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Alis’ Rules of Writing: NaNo Edition.
- Just goddamn do it. Sometimes writing will be easy, sometimes it’ll be difficult. The trick is just to get it done.
- The first draft is for you. Which is to say, write it how you want to write it and don’t worry too much about what other people are going to think. You’ll have plenty of time to polish later. But if you don’t like what you’re writing when you’re writing it, you’ll never even get it to the polishing stage.
- You can’t second-guess your readers, so don’t try. Every reader’s experience of your work will be different, and that’s okay. You can show readers a path, but you can’t make them walk it. Try, and you’re just going to hurt yourself.
- It’s okay to call your characters by their actual names. Really, it is. Even if that means you’re using their names multiple times over and over in the same sentence. Like “said” dialogue tags, character names are invisible. They’re especially invisible in the way things like “the dark-haired man” and “the other” aren’t.
- When readers read your work, they’re trusting you with their emotions. Hitting readers in the feels is fine, but people can only take so much pain before they start to wonder why they’re bothering. Also, remember genre conventions; if readers are expecting a fluffy romcom, and you punch them with a Rocks Fall Everyone Dies Ending, they’re very unlikely to thank you for it…
- Speaking of which, you aren’t cleverer than your audience. Meaning the point of storytelling isn’t to beat everyone into submission with how smart you are. It’s to tell an enjoyable story. You aren’t Stanley Kubrick. When in doubt, err on the side of “enjoyable”, not “clever”.
- Don’t kill that female character. Particularly because you’re killing her off so some male protagonist can feel and/or be motivated to do something. I know you are, don’t bother denying it! Just cut that shit out. It’s lazy and bullshit. You’re not fooling anyone.
- No one actually gives a shit about your worldbuilding. Which is to say, they might… but only if you can bring them into it with your story and characters. Specfic is particularly guilty of this, because a lot of specfic craft focuses on things like How To Science Alien Planets and Fantasy Herbs And Their Uses. Which is why a lot of specfic is tedious infodumping populated by cardboard cutout characters and paper-thin plots. This sort of writing was more prevalent forty or fifty years ago, which is why a lot of the “genre greats” do it (coughAsimovcough), but I think modern audiences are much, much less tolerant of the style, because moves/videogames/etc. But that’s a whole other essay in and of itself. Moving on…
- Develop skills outside your core genre. Specfic writers, go take some craft classes on constructing romance novels. Romance writers, go study some spy thrillers. Origfic writers, write some fanfic. Everyone go learn effective non-fiction writing. Different genres tend to focus on different parts of craft–romance on emotional engagement, thrillers on tension, fanfic on character arcs, technical writing on clarity, and so on–and the sharper all your tools are in your toolkit, the better your stuff will end up being. No matter what it is.
- Any writing is good writing. Blogging, flash fiction, original self-insert power fantasies, iddy fanfic AUs… It doesn’t matter what you’re writing, so long as you’re writing.
- That being said, a lot of what you write will be rubbish. And that’s okay. You need to write the rubbish to learn why it’s rubbish so you can write less rubbish next time.
- Read your work aloud, particularly dialogue. If you feel stupid saying it, then so do you characters.
- The power of the character arc conquers all. Each of your (main) characters, including the antagonists, should to be someone (emotionally and mentally, more so than physically) different at the end of your story than they were at the start. Static characters are boring characters.
- Everything you need to know about character arcs you can learn from listening to the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. In particular, the person your character is at the end of your story should be surprising to the person your character was at the start of the story. It can be good surprising or bad surprising, but there should definitely be some kind of surprise involved. When in doubt, try some time travel drawerfic of young!character-meets-old!character.
really don’t need that adverb. Seriously. You absolutely don’t. It’ll totally read incredibly better without it.
- To get people to care, show your characters caring. Too-cool-for-school self-involved unflappable loner badasses are boring. In particular, show characters caring about other characters in a way that involves a sacrifice for them personally. When I look at what makes not-very-great stories not-very-great, this is almost always the missing piece.
- Finally, to break the rules you need to know why the rule exists in the first place. I can guarantee there’s something in the list above that annoys you, or that you can think of a counter-example of. I know, trust me. The point with this list–with any How Write 101 list–is to give a lowest-common-denominator of advice based on the cumulated wisdom of generations of authors writing generations of stories. You will absolutely break all of these “rules” at some point. The key thing is knowing what the effect of breaking them is. Want to use an epithet for your character rather than his name? Sure. Just know why you’re doing it before you do. Ditto for adverbs, character arcs, badass loners… whatever.
- Finally, make your own rules. You will anyway, so you might as well write them down. If only so you can laugh at how misguided they were in five years’ time when you’re a better writer…