My 10 Commandments of Writing

After an early draft of my first novel was gently ripped to shreds by my MFA advisor (and rightly so), I took the advice I’d been given to heart and rewrote my book into something I’m proud of. I will be forever grateful to my thesis advisor, Tod Goldberg, who gave it to me straight and didn’t waste my time by hemming and hawing, sugar coating, or blowing smoke up my bum.

There is a tiny book with big themes that I’ve read several times. It’s called God on a Harley, and it was written by Joan Brady and published in 1997. The cover says it’s for you, “If you’ve ever had a broken heart.” Well, that’s all of us, right? Stay with me. I’m going somewhere with this, and it’s going to come back around and make sense, I promise.

God on a Harley is part rom com, part self-help, part fable. Here’s the plot: God goes around visiting people one at a time, in a form each person will feel comfortable with, and gives them their own, individual set of commandments to live by. He does this because He’s realized the Ten Commandments are not one size fits all. The protagonist, Christine, is in a bad place when she meets God in the form of Joe, a biker, in a local bar. She hates her job, she hates where she lives and how she lives, and her former lover, who said he wasn’t interested in marriage, has married her worst enemy. God aka Joe gives Christine six custom commandments, and when she starts living by them, it transforms her life.

I thought about this when I read Tod’s notes. I was making some big mistakes in my writing, and I was making them over and over again. I needed to set some rules for myself going forward. Like Christine, I needed my own personal set of commandments, only for writing. It just so happens there are ten.

Moses painstakingly carved the Ten Commandments into stone tablets. I took the easy way out and typed mine up on another kind of tablet—an iPad. I wanted to share them with you because I know now that the mistakes I was making are the mistakes many beginning writers make.

The 10 Commandments of Writing for Leanne

1. Follow narrative blocks of prose with scenes and dialogue.

When Tod got ahold of me, I was writing straight narrative prose, with little or no scenes. I thought it was a valid artistic choice. It is not. This is something I call the proportion problem. Once Tod pointed it out to me, I started noticing this in the books I was reading—a few paragraphs of narrative prose followed by a scene or scenes with dialogue. Balance between narrative prose and scenes, good proportions. This is not a formula. This is what has evolved in quality contemporary fiction since Jane Austen gave us the modern novel form.

2. Write an interesting and engaging first line.

The process of hooking your readers starts with the very first line of your story or novel. Take the first line of Tod Goldberg’s novel Gangsterland: “When Sal Cupertine was going to kill a guy, he’d walk right up and shoot him in the back of the head.” Or the first line of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel Hausfrau: “Anna was a good wife, mostly.” Or the first line of Nick Hornby’s novel Juliet, Naked: “They had flown from England to Minneapolis to look at a toilet.” Each of these first lines immediately draws the reader in. These first lines raise questions the reader wants to know the answers to, and so they keep reading.

3. Write an interesting and engaging opening paragraph.

An opening paragraph can do a lot of heavy lifting. It can ground the story in time and place, reveal a lot about the characters, and let readers know where the story is going. Eliminate throat clearing and backstory, and instead use interesting details to provide less interesting but important information. I’ve written in detail about this before: On Opening Paragraphs.

4. Show don’t tell.

This is considered tired old advice, but it still holds true for the most part. Sometimes it is better to tell. But more often than not, it’s better to put it into a scene. Avoid exposition and info dumps.

5. Compress time.

One of my favorite short stories is “A Stroke of Good Fortune” by Flannery O’Connor. I love the craft in this story: the 12-page story takes place over the course of maybe an hour or so, while the protagonist, Ruby, is carrying groceries up a flight of stairs. I love the way O’Connor compresses time in this story. Before I worked with Tod, I thought I had to include every detail about every step of the way, so maybe my stories would have to stretch into weeks or months or years. But compressing time often raises the stakes, forcing the writer to make leaner choices, and resulting in a tighter story.

6. Don’t future pace.

This is simple. I used to write things like, “Twenty years from now, Mavis would look back on this moment and realize … .” Tod: “No.” While this device can work under certain circumstances, readers generally don’t want to hear about what’s happening 20 years from now (see above about compressing time). They want to read about what’s happening now.

7. Don’t be boring.

Boring your readers is the biggest sin of all, so I’m going to go into detail here.

I find that, a lot of the time, boring writing is self-indulgent or lazy writing. I was boring the people I hoped would read my book someday by being self-indulgent. I was writing what I wanted to write rather than what would be interesting for readers to read. Don’t get me wrong, here. We have to write what we want to write. We have to use all the things that make us, us. We have to be our authentic selves, use our experiences and sensibilities, develop our voices, and write what is in our hearts to write. But I wrote long, dry passages about things that are of interest to me, without considering whether they were of interest to anyone else. Things like the geology of California. I didn’t discard those passages completely—as another mentor, Deanne Stillman, pointed out to me, that was part of my developing voice. But I work hard now to make sure I earn what I include in my stories, something I learned from Mary Yukari Waters, by keeping my readers in mind, making it relevant to the story, and writing about it in a way that is interesting and engaging.

One of my favorite notes Tod ever gave me was this: “You already used this joke once, and it wasn’t funny the first time.” Again, it was self-indulgent. The joke was about a Bic lighter, and it wasn’t so much a joke but a nostalgic memory of a stupid television commercial from the 1970s. I knew it wasn’t that good when I wrote it. Tod admitted it was nostalgic and made him think, “Oh yeah, I remember that commercial.” But it wasn’t funny. To be completely honest, I couldn’t think of something funny, so I not only left the joke in, but I used it again. I didn’t put in the work to think of a better joke. We have to put in that work or risk boring our readers.

This goes for dialogue, too. Good dialogue serves one or more purposes: It characterizes, conveys emotion, and/or it drives the story forward. It is also interesting and engaging. It reads like people talk, for the most part, but without the boring parts of the ways people talk, like “um’s” and “ah’s.”

8. Don’t use “begging language.”

I tend to be super repetitive in my writing. In some cases, it’s intentional and is part of my voice. But in most cases, it’s what I once heard an editor refer to as “begging language,” repetition that begs the reader to please, please, please get it because I either don’t trust my readers to get it or I don’t trust myself to have conveyed it well enough the first time.

9. Don’t use clichés.

I used at least six clichés in the first paragraph of this post, but don’t use them in your creative writing. Clichés are phrases that have been so overused that they have become meaningless. They are an easy shorthand to get around really writing something, and they are a form of telling instead of putting in the work to show. Using them is lazy and deflates the power of your prose. A reader will skim right over a cliché without getting any evocative or sensory feeling from the words. Don’t say your protagonist “had the time of her life”—show us what happened and how the protagonist feels about it. Don’t say the hero got there “in the nick of time”—allow readers to experience the tension, the drama, and the excitement of that close call.

10. Be fearless.

This one is the most important of all, I think. Have courage. Be brave. Be fearless in your writing. Dig deep, and let the hard stuff bubble up to the surface. If you are afraid and don’t go there, you will only get a watered down version of that powerful, meaningful thing you want to convey.