Rule Number Two Of Writing? Forgedaboudit!, by Peter Rubie

Rule #2

Rule #2

Rule #1 in writing is – or should be — if you’re not yet published (by someone else) you’re not the best judge of your own material. At the very least make friends with a writer who has a good editorial eye and the bravery that goes with using it. It’s the collaborative experience that is so important in writing at a professional level. I know YOU know what you mean, but does everybody else?

But then there’s rule #2 – Forgedaboudit! as they say in New York. Ignore what everyone tells you about writing, including what I just wrote as Rule #1. Learn to trust your instincts instead.

Dr. Johnson was once called the second most important writer in the English language (after Shakespeare, in case you’re wondering). A friend asked him if he was upset about being described like that. “Not at all,” Dr. Johnson replied. “At least it means they thought about it.”

Essays like this are meant to inspire you to write “that book.” You know, the one that will change your life. But this essay is already going off the rails because what I’m here to say is: don’t write anything at all.

Procrastinate. Hold off. Forgedaboudit!

I’ve been a professional writer, editor and agent for nearly 30 years, so you should listen to me: If the urge to write comes upon you like a desire for ice cream at midnight, go and clean the cat box instead, go outside and look for an old lady to help across a busy street – at all costs, DON’T WRITE.

This isn’t an original idea, unfortunately, but one of the two best pieces of advice about writing I was ever given. (The other, about journalism mainly, was, “Always cover your arse.”) If you get a good idea, ignore it. If it comes back, ignore it again. Halfway decent ideas are like nagging children tugging on your clothing. Don’t be fooled by them, ignore them. If the idea returns for a third time, it will be sneakily better formed and structured than when it first accosted you, like some brazen strumpet offering ill-defined pleasures. My advice, run, don’t walk away from it. Keep ducking and weaving. Eventually, just like the nagging child we all love really, we realize that the only way to make this obnoxious, won’t take “no” for an answer child go away is to sit down and write it out of your system. Will this change your life? Of course it will — it will make it peaceful again if nothing else.

Writing is like carpentry. All that manipulating large eight-foot by four-foot sheets of plywood and two-by-four sections of wood all on your own, all that back straining effort measuring and adjusting, cutting and dry fitting and adjusting some more, then gluing and screwing and nailing and then remeasuring only to realize one piece is not as long as it should be and not as square as it could be . . . Then there’s all the coughing as you sand and plane and smooth the piece, using wood putty to fill in the mistakes you made but only now spot and have to somehow fix as invisibly as possible. What sane person wants to do all that? Once the words are down on the page you then have to spend hours making sure they actually say what you mean them to say if you can actually figure out what that is in the first place. No wonder so many writers become drunks.

As an example: I wrote my first novel on a dare, and I’m still paying for it. I’d been a journalist for years, so I should have known better.

“I’m going to write a novel,” I said to my friend Maggie.

“Don’t tell me about it, DO IT,” she said. That was Maggie, of course, an original 1970s women’s libber who still doesn’t understand why her son grew up to be a young male chauvinist.

“OK, I will,” I said defiantly. And here we are all these years later. I work in publishing as an agent, for God’s sakes. Do you know how many bad books and ideas I have to read every week? Have some pity. Ninety-five percent of what we read sucks! Of course, that’s a totally subjective pronouncement based almost exclusively on what I like and dislike and what moves me or leaves me cold. (Some people like caviar and oysters, others hate them as too fishy.) I know your book falls into that enviable 5% that agents and editors lust after like teenage boys during spring break. But I want to spare you the pain I endured of writing a profound short story about a romantic breakup, that got returned by an editor who went to the trouble of handwriting a note on the rejection letter (yay! someone really thought I had some promise!) telling me how much she hated the story and that I should seek counseling.

