Friday, October 8, 2010


Howdy y'all! It's a four-day weekend! YEEHAWW. Plenty of time to rant … I mean, write useful blog posts.

As usual, I'm going to rant about myself for a few sentences before I get to the important stuff.

So, what's up in my life? Well, this weekend I am going college-visiting! Yay! I feel so grown up.

Next weekend I'm going to the Boston Book Festival; a ton of authors are going to be there (and some agents, too) so that shall be quite exciting and I will post about it. :) If you live in the Boston area you should definitely check it out. (It's free!)

Now, on to the fun part of this post.

So, a long long time ago, when this blog was a wee little baby, I wrote this rather long and annoying post called Sooo How Do I Write a Book, Anyway??!! which was probably way too long and rambling and confusing for anyone to want to read. So I thought I'd write another long––but more organized––post on the same basic idea, using a little something my Writing teacher showed us in class the other day.

Frequently people ask me: How do you write a book? Seems like a simple enough question, but a great number of aspiring writers have a problem with pulling together a novel. Luckily, author John Dufresne wrote the simple but useful Ten Commandments of Writing, in which he basically says a lot of the things I said in that annoying earlier post, only in a more concise way. So I'm going to post each of his Commandments and add my personal interpretation/notes to each of them, and hopefully that will be useful.

If you are uber-religious and this offends you … sorry. But then again, I didn't write it. :) Also, the first one has a very mild swear in it. Just warning ya. So here goes.

1. Sit your ass in a chair.

I apologize for the mild profanity. However, it certainly gets the idea across. And it's true. If you want to write a book … you've got to sit down and physically write it. It's easy enough to walk around with ideas floating around in your head, but it takes real dedication to actually sit down and write. It might seem like "No, DUH!" but it's not as simple as it sounds. We all procrastinate. Just give yourself at least a few minutes a day to write. If you have difficulty getting the words out, try out a site like Write or Die. Getting out those few words a day can make a bigger difference than you may realize.

2. Thou shalt not bore the reader.

True that. I know I've said this a billion times before, but DON'T BE BORING–-especially when you get into the later drafts. Sure, it's inevitable that the first draft will be at least a little dull. The first time you write something, there will probably be a lot of needless descriptions, dialogues, inner monologues, etc. and the pacing will be a little awkward since you haven't seen the story clearly as a whole, yet. But once you start editing, you have to let some of those things go. Oh yes, that's a lovely description of a teapot––but I'm sorry sweetheart, it doesn't add much to the story.

For me, this is a very difficult part. I admit, I am often afraid of letting things go. To cope with this … a) Save the original draft, just to make yourself feel better. b) Have someone else (someone trustworthy!), who is not emotionally attached to the writing, chop out words for you. and/or c) While you're editing, thoroughly consider every single word/sentence/paragraph/chapter. On a small scale, does that word actually add to the sentence? On a larger scale, does that chapter actually add to the story? Try to find the important parts and make them stand out.

3. Remember to keep holy your writing time.

You have to be dedicated. If it's really a struggle for you, just write for five minutes every day. Write something––a sentence, a paragraph, an outline, a random description, a journal entry, a blog post. You can always write something, even if it's not necessarily your book. There is inspiration in everything you write.

4. Honor the lives of your characters.

Yes yes yes. This is very important. This may be a matter of opinion, but I think good characters are the most essential part of a book. I've never felt drawn to a story unless I sympathized with the characters. Note: that does not mean, necessarily, that the reader has to relate to the characters. Sure, your main character can be an axe-murderer, but somehow you've got to make the reader understand the character's motivations.

Now, some authors will argue that characters are your tools, and that you can boss them around and control them like puppets. Others will say that you have to be, like, BFFLs with your characters and have long heartfelt conversations with them to the point where you get very emotionally attached. I would say, you have to balance the two. For me, I feel like I have a very distant kind of friendship with my characters. They walk into my mind one day, they pour out their stories to me, and then they leave. They're like … foreign exchange students. They come and visit for a bit, then they return to wherever they came from and I never see them again. It was long enough for me to get to like them, but not long enough that I feel devastated when they go.

So yes, I do think you should have some "conversations" with your characters. Get to know them. Fill out character inventories––even the tiny little details that might not seem to matter. You'll probably find out a lot about your characters that you didn't know before, and that will inspire you with new story ideas. Really, if you just go and Google "Character Outlines" I assure you that you will find something useful.

5. Thou shalt not be obscure.

Aaah … I suppose this one could be interpreted in a number of ways. The way I see it is, writing fiction is not the time to show off your wonderful knowledge and/or vocabulary. It's about telling a story and getting your idea across. If the reader doesn't understand the words or historical references you're using, they're not going to be interested and they'll walk away. So try to keep it simple. No thesaurus-raping allowed; the first word that comes to your mind is (usually) the right one to use!

