[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

With this rule, Masello takes a look at the question of starting a sentence with a conjunction. Is it okay, he asks, to start a sentence with the word "and" or "but"?

His answer is yes. His basic attitude, which is simple and elegant, is that prose has to flow. There's no need to follow a writing "rule" just because it was taught to you years ago in elementary school. He sums up his main point with the following question, one he asks himself when writing a sentence: "Does it sound right and communicate my meaning?"

Masello also uses this short essay to discuss words and phrases such as "of course," "furthermore," and "consequently." I have to admit that I'm glad to see him encourage these transition words. Frequently (hey, there's one now!), when I'm writing blog posts, I start my sentences with transition words and I wonder if I'm coming off as too formal in my prose. After thinking about it for a while, I came to the same decision that Masello did. If the transition makes my meaning clearer, then by all means I ought to leave it in.

On the other hand, I still try to avoid starting sentences with "and" or "but." Generally, I'll try to rephrase my sentences if I find that I'm starting a sentence with the word "and." The word "but" is easier to replace, though; I usually just go with a "however." However (ha!), I sometimes find that I start two or three paragraphs in a row with the word "however" when writing a first draft, and so I have to go back and edit myself yet again.

Does this post remind anyone else of "Conjunction Junction" from Schoolhouse Rock?

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

It turns out that I'm very glad I waited this long to discuss Robert's Rule #72, simply because I now have a better understanding of grids and the geometry of a page.

With this rule, Masello discusses the look of prose on a page. He points out that if you are trying to read a long block of prose, such a paragraph that doesn't seem to come to an end, you're more likely to have trouble absorbing everything in the paragraph. (All right, he doesn't say that exactly, but it's what I infer from what he does say.) Masello suggests looking at your longer paragraphs and breaking them up into more digestible chunks.

I have to say, nowhere do I find this piece of advice more relevant or useful than for those of us who write prose intended for the Internet. Even though a long chunk of unbroken prose in a book might make me pause, I still find myself eventually able to get through it all. But that's usually because by the time I encounter that chunk of prose, I've already made a commitment to read the book and I'm already through quite a bit of it.

On the Internet, I find that I'm inundated with articles and blog posts, and that far too many of them include longish paragraphs that force me to evaluate how much I'm actually inclined (or able) to read the whole thing. I'm far more likely to read something if it's either short or broken up into smaller pieces. Not only is it less intimidating at first glance, but it usually implies that the writer has thought through the piece before composing it, and has done their best to make it easier to read.

Which brings me to the geometry of a page. Even though I've been reading my whole life (or at least since I was two), and I've been working in publishing for a while, I still had difficulty grasping how vital the look of a page is for the reading experience. Now that I've taken the course Publication Design and Print Production Strategies, I have a much better understanding of how to design a grid to make a page look welcoming. And, of course, the more welcoming the page, the more likely someone will choose to read the text contained therein.

I only wish I had had more time to do that here.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Although rule #71 might seem to apply to party activities or vacation plans, those are only analogies for what Robert Masello is really talking about: prose. In his accompanying essay, Masello warns writers of the dangers of allowing your writing to take on a repetitive rhythm, and suggests varying both sentence structure and events to keep the prose fresh and exciting. (Or at least that's how I interpret it.)

Sentence structure and rhythm are actually two of those important issues that often get short shrift in books on writing, so it's not a bad idea to discuss them a little more. When I first started out, the idea of varying sentence structure confused me. Although I felt that my underlying story ideas might be exciting, I worried that my sentences were lackluster and pedestrian. I thought my writing style was too simplistic, and I strained to add luster and sparkle to my prose.

I mainly approached this problem by two methods. I tried to improve my vocabulary and I eschewed any form of the verb "to be" that I could. But I soon realized that I could go further if I analyzed my writing "sentence by bloody sentence" (as a friend of mine from the Clarion Workshop once put it). The easiest way to do that was to read my sentences aloud and experience how they felt against the ear, as opposed to the eye.

Let me tell you, it makes a big difference.

In his book on writing, Worlds of Wonder, David Gerrold mentions the concept of "metric prose," which he learned from Theodore Sturgeon. Part of what made Sturgeon a masterful writer was his ability to play with sentence structure, in a way that lured the reader to plow forward through a story. He advised Gerrold to apply the metrics of poetry to his writing, and Gerrold found that to be useful advice. It's actually one of the simplest ways to vary your sentence structure and to mix things up.

For example, if you want the reader to march forward, recast your sentences in iambs (which, for those of you who don't recall, is a two-syllable foot of one unstressed beat followed by a stressed beat). If you want the reader to stop short, consider a one-sentence paragraph for effect. If you want the reader to get lost in a sea of stream of consciousness, work against any sort of consistent rhythm or pattern, and make the paragraphs as long as possible.

It is said that variety is the spice of life. It's also the spice of prose.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]


With rule #70, Masello tackles that issue, one that seems to affect all writers at some point or another. Often it feels a lot easier to put off doing our writing than it does to sit down actually do it. As others have noted in their own essays on procrastination, many writers would sometimes rather clean the bathroom than face the keyboard.

