Inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing , The Guardian posted rules on writing offered by several prominent writers, a list spanning from Margaret Atwood to Neil Gaiman. (Previous entries in this series: 1 2 3 4) Here were some of my favorites:
3 Defend others. You can, of course, steal stories and attributes from family and friends, fill in filecards after lovemaking and so forth. It might be better to celebrate those you love – and love itself – by writing in such a way that everyone keeps their privacy and dignity intact.
6 Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.
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.
1 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.
7 Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.
As the NaNoWriMo deadline approaches, here are a few more quotes to motivate you to push to the last word:
By the end, you should be inside your character, actually operating from within somebody else, and knowing him pretty well, as that person knows himself or herself. You’re sort of a predator, an invader of people.
Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It's a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write.
Trollope said, “On the last day of each month recorded, every person in a work of fiction should be a month older than on the first.” We go with our characters wherever they lead us, and as time makes its mark on us, so it must on them.
It would be crazy to begin revising immediately after finishing the first draft, and counter to the way the mind likes to create. You’re exhausted. You deserve a vacation. Go away from the project for at least a week.
With one exception, any publication opportunity you can seize is worth seizing; ever-widening ripples move out from even the smallest splash. Something more like a self-contained plop is all you’re likely to get, however, if you resort to a vanity press. Vanity publishing is not the same as either subsidy publishing or self-publishing, though the terms are often used as if they were synonymous. Subsidy publishing is best defined by its guaranteed audience; self-publishing is partly defined by its realistic efforts to find an appropriate audience; vanity publishing frequently involves no audience at all.
One of the great rules of art: Do not linger.
As NaNoWriMo really gets underway, count on our continuing Writers on Writing series to keep you motivated. If you’re falling behind schedule, take advice from the greats and head back to work, you slacker!
(Correspondents: send us your gems!)
MORRIS L. WEST
In a longish life as a professional writer, I have heard a thousand masterpieces talked out over bars, restaurant tables and love seats. I have never seen one of them in print. Books must be written, not talked.
GEORGE V. HIGGINS
Never tell your reader what your story is about. Reading is a participatory sport. People do it because they are intelligent and enjoy figuring things out for themselves.
A good style comes primarily from lack of pretentiousness, and what is pretentious changes from year to year from day to day from minute to minute. We must be ever more careful. A man does not get old because he nears death; a man gets old because he can no longer see the false from the good.
If you read good books, when you write, good books will come out of you. Maybe it’s not quite that easy, but if you want to learn something, go to the source. Basho, the great seventeenth-century Haiku master said, “If you want to know about a tree, go to the tree.” If you want to know poetry, read it, listen to it. Let those patterns and forms be imprinted in you. Don’t step away from poetry to analyze a poem with your logical mind. Enter poetry with your whole body. Dogen, a great Zen master, said, “If you walk in the mist, you get wet.” So just listen, read, and write. Little by little, you will come closer to what you need to say and express it through your voice.
If you are going to learn from other writers don’t only read the great ones, because if you do that you’ll get so filled with despair and the fear that you’ll never be able to do anywhere near as well as they did that you’ll stop writing. I recommend that you read a lot of bad stuff, too. It’s very encouraging. “Hey, I can do so much better than this.” Read the greatest stuff but read the stuff that isn’t so great, too. Great stuff is very discouraging.
DONALD M. MURRAY
Don’t market yourself. Editors and readers don’t know what they want until they see it. Scratch what itches. Write what you need to write, feed the hunger for meaning in your life. Play at the serious questions of life and death.
With NaNoWriMo starting this weekend, thousands of fingers will begin pounding furiously at the keyboard. Since the first Writers On Writing was well-received, we thought we’d share some more thoughts with you to really get you going! (Correspondents: send us your gems!)
You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
I see the notion of talent as quite irrelevant. I see instead perseverance, application, industry, assiduity, will, will, will, desire, desire, desire.
Sometimes people say to me, “I want to write, but I have five kids, a full-time job, a wife who beats me, a tremendous debt to my parents,” and so on.
I say to them, “There is no excuse. If you want to write, write. This is your life. You are responsible for it. You will not live forever. Don’t wait. Make the time now, even if it is ten minutes once a week.”
Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency . . . to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.
Over the years, I’ve found one rule. It is the only one I give on those occasions when I talk about writing. A simple rule. If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time. Count on me, you are saying to a few forces below: I will be there to write.
With the beginning of NaNoWriMo looming on the horizon, it seemed like a good time to recall the wisdom of writers who’ve been there:
ALBERTO ÁLVARO RÍOS
The worst thing a writer can do is to think. The best thing to do is to react, which includes thinking but doesn't let it act as an impediment or a censor. When you read something, you think something—write that down. That's what I'm always trying to do, –
If you start to edit as you write, you are climbing into your “editor” self, the self that reads. You’ve done plenty of reading, you don’t need practice right now.
When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.
Any fiction should be a story. In any story there are three elements: persons, a situation, and the fact that in the end something has changed. If nothing has changed, it isn’t a story.
If you are in difficulties with a book, try the element of surprise: attack it at an hour when it isn’t expecting it.
Don’t write stage directions. If it is not apparent what the character is trying to accomplish by saying the line, telling us how the character said it, or whether or not she moved to the couch isn’t going to aid the case. We might understand better what the character means but we aren’t particularly going to care.
Breslin’s Rule: Don’t trust a brilliant idea unless it survives the hangover.
Do not pay any attention to the rules other people make.... They make them for their own protection, and to Hell with them.