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Criticism, Fiction, Reading, The Writer's Life, Writings

The 10 Most Encouraging and the 10 Scariest of the 10 Rules of Writing from 28 Writers

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.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


30 thoughts on “The 10 Most Encouraging and the 10 Scariest of the 10 Rules of Writing from 28 Writers

  1. Ooooh, how I hate rules! In my little mind, rules are made to be broken and only one thing reigns supreme:

    The story has to WORK.

    If this has been done, then all else HAS fallen into proper place.

    Posted by fpdorchak | September 22, 2012, 1:17 PM
    • I wish more people felt like you do. But people like rules (well, they like them when they get to make them and other people have to follow them). But taken as advice, some of these are not bad.

      Posted by jpon | September 22, 2012, 1:22 PM
      • Of course some of them are not bad, like taking walks to clear your head and fix story issues. But in the end I don’t care about (and really, neither do most readers I firmly believe and have even questioned in my humble circle of peeps!) whether or not there’s a prologue, one uses “said” or “whispered,” or the use of verbs and adverbs, the “necessity” of reading, et cet. Sure, the editors and agents might, and they’re the gatekeepers, and of course it tightens things up, but come on, look at all the material published out there that break many-to-most of these rules! And who am I to say some wicked savant cannot pen or pencil or CRAYON a stunning work of art? Just because it hasn’t been done yet, doesn’t mean it can’t be done. And so what if it IS an exception? If someone writes a great piece of work and readers get lost in it, including myself, I certainly don’t care if some literary rule was snapped in half and tossed on a fire. If the breaking of any rule was employed and I didn’t notice it’s BECAUSE it worked in the story, that’s the important part. But, IMESHO, if someone has pinged on a heinously included rule breaker, than the story wasn’t strong enough and therefore failed in “WORKING.”

        Is what i just wrote a rule?

        Will somone take me to task for anything about what I said?

        Of course.

        Get past the trees for the FOREST and create a powerful kick ass story that knocks our frigging socks off, and all the rest WILL have been handled. Problem is, that’s not what’s being published today. Yes, there are so many good books out there, but there are far too many bad ones outnumbering the good, causing the focus of “rules.” Perhaps we should all better focus ourselves on publishing powerful, WORKING stories—not just “stuff that sells.”

        IMESHO. :-]

        Posted by fpdorchak | September 22, 2012, 1:36 PM
      • Of course you’re right, it’s the story and how you tell it that trumps any rules the gatekeepers can conjure. Occasionally, though, it’s good to see what guides “successful” writers. Sometimes there are rules/tips that are new to me, and which can help me refine the way I think about writing.

        I rarely keep any of these “rules” in mind while I write. To do so would only weaken the writing since then, I’m not thinking about the story. But I feel if I can incorporate them into my subconscious, they might improve things. I’d say most of these rules are best employed during the editing/revision phase.

        Posted by jpon | September 22, 2012, 2:46 PM
      • And YOU’RE right, Joe! That would be my point, were I to have a point ( ;-] ), is not to weaken nor dilute the story with consciously playing to rules. Besides, guess I was also feeling a bit “feisty” when I first posted…. :-] Do what you gotta to get out a great story, and try to let elements of powerful writing become second nature!

        Posted by fpdorchak | September 22, 2012, 3:54 PM
  2. So glad you included a quote from Anne Enright who is one of my favorite authors. You did save the best for last though. That one made me laugh out loud as some days I feel pulled toward the looney bin. Can’t wait for next week’s list. I’ll be in Ireland, so I may not see it right away.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | September 22, 2012, 1:30 PM
  3. Curiously, I find long runs (well, 5 miles) a great way to figure out plot/character problems. But that’s just me.

    Posted by Paul Lamb | September 22, 2012, 1:55 PM
    • I get some ideas during lulls in my runs with Henry (alias the coffee drinkin’ dog). Although a mile and a half of sprints (chasing squirrels) and stops (to smell every piece of garbage) with Henry is equivalent to about 5 miles of running for normal people.

      Posted by jpon | September 22, 2012, 2:32 PM
    • You and Joyce Carol Oates.

      Posted by David I | September 24, 2012, 7:54 AM
  4. Interesting ideas, Joe. The Helen Dunmore quote reminds me of what Haruki Murakami said in “What I talk about when I talk about Running.” He said that he always ends his run at a point where he feels he could run a little bit longer, and he does the same with his writing sessions.
    When I first tried to write, the best advice I’d heard was something Hemingway supposedly said. Someone asked him how to become a writer and he replied “Write!”

