Neil Gaiman is without a doubt one of the most imaginative writers on the market today, so when he comes out with writing rules, you want to do exactly as he says. I love that his suggestions are not really “secrets”, but rather no-nonsense approaches to writing, with the first rule being to sit down and do it.
Check out all of Neil Gaiman’s Eight Rules for Writing below, then tell us your favorite one:
And to make it easy, the rules in text format:
- Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
- Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
- Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
- Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
- Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
- Laugh at your own jokes.
- The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
One week ago, the Scottish fiance became the Scottish husband!
The wedding and planning and visas and details consumed my life, so you can understand why this blog has suffered. That will hopefully turn around quickly, especially since I will (hopefully) soon be ensconced back in Scotland with my wonderful husband in wedded domestic bliss.
In book-related news, I got one gift for the wedding that was certainly for me, and certainly awesome.
I have actually had the gift for a few months, as my wonderful friend Heather was too excited to hold on to it any longer. I opted to open it after the wedding, as it should be, and was delighted to find that it was not knitted lingerie (This expectation was due to the fact that I watched Heather’s sister knit lingerie once and I only assumed that the knitting-gene would pass on to the sister). The gift was in fact a 10th anniversary copy of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods! I was pretty excited. I was even more excited when I opened the book:
That’s right. Neil Gaiman wished me congrats on my wedding. You can all commence jealousy . . . now.
P.S. As a sort of wedding present to myself, I’ve upgraded the blog to breathingfiction.com. WordPress should redirect all of you, but you know, just for kicks remember it.
Ah Fall. The time of year when the weather turns cold, Starbucks has Caramel Apple Cider, and jumpers get aired out and worn. (For my US readers, jumpers = sweater. I know I’m American, but I type that first all the time, and well, I have a mixed vocabulary.) Fall for me also means National Novel Writing Month, which starts on November 1st. It’s the time of year when I try my hardest to write 50,000 words, even if that goal hasn’t been met.
So far, I’m 0-3, but I’m not in school this year (which led to 0-2) and I’m not terribly depressed because I was kicked out of the UK/separated from my fiance for the first time (last year). I might be working full-time, but lunch hours, evenings, and weekends will get devoted to my novel. I hope to make the 50,000 words with ease. Or at least at all. Instead of my normal programming (reviewing books), I will be doing a month of NaNoWriMo. Not just me, but others I know who are doing it as well, past winners, etc. If you read my blog and are planning to participate in this year’s festivities, please let me know. It counts as a break if you write a blog post for me on the ups and downs of 50,000 words in 30 days. But seriously, I would love to get some input from both writers and readers on this blog. After all, it’s basically devoted to the world of fiction – all sides of it.
Also in writing news, yesterday was the National Day on Writing. A day to celebrate creativity and imagination through the written word. The New York Times ran a great piece on it yesterday, and celebrities such as Neil Gaiman were Tweeting with the hashtag #whyIwrite. Gaiman tweeted: “Because I can lie beautiful true things into existence, & let people escape from inside their own heads & see through other eyes. #whyIwrite.” Man, even his tweets are gorgeous sometimes. But seriously, I love movements like these because they encourage creativity. There are a lot of cynics in the world who don’t believe in donating money to the arts (or that their children should waste any time on them), but what kind of a world would this be without the embellishments that make it beautiful?
I have always been more artistic and creative. My parents like to tell people how I would make the carrots talk. I remember writing scribbles down (before I could even write) and telling people they were my novel. I was always wanting to write, to create, to breathe life into something that had existed entirely in my head. I played piano, flute, oboe, and sang, but while all of these brought some form of expression, nothing has given me greater joy than to have time to sit and write. There are all kinds of writing, and some are more laborious than others, but no matter what words come out, I am happy. Sure, as every writer will tell you, we are never really happy with what we have put on the page. Look at George Lucas. We give him flak for changing Star Wars with each release, but no creator will ever feel he has created perfection. The fans might, but the world was yours to mold, and so you continue to want to shape it, to better it, to improve it.
To have a hand in creating has always been my goal. Even in web design and development, you are bringing to life something that once was only a vision. Whatever your vision is, whether it is writing, music, paint, film, or something else entirely, I hope you take the time to enjoy what you do and to thrive on your creative spirit. And now I sound like a hippie.
This entire post originally was conceived a few weeks ago, when I was talking with friends. And then I started to think about it some more as I’ve read a few books (Night Circus and the soon-to-be-reviewed The Borrower especially). I began to think about why characters are so important in the making of a good novel, and why some novels fail to stick the landing when their characters fail.
