You wake up to your alarm clock thinking about stories. You write. Maybe you’ve read On Writing by Stephen King or some other book about writing. Maybe you’ve participated in a workshop. Maybe you’ve taken a writing class. Maybe you’ve even graduated from a creative writing program. And if any of these things are true, you know the following rules:
1) Show, don’t tell.
2) Use the active voice.
3) Adverbs are lazy.
4) Characters should change (sorry, transform).
5) Write what you know.
6) Above all else, keep writing.
After going through the MA Creative Writing program at Sacramento State, I learned all of these things and a million more. Some of us may have learned this in middle or high school. And it becomes so engrained in your head that you hate yourself when you break them. You see “to be” verbs in your writing and you want to slash the page with that red pen. And then you read some of the lit mags out there and realize that everything you learned is wrong.
Well, not everything, but more of a realization that you need to un-learn some of these “rules” to expand your writing because you’ve been writing the same thing over and over again. You need to un-learn to grow into something else. Think about it. If everyone is writing by these very rules, then of course our stories are boring. Read any lit mag or modern novel and you’ll see the best stories break the rules.
So here are some tips to help you un-learn:
1) Show, don’t tell. Ah, Commandment #1. The point of this rule is to help you concentrate on scene instead of thoughts, feelings, and other abstractions. And focusing on this rule works well for scenes. But what about in between scenes? What if you want to write a novel where you actually have to explain backstory, world building, etc.
Storyboard your favorite novel chapter or short story and see what percentage of the story is “telling.” 60%? 70%? 80%? The problem with learning the “show, don’t tell” rule isn’t the rule itself, it’s that you are beat over the head with it. But no one really ever teaches you how to “tell” properly, how to connect scenes. So if you’re interested in doing this, here’s an exercise:
Copy that favorite novel chapter or short story word for word. Focus on the exposition. Study how the author moves between scenes, how the author moves inside and outside of the narrator’s heads. Try this a few times and you’ll start seeing how telling works in the overall structure of stories.
2) Active voice. Can you imagine if every single sentence was written in active voice? Much like the “show, don’t tell” rule, this is one of those golden writing commandments. The point is clarity. You may have also had a professor who told you to “activate” your writing. If you’re like me, you have a penchant for starting sentences with “There were” or “She was” and it makes you want to throw a laptop across the room. There was (heh) actually a time in my life where I tried to write whole stories with no passive voice at all.
I heard in a writing class once that a study determined effective writing – that is, being optimally understood – contains 70% active voice. What does this mean? It means that if you have a paragraph that’s ten sentences long, you can actually have three sentences that are in passive voice! Get out, you say! So how do you unlearn the desire to scratch off every passive sentence with bold, red ink?
It’s called the three second breath. While editing, before automatically slashing out something just because it’s in passive voice, stop and take a three second breath. Then exhale and ask yourself how the passive voice is working. Are you softening tone? Changing a rhythm of a paragraph? If so, then maybe you should leave it. Chances are you’re being too hard on yourself.
3) Adverbs are lazy. When you're a beginning writer, this is an important rule to keep. The beginning writer tends to use adverbs instead of picking the right verbs. Verbs are usually the most important part of a sentence as the indicate action. Adverbs “soften” action. Take for instance the following:
He ran into me heavily.
He slammed into me.
But once you’ve got some experience writing, adverbs can be extremely useful. Just look at any of your favorite modern stories and you’ll see them. Take for instance:
She stomped into the house as though she owned it.
She stomped into the house possessively.
In this case, the adverb makes the sentence more efficient and less cliché. So don’t automatically eliminate all adverbs from writing. Write them all down in your draft. When you edit, circle them all and truly ask yourself if you’re being lazy or trying to make your writing more “pretty.” If so, take them out. But if not, it’s perfectly okay to leave some of them in.
4) Characters should transform by the end of the story. This is a classic creative writing lesson. It likely derives from James Joyce’s epiphanies, where the protagonist would, as a result of the plot, learn something new about themselves or the world and would touch on the story’s theme. You likely learned something similar. Maybe it was a story isn’t a story unless a character transforms. They must change.
But this rule can be very limiting. It often causes a writer to write inorganically, forcing an epiphanic revelation and/or theme that just isn’t there. I personally struggle with this. So instead of coming to a story with a pre-ordained theme, do this. Go to a restaurant or café or somewhere in public and focus on a group of people. Write everything you see, hear, and smell. Write what they say. Do not write any opinions, narrative intrustions, and the like. Just pure “sense.” If you do this for a long enough period of time, you’ll see that you have a story with a beginning, middle and end, and likely there won’t be a “sudden realization” about something that wraps things up so nicely.
