rules-header-fullA notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Welcome to the blog!
……Here’s what’s what.

My name is Dave Workman. I’m an acquisitions and content editor for Muse Harbor Publishing. I began writing Rules of Engagement for beginning (or curious) writers, based on what I perceive to be fundamental obstacles that many of us confront when starting, or struggling through, a new novel. Perhaps I can offer useful advice—or maybe not—although I certainly know what excites me as a reader, and what excites me as an editor who accepts or rejects manuscripts. Thus, the following comments (although RoE remains a work-in-progress) may be worth a look.

1. Good Writing, Bad Advice. Ultimately, it’s your book.
Rule #1: Finish your book.

2. Where to Start. (Part 1). Exploring your inciting incident.

3. Where to Start (Part 2). Your first line should be the most thoughtfully crafted sentence of your story. Also, don’t know exactly how or where to start? (I have a suggestion.) • Also, a few thoughts about Outlining. (If you’re a first-time novelist, outlining may be more important than you think. If you’ve written 30-or-so novels…it’s still important.)
Rule #2: Make your story’s first line enticing enough to immediately hook readers.

4. Where To Start (Part 3). Reviewing the basics. Getting started (for real).
Rule #3:
Write to please yourself.
Rule #11:
Get acquainted with your story.
Rule #100:
Expecting perfection? Well, get over yourself. First drafts are often messy, incomplete and open for revision. Your first draft is a tool, nothing more. (Also see #12: Perfection below.)

5. A Few Common Obstacles. The 5 most common obstacles that most novice novelists confront. • Also, a final (more or less) word on the importance of Outlining.

6. Fundamentals. Discovering those so-called ‘pillars’ of a successful novel. Sometimes it’s nature. Sometimes it’s nurture. Success is likely a combination of both.
Rule #17: Make a hard copy (paper) back-up of your manuscript every now and then, even when working in draft mode. (See Finagle’s Law. But brace yourself.)

7. Simple, But Exciting. Juggle precision with passion. • Also: Introducing the novel’s Three Essential Components.
Rule #7
Write in clear, precise sentences. Communicate to your reader in intelligent thoughts, carefully constructed, while providing a constant, continual procession (discreetly or indiscreetly) of relevant information.
Rule #5: Continually 1. scene-set; 2. character-build, or; 3. move the plot forward. When writing fiction, nothing else matters. A good novel should seamlessly blend all three components.
Rule #13: Readers don’t read novels to find out What Happens. They read novels to find out What Happens to Whom.
Sufficient character development is essential.

8. Exciting, But Simple. Juggle passion with precision.
If you’re not fully engaged in your writing, potentially dull and tedious prose won’t thrill readers. But innovative, excited, passionate writers tend to produce innovating, exciting and passionate prose. Too much passion, however (the dreaded ‘purple prose’) can quickly drown a reader in the unintelligible. So it’s important to find that balanced, literary ‘sweet spot.’

9. Active Writing (Part 1). Active Voice. How to find it. How to keep it.
Rule #8:
Keep characters in motion. Either through action or dialogue, you’re continually pushing characters toward drama or pulling them away from drama. Also see Show, Don’t Tell below.

10. Active Writing (Part 2). Active Language (Grammar).
Rule #6:
The Jumping Cow Rule (Active vs. Passive Voice).

11. Active Writing (Part 3). Active Composition (Plotting)
Rule #14:
Develop your story from A-to-Z. Know where you’re going.

12. Perfection. Do your best, and then move on.
Rule #25: Perfection in writing doesn’t exist.
Rule #4: Do the best you can. That’s all readers can ask.

13. Action/Reaction. A novel is an endless series of relevant connections. Every paragraph you write is like a puzzle piece that must fit into a specific, coherent place.
Rule #10:
In fiction, for every action, provide an appropriate reaction.

