Laymon's Rules of Writing
© 2000 by Richard Laymon
"Write the book that you would like to read."
I don't know where I first ran into that idea, but I think it's great. And it contradicts advice that writers often encounter, especially when they are starting out.
Writer magazines, how-to books, teachers and even many agents and editors (who should really know better) suggest that the road to success runs through the Land of Imitation.
They advise you to write "more like" someone else.
More like Mary Higgins Clark, more like Sidney Sheldon, more like John Grisham, etc.
Deal is this . . .
Why try to write a book that is "like" what someone else has written?
Someone else is already writing that sort of stuff.
The last thing the world needs is another cheap imitation.
But you'll likely be told otherwise.
If you jump on someone else's bandwagon and do a fair job of appealing to an established audience, you might get a publisher to hype your novel, and you might end up rich and famous.
You could then be a rich and famous hack.
Chances are, though, you won't get rich and famous.
In which case, you'll just be a poor, unknown hack.
If you want to be something more than that, walk away from the well paved road and blaze your own trails into unknown territory.
Here's how to do it.
Sit down and ask yourself this: If I could read a book about anything, what would it be about? Where and when would it take place? What would the main guy be like? What sort of gal would I love to read about in a book, if such a book existed? What might happen to these people that would be really neat?
And so on.
Find the answers to those questions.
Then figure out if such a book already exists.
Which means you need to be well-read.
If your ideal book already exists, you would be ill-advised to go ahead and write your own version of it.
If it doesn't exist, you're in luck.
Write it your way.
As Polonius said, "To thine own self be true."
As Ricky Nelson sang, "You can't please everyone, so you've gotta please yourself."
Set out to please yourself. With a little luck, you may end up pleasing others, as well.
"Learn How to Write."
I have always been a master of stating the obvious.
The obvious, however, is quite often undervalued and overlooked.
I find it astonishing that a great many writers pursue their craft and sullen art without having a halfway decent grasp of language, grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc.
Just about everyone has daydreams about being an author.
We all like to tell stories. Most of us are able to read and speak English reasonably well. We have even written things, now and then: letters, thank you notes, maybe reports of various kinds at school and work. So it seems a simple matter to write a story.
Easy as pie. Anyone can do it.
At a cocktail party, a famous writer (possibly George Bernard Shaw) was told by a famous surgeon, "When I retire, I plan to write a novel." Said the author, "When I retire, I plan to operate on people."
The author's comment may seem like a wisecrack, but it is dead-on accurate.
Learning to write well is probably no easier than learning to remove a kidney or replace a heart valve.
It requires years of study and practice.
Some aspiring writers think they don't really need to know proper usage of the language. They think that whatever miserable errors they make will be fixed by an editor.
Many editors (especially here in the U.S.), know less than the writers.
If your story should somehow end up on the desk of a good editor, he isn't likely to fix the writing for you. The rare, good editor would be so disgusted by your crappy writing that all you'd get is a rejection slip.
Chances are, however, that your manuscript will be read by a lousy editor. Such an editor might accept badly written material simply because he doesn't know any better.
If that happens, you can be certain that nobody will end up correcting it. The mistakes will be over the heads of the publishers, just as they were over yours. Your book will be published in all its pathetic glory.
Full of mistakes that would win you a flunking grade from any good high school English teacher.
Even if all editors were masters of the language, no writer should ever submit a piece of work that is not written well enough to earn an A+ in any English class in the country.
We have a responsibility to use the language better than anyone else.
A writer submitting a careless, error-inflicted manuscript is like a police officer robbing a bank. It just shouldn't happen. It should never be tolerated. It's a perversion of Nature.
This is not to say that liberties cannot be taken.
Tricky stuff pulled.
But manipulating the language in order to create special effects is not allowed for people who can't pass "bonehead" English.
And this is not to say that all mistakes can be avoided.
The language is so complex that nobody can get it right all the time.
Mistakes will happen.
They are inevitable. Even if the writer somehow throws together 150,000 words without a single error, the printer is sure to blow it here and there. Errors will slip by.
All the writer can do is try . . .
Strive for excellence even though it may be unattainable.
The famous science fiction writer, Jerry Pournelle, once told me, "All you've got to do is write one page a day. In a year, you have a novel."
A short novel, at any rate. (By current standards.)
But the point is this . . . If you want to be a writer, you must sit down and turn out pages. Even as little as a single page each day can result in a full novel over the course of time.
