I just got off the phone with my editor in upstate New York. We were discussing my new book, and I found myself explaining why I couldn’t tell the story in one way but had to tell it in another.
“How come?” she said. “You’ll be missing out on some exciting scenes if you tell it that way.”
And she was right. The problem was, those scenes I’d be missing would have to be excessively gory. And I didn’t want to go there. I’m squeamish that way.
This guest post is by Robert Masello. Masello is an award-winning journalist, television writer, and bestselling author of many novels and nonfiction books. His most recent novels, published in more than a dozen languages, include The Romanov Cross, The Medusa Amulet, and Blood and Ice. His guide to composition, Robert’s Rules of Writing, has been adopted in many college classrooms. His articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in prominent publications such as the Los Angeles Times, New York magazine, People, Newsday, and the Washington Post. A long-standing member of the Writers Guild of America, he has taught and lectured at colleges and universities nationwide, including the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He also served as visiting lecturer in literature at Claremont McKenna College for six years. A native of Evanston, Illinois, he now lives and works in Santa Monica, California.
Which is when I realized that I, like every author, have a veritable catalog of things I won’t do, for a host of reasons, or don’t do, for a host of others. These unwritten Rules of Engagement shape every author’s body of work, and are in large measure responsible for defining and attracting the audience he or she has. I’m not judging other writers – we all proceed by our own light, telling the stories we feel compelled to tell, in the way we best know how – but a few of the things I avoid as much as I possibly can are the following:
1. No hurting kids.
To me, it’s generally a cheap shot, and makes me uncomfortable on too many levels. A writer/friend of mine, and a very talented guy to boot, wrote book after book that didn’t do so well, and I do think part of the problem was his insistence on mutilating, abusing, and grimly dispatching kids. Once, I ventured to suggest as much, but he took immediate umbrage and I backed off. Writers are such a touchy lot.
2. No hurting animals.
In my previous books, I have way too often done away with domestic pets and other critters. Even then, I didn’t like it when, for plot purposes, I did it, and having become quite the animal rights person of late, I wish I could go back and undo some of the material already published. In fact, I actually tried to do it with a later edition of one of my books – I was trying to save some sled dogs that did not need to meet such a terrible fate — but the publishing house flatly said no, and acted like I was nuts even to have asked.
3. As little profanity as possible.
Geez, I just realized how prudish I’m starting to sound – and I’m not, honestly! – but an agent of mine, years ago, told me to use it sparingly. “It has a much stronger effect if it’s deployed with precision.” And she was right. If you sprinkle a character’s dialogue with a word or two, here and there, the effect carries over in the reader’s mind to everything he says. And by the way, I have recently noted a number of reader reviews of my most recent book – The Einstein Prophecy – that specifically comment, and compliment me, on, the relatively clean language and comparatively tasteful sex scenes. Who knew?
4. No police presence.
Now plenty of writers do cops and detectives really really well, and for me that is the problem. I could never get that right the way that they so instinctively do. So I try to avoid writing murders or other crimes that would necessitate a visit from the constabulary, or worse yet, a continuing police involvement in the story. Mysteries and murder investigations have never been to my taste anyway, unless perhaps the crime has been committed by some otherworldy force. God help me, but I have an affinity for the supernatural. Even Einstein comes up against it, and very nearly loses. (Or does he?)
Even the supernatural elements have to obey the rules. I don’t care what rules you want to set up — the vampires can walk around in the daylight unharmed, the ghosts can’t pass through walls, the demon needs a physical body to get around in (and it has to a Kardashian), whatever you want — but once you’ve established them, you have to stick to them. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!] Nothing bores me more than stories in which the monster is dispatched in seventeen different ways but always bounces back undeterred. In one old Dracula movie I saw, the Count backed away from a crucifix in terror in one scene, then grabbed it and turned it to flame in another. Which is it? Choose!
That’s precisely what writers have to do all day long.
What Unwritten Rules of Engagement do you have as a writer? Leave it in the comments below.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.