The Craft: Rules for Writing, Rule #5: Stick To What Works

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

Alright. We’ve got down the four basic writing rules you need to get started, rules that enable you to write every day. But there’s one last rule to keep in mind that ties everything together:

Stick to What Works.

Like “Get Black on White” this one seems pretty obvious, but applying it is a bit of a trick. One of the great things about the rule is that it’s so flexible and constantly open to experiment. Whenever I have a great writing day, I try to think about what I did right differently. Did I order a different coffee? Did I take the bus instead of walking? Did they play ragtime blues instead of pop hits over the speakers? I do the same thing on bad days. I ask myself what was different. On bad days, I often find I haven’t stuck to my schedule, I haven’t dedicated time to writing, or my personal life is getting too cluttered and spilling over into my writing time. But that’s a post for another time.

What works for each writer is different. Something that might really work for you might be a big mistake for one of your writer friends. Something that really, really works for your favorite writer might never click for you.

A great illustration of this point is writing standing up. I would blow my brains out if I had to write standing up. I know, I’ve tried. I stood at a desk, writing, for about five minutes and forced out a few words. Exasperated, I gave up, sat down and the words suddenly started to flow. But that wasn’t the case for Hemingway, who stood when he wrote.

A working habit he has had from the beginning, Hemingway stands when he writes. He stands in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu—the typewriter and the reading board chest-high opposite him.

Apparently, he wasn’t the only one. Nabokov, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Wolfe and Philip Roth all stood/stand when they write. And you know what? Good for them. They found something that worked, that let them be productive and incorporated it into their routine. Hemingway wrote hundreds of words a day that way.

He keeps track of his daily progress—“so as not to kid myself”—on a large chart made out of the side of a cardboard packing case and set up against the wall under the nose of a mounted gazelle head. The numbers on the chart showing the daily output of words differ from 450, 575, 462, 1250, back to 512, the higher figures on days Hemingway puts in extra work so he won’t feel guilty spending the following day fishing on the Gulf Stream.

This brings us to the great bar/café/office/home divide among writers. Some writers have to write at bars. Some writers have to write at cafes. Some writers have to go to an office even though their home would probably be just as good. And some writers have to write in a quite environment like their home.

Where do I write? In a café. Why? Because I’ve tried the other alternatives and they just don’t work  for me. Truth be told, I haven’t really tried a bar, but drinking and writing at the same time I have tried and it doesn’t work. Trust me. (Just try it and read the results for yourself). So, bars are out. At home, I find too many easy distractions (books, video games, Internet surfing, naps). For me, a quiet café where I hardly know anyone is perfect. I don’t get distracted and there’s honestly not much to do besides write. It’s my own caffeinated prison.

Where will you land on the great bar/café/office/home debate? I don’t know, but I do know there is only one way to find out. Grab your PC or pen and head out. Try the bar, the restaurant, the café, an office. Once you narrow it down, try to find that perfect café where the waiters leave you alone, the background chatter is just right and the coffee’s great too. Or that perfect bar with apathetic bartenders, cheap drinks and patrons that keep to themselves. Or that office downtown with just your name plate on the front, so that you can get the mental juices flowing during your daily commute. Whatever it is, go out and find it. And if the word counts start adding up after each writing day, you’ll found the right thing for you. Stick to it and you’ll do alright.

PS. Here’s a great piece on the routines of famous writers.

Now, we’ve finished my look at the top 5 writing rules. If I had five basic things to tell a new writer, that’s what they would be.  I will probably add more in the future, but future rules will probably be of a more technical and mechanical nature, so you might want to keep those first 5 handy. With those rules you should be able to put together stories, novellas and novels. Good luck.

In a continuing sub-series I’m recording blog visits from new countries. This week, the blog had its first visitors from:

– Argentina

– Lithuania

As always, welcome everybody!

There was also a spike in traffic from France this week, apparently over concerns about my treatment of Maupassant.

Here’s a video to end with. On the 4oth anniversary of his death, one of Gram Parson’s greatest songs.

‘Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels.’

Cowboy angel.

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