A few months back, Max Kirin posted 7 Cardinal Rules in Writing Life on their blog, and lots of people have reblogged, so it keeps popping up again and again on my screen. I do not disagree with Max’s cardinal rules, though if I were to make a list of my seven I suspect mine would be very different. And if you check out the blog post, you will note that Max says they aren’t really rules, but rather advice.
I can’t help but notice that a lot of the people re-blogging Max’s 7 Cardinal Rules… only blog the image of those seven, brightly-colors nuggets of wisdom, without the accompanying text explaining that it is just advice. Nor do they include the links pointing to more detailed blog posts on related topics. Which is fine, of course. We all quote our favorite bits of things to make points from time to time.
Lists of rules or suggestions are fun. I’ve given my presentation about “Fatal Fiction Flaws (and what to do instead)” many times. But I’ve also often run into people who are seeking that one magic rule that will transform them into a writer. Not on aspiring writer, but a real writer. Contrast that with all the fuss that was kicked up by a former writing teacher talking about writers who are the “real deal” as opposed to the whiny losers he kept getting in his class, and it leaves me feeling that a lot of people simultaneously oversimplifying and overcomplicating this entire notion of being a writer.
We oversimplify when we look for a pithy and wise saying that is going to galvanize us, nay, transform us from the person who is not writing as we’d like to, into the person who is. There is no pearl of wisdom, no brilliant adage, no encouraging proverb, no scolding pronouncement, and no secret incantation that will make you a writer.
Only you can make yourself a writer. No one else can. We can advise. We can encourage. We can commiserate. But only you can write your story. No one else can.
We overcomplicate when we focus complain that we don’t have the time, or we don’t know what to write about, or our ideas never seem good enough, or our mind goes blank when we sit at the computer, or we need to do more research, or we aren’t inspired, or other things keep getting in the way.
The only reason you aren’t writing is because you are not writing.
‘You put one word after another until you are done’
Neil Gaiman is fond of saying that the only secret of writing is to just keep putting one word after the other. It is both simple and extremely hard. Except it is hard only on some days. Somedays it’s a struggle. But on those days, boil it down to that description: one word after rhe other. Stop worrying about the rest of the scene, or any plot holes of dialog tangles you fear are coming up. What is the next word? Take a guess. Write it down. Do not second guess it. Do not delete it. It’s down. Leave revising for another day.
Now, ask yourself what the next word is. Keep doing that. Some days that means you may spent hours struggling and have less than a hundred words to show for it. It doesn’t matter. Keep finding the next word.
If you make yourself do that every day, eventually, you’ll have a book.
And before you get to that point, there will be days when it isn’t a struggle. But you have to keep putting one word after the other even on those days when you don’t want to. And when those good days come along, there is no better feeling than that point when the words come easily.
“Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters.”
And the most amazing part is, if you keep pushing yourself to find that next word until you reach the end, whether it be a year later or five years later, and you read back over the finished work? You’ll find you can’t remember exactly which parts were a complete struggle, and which parts flowed as if all the muses were pouring the elixir of pure creativity into you.
Don’t let my colorful imagery fool you, though. The only magic was you putting one word after the other. Just you.