The Ten and A Half Commandments of Writing

by Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing Journal, August 1998
Recently The IWJ received an email in which I was asked to provide some advice for the younger writers. The answer isn't easy. No teenager wants to be told, grow up, get experience, broaden and deepen that life-knowledge. They're already grown!

But a few years ago I was writer of the month in Compuserve's WRITERS FORUM and it was great fun, full of energetic questioning, mostly from relative beginners, and interesting craft-chat. At the end of the month I needed to write something to say goodbye and had the chance to do so without any heckling! This article, apart from some minor edits, is the advice I offered then and I offer it now to the younger author and to any writer, of any age, experienced or otherwise. Three years on, even though I'm denied access to Writers, I think my views are pretty much the same.

DON'T WRITE ABOUT THINGS THAT INTEREST YOU, WRITE ABOUT THINGS THAT ENERGISE YOU

In fact, write about, or around, or obliquely close to, those tensions which you find yourself attracted to at a dinner party -- what is likely to engage you, make you fervent, angry, aroused. For me, these are sexuality, sociobiology, psychology, simplistic black and white politics, love, sex and hypocrisy, feminism, big brother, and death. I write (apparently) crime books but the DRIVES are the above.

WRITE STORIES THAT HAVE A POINT

Too often we hear a beginner say "I'm going to write a romance," (or a crime story, or some Science Fiction). What's wrong here is that the speaker is just "trying to be a writer" as opposed to desperately needing to express his/her beliefs through writing, through story.

If, when we have an idea, perhaps a plot idea to begin with, we think about what does this mean, what's the point, what would be the point, of a reader reading me? we have a much better chance of success. Know that if someone says SFW? So friggin' what? to your story, you have a good, real answer.

I could not write pure entertainment books like, say, Dick Francis, I think they are far too difficult because they are pure entertainment, they are not energised by a fundamental direction, a truth, a passion. I need that passion, that conviction. I have to be saying something, trying to persuade the reader around to my ideas, getting him or her to understand, as they say, where I'm coming from. That's why, for me, the characters matter, and the plot (almost) follows. We care, we should care, about people. Give me real people who interest me in an OK plot, rather than cardboard executives or robots ping-ponging through a labyrinth, however ingenious.

SHOW NOT TELL. SEDUCTION NOT INSTRUCTION

The great art of the twentieth century is film. It is certainly true that a very good film haunts us, its images, dialogue, sensations returning to us long after we have left the cinema. And in films, the screenplay is almost completely shown, not explained, and not just through semantics, the facts, the actions, but through its colours, tones, angles, pauses, music.

The undercurrents, the explanations, the hidden motives, the themes, the point of things, when they are implicit you have power, when they are explicit you have just another entertainment, just another film, another book.

I'm aware that the adage show-not-tell is cliched now. That doesn't make it any less true. I prefer to use the rule of thumb "Seduction not Instruction" and in June and July some of my feelings on the subject were published in The IWJ.

Perhaps, a seasoned writer may wish to tell instead of show, but great writers have managed great books by allowing the reader to see and hear without authorial intruding. I believe absolutely that in our first few years of writing we should make S-N-T our absolute goal, not as a final, unbreakable rule but to learn technique, how to show obliquely, life: the cheating, double-dealing, fear, anxiety, adultery, sexuality, hope, bewilderment, love, hate, dreams, apathy...



RUTHLESSLY REMOVE EVERY PIECE OF EXPLANATION

After writing a section, go through and take out every piece of explanation and replace with action and dialogue where the explanation is revealed naturally, implicitly, treating the reader as an intelligent, interactive part of the writer-reader process. And don't be afraid to be oblique, to be subtle. If a man says he loves you, he might, but sometimes, without words, you know.

Although this is an extension of Show not Tell, I make it a rule because beginning writers are lazy, they show first (well done!) and then explain.

If we make a rule which analyses every word, every sentence, every paragraph and says, "is this simply something happening and the reader is observing, feeling, inferring, or is the author intruding, to explain?" then we have a good rule. One day, super-slick, we may consciously decide to intrude, but when we're learning, we should perfect the skill of showing.

FORGET PLOT, LET CHARACTERS DO IT FOR YOU

I have heard authors saying that if a character "takes over" the writer is not a writer, he has no discipline, no control. This is absolute rubbish. Unless God, the muse, really does invent for us - (he doesn't) - these improbabilities, these characters refusing to do what we ask, these realities, these diamonds - grab them! - they come from deeper in us, not necessarily the subconscious.

When our characters start to behave badly, it means that they have become "real people" to us, people who won't bend just to fit the machinations of plot. They may be manifestations of the psyche, but they have been endowed with more power than real, actual, flesh and blood. My philosophy is roughly as follows. "Here is my person (real, now that I have created her), this happens/has happened, (artificial, authorial, a plot device, a placed "fact"), now I wonder what s/he will do?" I watch and record.

