5 Writing Rules To Break

While writing my series on creativity, I started thinking about breaking rules.  (Click here to read Part One of the series, and click here to read Part Two.  Part Three will be posted tomorrow.)  So, today, I want to talk about breaking writing rules.

In yesterday’s post on creativity, I mentioned that one key to creativity is that there are no rules.  When it comes to writing, however, you’ll find plenty of rules.  Way too many, in my opinion.  In writing, you’ll find rules about grammar, rules about style, and rules about publishing. 

I, however, believe that rules are made to be broken.  And so, without further ado, here is the Official Word Strumpet Guide to Rules That Can (And Should) Be Broken:

Rule #1:  Use Semi-colons.

My Word grammar checker is forever trying to force semi-colons on me.  I am strong, though, and I refuse to let those little buggers have their way with me.  The semi-colon is just a wee bit too formal and proper for my taste.  I like my grammar a little looser and wilder.  You can have your semi-colons, I’ll take a comma any day.

Rule #2:  Obey "No Simultaneous Submissions" Guidelines.

Puh-leeze.  I could have grandchildren living in a colony on Mars by the time some editors and agents would deign to get back to me about a submission.  Meanwhile, I’m supposed to be a good girl and not send my work anywhere else?  I don’t think so.  Editors say they hate it when they find a good story, only to contact the writer and learn its been accepted elsewhere.  So?  Then get your butts in gear faster.  As for the poor writer who has the awful dilemma of a story being desired by two editors:  We. Should. All. Be. So. Lucky.

Rule #3:  Don’t Use Adverbs. 

"I really, truly, love adverbs," I said affirmatively.  Okay, over usage of adverbs is bad, I agree, but then over usage of anything except red wine at the end of a long day is bad.  It is an egregious sin to use adverbs with dialogue tags, but a few adverbs sprinkled here and there in other parts of your prose never hurt a thing.  She said positively.

Rule #4: Write What You Know.

Excuse Me?  I wouldn’t have a job if I always wrote about what I know.  In the last few months I’ve written about global warming, Voodoo, quilting, spiritual leaders, selling good on ebay, kitchen remodeling, bathroom accessories, roof racks, astrology, and piano music, to name only a few.  I knew a little about some of those topics when I started, but certainly not very much.  Let’s face it, roof racks are not something I’ve ever thought much about, let alone know anything on.  T

This writing commandment clearly (you see how well that adverb works there?) came about in a simpler time, back before the internet, in the days before we had Wikipedia.  Those were the days before it was possible to learn everything you need to know about any subject by Googling it. 

And, let’s face it, if you write fiction about only what you know, ie, your life, you’re going to end up hurting a lot of people. 

Rule #5:  All SEO Writing is Fluff.

I will grant you that most of it is, indeed, fluff.  And some of it is just plain crap. However, my rule when writing keyword dense copy is to give the content some value, no matter how minor.  I admit, sometimes the value is minuscule.  But approaching the writing of SEO copy is this manner helps raise it overall.

Anybody else have a sacred cow they want to slay?

Power Writing and Creativity 2: The First Three Keys

On Monday, I wrote the introduction to this series on creativity, and it came out rather longer than I had originally anticipated. Hey, it’s a topic I’m passionate about. (Further proof of this, if you need it, is that I originally was going to present 12 Keys. But I kept thinking of more that are vital.) To read the intro first, click here. To read the Three-Fold Writer’s Path, in which I detail how creativity fits into overall scheme of the writing world, click here. And now, ta-da, the first three keys:

1. Be A Beginner.

The Zen Buddhists talk a lot about beginner’s mind. I am a buddhism slacker, but this concept is called Shoshin, and it is a good one. The idea of it is to be eager. Be open. Don’t have expectations. Don’t think, do. Have a sense of wonder. This is an especially vital key for the professional, who may develop a mind-set that everything he does must be perfect the first time out. Banish those thoughts. A beginner wouldn’t expect to be perfect. Nor should you—no matter where you fall on the beginner to expert scale.

2. There Are No Rules (but make some for yourself if it makes you feel better).

Who says you can’t write a novel in 100 viewpoints? The result may not work, and it may not be particularly publishable, but it might lead to something that is. Forget everything you know about the rules (see #1) and just go for it. See what happens. Sometimes this key is a bit much for people. The lack of rules is scary. So make some up for yourself–like, every sentence must start with a word that is capitalized. There, does that make you feel better?

