Writing Rules – Part II

(Yes, I’m thinking of making this a series)

By Bob McCrillis

Who knew?

While poking around on the internet to find some of Ray Bradbury’s earliest short stories, I discovered his twelve rules for writing. Elmore Leonard wasn’t the only one – imagine. A celebrated author, presumably with a busy schedule, took the time to codify his rules and tips.  His willingness to share them with the world was, to me, even more shocking – why encourage competitors?

My much-boasted-about short story per week for a year effort came from the first of Mr. Bradbury’s twelve rules:

  • Don’t start out writing novels. They take too long. Begin your writing life instead by cranking out “a hell of a lot of short stories,” as many as one per week. Take a year to do it; he claims that it simply isn’t possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row. He waited until the age of 30 to write his first novel, Fahrenheit 451. “Worth waiting for, huh?”

When a good friend and advisor suggested I start writing short stories, I rebelled. Nobody publishes short stories, says I. Why would I waste my time? I’ve always had a high opinion of my writing ability, misplaced though it may have been. With three unfinished novels in the file what I wanted most out of this writing business was to write a darn novel and get one unrelated person to pay American money for it. Of course, I hoped there would be thousands. more clamoring. What a dope.

This brings me to Ray’s ninth point – I feel like I can call him Ray since I’ve splashed his name all over my website and blog posts:

  • Don’t plan on making money. He and his wife, who “took a vow of poverty” to marry him, hit 37 before they could afford a car (and he still never got around to picking up a license).

Yeah, we probably all harbor the secret hope that we might gain money and fame through our writing. At my age, my best chance of that would be writing bad checks.

Now that I’ve faced the low probability of financial gain, the short story format is rapidly becoming my favorite. No getting bogged down in intricate plots. No wasting thousands of words to discover that the idea was dumb. No waiting three of four months before having anything that even resembles a finished story.

Edgar Allan Poe, a short story writer, claimed the right length for a short story was one that could be read in one sitting. For me, that means somewhere between three thousand and four thousand words. That has turned out to be a tight constraint. A thousand words or so is perfect for a single intense emotional moment but every time I try to write a mystery, I blow past six thousand words with no trouble – last week’s Dear Heart was 7,031 words. I’ve got to learn to plot better.

My final thought for this week is George Orwell’s final entry on his list of rules:

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

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