The Three(-ish) Rules of Writing Books

Tommy Z

January 27, 2016

Welcome to Zero: an introduction

a true Zero draft:

notes scribbled on hotel stationery before a big talk on heavy metal. BirminghamUK 2009.

Write Your Book, Wonka-Style.

February 12, 2016

Tommy Z

If you're a writer, you know what a FIRST DRAFT looks like. Oh yeah, you and 1st drafts go way back, maybe grade school even: you remember sitting in that little desk, staring down at that notebook with a pencil, and the blank page staring right back at you. They taught you to start with a "first draft" and then hack at it for a while to make it something good. So, basically the plan was to build something, only to burn it down.  You probably still do that, don't you? You start a writing project by looking at a blank screen for a long time, waiting for the magic to happen so you can build something that looks more or less like the end product you already have in your mind, give or take a few rough edges. Wow, that's a lot of pressure. A first draft isn't the right place to start, then. A first draft comes with expectations, and consequences. A first draft uses up all the oxygen in the room.

I recommend taking a step back, and starting at Zero.

I teach writing, and the one thing I make all my students do is to get a crappy three-ring binder, fill it with loose leaf, and bring it everywhere they go, for the whole semester. We call it a ZERO JOURNAL. It's basically a compost pile, a dumping ground for drafts, doodles, brainstorms, bad ideas, and anything else that might lead somewhere. The thing with writing is, you don't usually find the story. The story usually finds you, and when you least expect it. So if you're serious about writing, it's a good idea to write everything down, and let it all sort itself out later. That's the magic part; one day you're jotting down some random thing a goth kid said behind you on the bus, and a year later -- hell, ten years -- it fits perfectly into the book you're writing. If that's not magic, then I don't know what is.

So that's why we're calling this blog THE ZERO BLOG. Because every day, we're starting at the bottom. The basement is so much more interesting to writers, anyway. You can have the penthouse. This is a blog about writing, and the writing life. We'll have guest writers on here, divulging some of their secrets about the craft and letting us meet a few of their daemons along the way. I hope you'll check back often for a daily dose of writing inspiration and commiserration. Because as writers, we're all in this together. In one way or another, we're all starting at Zero. Remember, everything on this Earth starts at Zero, so if you have an idea for the blog that has to do with writing, let us know!

So, welcome to Zero, all you writers and wannabes. Look up! Because hey, if you're starting at zero, there's no place to go, but UP.

Tommy Z

January 12, 2016

You probably already know what Somerset Maugham said about writing: "There are are three rules of writing. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are."  That sounds really pithy, but maybe a little snarky, too; after all, he's saying that no one knows what they're doing, including you and me. Two things: one, this pithy advice is coming from a dead writer you've never read (oh come on, admit it. If you've actually read Moon and Sixpence, God bless you.) And two, it's complete crap. If you've written a book or two, then you know that Maugham is a complete liar. There are indeed rules, and following them can make the difference between being a writer, and just being a dreamer.   There are probably more than three, but since Maugham started the argument, I thought we could finish it by coming up with three really important rules for anyone trying to write a book. Of course, since I am writing them most of these rules are connected to food, so bear with me.

1. Building The Pizza Shop. You've written plenty of short stories and essays, and now you're thinking the next logical step is to write a book. This sounds reasonable, but the first rule you must learn is, writing a novel is not simply writing a really long story. Writing a memoir is not writing a really long personal essay. They are completely different. Think about a short story like a pizza: it's got pretty much the same ingredients anywhere you go, give or take a few anchovies. You know how to make a pizza: dough, sauce, cheese, hot oven, and voila, pizza. Okay, listen: writing a book is not going to be like making a really, really big pizza. It's going to be more like building your own pizza shop. Basically, you are putting together a system of stories, a whole world where the stories come from. This is going to take a lot more work than you think. Novice writers who approach a book the same way they approach a short story or essay will never finish. So, the first rule is, before you even begin, realize that you will need a whole different strategy. Building a pizza is easy: five minutes prep, ten in the oven, boom, pizza. Building a pizza shop takes blueprints, permits, trial and error. If this doesn't sound appealing to you, then keep making pizzas.

