Ten Rules for Writing Fiction
You know me; I’m that obnoxious soul who keeps saying, ‘Screw the writing rules’. Every writer knows there are rules that we must OBEY. They are rules, rules, damn it. They exist so we can clearly demonstrate that the weight of educated opinion is with us when we choose to criticize.
Of course there are rules. Even I must relent at some point in the discussion, although I know good people with firm arguments who would say, ‘No, there is no need to relent. Ever. Creativity trumps literary fascism every time.’ But… I have to take a middle road when the choice is there. I argue the case of the Buddha: “Books [rules] are useful for finding your path. Once you have found your path, burn the books.”
In February of 2010, the UK Guardian asked some well known authors what were the most important rules for writing well. Some dug deep into their scholarly vaults and produced great wisdom on the points and counterpoints of language and expression. Like Elmore Leonard, who numbered among his recommendations:
- Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.
- Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. 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.
But I read through and found those rules which I believe we should all keep to the fore as we labor through our creative worklife. These, I think, are essential and all aspiring writers should be caused to have them tattooed to their inner thigh in remembrance.
- 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. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
- Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a memory stick.
- Do back exercises. Pain is distracting. Margaret Atwood
- 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 – until you get to Page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety – it’s the job.
- Do restrict your browsing to a few websites a day. Don’t go near the online bookies – unless it’s research.
- Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg “horse”, “ran”, “said”. Roddy Doyle
- Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. Helen Dunmore
- Do it every day. Make a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct. This is the most important rule of all and, naturally, I don’t follow 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 anymore, the day when I will sink into a depression so profound it will be indistinguishable from perfect bliss. Geoff Dyer
- The first 12 years are the worst.
- The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page.
- Only bad writers think that their work is really good.
- Write whatever way you like. Fiction is made of words on a page; reality is made of something else. It doesn’t matter how “real” your story is, or how “made up”: what matters is its necessity.
- Try to be accurate about stuff.
- Have fun.
- 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
- Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.
- Don’t have children.
- Don’t read your reviews.
- Don’t write reviews.
- Don’t drink and write at the same time.
- Don’t write letters to the editor. (No one cares.)
- 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. Richard Ford
- You see more sitting still than chasing after.
- It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction. Jonathan Franzen
- Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
- Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
- Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before.
- 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 is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
- 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. Neil Gaiman
- 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. PD James
- Have humility. Have more humility. Defend others. Defend your work. Defend yourself. Write. Read. Be without fear. Remember you love writing. 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. AL Kennedy
- My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work. Philip Pullman
- 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.” Helen Simpson
Many of these greats said READ. As many more said, DO NOT READ.
While Roddy Doyle said, “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;” Colm Tóibín said, “If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane,” and “On Saturdays, you can watch an old Bergman film, preferably Persona or Autumn Sonata.” So who’s right?
There is only one rule which every writer suggested: Write. Writers write. There you go; the best advice money cannot buy. So off you shoot, then. Start writing.
For the full transcript and a more in depth discussion of the fine points of authorial skill – if you want to know which ‘how to’ manual they recommend; if you want to know the finer arts of metaphor use or non-use; if you seek greater guidance on polysyllabic proselytizing, then go to Ten rules for writing fiction: Part 1 and Part 2.
Then sit down and write.
Or you could put off that moment of decision indefinitely, and create a list or two of rules which every writer must know and share them here.
About Letitia CoyneLetitia Coyne
is alive and well and living in Australia. She writes, paints, draws, sews, plays with old wooden furniture, revives jewellery and sings very loudly. When not doing any of the above, she watches endless movies, feeds multitudes of pets, wildlife freeloaders, and stray adolescents. Or sleeps.