How long does it take to write a page?
For some writers, a page might be composed in a couple of minutes. (He is more typist than writer.) At the other extreme, a person might spend two or three hours laboring over one page. (Such a person is probably not a great artist. More likely, he's either a prima dona or doesn't know what the hell he's doing -- likely both.) For most of us, a page might take anywhere from fifteen minutes to half an hour. Maybe a full hour if we're trying to compose a very special effect -- or having a problem.
To write a single page per day, then, is a task that should probably take no longer than one hour.
If an aspiring writer is incapable of finding one hour per day to sit down and work on his craft . . .
Well, let us suggest that he give up the pretense of being an aspiring writer.
Because he ain't one.
Because anyone can find time to turn out one page a day if he really wants to.
Now, I don't want to seem that I'm getting hung up in semantics here. A person doesn't have to write a page every day. Things happen. I don't write a page every day. I don't write at all, for instance, when I'm traveling. Now that I'm reasonably successful, I take a day or two off, each week, for activities with my family.
However, I usually do write 100-150 pages per month. That averages out to a lot more than a page per day. My daily goal is five pages. Sometimes I go over, and sometimes I don't make my five.
Before I was a full-time writer, I held full-time jobs but still managed to turn out a large amount of fiction. Having a job is no excuse for not writing. My goal in those days was three pages per day.
How did I do it?
I sometimes wrote for an hour before going to work in the morning. I often wrote during my lunch break. I wrote another hour or two each day after work. And I usually devoted large portions of my days off (weekends and holidays) to writing.
I often hear aspiring writers talk about what they are "going to write" if they can ever "find the time."
With that attitude, they are probably never going to accomplish much.
You don't find time. It is there. Twenty-four hours of it each day. If you want to be a writer, you only need to make the decision to use at least one of them for the writing. Turn out
that page. Or skip a day, and turn out two or three the next day. But get them done.
Or forget it.
A few helpful hints on how to turn out pages:
1. If you can't find an uninterrupted hour, it's hardly worth bothering to get started on real writing. So use the fifteen minutes, half an hour, or whatever to proof-read, revise, or play around with ideas for new stuff.
2. For best results, find a block of two or three hours in which you'll be able to write without interruption. With this much time, you can get into the piece and really cook.
3. Start each writing period by re-reading what you wrote yesterday. Revise it as you go. This will not only improve yesterday's material, but it will pull you back into the story, making it easy to continue where you left off.
4. Write the material well, but don't spend great amounts of time trying to get it "just right." Don't spend your whole hour working on one or two sentences. Keep moving. Turn out a page or two or five. Polish them some other time.
5. Follow Hemingway's advice and stop the day's writing at a point where you still know what is coming next. This will help you start up again easily the next day.
6. If you are serious about being a writer of fiction, then be wary of foreign entanglements. For example, you might be better off writing your own fiction than trying to edit an anthology or publish a newsletter or magazine or run a web site or organize a fan convention, etc. Sure, such activities may gain you some recognition and possibly important connections. But it is more important to make books and stories than contacts. You won't have any use for the contacts if you don't have a product to sell them.
The notion of writing fiction "truly" may sound a trifle contradictory.
After all, fiction is made up. How can it be true if it's made up?
In fact, most fiction is mostly true.
You are obliged to be accurate about every detail that isn't directly related to your story. For instance, such matters as historical, geographical, scientific and technological facts (including how firearms really operate) must be true. Readers have to be given the straight scoop except when you are manipulating the truth for the sake of the story (in which case, your readers need to be tipped off that you're bending the truth).
In some cases, novels provide valuable information about fascinating subjects. Most Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton novels, for example, give a lot of insight into one topic or another. Their stories are made up, but their information usually isn't.
No matter what you're writing about, your background material should be as close to the truth as possible.
Which really should go without saying.
But I decided to say it, anyway, on my way to the real subject of my rule, "Write Truly."
It's this: Everything you write should come out of yourself. Every character, every scene, every story, should be a reflection of you. Pull it out of yourself, not out of movies or television
shows you've seen, not out of news articles or books you've read.
If your stuff is nothing more than a rehash of other people's work, you're not accomplishing much. Even if you're able to make a success of it (which isn't likely), you'll be little more than a hack.
To be good, your stuff has to be yours and yours alone.
You accomplish this by writing about what you've personally experienced in the real world, not what you've experienced vicariously in other people's books, movies, etc.