5) Write what you know. I’m sure you’ve heard this. For the beginning writer, it makes sense. You’re trying to learn about craft and so it’s easier to focus on craft instead of content.
If you think of the best stories, though, they are stories of discovery, where the ending feels inevitable and yet surprising, almost as though the writer discovered the story as you were reading it. So here’s a tip: don’t outline before you write. Sure, get a general plot down, but once you start outlining things before you even know what your story is about (or what your characters are going to do), you will force your story into what you already know because you’ve already determined it. But stories aren’t paint by numbers. Get some stuff on the paper first, then outline or storyboard. But let your plot develop naturally; let your characters go where they’re gonna go. As an old professor said, don’t be a fascist with your stories. Your characters have their own lives, even if you don't know what they are yet.
6) Whatever you do, keep writing. What do you mean? How can this be bad? It’s not bad, but sometimes we focus so much on writing, even when we’re sitting in front of a blank page for weeks on end doing nothing, when there are other things we could be doing to improve our writing. For example, sometimes it’s better to read. If you’ve written crap every session for a week, take a break and read something. Or go do something you’ve never done. Or talk to a stranger. Or talk to someone who is not a stranger. The point is that writing is just not about writing. It’s about everything. So yes, keep writing, but don’t forget to keep living, too. Living helps writing.
Also don’t forget that something important must always be at stake, that the denouement should always tie every loose end, and that you should never use exclamation points!!!!!!!!
Okay, okay. These rules are important. But remember the most important writing rule: if it works, it works. Also remember that this is "creative writing." Creative. If you're a writer who lives by writing rules, then you need to try different things. Write a different genre. Or a different form. Or in longer or shorter sentences. Or in second person. You get the idea. In order to write something fresh and new, some rules are going to have to be broken, well except that one about opening stories with someone waking up to an alarm clock. Don't do that. Everyone has done that and it doesn't work.
Good day, and happy writing.
It goes like this: Five years ago I opened my email to find a response from the first literary journal I submitted to. It was terrifying and exhilarating. It was mysterious. It gave me the worst gut-busting anxiety I ever felt. I opened the email and it read:
“Dear Author, (already a troublesome sign)
Thank you for submitting your work to Asimov. Unfortunately . . .”
It would be the first of many.
Over the years I’ve learned a lot about proper publishing etiquette, and although it’s guaranteed your writing will be rejected at times, these five and half tips have also brought me a load of success. They work both for novel length works as well as short stories, poems, essays, and so on. These tips are simple, but they are issues that I see time and time again.
Here is what I’ve learned from submitting over the years, and what we’ve seen come our way here at From Sac.
1. RE-READ YOUR WORK
I can’t tell you how many pieces I’ve read over after submitting and found typos in spelling, misused words, and punctuation. It’s ridiculous. Please, read over your work.
Don’t read it just once, try two or three times. Try reading it out loud. You’d be surprised how your writing changes when you hear how your words sound together. As a writer, intellectually polysyllabic words are fun to use, especially when you can get a string of them together to form a complex sentence. Try reading that sentence out loud and see what happens. More often than not, you’ll end up changing it.
Have someone else read over your work if you can. Your eyes will miss your mistakes, because they made them in the first place. You will miss things like ‘frist’ instead of ‘first’, for example—we’re all mildly dyslexic some times. Plus, having more eyes will make your story better in plot and character.
2. READ THE SUBMISSION GUIDELINES, CAREFULLY
I cannot stress this enough. Every independent press and literary journal has their own set of submission guidelines. Some are vague (which makes submitting easy because you can basically get away with whatever you want), while others have very specific requirements for submitting. You need to read every single word of the submission guidelines if you want any remote chance of getting published. Most publishers will not read your work if you don’t submit correctly. This includes, but is not limited to:
There is a standard publishing format that, although somewhat archaic and structured around the use of typewriters, is still used by most publishers. Check out this essay that does a great job explaining how to format a manuscript for submitting to a publisher.
For example: at From Sac we have a very specific requirement: we do not accept submissions when authors divulge previous publishing histories. We do not care where you have been published; a piece of writing needs to be able to stand on its own, apart from other works previous to it. Other publishers will have similar specifications that could easily eliminate your writing from publication without your story or poem ever being read. Pay attention to these guidelines, and you will have a much easier time getting published.
3. KNOW WHAT THE PRESS/JOURNAL PUBLISHES
It sounds like a ploy to get you to buy their books, but I promise it’s not (most of the time). Here’s the thing: if publishing presses and literary journals are to continue doing what they do, they need money. Peeps got to eat. Because of that, most publishers do not have free examples of work published by them, because that is how they make their money.
