Art will never be a science, and of the many stateable rules about good writing, not all will apply to every writer. Here, author Poe Ballantine offers the 10 rules of good writing that have worked for him.
by Poe Ballantine
Poet, novelist and short story writer W. Somerset Maugham said there are three rules to writing, but no one knows what they are. Funny, but not true. I’ve published seven books and hundreds of stories and essays, won a few prizes along the way, and I’m here to tell you that there are many stateable rules about good writing, 10 of which, some old, some new, all refined from personal experience, I present to you here. Art will never be a science, and these are my rules of course, but you’re welcome to them.
10 Rules for Good Writing
Rule No. 1: Forget the Hemingway Saying About Writing What You Know.
Writing what you know can be quite tedious for everyone involved. Wheat, for example. Write instead what you’re passionate about. Write what you love. Experience joy so that you may transmit joy. A novel typically takes me 20 years to get right, as was the case with my most recent novel, Whirlaway, so in order to sustain interest I had to have a 12-foot base of sweet-and-salty passion to keep me going. Love what you do and your readers might just love it too.
Rule No. 2: Get Serious About the Material.
Larks have short lives. Unless you’re a prose stylist on the level of Proust, your novel about vampires or prairie flowers is going to start losing speed around page 12. Therefore, besides a sub-story, a riveting character or two, some nifty switchback, a theme worthy of exploration, and a few questions you are personally interested in knowing the answers to—some deep examination of the human condition, death, God, identity, transmigration, loss, transformation, mother, matter, love or time—is required. My newest novel, Whirlaway, for example, is about a boy who dies diving from a sea cliff in San Diego. But does he really die? And if not why is he wearing a Ronald Reagan mask?
Rule No. 3: Use That Mud Under Your Feet.
It is said that a novelist needs roots, from which the waters of memory and the swollen molecules of perception are drawn. But mud, don’t forget, sustains the roots. It holds all the elements, particles from the stars, all history and recollection, and the shapes of things to come. Let your mind flood back until your bones are steeped and you know exactly where and what kind of ground upon which your narrator stands. I grew up in San Diego and its dreary blinding suburban sunlight, its empty freeways and hypnotic beaches and war machines. This was the matrix for Whirlaway, which came as naturally to me as the coursing of my own blood.
Rule No. 4: Do Not Fear Formula, for That Is Your Destiny.
Realize that your work, unless it is highly experimental (and thus commercially untenable) will likely fall into the category of formula. What separates stories is not the stories themselves, but the voice and views of the teller, the people, places, and details described. Personality and detail are what distinguish one story about an alcoholic father or a heroic alligator from another. If you don’t know the ten basic literary formulae I’ve included them below.
- Love: boy meets girl, loses girl, wins her back again.
- Success: the lead character wants to achieve and succeed at all costs.
- Cinderella: an “ugly duckling” is transformed.
- Triangle: three characters embroiled in a romantic entanglement.
- Return: a long lost lover, wandering father, missing husband, etc. returns.
- Vengeance: the basic template for mystery and suspense.
- Conversion: the bad guy turns good (or vice versa, former works better as pop formula).
- Sacrifice: the lead character sacrifices his or her own good to help someone else.
- Family: the interrelationship of characters in a single place and situation. (In serious novels that win major prizes the families must be highly dysfunctional and the characters not particularly likeable, I’m not sure why).
- Jeopardy: a life and death situation, dealing with the survival instincts and prowess of the lead characters, usually with a lot of shit blowing up and an antagonist with a British or German accent, rarely French, never Canadian.
Note that formulae can be varied, spliced, altered, melded, and reversed, and that most long works use more than one formula. In Whirlaway I use 1, 5, 7 and 10.
Rule No. 5: Bubble Up Your Narrative with Effervescent Ingredients.
Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again, so what? What, however, if the girl is epileptic and a hell of an oboe player, and the boy has a provocative and possibly sylvan relationship with a harbor seal? Formula is inevitable, but now your reader is intrigued and you’ve got a little bit of room to run before they get married in the end. My novel Whirlaway is a rapid maze with counterpoint, hairpin turns, violated birthday cakes, wild mice, and the dead who will not stay so. Flashbacks, fantasies and dreams all make for good anchors and slabs. Can you shuffle two disparate ideas together and deal tarot at the poker game? If a story is a bottle of Dad’s Root Beer, it should be fizzy.
Rule No. 6: Reality Is Your Friend, and God/Nature Will Always be a Better Storyteller Than You.
90% of everything I’ve ever published was grounded in reality. Never mind that nonsense about any resemblance to real characters in this book being coincidental, if I make up a character or a completely manufacture a story line, chances are good that it won’t work (one of the reasons I struggle so much with third person). Sometimes it’s best to let God or Nature (I’m sure you believe in one or the other) do the heavy lifting. In all of everything I ever wrote that was decent, the plot, subplots, and principal characters were drawn from real life.
Rule No. 7: Persistence Trumps All.
You need five things to write: Luck, talent, life experience, heart and persistence—but persistence can make up for the lack of the first four. Heart, as we know from The Wizard of Oz, can be acquired, and lack of talent rarely stops anyone from making the bestseller lists. If you don’t believe me, read John Steinbeck’s letters and note how in the beginning he was not a very good writer, and although some critics would insist he never became a very good writer, I’d like to have a look at their Nobel Prizes in Literature.
Rule No. 8: Make Time to Write, Be Selfish if You Must.
I write three to six hours a day, more if I’m revising a project with a deadline. I have a room and I close the door and anyone who interrupts me better have a writ of habeas corpus. I am a passive, easy to please person content to do whatever others want, except when it comes to composition time. Then I am an Island.
Rule No. 9: Don’t Out-Think Yourself.
Your own consciousness can often be your greatest creative enemy. Consciousness (or being aware of yourself) is the number two cause of writer’s block behind having nothing to say. The labels courage, will power, discipline, and their ilk implying some outside force or yet unharnessed psychological attitude, are all impediments to getting things done. Purpose is not that complicated or verbose. It doesn’t matter how you start, or if you’re off on the wrong foot (you can fix that later), the idea is to get a flow and to beat those distractive forces that want to hamstring you, to move faster than they can. Thinking and being aware are not conducive to the process of composition until much later in the revision and editing stages, so get the bulk of what you want to say down, the feel, the details, the way her head was tilted, the tang of that sauce, the smell of those boiling crawdads, the watery shimmer of that sunlight, and THEN worry about the lighter stuff later. I have heard this stated in other ways, e.g.: Get your ass in the chair, or put on your Nikes and just do it.
Rule No. 10: Put Yourself in the Right Place.
Interested in writing about Australia? Go there. Interested in the rights of workers? Go work with them. Interested in America? Travel its length and breadth, talk, eat, drink, and sleep with as many of its residents as possible. Have you studied the masters? Could Melville have written Moby Dick from the helm of the University of Massachusetts? By “right place” I mean in every respect: physical, mental, attitudinal, and geographical. There aren’t a lot of things you can control in the world, but you can put yourself in the right place.
Poe Ballantine currently lives in Chadron, Nebraska. The documentary of the same title as Ballantine’s memoir, Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere, won the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival Hot Doc Award as well as the Big Sky award, given to the film that captures the spirit of the American West. Michael Moore included filmmaker Dave Jannetta’s
Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere at the Traverse City Film Festival and the documentary was also a finalist for the Philadelphia Geek Award. To view the trailer click here. Ballantine’s work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Sun, Kenyon Review, and The Coal City Review. In addition to garnering numerous Pushcart and O. Henry nominations, Mr. Ballantine’s work has been included in the anthologies The Best American Short Stories 1998 and The Best American Essays 2006.