John Ostrander: Writing Rules

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by John Ostrander

Recently on Facebook, a father asked me what advice I could give his 13-year old daughter who wanted to be a writer. I had to be succinct but I think my reply was moderately useful and I thought I’d repeat it here.

As I’ve done columns about writing before, some of this may be familiar but this time it will be the short form.

  1. Read. If you want to be a writer, you need to be a reader. Fiction, non-fiction, newspaper (or online news feeds). Read outside your narrow interests. You draw from yourself so you need to feed yourself. My late wife Kim Yale called it “re-stocking the pond.”
  2. Write. Seems obvious but it’s not. Write every day even if it’s only for five minutes. Get into the habit of writing. We all have a certain amount of crap we need to write out of our systems before we can do real work. A writer writes. Get to it.
  3. Live. Again, seems obvious but in writing we draw upon our own experiences. Live life. Learn from those experiences. It’s all grist for your writing mill, the good and the bad. If you don’t know anything about life, how will you get life into your work? If you don’t have any real life in your work, how will the reader connect with it and you?
  4. Write what you know. This combines 2 and 3 above. Write what you know from your own experience to be true. Not what somebody else told you was true. What you know.
  5. You have a right to make mistakes. Best advice from a teacher I ever got (Harold Lang at Loyola University Theater, Chicago). You have the right to try something and have it not work so long as the attempt was honest and that you learn from it.
  6. Make big mistakes. Again, courtesy of Harold Lang. Big mistakes are easier to see and correct. You learn as much – maybe more – from your mistakes as from your successes. A big mistake means you took a big risk. There is no success without a big risk. Try, fail, and learn.
  7. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It won’t be on the first draft, anyway. It never is. Write first, correct/improve/spellchek later. You need to put the story into words so you have something concrete from which to work. The first draft is not intended to be the final draft. Don’t get hung up on it.
  8. Don’t tell anyone your ideas before you write them down. You do that and you’ll release all the energy in the story. It wants to be told; you want to tell it. Speaking it lets the steam out of the engine. Let the steam out and the engine doesn’t run. If you speak your idea you won’t write it. Write it first. You don’t know what you have until you’ve done that; you just think you know. Do the work and then share.
  9. You are your characters. There has to be something of you in every character you write. That includes the bad guys, the villains, the psychotics. If you write a bigot, you have to find out where the bigot is within you. That’s not easy and it’s not comfortable. It still has to be done in order to write the character honestly.
  10. You are not your characters. You also have to separate yourself from your characters. They are not your alter-egos. You have to give them their own lives and then let them live their own lives.
  11. Don’t look down. You’re a tightrope walker with no net. You have to focus on getting to the other side; if you look down, you’ll fall. Translated from metaphor – don’t ask if you can write. Assume you can. If you have to ask, the answer is “no”. Don’t put the weight of your existence on your writing; that’s too heavy an existential load. Don’t pretend that asking these questions will make you more honest and thus a better person and thus a better writer. They won’t. They’ll just feed your neuroses and keep you from writing. Do the work.
  12. You have to know the rules in order to know which ones to break. A freeform jazz musician may appear to play whatever the hell they want but they know music, they know their instrument, they know what has been done before and they interpret it their own way. Learn the rules.
  13. Write questions, not answers. If you want to preach, get a pulpit. As my fellow ComicMixian, Denny O’Neal, once told me, “You can say anything to a reader but first you must tell them a story.” Pose the question, explore it, and – if you feel like it – give AN answer but don’t assume that it is THE answer. Some readers have come up to me and told me what they got out of a given story and character; if I’m smart, I listen and learn. They may have a better answer than mine. Assume your readers are at least as smart as you.
  14. There is only one way to write and that’s whatever way works for you. Anyone tells you differently is trying to sell you something. That includes me and this column. Listen to everyone and take the bits that makes sense to you. That way you come up with your own style, your own approach.

Now… go write something!


John Ostrander is one of LB’s favorite writers in any medium. Don’t forget to read his most excellent blog at ComicMix.