6. Thou shalt show and not tell.

Oh, joy. I'm sure you've heard this one a million times. I know I have. And I probably have screamed it at you before. And I probably have already said that it's something I struggle with. But anyway … SHOW, DON'T TELL. Three simple words, yet it is one of the hardest parts of writing. Don't tell me "I was scared", "He was confused", "The tree looked creepy" … Think of unique ways to describe these things. If you just say what the character is experiencing, the reader can't really relate. What does "scared" feel like? What does "creepy" look like? Be specific! Get into the details!

7. Thou shalt steal.

Wait … what? JOHN, ARE YOU TELLING ME TO PLAGIARIZE? No no no. "Stealing", in this case, is different from plagiarizing. The point is to try out different styles. Try to imitate the voices of your favorite authors. It may sound strange, but in exploring the techniques of other writers, you will hopefully find a voice that makes you feel the most like … well, like YOU.

I remember reading a quote by Phillip Pullman once that I really liked, where he said that authors are like bees. The books we read are like flowers. The bee takes pollen from each flower and uses it to make its own honey. The writer takes something away from every book he/she reads and reflects in it his/her own writing. :)

8. Thou shalt rewrite and rewrite again. And again.

… And again, and again, and again. AGH. Yes, I know. It's frustrating. But nothing is ever perfect the first time. In fact, no story will ever be perfect. But if you keep rewriting, at least you'll eventually find what feels right to you.

9. Thou shalt confront the human condition.

Well, this one's a bit tricky. I'd say, you might not even want to think about this until after you're done writing the first draft. Every story has a purpose. Yes, your story does have a purpose, even if you don't realize it. There is some reason that you felt compelled to write it. Something nudged at your conscience that made you itch to write down those words. Maybe it was a story in the news that made you particularly angry/depressed/shocked. Maybe it started with a simple "What if … ?" question. Whatever it is, it should give you some idea of a theme.

In my opinion, this is the part of the story that you shouldn't plan in advance. The plot and characters make up the story itself, but the theme at the heart of the story can only emerge when you actually write it. Sure, you might have a vague idea of a theme throughout, but if you decide too early on about it, you might end up being a little too preachy and forcing it out of the story. Let the story speak for itself, and eventually you will find out what you are trying to say about humanity.

10. Be sure that every death in a story means something.

I could rant about this for an hour. I could probably write an entire post on it. (Maybe I will, someday.) Frankly, character deaths tend to piss me off. Once in a while, they really get to me and I can actually see the purpose behind them. But so many authors––from published authors to unpublished teen writers––seem to think that the only way to end a story is to kill someone. Why? I dunno … Just because they can!

Look. Killing off a character does not automatically make your book deep and meaningful. In fact, it can do the opposite; it can really bring out the weakness in your writing. If a character dies, it has to be heavy. It has to affect the entire story. It can't just be, "Oh, he died. I am sad." And then ten pages later: "By the way, I am still sad that so-and-so died." I mean, you have to think about all the stages of grief––the denial, the anger, the acceptance, etc. And if you haven't experienced grief, this is a really really hard thing to pull off realistically. Grief never completely goes away and it changes who you are entirely. So if you're not willing to make some major changes in your characters, and if you're planning to kill off a character "just because", you might want to reconsider. Often, killing a character (or characters) is taking the easy way out––instead of coming up with something more creative and/or realistic.

When my Writing teacher explained this point to us, he said "You should equate the decision to kill a character with the decision to kill a real person." It may sound intense (and yes, a bit exaggerated), but it's true. You have to be really REALLY sure that killing off that character is something you really must and really want to do. Think long and hard about it.


Hopefully these Ten Commandments illuminated something for you. As always, if there's any confusion ask away in the comments! :)


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  3. That one about death also made me think, as I'm revising a book right now that really has quite a lot of death. I also just got on fall break (finally!) and I'm even going to Boston at the end of next week. Brigid, you should visit Swarthmore College... (well, I tell that to everyone :) )

  4. Amy - Niki never reads my blog. :P

    Eleanor - Well, hope the advice helps … Of course, maybe all the deaths in your book are justified. I think in all my stories I've only killed, like, four important characters? I just can't do it. Haha. Most of the time I don't think it's necessary, either. Really? Awesome! :D Hmm Swarthmore's a bit far away … for now I'm just looking around at colleges in Massachusetts. :)

  5. Cool post, Brigid. Take a look at my seven stages of editing grief. I'm hoping to get to the Bookfest too, but it's unlikely I will. Writing conference on Monday and need to prepare. Best wishes with your writing!