    Posted by michellemorouse | September 22, 2012, 2:18 PM
  5. Being one of those who can take rule-following to an extreme, I try and break it up. One day I leave a chapter where I start again mid-sentence, the next day I finish it up and put it away for a month, etc… If I don’t do this, I become frozen in superstition. I used to play golf tournaments (in my younger life) and I eventually realized that what I loved most about the game were the rules. Stringent, exacting, no-compromise rules. Now I play a few times a year and try to relax about. (“try” being the word)

    That said, I love reading these, and I look forward to next week’s scary list. Nothing like looking into another writer’s mind to see what ticks in there.

    Posted by Teri | September 22, 2012, 3:12 PM
    • I always suspected that’s what golfers liked about the sport :-) And if you liked these, next week’s rules will push you in the direction Colin Tóibín suggested.

      Posted by jpon | September 22, 2012, 5:24 PM
  6. Thanks, Joe, for publishing these; I look forward to the subsequent parts of the post, too. Everyone has rules, some of which are only successful habits, so it follows from that that not all of one’s own successful habits will suit someone else. That being said, I think some of these suggestions above are very cogent and enlightening, others merely show the writer at her or his most characteristic (as for example the Hemingway advice to “Write!” as if that is all there is to it).

    Posted by shadowoperator | September 22, 2012, 3:35 PM
    • Thanks. If you read the entire list on Guardian’s web site, you’ll see there’s a lot of rules that are incompatible with those suggested by another writer. So it’s really up to the individual to pick the ones that seem right and see if they can help. That’s all we can ask of any set of rules.

      Posted by jpon | September 22, 2012, 5:26 PM
  7. Thanks, Joe. A great post as usual. The “rules,” were inspiring, but of course, meant to be broken.In the end, whatever device is used to tell the story, it has to work on many levels, especially on an emotional level.

    Posted by Nadia Ibrashi | September 22, 2012, 5:22 PM
  8. I dig the ‘no such thing as nonsense’ idea. It really helps to let go of perfection, let yourself go nuts with the hyperbole and the wild, unusable ideas. At the core of all of that is usually something good.

    Posted by Averil Dean | September 22, 2012, 7:23 PM
    • Yes, that’s the one that’s keeping me moving forward on my latest attempt at a novel, despite the issues noted elsewhere.

      Posted by jpon | September 23, 2012, 12:40 AM
  9. I like Colm Tóibín’s the best. Yes, it’s been that kind of weekend…
    but seriously, thanks for this — great fun, no matter how you feel about formulae for success.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | September 23, 2012, 6:04 PM
  10. I am currently reading Anne Lamont’s “Bird by Bird.” I find that reading books on writing by actual authors (as opposed to the people who have published a short story and become experts) as well as lists like the one you offered this week are great reminders for me. I tend to get ahead of myself and want perfection. The book and the list remind me that even very accomplished writers have “shitty first drafts” and struggle with their characters and plot just as I do. They also inspire me to keep plugging along knowing that I am in good company.

    Posted by jetepper | September 24, 2012, 11:20 AM
    • It can be overwhelming, though. So many rules and guidelines, and you have to remember them all without actually thinking about them consciously, or else you’ll muck up what you’re writing by worrying too much. Hmmm. Maybe that’s why even the accomplished writers still have those “shitty first drafts.”

      Posted by jpon | September 24, 2012, 7:01 PM
      • I guess I don’t think of them as hard and fast rules, just suggestions from wise friends. As I do with editing advice, I evaluate what is going to work, use it, and toss the rest. It is too easy to make ourselves crazy trying to live up to someone else’s ideal of what a “writer” is. I’ve lived through that with parenting (the most competitive sport out there) and I’m not about to fall into that trap with writing. Use what inspires you and makes you want to write and ignore everything else.

        Posted by jetepper | September 24, 2012, 7:10 PM
  11. I invite all of those writers– hell, let’s extend the invitation to any writer or reader or editor anywhere, born or unborn, since the beginning of time– to come on over and help me do this. But I’m going to need specifics.

    Posted by girl in the hat | September 24, 2012, 5:45 PM
  12. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just “plug in” to a collective of writers’ minds, so that as soon as we break a rule or write something that doesn’t work, we’d get a little signal in our heads that says, “STOP!” I could have used that on my retreat and saved a week of rewrites.

    Posted by jpon | September 24, 2012, 7:04 PM

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