I believe there are only two rules of writing, true rules that are unbreakable in the same way ‘Ye canna break the laws of physics’. (Except with the laws of Physics we’re still not sure whether we have the full set of laws, or even, much like the three blind men encountering different parts of the same elephant, if we’ve a clear grasp of the beast entire.) With writing it’s easier, there are fewer fundamental particles and fewer rules. My Grand Unified Theory consists of:
- Writers Write
- There are no other rules
The interpretation of Rule #1 is obvious. If you write, you are a writer, however you chose to do, or be.
This article is about some good ways to behave towards yourself and towards your writing that I’ve found work for me. It is a condensation of things I’ve read, concluded from experience, and discovered in conversation with other writers— many of whom have been around the block several more times than me. One thing I discovered is that everyone has their own ways of being a writer. Here are some of mine.
- Your writing, your rules
There’s a huge amount of advice out there. Much of it is good, and most of it is well-intended. Take what works for you and don’t worry about the rest. If, at some point in the future you feel the need to change the emphasis in how you work or what you write, do it. Don’t stick with rules that make you struggle.
Don’t get me wrong, many of these suggestions are excellent pieces of advice, and you should think long and hard about how and when you apply them to your own writing. There are some wonderful books on the art and craft of writing. Stephen King’s On Writing: A memoir of the Craft is highly rated, so is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.
Two other books I’ve found useful are Christopher Vogler’s Writer’s Journey, and D.V. Swain’s Techniques for the Selling Writer. These books are polar opposites in many ways. Vogler focuses on mythic structure and archetypes, Swain is pure nuts-and-bolts how to write, why you should do it that way, and importantly, why sometimes you should not. His rules are not rules but they are strong suggestions. This is one of the reasons I have found his book so helpful because I have a deep-rooted distrust of anyone telling me there is only one way of doing anything. (Which Vogler does and is one reason his book is just another tool in my toolbox.)
- Take what you do seriously.
The more I treated writing as a job the more writing I did. Having a place to write can help, but what is much better is to find places where you can write. I used to co-run a London-based group called Million Monkeys based on just that idea – that you can write anywhere.
I like to write in the conservatory, and in the before-times in the local bookshop cafe. Very professional, that, I like to think, and I look forwards to those days returning soon. The walk into town with my writing kit in my bag cleared my mind, set the expectation I was going to work, and also put me somewhere where there was little else for me to do. (Full disclosure: I might have bought a few books.) If you’re stuck at home, try walking around the block before you start work, that ‘walk to work’ can work surprisingly well.
- Finish what you start
If you don’t finish you can’t fail but if you don’t finish you’ll never be published. One early piece of advice I had was, ‘You can’t edit a blank page.’
- Don’t worry about what comes next.
The story is your story, long or short. Worrying about submissions and the likely rejection will only reduce your confidence and pleasure in writing.
This is among the best advice I’ve ever seen on writing:
“Your entitlement is to the deed alone, never to its results. Do not make the result of an action your motive.”
Bhagavad Gita, 2, 47-51, trans. Sir James Mallinson.
This one I find difficult. From time to time I need to come back to it and remind myself not to stress.
- Celebrate Success
Decide what your own successes are, and how you celebrate them. Finish a short story and I’ll walk around feeling satisfied for a bit; finish the first draft of a novel or actually sell that story and I might open a bottle of cheap fizz.
My self-confidence as a writer goes up and down. One thing that helps is having a shelf for everything I’ve had work in so I can see I’ve had my prior successes.
- Get it out, keep it out
If you don’t submit work to markets you can’t be rejected. It’s another great way to avoid failure, but if you want to be published in paying markets you have to go through this process. I’ve sold stories to big and small markets, I’ve been rejected by those markets before and after those sales. I’ve sold stories on first submission, or on the tenth, or twentieth. Online resources like The Submission Grinder and Ralan are very good for finding markets and helping you keep your work on submission.
- Calmness. Space. Timing
Too much time can be a bad thing. I’ve known writers who decided to live the dream, packed in the day job and wrote almost nothing for a year. One of the most useful productivity tools I’ve found is to divide my day up into chunks for 40 minutes or an hour. Set a timer and write until the tone sounds. Then reset the timer and do something else. Reset it again and come back to writing. I can achieve a lot in a day like this. However, there will be times when you must—
- Accept Downtime
Life will inevitably intrude on your plans and sometimes you just have to roll with it. Beating yourself up about not being able to write never helps. Maybe you cannot sit down for hours, but perhaps you can grab a few minutes. A friend of mine wrote a prize-winning short story on his PDA (remember them?) standing up on a crowded train during his commute.
Perhaps you don’t have the focus to do even that. At times like that all I’ve been able to do is wait and hope for better times to come around again. Hopefully they will.
- Word counts
My daily word count spreadsheet is hugely motivating, but I had to learn how to use it. For some years I set my annual targets too high and never reached them. I realised this was de-motivating so I lowered it to something I knew I could achieve. The result was I actually wrote more because I felt good about hitting my lower target and felt even better when I carried on and wrote more.
I’m not a great fan of things like NaNoWriMo, and ‘A Novel in 100 Days’. I know my chances of hitting these target are very low and I can’t see the point in setting out to do something I know I won’t achieve. However, other people get a huge amount from these events. Your writing. your rules, set your own targets. One thing that helps me is:
- Routine, Exercise. Sleep
I quite like being a creature of habit, though after a while I’ll drift out of them and have to reset. Keeping fit, eating well, getting enough sleep are all basic things but they are easy to forget and really help.
Drifting off to sleep thinking about the current work in progress is a nice thing.
- Limit Planning
I’ve met more than one person who is planning a book. They’re building the world, creating the characters, defining the back story, drawing maps and street plans, exploring culture and language. The months and sometimes years go by and still they have not started writing. Planning can become prevarication and besides, no plot survives contact with the characters.
I think of plotting in the same way as the plans you make before you go on holiday to a place you’ve never been before. You may pick all the things you want to do and see in advance of arrival, but once you’re actually there you find a whole lot of other interesting things you’d rather do.
- Join in. Meet, talk, listen
My first novel would never have been published if I hadn’t gone to my first Milford. I met someone there who introduced me to someone else at an early EdgeLit convention. We leaned on the bar and had a beer and things went from there.
There are dozens of conventions, groups, and meetups, there’s probably one near you. Dip a toe into a few, find the ones that work for you. Hang out, meet people, get to know them. It really helps. I find a weekend at a convention can be quite tiring, I need to pace myself because I only have so many social beans, but it can also be hugely energising and motivating too.
Everything is different in Covid lock down for me at the moment, but I have found some great online writing communities. Including my own writing group, which transformed itself into a brilliant, supportive and energetic online group.
- It’s a muscle.
Did I say twelve ways? Never mind. Like anything we do writing gets stronger the more we practice. Good luck with yours.
My latest novel, The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, is available in print and ebook. Other recent work includes Third Instar from Eibonvale Press, and Once Upon a Parsec:The Book of Alien Fairy Tales, from Newcon Press. My short story, Warm Gun, won the BFS Short Story Competition in 2016, with other work short-listed for the James White Award and placed in the Aeon Award. I am a past judge for the Arthur C. Clarke and James White Awards, and former Chair of the Milford SF Conference.
This is an updated version of the article previously published on the Milford SF Conference blog.