Practical Rules for Writing (Re: Franzen)

A friend of mine, despite my gentle attempts to steer her in a direction not fraught with poverty and disappointment, has decided she wants to be a writer of fiction. About the time she made this decision, Jonathan Franzen published his piece on rules for writers. An odd collection of fancifully stated obviousness (the reader is your friend, you see more sitting still) and curmudgeonly snark (no one with an internet connection is doing good writing), it’s actually not very helpful at all. Franzen, who is not a writer with a day job (#writerwithadayjob), I think, seems a bit detached from reality—especially when he has to research middle class life to write a novel about the middle class and still can’t help but be disdainful of the people he writes about.

So, to help my friend plant her ass in a chair and do the hard work she seems to want to do (what the fuck is wrong with people?), here are my “rules” for writers.

1) Accept that your first draft will always be shit. Whether you plot out your story in advance or discover it as you go, the first draft will be shit. That’s why it’s best to get it out of your system as soon as you can and get to revising it. You can’t revise blank pages, and there’s no point in revising perfect (and you are never going to be perfect), so get comfortable with writing shit (or get comfortable not writing and be happy doing something else).

2) Since the first draft will be shit, you have to treat the writing of it as you would a bowel movement: do it regularly. Whether you’re a clock-puncher who sits down at the writing desk every day, or not, discover and establish a ritual or system that works for you and stick to it. The only requirement is that your system allows you to produce words on the page consistently, at a steady clip, predictably. Don’t compare the level of your output to others, all that matters is output. If there are no words on the page, you have nothing to revise and nothing to submit. If you aren’t writing, you’re not a writer. I’ve been punching the clock every morning for 21 years now and have missed only about 30 days that entire time and have written 5 complete manuscripts (sold one, but we aren’t talking the business side yet).

3) Writer’s block is bullshit. Those who believe in it, who worry about it arriving and never leaving, will have it and bemoan it, try to make others think it’s real, and wallow in it, expecting sympathy. Nothing getting on the page for the epic novel you’ve been pressuring yourself to write? So what? Try a short story or a poem. That not working? Try an essay. Try journaling. Do your favorite writing exercise (mine’s “I remember . . .”*), whatever . . . put words of some kind on a page, any page. I’ve found that when the words aren’t coming easily it’s because my subconscious is working a problem. If I’m patient with myself and simply keep the words—any words—flowing from my brain to my hands to the keyboard or pen and onto a page it all sorts itself out.

4) (optional if you want to publish). Learn the business of writing and publishing. Learn how to submit a manuscript. Learn how to work with an editor (and how to take constructive criticism). Learn how contracts work, and the difference between an advance (spent that fast) and the mythical royalty (I’ve never seen one because I’ve not earned back my advance against royalties). Learn how the Terms of Service apply to self-publishing platforms. Learn about copyrights and permissions. Learn about how the availability and price of book paper affects a publisher’s decision on what and when to publish. Learn about how bookstores work and how book distribution works. Learn all of that stuff so you can make an informed decision when it comes time to choose how you want to present your work to an audience. Traditional publishing? Self-publishing? Some hybrid of the two? Cool.

Some people think I have a low opinion of self-publishing, and I have to admit that, to an extent, I do. Here’s why—most of the people who end up talking to me about it seem to have a desperate need to justify themselves. I think they wanted to get a big, rich contract (which are like unicorns) but after a few rejections stormed off in a kind of Dunning-Kruger inspired fit of rage and have been angry ever since. Also, as a former indie bookseller, I helped manage a consignment program at the store where I worked, and 90% or more of the books in that program were self-published. The writers of those books did no marketing or self-promotion, and were never seen in the store before they dropped off their books, and weren’t seen in the store again until their contract expired and we called them about picking up their unsold books. They then got pissed off at us for not doing all the promotion and marketing they were neglecting to do and which traditional publishers and the more savvy self-published writers were doing for their books.

That being said, self-publishing does work for some people, and some people are good at it, and good writers are choosing to self-publish every day because of the shrinking acceptance rate at traditional publishing houses. But, self-publishing isn’t right for everyone, and traditional publishing isn’t right for everyone. By learning the business you can navigate that decision more wisely . . . and maybe even be successful at it**.

4.1) Make friends with your local indie bookstore, if you have one. You’ll be surprised what you’ll learn and who you’ll meet. The blurbs on my first novel where provided by writers I met while working at Watermark Books.

5) Read. This one should be obvious, but I’ll put it here anyway. It’s the last rule, but perhaps the most important. There’s nothing worse than a poet who doesn’t read poetry. Nothing worse than a writer who doesn’t read. More importantly, you should learn how to read critically. Read so that you know how to spot formula, cliche, melodrama (purple prose), but also so you know how to analyze a well written metaphor, a graceful, moving image, and so on. Reading, and especially reading critically, is the best way to learn the craft, even if you went out and got an MFA in creative writing.

*Rules for “I remember . . .” Start with the phrase, I remember, write for 5 minutes and don’t let your pen stop. If you feel like you’re getting stuck, start over with “I remember.” It doesn’t matter what you put down, a list, even a long string of nothing but I remember I remember I remember is all good. Eventually your brain will get sick of it and spit out something else. That’s it. Find your own favorite writing exercise. Repeat as needed.

**Writers Digest, Writers Market, Poets & Writers – these publication among many, many others will help you learn the ins and outs of being a professional writer and choosing an appropriate publishing path.

About Jason Quinn Malott

I am the author of "The Evolution of Shadows" (Unbridled Books, 2009), host of The Outrider Podcast, and the one-time publisher and editor of the now defunct not-for-profit indie 'zine called The Project for a New Mythology. I have a BA in creative writing from Kansas State University and an MFA in writing and poetics from Naropa University's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. View all posts by Jason Quinn Malott

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