Masello's own advice on how to avoid procrastination hearkens back to his school days. He noticed that he always felt uneasy when he put off doing an assignment, and discovered that the only way to relieve this tension was to actually do his work. If he didn't do his work, but spent his time in leisure instead, he noticed that he couldn't really enjoy himself. For him, procrastinating simply wasn't that good an option.

So his main suggestion to fight procrastination is mostly just to do it, because of how it can affect you emotionally. To some extent, I can understand where he's coming from; I too get antsy if I put off work for too long. But on the other hand, the advice he offers isn't very proactive. If you're not the sort of person who gets antsy, you're not going to be able to follow it.

And sometimes, you won't be able to follow it even if you are. On a personal note, this past year I've had a handful of writing projects with deadlines, and I have to admit that I have heard the siren song of procrastination myself. Although I do set goals for myself, like many others, I don't always meet them the way I should. So how do I tackle the issue?

In one of his many essays on writing, "Do It Anyway," Mystery Grand Master Lawrence Block gives advice that is pretty much encapsulated in the title of the essay. He tends to feel that procrastination is rooted in fear that the work you create won't be good enough. The key to facing this fear, he says, is just to do the writing anyway. Chances are it won't be as bad as you think.

(It's possible that I'm conflating two different essays here. If so, there's no need to correct me, as the point is still a valid one.)

But how do we turn Masello's and Block's advice into practical action? I have three techniques I've used to fight procrastination, which might help you as well.

1. Set yourself a daily page or word quota.

It's probably the oldest piece of advice in the book; I know I've heard it repeated too often to count. But it really works. If you say to yourself, today I have to write 500 words (or 1000 words, or 250 words) before going to bed, and you really stick with it, you'll find that the work gets done faster than you expect. As Gay and Joe Haldeman like to say, a page a day is a book a year. Surely those of us who call ourselves writers can eke out the time to write a page a day. Or at least a sentence.

2. Promise yourself a carrot when you're done.

I've also seen this piece of advice elsewhere. In the past, writers used to promise themselves a chocolate or a few pages of reading someone else's novel once they finished their daily quota. Some writers give themselves the license to watch television after they're done. In our modern world, I've known writers who refuse to check their email or anything else on the Internet until they've finished their word count for the day. Find a reward that works for you.

3. Have someone else provide the stick.

This is a technique that I haven't seen recommended elsewhere, so if you offer it to others, be sure to give me credit (he said with a smile). When I took a year off to write full-time, I knew I would need someone else watching over me to make sure I actually got my work done. Since the only reason I had this opportunity was because Nomi was willing to support us for the year, she in essence became my boss. I had a daily page quota, and every day I had to email those pages to her so she would know that I had gotten them done. By our arrangement, I couldn't slack off, because if I did, I'd be falling down on the job. And treating writing as a job, where your boss can fire you if you don't get your work done, can be one of the best spurs for actually getting your work done.

Any other techniques for avoiding procrastination that others would like to offer? My guess is that we'd all benefit from such advice.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

With rule #69, Masello advises us that writers are never completely satisfied with our work. Even after we've been over a draft a dozen times, when the work finally appears in print we're still liable to read it with far too critical an eye, scouring it for flaws that may seem inconsequential to others.

But Masello says that this isn't such a bad thing. As writers, we're supposed to want to get every word perfect. I can definitely understand where he's coming from. If we're really totally satisfied with our work, we'll never look for ways to improve. It's true that many of us have debates between our inner writer and inner editor, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. As long as we don't let ourselves get paralyzed by over-analysis, it's okay to grumble and fuss over our writing.

It's one thing when it's ourselves doing it, but quite another thing when it's others. I was just at Readercon, and one of the many conversations I had with other writers dealt with the difference between critique and criticism. Those of us in the discussion had pretty much the same opinion. Before the story has been sent out, when we're submitting it to a workshop or an ideal reader, we're looking for critique that will help us improve the story. But once the story is published and out in the world, in a final, somewhat irrevocable form, we really don't want to hear any criticism. There's nothing more we can do with that story now, and all the criticism will do is make us feel bad.

I recall once hearing a story about Stan Lee. It may be apocryphal, but it's still a good story. Supposedly, a fan getting an autograph from Lee referred to one of Lee's comics as one of the worst pieces of trash ever written. Lee smiled throughout the criticism. When that fan left, the next fan on line asked Lee how he deals with that sort of thing. Lee's response: "I'm my own biggest fan. You have to be."

I'll grumble and fuss over my own work, thank you very much.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

With rule #68, Masello warns us against writing in a fit of passion. He seems to be reacting to a piece of advice he's found in other books, which is to write when you feel most passionate about something. But he warns that such writing tends to come out less than coherent, and will most likely need a good dose of revision.

From my own experience, I have to say that I tend to disagree with this rule. Perhaps I'm confusing passion with obsession, but in general I've found that the stories I'm most passionate about are the ones that flow the easiest, and the ones that garner most of the attention.

If I may, allow me to discuss how I tend to come to write one of my own stories. (Yes, I know this is a digression. I'm using Robert's Rules as a springboard in this case.) What usually happens is that I start with an idea. Or, rather, I should say that an idea comes to me. Furthermore, the idea comes to stay for a long time. It takes up residence in my mind, and refuses to even consider leaving until I've started to jot down a few notes on how to turn it into a story. In fact, in order to exorcise the idea completely, I generally have to write the story, submit it somewhere, and see it published. (Examples of such stories include "Time Ablaze" and "Paying It Forward.")

