Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

I can do no better today than to direct you to an article which appeared in the UK newspaper 'The Guardian' a couple of years ago. Called 'Ten Rules for Writing Fiction', it contains many more than ten!

Various authors, ranging from Margaret Atwood to P.D. James were asked for their personal dos and don'ts, and the results make very interesting reading.

Some of my favourites include:

Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. (Elmore Leonard)

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).(Diana Athill)

Hold the reader's attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don't know who the reader is, so it's like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B. (Margaret Atwood)

Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph ­– until you get to Page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety – it's the job. (Roddy Doyle)

Finish the day's writing when you still want to continue. (Helen Dunmore)

Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it's a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It's only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other. I ­always have to feel that I'm bunking off from something. (Geoff Dyer)

Only bad writers think that their work is really good.(Anne Enright)

Don't read your reviews. (Richard Ford)

Never use the word "then" as a ­conjunction – we have "and" for this purpose. Substituting "then" is the lazy or tone-deaf writer's non-solution to the problem of too many "ands" on the page. (Jonathan Franzen)

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.(Esther Freud)

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.(Neil Gaiman)

Style is the art of getting yourself out of the way, not putting yourself in it.(David Hare)

Don't just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style. (P.D.James)

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. (AL Kennedy)

Read these and dozens more pieces of advice at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/20/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-part-one
(and don't forget to click for Part Two!)


  1. Wish I had time for more of these little gems, but sadly I've got to stop FB-ing and Twittering and get on with reading and writing! Thanks Paula, for an interesting post. :-)

  2. Love these. I hope you pay attention to the last one.

  3. Nancy, I've also put the link on our Heroines with Hearts writing hints page, so you can always find it again when you have more time!

  4. Jen - I put that last one in deliberately as a message to myself! :-)

  5. Love this post. I'm borrowing the one by Richard Ford.

  6. LOL, Katherine! I'd also add 'Don't keep checking your rankings on Amazon'! What I realised from my recent royalty statements is that my books are being sold elsewhere, not just on Amazon.

  7. Some really good advice here, although I do disagree with "don't read your own reviews". I prefer "don't take reviews personally".

  8. Excellent advice, Li. What appeals to one person doesn't necessarily appeal to another.

  9. great points here! Not sure I totally agree with the no similies or metaphors, though probably is good advice not to read your own reviews though that is impossible for me (and I bet Ford snuck a peek too).

  10. I love these gems. I should post the 'then' rule on my laptop. Guilty!

  11. I love P. D. James's comment. She wrote a book at 83 . The woman is my hero. Don't just talk about writing-- write. I took a writer's challenge this summer. It was the best thing I'd ever done! I had to write, not talk about it.

  12. Great post, Paula. When I have a moment, I'll be back to read the other gems on the link.

  13. An inspiring list, Paula! I'm glad Geoff Dyer mentioned having more than one idea on the go and I'm surprised (but reassured) by Esther Freud's comment about metaphors/similes. Must read the Guardian list when I have time.

  14. I particularly like the one about having more than one project on the go, so you are forced to choose between 2 projects rather than between writing and doing nothing. That's me!

  15. Sandra - reading 'good' reviews does boost one's confidence, so maybe the advice should be, as Li said, 'don't take reviews personally' (especially bad reviews!)

    Ana - you and me both - 'then' and 'just' are my big sins!

    Viola - it's true, there's no point thinking about it, you have to DO it!

    Linda - do read all the rest, I picked out only a small sample.

    Rosemary - I know you always have many ideas on the go! Must admit I'm not a fan of metaphors or similes as they can often be either cliches or over-contrived.

    Jenny - it takes me all my time having jsut one project on the go!

  16. Fascinating and very useful pieces of advice and I agree with practically all of them.

    Emore Leonard made me think, Diana Athill had me nodding vigorously but Esther Freud had me frowning with worry. Not a single metaphor or simile? Hmmm.

    Great post, Paula. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  17. Love the post, Paula! I'm glad you tossed in the last one for yourself because I thought the same thing after I read it!

  18. Love some of this advice, though I've heard the opposite from others. It's good to remind ourselves of the basics now and then. Thanks for posting.

  19. Lyn - there were some pieces of advice in the full Guardian list that I didn't agree with!

    Toni - yes, I'm still trying!

    Bellina - agree, I think maybe we take the advice that we feel applies most to ourselves.

  20. An inspirational list, although some (one or two) inspire me to argue with the authors!

  21. There are even more to argue with if you read the whole Guardian list, Gilli :-)

  22. Ooops. I use 'then' as a conjunction all the time. Uh oh.

  23. Thank you, Paula! I have bookmarked this page.

  24. I love Anne Enright's comment about only bad writers ... As an editor and proofreader, I see quite a few of those! :)