A Writer’s 10 Commandments

Several months ago I found “The 10 Commandments of Fiction Writing” inWriter’s Digest magazine. The list so resonated with me that I printed it out and taped it to a bookcase right next to my writing area. In the months it’s been there, I’ve glanced at the list from time to time, not necessarily for inspiration, but for affirmation. Writers always question why we do what we do, especially when the acceptances are few and the rejections many—or like me, when you find the whole rejection process so ego-bending, you get anxiety attacks when you contemplate submitting work. Glancing at these brief “commandments” helps focus me at times, mocks me at times, but reminds me a lot of the time that I can’t be anything except a writer.
Here they are with a few thoughts of my own.
Take yourself seriously
Sometimes hard to do when you don’t see the success you think you should have. I think part of taking yourself seriously is to do things that successful writers do—read, hone your craft, learn from your failures, continuously study writing. You have to write to be serious about writing.
Act like a professional.
That means not sending snarky e-mails back to a magazine or agent or publisher who rejected you. You can’t burn any bridge, narrow as it may be, you’ve built. It also means not stalking agents at writing conferences, insisting your manuscript will make you both rich. By the way, I’ve never done either of those things, but I’ve seen them happen, and I’ve been on the receiving end when I was an editor. For me, acting like a professional means be a professional writer. Check that spelling, use proper grammar (dialogue involving an uneducated person being an exception), master punctuation. When I was an editor, nothing said “unprofessional” to me more than a misspelled, ungrammatical, mis-punctuated mess. “You’re the editor; you’ll fix it,” wasn’t an excuse I’d accept.
Write your passion.
Note this didn’t say, “Write what you know.” It means write what stirs you, what inspires you, what makes you sit down at the keyboard and write. Your passion is all your own. No other writer will feel about that passion the same way you do. You may share the object of that passion, but yours is unique. No one can write about it as you do, so do it.
Love the process.
For me, there’s nothing like the times I write when the words pour out as if they’ve taken control of my fingers on the keyboard and insist I make them take form. Then, I’m head over heels in love with the process. When the words hide in my head and refuse to stand in the light of day, loving the process is harder. That, however, is part of the process, so perhaps this one should be, “Love/Hate the process?”
Read—a lot.
It never ceases to amaze that people who call themselves writers don’t read a variety of other writers. They stay within a shared genre or limit themselves by reading only fiction or only nonfiction. As I look at the books in my bookcases or on my Kindle, the only word to describe my reading interests is “eclectic.” Some might say eccentric, but I’m going with eclectic. My life is a perpetual struggle to balance the two loves of reading and writing—when I’m doing one, I feel guilty not doing the other. A literary triangle, perhaps? One thing that has disciplined me is joining a couple of book clubs, one in person for nonfiction, one on-line for fiction. Peer pressure does have an influence.
Stick to a schedule.
This is my biggest struggle. I genuinely try to write a little or edit something every day. “Try” being the operative word. When I retired, it was to devote more time to writing, and I have, but it hasn’t been the daily exercise I wanted it to be. I’ve tried setting specific days or times, but other things (i.e., life) pop up. I won’t be content until I’m “working” regularly at writing.
Be critical of your work.
Let’s face it, not everything we write is gold. Trust me, it isn’t. I look back on my collection of short stories published more than a decade ago and realize, though the guts of the stories are good, I wasn’t ready to be published. I won the publishing contract in a contest, it had a deadline attached, and I took that bait and swam with it. I didn’t have the time to be critical about it, and that’s why I need to have something else, something I have been more critical of, published. As much as I’m glad I had the opportunity to be published, I don’t want that one book to be my only writing legacy. I’m about to start a writing critique group, an offshoot of the local writers group I belong to, and I hope that will help not only in being more critical of my work and in receiving constructive criticism but helping others, too.
Develop thick skin.
So, maybe a person who already has insecurities shouldn’t become a writer? I’m still amazed when someone tells me he or she likes what I’ve written. I know I like what and how I write, but I know I’m not for everyone. Frankly, the rejections are why I rarely submit work. I haven’t yet learned to separate the writing from the person. A rejection of a story I’ve written is a rejection of me. Intellectually, I know that’s not the case, but emotionally I can’t help it. The only way to overcome that, I know, is to keep submitting because one day the rejections will stop.
Trust your editors.
When I was a reporter for an aviation magazine, my editor was a frustrated author. He’d published a novel in the 1950’s that won some awards and recognition but had nothing published since. This meant when he was my editor in the 1970’s, he rewrote everything. The first time it happened I thought my article sucked so much that I’d be fired, so I went to him for a critique. Oh, no, my article was fine, good even; he just wanted all the articles in the magazine to sound as if he’d written them. The light bulb came on—I wasn’t a reporter; I was a glorified researcher. That experience makes it hard for me to trust editors, and yet I know the time for me to continue to be my own editor is past. Trust has to start sometime. When I became the editor of that same aviation magazine, I had a “happy to glad” rule—if happy was the right word, I wouldn’t change it to glad without a damned good reason. The reporters who worked for me responded better to that than total rewriting, so I did learn something after all.
There are no certainties.
Ain’t that the truth? Not every manuscript is destined to be published, much less a best-seller, but we still play the odds. That’s because there’s no certainty it won’t be published either. It’s the uncertainty that keeps us writing.