Perhaps one of the most important things is that the character changes. Let’s create a fictional character (kind of ironic since all characters are fictional) and call her Sally. If Sally were to sit back and let all of the action happen to her, and not react at all, it would make for a very boring novel. She could be assailed with vampires, werewolves, zombies, and monsters calling at her door, but if she sits and lets everything happen with no change, that’s boring. She does not grow and consequently neither does her story. Without change, we read a straight line. But with some sort of change, small or not, we are given the tiniest bit of visual interest. With more change and reactions, Sally begins to become real.
Scottish philosopher David Hume best described a human’s unwitting need to change:
I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind that they are nothing but a bundle or collections of different perceptions which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity and are in a perpetual flux and movement. Our eyes cannot turn in their sockets without varying their perceptions. Our thoughts are still more variable. And all our other senses and powers contribute to this change.
Basically, Hume is saying that with each moment that passes, we change who we are. These changes may not be drastic, and most will pass without our even recognizing the change. But if we as humans change with every passing second, then those characters who do not seem more aloof and unrealistic. They are not only unexciting, but also without the grounding realism that modern readers look for, even if they are reading fantasy.
This is one reason I liked books such as The Hunger Games, Matched, and The Chosen One. Our three protagonists (Katniss, Cassia, and Kyra [the choosing of three protagonists with hard K sound-names was just noticed and unintentional]) have to deal with three very different worlds. Each girl was raised knowing that their lives would turn out one way, and each found a way to strive for more, but mostly to change their circumstances. Katniss begins the series hard and closed to anything save for her sister. By the end, she has let herself feel more than she ever imagined. Cassia dutifully followed in the steps of the Society, but begins to question her freedoms. She takes small steps throughout the novel to get to the end, but they are vital to the large leap she will inevitably take. Kyra opens the novel knowing that her world needs to change, but too afraid to take the necessary steps. But her awareness leads her to the goal of escape, no matter how bittersweet. Each girl began the novel in one place, and ended it somewhere else. Katniss perhaps changed the least, but her changes felt deeper and resonated just as strongly with the reader.
I would say another important aspect for Sally is that she must feel real. Sally cannot be perfect, in other words. No one would want to read her story because no one would relate to her. It is ok to have an aspirational character, but even Gandalf and Aragorn had their flaws. Flaws ground the character much like their progression does. No human is perfect, even if we feel that we are at times. And if we are writing and reading stories about humans (or elves or vampires or fae or shape shifters), then we as humans want to see a bit of ourselves in them. I mentioned in my review of Night Circus that the story would have been far stronger with stronger characters. I did not feel much sympathy for Celia or for Marco simply because they were hard for me to relate to (dangling preposition!). After all their trials, they still felt distant and rather the same as they started. This was also the problem with The Iron Witch. Donna never felt like she got it, whatever lesson she was supposed to learn. And even after all the things she saw, I wasn’t sure she had made any change to herself.
The only passive character that ever worked (of the books I’ve read) was Shadow in American Gods. He might be passive for about 80% of the novel, but he makes a lot of waves after he has shaken himself awake. It only works because Shadow has just lost his wife and been released from prison. His passivity fits with a man who is grieving and relearning how to choose for himself. And yet, even Shadow changes in the end.
If you have a villain in your story, it is also good practice to have him be not wholly bad. Wholly bad villains simply feel like a caricature. After all, even the mean, nastly old lady down the street probably gives old clothes to the homeless or bakes for her grandkids. Just as Sally can’t be all good, neither can Jafar (I know, I know) be all bad. Heck, even Voldemort wasn’t completely evil. After all, he agreed to save Lily Potter because Snape was in love with her. Sure, Voldy killed her in the end, but he was willing to spare the life if it had been more convenient. (This was the only redeeming quality I could come up with, however. And Jo Rowling is about the only author I know who can get away with this evil of a villain and still have it feel real. Comment if you can think of other good qualities for poor Voldy.)
To recap: Sally needs to learn something or to change in some little way; Sally also needs to have flaws; Sally cannot be passive in her own story; Jafar cannot be totally evil. If the protagonist is flat, there is not much there to see or read.
