Friday, March 29, 2013

Writing Rules; Ray Bradbury Coming to the US Kindle Store

     I don't know about you, but I'm a sucker for books and articles on writing if they're done by people whose work I've read and admired.
     Sometimes the articles don't seem all that useful.  Since they're by people whose work I admire, I assume that I'm just too dense to see what they're getting at.  This does wonders for the ego.
     Sometimes the articles seem to be echoes of each other.  For a perfect example of that, see the Writer's Handbook from 1982.  This one contained an article by John D. MacDonald called "Creative Trust," and another by Stephen King called "Imagery and the Third Eye."  Both deal with the use of the telling visual detail to paint a bigger picture in the reader's mind.  They approach the subject from slightly different angles, and both are well worth reading.
     The articles that tend to be the most fun, though not necessarily the most useful, are the ones that deal with rules for writing.  You can probably find a lot of rules-for-writing articles without much digging, and if you browse through some of them you can probably think of books you love that break one or more of those rules.  My impression is that the more specific and rigid the rules the easier it is to think of exceptions.
     Over the years, I've found that my favorite sets of rules for writing come from (in no order of importance) Robert Heinlein, Stephen King, Natalie Goldberg, Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury, and one more player to be named shortly.
     Heinlein had five: 1) You must write.  2) You must finish what you write.  3) You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.  4) You must put it on the market. 5) You must keep it on the market until sold.
    At first glance that third rule might seem to imply that you'd be sending out a lot of first-draft material.  Not necessarily; if it isn't right after the first draft's done, revisions would fall under rule 2.  Heinlein was working in a time when there were plenty of magazine markets, and the rates might be a penny a word and sometimes less.  Once you thought a piece was ready, it wasn't cost-effective to go over it again unless an editor said he'd take it if you made a few changes.
    You'll note that Heinlein's rules aren't genre-specific.
     You can find King's in an article called "Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully, in Ten Minutes."  Here are some of them:  3) Be self-critical.  4) Remove every extraneous word.  5) Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft.  12) If it's bad, kill it.
     Bradbury listed three rules in his essay "Zen in the Art of Writing:" 1) Work.  2) Relaxation.  3) Don't think.
     Elmore Leonard drew up a list of ten in a New York Times piece called "Easy on the Hooptedoodle."  Among his rules were: 3) Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.  4) Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said."  At the end of the essay, Leonard mentioned a rule that encompassed all the others: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."  This is reminiscent of Simenon striking out or rewriting sections of his novels if they seemed too literary.
     And finally, Natalie Goldberg's, from her book WRITING DOWN THE BONES: 1) Keep your hand moving.  2) Lose control.  3) Be specific.  4) Don't think.  5) Don't worry about spelling, punctuation, & grammar.  6) You are free to write the worst junk in America.  7) Go for the jugular.

     You've noticed that many of these rules echo each other.
     "You must write.  You must finish what you write." = "Work." = "Keep your hand moving."
     "Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft" is kin to "Don't worry about spelling, punctuation, & grammar" and, a bit farther removed, to "Don't think."
     "Lose control," "You are free to write junk," and "Don't worry about spelling, etc.," are all suggested by that single word "Relaxation."
     Quite a few of the rules you'll find in some of the books and articles are aimed at silencing the internal editor.  The internal editor is the guy inside you who tells you that you can't write that because your parents would hate you if they ever read it; he's the guy who wants you to look up all those obscure facts in the reference books while you're writing your first draft so that you lose the heat and the flow of what you were trying to put on paper; he's the guy who tells you at the end of every sentence that you're wasting your time and that you never had anything to say anyway so there's no point in filling any more pages with your drivel.  Once you've got a draft you can start worrying about cleaning it up, but the internal editor will try to make sure you never get a draft written in the first place.
     Once the draft is written you can start fixing what's wrong, and you can safely assume that something will be wrong.  (King's "Be self-critical;" elaborating on this, he commented that only God gets it right the first time.)

     But in all those articles and books, there's only one absolute, I think.  It comes at the end of a volume of poetry by Nicanor Parra, POEMS AND ANTIPOEMS.  It's the last line of his poem "Young Poets:"
     "You have to improve the blank page."
     And if you haven't improved the blank page, see King's rule 12.


   Ray Bradbury's work will be coming to the US Kindle store in April.  Not all of it yet, but a good start.  FAHRENHEIT 451 had already been issued, but the rest of his work remained unavailable in digital formats for some time.  This past summer much of his work appeared as ebooks in the Amazon UK store, and now more Bradbury titles will be released in Amazon's US Kindle store.  Among them are DANDELION WINE, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, NOW AND FOREVER, and GREEN SHADOWS, WHITE WHALE.  No announcements yet for THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, THE OCTOBER COUNTRY, and several other major titles, but I don't imagine they'll be too long in coming.  Have your ebook readers ready.



Elmore Leonard's "Easy on the Hooptedoodle:"

Stephen King's "Imagery and the Third Eye:"

King's "Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully in Ten Minutes:"

Robert Heinlein's Rules:


Natalie Goldberg's WRITING DOWN THE BONES:

John D. MacDonald's essay "Creative Trust" appeared in the January 1974 issue of The Writer.


  1. "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."
    -- W. Somerset Maugham

    1. Ain't that the truth? And Maugham would have been one of those most likely to know them.

      Reminds me of a comment, I think from Gene Wolfe but I could be wrong there, to the effect that nobody knows how to write a novel -- they're all different, and you have to learn how to write your novel while you're writing it.


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