This page exists for one reason only: To distill into a condensed set of rules the best advice that’s out there for writers and writing.
Of course, like Disney’s Pirates of The Caribbean, these are more what you call “guidelines” than actual rules. Learn them in order to know when to follow them and when to break them. Watch the first 30 seconds of this clip:
Entry #1: Every character is the hero of his or her own story.
Don’t write flat characters but fully formed, complex, three-dimensional ones. You must spend enough time with each one to write them authentically and uniquely. Only after they are clearly defined in your mind can they interact authentically with each other in your story.
Randy Ingermanson used Episode IV of Star Wars (the first movie released) to get his blog readers to think about this concept as an example. He asked the question, ‘Whose story is it?’ It can be argued that it belongs to Luke, Leia, Vader, or even the droids because George Lukas created each character well-formed and distinct.
Entry #2: Write every character as if they aren’t what they look like or seem to be. Don’t just give each character a secret, embed contradictions into their lives.
Entry #3: A character is the sum of his experiences, just as a real person is.
Entry #4: Foreshadowing only works if nobody notices it.
Entry #5: Flashbacks are called that because they belong in the “back” of the book, not near the front in an information dump.
Entry #6: Learn to unpack a rebuke.
Scottish people have a saying: Learn to unpack a rebuke. In other words, don’t reject a criticism out of hand. You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to agree with it. But give it a little time. Take it and play with it. Be willing to at least examine the criticism and see if, just maybe, there’s an ounce of truth in it.
Entry #7: Seek progress, not perfection.
Fifth and last, don’t think about trying to make it perfect. Seeking perfection in writing is what freezes people up and keeps them from writing (or from participating in an honest crit group). Look for progress, not perfection. You ain’t going to make it perfect. So try to make it “better than last week.”
Additionally, Walt Disney coined the phrase “keep moving forward” in a letter. The phrase was used extensively in Disney’s “Meet the Robinsons” movie and a copy of Walt’s letter can be seen after the credits.
It’s all the same idea, really. “Focus on the future” and “don’t sweat the small stuff”.
Entry #8: Finding a good title is an art, just like writing the book.
I believe the best titles reflect the central conflict, as in “Kramer vs Kramer.” Since the central conflict also provides the theme of the work, the title will then fit the work perfectly. “The Great Escape” is another good title. But this isn’t necessarily true. I’ve always liked the title “I, Robot…” which reflects character. “Animal Dreams” is another one I like, and it doesn’t reflect conflict. Finding a good title is an art, just like writing the book.
Entry #9: Know the end from the beginning.
That is, plan so you know how it’s supposed to end. This doesn’t mean you plan every nitpicking detail. It just means that you have – bare minimum – an idea for a solution to the final dilemma your main character will face as you write.
Brandon Sanderson is famous for coming up with a great story idea and then – second step – trying to identify the central conflict and how that conflict might resolve. It’s the only way to determine if an idea is suitable and strong enough to become a fleshed-out story.
Entry #10: Curiosity must come before content.
“Before your audience will value the information you’re giving, they’ve got to want it.” You are responsible for creating this desire. And once you’ve hooked them, to ‘book’ them you must then structure your content to maintain their interest – with surprise, mystery, knowledge gaps, and questions.
At this point, you’ve made it easy for yourself for only you – the great and powerful oz, ah, author – can adequately explain the mystery and answer the questions – and you should begin doing so without delay. Don’t string your readers along for too long. They’re hungry for your words and have to have regular feedings (read: nuggets of information, answers to questions, explanations for phenomena, the next clue, etc.) every so often to maintain the chain of information flow as an unbroken one.
You have heard of Flow, right?
Entry #11: Location, Location, Location
Reading is a form of escapism so by all means take your readers to new destinations.
Entry #12a: Write with your Genre in mind.
This is a variation of the ‘write what you know’ rule, but it’s more useful and has more explanatory power. Basically, there’s a reason the publishing industry uses categories and books written within the style of those categories sell.
It just so happens that people “are rather cavalier about the facts.” People reject “nuance and facts that run contrary to [their] point of view.” People may say and even consciously believe that they “just want things to be true or false” but “‘most everything has infinite shades of gray to it …” “‘In the larger sense, it’s people wanting confirmation of their world view.'”
Thus, whether you’re writing in support of the worldview of your target audience or trying to change it, ignore this rule at your peril.
Another way of saying this is to meet the expectations of your audience. They most likely chose your story because it was in a genre they like. And genres carry expectations.
Entry #12b: Do NOT write with your Target Audience in mind.
It’s a really, really, REALLY bad idea. Read these five reasons why.
Entry #13: Keep an idea file.
