I don’t like to believe in writer’s block (boy is that a wishy-washy statement), but if you do suffer it, this may be just the book for you. Subtitled “73 Authors Reveal Their Fiction Writing Fixations” this is not the kind of book that you read from cover to cover. It’s the kind of book you dip into here and there for the little nuggets of wisdom you can find on every page. Which means that this is probably not the best book to check out from the library, because you can’t fully absorb everything this book offers in two or four weeks. After reading two or three pages, your fingers are itching to get writing, no matter how blocked you’ve been feeling.

Listen, I’m not going to kid you and say that there’s some magical formula for writing. Anyone who writes for a living, or who would like to do it for a living, will tell you that there really is only one rule for writing: do it. Every day, at the same time, in (preferably) the same place. It has to be a routine, almost akin to a ritual. That’s the only way to get better, and the only way to get anything done. There’s no magic feather, no magic talisman, that will get it done for you. Writing is much more like a factory job than people realize. You clock in, you start putting words on paper (or the electronic equivalent, if that’s your preference), you take a bathroom break mid-morning, another mid-afternoon, and you take twenty or thirty minutes for lunch.

Or something like that. Maybe your schedule is more akin to an hour every morning, or ten pages a day, or 2,000 words a day, or twenty minutes whenever the kids go down for a nap. It doesn’t matter. When it comes to writing, 95% of success is just showing up for work every day. If you’re willing to show up and get busy, a book like this one will make that other 5% easier, or at least more enjoyable.

Now that I’ve covered the only real rule for writing, here is a short list of things that I’ve learned from this book:

  1. Write every day (6)
  2. Pay close attention to your work (11)
  3. Let stuff happen—and let there be consequences (12)[notice]”My students seemed to consider plot not as a series of events that happen in a story, but instead a series of obstacles that, ideally, should keep anything from developing. Their plots conspired openly, brazenly even, as if the authors were allied against their own characters.” Paul Maliszewski (15)[/notice]
  4. Eat broccoli (17)
  5. Keep it secret (19)
  6. Make sure your characters have a job and go to it: “To find out who a character is, start to pay close attention to what the character does”—Alyce Miller (29)
  7. Be genuine
  8. Don’t use exclamation points, go easy on the adverbs, don’t let your characters float on the page (have them doing something besides just talking), and have fun writing. This is from Jane Yolen. (37)
  9. Write in your sleep (46)
  10. Write about your obsessions (48)
  11. Make it more complex: “Create rules, follow them, but know when to ignore them”—Peter Tuchi (56)
  12. Characters need to earn readers’ interest and sympathy (57)
  13. Use all five senses (61)
  14. Avoid the word very—usually (63)
  15. Write when you feel lousy (67)
  16. Never use a long word when a short one will do. Never use a pretentious word when a plain one will do. (70)
  17. Write every day (73)
  18. Strive to be as patient as a monk while remaining as curious as a child (74)
  19. Be very careful in choosing the names of your characters (78)
  20. Write for your own pleasure (80)
  21. Write by ear, not by rules. Read widely and patiently. Avoid television. Don’t confuse obscurity with mystery. Don’t confuse violence with significance. Don’t show off by cloaking plain ideas in fancy words. “Writing is one side of a conversation; reading is the other”—Scott Russell Sanders (82)
  22. Never write about writing (92)
  23. Write short chapters whenever possible (98)
  24. Write what you want to read (102)[notice]”Remember to have a little faith. When you die, I believe, God isn’t going to ask you what you published. God’s going to ask you what you wrote.” T. M. McNalley (104)[/notice]
  25. “Doubt is a storm. We either ride it out, or we change our course”—T. M. McNally (105)
  26. East first (107)
  27. Regularity is much more important than duration (116)
  28. Everything you write should be read aloud (118)
  29. Write longhand (126)
  30. Obsessed first-person narrators are the best first-person narrators (134)
  31. Have faith (142)
  32. Just use “said” (148)
  33. Truth lies at both extremes, not in the middle (153)
  34. [notice]”Story above all else: Sacrifice image, theme, meaning, lyricism, intelligent essayistic tangents, all for the sake of a coherent, well-paced tale.” Joseph Skibell (162)[/notice]
  35. Go where your writing leads you, at home or abroad (164)
  36. Junk your junk words (169)
  37. Just shut up. Write it, don’t say it (172)
  38. Never be boring (179)
  39. Don’t start a story or chapter with a character’s name. Don’t use the first and last name the first time a character is names. Don’t start a story or chapter with disembodied dialogue. Avoid first-person point 0f view. (183)
  40. Avoid books that offer advice on being a better writer (189)
  41. Don’t tell it like it is (192)
  42. Pluck your characters’ eyebrows (195)
  43. Not all your characters have to be likeable (204)

That may seem like a lot, but I have just barely scratched the surface. I will reread some entries over and over again because they are that good, and others I am still scratching my head over. But trust me, if you ever need a little prod to put pen to paper, this is the book for you.

Again, this book is out of print, but you can still buy it here.

Work Cited

Martone, Michael, and Susan Neville, eds. Rules of Thumb: 73 Authors Reveal Their Fiction Writing Fixations. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2006.

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