3. Do It Badly.

The idea that everything has to be perfect is a huge creativity killer. So, go for the opposite. Write one bad page. Draw one crappy sketch. Sing a song off-key. The world didn’t stop, did it? And go back and take a look at that dreadful page you just wrote. Hmmm, might you not be able to use that first sentence? With a few changes, does the third paragraph work fairly well for the opening? I thought so. Writing badly is an entry point into your work. Put something, anything, down on the page. Then you have words to work with. And that is a wonderful thing.

Okay, those are the first three keys. I’ll have the next three for you on Friday. See you then–and if anyone has any tips or thoughts about creativity, feel free to share.

Cross-Genre Writing

As I’ve mentioned before, I attended a brief-residency MFA program that emphasized the inter-relatedness of the arts.  Over the ten intense days of the residency, besides attending workshops and lectures on writing, and, ahem, staying up late socializing, we visiting museums and went to plays and musical performances.

Yes, it was way too much fun to be legal.  And I learned a helluva lot about writing (and teaching writing).

Every residency we had a cross-genre exercise that everyone had to take part in.  So, one October we all had to write poetry, and the next May we’d all have to write a children’s story.  And so forth.  This was often the cause of much good-natured groaning.

However, its been almost four years since I graduated, and more and more I see the wisdom of this approach.  Because, really, all writing is connected.

I just started reading Dan Kennedy’s The Ultimate Sales Letter (I know, once again, I’m late to the party), and he has a whole section on "Get ‘Into’ The Customer."  He urges copywriters to figure out what potential customers are angry about, what they fear, what they desire.  Then he talks about a visualization technique whereby he imagines that customer opening the mail, in full detail.  Does she stand by the wastebasket as she opens mail, tossing things in after a quick glance? What is she thinking about as she opens the mail?  What are her concerns?  Kennedy’s goal is to paint as full a picture of this potential customer as possible.

As I was reading this, I was so struck by how similar this exercise is to developing characters for fiction.  When writing a novel, it is important to know your main characters so thoroughly (after all, you are going to spending a great deal of time with them) that you know every details of their lives, loves, and daily routine. 

You will know the name of your character’s best friend from childhood, and the street he grew up on.  You’ll know his religious affiliation, the kind of car he drives, and where he works.  You’ll know that he a  bizarre affection for teddy bears and always drinks beer on Sunday.  And that’s just the beginning–because once you’ve figured out all the surface stuff, you’re going to go a layer deeper and figure out the why of all of this surface stuff.

So its the same whether you are sussing out the psyche of a potential customer or designing the inner life of a character.

I’ve taken to calling myself a Renaissance writer in a niche world (I’m going to be writing an article on this soon) because I don’t know a single writer who doesn’t have to wear many hats to make a living at this game. 

And the reason why we writers can do this is because, it’s all related.  The same basic rules guide every genre.  Physicists are discovering that we are all related and even the slightest, most inconsequential thing has an effect on the greater whole. 

Writing is just a hologram of that. And that is pretty damn cool. 

P.S.–(The PS is an important aspect of the winning sales letter, but I honestly just remembered this).  I wrote a similar post over at my poor neglected sister blog, A Freelance Writer’s Life.    You can read it here.

P.S.S. (Or should it be P.P.S.? I can never remember) I really am going to resuscitate A Freelance Writer’s Life.  Truly.  I have big plans for it, including a very long, multi-part series on freelancing on the Internet AND other excited stuff for writers.  So stay tuned.

Ernest Hemingway Lives!

One of the best places on the planet is Sun Valley, Idaho. Baldmountainid

I lived there for a few months years ago, and my daughter recently spent a winter there.

More importantly, Ernest Hemingway lived there off and on and it is the place he chose to die. To commemorate Hemingway and honor his time in the Wood River Valley, there is an annual Hemingway Festival. I’ve never been, but it looks awesome.

This year’s theme is Hemingway in Paris, for all you Francophiles out there. The event features many scholars who have written books about Hem’s time in Paree. There are also readings, a screening of A Moveable Feast, and get this–a special dinner at Hemingway’s home. That would be Hemingway’s. Home. That alone makes it worthwhile.

Last time I was in Sun Valley, I visited a couple of places related to Hemingway. You can visit his grave at the city cemetery. Its i next to his last wife, Mary’s grave, a simple slab beneath two tall shady trees. Easy to find without directions. The day I was there, it was covered with pennies and a solitary rose. I tossed pennies for publishing luck for me and my other writer friends.

