Tuesday, February 07, 2006

my writing guidelines

For long things, make some attempt at a plot outline. You can write in nonlinear chunks, and organize them into presentation order, but this takes some coordination afterwards. You may not want the short reminder summary to appear before you've given the full details.

For short things, have some idea of what you want to say – the overall theme.

Never worry about length until you finish. It doesn't matter how long a story takes to get told: word count has no meaning. A person could write a sentence describing a woman walking from the bedroom to the front door. A person could also write three full paragraphs on the same.

Trim the fat, condense, concentrate your story for the richest and most intense flavor you can put into it. Again, never fear low word count: if concentrated, a story can always be diluted a bit in places. If already thin, adding more words for the sake of padding will make a story flavor-free and utterly worthless. I like most stories where you stop and take a break, feeling like you've been through a lot, and you look at the margin and realize you're on page 30 and still have 220 to go. Lots of novels start out intensely and fritter off into flabby halfway through – avoid this as much as possible. I like a novel to develop like a freight train: building up pieces that come together in the end with power, speed, and intensity.

Include only what has some relevance to your story. This can get pretty broad, honestly: there's atmosphere, describing the location, backstory that influences the character's behavior, background facts, all sorts of things that might be relevant. But each of these has weight, and many are lighter, less crucial, than others. Gauge what's important versus what you can cut without significant loss. Then cut.

If something is light, it's easily given at least superficial weight. Take the color of the flowers in the garden where your characters are sitting, note if they're yellow (for friendship), red (for love), purple (for repentance), or white (for purity). Take an airplane and compare it to a raven or a seagull or an eagle or a dinosaur, depending on what the airplane is carrying, what its portent is. Open windows when hot air becomes stifling. Close doors when someone is refused.

Write a good sentence. Chop, embellish, use your thesaurus, but write a good sentence every time, or at least try. Always write grammatically, and spell and punctuate correctly. It'll make for less editing later. (Unless, of course, misspelling or bad grammar is intentional.)

The past motivates characters in the present. The future is only an imagination, a hope, and these are also based on the character's past and present. Write a timeline of events if you must to keep your characters' lives straight. Think about what influenced them before your story opens.

All major characters must develop and change during the course of the story, unless they are made of lead. Characters should be consistent in their language and behavior. Draw up just enough hints to surprise the reader pleasantly. Never stun them into saying "What?! No way! X wouldn't do that!" Your bespectacled accountant should not suddenly be revealed as a black belt the sentence before he punches out an assassin.

All major characters in a realistic story must have both good and bad qualities. The bad qualities must not consist solely of insignificant flaws like occasionally forgetting to feed the cat.

Avoid stereotypes if possible, but break them only occasionally. If a realistic story is your goal, keep some alignment with reality. If you're writing about a large corporation, 95% have a white male CEO. You can have a woman of color as CEO, but don't make all your CEOs women of color unless you're writing about an alternative universe.

Think your reality through thoroughly. Be consistent.

Stay aware of what the reader knows from start to finish. A writer, having built the plot and cooked up their characters' every twist and turn, can sometimes forget that the reader doesn't know what he or she knows. Readers also forget facts, especially if there are lots, so sometimes an important detail bears repeating. The easiest way to pinpoint these gaps is to have someone else read your work. Ideally, you will have several readers: some to read it quickly, some who are willing to go through it carefully. In an ideal world both types will annotate. The less easy way is to walk away from your story for however long it takes to forget details, then come back and read it afresh.

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