Brian Kiteley's Basic Rules for Fiction


PROOFREAD your work.  If you ever submit your fiction to a journal or for a prize or to a creative writing program, you must prune all mistakes, typos, and diction and grammar problems from the manuscript.  A stranger who stumbles over your fiction more than once will stop reading your fiction or at the very least will think you’re lazy and unconsciously unhappy with your own writing.


NEVER start an action sentence with as, the most overworked word in the English language.  Here is an example of what NOT to do:  As he walked out the door, she shot him with one of Cupid’s arrows.  Much better would be to say:  He walked out the door, and she shot him with one of Cupid’s arrows.


NEVER start a sentence with a participial phrase:  Aiming one of Cupid’s arrows at him, she couldn’t decide if he deserved the pleasure.  I will always denounce a sentence that begins with a gerund.


DON’T DO THIS: “Watch how this sentence works”.  Bob  said.  DO THIS: “Watch how this sentence works,” Bob said.  USE a comma inside the quotation marks and the phrase he said is always part of the sentence, separated only by this comma.


Use double “quotation marks,” not single ‘quotation marks.’  The latter is the ‘British’ style and the former is the “American” style.  Never use single quotation marks, as I did to make a point above with ‘British,’ except when you have conversation within conversation—Bob said, “He said, ‘I feel your pain,’ with great pleasure.”


Use only she said and simple speech descriptions like that.  AVOID phrases like he squeaked, she laughed, or Bob bloviated.  Draw no attention to these markers, because they are unnatural out-of-story descriptions, which you want the reader not to notice.


Spell numbers less than 10.  For example: There were nine judges at the bar.  The 10th had passed out on the subway.  But always spell out a number if it is the first word in a sentence.  One hundred and one Dalmatians ran down the street toward me.


Keep your sentences simple and muscular, especially when they describe actions.  Thought sentences (which describe the internal workings on the mind of your characters) can be weirder and more disorderly.  But when you want to reveal movement to us, you need to make sure we can see it clearly and without pausing over or untangling your choice of language.


AVOID using the same words close together (perhaps even within the same story or novel chapter).  Obviously, you need to repeat some worker words all the time, but when it comes to less common words, find synonyms or another way of writing a sentence so that you don’t have to repeat the word.  This is especially true for important words, in your stories.  A reader who hears the same word repeated several times within a few pages will think that writer is lazy.  The English language is a rich, large language, with over one million words (whereas French has only about one-third as many words and far fewer synonyms than English has).