There’s been quite a bit of discussion recently on the writing list at the Internet Writing Workshop concerning an article in The Guardian titled “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.”

Some of the rules I thought were reasonable, while others not so much. Below are the ones that resonated with me. Comments occasionally interjected by yours truly (and I apologize for the extra long post):

Elmore Leonard:

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.

[Me: I thought this was funny when I first read it, but Leonard is right. Julius has quite a bit of dialogue and when I first started writing it, I used several verbs other than “said.” Now I see the error of my ways and I’m learning to eliminate tags and use beats more often.]

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.

Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”. This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

[Me: I don’t necessarily agree with this. If used sparingly, like any other word, I think it’s fine. I wonder if Leonard would advised Tennessee Williams to scratch out “suddenly” in his great play, Suddenly Last Summer?]

Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

[Me: Another funny rule, but he’s right. When I read this I immediately though of Jonathan Littel’s The Kindly Ones, oy gevalt! Paragraphs that were three pages long. And yeah, I did skip parts. ]

Diana Athill:

Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK (prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out – they can be got right only by ear).

[Me: Boy, is she right on that one. Whenever I stumble on a word or sentence I know it’s time for a rewrite or hit the delete key. You’ll also catch other errors like missing or repeated words. ]

You don’t always have to go so far as to murder your darlings – those turns of phrase or images of which you felt extra proud when they appeared on the page – but go back and look at them with a very beady eye. Almost always it turns out that they’d be better dead. (Not every little twinge of satisfaction is suspect – it’s the ones which amount to a sort of smug glee you must watch out for.)

Margaret Atwood:

You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

[Me: I always have them near me, and I’ve always been very pragmatic concerning reality. Writing is hard work. There are no health benefits, promotions, raises, company picnics, or paid vacation. If you want job security (does that even exist these days?) get a job at the post office. And don’t whine about it.]

Roddy Doyle:

Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph.

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.

[Me: I’m thankful that I had already had a title in my head when I started my second novel. Is the rest any easier? No. And that leads into Roddy’s next comment . . . .]

Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones. I was working on a novel about a band called the Partitions. Then I decided to call them the Commitments.

Helen Dunmore:

A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.

[Me: Hot showers for me or working out on the treadmill or elliptical.]

Geoff Dyer:

Don’t write in public places. In the early 1990s I went to live in Paris. The usual writerly reasons: back then, if you were caught writing in a pub in England, you could get your head kicked in, whereas in Paris, dans les cafés . . . Since then I’ve developed an aversion to writing in public. I now think it should be done only in private, like any other lavatorial activity.

[Me: I still dream of writing in cafés in Paris. And fingers crossed by this time next year I’ll be doing just that–as long as the cafe is near and there’s an outlet to plug in. Otherwise, I like to write in solitary confinement.]

Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It’s only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other. I always have to feel that I’m bunking off from something.

[Me: I have a story waiting in the wings, and I’m anxious to start it.]

Never ride a bike with the brakes on. If something is proving too difficult, give up and do something else. Try to live without resort to per­severance. But writing is all about perseverance. You’ve got to stick at it. In my 30s I used to go to the gym even though I hated it. The purpose of  going to the gym was to postpone the day when I would stop going. That’s what writing is to me: a way of  postponing the day when I won’t do it any more, the day when I will sink into a depression so profound it will be indistinguishable from perfect bliss.

Anne Enright:

Try to be accurate about stuff.

[Me: When it comes to accuracy I am a slave to research. Don’t get me going on authors who alter facts for artistic purposes.]

Remember, if you sit at your desk for 15 or 20 years, every day, not ­counting weekends, it changes you. It just does. It may not improve your temper, but it fixes something else. It makes you more free.

[Me: and antisocial. At least that’s what I’ve discovered]

Richard Ford:

Don’t wish ill on your colleagues.

Try to think of others’ good luck as encouragement to yourself.