Hem
This is a photo of his burial that Roy Burkhead sent me.

The other spot is the Hemingway Memorial. It is located off Trail Creek Road past the resort a little ways, again, not hard to find. And it is simply one of the most beautiful spots in the world. It features a bust of Hem above a sparkling stream and says the following:

Best of all he loved the fall
the leaves yellow on cottonwoods
leaves floating on trout streams
and above the hills
the high blue windless skies
…now he will be part of them forever

Oh, this makes me want to be there. Hemingway wrote this himself as a eulogy for a friend killed in a hunting accident.

For a nice description of all the Hemingway sites in Sun Valley and some literary and historical background, go here.

Photo of Bald Mountain by Greg L. Wright, published here under Creative Commons 2.5 license, via (where else?) Wikipedia.

Power Writing: 15 Keys to Unleashing Your Creativity

Welcome to a new series on creativity and how to unleash it in your writing. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be presenting the 15 crucial keys to consistently accessing your creativity.

First, though, I want to talk about creativity in general. I consider it to be one branch of the Three-Fold Writer’s Path, and in many ways, it is the most crucial. You can be the most talented writer in the world, but if you are not sitting down and using that talent, what use is it? If you don’t develop ways to convince yourself to return to the computer, over and over, on bad days and good, your talent will lay fallow, never to see the light of day.

And in my book there are few things sadder. Well, war and starving children in Africa, but you know what I mean. In developed countries, I’m convinced that the cause of much of our contemporary angst stems from people not exercising their creativity. Unexpressed creativity starts as a longing and turns into depression, or worse, perhaps, rage.

It is hard to be creative on a regular basis. Creativity is active. It requires us to think, to do, to act, to, well, create. These days, there are so many wonderful passive activities available to us that do not require action—surfing the internet, watching one of 500 available channels on TV, to name only a couple—that creating is practically a radical act.

Which makes it all the more important to do it regularly.

Creativity is a muscle. It gets stronger as you use it. When you go to the gym regularly and lift weights you build your physical muscles. So, too, with creativity. When you express yourself regularly, it becomes easier and more comfortable. The words flow and you develop a facility with them. The paint glides across the canvas. It doesn’t take you hours to find all your supplies. Ideas come as if by magic.

The opposite is true, too. Once you get away from the habit of creativity, it becomes ever more difficult to return. You have no idea where your drawing pencils are. You can’t, for the life of you, recall where you intended to go next in your novel. And what on earth were you trying to evoke with that mess of color on the canvas?

It only gets harder. And that longing inside you will grow and grow…until it becomes something else, something you probably really don’t want to allow to fester. So why not take the path that seems harder at first but is actually the easiest?

It is ultimately the easiest path because it leads you home to your heart and your soul and the very essence of your being. Which, in the end, is really all there is.

Check back here on Wednesday to read Power Writing: The First Three Keys.

Amazing Novel: The Master and Margarita

Bulgakov David the Poet wrote and told me he was reading an incredible Russian novel.  "What a novel this is," he said.  And because I admired that nice turn of phrase I ordered the book from Amazon.

It is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.

Written as a satire during the Stalin years, and because of that unpublished for thirty years, the novel is about the arrival of the devil in Moscow and the mayhem that ensues.  There is also a storyline set in Jerusalem about Pontius Pilate meeting with Yeshua Ha-Nozri (sorta Jesus, but sorta not).  Apparently there is a third storyline, which I’ve not yet reached (I’m only a couple chapters in) about Margarita learning to fly.  Can’t wait for that one.

The reviews on Amazon refer to this novel as being life-changing, and everyone’s favorite novel ever, etc, etc.  Now I know we have to take reviews on Amazon with a huge dollop of salt but in this case I think the reviewers are writing truthfully.  There’s no reason to hype Bulgakov because he’s been dead since 1940.

My edition of the novel has good annotations and a nice afterword, but I thought I might want a bit more and I’ve found some great links.  There’s Wikipedia, of course, and I also found a great site called Master and Margarita.  Check it out here.  It’s worth it to go read the welcome page just for the romance of it all.

Google Notebooks: Eighth Wonder of the World

800pxchichenitza_el_castillo
I’ve been reading about the search to name the new Seven Wonders of the World. Some of the frontrunners are The Great Wall of China, Machu Pichu, and the Colosseum in Rome. My own personal vote is for Chichen Itza, in the Yucatan, one of the coolest (though not temperature wise) places I’ve ever been.

