The first ten rules on this list are rules I live by. They’re the rules that have helped me sell almost two million books since 2011. The items you’ll read after number ten are a culmination of experience and research and are meant as a guide only. Other authors’ words are credited where applicable. For all the writers out there, I hope you get something out of this.
My personal guide to writing novels:
- You must write in your voice: Otherwise you’ll hit a roadblock—writer’s block. Find your voice first. Discover what that means for you. Then write in it. This is a version of write what you know. Once you determine what you’re the best at writing, do that. Find what works and do more of it. Find what doesn’t work and do less of it.
- Write: Whether it’s excuses, reasons, laziness, or just plain old life-related difficulties, if you’re a writer, you write. That’s it. There’s nothing else to it. If you’re not a writer, then don’t write. It’s that simple. It’s got to come from within, or it’s just a hobby. When entering a casino, you have to play to win. When sitting at your desk, you have to write to find success, whatever your version of success is.
- Flashbacks and dreams: Don’t use them unless you absolutely have to. And if you do, wait until at least the first fifty pages before you do and make sure, make absolutely sure, that it forwards the story. This rule doesn’t work for stories based on dreams, but if you’re not writing a dream-like story (think Jacob’s Ladder with Tim Robbins), stay away from them. They slow pace and often make readers feel like they’re wasting their time.
- R.U.E. – Resist the Urge to Explain: Telling a story isn’t about giving all the information, it’s about withholding it. Write in a way that raises questions for the reader. The reader must then continue reading to resolve those questions.
- Never write for money: Make the story your focus. Become a better writer. Research writing. Learn how to write as it’s a learned skill. Then write another story. Eventually the money will come. Story first, money second.
- Turn off Social Media: The best—the absolute best—way to promote yourself and make the world aware of who you are and what you’re doing, is to write another book. Once you have at least ten novels, you’ll have more of an Internet presence. Constantly self-promoting basically does nothing. Stephen King, John Grisham, Lee Child and many others never made it because of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram et al. They simply wrote another book. Stop telling everyone how good you are. If you’re good, the world will find out. Results have a way of informing the world.
- Add and Create Walls to Enhance Character development: A story needs conflict and tension. Every character needs to want something. Make sure that each and every time your characters hit a wall regardless of what they want. Never give it to them the first time. Make them struggle for it. On every page tension and conflict should reign. Walls are what moves a story forward. Walls create stories. Remember, walls aren’t there to stop you, they’re there to see how hungry you are. Every main character should have some of this: a tortuous need, a consuming fear, an aching regret, a visible dream, a passionate longing, an inescapable ambition, an exquisite lust, an inner lack, a fatal weakness, an unavoidable obligation, an iron instinct, an irresistible plan, a noble ideal, and an undying hope.
- Editing: Do little of this. Don’t edit too much. Create, write, outline, then write more. Sure, reread your work, adjust it. But minimize editing. You’re a writer, not an editor. You are too close to your own work to be a qualified editor. That’s what editors are for. Let them do their job. Allow them to make a living, too. Send the best version of your manuscript to your editor. Once it’s all written, go back over it by reading it out loud once through. Hearing it changes things, especially dialogue. Then read the manuscript backwards, starting on the last page, going forward to the first page. This stops you from getting lost in the story and missing mistakes. Write first. Edit second. Send to a professional third. But avoid editing while in the process of writing. Just write.
- Write for Goose Bumps and Tears: If you give yourself goose bumps or tears while writing, you’re doing it right. If you don’t, you’re not doing it right enough. When you experience those special moments during the writing of your manuscript, your reader will, too.
- Become the story: During the process, become a part of the story. Get lost in your words. Feel the story resonate through you. Allow it to become a good part of your life. Writing regularly is like exercising a muscle. Keeping it regular—every day for at least five days a week—until the story or the novel is complete, makes it flow better. Taking large breaks during the writing of a story makes it very hard to get back into the rhythm, the flow, of that story. Only take breaks between stories or you can’t become the story.
“Your intuition knows what to write,
so get out of the way.”
― Ray Bradbury
“You either have to write or you shouldn’t be writing. That’s all.”
- Minimize Location Descriptions: One or two lines is fine. Add what kind of couch it is as the character sits on the leather piece of furniture. We aren’t interior decorators, we’re storytellers. Outside a story, in real life, unless a certain piece of furniture catches someone’s eye, people never enter a room and catalogue the threadbare carpet, the plush chair in the corner, the overstuffed beanbag chair, the paintings on the wall, the antique cherry oak desk, the samurai sword hung on the wall beside the diplomas and framed certificates that hover above the golf trophies, and on and on. No one does this. At all. Unless that person is a golfer. Then they’d notice the trophies. Or that person also graduated from the same University on the diploma—but isn’t that character development now? Do not become an interior decorator—tell a story.
