The Cardinal Rule of Writing

I’ve been writing for about nine years or so. Of course, a good portion of that wasn’t really writing in the same way it is today, in a structured, warm and knowledgeable environment, but I have been putting fictional words to paper for nine years.
Once I did go a more structured route, I adopted some rules. A lot of these rules are traditional rules you hear in English class, but a few of them are mine, or at least, I heard it from myself first;

– Although a third-person story should be plot-driven, character development is MOST important, because you usually find yourself more distant from the titular character, especially in a limited third-person POV.

– And a first-person story should be character-driven, but outside detail is more important, because if you don’t pay attention to the world OUTSIDE of the character’s mind, you’ll end up with a story that looks a lot like a play; mostly dialogue, little extra.

But although I made rules of my own, and adopted some from school, I have discovered what I believe is the TWO most important rules of writing. The both of them will seem obvious, and I’ve heard of too many people that don’t follow them. And what I put FIRST might surprise you.

These two rules come from Stephen King, probably my most influential author, and they come from his book On Writing. (Which is an absolutely excellent book, by the way, part auto-biography and part tutorial to write.)

The first rule is do not talk about Fight Club.

…Um, okay. Sorry, wrong set of rules.

The first rule of writing is very simple, and very obvious.
#1; Simply write. If you want to be a writer, then write. Write anything, it doesn’t even matter. Put a pencil to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and then just let it spew out. Write a sentence. Write a paragraph, write a page! Take a single sentence, and try and get a little story out of it. Doesn’t have to be anything big or complex, but just write.
At this point, it doesn’t matter if you’re bad. It doesn’t matter if your spelling is off, your grammar is terrible, and the writing is atrocious. WRITE.
Do you understand?

But now, there is one other rule which I place as the most important rule of them all. Even more important then writing. This is the cardinal rule of writing.

This rule, is once again, very simple.
Just read. Read anything. Read the back of the shampoo bottle, read the manual for the dishwasher, or read Charles Dickens. It doesn’t matter. (Although I recommend Charles Dickens over the other two options.)

In order to write, you must read first. Just like you must walk before you can run. Reading is baby steps that will teach you the mechanics of the immense world of writing.  It will give you the tools that you’ll need in order to create something great.
If you aren’t a big reader, but you want to write, I’d recommend finding the best books from a handful of genres. A little fantasy, a little sci-fi, a little horror… these will give you the know-how needed to craft a work of art.

Would you try to build a birdhouse if you had never seen a birdhouse before? If you tried, you might end up with a coffee mug, or a mailbox. (Both which can be used as a birdhouse, but that’s not the point)
Books are the pictures and manuals in which to build new things. And once again, like building, not only will you know how to then create a certain type of story, but you’ll learn other skills that can be put in use for all stories.

Now unlike building, where you read the manual, create it, and you know how to do it forever… with writing, I’d recommend reading as many as you can. My new novel, The New Phantasm, is crafted with many novels. A large portion is Stephen King, and that becomes evident when you read it, but there’s a little of everything. A little Lovecraft, maybe, a little Jim Butcher. And of course, other things, such as music, television and video games play a part. If you want to go that route, there’s some Supernatural in it for television, a little Amnesia from the video games.

But even though a lot of things can attribute to your own unique style and can hand you tools, nothing can give them better then reading a good book.

…And I have a confession to make.
It’s pretty tough to admit.

…I haven’t been reading that much.

And maybe I’d deserve it. A lot of my writing recently has been poetry, and I only read poetry over the internet when I need a little inspiration.
But that’s the other part of this post… I’m writing, and following all the other rules, and following grammar and such…
But I haven’t been reading.
Now that’s a problem. I used to love reading! I read the Harry Potter series in about half of my fifth grade year. I used to read a new Stephen King every couple of weeks, and for god’s sake, I bought the entire Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy collection for eleven bucks, and it’s just on my shelf, collecting dust!

This now falls into a lesson of practicing what I preach, and hopefully making it a lesson for you too.
This is something NO ONE should do, or say, or use as an excuse.

I haven’t been reading because I’ve been busy, i.e with writing.
No, that’s not how it works. Why WRITE if I can’t take the time to READ.
Don’t turn this backwards, don’t write before you read, especially if you are new to the craft. And especially if you aren’t new to it! There is no reason to not read if you’re a writer.

So I’ll end by saying this. Around my room somewhere is a half read Dresden File book. I’ll read that by the end of the month. Halfway through summer, I’ll have the Hitchhiker’s series done. And by the end of summer, I’ll have 2001; A Space Odyssey read as well. (I searched for six months to find a copy of that book that WASN’T a movie book, and now it’s collecting dust as well).

Those are my goals. And of course, I’ll still write in between, but as a community I don’t think we can forget what anyone, even the best, had to do first before they ever started to write.
And if you’re a writer whose fallen into the same rut as me, or even if you’re just a reader who hasn’t read for a while, hopefully you’ll take the initiative to start up again with me.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

– Brandon, 12:37 AM


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