Anyway, the search for the new Seven Wonders of the World is all well and good, but I have discovered what is the Eighth Wonder of the World, at least if you are a writer.

It is the Google notebook.

This is the coolest feature that you can download by going to the Google notebook page. With the Google notebook, you can make online notebooks on as many subjects as your little heart desires. It is like bookmarking only way easier to organize. I am an inveterate hard-copy notebook creator, so this is like a dream come true. I make notebooks for all my assignments now, for blog entries, for stuff I might some day sort of be interested in, for, well, just about anything.

For instance, I recently had a copywriting assignment to write a report about Voodoo (Zombies! So cool!). I organized all my online research for the assignment into a Google notebook created for that topic. From now I, I’ll organize all my copywriting jobs that way.

The way it works is simple. Once you download it, a little blue icon appears in the lower right-hand corner of your screen. This is your link to your notebooks. Then when you find something of interest, ie, a website, you click the icon and add the link. You can also make comments about it. Or you can click the icon just to make comments. You can cut and paste specific info into it. And, I’m sure there is much more to the application than I have discovered, as the truth of the matter is that I’m pretty un-techy. (The fact that I can manage to maintain this blog is a minor miracle.)

But, God, show me a way to make a notebook of any kind and I’m all over it.

Photo of Chichen Itza by Sergio Blazquez, published here under Creative Commons license 2.5.

David’s Poetry

My friend David Hetzler has a poem on the Short North Gazette.  He’s an awesome poet, and he’ll be reading with the Umbrella Poets in Columbus, Ohio on July 27th.  Go listen–he’s an awesome reader, too.  Check out his poem in the Gazette here.

Slow Writing Movement

Exquisitecorpsebirthday20068 Andrew Gallix wrote a post on his Guardian blog about a movement he (sorta jokingly) invented called the Slow Writing Movement.  He wrote a thought-provoking post about it yesterday, making the point that with the advent of the word processor, writing has become faster, and with the Internet, publishing is fast, too.

"As a result, what often passes for fiction today would have been considered no more than an early draft a few years ago," Gallix says.  He goes on to define two schools of writers:  The Ionic, whose adherents write fast and furious, and the Platonic, who still believe in rewriting and revising, and who "belong to an aristocratic lineage which is at odds with our egalitarian times."   

Gallix takes the Ionic (read: fast) writers, including Georges Simenon, who apparently once promised (or threatened) to lock himself in a glass cage and write a novel in three days, and the nice people over at Nanowrimo, who encourage people to write a novel in a month, to task. 

The best line in the whole piece, however, is when Gallix levels his acid-pen at Jack Kerouac, whose work is lumped in with others such as The Surrealists, and referred to as "penis-extension tall tales of binge typing."  Lord, I love that sentence, even if I don’t agree with him.

I have to admit I’ve never actually read Kerouac, but I’ve always been fascinated with the automatic writing and the Surrealists’ Exquisite Corpse games.  And I am the biggest fan of Joseph Cornell on the planet.  But I digress.

While Andrew Gallix makes some good points about the preponderance of slap-dash writing in the world today, I am still a fan of fast writing.  Fast writing allows you to bypass your critic, and your ego, and the part of you that insists that everything be perfect and pretty.  It allows you to write directly from your heart, or your soul, or your spirit, or whatever you want to call it.  Because of all this, I believe that fast writing is the best way to allow a writer’s natural voice to emerge. 

BUT, and this is a really big BUT, after you’ve allowed the fast writing to emerge, the slow writing must follow.   Slow writing involves rewriting and revising and editing, and then doing it again.  And again.  And again.  This is the crucial part of writing that new writers sometimes miss.

New writers sometimes get stuck in the rush that comes from being totally engrossed in the writing.  Its like falling in love–and just as when you are in love with a person, you fall in love with the writing that results from this process.  Then you start to believe that no rewriting is necessary.

Ah, but trust me, you need to rewrite.  Very few pieces of writing come out fully formed and perfect on the first draft.  And when they do, they are channeled.  I don’t care what anybody says.

Writing is rewriting.  Period. 

So write fast at first and then go back and write slow. 

Image of an Exquisite Corpse graphic from Wikipedia, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 license, and I sure hope I’m doing the attributions on the images right.