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Criticism, Fiction, The Writer's Life

10 Scary Rules of Writing – Advice To Make Good Writers Take Notice

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.


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.


35 thoughts on “10 Scary Rules of Writing – Advice To Make Good Writers Take Notice

  1. You can never go wrong listening to Elmore Leonard

    Posted by bibliopirate | September 29, 2012, 1:04 PM
  2. As much as I’m not a “rule guy,” I kinda did like most of these better—they’re in the “gray area,” and I am a fan of gray areas. :-] Be transparent, enjoy the journey, can’t please everyone, enjoy writing IN AND OF ITSELF. OK, Joe, I’m playing nice on this comment–go forth and WRITE, man! :-]

    Posted by fpdorchak | September 29, 2012, 1:14 PM
    • Yes, and I appreciate your restraint. As thought-provoking as some of these are, it’s just as important to remember some from last week that urged writers to just write and not worry about too many details. Nothing suppresses creativity more than rules.

      Posted by jpon | September 29, 2012, 2:52 PM
  3. You’re a very brave man, to take on all these rules. I would be paralyzed by the very rules congregating in my head, myself. Now, don’t worry, I’m not trying to hex you, just to suggest that maybe if it starts to get you down you should just pick the rules that already make sense to you to follow, and don’t follow the ones that seem to inhibit your writing. What else can any of us do and still remain fluid and free enough to write?

    Posted by shadowoperator | September 29, 2012, 1:24 PM
    • A few months ago I read a book by Douglas Glover titled “Attack of the Copula Spiders.” At the time, I didn’t even know what a copula was. Once I understood, I spent days fixing copula-laden writing, and sweated over every sentence I wrote to make sure I was using more active verbs. In time, though, those fixations fade into the subconscious, which is where they belong. The key to good writing, I believe, is not to ignore rules and not to obsess over them. It’s to incorporate the ones you believe are true into your writing psyche so that you are aware of them without thinking about them. Kind of like driving. If you were consciously aware of every rule and the repercussions of every move you make, you’d never get out of the driveway. I will try to do the same with these. Once I have these rules in my head, I can write with my pedal to the metal (I hope).

      Posted by jpon | September 29, 2012, 2:59 PM
      • Another cure for the copula spider problem is locating their site of origin and seeing just where they really work and where they don’t. This has been a Hemingway-weighted day for me, with ideas stemming from Hemingway accounting for several of the comments I’ve made on others’ sites. But the master of the use of the copula was really Hemingway. Also, the dupe of the master of the use of the copula was again Hemingway at times when he wasn’t writing well. You can catch him at both activities in a lot of his stuff. He approaches self-parody sometimes, when it’s all a bit too much. (Or maybe I’ve just gotten a little too used to his style.) Be that as it may, bad copulas are often used by other people trying to keep to Hemingway’s rules of play. I guess I sort of think that it worked, more or less, for him, but after all this time we should be playing by different rules, or should at least have learned to take him with a grain of salt.

        Posted by shadowoperator | September 29, 2012, 7:54 PM
      • Some people have learned to take Hemingway’s excesses in a more humorous light, in the International Imitation Hemingway Competition (also known as the Bad Hemingway Competition), which used to be run at Harry’s Bar and American Grill. There’s probably a host of similar contests, too. Your comment makes me want to go back and reread some of his work to see how he handled the copula issue.

        As far as the copulae (copulas?) go, I find that while there’s often a better way to say some things, at other times they just can’t be replaced without sounding too writerly–and then Elmore Leonard’s rule would haunt me.

        Posted by jpon | September 30, 2012, 1:51 AM
  4. “Write in the 3rd person.” This makes me think, also, of writers who say, “Write in past tense only.” I believe it, but hearing it makes me want to veer off the road and write in first person, present tense. When I think about my favorite novels, many of them are written in first person, or close third.

    “The first 12 years….” I wrote my first story in 2003, so this sounds about right to me.

    “Remember you love writing.” BoyOhBoy, I don’t know. I love having written. Kind of like I love having worked out. Or maybe it’s more like running, where once I get going and get past the first 1/2 mile and settle in, I do love it.

    “Only bad writers think their work is really good.” I’m laughing a little, because no matter how humble they appear in public, surely many great writers are very proud of what they’ve produced and think they’ve outdone most. There are exceptions, sure, but I imagine some of the writers on this scary list feel like they’re in the right job.

    Posted by Teri | September 29, 2012, 1:36 PM
    • As you said, I love having written. But even that’s not completely true for me. I like when I hit my word count goal for the day, but that’s not really writing. I enjoy working out a plot detail or rewriting a sentence eight times until I’m satisfied, but there’s just another one sitting there, like a border guard (oops, a simile), waiting for me. There’s a good feeling with having finished a story, but then there’s the critique and revision process. And of course it’s great when a journal emails to accept a piece, but by that time, the feeling passes quickly.

      So why do we do it? Apart from the compulsion to speak our minds, to add to the literary conversation, maybe the answer is that writing is not a hobby, or a profession, but a life. And at the end of it, maybe we can look back and say that taken as a whole, the body of writing we produced in that lifetime made a statement that no one else could make, and that it mattered to someone, somewhere.

      Posted by jpon | September 29, 2012, 3:14 PM
  5. “Only bad writers think their work is really good.” This is paralyzing. I think I need to appreciate how much better I’ve become, but damnit, I spent too many years filled with self doubt. Now I can recognize the quality of my work, good or bad. I know it as I write it.
    It used to be that when someone said a positive thing about a story of mine, I’d say, “Oh, well, it’s just a nice little story. Not all that great.” Now I just say, “Thank you.”

    And Teri, you’re dead on…I love having written. I also love thinking about a story, working it in my head. But the physical, fingers on the keys work? No so much. Not so much at all.

