Following the Rules

Ever since she turned 5 years old, my daughter has been kvetching about the rules. Daddy, why do I have to follow the rules? Daddy, when do I get to not follow the rules? Daddy, rules are dumb and don’t let me have any fun. Daddy, I hate rules! I hate them!

She’s absolutely correct. Rules are a bummer.

Alas, rules are usually rules for a reason. Especially household and personal rules. Look around at the successful people in the world, and you will almost always find that they abide by a significant set of personal rules, business rules, ethical and moral rules, etc. Then look at the losers and the jerks and the going-nowhere people. Notice what’s missing? Yup. Rules. Boundaries. Discipline.

I’ve been working towards professional publication for a number of years. For the bulk of that time, I’ve suffered from a lack of rules. I’ve not required myself to put in the regular hours. I’ve not required myself to do the necessary homework. And I’ve also not required myself to make sacrifices, in terms of time: how it’s spent, and on what.

How about you? How have you been doing, and what kinds of rules — if any — have you made for yourself?

Today as I was driving into work I realized that over the last two years especially, I’ve been gradually building a set of unconscious rules. I thought it would be a good self-exercise to put them here, as a reminder, and also as a way to make myself accountable.

So, here we go. Brad’s Five Personal Writing Rules.

Rule #1: Limit idle internet use
This is my top rule because this is the one I consciously and unconsciously violate most often. Therefore it’s the one I’ve really been paying a lot of attention to lately, because if I go back and think about all the hours I’ve wasted since 1996 playing around on the internet, it makes me ill. Those are hours I should have spent writing. I could have written a dozen or more novels in the time I’ve spent fooling around on-line. And don’t even get me started about political blogs and web sites. I’ve wasted more time on political arguments with faceless InterToob denizens than I care to admit. And it’s never changed anyone’s mind. And in fact it’s just pissed a lot of people off — myself included — so what’s the point? My conclusion is that there is no point to this kind of internet activity. And I have reached a place in my life and in my soul where I don’t have a lot of room for pointless activity. I’m 35. The average male lifespan in the U.S. is just above 70. I’m technically middle-aged. There is not enough time in my life left for pointlessness.

Rule #2: Make the time for the work
This is my second rule, and is equivalent to Rule #1 in importance. It’s also the one I violate almost as often as I violate Rule #1 — because I am my own best excuse-maker. Oh, I didn’t have the time. Oh, I was too busy at work. I’m too tired. I have all these house chores to do. I have to go to the gym. I have to spend time with my daughter and family. I have to, I have to, I have to… There is a thing in many time management classes where they warn you against “busy projects” that keep you occupied and make you feel like you’re actually doing something, when the reality is that the “busy projects” are just distractions so that you don’t have to focus on the stuff you know you really should be focusing on. I do this all the damn time. Combined with idle net surfing, this is where all my minutes go. And I’ve reached a point where I know I have to force these kinds of things to the side for at least a portion of my day, so that I can devote the necessary minutes to the writing. The words won’t put themselves on the page. I have to put them there. And I can’t put them there if I keep giving myself excuses to go and do something else, when I should have my ass in the chair and my fingers on the keys.

Rule #3: Set and keep goals
This one is so elementary I am embarrassed to have to mention it. But it’s crucial. I can’t function unless I have solid, incremental flags waiting for me along my route. At the end of the week, at the end of the month, at the end of the year. I will have produced x-amount of work and mailed it. I used to try and do daily word goals, and discovered that my ever-changing schedule simply doesn’t allow me to set hard daily word goals. But I have had a good degree of success setting and keeping both weekly and monthly goals. Right now I have some very ambitious goals for the rest of the year. I can’t make those unless I make the smaller, short-horizon goals first. In order to walk a mile, you have to go the first ten yards. Etc. The key for me has been to set realistic goals that are challenging without being utterly out of reach. I’ve also learned to revise goals as life has gotten in the way — and sometimes you just can’t help that. So I pick myself up, try not to fret missed goals, revise future short-horizon goals to try and still make the long-horizon goals, and move forward.