14. Show, Don’t Tell.We’ve all heard this advice a thousand times before. And it’s still relevant.

15. What’s Your Intention? A brief guide to rational writing.
Rule #29:
Your characters may remain mysterious, elusive or distracted, but your prose must remain clear and concise.

16. Focus on the Now. Stay in the moment.
Rule #16:
Focus on the now. Write one thought at a time, and don’t worry about the rest.

17. My Favorite Films About Writers and Writing. A personal aside.

18. Finding Your Voice (Part 1). Find a style and stick with it.
Rule #9:
A great novel is not so much what you tell, but how you tell it. All writers develop a unique style. Finding yours is imperative.

19. Finding Your Voice (Part 2). Do your characters speak to you?
Rule #12:
Shut up and let your characters tell their own stories.

20. Finding Your Voice (Part 3). Point of View: Narrative vs. Authorial Voice.

21. Basic Plotting (Part 1). Right Brain (creative thinking) vs. Left Brain (critical thinking). Unfortunately, we need both halves.

22. Basic Plotting (Part 2). Plot Ahead, then catch up.

23. Basic Plotting (Part 3). Fiction is all about drama. (Even comedy.)
Rule #27.
Make drama (big drama, little drama) your novel’s constant companion.

24. Action vs. Information. The Oil & Water of Novel Writing.
Rule #26:
Don’t mix Action and Information scenes. Keep these two incompatible concepts (relatively) separate.

25. Dialogue (Part 1). Writing Great Dialogue: An Absolute Necessity.
Rule #30: Create dialogue that—like the basic fundamentals of fiction—accomplishes one of three specific goals. Dialogue must: 1) Set a scene; 2) Develop/refine a character and/or; 3) Move the plot forward.

26. Dialogue (Part 2). Writing Great Dialogue: Balancing reality and fiction — two very distinct realities.
Rule #39: Never reveal too much relevant information too quickly.
Rule #39A:
...but relevant or not, always keep dialogue witty and compelling.

27. Dialogue (Part 3). Writing Great Dialogue isn’t about epic plotting. It’s simpler than that. Rule #41: Great fiction isn’t about ‘what happens.’ It’s about ‘what happens to people.’

28. Dialogue (Part 4). Dialogue vs. Monologue. The key to precise communication with your readers is knowing when to use what.

29. Dialogue (Part 5). Writing Great Dialogue in First Person (POV).
Rule #45:
First Person POV readers aren’t expecting absolute authenticity so much as absolute personality.

30. Dialogue (Part 6A). The Q. & A. page.
Rule #48: Don’t use dialogue as an alternative to directly depicting action or drama.

31. Dialogue (Part 6B). The Q. & A. page (Cont’d).

32. Dialogue (Part 7). Attribution. The ‘he said/she said’ of writing dialogue. Because sometimes visual subtleties matter.
Rule #55:
Don’t just write dialogue, write active dialogue. Avoid ‘talking heads’ scenes by maintaining visual stimulation or plot momentum during scenes of intense dialogue.

33. Dialogue (Part 8). When not to use dialogue.

34. Confronting Criticism. Sooner or later, we all confront criticism. How we regard such feedback can be crucial to our eventual success.
Rule #99:
Knowing the difference between constructive criticism and counter-productive criticism is crucial. (And this is where I tell you why.)

35. Scene-Setting. Scene-setting is often the most overlooked of the three essential components of novel writing.
Rule #28: Every scene we write, before we begin (or before we continue) to propel our plot forward, we must establish a viable setting for our characters, and a firm grounding for our readers. And we must do so every time we move a character to a new time or place, scene after scene.

36. Write The Daydream. What’s a novel, but a daydream we write down and embellish, expand and hone into something coherent, dramatic and hopefully entertaining?

37. More Common Obstacles Are you still finding those first few scenes/chapters difficult or impossible to write? I’ve already mentioned a few common obstacles that writers face. (See #5 above.) Maybe it’s time to look inward and investigate further.

38. Story vs. Plot. Also, resolving the “My-story’s-too-short” dilemma.


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