Don’t take any shit if you can possibly help it.

Jonathan Franzen:

Never use the word “then” as a conjunction – we have “and” for this purpose. Substituting “then” is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many “ands” on the page.

[Me: I thought this was interesting because I’ve fallen into the habit of using “then” more than I really care because I used “and” too often. Now I’ve very aware of it and I’m making the corrections (hee, hee, get it?)]

Esther Freud

A story needs rhythm. Read it aloud to yourself. If it doesn’t spin a bit of magic, it’s missing something.

Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life.

Find your best time of the day for writing and write. Don’t let anything else interfere. Afterwards it won’t matter to you that the kitchen is a mess.

Neil Gaiman:

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.

Laugh at your own jokes

[Me: I do, but I’m the only one who gets them]

PD James:

Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it.

Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.

Don’t just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.

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

Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other ­people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.

[Me: A very wise woman. Couldn’t have said or written it any better.]

Al Kennedy:

Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.

Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them, so you won’t need to take notes.

Be without fear. This is impossible, but let the small fears drive your rewriting and set aside the large ones until they behave – then use them, maybe even write them. Too much fear and all you’ll get is silence.

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:

If you have a good story idea, don’t assume it must form a prose narrative. It may work better as a play, a screenplay or a poem. Be flexible.

[Me: Most of my stories are really envisioned as films and I originally wanted to write a screenplay, but unfortunately my stories are very loooong. Think Berlin Alexanderplatz. That’s why I thought maybe a novel would be better. But I know that I have a screenplay in me.]

Michael Moorcock:

Carrot and stick – have protagonists pursued (by an obsession or a villain) and pursuing (idea, object, person, mystery)

[Me: I like this one a lot, and I think with my MC’s obsessions and her pursuit to find that golden egg I’m actually following this rule.]

Michael Morpugo:

A notion for a story is for me a confluence of real events, historical perhaps, or from my own memory to create an exciting fusion.

Andrew Motion:

Work hard.

Joyce Carol Oates:

Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worst.

Ian Rankin:

Learn what criticism to accept.

Will Self:

The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement – if you can’t deal with this you needn’t apply.

Oh, and not forgetting the occasional beating administered by the sadistic guards of the imagination.

Zadie Smith:

Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.

[Me: I really need to get into this habit. How many hours have I wasted by surfing and rationalizing it was research?]

Colm Toibin:

Stay in your mental pyjamas all day.

Rose Tremain:

Forget the boring old dictum “write about what you know”. Instead, seek out an unknown yet knowable area of experience that’s going to enhance your understanding of the world and write about that.

If you’re writing historical fiction, don’t have well-known real characters as your main protagonists. This will only create biographical unease in the readers and send them back to the history books. If you must write about real people, then do something post-modern and playful with them.

Learn from cinema. Be economic with descriptions. Sort out the telling detail from the lifeless one. Write dialogue that people would actually speak.

Sara Waters:

[Me: I liked all her points. So here you go:]

Read like mad. But try to do it analytically – which can be hard, because the better and more compelling a novel is, the less conscious you will be of its devices. It’s worth trying to figure those devices out, however: they might come in useful in your own work. I find watching films also instructive. Nearly every modern Hollywood blockbuster is hopelessly long and baggy. Trying to visualise the much better films they would have been with a few radical cuts is a great exercise in the art of story-telling. Which leads me on to . . .

Cut like crazy. Less is more. I’ve often read manuscripts – including my own – where I’ve got to the beginning of, say, chapter two and have thought: “This is where the novel should actually start.” A huge amount of information about character and backstory can be conveyed through small detail. The emotional attachment you feel to a scene or a chapter will fade as you move on to other stories. Be business-like about it. In fact . . .

