Lately, I’ve done a few talks for high school students who are writers, or are interested in becoming one. In addition to disabusing them of the idea that becoming an author is a fast and easy ticket to fame and fortune, I’ve shared with them a lot of tips and experiences, including the core of my rules for writing: the “5 to 10”:
5 big rules + 10 smaller “Do’s and Don’t’s”
Here’s what I told them:
You can use the “5 to 10” no matter if what you’re working on is a short story, a novel, even nonfiction or poetry. You may—in fact, I hope—you have heard some of these before, because I only came up with a few of them. The rest I picked up from the excellent teachers I had in school.
Here are the 5:
- Show, Don’t Tell
- Be Careful
- Be Real
- Be Honest
1. Show, Don’t Tell. Don’t tell me that the Feisty Teenage Heroine of your novel is a badass: show me her riding a motorcycle, listening to heavy metal, carrying a knife in her boot, and using profanity like it’s punctuation.
Don’t tell me she has anger issues: show me her throwing a chair at her teacher, and having the cops ziptie her hands and feet.
Don’t tell me that she likes Vanilla Coke: show me her drinking one at lunch. Don’t tell me she’s an artist, show me her drawing stuff on a sketch pad.
Likewise with actions. Don’t tell me it was a fierce battle: show me archers firing hundreds of arrows into the oncoming mounted knights, show me warriors fighting to the knife against each other in the mud and gore, show me the king brandishing his sword and rallying his troops by yelling, “Once more unto the breach!”
2. Be Careful. Pay attention to what you write, and make sure you do it to the best of your ability. Spelling matters. Punctuation matters. Grammar matters.
If you screw up these, readers will think you’re an idiot, because—rightly or wrongly—people judge other people based on how they communicate. If your readers think you’re stupid, they’ll only keep reading your stuff to see what stupid things you do or say next.
Know the definition of words. For example, between only refers to the space or differences separating two—and no more than two—objects, people, places, or what have you. So, using between in “Between you, him, and me, we had 12 dollars” is wrong: really, you ought to use among.
(Unless, of course, whoever is saying “between” wouldn’t know the difference. One of the nice things about writing This Wasted Land was that my narrator is not very well educated, so I could disregard grammar and proper word usage)
In addition to knowing the denotation of words, their literal definition, know their connotations, or the implied ideas or feelings that these words evoke in the reader. There can be a difference between saying something is inexpensive, or saying it’s cheap. Between talkative and mouthy. Between persistent and pushy. Between young and childish.
Know when to use certain words, and when not to.
If you don’t have a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, you need to get up, run at top speed to the closest bookstore, and buy one, shoplift it if you have to. Read it, re-read it, re-re-read it, re-re-re-read it. Give up television, friends, and food so you can read it some more. Sleep with it under your pillow until you absorb every bit of it. It will make your writing so much better.
One priceless nugget of knowledge from Elements: “Omit needless words,” such as, In order to…. Or she is a woman who…. Or in spite of the fact that….
Strunk and White say:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
3. Be Real. I want to teach you a new word. It’s verisimilitude. It’s a noun that means, “the appearance of being true or real.”
Your writing must have verisimilitude, even though all fiction is lies, stories of things that never happened to people who never lived (unless it’s historical fiction, in which case you have a kernel of truth that you’ve built your story around).
Put another way, your fiction, your lies, have to seem real and plausible so that the reader willingly suspends disbelief. Readers want to believe in the people who never lived and the events that never happened, so long as you don’t remind them that they’re allowing you to temporarily fool them.
So, when you write, have your characters speak like real people, and not like they’re reciting lines from a speech.
When an action takes place, have plausible reactions: when a character gets into a fight, they’re most likely going to get hurt, even if they win. Our Feisty Teenage Heroine in TWL gets bashed up a lot whenever she’s attacked by a monster.
An easy way to have verisimilitude is to write what you know. But what if you don’t know? Then you need to do some research.
Let’s say you have a character who’s going deer hunting. You need to know what sort of weapon to use: no one hunts deer with an M60 machine gun, or, conversely, with a pistol. And you need to know the technique for hunting deer.
Despite the fact that I live on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, I don’t know much about deer hunting. But I do know that you don’t do it like this:
Also, it wouldn’t hurt to know how to field dress a deer.
You don’t have to be an expert, you just have to know enough to be credible. If a character is flying a plane, you don’t need to actually know how to fly, but you need to know some basics about how planes work and how to pilot them. It’s not the same as driving a car.
For another example, though I ride a Harley Davidson, I’ve never ridden a Kawasaki Ninja 250R, so I needed to do research on what it’s like to ride those before I wrote one into the first chapter of my book.