As I mentioned when I started the blog, I want to use guest bloggers from time to time. The following post was written by my friend Heather, who can be found at HeatherMuir.net or on Twitter: @heathermmuir. Heather graduated from the University of Utah in 2010 with a BA in English, Creative Writing Emphasis. An aspiring writer, Heather was invited to attend Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp and finished her first novel during a session of NaNoWriMo. (Consequently, if you’re interested on guest posting yourself, contact me on Twitter or email me at breathingfiction at gmail.com.)
There are few writers I admire more than Neil Gaiman. The wonderful thing about Neil is that he has tried his hand at nearly every creative form that involves words. Here is a brief list to give you an idea of what I mean:
Sandman: Graphic Novel
Don’t Panic: Non-Fiction celebration of Douglas Adam’s and The Hitchiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
Princess Mononoke: Script Adaptor for the English translation
Neverwhere: Series Deviser and Writer (later adapted to a novel)
Coraline: Book, Movie and Video Game (yes, he wrote the story for all three)
The Doctor’s Wife: New fan favorite episode of Doctor Who
M is for Magic: One of his numerous collections of short stories
American Gods: Hugo award winning novel for adults
The Dangerous Alphabet: ABC picture book
The Wolves in the Walls: Regular(ish) picture book
8in8: A project where Neil Gaiman, his wife Amanda Palmer and some musically inclined friends wrote and recorded 8 songs in 8 hours (Neil even sings one!)
The Graveyard Book: Newberry award winning novel and audiobook, read by Neil himself
See what I mean? Novels, short stories, screenplays, videogame scripts, tv episodes, comic books, songs, EVERYTHING! Except a stage play. But he’s working on that so we’ll give him some time. And as you already know if you read his blog, a writer is not your bitch.
As an aspiring writer, I find him and his career fascinating. I want to have such a strong grasp of story that I can transcend any boundaries of form that dare to face me. But that’s not the point of this post.
What I really want to talk about Neil Gaiman’s short story “Hearts, Keys and Puppetry.” You might note the author stamp says by Neil Gaiman and the Twitterverse.
Neil Gaiman was commissioned by the BBC to write a short story with the help of contributors on Twitter. The story started with Neil posting “Sam was brushing her hair when the girl in the mirror put down the hairbrush, smiled & said, ‘We don’t love you anymore.’” on his Twitter channel @neilhimself . The complete story is about 1,000 tweets long and was finished on October 22, 2009. You can find a list of the contributors from the Twitterverse here.
If that first line doesn’t get you, I don’t know what will. The story is very much a fairy tale in the vein of Alice in Wonderland, so it feels familiar and brand new at the same time. Of course, it is written by Neil Gaiman so expect it to tend more to the Grimm side of fairy tales. Which is just the way I like mine.
The short story was recorded and released in podcast format by the BBC. The narrator they chose, Katherine Kellgren (Austenland, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, Bloody Jack Series), is a favorite of mine for her variety of voices and accents. She does a fantastic job. And it’s less than two hours long.
The podcast is still available for free on iTunes so give it a listen. You won’t regret it.
X Heather Marie Muir
As most of you in the States know, Borders is closing their doors. While this is sad, it also means my personal library grew by several books. Some I needed, others were merely impulse buys. I like those kind. Since these will mostly become my to-read books over the next few weeks, I’ve uploaded them here.
From bottom to top:
- Poison Study – Maria V. Snyder (YA)
- Slip of the Knife – Denise Mina (Crime, 3rd in the Paddy Meehan series)
- Delirium – Lauren Oliver (YA, Dystopian)
- White Cat – Holly Black (YA, Fantasy)
- Friends, Lovers, Chocolate – Alexander McCall Smith (Crime, Scottish)
- Extraordinary – Nancy Werlin (YA, Fantasy)
- The Sherlockian – Graham Moore (Mystery)
- Doors Open – Ian Rankin (Crime, Scottish)
- The Black Book – Ian Rankin (Crime, 5th in Rebus Series)
- Hide and Seek – Ian Rankin (Crime, 2nd in Rebus Series)
- Chalice – Robin McKinley (YA?, Fantasy)
- Violence – Zizek (Philosophy, and don’t worry, I will not review it here)
- Top two are journals/notebooks. I am a sucker for those.