So when I'm obsessed by a story, I tend to write it next. And, interestingly enough, those stories usually require the least revision. It's the stories whose words flow like molasses in winter that require the most rewriting.

So does this mean I would dismiss rule #68 entirely? Well, not quite. Because I can understand how in the throes of passionate writing, writers might rush through so many thoughts that they lose the narrative thread that holds the words together. To me, Masello's rule #68 is just another way of saying that it's always a good idea to take a second look at your work before you offer it up for publication.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

With rule #67, Masello suggests finding an intelligent, diplomatic friend to serve as an "ideal reader." In contrast with his previous rule, in which he advised writers to "doubt everyone" when it came to taking advice, with this rule he suggests that taking advice from someone can be beneficial -- as long as it's the right someone. But how do you find an ideal reader?

My first experience with the concept of an ideal reader took place in college. A friend I shall call F. got me reading science fiction short stories again by presenting me with a subscription to Asimov's for my birthday. F. herself was a reader of science fiction, and so for many years after that, every time I sat down to write, I kept imagining what F. would say about my work. I actually once told her that I was writing for her, an audience of one; she seemed amused by the revelation.

But in fact, F. wasn't actually serving as an ideal reader because she never looked at my prose in its raw form. And while Masello recommends this method, too (of imagining what a friend might say), it's far better if you can actually find an ideal reader to read and evaluate your work.

In my case, the ideal reader is my wife. I know I'm very lucky in that regard. Many writers have spouses who don't understand their desire to write. Nomi is an editor and writer herself, and has a very good eye and ear when it comes to prose. My general rule is not to submit any stories or essays anywhere without first running them by Nomi. As a result, she has become sensitized to the kind of errors I tend to make in sentence structure, which makes her even more of an ideal reader for me. (See, Nomi? I used "which" correctly this time.)

She's also very good at diagnosing plot problems and suggesting fixes. A few years ago, I finished a story that made me proud, and I ran it by Nomi before submitting it. Nomi liked the story a lot, but felt that the ending was a cop-out. I argued with her that I needed to keep the ending vague, but she would have none of that. So I rewrote the ending and sent it to Stan Schmidt at Analog.

When Stan called me to tell me he was buying the story, I said thanks and mumbled something about the flaw.

"Oh?" he said, his voice climbing in pitch. "What flaw?"

"Oh, there's no flaw there now," I said quickly. I described my original ending, and explained how Nomi hadn't approved of it.

"Oh," Stan said when I finished. He paused for a moment, then continued.

"Nomi's right. That original ending wouldn't have worked. From now on, don't send me anything until she's seen it first."

And so there you have it. An ideal reader can save you from story rejection and possible embarrassment. But, as I asked before, how do you find an ideal reader in the first place?

Well, if you're not lucky enough to marry one, I'd suggest (as Masello does) finding a fellow writer whose work you like and whose critique you trust. If the two of you can serve as each other's ideal reader, even better. A mutually symbiotic relationship can help improve both of your stories. And who knows? You might even end up taking that extra step and collaborating on a story.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Tap, tap....is this thing on? I know the microphone has gotten a bit rusty since I last posted on of these (December 19, 2006, for those of you keeping track at home), but I didn't realize just how encrusted it had gotten. Let me just clean it off...


When I first started this project back in 2005, I tried to post my "Robert's Rules" commentaries about three times a week. Sometimes it ended up being only twice a week, but I still managed to post with some regularity.

Obviously, there have been some recent upheavals in my life, and blogging about "Robert's Rules of Writing" had to fall to the wayside. But I think I'm back now, and my more modest goal is to post a commentary at least once a week. If I manage to do more, that would be great too, but if not, once a week is a manageable goal. And it'll give me something to talk about all the way into 2008.

For those of you who are coming to these discussions anew, note that you can always find all the Robert's Rules commentary posts by using the address http://mabfan.livejournal.com/tag/roberts-rules.

And now, to the actual commentary.

With rule #66, "Doubt Everyone," Masello discusses the pitfalls of listening to the advice of others when it comes to your writing. He points out that although writing workshops are helpful, the advice offered can sometimes dilute a writer's own voice. And he cites the personal experience of listening to agents and editors tell him not to bother with writing certain books, only to find other books on those topics showing up in bookstores a year later.

Having just been a guest lecturer at the Odyssey workshop on Sunday, I've actually been ruminating on this rule a lot. As I listened to the students critiquing stories, I flashed back to my own workshop experiences. I remember how James Patrick Kelly analyzed one of my stories and gave me two pages of notes on how to fix the story...but I couldn't help but notice that his suggestions would have made the story much more a Kelly story than a Burstein story.

On the other hand, I had written a story about our universe getting in touch with a parallel one, and when Howard Waldrop read it, he gave me one piece of advice: set the story in the other universe. I adapted his advice by setting the story in both universes, and it led to a Hugo nomination, so I'm glad that I didn't doubt Howard's advice in that case.

But there are many examples of where Masello's rule is well applied.

