Let’s grab a few ordinary words, throw them in some incomplete sentences, mix in some bad grammar, and see what we come up with:
In a couple of days they come and
Take me away
But the press let the story leak
And when the radical priest
Come to get me released
We was all on the cover of Newsweek
So how does Paul Simon do that – in such a disarmingly simple, but breathtakingly brilliant way?
What makes a novel gripping, a blog post empowering, or puts the poetic in poetry?
I get a lot of letters and emails from aspiring writers, asking for my insights on the craft of writing. Usually I just direct them to a couple of my favorite books, The War of Art and On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. And to this Twitter feed.
But if pressed, I do have some thoughts to share with you. So if writing is your thing, here are the nine rules I follow for making it special:
1) The real triumph isn’t developing new ideas as much as it is about blowing up old ones.
The world doesn’t need more recaps, rehashes, and summaries. We’re looking for something bold, daring and imaginative. Something that excites us and makes us see something about the world (or another world) in a way we’ve never seen it before.
So let go of your expectations, programming, preconceptions and existing ideas – and begin with something fresh.
2) The first five drafts are shit.
Really. Except every once in a while – maybe every thousand things or so you write – the magic happens on the first draft.
But if it’s the first draft of your first poem, first story, or first novel – that isn’t it. That’s the built-in delusion of the beginning writer leading you on. Trust me, it’s shit.
Even though your mother and your spouse say it’s amazing. They have the same disease you do, just by osmosis.
But that’s okay, it’s all good. You start by writing garbage, and then you write stuff that’s okay. Next you progress to stuff that’s actually good. If you stay with it, work on your craft, and persevere, you will sometimes write something amazeballs magnificent the first time around...
The moon is in the seventh house, Jupiter aligns with Mars, you’ve had the perfect percolation, gestation and incubation of heartbreak, class two narcotics, a dreary hotel room, and a Dwight Yoakum soundtrack – and you’ve produced the great American novel, a love song people will cry over, or a blog post that will change the world.
You’ll know it when you got it. And know that for the next thing you write, the first five drafts will be shit.
3) Writers write.
That’s what we do. Posing over the keyboard at Starbucks doesn’t qualify. Telling people you’re an author at dinner parties doesn’t either. If you want to be a writer, you have to write every day.
You ever heard of dentist’s block? Neither have I.
You don’t find time to write; you make time to write. You don’t wait for inspiration to strike. You drag it kicking and screaming from your subconscious mind. Or you massage it from the first five drafts of shit.
4) Tell us a story.
This isn’t as hard as writers and speakers make it look. We don’t need more statistics, better footnotes, or more validation from pundits. There’s a place for charts, graphs and figures. Just not from you.
We want the lesson, principle or philosophy you’re driving at. But if you really want us to own it – break it down into the human element and captivate us with the story behind the story.
5) Have a point of view.
One that is actually yours. We don’t buy your book to get a book report of someone else’s. We don’t read your blog to find out if this social media fad is going to last or we should be kind to animals. Tell us something we don’t know yet.
Be generous.Give credit, quote others, and provide us with links to the relevant stuff that supports your case. Be a conduit for awesome-sauce. But always remember that we’re reading your book, or your blog or your story for your unique thoughts and insights.
Challenge us, get in our face a little; tell us the stuff we may not want to hear, but need to.
We need you to be a little arrogant. Not arrogance in telling us how great you are or how big your book advance was, because that just brings out the pettiness of both of us. But we need you to be cocky enough to believe you have something important to say and that we should listen to you.
Tell us about the opportunity JFK missed, the insight Gandhi left out, or the theory Einstein got wrong.
Most importantly, tell us about the thing we’re missing – the thing that’s holding us back from breaking through into the next great accomplishment we’re seeking.
If you want to be a thought leader, capture our imagination, or change the world – be willing to give up the need to be liked. Telling people what they want to hear makes you popular. Telling people what they need to hear makes you relevant, empowering, and significant.
And what better qualities for a writer are there than being relevant, empowering, and significant?
6) Edit ruthlessly.
Our natural inclination is to think editing involves addition, but it’s usually subtraction. Like Michelangelo chipping away the stone, you find the perfect words only by eliminating the non-essential ones.
7) Kill distractions.
Normal people don’t think writing is real work, so they have no inhibitions about interrupting you at any time. You have to set boundaries with family and friends, and create a safe space you can work.
It’s just a hunch, but I don’t think Shakespeare, Falkner or Hemingway had very good Internet connections. Those cat videos and surfing dogs don’t provide as much real inspiration as you think they do. When the writing starts, the email and phone lines need to stop.
Multitasking is one of those little lies we tell ourselves to avoid self-discipline. Real writing requires focus without distractions. And that focus needs breaks, so take them. But make the breaks breaks, and the writing writing.
8) Let the work be the work.
Seek and embrace feedback from the right people at the appropriate stage of writing. That’s people you trust, who want only the highest good for you, and they are qualified to give the advice. If they don’t match in all three areas, their advice will be counter-productive. If you have one or two people in your world who meet these criteria, you’re doing amazing. So get feedback if you can, at the proper stages.
But once the work is done, it’s done...
Don’t defend the work. The work is the work.
Don’t debate the work. The work is the work.
Don’t feed the trolls. Some people come from different agendas and want to attack the motives for the work or the artist who did the work. Never get drawn into that, because there is the road to endless distractions.
Do defend and debate the ideas in the work. That’s when things get really interesting.
Do allow people to challenge your beliefs. That’s where the best breakthroughs live.
Don’t allow people to challenge your confidence. You have enough self-doubt already, you don’t need to collect any more. Tell your truth as you know it and let it stand.
Don’t try to please everybody. In fact, do the opposite: try to piss some people off, because if you did, then you’re probably writing something that matters.
9) Any of the first eight rules can be negated.
They all can be annulled by the mother of all rules – which states that any rule can be broken – provided you know you’re breaking it and why.
Thoughts? What rules did I leave out that you think belong here?
Randy Gage is the author of nine international bestsellers on success, including, Risky Is the New Safe. He’s currently on sabbatical, writing his next book, but posts occasionally here. If you find these postcards helpful, please share them.