Rules for Writing


The life of a writer is severely romanticized which can be rather disheartening.

The Guardian published an article called “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction” in 2010, in which several published authors gave their advice on how to write.

Here are some of my favorites.

Elmore Leonard

“[I]f it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

“Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.”

“Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.”

“Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, what do the “Ameri­can and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.”

Margaret Atwood

1 Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.

2 If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.

3 Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.

4 If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.

“Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.”

“Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­isation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.”

Roddy Doyle

“Do not place a photograph of your ­favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.”

“Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy.”

Helen Dunmore

“Listen to what you have written. A dud rhythm in a passage of dialogue may show that you don’t yet understand the characters well enough to write in their voices.”

“Read Keats’s letters.”

Esther Freud

“Cut out the metaphors and similes. In my first book I promised myself I wouldn’t use any and I slipped up ­during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it.”

Neil Gaiman

1 Write.

2 Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.

3 Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.

4 Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.

5 Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

6 Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.

7 Laugh at your own jokes.

8 The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

David Hare

“Never complain of being misunderstood. You can choose to be understood, or you can choose not to.”

“The two most depressing words in the English language are “literary fiction”.”

PD James

“Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.”

Al Kennedy

“Remember you love writing. It wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t. If the love fades, do what you need to and get it back.”

“Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.”

Hilary Mantel

“First paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?”

Michael Morpurgo

“Ted Hughes gave me this advice and it works wonders: record moments, fleeting impressions, overheard dialogue, your own sadnesses and bewilderments and joys.”

Helen Simpson

“The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as “Shut up and get on with it.””

Rose Tremain

“When an idea comes, spend silent time with it. Remember Keats’s idea of Negative Capability and Kipling’s advice to “drift, wait and obey”. Along with your gathering of hard data, allow yourself also to dream your idea into being.”

“In the planning stage of a book, don’t plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.”

The Guardian, “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction,” Part I [Source]
The Guardian, “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction,” Part II [Source]

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2 thoughts on “Rules for Writing

    • Scott, that was brilliant. (And no, the swearing didn’t bother me.)
      Slightly off topic, but I loved

      “you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own
      image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

      Word.

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