For example, it's no secret that Daniel Keyes was told by many editors that if he would just change the ending of "Flowers for Algernon," they would be happy to publish it. I don't want to mention any spoilers here, but anyone who has read the short story or the novel knows how vital the final scene of the tale is. The story's ending resonates so well with what has come before that I can't imagine it ending any other way.

In my own personal experience, I've sometimes found that it's necessary to doubt even one's writing collaborators. A few years back, I collaborated on a story with my friend Charles Ardai called "Nor Through Inaction", that appeared in the October 1998 Analog. Although he writes the occasional science fiction or fantasy story, Charles's forte is mysteries, and in one of the revisions of the story he introduced a plot element involving a computer reading old hard-boiled mystery novels aloud to our trapped protagonist.

But on the other hand...at Odyssey on Sunday, almost everyone gave the same piece of advice to one writer regarding her story. And when it came time for me to add my thoughts, I shared a line from the Talmud, which I paraphrase here: When one person tells you that you're a donkey, pay him no heed. But if two people tell you that you're a donkey, buy yourself a saddle.

So how do you know when to doubt everyone? And how do you know when to accept the advice of others?

In the end, my advice would be to follow these two steps:

1. Solicit the opinions of people you trust.
2. Never take any advice that destroys the heart of your story.

Because in the end, it's your story, and no one else's.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

With rule #65, Robert Masello morphs from a mild-mannered freelance writer into am evil supervillain, bent on world domination...

No, not really. I just wanted to see if you were paying attention.

Rule #65 has to do with rewriting. Basically, Masello's for it. And, in general, I am too.

Writers will give varying pieces of advice on rewriting. Some will tell you that books aren't written, but rewritten, and that you should do at least two drafts of anything you write before you submit it. Others will suggest that you get it right the first time.

I hate to sound like Polonius, but I honestly feel that it depends on what kind of writer you are. Some writers find that their first drafts are very close to their final drafts, if not final already. Others come to the realization that they need to go over their work one or two more times before it's ready. In any case, the most important thing is to figure out what kind of writer you are, and write accordingly.

The one statement I would stand behind, though, is this: With limited exceptions, never begin writing anything with the assumption that you'll just fix the whole thing when you rewrite it. That assumption can lead to sloppy writing and result in a weaker first draft than you might otherwise be capable of creating.

Being willing to rewrite can lead to uncovering gems of prose that you might not have realized you had within you. Rewriting can also lead to great improvement in your work, if you're willing to jettison some of your earlier prose that no longer fits.

To that end, let me quote this one sentence from Masello's essay: "Many times the very thing that sparked your imagination, that got you writing this particular piece in the first place, will turn out to be, by the time you're done, irrelevant or besides the point."

That nugget of truth reminded me of the process that went into writing my short story "Kaddish for the Last Survivor" (Analog, November 2000). The impetus or genesis for that story was a particular image, an ending scene that I adored. I wrote that ending scene first, it was so important to me, and then I wrote the rest of the story to lead up to it.

And then...and then...encouraged by the advice of a few early readers, I came to see that my original ending simply did not work as well for the story as something else would. So, most reluctantly, I removed that scene and wrote a new one, and the story ended differently.

Did it work? Well, the story ended up on a few awards ballots and is probably my most well-regarded tale at this point. Is the new ending better than the original ending? It certainly fits the story better, although to this day I'm sorry I lost that image.

Did I show no mercy? Most certainly.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

With this rule, Masello tackles the issue of longer books versus shorter ones. In a few brief pages, he gives some advice I've run across in many other books. The essential nugget is that a novel has one significant advantage over short stories. A novel can be long. A novel gives the writer room to explore, to go into detail, and to draw people into the story, in ways that shorter fiction can't.

Now, this is all well and good if your natural tendency is to write long. Then you can explore every nook and cranny of your characters and every facet of your background and plot. But what if your tendency is to write short? When I started trying to write fiction, I was naturally a short story writer. Since then, I've managed to become more comfortable with longer works, to the point where now when I sit down to write a story, it usually comes out as a novelette or novella.

I think part of that tendency to write shorter works came from my own personal preference. I just like short stories. There's something about the dip into a fictional world I find bracing, although Masello notes that he prefers a long soak much more. And, frankly, Masello's preference for novels does have one more advantage over my preference for short stories.

As Lawrence Block once noted in an essay, the readers of fiction bestsellers in this country -- meaning the majority of people buying novels -- seem to prefer longer books. A lot of readers seem to feel like Masello says he does, when he says that he enjoys spending long periods of time inside the fictional world that a writer has created. So if your goal is to hit the bestseller lists, then from a commercial perspective you need to consider the length of your work. And if, like me, that doesn't come naturally to you, what can you do?

I'll tell you what I did. I learned to outline.

I'm veering off somewhat from Masello's own discussion, but that's okay, as the point of these posts is to use his rules as a springboard. And even though I've probably discussed outlining before -- in fact, I'm about to reiterate what I said when I discussed Robert's Rule #49 -- it's still worth mentioning.

In order to learn what made a novel different from a short story, I sat down with a copy of The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer and I created my own outline of it. Doing so taught me a lot about how to make a work of fiction more layered and longer, without just puffing it up with air. So to anyone else who also writes more naturally at the shorter lengths, I offer that suggestion. Perhaps we'll all end up on the bestseller lists one day.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Masello's 63rd rule can really be stated quite simply, in one sentence:

Read your work aloud.

