My 10 Rules for Writing Fiction, Part 1


Recently I read an article online about rules for writing fiction. It was a long article consisting exclusively of many different writers and their “ten rules,” and in some cases less. It started me thinking about my own rules for writing fiction. The following list is my list of rules. I will post a second list, a compilation of my ten favorite rules from the article (which you can read here) on another post.

  1. Write. I know this sounds obvious, but simply having a good story to tell is not going to get it told. At some point you are going to have to stop thinking about it and face your fears and write it.
  2. Have a game plan. Just like sports, if you do not have some sort of plan you will always lose. You need a goal to reach, both big and small. The big goal is your end result, the small goals are what keep you focused and get you there. Having small goals keeps you writing (see rule 1).
  3. Outline your story before writing. This probably could fit into the previous rule as part of the plan, but it’s big enough in its own right to merit its own rule. I like Philip Gerard’s suggestion of an outline:
  4. “1. Working title
    2. Signature
    3. List of major characters
    4. List of major locales
    5. Numbered chapters, each containing a one sentence description of the central event
    6. Your concept of the ending”[1]

  5. Create tension. When you start to get bored with what you are writing or get stuck, consciously creating tension in your scenes and between your characters breathes life back into you project. Furthermore, there is nothing more boring for a reader than a scene that has no tension or conflict.
  6. William Stafford often told his students to “write to your lowest expectations,” which is my fourth rule. It is amazing how freeing this advice is. The hardest part is getting that first draft finished; it becomes amazingly easier if you do not try making it Pulitzer quality. Remember, you can always fix things in the edit.
  7. Learn to be a good self-editor. Unless you plan on taking creative writing workshop classes your whole life, or are part of an effective writer’s group or something, you will most often be the first editor of your project. And depending on your own editing job, you may or may not sell your manuscript. You are the first, and probably the most important editor of your own writing, so you need to learn to be a good one if you want to sell your manuscript.
  8. Have some accountability in your writing project. Writing can be a very lonely business. Having someone keep you accountable will help keep you writing until the project is finished, and when you get discouraged and think it will never happen, your partner will be there to encourage you. If you are having trouble finding a good accountability partner, NaNoWriMo makes a good substitute, and it is fun too.
  9. Exercise. Remember, as a writer, you are spending large amounts of time sitting at a desk (unless you are a lazy writer). Exercise not only keeps you healthy, but it keeps your blood flowing smoothly and helps stimulate you brain, your creativity; and creativity is an inherent aspect of our trade. Plus, when you get stuck in your writing, sometimes the problem will nicely work itself out while you exercise (no pun intended).
  10. Be simple. If you are too complicated, your readers will get confused. A good example of simplicity is pointed out by Stephen King in his book On Writing He says only use “he said” and “she said” in your dialogue. He refers to Larry McMurtry’s mastery of this in the Lonesome Dove series, even in very tense and high action situations.
  11. And finally, have fun. Enjoy yourself. If you hate writing, why are you doing it? Telling stories was meant to be fun and enjoyable. Remember why you started doing this in the first place? There will be days when you will want nothing to do with writing, but these are only small bumps in the road—necessary bumps to keep us growing and to remind us why we are tackling such a crazy profession as writing.

(Disclaimer: I am still young in my writing career so these rules are subject to change as my career advances. Should it fail before it gets off the ground, take these rules with a grain of salt, I suppose.)

[1] Philip Gerard, Writing a Book That Makes a Difference. (Cinncinati, Oh: Story Press, 2000), 175.


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