That novel Maggie dared me to write, by the way, took five years to complete. It was going to change the way people looked at me – it would make me a STAR — and would be compared to, I don’t know, Gravity’s Rainbow or The Magus or something. Of course, it was pretentiously awful. But at least I finished it. All 500 pages of it.

The novel that was published was co-authored with a friend. It was a bracing experience, highlighted by Jim telling me to lose my Shakespearean affectations, and just write A STORY directly and honestly. I mean, what was he thinking? Where was the layering, the hidden meanings? The relationship quickly devolved to notes to each other about how neither of us could write while we were actually still collaborating and writing a lot–on our “portable” Kaypro computers the length and size of large gym bags.

Eighteen months later, between Jim’s writing and my rewriting, and his rewriting of my rewriting, and my final editing, our first novel was published by a company that promptly went out of business six months later. Change my life? My friend (yes, we kissed and made up once the stress of writing our first novel was over) then moved across country to California.

Jim wrote a number of other novels that got published and started to live his dream of being a full time author. I, meanwhile, wrote another unpublishable novel, again intended to be a “great American novel” (what was I thinking, I’m a native Englishman for God’s sake!) and then for book three I settled down, reread John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction which changed my life, and took Jim’s advice — just tell a good story well.

And you know what? By ignoring ideas that seemed brilliant at 3 am, I wrote a novel called Werewolf that got published. Then I got a job as a publishing house editor, published my co-author and once-again-friend Jim’s third novel, and eventually wrote a nonfiction book called The Elements of Storytelling that you can still find almost 20 years later. (I mention this here rather blatantly because you can only get it as a print on demand edition and you need to know about it to demand it. Hint, hint.) Other books and essays started to follow and now look at me.

So, remember Rule #2: If you get a good idea you want to write, forgetaboudit! You’ll be much happier. Of course, if you do what I tell you, you should ignore this advice much as any other you get. But if you do follow my suggestion, inevitably you’ll eventually feel compelled to write something because it won’t go away until you do. It’ll bring you pride accomplishment and frustration in equal measure – just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Peter Rubie’s latest book is the reissued edition of How to Tell a Story: The Secrets of Writing Captivating Tales (Crossroad Press, 2015). It is available from BarnesAndNoble.com and Amazon.

The Dramatic Sentence: An Introduction To Basic Story Structure, by Peter Rubie

Gary Provost and Peter Rubie are the co-authors of How to Tell a Story: The Secrets of Writing Captivating Tales. Thank to Gary’s wife Gail for granting permission to share this article. The book has being reissued (2015) by Crossroad Press and is available from BarnesAndNoble.com and Amazon.Gary Provost died unexpectedly in 1995. He was the author of many books across a range of genres both fiction and narrative non-fiction. Along with his friend Peter Rubie, he was, and Rubie continues to be, a highly sought after writing instructor. This writing reference combines Gary’s instruction with the literary savvy of his longtime colleague and friend, Peter Rubie. This essay is excerpted from the book. 

Typewriter becomes laptop
Typewriter becomes laptop

 

 

My friend Gary Provost and I created what we teasingly called the Gary Provost Dramatic Sentence (with some help from Aristotle). Here it is:

Once upon a time… something happened to someone, and he decided that he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously he had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.

This is classic dramatic structure. It works because it’s story telling that is most satisfying to the reader. Aristotle defined good drama as storytelling that defined character, created atmosphere, and advanced the action of the plot. No one has ever really substantively improved on this beautifully simple yet profound definition, though I think Norman Mailer came close when he said in a TV interview, “The best fiction is where art, philosophy, and adventure all meet.”

Let’s go through Gary’s paragraph again. This time we’ll stop along the way and I’ll talk about the elements of plotting. Once you understand these elements whether you’re a literary novelist or a writer of non-fiction, or a genre writer you’ll be able to plot any story you like.