For example, suppose you're eager to write a vampire novel. Don't set out to write a book "like Dracula, but different." Instead, look for a way to make the subject of vampires personal to you. How might your life be affected if you should encounter a vampire? Where might you run into one? How might you, your family, your friends react to the situation?
A hack will do a "mix and match," creating his stew by throwing together bits and pieces taken from other sources.
A good writer's novel might also be a stew, but whatever ingredients might be lifted from other sources will be awfully hard to identify and there'll be a whole new taste due to the author's secret sauce.
The secret sauce is what makes it good -- makes it more than just a trite mish-mash of old material.
Pushing this analogy well beyond the boundaries of good sense, I'll go on to say that the secret sauce is made of the blood, sweat, tears, heartaches and joys of the author's life.
Every writer's secret sauce has a different flavor.
Some writers have lousy secret sauce that you just can't stand. Some don't even use the stuff at all.
You can tell when it is there and when it isn't. It's what makes the difference between a bland story and a rich, spicy one.
It makes the difference between an artificial story and a true one.
Have you ever wondered why you want to read more of certain authors?
'cause you like their secret sauce!
But let us now abandon that analogy (a little bit late) and say it straight out: To write truly, you need to tap into yourself as deeply as possible and use what you find there.
Every character, scene, word of dialogue, plot development, etc. is your creation. Allow them to look like your creations. This is what will make them unique and valuable.
If anyone tells you to write more like Tom Clancy or Mary Higgins Clark or John Grisham, politely tell them, "Thank you very much and go to hell."
There is only one you, so write like yourself.
It's what might make your stuff worth reading.
It's what could make your readers come back for more.
Because, if you do it right, they can't get the same taste from anyone else.
Whatever you are working on, get it done.
Just as the world is loaded with aspiring writers who claim they can't find any time to write, it is also chock full of folks who are busy on a "work in progress." This is usually a terribly wonderful epic novel sure to set the literary world ablaze when the author sets it loose on the public in some unspecified, distant decade.
A work in progress might make for good brag, but it's otherwise useless.
The artist concentrating on his work in progress -- and never finishing it -- is probably afraid it's no good. And afraid that, if he does get the masterpiece done, he won't know what to do with himself afterward.
You don't want to be one of these people.
You want to be a writer. Right?
So do it.
Write the story, write the book. Get it done, send it off, and get started on the next.
In addition to the dangerous WIPS (Work in Progress Syndrome), and somewhat related to it, is the malady that I'll call LWD (Life's Work Disorder). Writers suffering from LWD are inclined to stick to a project forever instead of finishing it or abandoning it and moving on to a new project. (It differs from WIPS in that people suffering from Life's Work Disorder may actually be talented writers seriously trying to create a marvelous book.) They labor year after year on a book, sure that they've got a great concept that'll put them on the literary map or bestseller charts if only they're eventually able to get it right and/or some agent or editor will finally discover its merits.
Maybe the thing has merits. Or maybe it's a dud.
The deal is, you might not want to be working on the same book for five, ten or twenty years. If you are devoting that much labor to a book, follow Tom Snyder's advice and take look in the mirror. You'll probably see the face of a moron. Or a lunatic.
Here is what to do.
If you have a concept that you think is spectacular, give it your best shot. Do whatever preliminary work might be necessary (research), then write the book. It shouldn't take you longer than a year or two if you're serious. Give it a revision, then send it off, sit down and come up with a new great concept, turn that one into a book, and go on to the next.
Whatever you do, don't just sit around to wait for the "great book" to get accepted. If it is rejected (which is not exactly unlikely), don't devote months or years to reworking it in hopes of "getting it right."
Just put it away. (Maybe go back to it some day, but not now.)
Instead of hoping to revive Lazarus, make a baby.
And another, and another.
If you are behaving properly as a writer, you will have a second novel finished before your first novel has had time to find a publisher or accumulate more than a few rejection slips.
At the opposite end of the problem from Work in Progress Syndrome and Life's Work Disorder is a malady that I will simply dub Quitties.
This is one of the most common disorders, and probably inflicts all writers to some extent.
It happens this way.
You get started on a novel, thinking it is brilliant. You write ten pages or sixty or three hundred -- then give up on it.
There are a couple common reasons for quitting.
One, you decide the story isn't working out the way you'd hoped. In other words, it no longer seems overwhelmingly wonderful. So it isn't worth continuing.
