Rules for Fiction Writers

Last summer, during my Postcard Memoirs course  from UCLA’s Writers Extension online program, I was given a heap of helpful and useful links. One of those, in particular, I’ve found myself coming back to over and over again, and it’s not even for non-fiction!

The article, if you want to read it all, is “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction,” and it’s a compilation of several authors’ do’s and don’ts for writing fiction. Some of these rules (actually, many of them) can also be applied to some areas of nonfiction, especially memoir (short or long).

The following are among my favorites.

Elmore Leonard — “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. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.”

“Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”. This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.”

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Diana Athill — “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).”

Margaret Atwood — “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.”

“You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.”

“Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.”

Roddy Doyle — “Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg “horse”, “ran”, “said”.”

Helen Dunmore — “Finish the day’s writing when you still want to continue.”

Geoff Dyer — “Keep a diary. The biggest regret of my writing life is that I have never kept a journal or a diary.”

“Do it every day. Make a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct. This is the most important rule of all and, naturally, I don’t follow it.”

Anne Enright — “The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page.”

Jonathan Franzen — “Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.”

Esther Freud — “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.”

“Don’t wait for inspiration. Discipline is the key.”

Neil Gainman — “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.”

PD James — “Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it.”

“Don’t just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.”

“Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.”

Al Kennedy — “Have humility. Older/more experienced/more convincing writers may offer rules and varieties of advice. Consider what they say. However, don’t automatically give them charge of your brain, or anything else – they might be bitter, twisted, burned-out, manipulative, or just not very like you.”

“Have more humility. Remember you don’t know the limits of your own abilities. Successful or not, if you keep pushing beyond yourself, you will enrich your own life – and maybe even please a few strangers.”

“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.”

 

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