Writing Advice from Lemony Snicket

I recently reviewed a book by Lemony Snicket called Poison for Breakfast. It’s a delightful little book that has much to do with writing and stories, and as such, Snicket manages to sneak in a little helpful writing advice for authors.

Here are Lemony Snicket’s three rules for writing a book:

It is said that there are three rules for writing a book. The first rule is to regularly add the element of surprise, and I have never found this to be a difficult rule to follow, because life has so many surprises that the only real surprise in life is when nothing surprising happens.

The second rule is to leave out certain things in the story. This rule is trickier to learn than the first, because while life is full of surprises, you can’t leave any part of life out. Everything that happens to you happens to you. Often boring, sometimes exhausting, and occasionally thrilling, every moment of life is unskippable. In a book, however, you can skip past any part you do not like, which is why all decent authors try not to have any of these parts in the books they write. But few authors manage it. Nearly every book has at least one part that sits on the page like a wet sock on the ground, with the reader stopping to look at it thinking What is this doing here?

Nobody knows what the third rule is.

And as a bonus, advice for writing a good sentence:

Almost always, shortening a sentence improves it. A nice short sentence feels like something has been left out, which helps give it the element of surprise.

Genuinely helpful writing advice, or confusing nonsense from a silly book about bewilderment? I’ll leave it for you to decide.

Writing: The RPG™

In the halcyon days of the mid-2000s, the exploding popularity of alternate reality games got a lot of Silicon Valley types excited about the power of games to motivate people. For a few years, investors were happy to throw money at any product that included the word “gamification.” A handful of useful or interesting products came out of that wave of gamification, like StackOverflow and the StackExchange network it spawned, but a lot of attempts at gamification just slapped points and badges on drudge work in the vain hope that people would suddenly love it. Those products all sucked, and mostly disappeared.

Still, the idea of gamification isn’t completely useless (probably). I’ve browsed the ARG scene in years past, strictly as a casual observer, not a front-line puzzle-solver. In the best cases, it’s an interesting vehicle for storytelling, and it can be pretty amazing how effective a small group of people are at solving a problem when they’re all having a good time and feel like a community. I read Jane McGonigal’s book, Reality is Broken, and while I didn’t exactly come away believing that gamification can fix all the world’s ills, I think it can sometimes be useful as a way to self-motivate.

So anyway, that’s why I sometimes think about treating real-life writing as a role-playing game.

Character Creation

Do you want to play Writing: The RPG™? You can! All you have to do is follow these easy steps that I’m making up on the spot. Get yourself a couple pieces of paper.

  1. Select a character name. This can be your real name, or a pen name, or the name of a friend who has a better name than you.
  2. Select a title. This should be something cool like Iron Pen, Word-o-mancer, or Page Slayer.
  3. Select your starting class. This is a general category of writing or writing-related stuff. Writer, Editor, Blogger, or Reader are all good classes.
  4. Select your starting sub-class. This is more specific than your class: Sci-Fi Writer, Short Story Writer, Fashion Blogger, etc.

Character Growth

Your character levels up by gaining experience points. You start at level 1. To gain a level, you need to get as many experience points as (your next level) x 2. So you need 4 XP to level up to level 2, and 6 XP to level up to level 3.

To gain experience, you have to  do stuff related to your classes.

  • A basic, unexceptional amount of work is worth 1 XP. This might be something like writing 1000 words or a short blog post.
  • Completing a task for the first time gets you a First Time Achievement, worth 2 XP. This is stuff like “First Thousand Words Written,” or “First Blog Post,” or “First Short Story.” You also get an achievement for the 10th time and the 100th time. After that, you’re an expert and you don’t get experience for doing that thing anymore.
  • Completing tasks that are very big or very difficult gets you an experience bonus: 5 XP or 10 XP, depending on how big and monumental you think it is. Finishing a novel or having your favorite author retweet you might fall into this category.

Writing: The RPG™ supports unlimited multi-classing. You can add as many new classes or sub-classes to your character as you want to. To add a class or sub-class, you have to complete a related task. You can’t get the Editor class until you’ve edited something. (Like really edited. Edit a chapter of your novel or something. Just fixing a couple sentences doesn’t count. This is serious business.) If you want the Blogger class, you need to post a blog post, and if you want to subclass into Fashion Blogger, that blog post better be about fashion, dangit.

What’s the Point?

There is none. It’s just a silly game. But maybe it’s a silly game that could actually motivate you to do something you kind of already wanted to do anyway? That’s what gamification is supposed to be good for, after all.

What do you think? Can we come up with more rules? I hearby release Writing: The RPG under a Creative Commons public domain license (no doubt giving up my chance to make millions from a half-assed afternoon blog post). Leave a comment with your additional rules, modifications, complaints, or erotic fanfic mash-ups down below.