Sunday, March 7, 2010

Throw Another Bear in the Boat

by Libby Malin

When last we left our heroine . . .

Actually, when last I darkened these blog pages with a post of my own, I was talking about writing, my thoughts and fears when I first started out.

Since that time, a friend sent me a funny and clever article entitled Ten Rules for Writing Fiction, a compilation of such lists from various authors. In case you don't skip on over and read the whole thing, here are some of my favorite tips:

  • Try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip (Elmore Leonard)
  • Take something to write on (when traveling). Paper is good. In a pinch a piece of wood or your arm will do. (Margaret Atwood)
  • Do not place a photograph of a famous author on your desk , especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide. (Roddy Doyle)
  • Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down. (Neil Gaiman)

As you can see, some of the tips are tongue-in-cheek. Others are more serious and personal to the writer -- advice on avoiding adverbs, only using "said" as a dialogue tag, etc.

Reading that article got me thinking about my own "Top Rules for Writing Fiction." I guess I qualify to come up with some -- I do have a bunch of books published, so some folks must think I know something about writing fiction.

My list for writing commercial fiction would include the following:

  1. Write the whole book. When you start out, you have to devote the time to finishing a manuscript, not just a proposal. Later, after you're published, you can sell on proposal.
  2. Set a daily page quota. You won't feel inspired to write every day, but you can get something down on the page. If you write three pages a day, you can finish a manuscript in about three months.
  3. Know where you're headed, but don't be afraid to change direction. Sure you might have a plot roughed out in your head or even on paper, but don't be afraid to change direction if the characters want to go racing down another path more compatible to the portraits you've drawn of them.
  4. Don't give up in the Terrible Middle. Midway through a manuscript, many writers I know feel as if they're walking through mud. Know that a lot of authors feel this way. This too shall pass.
  5. When you're stuck, throw another bear in the boat. In other words, look for ways to amp up the tension when you feel the plot's getting stodgy.
  6. Write the Big Scene and get it out of your system. Sometimes you're itching to get to that big, fat, juicy climax so badly that it stalls you while you're writing the scenes preceding it. Okay, give in to temptation and write the Big Scene. You can tweak it when you stitch the plot threads together.
  7. Similarly, don't be afraid to write notes to yourself in the ms, to fill in later. I've typed "NEED MORE HERE" in the middle of scenes when I've got a great writing pace going and don't want to stumble over something easily filled in later.
  8. When you revise, keep two lists: character names and timeline. It will save you and your copy editor a lot of trouble later.
  9. Once you're finished, put your business hat on and act like the professional writer you aspire to be, researching agents and editors and submitting to the appropriate ones.
  10. Finally, when you're writing, remember you're the only person who can come up with a Top Ten Rules for Writing Fiction for you. If you like adverbs, use 'em. If you're expressive using metaphors, go for it. If you do description well, don't let Hemingway's approach hold you back. You're the captain of your own writing ship. Cruise away!

Okay, that's my list. What's on yours?


  1. Excellent post, Libby!

    Here are a few of mine:

    1. If you have ANY scene that's itching to get on paper, write it down. You can fill in the gaps later.

    2. Layer. In the beginning, it might seem lifeless, just get the bare bones down, then layer the emotions, descriptions, more conflict in during revisions.

    3. Be sure to show action and reaction. If there's an important enough action, be sure to show the character's reaction to it.

    4. Beginnings are never the beginning. Continue to write, but know that you can pull an opening hook from deeper in the manuscript or write a new scene in the beginning to make for a more hooky opening that will shine.

    5. Tie up loose ends. If someone is given major importance, make sure they aren't forgotten in the scheme of things.

    6. Make the end count. If readers wonder what truly happened, something's wrong. If readers think a few of the pages are missing at the end of the book, something's REALLY wrong! (This happened with a library book. A woman swore the book was missing the last chapter. We pulled another off the shelf. Nope, that WAS the last chapter. :))

    7. Feel passion. If you feel passion for your stories, it will show.

    8. Love what you write. This is not the same as feeling passion. :) With passion, you want to be driven to show the emotions in each of your stories. With loving what you write, you want to write a whole series that you love so much, that you never tire of promotional tours or writing the sequels. But on the other hand, you make them different enough that readers don't either. :)

    9. Watch out for pet words that become a habit in a manuscript.

    10. Reach out to the world. Do critique partners, or once you're published, fans let you know what makes your books so special to them? Let them have a voice in your writing! If they loved certain characters and are dying to see them in their own story, give them life too. :)

    Thanks, Libby, for a great post!

  2. Wow, Libby and Terry! Between the two of you, I think you've covered it.

    It's more of an underlining than an addition to points you've already made, but I would say: Respect your process.

    Published or unpublished, there isn't a right way to write: there's only what works for you. Learn what that is and DO NOT TRY to change it. Instead, concentrate on learning how to write--your way--more skillfully.

  3. BTW,

    Loved "Throw another bear into the boat." Loved the image, loved the advice!

  4. Terry, Loved Number 9 -- I sometimes find myself using pet words. You're right. You have to be careful.

    Mary Margret, you're so right about there not being a wrong way to write (except for the usual grammar rules, etc. and even those can be broken).

  5. Your list is awesome. I agree with every one of those. I do have pictures of famous authors on my desk--some alive, some dead long ago. I think it helps to remind me where I'm headed (hopefully).

  6. The only thing I can add is Write first. I tell myself this every day. Write first. There will always be something that has to get done--laundry, dishes, or in my case lately, spinning, knitting, and spider solitaire--but if you are a true writer, you really need to write first.

  7. GREAT post, as usual, Libby!

    Love the "Throw another bear in the boat!" Perfect way to ramp up tension. ;-)

    I don't think I have anything else to add, and agree with most all that's been said. I think the bottom line is to get something written! Nora said it best, "I can fix crap. I can't fix a blank page."


  8. I love the "write first" tip. That is so true. Many (but not all) things can wait, but if inspiration strikes, or you need to make that page quota . . . write first.

  9. I'm trying to adopt Robin's WRITE FIRST (as I sit here at 9 am doing blog comments...)

    You guys covered the major ones. My only addition is that instead of adding a bear in a boat, I say, "kill someone." And I don't even write Romantic Suspense. LOL. And, no, no one's died yet, but it's my reminder to ramp up the tension.

    Speaking of which, I must get back to the WIP, as the H/h are heading down the spooky tunnel...

  10. LOL, love the "bear in the boat" idea!

    You guys pretty much covered it already, but just to expand on the importance of getting words down on the page, I think it's crucial to give yourself permission to write crap. It's easy to let yourself bog down if you self-edit every word you write, but sometimes you just have to tell yourself ahead of time that you aren't going to write perfectly polished copy, AND THAT'S OK. I can often get some pretty good gems out of the drivel I allow myself to spew when I decide to forgo the self-editing for a bit.

    Great blog post, Libby!


  11. My writing mantra: Never be afraid to write from the heart & soul.

  12. Chiming in late, but what a great post! It's really amazing advice from a fabulous group of authors!

    I think my bit of advice is to do your research--and I don't mean fact checking things in your manuscript. Really dig around and find out what you'll be getting into once you're published--often times you'll find something you could be doing prior to being published that will help the process. Whether it's joining a writing organization or finding out that Twitter isn't just a sound birds make or deciding if you want an agent, LEARN about the entire publishing process--it's not just writing a book ;-)