  6. Hey! :)
    Cool post! The last one about death really got me thinking. Could you maybe do a post on when exactly killing a character is justifiable and how to do it right? What if the story focuses, not on the death, but of the numbness of a character who STILL has yet to accept it fully?
    (My novel Sleep *cough**cough*)

  7. Hey! Lovely post, inspiring. Makes me want to write again, after a bit of desert time.

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  9. Wow. I'm REALLY impressed with the quality of the writing content in your blog, Brigid. You really have a talent, here.

    Keep on writing and I'll keep returning. =)

    Thanks for sharing this post with us.

  10. Karen - Thanks! I will definitely check out your blog :) Good luck with the writing conference!

    Alex - Sure! It's complicated to explain but I will try to do a post on it ...

    Carrie - Thanks; I'm glad it inspired you!

    brittney - Thank you :)

  11. College visiting! Hope you have fun :)

    And these are really helpful. Even the ones that I already knew XD Your blogs are always so interesting. You must be magical or something ;)

  12. Yup, college visiting was great. :)

    Awesome! Thanks. Bahaha. Darn, you caught me. :P

  13. Hi Brigid...loved your ten commandments. We writers should strictly adhere to them. :)


    I'm actually in the middle of a short story for English (and by "in the middle of," I mean "I'm writing this comment as I procrastinate on editing"), and I'm finding that editing really, really sucks. Yaaay, editing. D: Anyway, thankies for posting the commandments! They're seriously going to help me right now.

    Random question: Ever read "The Elements of Style"? It's this magical little book by Strunk & White and it's like a crash course in Writing Stuff that Isn't Completely Crappy. It's awesome.

  15. YAY! :)

    Yesss I agree. Editing does suck. A lot. *sigh* I think after NaNo I'm going to edit Walking Shadow yet again. Someone just shoot me nowww.

    Oh, yes! That is a really good book. Has a lot of great advice in it :D

  16. No, no, no, editing is FUN! :D Please find me on NaNo and friend me there! Karen McGrath

    Also, I posted free Halloween reads; one a three parter and a new one posting on Friday. Hope you can visit.

  17. Depends on your definition of "fun". haha :D I enjoy editing somewhat, once I get into the groove of it. But it's really hard and time-consuming. *sigh* Sure thing! I will look you up on the NaNo site straightaway.:)

    Ooh, cool! I'll check it out :D

  18. This is very, very helpful.

    Er..hi! Um, I found you somewhere on Agent Natalie Fischer's blog and I'm a new follower!

    I'm a teen author, too. My debut, Rosie, is going to be released January 2011 (where I am - in Egypt).

    I've read some of your posts and I have to tell you - hey, stay like that. Don't give up. Your writing is amazing. :)

    Best, (and good luck with NaNo!)

  19. Thanks!

    Ooh, awesome :) Thanks for following!

    oh wow, congrats! That's amazing! :D

    Thank you for reading and for the encouragement :) nice to meet you!!

  20. Hi Brigid! I can't believe I never commented on this. I was sure I did. :P Anyways, this is awesome. I agree with all the commandments and your comments on them are smartical and awesome.

    As for what you said about character deaths ... I agree with all of that. But do you think I'm violating that commandment with Wild? O_o

  21. Hi Sella! Haha, thank you. :)

    Umm I don't know. I've only read like three chapters of Wild. :P As long as your character deaths are powerful/meaningful, though, you should be good. ;)

  22. Hey, new goodreads friend! Good luck with the college apps and visits--what an exciting time. I like how you called the characters visiting your head "foreign exchange students". Ha! Thanks for the blog post.

  23. Hm. I don't know if my character deaths are powerful or meaningful. They all just kind of die quickly and everyone is too shocked to react O.o. I mean, I guess it's kind of hard to judge that because Wild is a murder mystery, so a lot of deaths have to happen. So would that be an exception?

  24. Well, I don't know much about murder mysteries. I guess people just tend to die off one by one in them ... but as long as everyone reacts realistically, I think it's fine.

  25. Brigid, that was very . . . illuminating xD The tenth commandment got me thinking (like everyone else it seems :P) and . . . well . . . It's kinda embarrassing to say but I used to think that for a book to be good/complete, someone had to die. So, like with . . . my first Nano book I made someone die because . . . they had to die. But that book was also called Life of Death and was about bringing people back to life, so . . . :P Idk. I feel like all of the books I've got half-done with focus on the topic of death. (Life of Death, the Art of Possession (In which the MC dies in the prologue . . . :P)) So yeah. I liked your tenth commandment. Very thought-provoking. I love randomly going to your blog and reading random posts and I also love you. -hugs-


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