I first heard this piece of advice from James Patrick Kelly when I attended Clarion. I had submitted a story to the workshop, "'Til Death Do Us Part," and the less said about the plot of the story, the better. I recall vividly Jim's plethora of advice on how to fix the story. Many of his suggestions would have turned the story into a gonzo Jim Kelly story, and I despaired of getting it to work. But one piece of advice he gave me I was able to take to heart immediately.

"This story needs to be read aloud," he said.

Up until then, I tended to be more concerned with the look of the page than the sound of the words. After all, for the most part readers would experience my stories as words on the page, and not as words spoken aloud to them. And although I later learned that some writing workshops encouraged the participants to read their work aloud, all the workshops I had attended functioned differently. We had always read the stories by ourselves in advance, and not aloud in front of the group. Consequently, it had never even occurred to me that reading aloud was a possible tool, let alone a useful one.

(Aside: Often the best advice one learns is the stuff that seems obvious in retrospect. The first formal workshop class I took was with editor John Ordover, and at the time I had been sending out one of my stories to various editors and receiving personal feedback. But the letters were rejection notes, even if the editors gave me advice on how to improve the story. So I asked John, do I make the suggested changes even though the story is going to a different market? And he said, "Well, that depends. Do you agree with them?" The advice was worth the fifty bucks the workshop cost.)

So after Jim gave me his advice, I started to read my work aloud. And I discovered that I was enamored of writing techniques that sometimes made my meaning unclear. Reading aloud allowed me to avoid homonyms appearing too closely together (get it?). It also encouraged me to go through my work more slowly, at a reader's truer pace.

Finally, reading aloud also helped me get a better handle on dialogue. Dialogue, after all, is meant to be spoken language; what better way to make sure that it sounds real than to read it aloud? And scriptwriters should take special note of this, because if the prose sounds stilted or clumsy when read aloud, your actors will hate you.

I can't say that I've read aloud every story I've published. But I can say that the ones I read aloud before submitting tended to sell faster and earn more positive comments than the others.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

One of the most difficult things for any human being to do is to get inside the mind of another human being. We all live our lives from one perspective, our own. We all experience the world from within our fragile shells, and with our own personal biases. Entire professions exist to try to delve inside other people's minds, a task which sometimes seems impossible for the average person.

But writers have to try to get into other people's minds. And not just into the minds of friendly, good, and wholesome people like yourself. To create complete, complex, and well-rounded characters, writers need to get inside the heads of some of the most vile people imaginable.

I am in complete agreement with Masello's rule #62, and in fact I've seen it mentioned in other forms by many other writers before. For example, Orson Scott Card, in his book Character and Viewpoint, discusses the way Michael Bishop managed to get into the mind of a character who was dying of AIDS. Another book I read, whose title I can't recall at the moment, advised writers to get into the minds of murderers by asking ourselves what might cause us to feel murderous rage. Just because we're not such people ourselves doesn't mean we can't figure out what makes them tick, at least well enough to write a story about them.

But although I agree with this rule, I also often find it the hardest one to follow. Many writers will say that all their characters are extensions of themselves, and I'm afraid that I am no exception. Often I will find my characters reacting the way I would, even if I'm trying to write someone who is worlds apart from myself. So I've used a few tricks to stop myself, tricks that many others have used. Those tricks include creating characters with belief systems totally anathema to my own, and having characters do the opposite of what I would do in any given situation.

I welcome other suggestions.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

With this rule, Masello suggests that writers ought to be gossips.

I doubt he means that in a malicious way, of course, although from my own perspective gossip is generally not a good thing. What Masello suggests is that by trading a piece of juicy information for another piece of juicy information, a writer can find out the "private face of public affairs," and help create the motivations for believable characters.

That's something I can completely understand. If you want to create characters that come alive on the page, the best way to do that is to find out what makes real people tick. And sometimes, that requires getting the goods on your fellow human being.

As an example of useful gossip, let me tell you of a conversation I overheard yesterday afternoon at the Barnes & Noble in Brookline. Ironically, I was browsing the books in the writing section when a young man and a young woman in the same aisle were carrying on a private conversation. However, they didn't go away or lower their voices when I entered the aisle, so as far as I was concerned, they had no problem with a stranger listening in. (Perhaps they would have thought otherwise if they knew the stranger kept a blog, but then again, I was looking at the books on writing. That should have been a clue.) Their conversation went something like this:

Man: So she finally broke up with him, and the rest of us were very grateful, because we couldn't stand him.

Woman: Wow. That must have been good.

Man: Well, yeah. But then she got back together with him a month later, and it was really awkward.

I couldn't help but be curious about this conversation. I desperately wanted to know more. Had it not been outside the bounds of etiquette, I would have approached the man and asked him for more information. Why did his friend break up with her boyfriend? What did everyone say to her about him after the breakup? Did she share her friends' confidential low opinions with her boyfriend when they reunited? Is that why it's become so awkward? And so on.

Their conversation was the perfect dialogue for any writer to eavesdrop upon. When we write our stories, we're inviting our readers to drop in on the personal lives of our characters. We need to use whatever tricks we can to make those personal lives intriguing, and make our readers desperate to learn more. And I would challenge anyone privy to those snippets of gossip to deny their curiosity.

