Friday, April 5, 2013

Ten Commandments for Writers*

     I check and recheck my writing (short story, essay, poem), and to be positively sure, I recheck again for facts, grammar, punctuation, adverbs, and adjectives. Then I commit final triage, liposuctioning misfits, maladroits, and other scalawags that do little to bolster my creative intent. After, I make a few hand-to-forehead gestures with some audibles, but I'm learning from those mistakes and oversights.

     One year I plucked Stein on Writing off a bookstore shelf, perused the table of contents and a few chapters, and bought the volume. Right now, it's sticky-noted, annotated, and high-lighted. The book ends with Part VII, "Where to Get Help." It's here I double-check my work, especially against his Ten Commandments, which are:
    Stein on Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies
  1. Thou shalt not sprinkle characters into a preconceived plot lest thou produce hackwork. In the beginning was the character, then the word, and from the character's words is brought forth action.
  2. Thou shalt imbue thy heroes with faults and thy villains with charm, for it is the faults of the hero that bring forth his life, just as the charm of the villain is the honey with which he lures the innocent.
  3. Thy characters shall steal, kill, dishonor their parents, bear false witness, and covet their neighbor's house, manservant, maidservant, wife, ox, and ass, for readers crave such actions and yawn when thy characters are meek, innocent, for-giving, and peaceable.
  4. Thou shalt not saw the air with abstractions, for readers, like lovers, are attracted by particularity.
  5. Thou shalt not mutter, whisper, blurt, bellow, or scream, for it is the words and not the characterization of the words that must carry their own decibels.
  6. Thou shalt infect thy reader with anxiety, stress, and tension, for those conditions that he deplores in life he relishes in fiction.
  7. Thy language shall be precise, clear, and bear the wings of angels, for anything less is the province of businessmen and academics and not of writers.
  8. Thou shalt have no rest on the sabbath, for thy characters shall live in thy mind and memory now and forever.
  9. Thou shalt not forget that dialogue is as a foreign tongue, a semblance of speech and not a record of it, a language in which directness diminishes and obliqueness sings.
  10. Above all, thou shalt not vent thy emotions onto the reader, for thy duty is to evoke the reader's emotions, and in that most of all lies the art of the writer.
I use these to check against my short stories or essays as they near homestretch. I pencil in the Commandment numbers that make the mark on my draft. The missing ones tell me I need to revisit my work. Writing is all about moving forward, and learning to get it right, isn't it?

* Chapter 35: A Final Word