The ten rules of writing fiction

Ball of paperThere’s an old Guardian article I’ve used a few times when giving talks on the craft of writing. It was called The Ten Rules of Writing Fiction. The Guardian asked a whole load of famous novelists for their advice, and then printed each novelist’s top ten rules. When I first read it, it made a lot of sense. But then I rearranged the piece a little, and started to see a strange pattern. See if you can spot it…

  • Roddy Doyle says to “Fill pages as quickly as possible – double space, or write on every second line.” Michael Morpurgo says to “write very small so that you don’t have to turn the page and face the next empty one”.
  • Neil Gaiman says to read your work pretending you’ve never read it before. Margaret Atwood says you can never read your own book as if you never read it before, so show it to someone else instead.
  • Ian Rankin says “Be persistent. Don’t give up.” Geoff Dyer says “If something is proving too difficult, give up and do something else.”
  • Geoff Dyer says to write on a computer with highly refined autocorrect settings to save typing time. Zadie Smith says to write on a computer that is disconnected from the internet. Annie Proulx says to write only by hand.
  • Richard Ford says “Don’t have children”. Helen Dunmore says “If you fear that taking care of your children and household will damage your writing, think of JG Ballard.”
  • Jonathan Franzen says to “write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.” Anne Enright says “Write whatever way you like.”
  • Margaret Atwood says you’ll need a thesaurus. Roddy Doyle says to keep your thesaurus in a shed at the end of the garden, because “chances are the words that come into your head will do fine.”
  • Michael Moorcock says “Read everything you can lay hands on…from Bunyan to Byatt.” Will Self says “Stop reading fiction – it’s all lies anyway.”
  • Andrew Motion says to “decide when in the day or night it best suits you to write.” Hilary Mantel says that writing first thing in the morning “may well be the best thing you ever do for yourself.”
  • PD James says “The greater your vocabulary the more effective your writing”. Joyce Carol Oates favours “using plain familiar words in place of polysyllabic ‘big’ words”.
  • AL Kennedy says “the good things will make you remember them, so you won’t need to take notes.” Will Self says “Always carry a notebook… The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes.”
  • Jeanette Winterson says “Never stop when you are stuck.” Hilary Mantel says if you are stuck, stop and get away from your desk – take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep…; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem.”
  • One constant, however, was the advice to cut. Jonathan Franzen says to avoid the word “then” as a conjunction, and to be wary of “interesting verbs”. Sarah Waters advises cutting “redundant phrases, the distracting adjectives, the unnecessary adverbs.” Elmore Leonard says to cut prologues, descriptions of the weather, any verbs other than “said” to carry dialogue, adverbs, exclamation points, regional dialect and the word “suddenly”. Hilary Mantel says to cut your first paragraph. Esther Freud says to cut out all metaphors and similes. Not sure what’s left after all that – maybe a few nouns.

The point is, of course, that there are no rules – writing is by its nature an anarchistic enterprise. It survives on difference, surprises, rule-breaking, new approaches. If everybody followed the same rules, went down the same path, literature would die very quickly.

Typewriter

Aspiring writers often want to know the successful formula, but there just isn’t one. That’s not to say that all writing advice is pointless, of course. It’s perfectly possible to teach elements of craft, and to point out things that generally work and generally don’t. I’m planning on launching an e-course later this year, for example, on a specific area: how to overcome writer’s block. Individual problems can be tackled individually, with quite a bit of success.

But when it comes to more general things like “writing fiction”, be wary of anyone who tells you there are simple rules to follow. It’s easy to get lost in all the contradictory advice, and end up not writing a thing.

What do you think? Have you tried following any particular author’s formula for success, or do you prefer to write your own rules?

13 thoughts on “The ten rules of writing fiction

  1. I feel like that could be read as a spoken word poem.

    As with most artistic endeavours there are baseline constants (such as not being superfluous) but everything else relates to how you are as a person, and what best surroundings and actions create the best fiction.

    I feel like asking for a formula is like saying ‘why am I bad at writing, please help fix me’ when really if you’re not good you’ve just not worked at it enough – skills don’t develop overnight.

    1. It’s funny, it does work very well when read out. Always gets a few laughs as people see the pattern!

      I think you’re right about formulas. And yet they’re very comforting, aren’t they? It’s much better to be told “Here are 10 things you have to do” than to be told it’s complicated and takes a lot of time and practice. Unfortunately this is one case where each writer has to work out his or her own formula.

  2. I think there is one rule: there are no rules. Different tactics work for different people, and you just have to find what works for you. The most important thing is to write. If you don’t get words on the page, all the rules in the world will be meaningless anyway.

    1. Hi Jackie

      True, true! Getting words on the page is the hard part. I’m sure some aspiring writers spend so much time reading the rules that they never get to that point! Thanks for commenting.

  3. Read this just a couple of days ago. So many options to choose from, it’s scary. I like what Gaiman said: “Write. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.”
    It sounds so easy but it’s probably the most difficult thing to do. Or maybe I’m just whining.

    1. I agree, it’s very difficult – that’s why there are so many articles and so many people offering rules and formulas! So you’re not whining. It’s a simple thing in theory, but really tough in practice.

  4. I think you’ve got to read everything and consider it, but when it comes down to your own work you have to take it with a pinch of salt. Maybe if you find your writing style/story style etc similar to someone else’s, then their advice might work, but the comparisons you’ve made really go to show how practise and just writing is the most important.

    1. Yes, I think it helps to read everything, but be skeptical. Sometimes you do hear some piece of advice that really clicks, and then it’s good to follow it. But it’s important to realise when something is not going to work, and when it contradicts something you just read somewhere else!

  5. Wonderful post, Andrew! My favourite was the one by Anne Enright – “Write whatever way you like” 🙂 I also liked what Elmore Leonard said and what Hilary Mantel said (to cut your first paragraph). I totally loved what you said about writing – “writing is by its nature an anarchistic enterprise”. So beautifully put and so true!

    1. Thanks Vishy. Yes, that’s the thing – there’s some great advice in there, and I find myself nodding my head, and then someone else says the opposite, and that sounds good too! The advice about the first paragraph is quite good, actually, especially with short stories. I’ve often found that the first paragraph is my way in to the story, but doesn’t need to be there in the end – it’s often too explanatory, and it’s best just to jump in without the preamble. But then with my novels the first paragraphs are often the best, and stay in to the end!

  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you, THANK YOU! This is the best ‘rules of writing’ I have ever read! I’ve been telling fellow writers and aspiring writers this over and over. I am now printing this blog and pasting it above my computer!

    1. Glad you like it, Bonnie! I think it’s natural for aspiring writers to want to know the “rules” of writing good fiction, but it can be counterproductive. It’s good to hear that you share my view of things, and like the idea of my post sitting above your computer!

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