Last week I listed 10 encouraging writing tips from an article published in The Guardian, in which 28 famous writers offered their “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.”
This week, 10 scary ones. Scary, because they speak to aspects of writing that I didn’t even realize could be called into question. Scary, because they have spawned doubts.
True, rules are only rules for those who choose to follow them, but this advice has got me thinking.
Elmore Leonard: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. I am sometimes guilty of overwriting. The pleasure of crafting a magnificent sentence is sometimes not always communicable to the reader. Sometimes, instead, it says, “Look at Me! Look at my great writing!” I am working on it.
Anne Enright: The first 12 years are the worst. Twelve? It used to be five, then ten. When I get to twelve will some great writer say the first twenty years of writing are the worst?
Enright: Only bad writers think that their work is really good. I have been proud of some of my work. I have dismissed some criticism. I think it’s natural to do so, and that attitude is one of the things that helps a writer keep going through the difficult early years. But when I look back at stories I was proud of, I can see how far I’ve come. It is time for a different perspective.
Jonathan Franzen: Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly. I think he’s right, but it makes me afraid to go back over some stories I’ve written.
Esther Freud: Cut out the metaphors and similes. In my first book I promised myself I wouldn’t use any and I slipped up during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it. Can she be serious? Writing without metaphor and simile? Or is she referring to the purple prose of sentimentality? When I read this I tried to laugh it off. Then I pulled out some of my favorite novels to prove her wrong. But I could scarcely find examples in those books. I think this rule scares me the most. I’ve been editing a novel I’m working on, and since I saw this advice I’ve paid close attention to my S & Ms—they are not always as effective as I’d originally imagined. Now some of them seem more like Elmore Leonard’s overwriting.
David Hare: Never complain of being misunderstood. You can choose to be understood, or you can choose not to. There goes that excuse out the window.
Hare: The two most depressing words in the English language are “literary fiction.” I suspect he meant this as a joke, but it is morbid humor. Not too many people read it; fewer understand it. Those who do criticize it.
AL Kennedy: Remember you love writing. It wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t. If the love fades, do what you need to and get it back. As tough as it is to ignore rejection, abandon commitments, ask loved ones for more space, and other sacrifices, he is right.
Colm Tóibín: No alcohol, sex or drugs while you are working. I won’t say which one, but I guess I’ll have to stop.
Jeanette Winterson: Be ambitious for the work and not for the reward. This was a tough one to get through my head, and I still have a ways to go, but I am getting there. It’s a corollary to number 3.
Next week, 10 from me, and yours, if you like.