My Seven Rules for Creative Writing

Hello Dear Reader, I know it’s been a while. Have you missed me? It’s awful sweet if you did, but at the same time I don’t blame you if you didn’t. You may have been wondering where I’ve been? The most honest answer I can give is that I have had a powerful case of writer’s block. Verbal constipation if you will. I’ve also been reflecting on what this blog should be about. At the beginning I said I would write about reading, writing (both my own and the “craft”), along with the odd article about history or pop-culture in general. Somehow it slid into the whirling shit-hurricane that is modern American politics, and my voice joined the chorus of thousands of others all writing about the same events, and the same topics. As strange as it is for a journalism major to say this, I wanted to take a break from writing about every hot, topical issue and get back to writing something fun for a change. There are some more “fun” pieces in the works that I need to edit, but they are coming. For now, I just wanted to write about something that I would enjoy writing. I hope you enjoy it, but at the same time I could not care less.

Now, for the article.

I have been considering writing an article about…writing, for quite some time. In all fairness it’s a huge topic that I probably have no business talking about, but to hell with it. I’m sure there will be future posts that cover more ground. For right now, here are my seven rules that I (try to) use to govern my attitude when it comes to writing. They aren’t sacred laws, and I probably break them myself more often than I care to admit. This also isn’t a definitive list. I might do a post in the future that adds more rules, or maybe I’ll take some away. At any rate, here’s what I’ve got so far.

Rule #1: Always write for yourself first, and everyone else second.

I know, I know, this sounds like the kind of thing that’s printed on a motivational poster and hung in some English teacher’s classroom. It’s true. Go into any project, no matter if it’s a poem, a short story, a novel, or an epic series with the intention of writing it for your own enjoyment. You are writing because you have this burning idea that needs to come out of your head. You are writing because you need to sort out your thoughts and try to make sense of them in an organized way. You are writing because it is your idea of fun. If you are not having fun with writing, even if you don’t particularly enjoy every part of the process, then you need to ask yourself why you’re writing. If you approach everything as if you’re writing for yourself then it takes off some of the pressure. Don’t worry about what your family will think, don’t worry about what your friends will think. Don’t worry about what an agent, or an editor, or a critic might think. If there’s any rule in this list worth following, it’s this one.

Rule #2: If you want to write for an audience, then write for real people.

Who are real people? The real people are the ones reading and maybe buying your work. Some of them might be English majors, some of them might be critics, but I’m willing to bet most of them are just regular human beings looking to enjoy a story. If you want to write for an audience, write for the common people that will tell you they enjoyed your writing without wading through pages of philosophical ramblings. Look at Fifty Shades of Grey, look at The Martian, look at the mass market paperbacks. That doesn’t mean these are literary masterpieces that will survive the test of time, but they are stories people enjoy reading. For a more reliable example, look to the Classics. Shakespeare wrote for real people, same with Dickens. Hemingway’s writing might be deep, but a middle school student could read his novels and enjoy them for the value of the story. Steinbeck wrote for the working man. O’Connor wrote for the Southern every man (or woman). Don’t worry about appeasing the literary critics, or the professors that might be looking for a novel for the fall semester. This is not to say you should write something just for the sake of popular appeal, but always keep regular Joe and Jane in mind. Let’s be honest, most of the book recommendations you get are not from a literary magazine, they’re from your friends and family. People read to be entertained, to be moved, to think about their lives and the lives of others. That doesn’t mean you have to write without substance, just don’t get hung up on whether some literary critic will call it “provocative” or “insightful” in his/her review for some pompous magazine. As a quick addition to that, even if you try to write with a specific meaning in mind not everyone is going to bother with “getting” your meaning, or agree with what you tried to convey. There will be people that will want your story to mean…whatever, and they will perform the mental gymnastics necessary to make your story mean exactly what they want it to mean.

Rule #3: Embrace the suck of rejections.

You will get rejected. A lot. There is nothing you can do about it other than to keep writing, improve your writing, and look for different avenues of publication. If you’re submitting to a magazine, or a press that accepts unsolicited work, you need to realize this: editors are humans too. They are capable of, and are indeed allowed to have bad days. Everything that comes across their desk on that bad day might look like shit and deserve to be burned in a trash can. It is nothing personal. It’s not exactly professional, but you have to understand that they’re not robots. They are also allowed to have different tastes when it comes to writing. If your piece doesn’t “click” with them, or if they don’t think it fits with the publication then so be it. If you’re hellbent on getting published by that outfit then do your research. See which stories got published. Maybe it’s really not the place for you? It’s like chasing after an attractive person despite the two of you having nothing in common. At that point you’re in it for the aesthetics. Same goes for getting published. If the only reason you’re trying to get published by some award-winning magazine or press is because they’re award-winning, then rethink your options; there’s tons of them out there.

