By any other name
Guest Post: Where Writing Meets Baseball

Emma Darwin's Twelve Tools [not rules] of Writing

As you'll know by now, as soon as anyone tells me a "rule" of writing, I start thinking of times when any good writer would "break" it. Whether it's Elmore Leonard's Ten or George Orwell's Six Rules that are being quoted, the fact that I admire their writing and agree with much that they say doesn't make me more inclined to keep their rules as rules. Indeed, Elmore Leonard never meant his to be taken all that seriously, and Orwell acknowledges that they're not really rules in his own Rule Six: "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous."

And it remains the truest rule of all - although the least helpful - that you can do anything you like, as long as you make it work. As E H Young says in one of my favourite novels of all time, Miss Mole, "These rigid codes of conduct were made for those who did not know morality when they saw it," and the same is true for writing. Rigid rules are made and enforced by people who don't know good writing when they read it.

But as I go on blogging and teaching and writing, I do find that the same old questions and issues keep coming up. I also find that it's far more useful and therefore fruitful to talk about process - how you set things up so that good writing will happen - than about product - what good writing should be like. So, in a light-hearted, pre-Christmas spirit, I offer you my Twelve Tools of Writing. You'll notice that they're almost all about process, not product. Here goes.

1) Never follow a rule until you understand why someone's made it, and then treat it as advice, not law.

2) Don't write what you know: write what you like, and make us believe you know it.

3) Train your writer's ear: learn to count syllables and think rhythms; read poetry aloud; take some speech-and-drama lessons; write poetry; read your own work aloud.

4) Train your listener's ear, your nose, your tongue, your finger-tips, your body, your eyes... to sense and then recall sounds, smells, textures, balance/weight/movement, colour and form, the angles of light and the patterns of shade.

5) Do enough free-writing to discover that switch in your mind which can turn off the censor at will, and know when to switch it. Remember that nothing you write is ever wasted, even if it all gets cut in revision.

6) Whenever you do some work on your story, know what you're doing and why, do it, and then stop. Don't fiddle, hop about or get diverted.

7) Understand showing and telling, and use them both for good.

8) Never use second-hand language except deliberately, making the most of its second-hand-ness.

9) Get to grips with psychic distance, and narrators and point of view, and practice all the possibilites till they're part of your toolkit.

10) Understand adverbs and adjectives and why you're so often told to cut them... and then use their power for good.

11) Learn to punctuate, to spell and to use grammar and syntax first properly and then skillfully, because only then will you be able bend them to your creative will and still keep readers reading.

12) Never write anything purely to achieve an external goal: if it won't have any value for you as writing, then don't write it. Consider ideas that come from the market place in the same receptive but critical spirit as you do any other ideas: use them if they're right for the book. Never write anything that you'll regret having spent the time on.