“My First Rule of Writing” by John Abramowitz

| Posted in Guest Posts |


Today, for your reading entertainment, we’ve got a guest post from indie fantasy author John Abramowitz. I met him on Twitter (I thought I was a night owl, but he’s really a night owl) and have read his fun short story, The Antlerbury Tales. He’s here today to talk about the importance of loving what you write. Thanks, John!

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“Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘versse, but take a boat in the air you don’t love, and she’ll shake you up just as sure as a turn in the world. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down. Tells you she’s hurtin’ before she keens. Makes her a home.”

That, according to Captain Mal Reynolds, of Firefly fame, is the first rule of flying. But for me, it’s the first rule of writing, too. It never fails — I can have the most detailed world imaginable, and characters with histories that I spent hours creating, but if I don’t love my story and my characters (even the ones I hate), none of that will be worth anything. My writing experience will be very short, and very frustrating.

Recently, someone asked me what advice I had for aspiring authors. My first response to that question was to laugh, since it’s still very much an open question whether I know what I’m doing as an author. But the answer I ultimately gave was: love the story you’re telling. I think sci-fi/fantasy fiction gives you a unique opportunity to do just that.

To explain what I mean, we’ll need to spend a moment discussing John’s Cardinal Rules of Fantasy Fiction. (Now, pay close attention — there’ll be a quiz at the end of the class.) The rules are:

  1. Wish fulfillment; and
  2. When in doubt, turn a trope on its head.

In my experience, wish fulfillment is the best way to hook an audience on a story. Do not confuse this with the creation of Mary Sue (or Marty Stu) characters, which is among the quickest ways to turn an audience off on a story. What’s the difference? Whether a character is a Mary Sue or not depends on the nature of the character, wish fulfillment depends on the nature of the action the character is performing. Wish fulfillment involves giving the protagonist a task that the reader or viewer has always dreamed of doing, thus allowing the reader to slip into the person’s shoes and share in the thrill. Thus, for instance, surely everyone who has ever dreamed of firing a rocket launcher at an unkillable demon (surely every fantasy fan that ever lived) can long to be in Buffy’s shoes as she does that very thing, even though Buffy proves throughout the series that she’s far from an ideal character. (Season 6, anyone?) The Death Star trench run at the end of Star Wars: A New Hope is similar. No genre provides more opportunities for wish fulfillment than fantasy fiction, simply because it’s the only genre where literally anything is possible.

Which brings us to my forthcoming novel, Atticus for the Undead (available November 21st on and The novel started out of a long-held desire to write a John Grisham style legal thriller. After all, I’m a lawyer in my day job — sewing together my lawyer hat and my author hat into one mega-hat made sense. Plus, then I could make a protagonist who actually knew something about practicing law, as opposed to my own approach to the legal practice, which usually involves large amounts of confusion and many bottles of Excedrin. (Okay, so sometimes wish fulfillment is about the character. So sue me. Or something.)

In any event, there was a problem: Grisham has written approximately 7,181,924 novels, and television is also cluttered with legal procedurals. I had no interest in (and no love for) the idea of writing one more to add to the crowded shelves. If I was going to do this, I wanted mine to be special. And then it hit me.

There have been lots of legal stories, and just as many zombie stories — but how many times has a zombie been put on trial?

The idea of zombies with constitutional rights tickled me, and I was pretty sure it would appeal to my readership, too. Both parts of my premise (zombies and trials) were fun — combining them seemed like a winning formula. But I’d written a novel before (that’s Weaver, folks, available now for 99 cents!), and I knew that a strong overarching premise wouldn’t be enough to overcome the hard work, many headaches, and (very, very) little sleep involved in writing a book. I had a good start, but there wasn’t enough love yet to keep that ship in the air.

So I turned to my other Cardinal Rule: when in doubt, turn a trope on its head. Lots of zombie movies have involved a horde of zombies chasing a hapless human through a shopping mall. Ho. Hum. So I wrote a prologue in which a horde of humans chased my zombie protagonist through a mall, instead. After all, I had a brain-eating supernatural creature to humanize, a world to introduce, and an audience to keep awake while I was doing it.

I added extra helpings of fun to the mix throughout the novel. For instance, my first chapter featured a girl suspected of witchcraft — because she was seen rehearsing for a production of Macbeth. And not just any girl, but a teenage girl named Sabrina. I also decided that my law firm’s slogan was “We Get Results — Like Magic!” And so on.

Even with all of that, writing Atticus was still one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I lost more sleep (and pulled out more hair) than I care to talk about. But love kept the project in the air when it should have fallen down.

It kept me writing, and hopefully, soon, it will keep you reading. (And I promise, I don’t use this many parentheses in the book.)

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Comments (2)

So true!–If you don’t love what you write, you won’t get very far at all. Why spend months (or years) writing and editing and rewriting a manuscript you’re only half-interested in? Loving your manuscript not only keeps you going when it starts to get exhausting, but the passion doesn’t go unnoticed on the page.

[…] I’ll conclude with one of John’s Cardinal Rules of Fantasy Fiction (others can be found hereand here). For this one, I’ll paraphrase Star Trek: First […]

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