Treat writing as a job. Be disciplined. Lots of writers get a bit OCD-ish about this. Graham Greene famously wrote 500 words a day. Jean Plaidy managed 5,000 before lunch, then spent the afternoon answering fan mail. My minimum is 1,000 words a day – which is sometimes easy to achieve, and is sometimes, frankly, like shitting a brick, but I will make myself stay at my desk until I’ve got there, because I know that by doing that I am inching the book forward. Those 1,000 words might well be rubbish – they often are. But then, it is always easier to return to rubbish words at a later date and make them better.

Writing fiction is not “self- expression” or “therapy”. Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects. I think of my novels as being something like fairground rides: my job is to strap the reader into their car at the start of chapter one, then trundle and whizz them through scenes and surprises, on a carefully planned route, and at a finely engineered pace.

Respect your characters, even the minor ones. In art, as in life, everyone is the hero of their own particular story; it is worth thinking about what your minor characters’ stories are, even though they may intersect only slightly with your protagonist’s. At the same time . . .

Don’t overcrowd the narrative. Characters should be individualised, but functional – like figures in a painting. Think of Hieronymus Bosch’s Christ Mocked, in which a patiently suffering Jesus is closely surrounded by four threatening men. Each of the characters is unique, and yet each represents a type; and collectively they form a narrative that is all the more powerful for being so tightly and so economically constructed. On a similar theme . . .

Don’t overwrite. Avoid the redundant phrases, the distracting adjectives, the unnecessary adverbs. Beginners, especially, seem to think that writing fiction needs a special kind of flowery prose, completely unlike any sort of language one might encounter in day-to-day life. This is a misapprehension about how the effects of fiction are produced, and can be dispelled by obeying Rule 1. To read some of the work of Colm Tóibín or Cormac McCarthy, for example, is to discover how a deliberately limited vocabulary can produce an astonishing emotional punch.

Pace is crucial. Fine writing isn’t enough. Writing students can be great at producing a single page of well-crafted prose; what they sometimes lack is the ability to take the reader on a journey, with all the changes of terrain, speed and mood that a long journey involves. Again, I find that looking at films can help. Most novels will want to move close, linger, move back, move on, in pretty cinematic ways.

Don’t panic. Midway through writing a novel, I have regularly experienced moments of bowel-curdling terror, as I contemplate the drivel on the screen before me and see beyond it, in quick succession, the derisive reviews, the friends’ embarrassment, the failing career, the dwindling income, the repossessed house, the divorce . . . Working doggedly on through crises like these, however, has always got me there in the end. Leaving the desk for a while can help. Talking the problem through can help me recall what I was trying to achieve before I got stuck. Going for a long walk almost always gets me thinking about my manuscript in a slightly new way. And if all else fails, there’s prayer. St Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers, has often helped me out in a crisis. If you want to spread your net more widely, you could try appealing to Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, too.

Talent trumps all. If you’re a really great writer, none of these rules need apply. If James Baldwin had felt the need to whip up the pace a bit, he could never have achieved the extended lyrical intensity of Giovanni’s Room. Without “overwritten” prose, we would have none of the linguistic exuberance of a Dickens or an Angela Carter. If everyone was economical with their characters, there would be no Wolf Hall . . . For the rest of us, however, rules remain important. And,  crucially, only by understanding what they’re for and how they work can you begin to experiment with breaking them.

Jeanette Winterson:

[Me: Ditto]

Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.

Never stop when you are stuck. You may not be able to solve the problem, but turn aside and write something else. Do not stop altogether.

Love what you do.

Be honest with yourself. If you are no good, accept it. If the work you are doing is no good, accept it.

Don’t hold on to poor work. If it was bad when it went in the drawer it will be just as bad when it comes out.

Take no notice of anyone you don’t respect.

Take no notice of anyone with a gender agenda. A lot of men still think that women lack imagination of the fiery kind.

Be ambitious for the work and not for the reward.

Trust your creativity.

Enjoy this work!

And there you have it. All sage advice to follow. Now that you’ve finished reading this, get writing! (sorry Elmore.)

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