Archive for the 'Writing' Category

What are Your 10 Rules for Writing?

Tin Pencil Writing Exercise

What do you consider the most important practices for an aspiring author? How about rules for writing? We all have our own writing quirks and pet peeves, but what are some personal standards that you apply to your writing? Let’s compile a list of the Tin Pencil’s favorite writing rules!

Example* (by Neil Gaiman, author of Stardust and Coraline):

1 Write.

2 Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.

3 Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.

4 Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.

5 Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

6 Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.

7 Laugh at your own jokes.

8 The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

*Find more examples from revered writers here.

Please bring your writing rules (doesn’t have to be ten, however many you have, really) to the next Tin Pencil meeting on March 23rd.

Write On!


Your First Page Better Be Good…

If you are serious about getting your work published, you already know the importance of your first sentence, your first paragraph, and your first page. When all you get to send to a prospective literary agent is a query letter and page 1, that first page better be pretty good. Unlike at writers club, you won’t be around to insist, “keep reading, it gets better.”

And rightfully so. We, as readers, quickly judge books we consider purchasing, not by reading page 127 (and certainly not by reading up to page 127), but by reading the opening scene. If it doesn’t grab us, if it doesn’t give us a reason to keep reading (or worse, the writing screams “stop right there, if you know what’s good for you!) we put the book back down. Knowing the stories about the many rejection letters that now-published authors received before getting their big break, I think it’s safe to assume that literary agents and publishers are more critical than the average reader, not more forgiving/curious/patient. As one blogger puts it, “they’re looking for reasons to reject, not reasons to accept.”

If you’re interested in knowing what these reasons are, check out This is Why I Would Read Beyond the Page 1 and This is Why I Would Not Read Farther by author and blogger Anne Mini. There are 76 reasons the interviewed agents listed for rejecting based on a first page, and only 8 for reading further. It’s definitely worth checking out. Both lists are located pretty far down the page, past all the bold type. Don’t lose hope, just keep scrolling.

So to arm ourselves for the fight to get our work noticed by prospective agents and publishers, a writing exercise was distributed at the Tin Pencil meeting last night. If you weren’t able to make it to the meeting, you’ll find it below.

  1. Pick up a few of your favorite books and a couple not so favorites and read the very first sentence. Does it grab you? Why or why not? How can you incorporate what you liked into your own opening scenes?
  2. Write five first sentences.
  3. Choose one of your newly crafted sentences as a prompt and finish the whole first paragraph, page, or chapter. Was that first sentence the best way to start the scene? Can you improve it?

Those who complete this exercise will be given time at the beginning of the next meeting (February 10th) to read their resulting first sentences and opening scene, or feel free to post them in a comment. Write on!

Reasons for Rejection

Here are two interesting blogs, one by literary agent Janet Reid and one by Del Rey editorial director Betsy Mitchell, on how many manuscripts that passed their initial tests ultimately were rejected and why. It’s a bit scary, but enlightening all the same.

Thoughts On Slang

As I was reading a Yahoo! article on banned words, I got to thinking about the use of slang in fiction. As an aspiring fantasy author, my current story being set in a pre-technology society, I sometimes catch myself throwing in modern phrases and metaphors that have no place in the setting that I’ve tried to create. There are times when my two main characters need to use swear words — I mean, they’re teenage boys after all — but which ones would be appropriate without breaking the fantasy? Should I make up my own? I spent months agonizing over whether the characters could call their dad “Dad” or if they needed to call him “Father.” After the first draft, I strategically removed all but one use of the word stupid  and replaced it with foolish, thinking that sounded more timeless.

But even in fiction that is set in modern times in our own world, the use of modern slang and technology will date your story. I got a real kick out of reading “Eternal” by Cynthia Leitich Smith, in which guardian angels send memos to each other, a character starts a website to help track down a friend who’s disappeared, and frequent reference is made to various literary fandoms. Those details are a sign of the times; you won’t catch Nancy Drew using Google to find the secret of the old clock. Twenty plus years from now, will those now modern details still work? Does it matter? Should some slang be omitted simply because it’s not literary? There is already concern over literacy levels dropping due to poor spelling and grammar in emails and text messages… What does it say about a society that allows “brb” and “c u l8r” to infiltrate their literature? Your thoughts?

