Mary Beth’s Writing Rules
1. Read. Read. Read lots more. Especially read books of the
type/genre in which you write.
Codicil: Read poetry at any time, whether or not you write it.
2. When you read, read like a writer. Francine Prose, in her book,
READING LIKE A WRITER,
gives you terrific, useful ideas.
3. Before beginning to write in a new-to-you format, e.g., picture
book, when you’ve written
only novels. Read at least fifty (better, read 100) books of that type. Consult your favorite
librarian to find well written books that are also recent. (It’s fine to read classics in the
field, but recognize that, if submitted today, the books might never be published.)
4. Write in scenes—every one of which includes
a) beginning, middle and end, and
b) dialogue, action, and reaction.
5. The story is the most important thing. You, the writer, must stay
out of it. If you show off,
and the reader stops reading—to appreciate your writing, its beauty and power—all is lost.
The story stops; the reader is no longer “inside” it. Even if this is the best thing you’ve
written, cut it. Save it to use somewhere else—somewhere it won’t stop the story.
6. In dialogue, almost always use “said” to attribute the words to a
character. The reader doesn’t
become bored with “said”—often a new writer’s worry—soon he doesn’t even see it. And never modify
“said” with an adverb.
7. Treat adverbs, adjectives and exclamation points as if they are
expensive jewels; use rarely,
and only when you can afford them.
8. Also on the subject of exclamation points: use
“real” exclamations (single words or
short phrases that can be exclaimed), e.g., Good grief! No! Oh my God! Hey! Etc. It’s not
possible to exclaim an entire long sentence. (Try it.)
9. Never use “suddenly,” or “all of a sudden.” Instead, write so that whatever it is happens suddenly.
10. Hemingway showed us that character description isn’t required. If
you choose to use any, remember
what one good writer (I’ve forgotten who) said, “The heft of a character’s thigh is far more
important to the reader than the color of the character’s eyes or hair.”
11. A character is believable when he/she is complex, rounded, and
flawed. Readers care most about
characters who don’t badmouth their moms, who have best friends, who fight off tears, and who
never give up. A reader can’t stop reading and caring about a character who continues his/her
quest—search—until the end; this character continues to yearn for what or whom he/she
a) she succeeds—her arms are around the yearned-for
person or thing—or
b) he realizes that he no longer cares.
12. A story is most easily understood, and a character best
understood and most loved,
when the entire story is told from that single character’s point of view (POV).
Use multiple POV only when necessary to tell the story. If you don’t know from whose
POV to tell the story, write a scene in the POV of first one character, then another,
and another, until you are sure which character(s) will tell the best story.
Include only those things in a story that are not “the norm.”
Readers couldn’t care less
about a character’s tooth-care habits—unless he never brushes, or he uses a Brillo pad.
When a character leaves the house, it isn’t necessary to say that she closed the door—unless she,
perhaps, slams it so hard that it comes off the hinges. In other words, move the story along
by showing the unusual, not the “turn of every doorknob.”
In the beginning:
-there’s almost never need for a prologue—this is
nothing but back-story and lazy writing;
-drop in required back-story, little by little—using
flashbacks kept as short as possible;
-show us a character(s) in the midst of action;
-ground the story by setting it in a specific place—a
good story takes place somewhere;
-for a moment, everything remains the same, but it
will be only another moment until something
-the character shows the reader what he yearns for;
-start as close as possible to the end.
15. During the middle:
-even though there need to be occasional quiet
moments, so the reader can breathe, never let the
-pull every “thread” you establish at the beginning of
the story through the middle, without dropping it,
to the end;
-build intensity—the plot arcs upward (event after
event)—higher and higher until you let it drop
right after the climax;
-let the character sink deeper and deeper into danger,
trauma, trouble, depression, etc.—the character
arcs downward (failure after failure)—until right
after the climax;
-the character realizes (the book says/shows)
something unique about the human condition;
-build steadily to the climax—the story’s resolution—
and then get out, i.e., move quickly to the end.
16. At the end:
-there’s almost never need for an epilogue;
-stop as soon after the story resolves—the climax
-it’s not necessary to tie up every ribbon (thread)
with a bow;
-not every story has a happy ending, of course, but in
children’s or teen books (I think, maybe, in all
books), there must, at least, be hope
17. Keep dialect to a minimum—drop the “g” at the end of a word no
more than once or twice.
The reader will drop the “g,” when that character speaks, from then on. Let the way in
which a character speaks, e.g., word pattern, words choices, etc., indicate where she’s
from, or the carelessness of her diction.
18. Revision is a privilege. If you don’t believe that, pretend
you’re a newspaper reporter
working against a deadline. Clearly you have almost no time to revise. Now picture yourself
the next morning—reading your article in the paper. See yourself beating your head on your desk?
How many changes, additions, and deletions would you make now—with time to revise?
19. It’s true that all rules are made to be broken. But before you
break a rule,
follow it until you
-understand it, and how to follow it,
-understand why it’s important, and
-are able to follow it, successfully.
Novel Final Checklist.
Picture Book Final Checklist.
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permission to copy any of my work for your own use, for your students in
and for attendees when presenting at a conference, seminar, etc.
Please include the following on all material you copy:
“Used with the author’s permission. See www.marybethlundgren.com”
(This teaches classroom students or conference, seminar, etc., attendees,
that material is automatically copyrighted when it’s written,
and that one must have the author’s permission to use it.)