The 10 Rules for Writing Fiction

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 …

  1. 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.
  2. 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
  3. 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.
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. ‘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!
  7. 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’.
  8. Helen Dunmore suggests you ‘reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite’ … as I’ve mentioned before, most of my first drafts are really fifth drafts.
  9. 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.
  10. 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

  1. Avoid prologues.  – One of the best parts of the Twilight series is definitely the carefully chosen prologues (no matter what you think of Twilight)
  2. Never use a verb other than ‘said’ …. really??? To me that’s rather boring and repetitive
  3. ‘If it sounds like writing, rewrite it…’ Surely this means get rid of all imagery and metaphors?
  4. Learn poems by heart… Um, what relevance does this have to fiction writing?
  5. 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.
  6. 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!

C-C xx


Filed under C-C Lester, General, Unsigned Author Commentary, Writing

12 responses to “The 10 Rules for Writing Fiction

  1. For me, I prefer to write it as I’d say it. If I read it out loud and the pauses are in the wrong place or the words trip over each other, I need to go back and delete and re-write.

    If a thought comes to me whilst in the middle of a paragraph that has no bearing, I write it down anyway – as word-processing allows me to keep moving that line down to the bottom of the page. If it comes in useful later, I use it:

    This allows me to keep up with my ever fertile and racing mind (something I usually struggle to do).

    • I LOVE the freedom of writing on a computer – whenever my battery runs out and I have to resort to paper, my writing is practically illegible as I revise every single line so often!
      C-C xx

  2. Here’s another rule I live by: Never throw anything away. I wrote a delightful scene, intending to use it to open my first novel, only to discover in rewrites that it had no business being there. I had to sacrifice it for the greater good, for the sake of the book as a whole. I loved that scene, and it would have been too painful to delete it. Instead, I cut it out and set it aside for 5 years. Just recently, that scene became the basis for a very successful short story. I was thrilled to resurrect it from the archives and give it new life. So, you don’t really have to “kill your darlings,” as the saying goes. You just may have to exile them to some distant land until you can think of a good reason to bring them home again.

    • Great advice 🙂 I think that’s the beauty of the digital age – we’re not wanting for storage space, so you can leave a sentence, a paragraph, or a whole chapter dormant in a folder for a number of years, and as long as technology hasn’t advanced too much, return to it when you need it 🙂
      C-C xx

  3. Pingback: The 7 Sins of Fiction Writing | elementarycircle

  4. I am so glad I found your blog! Great advice. I agree with what you agree with and disagree with what you disagree with. It is amazing. Great minds think alike…

  5. Pingback: Darling Exiles « Jane Austen Says…

  6. I have to say, there’s a lot of advice out there, and the most useful I’ve ever learnt is that your own way is fine as long as it’s productive! As long as you can shut out the ‘edit button’ in your head while you’re writing you can produce good work – and the editing head comes later.

    Have to say though, I have a slight issue with your rejection of point 4.

    I think poetry is very important to fiction writing – not least because it is another form of fiction writing! To me, dismissing this point is like saying that you shouldn’t listen to music or visit the theatre if you want to be inspired to write novels – and that clearly isn’t true. Poetry, fiction – in fact any sort of writing – speak to each other, and I believe that a good writer learns by reading others’ work. Although I have to say, memorising poems may be a step too far… 😛 And I say that as a writer of mainly poetry! I’d be interested to hear your opinion 🙂 (Before I rant anymore ;))

    • Well to be honest my point about learning poems by heart, was that this act itself, in my opinion, has no relevance to fiction writing. Why learn a poem off by heart to affect your own writing? Even if you were writing poetry, I wouldn’t suggest ‘learning’ other poems to inspire you, I’d simply suggest reading other poems.

      But if you’re taking my comment to mean that poetry full-stop has no bearing on writing fiction …
      (which was not how I meant that comment to sound)

      Firstly, fiction is a narrative of imaginary events, and so whilst what you say is correct, poetry CAN be fiction, it’s not always fiction writing. There are a LOT of nonfictional forms of poetry.

      Secondly, in my opinion, the most direct forms of inspiration, particularly when trying to unblock writer’s block, come from reading the same genre of writing that you are trying to write. So, for example, if I am trying to write children’s fiction in the third person, I surround myself with children’s fiction in the third person. It gets me in the zone. Learning, or even simply reading a lot of, poetry, whether of a fictional or non-fictional origin, would simply inspire me to think and write like a poet.

      Finally, anything can be inspirational to a writer. I don’t think I undermined that point in my article.
      I’m just saying that these are SPECIFIC rules to aid fiction writing. And in my opinion there are far more important rules than ‘surround yourself in music, or poetry, or theatre’ etc, because a) these are very personal inspirations, and different media inspire different people, and b) because I think that’s almost a given that doesn’t need to take up one of the 10 rules. Surely surrounding yourself in all other forms of art is simply LIVING, or at least living a cultured life, which hopefully should be a background which all keen fiction writers emerge from anyway?

      Hope that helps clarify my thoughts 🙂
      C-C xx

      • It does, thanks 🙂

        I wasn’t trying to say your rules are wrong, just that – well, as you say, I guess – inspiration is different to a lot of different people and culture and life is the most important. I don’t think you undermined it either, I just wanted to clarify the poetry thing because I think poetry gets a lot of bad press but, gladly, you agree that it’s not totally irrelevant – which I have to say is how it sounded – at least to me. I don’t think I was saying ‘surround yourself with everything’ more than ‘don’t ignore anything’. And in fact, as I said, I agree that memorising stuff for the sake of it is kind of pointless – I just don’t like the thought of poetry as a medium being dismissed!

        I think it’s important to discuss these things, and I think it’s interesting to find out how other people work. So thanks 🙂

        Also, if you can bear to answer one more question from nosy so-and-so; I was interested in what you said about writing like a poet. How do you think ‘writing like a poet’ differs from ‘writing like a novelist’?

      • I think ‘writing like a poet’ is very different to ‘writing like a novelist’ … in the same way that writing different types of fiction are different disciplines, and writing from different perspectives – 1st person, 3rd person etc – also differ. Poets have to think more carefully about every single word, because they have so fewer to deal with. Fiction authors have more scope to be lazier, or less neat at times. Also, poets have to think about the sound and the visual appearance of the poem, which, whilst still having their place in writing a novel, are less vital
        C-C xx

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