Hm. Perhaps we can even get a writing exercise out of this. Anyone who feels up to it, write the story of that man and his friend. As Masello would be the first to note, gossip has its uses.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

According to Masello's rule #60, one of the best things about being a writer is that you get to be nosy. Because only by being nosy do you get the details right.

It's fairly obvious that research is invaluable if you're writing nonfiction. If the article you're writing is supposed to be based on fact, you need to know the facts, and sometimes the best way to get those facts is by asking questions.

But it's also true that good fiction also relies on those twin concepts of accuracy and verisimilitude.

Although Masello mostly discusses how asking questions can help you create more believable characters, I'd like to revisit an experience of my own in asking questions -- and, in some sense, in being shameless.

A few years ago, I was working on a project for which I needed some information on what the FBI did on 9/11 and shortly afterwards. I had read some articles on how the events had affected them, but nothing gave me the immediate details that I needed to make a particular story come alive. And so I picked up the phone and called the FBI's New York City offices.

Fortunately, most law enforcement agencies have public information officers, whose job it is to deal with the press and public. I reached one of those agents, explained what I needed, and asked if it might be possible for me to pay a visit to their offices. As it so happened, Nomi and I were planning one of our regular trips to New York within a few weeks, and so we made an appointment to visit with the agent on a Wednesday.

We learned a lot on that visit, and I picked up some detail that will be useful if I ever do get back to that particular project. For example, the elevators that go to the FBI offices are behind bulletproof glass. When visiting, you have to turn over all personal electronics and weapons, and you have to wear a bright yellow badge that identifies you as a visitor. You are not to wander anywhere alone; you must have an escort with you at all times. (Of course, the details I really wanted was the feel of the offices, and I got that as well. But the impact I felt was mostly what it was like to be a visitor.)

Afterwards, Nomi and I still felt a certain level of disbelief that we had been allowed to visit the FBI's offices. But that disbelief was tempered with the knowledge of how we had done it. Basically, I had taken myself seriously as a writer, as someone who would have a legitimate reason for visiting the FBI's offices, in order to get the details right on a piece of fiction. By following my own dictum of not knowing shame, I was brave enough to make that phone call and request a visit.

So when it comes to Robert's Rule #60, I'm behind him 100%.

Copyright © Michael Burstein
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Following up on his essay about personage, Masello takes on the questions of using first person and/or putting yourself into your work -- when you're writing nonfiction.

Ah, the perennial question. Although in these responses to Masello's rules I'm mostly concerned with writing fiction, I've written nonfiction as well. Usually the question of how much you can put of yourself into a nonfiction piece depends on what the editor wants. For example, when I wrote autobiographical pieces, it was obvious that I was supposed to put myself in them. It was a little harder to figure out how much of myself to put in the articles I wrote about Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine. On the one hand, if I hadn't been enthusiastic about those shows, I wouldn't have wanted to write the articles. On the other hand, since the articles weren't about me, there was little reason to use first person for them.

Two perfect examples of the different approaches to take can be found in the two essays I've written so far for the BenBella SmartPop Books. The first essay is "We Find the One Quite Adequate: Religious Attitudes in Star Trek" in the new book Boarding the Enterprise: Transporters, Tribbles and the Vulcan Death Grip in Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek edited by Robert J. Sawyer and David Gerrold (August 2006). The essay concerns itself with how religion and religious behavior comes across in the original Star Trek series. Now, while it was true that I chose to write this essay because of my own religious behavior, I made a conscious choice to keep myself out of it. The point of the essay is to look at religion in Star Trek, not at my own attitudes towards religion in Star Trek. Even though there is opinion in the essay, there's also objctive analysis and discussion.

On the other hand, in my essay "The Friendly Neighborhood of Peter Parker" that will be published in Webslinger: SF and Comic Writers on Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, I took a decidedly different approach. The whole point of the essay is to illuminate the real Forest Hills, as opposed to the fictional one of the Marvel universe. In the essay, I endeavor to show how Peter Parker's life would have been like had he grown up in the real Forest Hills. And because I myself grew up in Forest Hills, the essay is inevitably infused with my own personal experience. It would have made no sense to leave my own persona out of that essay, since its very appeal is the author's presence. (Or so I would hope.)

The question of just how personal to make one's nonfiction reminds me of a story about the physicist N. David Mermin. In the 1980s, he had submitted a paper to the journal Physical Review B, and near the end, he had cited a "charming" monograph as a reference. Now, scientific journals tend to eschew informal language; scientists are encouraged to write their papers using third-person and passive voice (i.e. The experiment was started on a Tuesday). I think it has something to do with the ideal that science is objective; writing something like "I started the experiment on a Tuesday" would make the paper sound too subjective. (The idea, of course, is that anyone performing the same experiment should get the same results.)

Mermin, however, wanted to be more personal, which was one of the reasons he described the monograph as he did. The paper was accepted for publication, but the editor asked him if he could change the adjective to something like "important." Mermin's reply was that the monograph wasn't particularly important, but it was charming. And so the editor let it go through.

(By the way, if you want to read Mermin's own thoughts on writing about science, check out his essay/lecture Writing Physics.)