- Minimize Character Description: Are you writing for the next L.L.Bean catalogue or maybe the Sears catalogue? Or are you telling a story? Minimize clothing descriptions until they’re almost non-existent. Unless it forwards the story, it does not need to be there. No one meets someone else and lists each type of shirt, pants, jacket, and cufflinks the guy is wearing. No one does this in real life. Unless that character is a fashion designer. But Indiana Jones doesn’t set his whip aside during a fight, wipe the sweat from the corner of his mouth, and comment internally on how the seven-foot man in front of him is in a pair of tan shorts, a wife-beater T-shirt, brown, unmatched socks, and running shoes instead of cross trainers. Oh my shit! Don’t do it unless it forwards the story.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on the broken glass.”
- Show, Don’t Tell: You don’t want to give your readers information. You want to give them an experience. Huge rule in today’s fiction. With the advent of television, movie theaters, and now online streaming where binge watching a show is popular, books have to stay relevant. They have found that common ground through showing emotion, showing action, and showing scenes. You want readers to say they saw it in their head. That they could visualize everything happening. Telling them, “Maggie was impatient,” doesn’t work. Show her impatience. Have Maggie raise an eyebrow. Place her hands on her hips. She can pace the floor. How about pressing her lips together while someone else is talking. Narrow her eyes, tap a foot, scowl, head tilt to the side, frown, offer a sharp tone, watch a door. Have her fidget with something, click her nails on a table, fold her hands, then unfold them, cross her arms, sigh several times, mutter to herself, uncross and cross her legs, run a hand through her hair. Have her breathing grow heavier. Touch her forehead. Rub the bridge of her nose. Rub her temples. Check her watch. Have her cut someone off mid-sentence. She can yell, or bark an order. Tell someone to get to the point. (Like me right now). Do any of the above, but never TELL the reader she’s impatient.
“Never let the reader notice the writing. Overusing metaphors, similes, descriptive terms, and repeated body language can pull the reader out of the story.”
“Tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may not remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.”
- Remove Words: Omit these words from your manuscript unless you are absolutely certain they have to be there: very, little, really, rather. They add nothing to your meaning and suck life out of your sentences.
- Remove Adverbs and Adjectives that end in “ly”: Go through your manuscript and delete every single one, then add back one important “ly” word per page. “ly” adverbs almost always catch the writer in the act of explaining dialogue which is a good reason to cut almost all of them. Don’t explain dialogue. Let the dialogue do the explanation.
- Delete Exclamation Marks: They aren’t needed in a manuscript. They are visibly distracting and if overused, are an irritation to readers. They should be reserved for moments when a character is physically shouting or experiencing the mental equivalent.
- Pace: Novels need pace. Scenes speed pace. White space on the page speeds pace. Dialogue, a form of action, speeds pace. Narration slows it. Short sentences speeds it—long slow it. Movement from any form speeds it—no movement slows it. Increased pace heightens drama and tension. Faster pace plus conflict or danger increases suspense. The heart of advancing plot is conflict. Conflict is the source of reader interest. Reader interest creates sales and word of mouth—which creates a bestseller. (See what I’m doing here). A story is a war. It must be sustained and have immediate combat. Get your fighters fighting. Make the stakes worth fighting over.
- Basic Rules:
-Bring characters on with action
-Don’t lecture or preach. Avoid information dumps
-The protagonist shouldn’t keep secrets from the reader
-Write what you know
-Don’t start sentences with “ing” words and the word “as.” If used often, you weaken your writing and can look amateur.
-Never say, “as a matter of fact.”
-Avoid lists. No one wants a grocery list. Explain the food on the table as characters eat.
-Limit total POVs to six characters or less. Unless you’re writing the next Game of Thrones. Choose the number of POVs your story demands.
-Avoid Passive Sentences
-Avoid boring verbs like: looked, walked, turned.
-Remember ED ACE: Emotion drives Decisions drives Actions drives Conflict drives Emotion
-Always write, “Dave said.” Never, “said Dave.” The second example is less professional. Always place the name or pronoun first in speaker attribution.
-Avoid flowery, poetic figures of speech. This is much beloved by beginning writers.
-Avoid the overuse of “had” in a flashback
“People have so much to do besides read your book. You have to give them a reason not to eat, don’t clean the house, don’t make love—read this!”
“Characters make your story.”
Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules of Writing:
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that they will not feel the time was wasted
- Give the reader at least one character they can root for
- Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance plot
- Every character must want something, even if it’s only a glass of water
- Start as close to the action as possible
- Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading character, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they’re made of
- Write to please just one person
- Readers should have a complete understanding of what is going on
Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing:
- Never open a book with weather
- Avoid prologues
- Never use a verb other than, “said” to carry dialogue
- Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”
- Keep exclamation marks under control
- Never use the words, “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”
- Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters
- Don’t go into great detail describing places and things
- Omit things readers skip over
Neil Gaiman’s Eight Rules of Writing:
- Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down
- Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, do it
- Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to your friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
- Remember: When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
- Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep going.
- Laugh at your own jokes
- The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (A rule for life as well as writing). So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. There are no more rules. None that matter.
“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
-W. Somerset Maugham
“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration. The rest of us just get up and go to work.”
“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”