My guest blogger, Michaelbrent Collings, has been kind enough to share some advice about writing rules. Specifically, The ONLY Three Rules You MUST NOT BREAK. Here’s Part One. Part Two will appear on Wednesday.
Writers are fond of finding exceptions. It’s part of who we are, I guess. I mean, if we were people who liked following rules we’d already be in a more “normal” profession. We’d be doctors. Or lawyers. Or terrorists. Anything but these free-wheeling weirdos for whom “Pants Optional” is a huge job perk.
And here they are: the three rules. Only three, no more, no less. And every other skill I know, every other technique I use, hangs on the framework provided by one or more of these rules.
- Bore Me And Die
- Confuse Me And Lose Me
- Make Me Better Or Leave Me Alone
1) Bore Me And Die
This is first because it MUST be the first consideration of any storyteller. It may not be the most “important” from a cosmic “will I be remembered when I die” sense, but it is first from a “will I even sell a book to anyone in the first place” sense.
People come to fiction for many reasons, but the thread that runs through all is this: they want entertainment. They want to experience new things, to go to places and see new things and be new people they have never been.
How many of you have ever looked for a new and exciting book?
How many of you have ever gone on a quest for a boring book about things you do on a daily basis–something titled, perhaps, My Day Waking Up, Then Making Breakfast, Then Going to the Bathroom, Then Working at a Job I Feel So-So About, Then Eating Some More, Maybe Another Bathroom Break (or Two Depending on if my Fiber Bagel Kicks in), Then Home, Then…
Yeah, you get the point. You probably phased out around the third “then” in the title. That was intentional.
You gotta excite your audience. Not just once, but over and over. Every page, and more than that (since pages for a lot of people are largely a function of how big or small they set their text function on their Nooks or Kindles), every sentence.
Bore me and I’ll put the book down.
Bore me and I’ll look for entertainment elsewhere.
Bore me and you’ve lost my interest as a reader.
Bore me … and die.
2) Confuse Me and Lose Me
This one is a natural extension of the first. You have a riveting story. There’s action, suspense, intrigue, a quirky secondary character with a funny name who collects artisanal bongs and believes the government is secretly stealing his skin. It’s all there.
And the first page starts out:
Dell couldn’t believe it. He was sure it was him that had followed him. Because she was on it when it happened, and she wasn’t there with her. The thing she believed most of all – that God had transported from space and was now there with her – was troubling, but not enough to keep Dell from defending herself from the robot ninja dinosaurs.
Okay, so if you’re like me, you instantly zeroed in on the fact that God came down from space – a highly bizarro and (possibly) fascinating concept. Also, there were robot ninja dinosaurs. Which, as everyone knows, make everything Instantly Awesome.
But I had NO FROIKIN’ CLUE where these character/set pieces/flaming hot piles of radicalness belonged in the story. I THINK Dell is the main character. But I’m not sure if Dell is following or being followed. I don’t know what “it” she was on, or what “it” happened. Heck, I don’t even really know if Dell is a boy or a girl.
Now, a sad reality of life is that books are becoming viewed more and more as consumables, less and less as treasures. A few hundred years ago if you could read and you bought a book and it was difficult, you muscled through it. Because that was something educated people did and because you wanted to be able to impress yon maeiden faire with your impressive myte and knowledge trew. But also because it was likely the only book you could afford, or even the only one you were going to see for a while. It was a treasure.
Now, books are less and less treasures and more and more consumables. That is great for authors because people like to read and are plowing through tons of books. It means, though, a lot of people are going to take any confusion as an excuse (if only subconscious) to put the book down. They’ll watch a show, or feed the kids, or even get another book. Because it’s easy to do all those things, and why try to figure out Dell’s relationship to the robot ninja dinosaurs if there’s probably a TV show on that will explain the legend of RNDs for her, no thinking required?
Books don’t have to be dumbed down. They can be challenging. But I firmly believe that they should say something clearly. If you want to build in layers so that the reader discovers more under the surface on a second (and third and fourth and fifth) read-through, then by all means, do that!
But the first read-through should be understandable. Not just on a macro-level, but a micro-level. Chapters should contribute clearly to the work as a whole. Paragraphs should contain coherent thoughts. Sentences should be phrased so there is no question as to what pronoun refers to what antecedent. Words should be chosen with absolute care.
A few “writers” get all testy about this. “But… but… that’s so much work.”
Yeah. Being a writer is a LOT of work. I used to be a big-city lawyer. Now I’m a laid-back writer. Guess which “me” works longer hours. If you’re afraid of spending time getting it right, go do something easier. Brain surgery, or quantum physics.
You’re a writer. Suck it up.
Michaelbrent Collings is a #1 bestselling novelist and produced screenwriter. His most recent novel, Crime Seen, is a paranormal thriller.
He hopes someday to develop superpowers, and maybe get a cool robot arm. Michaelbrent has a wife and several kids, all of whom are much better looking than he is (though he admits that’s a low bar to set), and much MUCH cooler than he is (also a low bar).
Michaelbrent has more writing advice at his website, MichaelbrentCollings.com
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