In the end, I'd have to say that the more personal you make your nonfiction, the more appealing it will be. But in general, it's going to boil down to the type of nonfiction you are writing.

Copyright © Michael Burstein
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

First, second, or third person? Many pages have been written about the benefits and pitfalls of those three different choices. How does one pick the appropriate narrative voice for a story? Masello shares his thoughts in the two pages he devotes to this rule; I thought I'd share mine here.

I've always subscribed to the notion that first person is the most natural way to write. For example, when we tell stories to others orally, we often use first person because, well, we're telling stories about ourselves. I'm not going to tell someone about something that happened to me and refer to myself in the third person. The point is too obvious to belabor.

When it comes to writing a story, however, some writers advise staying away from first person, and they list all sorts of pitfalls and traps one can fall into. For me, the oddest trap is having someone read a work of fiction I've written and assume that the "I" in the story is actually me. (My mother told me that it worried her when she read my story "Paying It Forward," since I began it with the sentence "I'm dying.") But despite the traps, I think first person is a fine narrative voice; I have to admit that most of my favorite books tend to be written in first person.

As for second person, I can see only one reason to use it, and that's to create an air of detachment. The perennial example of a good use of second person is Jay McInerney's novel Bright Lights, Big City; in fact, Masello mentions it before pretty much dismissing second person entirely. The entire point of that novel is that the main character, who remains unnamed throughout, is drifting through his life after the death of his mother. He can't get a handle on his daily existence, and in some ways it's like he's watching his own life through a haze from outside. Second person was the perfect choice for that kind of story.

(It occurs to me that second person is also useful in Choose Your Own Adventure books and interactive text adventures, but that's a different sort of story than a traditional narrative.)

And finally, we have third person, the traditional way to write a story. Although I haven't actually done a survey of my stories, I think most of the ones I've written have been in third person. The advantages to third person is that the writer can also alter viewpoints, and take on a more omniscient role in telling a tale.

So which voice should a writer use? As always, it comes down to what fits your story best.

Copyright © Michael Burstein
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

"Keep your day job" is probably one of the most common pieces of advice handed out to aspiring writers. Even writers who sell enough in a year or two to consider the possibility as more than just a remote fantasy are told to be patient. They're told to wait until you have X number of dollars in the bank from their writing, and a backlist of books that can keep them going in a lean year.

In general, it's a piece of advice I would give people as well. However, from my own experience, I know that sometimes the best piece of advice to give someone isn't "Keep your day job" but "Quit your day job."

As regular readers of this blog know, in the summer of 2004 I quit my day job to spend a year writing a novel. The novel I finished still hasn't sold to a publisher yet, but that's not really the important part in the grand scheme of things. The important part was that quitting my day job gave me spiritual fulfillment worth far more than the salary I had been earning. It gave me a chance to focus on one project and to learn through the novel-writing process of writing a novel just what I needed to do.

So, based on my own personal experience, I'd be willing to recommend quitting one's day job as a viable alternative. However, it's not a blanket piece of advice. Because if you do quit your day job to write, you really do need some sort of safety net so that you can eat for the year. In my case, I was very fortunate. Nomi was willing to see my year through, so we were able to manage for that time on her salary and her company's health insurance plan. (Never give up health insurance if at all possible.) If I had been on my own, and wanted to give up my day job to write, it wouldn't have been nearly as easy.

But...sometimes a work situation can become so detrimental to your writing that you really have no choice. Sometimes you have to take drastic measures if you want to write. And in the end, only you can judge for yourself the best course of action.

(As a final note, I should add that Masello's essay actually goes into other advice to the prospective freelance; for example, in a few brief paragraphs, he points out the type of writing that tends to sell more. If you're really looking to support yourself as a freelance writer, his advice is worth looking into.)

Copyright © Michael Burstein
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

I love this rule, because Masello takes to task the oft-asked question, "Do you want to write...or do you just want to be a writer?"

Here's the background. Aspiring writers are often asked that question by more well-established writers, who know that the private life of a writer is different from that of the public perception. The point of the question is to remind the aspiring writer that real writers don't just sit back and receive admiration from the world around them. Nor do they sit around fantasizing about the accolades that will one day be theirs. Instead, they go back to their computers, day after day, filling their actual need to write. If you don't need to write, the question implies, then you're not a real writer. And to be a real writer, you shouldn't waste your time imagining your life as a success.

To which Masello says: hogwash.

(Well, not quite. But you get the idea.)

Masello points out, quite correctly in my opinion, that there's nothing wrong with imagining yourself as the writer you want to be. He notes that it can serve as a form of motivation. And I have to agree with him. Yes, I work at writing my stories. But I also dream about how those stories will be received by others, and how people will react favorably toward me when they've read something of mine that moved them.

In other words, I think all of us who write have, in some way, bought the smoking jacket. We're writers, after all, with (we hope) vivid imaginations. Surely we've imagined ourselves in a variety of successful scenarios and used those dreams to help us get started.

Another writer, Carolyn See, discusses this as well in her book Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers. She talks about visualizing yourself as the kind of writer you want to be -- and then becoming that person once you've proven you can.

Let me take you through a small piece of my own personal journey for a moment, if you're willing to come along.

