Part 1, because otherwise this blog would be ridiculously long.
In my Internet travels this week I stumbled on an article published in The Guardian, in which 28 famous writers offered their “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.” The rules are a couple of years old, and the writers mostly British, but some of their suggestions stopped me cold, because they call out some of my biggest writing fears.
Of course, with 28 writers, there’s bound to be overlap—at least a quarter of them suggested a “long walk” as a good way to clear one’s head or solve a plot problem. And there’s contradiction aplenty too. For example, got a piece you just can’t make work? Neil Gaiman says finish it; Helen Dunmore says throw it away. Maybe I don’t need to take these so seriously, but as I write this blog, some of the rules have me reconsidering what and how I write.
Among the 200-plus rules (not everyone offered ten), here were ten I found encouraging. I’ll save the scary ones for next week.
Roddy Doyle: Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy. Well, easy for Dickens. But having a title helps encapsulate the theme of the story.
Helen Dunmore:Finish the day’s writing when you still want to continue. This makes it much easier to start the next day.
Geoff Dyer: Beware of clichés. Not just the clichés that Martin Amis is at war with. There are clichés of response as well as expression. There are clichés of observation and of thought—even of conception. Many novels, even quite a few adequately written ones, are clichés of form, which conform to clichés of expectation. Not to worry. I avoid clichés like the plague. Seriously, though, clichéd story ideas repulse me as much as clichéd phrasing.
Anne Enright: Write whatever way you like. Fiction is made of words on a page; reality is made of something else. It doesn’t matter how “real” your story is, or how “made up”; what matters is its necessity. There’s an audience for every writer. Half the job is finding them.
Richard Ford: Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea. I got lucky on this one.
Esther Freud: Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they’ll know it too. Immersion, not distance. There’s no substitute.
Neil Gaiman: Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. From now on, whenever my writers’ group critiques a story of mine, I’m going to recite this quote. Well, at least the second sentence.
Andrew Motion: Remember there is no such thing as nonsense. This comes in handy as I work on a new novel.
Sarah Waters: Read like mad. But try to do it analytically—which can be hard, because the better and more compelling a novel is, the less conscious you will be of its devices. It’s worth trying to figure those devices out, however: they might come in useful in your own work. I find watching films also instructive. Nearly every modern Hollywood blockbuster is hopelessly long and baggy. Trying to visualise the much better films they would have been with a few radical cuts is a great exercise in the art of story-telling. The compressed characteristic of film can be especially helpful.
Colm Tóibín: If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane. Unless, of course, you are on your way to becoming one of them.
Next week, the 10 scariest writing rules.