Get an accountant, abstain from sex and similes, cut, rewrite, then cut and rewrite again – if all else fails, pray!”
Inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, The Guardian asked authors for their personal dos and don’ts.
Set over a series of posts, here are those authors rules of writing. Some are more serious than others, feel free to accept, reject or adapt as required.
1. Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.
2. Read Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible. You will particularly hate the advice to write first thing in the morning, but if you can manage it, it might well be the best thing you ever do for yourself. This book is about becoming a writer from the inside out. Many later advice manuals derive from it. You don’t really need any others, though if you want to boost your confidence, “how to” books seldom do any harm. You can kick-start a whole book with some little writing exercise.
3. Write a book you’d like to read. If you wouldn’t read it, why would anybody else? Don’t write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book’s ready.
4. 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.
5. Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there.
6. First paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?
7. Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. This is especially important for historical fiction. When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that’s the point to step back and fill in the details of their world. People don’t notice their everyday surroundings and daily routine, so when writers describe them it can sound as if they’re trying too hard to instruct the reader.
8. Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.
9. If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.
10. Be ready for anything. Each new story has different demands and may throw up reasons to break these and all other rules. Except number one: you can’t give your soul to literature if you’re thinking about income tax.
1. My first rule was given to me by TH White, author of The Sword in the Stoneand other Arthurian fantasies and was: Read. Read everything you can lay hands on. I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.
2. Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.
3. Introduce your main characters and themes in the first third of your novel.
4. If you are writing a plot-driven genre novel make sure all your major themes/plot elements are introduced in the first third, which you can call the introduction.
5. Develop your themes and characters in your second third, the development.
6. Resolve your themes, mysteries and so on in the final third, the resolution.
7. For a good melodrama study the famous “Lester Dent master plot formula” which you can find online. It was written to show how to write a short story for the pulps, but can be adapted successfully for most stories of any length or genre.
8. If possible have something going on while you have your characters delivering exposition or philosophising. This helps retain dramatic tension.
9. Carrot and stick – have protagonists pursued (by an obsession or a villain) and pursuing (idea, object, person, mystery).
10. Ignore all proferred rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say.
1. The prerequisite for me is to keep my well of ideas full. This means living as full and varied a life as possible, to have my antennae out all the time.
2. Ted Hughes gave me this advice and it works wonders: record moments, fleeting impressions, overheard dialogue, your own sadnesses and bewilderments and joys.
3. 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.
4. It is the gestation time which counts.
5. Once the skeleton of the story is ready I begin talking about it, mostly to Clare, my wife, sounding her out.
6. By the time I sit down and face the blank page I am raring to go. I tell it as if I’m talking to my best friend or one of my grandchildren.
7. Once a chapter is scribbled down rough – I write very small so I don’t have to turn the page and face the next empty one – Clare puts it on the word processor, prints it out, sometimes with her own comments added.
8. When I’m deep inside a story, living it as I write, I honestly don’t know what will happen. I try not to dictate it, not to play God.
9. Once the book is finished in its first draft, I read it out loud to myself. How it sounds is hugely important.
10. 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.
1. Decide when in the day (or night) it best suits you to write, and organise your life accordingly.
2. Think with your senses as well as your brain.
3. Honour the miraculousness of the ordinary.
4. Lock different characters/elements in a room and tell them to get on.
5. Remember there is no such thing as nonsense.
6. Bear in mind Wilde’s dictum that “only mediocrities develop” – and challenge it.
7. Let your work stand before deciding whether or not to serve.
8. Think big and stay particular.
9. Write for tomorrow, not for today.
10. Work hard.
Joyce Carol Oates
1. Don’t try to anticipate an “ideal reader” – there may be one, but he/she is reading someone else.
2. Don’t try to anticipate an “ideal reader” – except for yourself perhaps, sometime in the future.
3. Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!
4. Unless you are writing something very avant-garde – all gnarled, snarled and “obscure” – be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.
5. Unless you are writing something very post-modernist – self-conscious, self-reflexive and “provocative” – be alert for possibilities of using plain familiar words in place of polysyllabic “big” words.
6. Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”
7. Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worst.
Check back soon for some more writing rules from authors.
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