Wednesday 21 March 2012

Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

First of all, I apologise to any regular readers for the longer than usual silence. But I'm here now.

Today Twitter led me in the direction of a rather good Guardian article. I rather like a lot of what was in it. so I thought I'd share it with you.

Ten rules for writing fiction

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, we asked authors for their personal Dos and don'ts

I didn't agree with every single one of the things said - I expect different things work for different people, but for the most part it was full of great stuff.

Here's a few of the ones I thought were most useful:

Elmore Leonard says
Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck'sSweet Thursday, but it's OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks."

Margaret Atwood has great practical advice:
4 If you're using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.

Roddy Doyle says:
8 Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones. I was working on a novel about a band called the Partitions. Then I decided to call them the Commitments.

Anne Enright has comforting words for anyone who doubts their ability:
3 Only bad writers think that their work is really good.

Esther Freud says:
2 A story needs rhythm. Read it aloud to yourself. If it doesn't spin a bit of magic, it's missing something.

PD James says:
1 Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more ­effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it.

Michael Morpurgo says:
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.

Philip Pullman has sensible advice:
My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work

You can find the whole thing here.

And finally, my own two cents - some of which I've talked about in detail in older posts, but I'll sum it up here, in no particular order:

1. Never, ever, try and force a story to do what you want. The story is in charge.

2. Let your characters be the people they should be: people who fit the role and the setting, not just people you like.

3. If it's all about money or acclaim, you'll have to find someone else to tell you how to write. If not, be professional, but not so far that you lose passion for writing. And write what you really want to write, even if it's not cool.

4. Break it up. Big or far off targets either daunt, or get left until they creep up. Set yourself small, manageable, regular goals - the more regular the better: a weekly goal, for instance, leaves you open to having a week's worth of work on a Sunday night. Daily is good. Make them attainable, and measurable.

5. Avoid distractions: do not allow yourself near your favourite recreational time-sinks until you've reached your daily goal. Willpower may be necessary.

6. Remember it will never be the same for you as for a reader, so try not to compare yourself to your favourite authors, because you'll always seem to come off worst.

7. Ignore all rules. That is, keep them in mind, because they're often useful, but when it works better doing it wrong, do it wrong. This applies to everything up to and including spelling and grammar.

8. Get inside your characters' heads. And not just the protagonists either. Imagine being in their place, not what you would do if it was you, but as if you were them. Act it out if it helps (feelings of silliness may result, and should be ignored).

9. Don't be afraid to skip troublesome sections to go back to later, or leave tricky bits in 'first draft' form. It doesn't have to be perfect first time round. The important thing is to keep going.

10. Get on with it. You can sit there dipping any number of toes into the pools of creativity, but no tidal wave will ever leap up and swamp you. You'll only get wet by jumping in. If you want to write, start writing.


  1. I'm not a writer but I've read tons of writing books (seriously, I should be a much better writer given how much I've read on the subject). But whenever you ask enormously talented writers about rules it feels like a cheat because the truth is that enormously talented writers can get away with almost anything. Elmore Leonard is such a master of character and dialogue he could make just about anything work. Somebody like me? I'd better stick to the rules.

    1. Thanks for commenting!

      I'd say that, for the most part, the rules are right more often than not, and following them will tend to give you a reasonable piece of writing regardless of talent. BUT I don't think you have to be a genius to break them on occasion - I hope not, because I regularly play fast and loose with them! You just have to listen to it as if you were a reader rather than the writer, and see what sounds better.

  2. I love what PD James has to say about vocabulary. I've often felt very grateful that English is my first language. Where else you can find the words defenestrate and borborygmos and triskaidekaphobia?

  3. This is sooo helpful :) Thank you for posting it. I'm going to bookmark this post.

    1. Glad you liked it, thrilled if it helps at all. :)