    But I do agree about no sex while writing. Leads to too many typos.

    Posted by Jon Zech | September 29, 2012, 1:53 PM
    • Remember–these are all OPINIONS.

      I find it fascinating what other’s think about what works and what doesn’t. Good thing we (most of us, I hope!) can think for ourselves and come up with our own opinions. Just because a “Great” says something, doesn’t mean it’s true.

      Make your own Truth.

      Posted by fpdorchak | September 29, 2012, 2:38 PM
    • It can be paralyzing, yes. But I doubt any of these admonishments are meant to be. The overall message I get from these rules is to always keep a perspective about your writing. Never get so into your writing that you can’t see the flaws. Do the best you can, but keep learning, keep growing, and know you can and will get better.

      Posted by jpon | September 29, 2012, 3:22 PM
  6. “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.” I need to remember that. I am so often guilty of over-writing, and I love, love, love the sentences that sound like writing. I guess I have to remember, too, “Kill your darlings.” Like Teri, I love having written. I love thinking about writing. I also, weirdly, love editing. But actually sitting down and writing is a struggle.

    I’m like Jon in that I have difficulty accepting praise for a piece of writing. The urge to belittle a piece of my own writing is so strong. I need to learn how to shut up and say, “Thank you. I’m glad you liked it.” That is a great skill to have.

    Posted by Meg | September 29, 2012, 2:44 PM
    • The “Thank you. I’m glad you liked it,” is a tough one to learn. The temptation is to keep explaining what this part of the story meant, or the metaphor you intended. But sometimes the best part about criticism, is sitting in group and listening to the members discuss and debate your story. Some will read X into it, others will see the same passage as Y. I try to shut up and let them go, and if I can keep from blurting out what I really meant, I take satisfaction in at least starting the debate, and getting people to think about an issue I care about.

      Posted by jpon | September 29, 2012, 3:27 PM
      • I know! Others have found themes and meanings in my stuff that I never knew were there. Actually, they aren’t there, but once it’s written, it belongs to the reader.

        Posted by Jon Zech | September 29, 2012, 9:30 PM
  7. “Never complain of being misunderstood.” My favorite advice of the ten. Being understood is always a choice, and usually a conscious choice, on the writer’s part. Some pieces you want to be clear to the reader, other times you prefer to raise the question without an answer. Either way is fine, but it’s the writer’s job to decide and then make it happen.

    I also love what Jeanette Winterson had to say.

    Posted by Averil Dean | September 29, 2012, 3:21 PM
    • That has always been a tough one for me. Maybe it’s my NY upbringing… whaddya mean you don’t get it?! But some people won’t get the point. Others will. Still others will see meaning where none was intended… or was it? That may be my subconscious playing a role in the writing.

      Posted by jpon | September 29, 2012, 3:35 PM
  8. What? No metaphors? Writing without metaphors is like writing without a crutch. I just can’t do it! (The list was great to read and thoroughly depressing.)

    Posted by girl in the hat | September 29, 2012, 3:29 PM
    • walking without a crutch, that is. Grrr.

      Posted by girl in the hat | September 29, 2012, 3:30 PM
    • and was I ever depressed the day I read some of these–especially the one about simile and metaphor. You mean I’ve been doing it all wrong for so long? Yet, because they make me go back and take a more critical look at my writing, I feel even the rules that scare me the most will be of some help. I may not eliminate all my S & Ms, but I’ll give them a much closer look to make sure they’re doing the job I intend.

      Posted by jpon | September 29, 2012, 3:39 PM
    • I think the simile/metaphor rule is silly. It’s one writer’s style. Metaphor is one of the most beautiful and enlightening tools in a writer’s kit; it’s the intersection of prose and poetry. Sure it can be silly if poorly thought out, but that’s true of anything in writing.

      Posted by Averil Dean | October 3, 2012, 5:01 PM
  9. Most of it seems like good advice, but hard to put into practice. Could a writer get away with taking some of the similies and metaphors they were loathe to part with and sneak them into the dialogue?

    Posted by michellemorouse | September 29, 2012, 9:29 PM
    • Most of my characters would think that if they had to use more similies, they’d grin more often.

      Posted by Jon Zech | September 29, 2012, 9:33 PM
    • Believe me, I’m going through the novel I’m working on, evaluating the S & Ms. I’m taking out the ones that are clearly the writer trying to show off his writing, but some are just so good… And yes, if a character wants to spout off with a simile in the dialogue, I’m all for it.

      Posted by jpon | September 30, 2012, 2:00 AM
  10. Thanks Joe. Great list. I refuse to get depressed. I refuse to get depressed ….

    Posted by Claire Gebben | September 30, 2012, 2:19 AM
  11. particularly interesting. I found these quite comforting. but then, i’m a bit strange. :-D

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | September 30, 2012, 5:43 AM
  12. Ooh, I wonder if you could elaborate on that. Is it that you see in this collective advice an ideal of literary fiction? As difficult as some of these rues are for me to acknowledge (let alone accept), I feel that if I could incorporate them into my writing, I might someday turn out work of some merit.

    Oh, and by the way, tell Claire not to get too depressed.

    Posted by jpon | September 30, 2012, 12:09 PM
  13. “Not too many people read it; fewer understand it. Those who do criticize it.” That’s the nail on the head, Joe.

    Posted by Kelly Davio | September 30, 2012, 5:52 PM
    • I suppose you could say the same things about the directions on a can of soup.

      Seriously, though, it often makes me wonder whether there’s a future in this thing.

      Posted by jpon | October 1, 2012, 12:57 PM
  14. I was running a 10K a few weeks ago, and the two most depressing words I heard then, called to me from the sidelines, were “almost” and “halfway.”

    Posted by Paul Lamb | October 3, 2012, 10:49 AM

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