Friday, February 26, 2010

Writers' rules to keep for your own

One of the finest, most commonsensical articles on How to Write Fiction I've ever seen appeared last Saturday in the Guardian, one of the United Kingdom's best newspapers. Its editors asked fourteen writers to give their own versions of Elmore Leonard's famous "Ten Rules of Writing," and the result was, at least for me, not only inspiring but also eye-opening.

Here are the rules I'm taking to heart:

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

5 Do back exercises. Pain is distracting. Margaret Atwood

6 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

2 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. Helen Dunmore

4 If you use a computer, constantly refine and expand your autocorrect settings. The only reason I stay loyal to my piece-of-shit computer is that I have invested so much ingenuity into building one of the great auto­correct files in literary history. Perfectly formed and spelt words emerge from a few brief keystrokes: "Niet" becomes "Nietzsche", "phoy" becomes ­"photography" and so on. ­Genius! Geoff Dyer

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

3 Only bad writers think that their work is really good. Anne Enright

6 Don't drink and write at the same time. Richard Ford

1 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. Esther Freud

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. Neil Gaiman

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

6 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. AL Kennedy

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

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. Michael Morpurgo

6 In the planning stage of a book, don't plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it. Rose Tremain

5 Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it. Zadie Smith

7 Let your work stand before deciding whether or not to serve. Andrew Motion

9 No going to London. 10 No going anywhere else either. Colm Toibin

And, of course, Elmore Leonard's own No. 10: 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.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful! Nothing like seeing a list of all the things you've been doing wrong. But wonderful nonetheless!