(Originally Published in The Story Prize)
I enjoy shining a flashlight into the darkness. For me, the basic job of a writer is to bring the world into focus and cast some illumination. I particularly enjoy helping my students see what hides behind the doorway of the writing life. This doesn’t mean I have all the answers of course (no one can master the craft of writing in a single lifetime), but I’d like to think I’ve gathered enough useful ideas along the way. What follows isn’t a list of commandants that must be followed no matter what. Instead, I consider them “personal rules” that I keep in the front of my mind whenever I sit down at my desk. But like all rules, I sometimes break them. Such is life. And so, what follows are some observations that have worked for me. Perhaps you’ll find something beneficial for your own work? I sure hope that’s the case. Here we go:
1. Have a word goal
Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, it’s good to have a finish line for the day. For me, I sit down and won’t get up until I’ve written at least 750 words. Other writers shoot for 400. Some aim for 1,000. The important thing is to find a number that works for you and stick to it. Think in terms of words on the page rather than hours spent at the desk. However, this can be a colossal pain in butt because sometimes it takes me two hours to reach 750 and, on other days, when I’m beating my head against the keyboard, it can take five or six hours. I slog on and don’t stop until I reach 750. For me, writer’s block is a myth and it’s something only beginners say. After all, writing is my job. No one asks a plumber if he or she wants to go to work. No way. They get up, they get under that sink, and they stay there until the problem is solved. Writing is the same way. It’s a blue collar job, so get your rear in the chair and starting hitting them keys.
2. Rewriting is more important than writing
Oh boy is this an important one. The first draft of anything is usually a big hot steaming mess, but at least the words are there and you’re ready to start tinkering with them. I’ve always enjoyed rewriting more than writing because I love the challenge of finding just the right word and just the right phrase. My first novel went through seven drafts before I sent it off to a publisher and most of my stories go through fifteen or twenty revisions. I keep on rewriting (and rewriting and rewriting) until it feels like someone else wrote the words. When the narrative feels like it doesn’t belong to me anymore, that’s usually a good sign to let it go.
3. He said, She said
This is lower level stuff, and yet it’s still really important. For me, when it comes to taglines, I think you’re better off sticking with a simple “he said” or “she said”. Don’t get all flowery with adverbs and write things like “he roared aggressively” or “she bellowed pointedly”. Think of taglines as signposts that direct traffic. Your dialogue should sparkle and shimmer so clearly that the reader can hear it in her head.
4. Readers are smart
Stories work best when readers have to ask questions along the way, and it’s good to remember that uncertainty is the lifeblood of narrative. Think of it this way: Pages will only be turned if a reader wants to know what’s going to happen next, so let them wonder. Trust your reader and don’t over-explain the plot. They’re smart. They’ll figure it out. I believe we read fiction in order to put ourselves in a different moral universe and then we compare the actions of the main character against how we would react to those very same situations. It’s therefore necessary to open up unknowns in a story so that the reader is forced to fill in those gaps with their own imagination. We’re all curious about what will happen next. Speaking of which…
5. It’s okay to fail
This runs in such total opposition to our cultural beliefs that it almost seems un-American to even mention it. In the United States, we love winners, and we don’t have much time for losers. But I’m here to tell you that if you want to be a writer, you’re going to have to fail a lot. I mean, you’re going to have to fail month after month, and year after year. Only writers that have made it really understand just how soul-crushingly hard it is to get published. And yet, it’s only by failing that you become better at your craft. So I’m here to tell you an important secret: failure is your friend. It won’t feel like this at first (you’ll hate failure so much you’ll want to punch him right in the face), but as you write more you’ll find your voice, and by finding your voice, you’ll discover what makes you tick as a literary artist. So keep on writing, no matter what.
6. Good writers start off as extraordinary readers
This is more true than you’d ever believe, and if you’re serious about wanting to become a writer you’ll need to read with great promiscuity. Read everything that comes across your field of vision. Even the books you don’t like are educational because at least you know you don’t want to write like Author X or Author Y. Study cadence and voice and word choice and description and narrative perspective and pacing. Just as musicians listen to songs, and painters study shadow and form, you’ll have to bury your nose in a book. It’s what we do. Writers begin as readers, and this is an unshakeable absolutely true 100% for real rule here. Read, read, read, and read some more. Start to think of writers that you love as your “literary heroes”. I know who my literary heroes are. Who are yours? Why do you love them so much?
7. Snow is white
Don’t tell the reader things they already know. By writing a line like, “the snow was white and on the ground” you’re not saying anything new. Tell the reader if the snow is yellow because there’s a story there, especially if a dog is sniffing around. Equally, don’t say the sky is blue—it usually is blue—but tell the reader if the sky is “green and boiling.” The same goes for green grass, and red blood, and wet water. In other words, don’t state the obvious.
8. The element of surprise
If I’m not surprised by what happens in the story as I’m writing it, the reader will never be surprised by the story when they’re reading it. In other words, let’s say you’re motoring through the first draft and then—what the hell?—your main character does something totally unexpected. Follow behind your character and see what they do next. If you’re not surprised by your story, the reader never will be. This taps a little bit into Rule #4 because gaps and the unknown in a story should happen to you when you hammer out the first draft. Go with the flow. Be surprised. Let your characters control you rather than the other way around.
9. Find the “moment of crisis”
In short stories and novels, the narrative should zero in on a specific event that will forever change the main character. I call this “the moment of crisis” and as far as I’m concerned, it’s the center of gravity around which the rest of the narrative orbits. This particular rule is so important to me that I often tell my students to rip off the first page of whatever story they are working on. I ask them to do this because the moment of crisis rarely reveals itself on the first page. Most of the time, it begins to appear on page two or three. Start there, I tell my students. Drop the reader into the crisis and they will start to ask questions immediately, which is exactly what you want to keep those pages turning.
10. Be kind to other writers
There are many wonderful things about being a writer, but it’s a life full of rejection letters, frustration, and doubt. Other writers will understand what you’re going through better than anyone else. Plus, most of the writers I know are kind and thoughtful people who are deeply interested in the human condition. Be kind to your fellow wordsmiths. Support them. Don’t be a jerk.
11. Get out of your office
You can only write about yourself for so long before you’ve exhausted your own stories. When this happens, get out into the world. Travel to a foreign country. Go interview a hospice nurse. Talk to a single mother. Meet someone from a faith group you don’t understand. Think of a weird job and ask someone who does that job about their hopes and dreams. Learn from strangers and widen your pool of stories. By doing this, you won’t make yourself the center of every narrative that you write and you’ll also find out new things that can spice up your work. In order to be a writer, you have to be curious about the world. Try new things. Be bold. Ask questions.
12. Bonus true thing about writing
I’m in awe that black ink splashed onto a white page can conjure up an entire world in the head of a reader. I mean, here you are, reading this list, and it’s like I’m performing some kind of hypnosis on you. While you’ve been reading this, you have floated out of your body and existed somewhere else—it’s a space that you and I have created together in imagination. You don’t know me, and yet here we are having some kind of connection across space and time. There is something deeply magical about this for me. And it’s happening because I’m stringing words together and you’re patient enough to read them. We are connected because words are parading before your eyes right now, right this very second. Writing is such a glorious and mysterious part of the human experience and, at the end of the day, I believe that all we have are stories. Stories are what we pass on to the next generation. Make sure to tell your stories with care. You have to build them to last.
Patrick Hicks is the author of ten books, including The Commandant of Lubizec: A Novel of the Holocaust and Operation Reinhard (Steerforth/Random House) and The Collector of Names (Schaffner Press). He is the Writer-in-Residence at Augustana College and a member of faculty at the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.