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DON’T KILL THE DOG and 14 other unwritten rules of fiction

Dear Up-and-Coming Author,

If you take your craft seriously (and I’m sure you do), you know the rules of grammar and the three acts of storytelling. You know how to craft a character and heighten tension. You likely also know how to add “hooks” so that societies full of nurses and Weimaraner owners will find your opus through search engines.

dead dogAs a public service, I hereby list the also crucial, but often unwritten, rules of fiction writing.

1) Don’t kill the dog.  You can kill the grandmother by inches or boil the baby, but if you kill the dog, readers will fling your book across the room (or their e-reader, which will break, causing them to blame you even more) and never buy or borrow another thing you’ve written. They will also badmouth you on all social media sites.

2)  Don’t kill Ned Stark or any other main protagonist who does the ethical heavy-lifting (at least, not until the end of the ned stark closebook). George R.R. Martin can get away with it. You can’t.

3) If your fan fiction begins to seriously go viral, hire a copy editor at once.

4)  Hope that your first novel won’t become a bestseller. (You’ll thank me later.)

5)  Have a room of your own where you can go to write, and where you really DO write. This room can be a coffee shop or library or a poorly lit basement. It will likely have to be somewhere out of the trajectory of your normal life, and hopefully will not have wifi.

6)  Play well with others. In this profession, as in all others, what goes around, comes around.

7)  Do not sleep with crazy people “for research.”  In fact, the list of things not to do for research is pretty long.

8)  Do not use the proper name of a beloved deity as a curse. You can justify it in many artistic and character ways, but it will hurt readers in ways you do not intend and will pull them out of the story. Even if you are profane with glee in real life, try to be more creative in type.

9)  Never underestimate the value of a cat or dog at your feet while you are writing. They make the best company and never make an inappropriate comment.

10) Do not blame your family for being hungry/wanting to see you.  You’ll eventually have to build this in.

11)  Never dis another writer in print or on social media. You may think of it as momentary amusing snark, but it NEVER GOES AWAY.*     * This does not apply if you are Lee Child talking to PLAYBOY, in which case you may say anything you damn well please and every writer on the planet will look at you with awe.

12) Realize you are writing because you love it and not because it will make you rich. Do not pre-order furniture.

13)  Come up with a great “I finished a book!” celebratory ritual. I finished my first book in 7th grade, at which time a banana split was the world’s greatest extravagance. Diana Gabaldon buys a new set of towels. That is probably more sustainable.

14)  Most important:  keep a sense of humor. It is your lifeline.

15)  Do not spend your time and creative energy writing or reading blogs when you should be writing your novel.

That being said, good blogs are often inspirational! Here are two writers to check out:

Laura Benedict’s Blog  “Time to Go Pro”

Meredith Cole’s blog “I’m Still Writing”

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MIND-MELD: The Reader-Writer Bond

Several years ago, after a relaxing few days out of town, we dropped a friend off at his place of employment. “Back to the old grind,” he sighed. Which I thought was only slightly weird, as he was currently performing in a Broadway play that had gotten rave reviews.

1 standing oNow I realize that anything becomes “same old, same old” when you do it day in and day out. But still, as we pulled away from the curb, I couldn’t help but wistfully wonder what it would be like for the rest of us, if, after putting in a good day’s work, everyone who would eventually benefit from our labor was right there in front of us, leaping to their feet, applauding and cheering. Wouldn’t that be great?

I’ve been remembering that drop-off lately, as B.K. and I are in final boarding stages for the release of PLAGUES OF EDEN.

It used to be that storytellers plied their craft in person, able to discern the involvement of the tell-ees in the flickering firelight. Now, with the advent of the printed word (and the spoken word, captured digitally), the storyteller and the reader have an enforced degree of separation. I write alone at my desk, and you read–where? In your room, on a train, in a Starbucks, in the bath? I don’t know! You’re on your own.

doctor mind meldThe inimitable Lee Child, who is a captivating speaker as well as author, asserts that when readers pick up a novel, they enter into an intense “mind-meld” with the author.

As a reader myself, I believe that to be true. A novel worth its salt creates an entire world to which the reader is given a personal invitation. You’re then invited into the  mind-space of a group of characters, and you vicariously accompany them upon whatever journey awaits you all.

And that’s something wonderful, personal, and meaningful.

Do you remember a time you had an adventure? Went on a trip to a faraway land, or even your cousin’s house–or possibly a restaurant you’d never tried before? And something magical happened–whatever it is that’s necessary for a fun occasion to become an indelible memory. To this day, you remember who else was there with you, some of the best lines that were said, the laughter (or the danger or the horror). Your own intense feelings. From then on, whether the experience was harrowing or wonderful, it was unforgettable. And you now have a bond with those folks that were there. Until the end of time, one of you can say a certain word or phrase, and the rest of you will ricochet back in time.

That is what happens when you read a really good book. You and those characters go on a heightened journey together.

So, here’s the weird thing for me, as an author. The characters in my books–I KNOW them. While a reader might spend a dozen hours with them, I’ve spent months. They’re my intimate friends. And, whether I want it to or not, what happens to them impacts me. B.K. still hasn’t gotten over what happens at the end of BEYOND EDEN.  Whereas, when I finished one day of writing in the mind of a character in PLAGUES named Leal, I went to a weekly pub meeting and had to tell my friends, “I’m sorry, I just wrote some scenes that were highly intense for me, and I’m still a bit shaken.”

And so, when a reader enters into this mind-meld, for a while, we do share that same reality. There is a bond between us: we have friends in common.

But, here’s the thing. I really wish we could be in the mind-meld together. If not at the same time, that at least, as the writer, I could know it was happening. I don’t know how to bridge that gap, and I wish that I did.

Any suggestions?

So sometimes, sitting alone at my desk, having adventures with these fictional close friends, I do wish that I knew the flesh-and-blood “fellowship of the book” who would eventually be joining with me.

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Truthfully, I don’t need that standing ovation. I don’t even NEED us to be in the same room at the same time with my fellow journeyers, or obviously, I’d have stopped writing by now.

But it is awfully nice to know that the readers are out there, and to hear from some with whom I now have friends in common, and who have joined me on the journey.

So, thanks! And, when you finish your day’s work, take a minute and picturing me applauding. Well done.

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