Rule #4: Seek knowledge from the current professionals
This is a fairly recent rule, but it’s a very important one. When I started out I used to read and buy all the writing books and look at all the writing articles from any old Tom, Dick, or Harry. I’ve slowly realized over the years that it’s somewhat contradictory to take advice from a book on writing that is written by someone whose only publication credit is having written a book on writing. So I got rid of all such books, canceled my magazine subscriptions, and devoted both time and money to attending conventions and workshops where I can get information and ask questions of currently working professionals. Best-sellers. Names. The kind of people I want to be someday. I can tell yah, some of the information they put out flies in the face of everything that the other, non-Name people have been saying for years. Why trust it? Because it’s coming from people who are currently working professionally.

Rule #5: Work within the Heinlein 5 as much as possible.
I’ve detailed Heinlein’s Five Rules on my TA-50 web page. I’ve heard them emphasized so often from currently working professionals that I have to believe them. Also, with some of the knowledge I’ve most recently gotten, they force you to keep moving forward. Too many times I think I’ve sat down and dwelt on a single piece of writing for too long, thinking I can “perfect” the thing, when in fact I am a) probably the worst person to be judging my own work, and b) doing that kind of nit-picky re-writing never feels like it teaches me the same way writing a whole new piece teaches me. I know lots of professional writers who have written many books that never sold, but who went on to eventually sell new books; and sell well! I can’t say I’ve ever met a pro writer who sat down and re-wrote the same book many, many times, until it was just right, then sent it out and made a career from it. The evidence seems to indicate that you can’t get better if you aren’t doing new stuff, and you can’t do new stuff unless the old stuff is in the mail so that you can forget about it and move on.

Those are my rules. The Big Five, if you will. Oh, there are other, smaller rules. I don’t think I’ll list them, because they’re really just sub-rules of the Big Five. I’ll probably put a link on my main web list page — which is my own personal home page when I first open my browser — to this post. Just so that I can remind myself every time I open the browser and even feel like I might be breaking one or more of them.


7 thoughts on “Following the Rules

  1. “I can’t say I’ve ever met a pro writer who sat down and re-wrote the same book many, many times, until it was just right, then sent it out and made a career from it.”- well, there’s Patrick Rothfuss! His “The Name of the Wind” was written and rewritten for 15 years, to hear him tell it – and it’s one of the best fantasy books I’ve ever read. And Hemingway did plenty of rewriting. 🙂

    I’m inclined to agree that most of the time excessive rewriting doesn’t teach you as much as writing something new – but at the same time you’ve got to “finish” what you’re working on. As in, get it in a good enough shape to submit before you move on. And I’m often not satisfied on that count until half a dozen drafts in, alas. Embarrassing to send out a weaker story than I’m capable of.

    “Just moving on” to the next story has to date left me with more than a dozen complete-but-not-ready-to-send-out stories in my drawer. Recently I’ve been making an effort to go back and make them submittable. I wonder if I should have done that right away, instead of waiting until now. . .then again, maybe not. I’ve learned a lot since writing those stories. A tough question!

    Great rules, though. I wish I was strong enough to abide by them, #1 especially. . .

  2. Great rules, Brad. Your rule #1 is the same as mine, because trolling the web can burn more useless time than anything I know. My limit is 30 minutes a day. What”s yours?

  3. Laurie: I try to stick to a 30-minute limit per day, but am seldom successful. The internet — especially blogs and message boards — are like crystal meth for me. Lately I’ve been pruning all of those links out of my favorites and such, in attempt to make it harder for me to blog surf because I have to go and manually type in the URL, which is such a pain. (wink) One thing I have been successful doing is avoiding the political sites. For awhile, circa 2002-2007, political sites were like extra-potent crystal meth. I’ve basically banned myself from reading any of the political sites, and am steering clear of most political discussion. Another thing I always catch myself doing is reading sites and blogs about writing, when I should be writing.

