Writing rules bombard a new writer. From formatting
“12 point Times New Roman! Double-space!
Indent! ““No, no, not for ezines, use Arial! Single-space!” “No way, indent and leave a line!”
-- to often unwritten, but widely accepted,
Some published writers have tried to help by
sharing their own rules. Here are Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing fiction:
the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action.
as close to the end as possible.
a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the
reader may see what they are made of.
to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete
understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the
last few pages.
(Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff
Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons 1999), 9-10.)
In the three years since
I reinvented myself as a writer, I’ve learnt a lot. I’ve read many writing rules and adopted some of them for
I discovered show don’t
tell, and lost a love-affair with adverbs. I limited speech tags enjoyed by my old English teacher, and became hypersensitive
to creative language. I learnt to write tight. (However, recently I decided my fiction stories have become too lean, so I’m
relaxing that rule a little.) I learnt to revise non-fiction articles with Roy Peter Clark’s Fifty Writing Tools. (http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=78&aid=103943)
It’s easy to obsess about rules. If an
authoritative critiquer tells you that you must put thoughts in italics, it can
be difficult to reconcile editorial directions not to do so. One respected writer advises you to ditch adverbs; another much-published
writer sprinkles them with abandon. Which rules do we writers adopt and which ones do we ignore?
As one of Australia’s most unpublished writers, I believe I can speak with some authority on this subject. My advice? Adopt
the ‘rules’ that make sense to you; forget the rest.
Here are three suggestions
I worked out for myself. They started out as conscious decisions and have now become ingrained habits. That makes them my
kind of rules.
Set the Scene
Before writing, set your
mood and the tone of your article or story by reading something by another writer. For instance, if I’m planning to
write a light-hearted essay, I find a book, a movie clip, a joke or another writer’s essay at an online humour site.
Reading something in a similar style can reinforce the ‘how-to’ of that genre. Giggling at an online joke tweaks
my funny bone and puts me in the mood for writing humour.
Personal favourite funny
writers on my bookshelf are Bill Bryson, Jerome K. Jerome, and Kerry Cue. Online, I often check Dave Barry or Gordon Kirkland.
When I’m about to write children’s or YA, I raid the bookshelf and awaken my inner child with Mem Fox, Jill McDougall
or Betsy Byars.
I also play background
music to complement my writing. Celtic music is great for fantasy; flash fiction works well with the Minute Waltz.
Choose a System
Work out a system for naming
your Word documents, files and folders, and stick to it. Save precious minutes of later searching and spend seconds checking
how you saved similar documents. Pay particular attention to any capitals, numbers, punctuation, spaces and duplicate them
exactly if you want a tidy filing system.
Writers I admire keep track
of their submissions in a spreadsheet. Because Excel and I only have a nodding acquaintance, I have a submissions folder in
my word documents. I save stories and articles under their title and destination.
Inside the document, as
well as the actual article, the date submitted and the magazine it went to, I paste any correspondence. This includes the
cover letter or email, the address or telephone number, and any subsequent communications. When I’m notified that a
story has been accepted, I paste in that information, especially contracts signed or rights sold. When I’m paid, I paste
that in, too. If I’m notified a submission has been rejected, I copy that into the same document. Then I start a new
document for the next destination.
Writers need to be systematic.
Recordkeeping is essential, not just for tax purposes, but so you don’t alienate editors. My submissions folder has
saved me when an acceptance has come in six months after my initial correspondence and I couldn’t remember the details.
However, as my list of submissions grows, it’s becoming unwieldy and the intricacies of Excel grow more attractive.
Ignore the Dust
After months of trying
to write and maintain housekeeping standards, (admittedly not high to begin with),
I realized something had to give. It was a guilty pleasure to decide on less housekeeping. Can you measure the difference
between a week’s dust and a fortnight’s? How about ironed and un-ironed clothes? Girding my loins, I locked the
iron away. Then I sublet the vacuum cleaner. Finally, I redistributed household chores more equitably among family members.
The results of my decision
were surprising. When I learnt to look at weeds in a different way, they became attractive. The dust bunnies are pets, now
known as Nigel and …er…Nigel. My husband and son seemed to grow into their rumpled clothes, adopting matching
rumpled hairstyles and sultry looks. I stopped being the Martyr who ran around after others, and became the Eccentric, locked
in her study, writing. It worked for me.
Whatever writing rules you follow, remember:
Joke of the Month
A screenwriter comes home to a burned down house.
His sobbing and slightly singed wife is standing outside.
“What happened, honey?” the writer
“Oh, John, it was terrible,” she cries. “I was cooking, the phone rang. It was your agent.
Because I was on the phone, I didn’t notice the stove was on fire. It went up in second. Everything is gone. I nearly
didn’t make it out of the house. Poor little Fluffy is…”
“Wait, wait. Back up a minute,”
the screenwriter says. “My agent called?”
Each book in the series will contain approximately
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over the world. Stories 500-1,200 words. Pays $30 upon publication, plus one copy of book, for one-time or reprint rights
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acts of kindness
period is August 1 to October
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The contest is for a story
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Stories will also be judged on age targeting, originality, style, and the overall quality of writing. Publishability
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