In this week’s episode of Write Like a BOSS, I’m going to give you the trial-by-fire rules for how to write one helluva story. Writing is craft, and like art, cooking, dancing—it’s a process of continuous, constant improvement. But writing is a hard art, a necessary one, but a difficult passion. It’s an orgy of proverbial blood, sweat, and tears…so if you’re up for that, and indeed if you like that, the Lawless Rules for Writing will be right up your alley:
- Write What YOU Want to Read: Don’t pander, dilute or imitate. Be true to the story and all its potential. Readers aren’t idiots. They know when you’re faking it. There’s nothing more boring or more of a waste of time than seeing someone half-assing something. So if you want to tell the story, tell it. Take risks, throw curve balls, dive for home plate—just put it all out there, because you’ll be a helluva lot happier with the story you told with VERVE than the lukewarm crap you hoped might be interesting to someone, somewhere.
- Let Go, Let Flow: I’ve found I get significantly more good words on the page when I stop editing myself the first time I write a scene. Editing comes later. First, just write. Just sit your ass down and write. It won’t all be good, but that’s okay. There will be time to edit, delete, rewrite, refine, finish and shellac. In fact, you should plan on it. But first, just write. Don’t over think, over plan and paralyze your fingers at the keyboard with indecision or self-criticism. Just write.
- Do I Want to Have Dinner With You? That’s my character rule. If I don’t find a character interesting enough to invite to a dinner party, then that character is either getting deleted or rewritten until I do. So many characters are beige, underdeveloped or lackluster. I don’t care if a character is the lead or the supporting cast member—they’d better be engaging, relatable and someone I’d want to chat with over a good meal.
- Because You’d Better Entertain Me: Speaking of chatting… Dialogue is crucial. I don’t invite mutes or monosyllabic, strong silent types to dinner parties—I don’t care how good-looking they are. If the character can’t hold an engaging conversation, amuse the host, entertain the guests, or at the very least help to push the story forward, forget it. They’re either rewritten or disinvited. You want an insanely well-written dialogue for inspiration? Watch ‘Philadelphia Story.’ Fabulous dialogue and fantastically developed characters. Love them all. Aim for that.
- Show, Don’t Tell: My editor is the master of nailing me on this. The first several iterations of Complicated Creatures, she was all over me about the characters’ self-involved and lengthy inner monologues. I used to roll my eyes at those notes, arguing that it was important that the reader understand where the characters were coming from. But she was right. She told me to give them someone to talk to. That’s how Mitch, Jaime, Willa, and Carey evolved. She told me to show the action rather than simply describing it. That’s how the Somalia scenes got written. Let the characters speak for themselves. Let the reader see them put their money where their mouths are with the action. Show, don’t tell.
- When in Doubt, Conflict: These characters are easy to become invested in. As a writer, you obsess over how they think, feel, process, react. They feel like real people. And because they’re your creations, there’s a temptation to want to coddle them. Don’t do it. Conflict drives a story forward—forces our characters to grow, develop, battle, and most importantly, make decisions they have to act on. No one wants to read about the guy who won the lottery, then sat on his ass. They want to read about the hero who faced and killed Medusa. Put your characters in over their heads. Torture them, isolate them, back them into situations that require wisdom beyond their years, bravery beyond their mores.
- If It Feels Too Good, Cut It: Writers are masochistic. We have to be. To tell good stories requires constantly revisiting scenes, plot twists, and characters. It’s easy to feel like Sisyphus sometimes, rolling that rock up the hill. So if you write something that makes you feel really good, like too good… there’s a very real chance that it’s pandering to something it shouldn’t, like your ego. I could be a writer for Rolling Stone or Spin; I love music that much. But detailed breakdowns of songs or favorite musicians don’t belong in the story. Not this story, anyway. So as much as it pained me, those got red-lined in the final manuscript. Stay true to the story, and cut the crap.
- Don’t Drown Alone in the Well: I actually seriously considered just writing and publishing without an editor. I look back now and wonder, “What in the Hail was I thinking??” Every writer needs a thought partner they really trust. Writing is a lonely life. We spend the majority of our time in our own minds. And after a while, that’s a scary place to be. Have someone you can bounce ideas off of who will tell you what they really see in your work, even if you don’t agree with them and especially if you don’t want to hear it. Your writing will be that much better if it’s challenged and you’re forced to look at things from a different perspective. It’ll help you par down to the essentials, identify and develop the really good stuff and most importantly, it’ll help you avoid drowning in the writer’s well we all get stuck in from time to time.
So these are the guidelines I have been trying to stick to, particularly as I get down to the business of finishing Complicated Creatures: Part Two, and the novella you’ll get as a freebie if you subscribe (yeah, that’s a shameless plug).
Now before I go, I’ll leave you with one last thought as you embark on your own writing journey:
“One day, I will find the right words, and they will be perfect.” –Jack Kerouac
Now go find your perfect words.