Bell: Ideas are everywhere. I try to get as many as I can and then choose the best ones. I write down one line concepts all the time, and go over this file periodically. Its almost always a plot idea, a situation, a twist, a mystery, a secret. That sort of thing. I start to think about characters next. Who would be involved in such a thing? How can I make him or her compelling?
Entry #14: Act first, explain later.
“It’s a common error to think a reader needs a lot of explanatory information to “get” the opening scene. We don’t. We will wait a long time if we are caught up in what’s happening to a character involved in a disturbing situation.” – James Scott Bell
“Get a character in motion as close to the disturbance as possible.” – James Scott Bell
Entry #15: Write What You Know – Then Make Stuff Up
I love this quote! Many great writers will tell you to write what you know. A few great writers will tell you that you must write what you don’t know (i.e. after research, interviews, etc.). But nowhere have I heard it put so succinctly. And who is right? This solves that riddle and shows that aspects of both are necessary for great writing.
In simple terms it means base your writing on things that you are familiar with – jobs you’ve had, destinations you’ve visited – but skip over the boring parts of real life. To reinforce Entry #11 above, reading is a form of escapism so don’t bore your readers with mundane activities just because they’re true to life.
Entry #16: Write about what you are interested in – not necessarily about what you already know
Ask yourself this question: if you were your own fan, what would you be reading? What you like to read of course! Your writing will probably flow better and come across more genuinely if you’re writing about a topic that interests you too.
Source: Landscapes as Characters – The Kill Zone by Clare Langley-Hawthorne
Entry #17: People care about people
“Readers want to know about people not about rocks and trees.” Characterization is therefore the primary pillar of fiction. Your choices regarding character should be foundational to influencing the rest of the story. Consider Dickens. He wrote way before modern writers understood the pillars properly yet his works are still being read and performed today. Why? What is the attraction in something written so long ago? Only the characters come to mind. Amazing, crazy, eccentric characters that are so well developed that they are impossible to forget.
So focus first on character. Make your plot and your other story elements fit your characters. For example, “try to make the landscape reflect mood, character or theme.” Make everything reinforce your characters in the pursuit of their story goals.
Entry #18: You learn to write a novel by writing novels.
“You get good by first being willing to be bad — if necessary to be dreadful.”
Source: Giving Yourself Permission to be Dreadful – Advanced Fiction Writing by Randy Ingermanson
Entry #19: Don’t quit your day job.
“This is why I’m always reminding authors how tough it is to make a living at writing. You need to have books that are already out there earning you money, so that you know you’ve got some income from projects you are no longer working on. (Without this, you’re simply trading your time for income.) You also need to have contracts in hand that will earn you MORE money — and that money is easy to track, since you know when and how much you’ll be paid. And you need a plan for how you’re going to move forward.”
Source: Making a Living at Writing by Chip MacGregor
Entry #20: Character names can make or break your story. Take time to choose the right name for each character.
Would the Harry Potter series be as popular if “Severus Snape” had been named “Sylvester Snelson”? What if “Atticus Finch” in To Kill A Mockingbird had been called “Atilla Finley”? Or the point-of-view character in Tosca Lee’s debut novel, Demon: A Memoir had been “Corey” instead of “Clay”? “Hannibal Lecter”. “Darth Vader”.
The name that you choose for each character matters greatly and for all the reasons that any other word choice matters. However, names are even more important because they are the reader’s connection to the story. Words have connotations, denotations, a history, and a future. e.g. Little girls are not named “Jezebel” and little boys don’t grow up being called “Nero”.
Bottom line: Choose your names for your character very carefully. Don’t rush this decision.
Entry #21: Don’t get hung up on word counts and quotas.
While there is a modern trend toward more and shorter chapters, word counts and quotas don’t matter nearly as much as good writing. I use them only to know how long each scene/chapter is (to keep their lengths balanced) and how long the manuscript as a whole is (to keep the book’s word count on target for its genre). They have no other purpose in my writing discipline.
They are not recommend for use as a daily writing quota. Word counts are lousy motivators and don’t fit the messiness of real writing – one day you’re adding words, the next you’re rewriting (and your word count can actually go down), the next you’re taking out a scene that isn’t working (ditto), and the next you’re back to writing (and building up your word count).
Some writers do manage to use them effectively. James Scott Bell has a weekly quota of 6,000 words. That way, if he’s extra productive one day then the rest of the week is easier. Other writers write to the clock. They spend one hour, two hours on this or that. If that time is spent reworking a single sentence, so be it. The point is to keep moving forward as in Entry #7 above.
(I also think that each chapter should be one scene, more or less, but that should be the subject of a different rule.)
Entry #22: Know the difference between problems and constraints.
A problem is solvable. A constraint must be lived with. … The art is in telling them apart.
Source: Problems and constraints by Seth Godin