Sunday, October 18, 2009

Four Good Rules

Massively talented writer of various Marvel comic books and urban fantasy novels, Marjorie Liu, recently posted this short litany of writing advice she finds helpful to remind herself from time to time: Get to the point. Get back to basics. Do it with a little pizazz. Don't lose your edge.
It's pretty much self explanatory, but why should I let that stop me from explaining it? Okay, not really explaining it, but I thought it would be fun to break it down to its four component parts and examine what I have been able to glean from it so far.
Let's proceed, shall we?

1) Get to the point.

In other words, quit dicking around by showing off your stellar wit and finely crafted prose and get the story told, with expedience, clarity and honesty. I'm sure we're as impressed as you are with your artistic turn of phrase and your intricate and poetic word constructions, but those don't mean a thing if you don't get the story told.
Orson Scott Card, one of the finest writers in our field, takes writing advice questions on his blog, fielding one from a fellow who was worried about his writing style, and complained his inability to refine his own style was causing serious blockages to getting his novel written. I deeply paraphrased the question and now I'll do the same with the answer. Card replied that it was a silly distraction to worry about style. Just tell the story as simply as possible. Do that and your style will be whatever comes out of just telling the story.
I mentioned that exchange because, whether it helped that fellow or not, it was a Damascus Road experience for me. The scales fell off of my eyes at the simplicity and obviousness of the advice. I had been struggling to learn prose writing, was finding it difficult, next to impossible, and was about ready to pack it in and stick with comic book writing for the rest of my career. And then Card said that, and it made sense. It was actually a freeing moment, in which a ton of metaphorical weights seemed to drop right off of me.
Don't worry about theme, or style, or any other extraneous nonsense, and just tell a clear story. Let your readers eventually decide those other matters. And, if you run into trouble between two wonderfully crafted scenes that need to be connected, just write the minimum material you need to do that, almost like notes to yourself on what needs to happen, and that should remove the blockage. Later on you may find that it's the simple terse connecting material that is the better stuff and those two artfully constructed passages are what needs to go, or at least be slimmed down.

2) Get back to basics.

I see this as, "don't try to reinvent the wheel." The stuff of good story isn't going to change. Trying to do something that's never been done before, such as writing a novel that's simply one run-on sentence, or purposely constructing indecipherable passages to "challenge" the reader, or any of a vast number of so-called new literary conventions, are all hooey. At best they're stunts. At worst they're purposely malicious. My job is to communicate an interesting story to my readers, and communication can only occur when the reader knows what the hell I'm saying.

3) Do it with a little pizazz.

When Marjorie first posted this, fellow Clockworkian Chris Roberson mistook it as: "Do it with a little pizza," and said as much, which put pizza in the minds of many of those of us who read the small exchange. I wonder how much pizza was ordered that night as a result of the misunderstanding? I know they got me, and my editor at IDW.
But tastiness aside, pizza is not required to write well. In fact it may be an impediment, if you like to keep a clean keyboard.
Here's how I think Marjorie's third rule applies to me. It's not a repudiation of what I just wrote above about ignoring style. We still ought not to worry about our writing style, because that can only grow organically from our actual writing. I think it has something to do with confidence -- as in we should have some. Do it with a bit of a swagger.
Humility is all well and good, and a character trait much to be admired. But it has limited use to a writer. If I don't have enough ego and confidence to believe I have an interesting story to tell, then why am I wasting everyone's time by jumping up on the metaphorical stage and shouting, "Give me your money, your time and your attention for as long as I want it, because I have a great story to tell you!" That is an act of bravado bordering on arrogance.
This business isn't for the timid. Writing is an act of leadership, and no one follows an overly timid leader. When you write, bring your swagger. Bring your confidence. Bring your pizazz.

4) Don't lose your edge.

I've lost my edge before. Hell, I've lost the whole damned blade. I think the only way to keep your edge is to keep honing it. Keep writing or your tools get dull and useless. If I go a few days without writing it's like I'm starting all over again when I start up again. Ultimately writing means sitting alone in a room getting hours of work done one day, and then repeating it the next day and so on, for far too many days in a row. If you can't stand to be alone with yourself in a room for protracted lengths of time, then you can't do this. You will all too quickly lose your edge.

That's what I take, so far, from Marjorie's four admonitions. I know as I ponder further I'll get other wisdoms from them. That's the nature of good advice. I wonder what the other Clockwork boys take from the same four rules. Maybe they'll share as much in their own posts.

For those who want to go to the source, or maybe find out for yourselves why we're Marjorie Liu fans here at the Clockworks, you can find her and her books here.


  1. Inspired by Marjorie's list, I *did* have pizza on Friday. It was tasty.

    Oh, *pizazz*... Yes, that's good, too.

    (I'm always quick to take food advice from Marjorie, though, ever since learning that she's willing to eat dessert first, if it looks good enough. There's a gal who knows how to enjoy the finer things.)