33 rules for writing fiction

The Guardian recently asked a long list of authors to nominate their ten rules for writing fiction.  Here are 33 of the best (note, rules of blog writing: always use a kooky number):

1. 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). — Diana Athill

2. Hold the reader’s attention.  This is likely to work better if you can hold your own. — Margaret Atwood

3. 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. — Margaret Atwood

4. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing.  You’ve been backstage.  You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat.  Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business.  This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up. — Margaret Atwood

5. 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. — Roddy Doyle

6. 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. — Roddy Doyle

7. If you fear that taking care of your children and household will damage your writing, think of J G Ballard. — Helen Dunmore

8. Never worry about the commercial possibilities of a project.  That stuff is for agents and editors to fret over — or not.  Conversation with my American publisher. Me: “I’m writing a book so boring, of such limited commercial appeal, that if you publish it, it will probably cost you your job.” Publisher: “That’s exactly what makes me want to stay in my job.” — Geoff Dyer

9. Don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov. — Geoff Dyer (SG: note to self)

10. 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. — Geoff Dyer

11. 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. — Anne Enright

12. Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money. — Jonathan Franzen

13. Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly. — Jonathan Franzen

14. When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.  — Jonathan Franzen

15. The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention.  Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than “The Metamorphosis.” — Jonathan Franzen

16. It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction. — Jonathan Franzen

17. Laugh at your own jokes. — Neil Gaiman

18. If nobody will put your play on, put it on yourself. — David Hare

19.  Never complain of being misunderstood.  You can choose to be understood, or you can choose not to. — David Hare

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

21. It is the gestation time which counts. — Michael Morpurgo

22. With all editing, no matter how sensitive — and I’ve been very lucky here — I react sulkily at first, but then I settle down and get on with it, and a year later I have my book in my hand. — Michael Morpurgo

23. Bear in mind Wilde’s dictum that “only mediocrities develop” — and challenge it. — Andrew Motion

24. Don’t try to anticipate an “ideal reader” — there may be one, but he/she is reading someone else. — Joyce Carol Oates

25. Read lots. — Ian Rankin

26. You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become.  It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished. — Will Self

27. … remember how much time people spend watching TV.  If you’re writing a novel with a contemporary setting there need to be long passages where nothing happens save for TV watching: “Later, George watched Grand Designs while eating HobNobs.  Later still he watched the shopping channel for a while …” — Will Self

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

29. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books.  Spend more time doing this than anything else. — Zadie Smith

30. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet. — Zadie Smith

31. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. — Colm Tóibín

32. Turn up for work.  Discipline allows creative freedom.  No discipline equals no freedom. — Jeanette Winterson

33. 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. — Jeanette Winterson.

My favourites? Number 10, 17 and 23.


For the complete Guardian article, click on this link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/20/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-part-one

Images: Will Self (top); Zadie Smith, courtesy The Observer (middle); Neil Gaiman (bottom)


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