By the way, Happy New Year!

Beware the Everyman

It frustrates me when I sit down to watch a new movie and am faced with yet another cleft chinned hero with an arsenal full of one-liners and a leading lady whose greatest feature appears to be her tiny waist and large bust size. These cookie cutter characters that flit from one movie to the next, even though the names in the credits change, with nothing to distinguish them from well built robots. I can tolerate it, though. In movies. Not in books.

I’m not talking about the “sex sells” concept, though that could be another post. I’m talking about the Everyman Syndrome. In the movies, more often than not, the characters are placeholders. Hero= guy with guns and self-righteous attitude. Villain= guy with guns and malevolent intentions. Love interest= non-intimidating super-model with unexplainable attraction to Hero who gets herself into situations where she needs saving. Whatever. With few exceptions (the exceptions generally being adapted from books), they don’t grow as characters, they don’t overcome internal obstacles. They’re the Everyman. The Everyhero, the Everyvillain, and Everyhenchmen by the dozens.

But, in books, I need more. If I read one more character being described as “average” or “normal” I’m going to scream. What is average? Pluck ten people from the populace at random, are any of them going to look the same? Will they have the same interests, the same mannerisms, the same anything except, possibly, the same number of fingers and toes? Describing someone as normal or average is the same or worse than not describing them at all. We all have details that make us interesting and if you’re not going to draw those out of your characters you’ll have a story populated by stick figures.

Breaking the Rules

I said a few things at the meeting last night that I realize might come back to bite me. When I said that “rules” don’t make good feedback, I meant something very specific. I don’t refer to grammar rules, spelling, etc. We all still have to start our sentences with capital letters, there’s no excuse for not knowing the difference between it’s and its (or there, their, and they’re), and we shouldn’t all throw out our dictionaries just yet, no matter how sloppy we are when we text message.

What I was referring to was the subjective “rules” on writing novels that usually begin with  “never” or “always.” Here are a few of my favorites:

1. Never use a substitution for the word “said.”

While it is wearing to read dialogue like the following…

“Hello, handsome,” Chloe cooed.

“Hello, yourself,” Jack sneered.

“What’s the matter?” Chloe questioned.

“You missed writers club last night!” Jack ejaculated.

… there is really no substitution for a good “shouted,” “whispered,” or “sobbed” when used sparingly. As with anything, if you overuse it it loses its potency (like swear words) and you’re not letting your dialogue speak for itself, but a few well-placed descriptive substitutions for “said” can be highly effective. You don’t want to waste time writing “Jack said in a hushed voice” when you could write “Jack whispered.”

2. Never start an opening scene with dialogue.

The purpose of this “rule” is to keep us from starting a novel with a big chunk of dialogue that leaves the reader scratching her head, wondering who is talking, who is listening, where it’s taking place, and, most importantly, why she should care. If these questions are immediately answered after a short, intriguing bit of spoken word, then it’s a non-issue and the “rule” doesn’t apply.

3. Always show, don’t tell.

Like 1. above, this is a good piece of advice in general. There are other schools of thought that recommend that you not explain in dialogue what could more easily be summarized.   Back story is no more interesting in a clichéd flashback than being explained by a trustworthy narrator at the right moment. Trust your readers to understand what you show them (don’t tell them too), but there are times when showing only detracts from the story and telling is much more effective.

Finally, the real reason I don’t believe these “rules” make for helpful feedback is because they are cookie cutter. They’re not tailored to the writer’s story. As writers, we all want to know whether what we’re doing is working or not. When we receive generic feedback, all we’re being told is that we’re not coloring within someone else’s arbitrary lines.


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