My blog-trawling the other day alighted upon a rather inspiring blog – 101 Books. In it, as well as reading his way though Time Magazine’s 100 Greatest Novels, Robert Bruce discusses various lists of ‘rules’ for writing.
He starts off with George Orwell’s list of Rules for Writing, and then moves on to Jonathan Franzen’s list of 10 Rules. His inspiration comes from the recent Guardian article where a group of famous authors wrote personal lists.
Check out the lists of rules, and decide which ten things you think are most important to you. Or have you got some other rules that no one else has mentioned yet?
Here are my favourite 10 …
- Elmore Leonard’s advice to ‘Keep your exclamation points under control’ … I often write like I talk, and I’m quite an animated person. I have to admit to still not being sure if ?! is now acceptable punctuation in this day and age, particularly in speech.
- I also like his rule that you ought to ‘leave out the part that readers tend to skip’ because I know as a reader I often skip long, dull paragraphs, and so need to be aware of this in my own writing when I come to editing
- Diana Athill’s (and Helen Dunmore’s) advice to ‘Read it aloud’ is something I always try to do when I’m editing, particularly if I’m unsure whether a section works or not.
- I also like Athill’s rule to ONLY use essential words … it can be hard sometimes to be that militant, but it’s very good advice when you’ve been told to reduce a manuscript substantially – like when I was told to turn Flicker’s 180,000 words in to 90,000
- Margaret Atwood recommends backing up computers, and always having something physical to write on – which ties nicely into my last blog post about Writer’s Block, where I suggested creativity doesn’t always come during designated writing hours
- ‘You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality,’ says Atwood. The second item is a given for me, following on from ‘Get it Write ;) ‘, and I LOVE her description of writing as a gamble. ‘Essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.’ If I didn’t love her already for her amazing fiction, that sentence does it for me! Especially considering it’s obviously been a very long time since Atwood herself was in a situation where writing didn’t pay!
- Roddy Doyle echoes one of Margaret Atwood’s points when he suggests you ‘change your mind’ at times. It can be painful erasing sections, or changing names across an entire novel, or simply accepting that something you thought was wonderful doesn’t actually work, but try to think of your writing as a work in progress, and therefore treat editing a ‘refining process for the better’.
- Helen Dunmore suggests you ‘reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite’ … as I’ve mentioned before, most of my first drafts are really fifth drafts.
- I appreciate Geoff Dyer’s advice to ‘never worry about the commercial possibilities of a project’ … apparently having a female protagonist is something Sales and Marketing departments at publishers frown upon …. I’m afraid I am very unlikely to ever write from the perspective of a male protagonist, because I simply don’t feel equipped or able to do such a position justice.
- Anne Enright says the ‘first 12 years are the worst’ … hmmm that means I have another 10 years to go until I start worrying!
There are lots more I agree with … and there are also quite a few I disagree with … including
- Avoid prologues. – One of the best parts of the Twilight series is definitely the carefully chosen prologues (no matter what you think of Twilight)
- Never use a verb other than ‘said’ …. really??? To me that’s rather boring and repetitive
- ‘If it sounds like writing, rewrite it…’ Surely this means get rid of all imagery and metaphors?
- Learn poems by heart… Um, what relevance does this have to fiction writing?
- Don’t write in public places … Some of my best words have been ‘penned’ on very crowded chicken buses. As long as I have a decent pair of headphones, and Glee music available, I can shut out the world and concentrate on my writing.
- Keep a diary – See this is a difficult one, because I was the most dedicated journal keeper for over 10 years. I kept one almost every day from the age of 14, however, since I’ve started writing regularly, I’ve noticed my journal time slowly diminish to virtually never, and I think the reason for this is because I have a different outlet for my words. If I start writing a diary regularly again, I don’t think I’ll have the same discipline for my fiction work.
Have a read of the Guardian article, and Robert’s blog, and let me know which points you strongly agree or disagree with, and whether you have anything of your own to contribute to what is really far more than 10 simple rules!
One final thought …
Because I love this recommendation so much I feel it ought to stand alone.
‘Only bad writers think that their work is really good.’ (Anne Enright)
This definitely made me feel better about my own writing and my awful perfectionism!