- Not Pictured: Anansi Boys – Neil Gaiman (Fantasy – this one had actually gotten put on a shelf, so it missed the picture, and I am too tired to retake it)
- Also Not Pictured: Iron Witch – Karen Mahoney (YA, Fantasy – same reason as above)
Poison, Delirium, White Cat, Extraordinary, Sherlockian, Anansi Boys, and Chalice were all random buys. Though I like Black, Werlin, Gaiman, and McKinley, so I have high hopes. I have read the Rankins, but did not own the hard copies. I actually like philosophy, and Violence can prove useful for the PhD proposal. Mina and McCall Smith are also helpful for the PhD proposal. Actually, I didn’t much like the first of McCall Smith’s Sunday Philosophy Club and the book here is the second. Interesting from a studying point of view, but not really as a book. And like I said, journals are just plain fun. There’s also a good chance I bought a couple more books that got put away on a shelf, but if there were more I think I would feel a bit bad about how much money I spent. I do think I’m done though, since Borders was empty of Rankins, Minas, and basically everything else.
Let’s hope at least some of these books turn out to be good! And if not, they’ll look good on my shelf. Ha.
And thanks to ReadingFuelledByTea for this blog post idea.
When Amazon first announced the Kindle, I think I blanched. After all, how could you replace the physical copy of a book? It’s just so unromantic, too modern. And yet, the idea grew on me. I could carry hundreds of books in my purse, you say? I could have my entire library with me, search the books, highlight things and search for those highlights? As a student of literature, it was a very intriguing idea.
And then my amazing fiance got me one for my birthday.
I had no idea just how awesome it was.
Now granted, nothing can replace my library. After all, I still love to read a physical copy of a book. I also like to own the physical copies, because that small bit of pride likes it that people can see which books I own. Since I was a kid, I’ve wanted the library that Beast gives Belle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. But until I can afford the mansion with the large library, I have to settle for a few overflowing shelves tucked in the corner of my bedroom.
And yet, now I can carry Belle’s massive library with me at all times. The Kindle is lightweight, so it doesn’t add much to the normal clutter I carry in my purse. It is also roughly the size of a normal paperback, but much skinner. I keep mine in a protective case, just so my screen doesn’t get scratched by whatever could be lurking in my bags. The other benefit is how long the power lasts. I opened my Kindle on my birthday, at the end of June. I did not have to charge it until the end of July. And even though it’s had heavier usage in the last month, I only charged it for the third time a week ago. So basically, the battery lasts 3-4 weeks, and that was with my WiFi on the entire time. Pretty darn amazing.
Some people would say I should have just gone for a tablet, like Barnes and Noble’s Nook or all out for something like the iPad. One, I just wanted to read books. Because the Kindle is devoted to that function, it was perfect for me. Two, if I went for the Nook or an iPad I would be charging it every other day, they are heavier, larger, and clunkier to carry. Plus, with the Nook I would have to purchase from B&N, who are going to be more expensive and won’t have the same buying power as Amazon. While the iPad does have a Kindle app (as does my android phone, so I can put books on there if I want), the glare would also start to kill your eyes.
The electronic ink of the Kindle is perhaps its best and worst feature. Best because its no more painful or strains your eyes than a regular book would. Worst because it does not have a back light, so you need some kind of book light to read in the dark. While I of course own a few book lights, I do wish the Kindle would come out with an optional back light. That way, you could turn it on only when you needed it. Sure, it would run down your battery, but at least you would have the ability to read better on a plane or just in your room. So Amazon, if you ever read this blog (here’s hoping!), optional back light function on the Kindle. Default function to off. Get inventing!
As far as the actual reading of the books goes, the Kindle is amazing. I have never been one for reading multiple books at a time, but it is pretty easy to do just that on the device. For instance, I can have a fun, beach-type read that I can pick up from time to time and flip back to the books I read for review here. It saves where you are in the book, so you never have to navigate back, and it also saves you from using bookmarks (I always seem to lose mine, including one I got from the Sherlock Holmes house last year, and I am still gutted about that. Of course, it is probably in one of my books, I just have to figure out which one. Amusing. I should get Sherlock to find it.). While I do miss holding a book and seeing the number of pages decrease in my right hand, Kindle does give you the percentage read. It is better than having some arbitrary page number (Nook readers tell me this is what it does), because you’ll have no idea how many pages are in the book itself.
Enough about my love of the Kindle. Well, just a bit more. Some people, like myself, were afraid that the EReader would kill the publishing industry. I think it’s actually thriving because of it. Books can be offered at a lower cost to the publisher, giving them a higher profit. And frankly, more people are reading. Think about all those dead times you have – waiting in a doctor’s office, waiting in line at the DMV, or your morning commute (NOT if you’re driving, I mean public transport here). You have the ability now to carry more than one reading option with you, on something small enough that it doesn’t become cumbersome to carry. Now you can fill those dead hours with reading the new Ian Rankin, Neil Gaiman, or Denise Mina books. Now that reading is easier and more convenient in this fast-paced world, more of us are making time to do it. Even as an avid reader, I do find myself reading more often because of my Kindle.