Read more... )

So I have to recommend that visualization exercise to anyone who wants to become a writer. Sit back, relax, and close your eyes. Imagine yourself as the kind of writer you want to be. And then get up and write, but also do something else to start living that role, even if it's only in your own head for a while. Order the "Writer" business cards and keep them locked in your desk for the moment. Create a set of personalized stationery for yourself that calls you a writer. Or, as Masello recommends, buy that smoking jacket.

Once you've published a bit, you can begin to take on the public persona that you wanted to develop. For example, when I started to go to conventions, I chose to wear a blazer over a button-down shirt, but with no tie. Now, I know that ties tend to be mostly absent from science fiction conventions, but blazers also aren't as common as T-shirts. However, I decided that I was the kind of writer who wore a blazer, and so that's what I did. And sometimes, when the words flowed like molasses in winter (to use a cliche), keeping up a self-image of a successful writer was what kept me going at the keyboard.

So dream. It's what we writers do best.

Copyright © Michael Burstein
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Let me tell you a story.

A few years ago, when I was just starting to publish short stories, I had a conversation with my half-brother David. He told me about a friend of his, a young woman who had sent her very first attempt at short fiction to The New Yorker magazine about twenty years before. And The New Yorker had bought that story from her, first crack out of the box.

"Oh, wow," I said. "That must have been horrible."

As indeed it was. This woman didn't understand at the time what an achievement she had accomplished. Instead, she had learned an odd lesson: you send a story to a magazine, and then they publish it. Isn't that what's supposed to happen?

It's like the old joke about the first-time golfer who scores a hole-in-one, and is surprised by the amazement of everyone around him. "Isn't that what you're supposed to do?" he asks. "Isn't that the point of the game?"

Indeed it is. But it's rare for it to happen like that.

In the case of David's friend, she hadn't been inoculated, as it were, by a series of repeated rejections before making that first sale. So when she sent her second, and then third, and then fourth story to The New Yorker, and they all got rejected, she started to wonder what was wrong with her and her stories, and in the end, she stopped writing and she stopped submitting.

Rejection is the name of the game. If you're a writer, if you're sending out stories or novels or articles or essays or whatever, you should expect at some point to have your work rejected. And for a few reasons, rejection can actually be a good thing. Besides the one I mentioned one above, here's a few more:

Rejection tells you that you're taking risks as a writer. If your work is always being accepted, perhaps you're not stretching your literary muscles enough.

Rejection reminds you not to coast on whatever laurels you've earned, but to treat every new project as one for which you want to do your best.

Rejection keeps you humble. Now, perhaps most people reading this feel that they don't need to be kept humble, but I bet you can all think of other writers for whom this would be a good thing.... :-)

And one final thought -- being rejected demonstrates that you're actually submitting work, showing that you're taking yourself seriously as a professional writer.

(By the way, Masello has some other thoughts and advice on rejection, which has little to do with what I've written about here. I encourage you to take a look.)

Copyright © Michael Burstein
[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Falling in love is almost always a wonderful feeling. Finding that special someone, that person who is just right for you, can make you feel like the happiest person in the world.

So, Masello notes, it's just as important to fall in love with your writing project. If you're not in love with your subject, you might find it difficult to see your project through to the end.

This is one rule that I agree with one hundred percent. If you don't love what you're writing, then why are you writing it?

Ahem. Okay, I will concede that there are many situations in which this may come up. If you're working as a freelance writer, taking on business assignments, it's unlikely that you're going to fall in love with the material. Or if all you know how to do is write, and you're desperately trying to pay the bills, then you might very well take on a project simply because it pays and you need the money.

But when you choose to take on a project of your own devising, or to write something on spec in the hopes that it will sell, you'll be a lot better off if it's something that you love.

Frankly, I find this valuable advice to remember when it comes to anthology invitations. Every so often, I get invited to contribute to an anthology. Usually, these anthologies have a specific theme for the stories. For example, perhaps all the stories have to be written from the first person PoV of an alien (I, Alien). Or maybe from the first person PoV of a woman, and all the writers are men (Men Writing Science Fiction as Women). Or your protagonist has to be a hero in training, at the start of a career (Heroes in Training).

Now, it's very easy to say "Yes!" the moment you're invited to contribute to an anthology. After all, you know that the editor expects you'll write an appropriate story, and chances are more likely than not that you'll have an easy acceptance to the book. But...if the theme is one that doesn't immediately get you thinking of an idea you'd like to play with for a week, chances are you'd be better off declining the invitation.

Going back to Lawrence Block again (I cite him a lot in these essays), in one of his books on writing he mentions how he hated confession stories, the kind that used to appear in pulp magazines, and he could never manage to write one. But one day an editor who knew him had three holes in a confession magazine, and he asked Block if he could help out by providing him with three stories by the end of the day. As Block put it, the editor bought the stories because he had to, and that was some of the hardest money Block ever earned.

Like many writers, I always have more ideas than I have time to write. So I sometimes do an exercise to help me choose my next project, an exercise I will share with you. I take my list of five or so ideas that are currently clamoring for my attention, read it over, and close my eyes. I let images from each idea come to mind, and whichever images seem most vivid, whatever idea is calling to me most loudly...that's what I write next.

Copyright © Michael Burstein

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