Rules, Books & Why

by Stephan J Harper

As we get back on the highway from our detour, there’s a signpost up ahead flashing a neon message as you merge with the rush hour traffic. The message, for your benefit, concerns:

a) the fundamental rules of the road
b) their corollaries 

Five Rules of Writing (not advice; merely discovered)

1a. Write clearly.
1b. That’s it: long words or short; this style or that. Doesn’t matter.

2a. Do NOT kill your darlings.
2b. The whole thing is your darling; kill (cut) what’s unnecessary.

3a. Write what you know, but. . .
3b.  . . .remember always: you can learn to know anything.

4a. Trust yourself.
4b. Doubt is good. It pushes you. Doubt gives you resolve. Each time you overcome doubt is one more victory that feeds back into the truth of trusting yourself.

5a. Be yourself.
5b. Art is an individual expression. If you try to be like anyone else you won’t be an artist because you won’t be yourself. 

The Books or Why There are Only Five Rules of Writing

Books you must have read (and why) before you know how to put words on the page in their proper arrangement:

  1. The Great Gatsby (1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald) because it just happens to be one of the most beautiful books ever written. Year in, year out, no one re-reads The Great Gatsby to find out what happens. No one.
  2. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884, Mark Twain) is the greatest ‘Great American Novel’ ever written because a thirteen year old boy explains in a most authentic and profound way America’s Original Sin.
  3. 1984 (1949, George Orwell) is the quintessential novel of the future written as though it happened yesterday. “Inevitable” is the one word screaming between every line.
  4. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865, Lewis Carroll) just because. . . of all of it. . . and because 2015 is the 150th anniversary of the book’s publication and we’re still talking about it.
  5. The Sun Also Rises (1926, Ernest Hemingway) because it’s straight, to the point and utterly devastating. Icebergs dead ahead.
  6. The Catcher in the Rye (1951, J.D. Salinger) because Holden Caulfield is the most ‘developed’ character in 20th century American literature. In the clarity of the close-up, no one else comes close.
  7. Lolita (1955, Vladimir Nabokov) don’t let anyone tell you any differently: this is straight-up, modern-day Shakespearean tragedy. Nabokov achieves his immortal enchantment with language that is rich, lyrical and, in most instances, beyond compare.
  8. Cloud Atlas (2004, David Mitchell) because there is simply no greater example of contemporary, utterly enjoyable fiction s t r e t c h e d in postmodern fashion by arguably the greatest writer of English prose living today. David Mitchell is the modern master who will be taught forevermore.
  9. Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609, William Shakespeare) because the greatest writer of the English language has left you 154 fourteen-line Renaissance poems in iambic pentameter from the 17th century that are still crystal clear in the 21st. If you’re not in love with the sounds of words, you’ll never be a writer. You might as well learn from the best.