(You can also get magazine subscriptions, newspapers, and other more informative things on the Kindle. I just go for the books, though.)
See, didn’t I tell you that I would be reading things other than Ian Rankin? I actually had just looked at a list of the top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy books and Gaiman’s American Gods was there. I had looked at this book a few times, and with the knowledge that many people liked it, I figured I would give it a shot. I am ashamed to say that it is only my third Gaiman novel. I read Neverwhere last February while I was on holiday in Fuerteventura. My fiance was frustrated because I could not put the book down, so while he ran around in the Atlantic, I sat on the towel and read. I just read Stardust a couple months ago, though I own the movie and have watched it several times (two very different works of fiction, however). So when I picked up American Gods, I guess I expected something slightly familiar and similar. I was wrong.
American Gods is one of the most imaginative books I have ever read. Shadow is our MC (I think I’m going to make a glossary of terms that I’ll frequently use) and we meet him while he is in prison. A few days before his release, he knows something is wrong in the world, and yet he cannot pinpoint the feeling. He learns, just two days before his parole, that his wife has died in a car accident. The prison warden releases Shadow early so that he can make his way home for the funeral. Because he had to rearrange his flights at the last minute, Shadow ends up in first-class with a Mr. Wednesday, who offers Shadow a job. We follow Shadow as he works for Wednesday, and discover that Wednesday is really Odin and all of the gods of the past are still living, those that are remembered. They were brought to the Americas by their immigrant believers, and are now fighting for recognition in the world with the gods of technology. Wednesday wants to unite the old gods so that they might conquer the new ones, and somehow Shadow becomes the focus of ire for the new technological gods.
It’s honestly really hard trying to give this book’s synopsis. Some novels put themselves into neat packages that are easy to summarize. American Gods has so much going on that it’s almost impossible to do that without telling you the whole story or spoiling the various plot points. What I can talk about are Gaiman’s immense talents in writing.
American Gods is roughly 460 pages long, and meaty. Honestly, I am a very fast reader, and normally a book this length would not have taken me days to read. I’ve been reading it for almost a week. Sure, I do have less free time now, but there are so many things embedded into each and every word of the book. Gaiman makes you think very hard about everything he’s presenting to you. After all, the entire basis of the story is that our own human imaginations are so powerful that we have brought gods, folk heroes, and creatures into existence. I have never seen anything quite like this. Granted, Julie Kagawa’s Iron King series postulates that if the human imagination created the fae, then there would also be Iron Fae (it’s actually a pretty good YA novel). Even the Percy Jackson series tells us that the Greek gods immigrated to the States when it became the center of the world’s civilization. So, with our imaginations we carry our gods with us. It’s an incredible idea that we can create without knowing it, and very flattering to the human ego as well.
Gaiman also mastered giving us a character we care about. Shadow has our sympathy almost immediately, despite being a convict and a big, intimidating guy. When Gaiman kills Laura, Shadow’s wife, we are only on page 11 and already we care. I actually felt sorry for him, as if I had known him for more pages than we were given. And when Shadow discovers his wife had been cheating on him while he sat in prison (for her), your sympathy doubles. We never really know his whole story, and for the most part, the novel is about Wednesday’s goals and Wednesday’s plans. But Shadow really comes alive towards the end, and he steals the plot from the others and creates his own story. I never would have thought a relatively passive character would have been so interesting, but Gaiman has done a fabulous job of making his audience care first, then slowly changing Shadow into a character worthy of our attention. It’s almost as if having his story told gives him the confidence for that change. And if you’d read the book, that sentence would sound far less crazy.
The thing that really makes readers love Gaiman is the basis to his stories – that there is a world there hovering next to (or under) our own that we just don’t know about. That there is something magical and if only we were able to open our eyes we could see it. I have seen that same thread through American Gods, Neverwhere, and Stardust. I cannot say for sure whether or not this theme prevails through all of his novels, but it is certainly common to the three. But his imagination, his ability to show us the world that we could see if we were only to open our eyes, is very reminiscent of Peter Pan and so many other childlike classics. Of course, just to ruin the image, Gaiman has to throw in sex, violence, and other adult themes. But you understand what I mean. It’s the childlike desire steeped in adulthood. Something like that.