    Tom: I suppose this is one of those areas where every writer eventually has to figure out their own process. I know for me I have rewrititis, in that I can sit and fiddle with a piece a dozen times and STILL not think it’s complete. Ultimately I have to conclude that I am a poor judge of when a piece is “done”, and get off the rewrite treadmill. When I was at KKR and DWS two weekends ago, they emphasized redraft as opposed to rewrite. First time I’d heard that from any pros. They said many pros actually fib quite a bit about how much they actually rewrite. What I ultimately took away from it was that a) many aspirants are poor judges of their own material, such that b) the rewriting they do tends to erode voice and eliminate whatever unique spark existed in the story prior to the extensive rewrites. Again, this is mostly for me. Other writers will figure out a different way, no doubt.

  4. Could you share any more detail on how they defined redrafting vs rewriting? I definitely don’t do the “start with a blank page and rewrite from scratch” approach, but my stories do sometimes change significantly in revision.

    And true, you can write the life out of a story. A balance is needed, as with all things, I guess. . .

  5. They way KKR and DWS explained it, was that if your first reader(s) spot significant or noteworthy problems with the story — and you agree with those opinions — the best course is to mine the original manuscript for the core character(s), concept(s), or idea(s) that make the story matter, then go and write an entirely new story around these core item(s), paying attention to what you think went wrong the first time so you don’t get it wrong the next time.

    KKR and DWS are adamantly opposed to “fixing” stories via rewrite. They believe stories cannot be “fixed” in this regard. They believe that aspirants get too attached to the words, once they’re committed to paper, and are holding themselves back by trying to endlessly salvage those words via rewrite when they ought to begin again from the start, and do new text.

    Now, what do I believe personally? At this point, because I am getting a lot of near misses — like the WOTF Finalist that didn’t win — I’m trying to step outside my comfort zone and see if maybe KKR and DWS are correct. I feel like I need to move to a new level, or at least a new process. Because I am absolutely the kind of aspirant who, once the words are on the page, is loathe to abandon them. I am a habitual “fixer” and I have a hard time getting out of “fix” mode, especially when I have people telling me they see different problems with my stories. I will fix and fix and fix and fix… And get the same old rejections. And I suspect KKR and DWS are correct: all I have done in the “fixing” is dumb down or lose the voice that was present when the story was first written. I have genericized the story.

  6. We were just having a discussion of this over at Liberty Hall, so I posted a link to this post. Very interesting topic. I can definitely sympathize with points on both sides.

    I do know that I did some significant recutting on my WOTF story before sending it out – I essentially added a whole parallel narrative that winds through the story – and it’s my sole major sale to date. Who knows if it would have sold otherwise? Hard to tell with these things, but I don’t think my first or second draft was publishable. I have also read the first and last drafts of another WOTF winner’s story – the improvement was jaw-dropping, and there were 7 drafts in between spread over several months.

    But I think when the problem is clear cut enough – such as ‘the beginning is slow’, ‘this character doesn’t do anything’ or ‘the ending is deus ex machina’, there’s value a “fix” rewrite can add. When it’s pervasive – no character arc, no conflict, etc – then I’d agree that a complete rewrite/redraft (“eyes off the original”) may be better.

    I sympathize with the point of view that too much rewriting slows you down and you turn out very little material – but what use is turning out dozens of stories that never sell? I feel like I learn a lot even when I rewrite a story to death, less when I write a new story and make the same old mistakes. It’s my hope that what I’m learning will reduce my need to rewrite in the future, since I do tend to plot out my stories vs. going by the seat of my pants.

    In the end, it may depend on the particular writer’s learning style.

  7. All good rules.

    I have many of the same rules. Another good one is to be careful about the types of writers you hang around.

    If all the writers you hang around are talking about how they will write–someday–then most likely you are going to be one too.

    Each writer has to devise their own schedule be it daily, weekly, or monthly. But if you never write–then you are not a writer.

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