I was momentarily unsure what to say (a rare occurrence, as those who know me --- especially my students --- will attest). I’ve seen many such lists, some better than others. But to deflect her, I suggested she look up several by famous authors.
She wouldn’t be distracted. “Okay,” she nodded amiably. “But I was asking for your list. Don’t you have one?”
Well, I do. Having taught English for 30 years, yeah, I have a thought or six on the issue. But the question made me a tad uncomfortable, because first, having one seems a little presumptuous, and second, I’m not sure how useful such lists really are. You see, I believe the ability to write well is like the ability to teach well: it’s a gift, and you either have it or you don’t. You can either spin a tale convincingly and spellbindingly, or you can’t. (You can also either naturally command the attention and respect of a group of hormonal adolescents, or you can’t.) Now, you can work and improve at both; I also believe that. However, fundamentally --- and this applies to many things besides teaching and writing --- as I said, you either have a gift, or you don’t. If not, you can be competent. But you will never be brilliant.
However, my friend was persistent, so I marshaled my thoughts and trotted them out. This is probably not the last time I’ll discuss the subject, because I’m sure my thoughts on it will change (the gentle term is ‘mature’) as time goes by. But here’s the current draft:
Write the best damn story you can. The first and greatest commandment. Everything else, really, is lumped into it. It’s there partly because I get irritated with authors who include nitpicky stuff in their writing rules, like admonitions never to use adverbs to modify ‘said.’ The problem is, even famous authors break such rules --- their own rules --- all the time. (Never say never, guys.) So let’s look at more relevant criteria, shall we, such as... does the story flow like fine wine? Is it drinkable like same? (I once chastised a colleague trying to dictate teaching methodology. I said I ask three questions of my teaching practices: are kids learning? Are they engaged? Are they enjoying the experience? If I can answer yes to all three, don’t tell me how to do this. The same, I think, can be said about writing, at least with the latter two questions --- and maybe the first, come to that.)
Don’t worry about originality; just tell the truth. C.S. Lewis said it best: “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” After several thousand years of recorded human history, I’m willing to bet most story situations have already been covered... at least several thousand times. But tell the story truthfully and genuinely, and people will still respond enthusiastically.
Don’t be boring. (‘Well, duh,’ you say.) Yes, I know it seems obvious, but make that narrative sing, keep it rollicking along, especially in an era of spectacular attention deficits; otherwise, people won’t be engaged, and that’s it, the kiss of death.
Give us texture. You can --- and, I think, should --- include material that doesn’t directly advance the plot, as long as it’s absorbing. Don’t overdo it. But give us detail and texture. (Stephen King calls it ‘chrome.’)
Make sure there’s logical consistency within the story. Want to write about fictional, fantastic creatures and worlds? Fine. (After all, I did!) But make sure everything makes sense within the framework of that world, and don’t alter details just to force-fit the narrative. In other words, don’t change immutable facts for the sake of convenience. That’s cheating, folks. It’s a sin, and readers will see it for such.
Avoid deus ex machina. Also cheating. Miracles do happen... but not all the time, to the same character. Now, protagonists tend to be protagonists because they survive rather than get killed off, which implies they do get ‘lucky’ breaks, but even so... don’t abuse it. When your hero gets into a hopeless situation, think long and hard before you have choirs of angels suddenly descend and rescue him/her from the monstrous Jabberwock. At least on a regular basis.
Dialogue has to be believable. If it isn’t, you’ll kill any sense of realism. It’s strange how many people seem to find it difficult to write realistic dialogue, but when two or more persons hold a conversation, it shouldn’t read like a game of 20 Questions. Dialogue must sound spontaneous and unforced, because in normal conversation, it is. Someone says something, someone else responds, and so on. Most of us don’t sit and contemplate our responses for 30 seconds, or appear we’re reading a prepared text.
Listen to your characters’ voices. If the story is genuine, they’re there. I’m not literally referring to vocalization, but different characters will have different takes on any situation, because we all do. Each of us regards a given scenario through the lens of our cumulative experiences, good and bad, and the “baggage” each of us carries colours our outlooks, responses, and actions to every situation. Pay attention to those voices, and be faithful to them.
Throw rocks at your protagonist My editor gave this excellent advice. Bad things should overwhelm your protagonist from time to time, really bad things, potentially lethal things, so readers can identify with him/her and legitimately fear it really might be curtains. Yes, we know your protagonist leads a charmed life, but you don’t have to rub our noses in it.
Mechanics! I’ve left this to the last, but it’s vitally important. Proper punctuation, grammar, spelling, syntax. You may have the most brilliant ideas on the planet, but if you can’t express them well, they’re useless (and you look stupid into the bargain). Don’t counter by saying that’s what proofreaders are for; that’s the mark of a slob.