, as they're written, any posts that deal with the basic nitty-gritty pragmatics of writing narrative. I'm not making any promises about timely developments, but as you'll see from the entries already written and collated, we're up to Rule Five in the Ten Rules of Writing outlined below -- which are mostly not really rules at all, to be honest, not Dos and Don'ts to apply to your writing, but rather glosses on the fundamentals of how narrative works, as I see it.

This series is my advice for any "new writer" then, this post the intro to... the sort of course I'd set out if I was stuck in front of a creative writing class, tasked with instilling them with the core skills. My ten rules?
  1. You are not a new writer.
  2. Any sign that you don’t know the ropes, is a sign that you’re not ready to go in the ring.
  3. There is no story without style.
  4. POV is not a communal steadicam.
  5. Voice makes character.
  6. Character makes action.
  7. Action makes setting.
  8. Making tea is not protagonising.
  9. Don’t hide the story behind your back so you can sucker punch the reader with it later.
  10. Find the tenth rule.

Some of these are simple, others maybe not so. The first is about mentality. Are you really just “beginning”? You’ve been writing since you first scrawled your name. You’ve been making up narrative since your first daydream. Does it matter if you didn’t even start doing those together until you hit forty, if you write The Naked Lunch? That’s the point: all that really matters is whether you’re skilled or unskilled, and thinking of yourself as a novice or amateur… that’s a rationalization that you lack skill because you’re a learner, an amateur. Bollocks to that. You’re always going to be learning. You might never be published. The nearest you come to a graduation is the day you cease to accept any excuse for a lack of skill in your work. In fact, if you’re looking at other writers like they’ve achieved a special status you wish you had — call it established, professional, whatever — you’re engaging in a fantasy of being a writer when you should be writing. Because you are a writer. Not a beginning writer. Not a new writer. Just a writer.

The second rule is basically just presentation — functional prose in the required format. It should go without saying, but a lot of writers aren’t wired into the sort of online communities or writers' groups where you learn this. The third is possibly a bit contentious, but as far as I’m concerned style versus content is a false dichotomy. Words are the only substance. Style is just how you put them together at all levels — sentences, paragraphs, passages, scenes, chapters, acts. Whether you end a chapter on a wrap-up or a cliff-hanger is a stylistic decision. The key point is that your narrative is an articulation and if it doesn’t work as such, it won’t conjure the story. You can’t just slap some words together into a rough semblance of a vague description of the movie running in your head and expect readers to enjoy the story without that “patina” of style obscuring the “content.” Plot, theme and character are interpretations of story, which is conjured by the narrative. There is no “content.” Words are the only substance.

The others mainly speak for themselves. The confusion of multiple third person limited and omniscient narrator into muddled third person limited and/or amnesiac narrator is the first thing to watch for. Mastering narrative voice (which will also help you stick to a POV) will bring your characters more alive than spieling a profile — physical description, traits and attributes, backstory summary. Actually it’ll bring other characters alive in your viewpoint characters attitude to them; they’ll be fleshed out in that character’s perception as coded into the narrative itself — as will action and setting. But more pointedly, action is only action if it matters to a character; otherwise it’s just stuff happening. It’s the character’s attitude to peril that makes it peril. And the conflict of a narrative — the agon — depends on your characters having agency; without that you just have tin soldiers being smashed against each other. Setting maybe isn’t dependent on action per se, but time and change is a part of any locale, and the principle of the “telling detail” applies here; a leaf falling from a tree can do as much to conjure a forest as reams of blather. And in terms of making tea? Sometimes that’s literally making tea. Mundane tasks like that can be protagonising — as when making tea after a death in the family is a character distracting themself from grief — but dawdle and dross are just tedious.

The penultimate rule -- the only one that really is a rule -- addresses something I’ve been surprised to see in quite a few of the works I’ve critiqued — authors not just keeping a card up their sleeve to make a dramatic revelation with a shocking twist, but completely obscuring the story itself by keeping a POV character’s backstory, for example, a secret to the reader… even though the character knows it, everyone else knows it, the logic of their interactions makes it absurd they don’t talk about it, and most of the action is in fact predicated on that backstory. Aha! the writer says, when they suddenly reveal on page 450 that the POV character is the son of the antagonist… as both of them knew all along. This is especially bad when “later” equals “in a sequel.” Hiding the story till then means not having a story at all.

The tenth rule you’ll have to explain, once you find it.

Anyway, as I say, if you look at the menu bar atop the page you should find the entries in that series so far. If you want a better sense of exactly what each of these "ten rules" are about, start at the top and work your way down.

Enjoy.

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