I suspect that a "misbehaving character" is actually the author's higher, hidden self telling the materialistic, prejudiced, conforming parts to step aside and let the real writer out.

The initial ambition may come from the left-brain and the discipline to get up and work may come from there, but at some time the good ol' right brain, where love and art and passion fight against Hollywood, Disney and the bookstore chains, has to come out. It's there that the magic lies, the hidden selves, the psyche, the soul, the real insider, not the pathetic front, however apparently successful that is.

THINK ABOUT LANGUAGE, STYLE, FLOW AND LYRICISM

Can you read your stuff out loud? How does it sound? Could you add, take away a few words, maintain the meaning but give us something which flows into us, something rich and audible, something with music and soul, something seductive in its own right?

Think about how you say things: with soft whispers, or with sharp hack-attack words and phrases. With an even cadence and repetitive, or with highs and lows, longs and shorts, soft moments and hard, colours opposite greyness. If you need to slow things down, do the words do it with you, are they helping you to convey that slowing, or are you having to tell the reader things are slowing?

Language can please without us having to emulate Dylan Thomas or Annie Proulx. Consider it, at least, at least make sure that when you want "sad" no one hears the Birdy Song.

WORK THROUGH DIALOGUE LINE BY LINE

You must work through your dialogue line by line to make it bite, be different, and have a distinct sound. 95% of published dialogue is terrible! Authors get away with it because people, readers, reviewers and editors, let them, because the story, or plot is interesting and we "don't mind" the ordinary words, the predictable. But give me words which have energy, poetry, amusement, oddness, tension, excitement, buzz!

Look at some on-screen dialogue (look at Pulp Fiction). Ignore 90% of the films out there which are simply trash, but look at the art, the real gems out there. We remember pictures and sounds -- we don't remember explanations. We remember examples not statistics. We remember people and what they say to us.

Take any dialogue from your book and ask of every line, "Is it great; would I want to listen? Would I be intrigued, love the voice, the accent, the person? Would I be outraged, would I be incensed, would I be sexually aroused? Would I want to join in this conversation or would I find the delivery (whatever the content) not to my liking?"

WRITE 50 SHORT STORIES BEFORE YOU EMBARK ON A NOVEL

This is to discover your voices and burn-out the excesses of autobiography. This is my first piece of advice, along with write every day and twice as much on Sunday.

Get used to writing finished pieces, play with styles, subjects, play with first and third person, with restricted views and omniscience. Find yourself. Are you a full-back, a midfielder, a fast-running winger or a goal scorer? Sure, you want to play, but exactly how -- what's your best position?

Also, fifty or so short stories gets the plain vanilla out of the way, the less special, the stuff haunted by your own roots, your problems, zits, first love, first infidelities, and ambitions dashed. When these have been worked out of your system, you'll be less likely to foist the bog-ordinary on the world, the cliches, the stereotypes, the boring, and you'll be more likely to have acquired true perspectives. You will have produced three or four anthologies, produced fifty kernels, maybe fifty saleable plots for movies. You will also have produced, in small semi-painful doses, about 100,000 words so you know you can do it. That knowledge is extremely useful.

TRY TO TELL STORIES & ILLUMINATE. DON'T "TRY TO BE A WRITER."

Don't be scared to say "A tall man came into the room," if it's right. Simplicity can be more telling than grandiose language. Be aware that you are probably pretentious, that you want people to think you're bright, erudite, and more worthy. Avoid trying to prove it. Instead, tell your stories simply, stories that people will love, and maybe then they'll love you.

READ, READ, READ, READ, READ

Never stop reading. Look at the pompous, the Booker winners, the National Book Awards, Pulitzers, Nobel Prize winners, and look at the bestsellers, look at the greats and classics, and don't be afraid to read junk. But, if, after a serious try you don't like some authors, don't feel obliged to go with the flow. Be the little boy who said, "Hey, the Emperor is naked!"

What do you return to, what do you like? What makes you feel good, sensual, almost sexually pleased when you read it? What's the genre, the style, the kind of language, that makes you say, I'd like to meet this writer, s/he understands me? This is your world, your niche. First off, (you may change), why not write the books you most like to read, the books you wish there were more of?

IF YOU THINK IT, WRITE IT. NEVER HOLD BACK

And finally, the last half of a commandmant: let it out. If it's porn, if it's evil, if it's crazy and downright dangerous, still you thought it. Others might be waiting for a writer to have the courage or audacity to say it. Don't write with a censor on your shoulder. If you imagine incest and it should be there, put it in the story. If the work requires four-letter words, put them in. IF. If you hate a minority (or love them) admit it. Let out the angst, the hidden secrets, the dark depths, the dreaming heights, all the things you want to say but never had the nerve. Just do it, write it, find where your real energies are, your real beliefs. What you will release, what you will publish, who knows? But you write, first of all, for yourself. Don't lie, don't cheat, don't be a hypocrite. All the best stuff was once damned.

Alex Keegan British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture, Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books) which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.

His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.

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