“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Somerset Maugham.
Hello I am Zin! Last week my feed from The Millions included a link to Etgar Keret‘s “Ten Rules for Writers from Rookie. My favorite: #10 – “Hear what everyone has to say but don’t listen to anyone (except me)”.
This started me thinking! And we all know: a thinking Zin is always dangerous!
When I come across a List of Rules, I save it to my Writing Craft folder, so I have several Lists already. I found several more just googling around! So I decided I would create a List of Lists of Rules for Writers! And consolidate other sources with a List of Lists of Rules (like The Guardian, Brainpickers, The Millions).
Some of the lists are technical: about structure, or dialogue tags, and such. Others are about lifestyle, both personal and professional, or about handling the difficulties of writing. Some are very funny!
Many lists include exhortations to edit! And read! Of course, read! And many advocate breaking the rules when it is artistically imperative to do so!
And I am so surprised so many include the obvious: WRITE! I understand this! It is easy to waste 20 years saying, “Someday I am going to write a novel.” If you want to be a writer, write! You do not have to quit your job! You do not have to go to school! You do not have to travel! All of those things may help, but the only thing you actually must do is write! Helen Simpson, below, puts it just right:
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.”
Some of these Lists are by very famous writers; some are famous in a specific field, like playwriting, humor, poetry, detective novels, fantasy, or business; some of them are less famous but still very wonderful writers; some are writers I know from Zoetrope Virtual Studios, the Flash Factory and Long Stuff offices. And some are just lists I have stumbled across in my travels. Fifty-seven lists! From Mark Twain to Henry James to Jack Kerouac to Zadie Smith! And it is not in any way complete, but it is a pretty good start! Thank you to Christopher James and Douglas Campbell and Tom Barlow on Zoetrope who pointed to additional lists!
The Zin List of Lists of Rules for Writers:
Kurt Vonnegut: Creative Writing 101 from Bagombo Snuff Box – “The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.”
The Willesden Herald of London short story contest: Common Faults in Short Stories Submitted – “24. Ankles. Particularly ankles in Asia.” I do not understand this! But every time I come across it, I am gripped with an urge to write a story about a gang of rogue malleoli in Hong Kong!
Randall Brown: Five Can’t Miss Ways to Avoid a Reader’s “So what?” – “3. Use the title of a flash piece as a thesis statement.”
Ray Bradbury: Three rules for writing (Video from 2008 Comic-Con – “Go to the edge of the cliff, jump off, and build your wings in the way down.”
David Ogilvy (emperor of advertising) on writing better memos, letters, and speeches – ” 4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize,demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.”
John Steinbeck: Six Tips on Writing culled by Brainpickings from the 1975 Paris Review compilation/article – “3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.”
Susan Sontag: Diary entries on writing culled by Brainpickings from As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 – “The only story that seems worth writing is a cry, a shot, a scream. A story should break the reader’s heart.”
S.S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright): Twenty rules for writing detective stories from The American Magazine, 1928 (and referenced by Ujala Sehgal in The Millions on 12/10/10) – “16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no “atmospheric” preoccupations. such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.”
Elmore Leonard: Writers on Writing (2001 NYT article) – “10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.”
Matthew Cheney: Rules for Writing – “Some coaches insist adverbs are stronger than nouns, but an independent panel of statisticians has proved otherwise. Despite appearances, though, statisticians don’t like nouns so much as they adore conjunctions.”
The Guardian, in an encyclopedic two-part article from February 2010, asked for lists from a wide array of writers (this is where some of the above, though discovered independently, originated) including:
Margaret Atwood: “1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.”
Richard Ford: “1. Marry someone you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.”
Jonathan Franzen: “10. You have to love before you can be relentless.”
Neil Gaiman: “8. 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.”
PD James: “3. Don’t just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.”
Joyce Carol Oates: “7. Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worst.”
Annie Proulx: “3. Write slowly and by hand only about subjects that interest you.”
Anne Enright: “1. The first 12 years are the worst.”
Diana Athill : “1. Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK (prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out – they can be got right only by ear).”
Roddy Doyle: “1. 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.”
Helen Dunmore: “7. A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.”
Geoff Dyer: “6. Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.”
Esther Freud: “4. Find your best time of the day for writing and write. Don’t let anything else interfere. Afterwards it won’t matter to you that the kitchen is a mess.”
David Hare: “10. The two most depressing words in the English language are ‘literary fiction’.”
A. L. Kennedy: “9. 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; 10. Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.”
Hilary Mantel: “1. Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.”
Michael Moorcock: “2. Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.”
Michael Morpurgo: “6. By the time I sit down and face the blank page I am raring to go. I tell it as if I’m talking to my best friend or one of my grandchildren.”
Andrew Motion: 2″. Think with your senses as well as your brain.”
Philip Pullman: ” My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work.”
Ian Rankin: “1. Read lots. 2. Write lots…. 9. Get lucky. 10. Stay lucky.”
Will Self : “4. Stop reading fiction – it’s all lies anyway, and it doesn’t have anything to tell you that you don’t know already (assuming, that is, you’ve read a great deal of fiction in the past; if you haven’t you have no business whatsoever being a writer of fiction).”
Helen Simpson: “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’.”
Colm Tóibín: “7. If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane.”
Rose Tremain: “6. In the planning stage of a book, don’t plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.”
Sarah Waters: “4. Writing fiction is not “self-expression” or “therapy”. Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects. I think of my novels as being something like fairground rides: my job is to strap the reader into their car at the start of chapter one, then trundle and whizz them through scenes and surprises, on a carefully planned route, and at a finely engineered pace.”
Jeanette Winterson: “10. Enjoy this work!”
And if you visit the One Story website, for each issue since the second (that makes 167 as of now), the author interview includes the question, “What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever gotten?” That is another list with 167 items!
Whew! That is some list! If you have a list to include, leave a comment!