28 Views to a Job

by wjw on February 26, 2010

Inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing Fiction, the Guardian asked 27 other writers for their own contributions. The result is overlong, contradictory, but intermittently fascinating.

I’ll reproduce some of the advice here, but only the bits I agree with.

Using adverbs is a mortal sin

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . . he admonished gravely.

Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

Cut (perhaps that should be CUT): only by having no ­inessential words can every essential word be made to count.

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.

Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy.

Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.

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.

Beware of clichés. Not just the ­clichés that Martin Amis is at war with. There are clichés of response as well as expression. There are clichés of observation and of thought – even of conception. Many novels, even quite a few adequately written ones, are ­clichés of form which conform to clichés of expectation.

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.

Only bad writers think that their work is really good.

Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.

The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.

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

The most purely autobiographical ­fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more auto­biographical story than “The Meta­morphosis”.

Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life.

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.

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.

Never complain of being misunderstood. You can choose to be understood, or you can choose not to.

The two most depressing words in the English language are “literary fiction”.

Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.

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.

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.

Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.

Write a book you’d like to read. If you wouldn’t read it, why would anybody else? Don’t write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book’s ready.

Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. This is especially important for historical fiction. When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that’s the point to step back and fill in the details of their world. People don’t notice their everyday surroundings and daily routine, so when writers describe them it can sound as if they’re trying too hard to instruct the reader.

My first rule was given to me by TH White, author of The Sword in the Stone and other Arthurian fantasies and was: Read. Read everything you can lay hands on. I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt. ((I’m thinking he may also want us to read writers whose names don’t start with B, but I could be wrong.))

Introduce your main characters and themes in the first third of your novel.

The prerequisite for me is to keep my well of ideas full. This means living as full and varied a life as possible, to have my antennae out all the time.

Decide when in the day (or night) it best suits you to write, and organise your life accordingly.

Lock different characters/elements in a room and tell them to get on.

Don’t try to anticipate an “ideal reader” – there may be one, but he/she is reading someone else.

Don’t romanticise your “vocation”. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle”. All that matters is what you leave on the page.

Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.

Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.

Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.

Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.

Finish everything you start.

Get on with it.

Stay in your mental pyjamas all day.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself.

No alcohol, sex or drugs while you are working.

Forget the boring old dictum “write about what you know”. Instead, seek out an unknown yet knowable area of experience that’s going to enhance your understanding of the world and write about that.

Writing fiction is not “self-­expression” or “therapy”. Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects.

Pace is crucial. Fine writing isn’t enough. Writing students can be great at producing a single page of well-crafted prose; what they sometimes lack is the ability to take the reader on a journey, with all the changes of terrain, speed and mood that a long journey involves.

And perhaps the most useful piece of advice of all:

If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane.

Note that none of these are my rules. To get my rules, you’ll have to attend Taos Toolbox.

Matt February 26, 2010 at 6:01 am

I'll jump in with another observation. There is the story you are telling and then there is the telling of the story. You have always had very good stories to tell and in the last few years have been publishing some very well told stories.

For example, there were a number of parts of "The Rift" that really drew me in and kept me reading. Then, more recently, "This Is Not A Game" really kept me reading and enjoying even though parts of the plot were really obvious. The story telling was that compelling.

You have been on my "buy anything this author writes" list for decades, so please don't take my comments in a negative way regarding your earlier works.

Dave Bishop February 26, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Just an observation as a reader: I find myself getting increasingly pissed off with multiple viewpoint novels – not yours, actually – don't change anything!

I've recently thrown a couple of MVPs across the room. When MPV works it's fine – when it doesn't it can be intensely irritating!It must be something to do with timing and pace … ?

Dave Bishop February 26, 2010 at 5:20 pm

I should take a bit more care with my acronyms! A 'multiple viewpoint novel' is, of course, a MVN (or MVPN … possibly?), not a MVP … and certainly not a MPV!!

Oh dear … I think that premature senility must be setting in.

halojones-fan March 2, 2010 at 10:31 pm

(comment edited to avoid an unintentional personal attack)


I like how most of that list could be replaced by "hey writer: most of what you've written is crap."


The thing about "no prologue" is that the advice really means "no world-building". Most authors interpret "no prologue" as "move the prologue to Chapter 2". I've lost count of the number of stories that start with a big action scene, and then at the end of Chapter 1 we get "as Forkin slumped down in the alleyway, trying to catch his breath, he thought back to the time ten years ago when the Gormlessians first attacked…"

jwjohnson March 6, 2010 at 11:42 am

Wish I had a week, the three thousand bucks, and the credentials. One of these days… .

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post:

Contact Us | Terms of User | Trademarks | Privacy Statement

Copyright © 2010 WJW. All Rights Reserved.