A Ninja is more than a little bit different than a Sportster: for one, it has six gears instead of five, it’s possible but not at all comfortable to ride two on it, and it weighs less (300 lbs. vs 562 lbs.). But it accelerates the same (0-60 in about 6 ½ to 7 seconds) and the top speed is about the same (about 100 mph).
The more real you make your fiction, the better it will be. Yes, it will take longer, but fortunately, you have Google and YouTube. There’s a joke among writers: Don’t look at our browser history. Because we’re always looking up weird, sometimes disturbing stuff, particularly if you write sf/fantasy.
When I was writing TWL, some of the things I looked up were:
- Location of American military bases in Korea
- Shopping malls and stores of West Africa
- Currency of Ghana
- Symptoms of jaundice
- Popular candy bars from outside the US
- The folk song “Go Tell Aunt Rhody”
- Mossberg shotgun with pistol grip
- Effects on human body of close-up shotgun blast (those photos were NOT pretty)
- How you pronounce “skraeling”
- The Beothuk people
- Leif Erikson and Norse settlements in Vinland, circa 1000 AD
- S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land
- Age of the Hindu epic poem The Ramayana
- Career prospects for engineering majors
- Energy companies based in Houston, TX
- Locations and names of short line railroads in Arizona
- Roster and win/loss record of the 1980’s Cleveland Browns football team
- Eat n’ Park diners (they’re like Denny’s, but way better)
Trust me on that last one
You might say, “Well, I want to write sci-fi and fantasy: how am I supposed to make aliens or dragons ‘be real?’” The answer is that you treat them as if they were real.
So, when you’re imagining your aliens or your dragons, you think about not only what they look like and how they speak (if they do)—those elements of being characters—you also think about:
- What they eat and drink (if they even do)
- How long they sleep (if they do)
- If and how much do they pee and poop
- How they deal with weather and temperature extremes
- If any common substances or Earth creatures—animal or plant—interact spectacularly with them (such as, water dissolves your aliens)
Think about those things even if you never use that info. You don’t have to delve too deeply into it, just think about and come up with something that makes sense. In my novel Dragontamer’s Daughters, one of the dragons is from an island in the middle of the ocean, so its favorite food is fish. See what I mean?
(Another gratuitous plug)
4. Be honest. There are two aspects to being honest:
Be honest with yourself. It’s okay to copy other writers as practice until you find your own style, but don’t try to be other writers. If you really like Hemingway, and you want to write short, matter-of-fact sentences, go ahead, but don’t do it because you think that that’s how you’re supposed to write. The world doesn’t need more Hemingways: it needs more you.
Be honest with your readers. Plot twists and surprises are fine, if they grow organically out of the story, where the reader could look back and say, “Oh, yeah, *now* I see where that came from.” Jerking readers around with stuff you just pull out of your butt is not. Don’t lead your readers down a story and, at the end, say, “It was all just a dream,” or everyone dies just for shock value, like at the end of your romance novel, a psycho killer never mentioned before busts into the church where the wedding’s going on, and kills everyone.
And while you’re being honest with your readers, avoid cheesy dialogue like something you’d hear on the Hallmark Channel (unless that’s what your readers love). Instead, harness authentic emotions. Favor sentiment over sentimentality.
5. Believe in your writing. Believe in yourself. Learn from honest, constructive, even brutal criticism, but don’t listen to people who say you suck. If you’re a writer, I probably don’t know anything about you, but I do know these things:
- I know that you’re smart—because dumb people don’t write stories.
- I know that you’re talented—you may not be as talented as [insert name of your favorite author here], but I know you have at least a little bit, because people don’t do stuff they’re not talented at (or they don’t do it for very long, like when I tried learning guitar back in high school).
- I know that you’re diligent—because it takes a long time to write anything, and an even longer time to improve
If you keep writing, if you publish your work, either through a traditional publisher or by yourself (I highly recommend the latter, btw), and if you put it out there, eventually you will write someone’s Book of Gold. And what is that?
It’s a book that touches someone and makes a difference in their life, a book they will carry around in their head for the end of their days. You don’t have to believe me, because a better writer than me said it better than I can:
It might not happen the day after you write that book. It might not happen the day after that. Not the next week, not the next month, not that year, or the year after, not in the next 10 years, not in the next 100.
But someday, as long as there’s a copy of your book somewhere, someone will love it. And they might be the only one, and that doesn’t matter. All you need is one. One person–tomorrow or next week or next year or in the next century–who reads something of yours and cherishes it for the rest of their lives.
Those are my 5 big, overarching principles. I have 10 smaller, more specific rules that I’ll share with you next time.
Kenton Kilgore writes killer SF/F for young adults and adults who are still young. In addition to This Wasted Land, he is the author of Lost Dogs, the story of the end of the world as seen, heard–and smelled–by a dog.
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