With that said, in order for you as a writer to know what a publisher likes, you really need to read what they publish. Often literary journals will provide an editor’s explanation about what they are looking for in a piece of writing, but that doesn’t really cut it. You can’t get a full feel for a journal or press without actually reading what they publish. Ninety percent of all my rejects, I believe, are because I didn’t read what that specific journal publishes. I usually get the standard response: “Thank you for sending us "Title." We enjoyed the piece, but feel it really isn't a good fit for our aesthetic. Thanks again. Best of luck with this.”
If you expect a publisher to publish your work, but you don’t support them as a press as well as their authors, then don’t expect them to support you.
4. SUBMIT EVERYWHERE
You can’t be picky, especially when you are first starting to submit. There are thousands of presses and literary journals just in the U.S. alone, not to mention all the other countries that have their hundreds and thousands of journals and presses looking for good writing to add to their canon.
There are two ways to do this:
5. GET USED TO REJECTION
You will be rejected. All. The. Time. That is just the way the game goes. Whether amateur or expert, rejection is part of publishing. The test of a true writer is one that trudges through the countless rejects until that majestic moment when a story or poem gets accepted for publication.
Keep submitting, keep submitting, keep submitting. Like I said, rejections will happen. It’s a fact of writing life. But remember that it’s all about timing. You and the publisher have to fit each others' needs.
Also, if a piece keeps getting rejected, go back and reread it a few times, chances are it may need some more editing attention.
5.5 WRITE WHAT YOU LOVE
Most importantly, write what you enjoy writing. DO NOT write what you think people want to read, or what you think people want to publish, write what YOU like to read, and what YOU would publish. Chances are there is a publisher out there who likes what you like.
Lastly, remember that it is extremely obvious when a writer writes for someone or something else, rather than writing what they love. Don’t waste your time writing for others. Write your heart out.
I hear a lot from writing friends that self-publishing is the way to go. And I’ve got to admit, it looks promising. The idea that whatever you write, you have an avenue by which to get your work to readers, that the hindrance from publication is only yourself. At first look, I have to agree, that’s a great deal. Just write, do some extensive editing, if you have friends get them to edit too, learn a little about formatting, then just upload to your desired platform. Done.
Why even bother submitting work to large publishing houses or independent presses, where you have to wait for months on end not knowing whether your work has been read or not, whether the editors enjoyed it or not, whether they even got the email or mailed manuscript or not? And even if they accept it, which is not very likely, are they going to have extensive editorial notes or not that could, and often do, alter the integrity of the piece in question? And those are only a few of the complications that can arise.
I recently sent off a non-fiction piece to a lit journal. The piece in question had a unique format where I experimented with the shape of the piece and the idea of footnotes that work to distract the reader from the main narrative in order to explore the main theme of the piece. Yesterday I received a nice email which asked the following: I think it's very well written but just a suggestion before I give it to the editor to review: the body of the essay reads very well but the footnotes I feel takes away from the storyline. Could you revise it and resend with just the main story for review? Although the person who sent this email was very nice and appeared accommodating, this person wanted me to remove a majority of the writing in the piece. A change that would have transformed the entire meaning and purpose of writing in the first place.
That is just a small glimpse into the world of standard publishing. Often it is littered with short form rejections suggesting that the work you have devoted thousands and thousands of your precious hours to have not even been read. This is what drives many to self-publish. It eliminates the stress and defeat and overwhelming weight (wait) that accompanies submitting to publishers and literary journals.
So why do anything else but self-publish? Why waste time with publishers and editors and rejections and all the crying at night at your computer desk?
Because there is nothing more satisfying than having someone else tell you that your work is worth something. That email, or phone call, or whatever it may be, that tells you: “Hey, I liked what you did there with those words and stuff, it made me feel something, I want others to feel something to, let me show it to them.” That is beautiful.
As a writer and publisher, I see publishing as a communal activity. Publishing is a collaboration between artist and art lover that connects the rest of the world with the beauty that words can created. Granted publishing has lost its way in the last 100 years or so, the United States on a whole being controlled by the Big Five, and soon to be Amazon.com.
I’m not naïve to ignore that publishing in our age--publishing in the classic sense—is next to impossible. I know that beauty and power and brilliance are no longer causes for publication. I know that the book has become a commodity for the world at large, that readers are simply consumers devouring what is shoved down their throats. I know. But that doesn’t mean I need to be part of that world. Nor does it mean you need to be part of that world either.
If you are after money with your writing, by all means, self-publish—just make sure you are a killer marketer and publicist.
But as for me, and From Sac, we’re about beauty.