This year I want to try something that might sound a bit hardcore. I want to insist on working with authors that will do what I tell them. Or rather, I want to suggest they do something very specific, and then I want to confine my advice to their attempts to do those things. I have found, over the years, that authors expect one of a number of different kinds of conversation about their writing process. I don’t think all of those conversations are equally productive. In fact, I don’t know how to make a constructive contribution to very many of them. What I know is how people can become better and happier writers. But for my advice to work they have to follow a few simple rules.
Over the next few posts I am going to try to defend those rules, both in general and in their specifics. At the most general level I have to defend the very idea of writing according to rules. Many people have been taught something completely different about what writing is and how to get it done. I have to convince them to set aside this understanding and the often bad habits it inspires. Next, I have to defend the apparent rigidity of the rules. “How can anyone work under those conditions?” people sometimes think. I have to show them how little the rules ultimately demand of them and how little of their time I actually propose to “micro manage”. Finally, the rules themselves, each and severally, will probably warrant some explanation.
The most important thing to understand about these rules (other than to take them with touch of irony) is that their normative force is directed at the part of you that wants to become a better a writer, or at least the part of you that wants to keep your prose in shape. I am not saying that anything that was not written according to my rules is fit for the wastepaper basket. I am proposing a discipline that will make you a more reliable composer of publishable prose. When your piano teacher or fitness instructor tells you to do something in a particular way, you do it with the understanding that it will teach you something, not that, simply by following this particular instruction, you will thereby be doing it the right way. There is no one right way to anything, and even when you follow an instruction there’s no guarantee that you’re doing it well. But it is possible to make a deliberate effort towards discovering the right way for you to do something.
My rules provide you with a time and space in which to make these deliberations. If you follow them, I know what you are trying to do. And when I know know what you are trying to do, I can help you do it better. That’s why I’m going to try to insist that you follow them–at least try to follow them–if you’re going to ask for my advice. Don’t worry though. I’m a softy at heart. And I know rules were meant to be bent and broken.