2. Keeping More than One Oven Hot. Let's keep the Pizza Shop metaphor running for a moment. One mistake beginning writers make is to open the laptop, stare at the screen, and wait for the magic to come. You could be waiting a long time, friend. The problem is, you're only thinking about one piece of your book at a time. If you start on page one, and you expect to keep hacking away until you hit page 236, you will never make it. You are not strong enough. Instead, keep three of four pieces on the stove at the same time. Hitting a wall on Chapter 3? Go look at Chapter 16. When that gets slow, switch back to Chapter 3, or just go to the last Chapter where the killer is unmasked and write that. The point is, have more than one oven ready in your pizza shop. Don't sit there and expect this book to write itself in a straight line, because it never will. Treat your project like a jigsaw puzzle: who knows where the pieces will ultimately lock together, you're just trying to find enough pieces to cover the table and make things interesting. So, rule two is, always do more than one thing at a time. Don't put all your pizzas in one basket. Ooooh! Pizza Basket -- great idea. Sign me up, if it comes with fries in there.

3. Reading the Wrong Thing is Right. It's no secret that good writers are good readers. Don't like to read books, but you'd like to write one? Good luck. I've never met a good writer that didn't read a lot. But here's the thing: when you are working on a book, what you are reading while you're writing really matters. Listen, your brain is not big enough to hold all the ideas for an entire book, at the same time. Mine isn't either. So we need to supplement our brains with ideas from other places. A novice writer will read the books they want their book to be like, but this is not a good idea. You want to write the next Harry Potter, so you keep poring through each of the Potter series as you write, looking for ideas: this is a recipe for disaster, people. You'll end up copying, and at some point you'll get discouraged because you are comparing your word document to Rowling's genius. Instead, read things you wouldn't normally read. Writing a novel? Read poetry. Writing a memoir? Read Greek plays. Listen, you don't find ideas. Ideas find you. I'll give you an example: while writing my first novel Nazareth, North Dakota I was reading Sara Gruen's Water For Elephants, which is a great book but really had nothing to do with my project. But I liked the idea of the runaway elephant, and sure enough, it worked its way into my story and as it turned out, totally made the book. So you could say, I wouldn't have that book at all unless Gruen's novel was on my desk. It's kind of like osmosis: when you least expect it, good ideas creep in and show you the way. So, rule three is, read a lot while you write, but read things that you wouldn't normally read.

Are there more than three useful rules out there? Definitely. But three is a good place to start. Have more? Email us at to share!

You remember the Wonka-vator: somehow Willie Wonka had subverted the rules of physics and made his elevator able to go side-ways, slant-ways, and any-ways possible. I'm not sure what the building inspector said when he saw that, but it was clear Wonka saw an elevator as boring. Up, down. Up, down. He wanted to move freely, and randomly, whenever he wanted.

When you're writing, you have the urge to "move the story forward," and you get frustrated when it's not moving forward. that's when you start pushing it down the rails, using so much energy just to budge it in one, single direction. Well, that's no way to write a book, friends. You need to be more flexible than that. Don't think of a project as "moving forward" because that means there's only one direction it could possibly go. Instead, treat your project like a Wonka-vator and be willing to take it any which way it wants to go. Don't work on one thing at one time, have several things open at once, so you can strike while the elevator is hot. Try it! And stop saying things like, the plot is moving forward, like it's on rails, because you don't want a plot that's tied down to one track. You want a story that can move anywhere, at a moment's notice. Surprise yourself, and chances are you will surprise your readers, as well. Who ever heard of creativity traveling in one direction, anyway? And like Wonka says, we are the dreamers of dreams. (Final tip: do NOT steal fizzy lifting drinks!!!)

Happy Writing y'all!

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because all good writing has to start somewhere.

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