Once upon a time… something happened to someone…

This is what we call the inciting incident. In other words, it’s what caused the story to kick in. Say your story begins on Thursday. Don’t begin it on Wednesday, just to set the scene and introduce the characters, a classic amateur flaw. Plunge us right into the action the moment it starts. Why? Because nothing significant happened on Wednesday. You’re not writing someone’s life, you’re writing the story of a watershed moment in that life. The thing that happened to upset the equilibrium or the balance in his life is the thing that begins the story. That’s the inciting incident. That’s where your story should start.

…and he decided that he would pursue a goal.

There’s something this person wants. What is it? It’s the prize, the thing he’s trying to get through, all through the story. What is it that your main character wants? In the long run what does he hope to achieve?

So he devised a plan of action,…

Let’s call this The Strategy. How is our hero going to go about pursuing his goal, or prize? What’s he going to do? What’s his plan?

…and even though there were forces trying to stop him,…

This is the opposition, the conflict. Conflict is the basis of all drama. Our hero wants something, and he’s figured out a way of getting it. Something has to get in his way, something or somebody has to have a conflicting goal, and a conflicting plan C something has got to try and stop him. Nobody’s interested in reading a story about an guy who wanted a million dollars and got it. They want to read about a guy who wanted a million dollars and had a lot of trouble getting it. There are forces coming against our hero, there is conflict.

…he moved forward because there was a lot at stake.

Ah, The Stakes! What our hero wants, what plan he’s devised to get it, and what this effort will cost our hero? In chess, every move forward gains something, but it also loses something as well. Nothing of any importance in this life is free. In one form or another we always pay a price for what we most desire. In a story the stakes have to be very high. What are they in your? Life or death, lovers lost forever, friends becoming implacable enemies, something very important we can all relate to. You don’t want to write a story about a guy who is going to lose his typewriter or his comb. It’s got to be something very important, something big enough to disrupt his life, to change him from what he was into someone else by the end of the story.

And just as things seemed as bad as they could get,…

This is known as the Bleakest Moment. Things are dark and dreary for this person. Everything has gone wrong and it seems as if the forces of opposition arrayed against him have won. But somehow, from the darkness of his despair and depression, from his failures, he finds the strength to persevere and overcome against overwhelming odds.

…he learned an important lesson,

Aha, a revelation. Our protagonist comes through his Bleakest Moment with a gift C understanding. At last he sees, he understands something about life that he didn’t understand before. Stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, are about people growing and changing, about their insights into the human condition. By the end of the story, this new knowledge has changed our protagonist for the better. He is a little wiser, and a little stronger, he has a little more faith in himself, or in others, or in the bountiful nature of life. He has grown and learned a lesson.

…and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously he had to decide whether or not to take it,…

He makes The Decision. The important thing to remember about this decision is that when he makes it, he gains something, and he gives something up. It isn’t much of a decision if someone says, “Hey, here you are. Here’s a million dollars, you can take it or leave it.” But if someone comes along and says, “Congratulations, now you can get your million dollars. But there’s one catch: if you take it you’ll never see your daughter again. And if you want to keep on seeing your daughter, you’ll never get another chance to get your million dollars you’ve just earned.” This now, is an important decision our hero must make.

…and in making that decision he satisfied a need…

Let’s call this The Hole. It is the Aengine that has been driving him to do stuff the whole of his life, and certainly for the duration of the story, though he may not even be aware of what that hole is.

…that had been created by something in his past.

This is the importance of the Backstory. The backstory simply means his past, whatever happened in his past relevant to the story you’re telling about our hero. The need or hole is something that happened to our hero before the story began. Something perhaps that haunts him. The enigmatic reference to the boyhood sled Rosebud, in Citizen Kane, for example. In someway the hero is still incomplete. He’s been injured, or he’s had a part of him taken away. Perhaps he’s lost his faith, or rejected love. Perhaps he’s a loner, someone who’s not good at sharing himself with others, and he comes into this story carrying this thing with him, needing this hole filled. And in the process of the story, the hole is filled as he comes to his realization.   logo