Rule #4: The meek shall publish your works.

If you think you’re too good to be published by some no name, microscopically small press or magazine then I have news for you: you’re not. Unless you have big name writing credits under your belt, and you can afford to be that arrogant, then news flash kid, you are not hot shit and you are not “too good.” Full disclosure: I have not been published yet (at least in the traditional, formal sense), and if some little magazine chose to publish one of my short stories, or a small press chose to pick up my novel I would be ecstatic. You know why? Because it’s a foot in the door. Congrats! You got published, so when you go to the next place you can say, “I had [story name] published in [magazine].” It might not seem like much, but it’s going to prove to the next editor that someone read your work and decided it was worth the paper and ink to publish it. The same goes for agents. If some obscure literary agent picks up your manuscript and decides to sell it for you, then be happy and be gracious. You probably won’t get a six figure advance on your first novel, and that’s not the point. Like with any other business you don’t walk into a company on the first day and expect to make $100k right off the bat, so apply that same mindset to getting published.

Rule #5: Don’t write for the wrong reasons.

And what might those be? I could tell you not to write for money, but let’s be honest, if you’re putting in the time and effort it’s not evil to want a little payment for your work. It shouldn’t be your sole reason for writing, but you aren’t some degenerate word-prostitute just because you want some restitution for your labor. What I mean is don’t write for glory. Don’t write so that you can have some snobs give your novel awards while they congratulate themselves about how smart they are for understanding your novel. Don’t write for some postmortem acclaim you will never get to experience. Given enough time everyone will forget who you were and what you wrote. If you’re wasting your time trying to be the next Will Shakespeare then stop trying. There’s an incredibly slim chance that that will happen, and it’s no reason for you to lose sleep over it. Circling back to Rule #1, write for yourself first and foremost. If you’re lucky, other people will enjoy it, if you’re really lucky then it might make you money, and if you’re unrealistically lucky then you will be remembered for a little while as being, “That guy or girl that wrote those stories.” To be honest with you, there’s nothing glamorous about living long enough to see your persona become a legend of its own. You become what your audience wants to see, you become the alter ego you created, a shadow of your true self. You become a cartoon character with certain expectations that are totally divorced from your writing. If you truly care about your writing, then write for your sake and for your writing’s sake.

Rule #6: “Don’t try.” – Chuck Bukowski

Don’t force yourself to write something that you wouldn’t enjoy reading. Don’t try so hard to be original, and at the same time don’t try to emulate your favorite writers. Your writing is going to be original if you don’t force it, and if anyone says, “Your writing sounds like a cheap copy of (insert name),” don’t worry about it. Everything is a copy, of a copy, of a copy. As long as the story is good, and the people that mattered enjoyed it, then don’t pay attention to the people that say, “It wasn’t original enough.” Some people can’t be pleased, and some people would read wadded up grocery lists if they thought it would make them look “sophisticated” or “artistic” or “unique.” In reality, they look like pretentious douche bags that get off on trying to be individuals. As far as influences go they will show in your writing. If you force it, it will be too obvious, but if you incorporate parts of their style into your own it’ll be seen as being inspired by so-and-so rather than a copy of their work. Also, if you hit a point in a story, or run into a line in a poem, and you have no idea what to write next then don’t put words on the page just for the sake of it. You’ll wind up scrapping it anyway. It might sound good at the time, but in the light of day it won’t sound as good as it did when you first wrote it. In fact, you’ll probably hate it, and it’s because you tried too hard. If you don’t try, you’d be surprised at what you can accomplish.

Rule #7: Write a story worth reading.

The final rule seems pretty obvious. Why would you write a story that isn’t worth telling? What is a story that is worth telling? Write the kind of story that you would want to be told to you. Take a moment to reflect on that, would you want to hear about someone’s awkward years in high school even though “there’s totally a point about life in it, man.” Would you want to hear about a world that someone created just so they could write out their fantasies in it? Maybe you would! Maybe that’s a story you would read. Or consider it another way, is the story you wrote one that you would tell yourself? Do you really care enough about the story that you would spend an hour, or a day, or a week, or a month reading it? Just think about it and be honest with yourself. If it’s a story worth reading then it’s a story worth writing.

Let me know what you thought in the comments. If you have any suggestions you know where to leave them. Otherwise, feel free to follow me on Twitter (@ahahnjones), find me on Facebook, or follow me on Snapchat (ahahnjones) and comment via those platforms. Feedback is always welcome, even criticism.

Thanks for reading, hope you stick around for the next post.

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