Two, you've come up with a new great concept, so you're compelled to drop the work in progress and start in on the new one immediately.
On occasion, perhaps a work should be abandoned for one or the other of those reasons.
As a general rule, you should resist the urge.
Because, believe it or not, the book you quit writing might have turned out just fine. It might've even been better and more successful than the one for which you abandoned it.
But you'll never know if you don't finish it.
Your initial enthusiasm for any novel is almost certain to diminish as you get into it. You'll have doubts about whether it's any good at all. You'll be tempted to give up and try something else. The deal is, it's natural to feel this way. And if you do quit and go on to a new novel, guess what -- pretty soon, you'll start having your doubts about that one. You'll be tempted to stop writing it, too.
If you don't resist these urges, you'll end up with a room full of unfinished novels and nothing accomplished.
An unfinished novel is no good to anyone. All it does is take up space.
This is true not only for authors suffering from Quitties, but also for authors trying to sell their work on the basis of a "proposal."
If you have to submit sample chapters and an outline to your agent or editor, go ahead and do it. But go ahead and do something else while you're at it: write the book.
Best case scenario: by the time your proposal gets accepted, you'll have the book finished and ready to send in.
Worst case scenario: your proposal is rejected. But if it does get rejected, you still have a completed manuscript.
An unfinished novel is a waste of space; a finished novel is an asset. Just because a novel is rejected by darn near every publisher on the face of the Earth today doesn't mean it won't
be bought and published tomorrow. Or in five or ten years.
It should go without saying that writers need to read.
However, I've frequently heard authors claim that they don't have time to read, that they only read non-fiction (research for their fiction), or that they only read books in the genre they hope to conquer.
My "rule" is to read as much as possible across the whole spectrum of published material.
There are several major reasons for this.
First, reading is the best way to learn how to write. Each piece is a sample showing how some other author chose to put words and sentences together, how he described a sunset, developed a character, dealt with dialogue, structured a scene, manipulated a plot. Basically, everything a person needs to know about writing can be learned by reading other people's stories, poems, plays, screenplays, novels, etc.
Second, by reading omnivorously, you protect yourself against one of the most common problems encountered by aspiring writers -- wasting a lot of energy and time trying to write a story that has already been done. If you don't know the other stories, you're too ignorant to avoid them. And you really must avoid them. Nobody wants to publish a story that looks as if it's a remake of an earlier piece by someone else.
If your apparent re-hash does get past your agent and editors and sees the light of print, then you might end up in legal trouble with the author of the original material. And if you're lucky enough to escape that fate (for instance, if the author is dead), you might end up with a lousy reputation among readers who recognize the similarities and figure you're a rip-off artist.
Third, knowing the other stories not only allows you to avoid them, but to play off them. Just because there have been a gadzillion vampire books doesn't mean you can't write one, too.
But if you want to write about vampires, you'd better do some research first by reading Dracula, Salem's Lot, Interview with the Vampire, etc. The more vampire stories you read before embarking on your own, the better. It's as if you are making yourself a map of a minefield. You find out where not to step, but you also find out where you can step in safety. You want to reach the point of being able to say, "Hey, I don't think anyone's used this angle yet." So you use it.
I've so far written two adult vampire novels, The Stake and Bite. (The Traveling Vampire Show came a couple of years after writing this piece.) All I hear about these novels is how different they are, how fresh, how they broke new ground and went against the reader's expectations. In my opinion, there are always fresh ways of dealing with any subject -- even something as overdone as vampires. But you can only find the new angles if you've read what else is out there.
Fourth, it is very limiting to read only in the genre in which you write or aspire to write. Don't make the mistake, for instance, of reading only horror. (And don't make the enormous error of not reading horror in the mistaken notion that, if you haven't read it, you can't be accused of copying it.)
If you want to be a horror writer, read plenty of the current stuff being written in the field, read the classics of horror, but also read in every other area possible. You need to be familiar with the whole scope of literature.
By reading broadly, you gain a great store of knowledge about literature and about the human experience. You see how the writing was done by others throughout history. Such literature enriches your imagination, shows you the range of possibilities, and can't help but give your own writing more breadth, depth, richness and weight.
"Keep Your Stuff to Yourself"
Generally speaking, you're better off letting nobody know exactly what you're writing.
That way, you avoid several dangers.
When you tell someone about your story, you diminish it in your own eyes. You're not likely to do it justice. So hearing yourself describe your brainchild, you might conclude that it sounds rather lame.
