Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

Sunday, February 21st, 2010 • 1 Comment on Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

Well, there are a lot more than ten because every writer has a different set of rules.  This Guardian article was inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing and you can read the writing advice of over two dozen authors here, but these are the “rules” that resonate with me:

You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine. ~ Margaret Atwood

Do it every day. Make a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct. This is the most important rule of all and, naturally, I don’t follow it. ~ Geoff Dyer

Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand. ~ Anne Enright

Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea. ~ Richard Ford

Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money. ~ Jonathan Franzen

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter. ~ Neil Gaiman

The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as “Shut up and get on with it.” ~ Helen Simpson

Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you. ~ Zadie Smith

Treat writing as a job. Be disciplined. Lots of writers get a bit OCD-ish about this. Graham Greene famously wrote 500 words a day. Jean Plaidy managed 5,000 before lunch, then spent the afternoon answering fan mail. My minimum is 1,000 words a day – which is sometimes easy to achieve, and is sometimes, frankly, like shitting a brick, but I will make myself stay at my desk until I’ve got there, because I know that by doing that I am inching the book forward. Those 1,000 words might well be rubbish – they often are. But then, it is always easier to return to rubbish words at a later date and make them better. ~ Sarah Waters

Never stop when you are stuck. You may not be able to solve the problem, but turn aside and write something else. Do not stop altogether. ~ Jeanette Winterson

Of course, the main reason so many of these rules resonate is because I fail miserably at holding to them. (Except Richard Ford’s advice—that one I accomplished quite successfully.) It’s good to be reminded that all writers struggle with the writing process, even the writers I admire most.  While I don’t agree with Colm Tóibín’s assertions that you have to give up sex, alcohol, drugs and going to London to be a successful writer, it’s good to remember Roddy Doyle’s advice: “Do not place a photograph of your favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.”

I’m not whining, Ms. Atwood, but the writing life is hard.




Posted by Kristina in Writing

I'm a writer, editor, blogger, mama, wife and coffee lover.