Fairly often, writers actually lose interest in writing a certain story or novel after telling someone about it. They decide not to write it at all. Or, if they are well into writing it, they sometimes quit.
Another danger of sharing a story is that your friend or lover might not seem very enthusiastic about it. That can be a bummer, and might lead to Quitties.
Or your listener might offer advice on how to make it better. Do you really want that?
On some occasions, if you tell your story to a writer, you might experience the delight of finding your idea in his or her next novel.
The same might happen if you tell your story to an editor.
So it is always best to keep your mouth shut and write the book. Let the curious discover your story only after it is safely housed between the covers of a book and on sale in a store.
If someone asks what you're working on (as friends often do), your best defense is vagueness. Don't give out a blow by blow description. Give your friend a sentence or two.
Example, The Cellar. "Oh, it's just about some old house where a bunch of people got killed." You have politely answered the question, but you haven't given away the farm or ruined anything.
Just as you should keep your mouth shut, you should keep your manuscript away from anyone who might be inclined to peruse it.
Don't allow friends or loved ones to read what you've written. You may be eager for their gushy approval, but suppose they don't like what you've written? Even a lukewarm response from such a person can mean disaster for your relationship. It can also be unhealthy for your writing.
Let's not pull punches, here.
You're the writer. In most cases, your friend or lover is not a writer. In some cases, he or she may not even be well read. So ask yourself this: "What the hell do they know?"
Do they know more than you?
No, they don't. So why should you ask for their opinion? In fact, you should run away from their opinions. Never seek the opinion of anyone.
It is not even a good idea to ask a professional writer for an opinion of your manuscript. You should never do that, even if the writer is a good friend. Especially if he is a good friend.
Because there is nothing to be gained, and plenty to lose. If your work is wonderful and flawless, no advice from the professional writer will improve on it. If things are wrong with it, however, the writer is not likely to tell you about them because he doesn't want to hurt your feelings or turn you into an enemy. If he does tell you what's wrong with it, you'll probably turn on him with an arsenal of resentment and scorn.
Also, sending your manuscript to another author creates huge burdens for him. As mentioned above, he won't dare offer even the most valid of criticisms. (Not if he's smart.) And if he reads it at all, you might some day accuse him of stealing your material.
Even if the author ignores all the risks to himself, reads your stuff and dares to give you advice, it may turn out to be bad advice.
What he tells you might be excellent as it applies to himself, but bad for you. (You need to discover your voice, not his.) A fellow writer might also give you bad advice on purpose, hoping to derail you.
Trust no one.
Trust only your own instincts.
Keep your mouth shut, write your manuscript, show it to nobody. Make a photocopy and send the photocopy to your agent.
Your agent should be the first person, other than yourself, to find out what you've been writing. Otherwise, you're asking for a legion of troubles.
I read somewhere, "Persist, even if the world call it doing evil -- as it is most likely they will."
Persistence will out.
Show me a published writer, and I will show you a person who has kept on writing in spite of every obstacle.
He has found time to write. He hasn't let rejection stop him. Or poverty. Or writer's block. Or people saying he shouldn't write about that sort of thing.
No matter what happens, he keeps turning out the stuff.
Because he's a writer.
It's what he does.
So he does it.
And through the persistence, he succeeds.
In sharing this article with us, Mr. Laymon wanted to point out that the "Rules" state his opinions based on his own experiences as a writer. Many agents, editors, publishers and other writers are sure to disagree with some of what he says. He understands that there are exceptions to every rule. The article, however, tells the truth as he sees it.
Richard Laymon was president of HWA until
his sudden passing in February, 2001. He was the author of over thirty
novels and eighty short stories. Four of his books, including his nonfiction
work, A WRITER'S TALE, have been finalists for the Bram Stoker
award. His recent novels include THE TRAVELING VAMPIRE SHOW (Cemetery
Dance and Headline . . . soon to be published by Leisure Books) and ONCE
UPON A HALLOWEEN (Cemetery Dance). NIGHT IN THE LONESOME OCTOBER
was published in early 2001 by Cemetery Dance and Headline.
"Laymon's Rules of Writing" is a slightly revised version of a chapter from A WRITER'S TALE, published by Deadline Press in 1998.
© 2000 by Richard Laymon. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without written permission by copyright's owner(s).
Permission is granted only for posting on the World Wide Web at http://www.horror.org/, though hyperlinks to the article at this URL are encouraged.