Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

Leading writers and critics offer their advice

The Guardian has helpfully distilled the wisdom of some of the world's most distinguished contemporary writers, and published a self-help guide to coax aspiring novelists to put pen to paper. The article, published in two parts, asked a diverse range of authors for their ten rules for writing fiction. Here are just a few that caught my eye:

Will Self:

Will Self1. Don't look back until you've written an entire draft, just begin each day from the last sentence you wrote the preceeding day. This prevents those cringing feelings, and means that you have a substantial body of work before you get down to the real work which is all in . . .

2. The edit.

3. Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.

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).

5. You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.

6. Live life and write about life. Of the making of many books there is ­indeed no end, but there are more than enough books about books.

7. By the same token remember how much time people spend watching TV. If you're writing a novel with a contemporary setting there need to be long passages where nothing happens save for TV watching: "Later, George watched Grand Designs while eating HobNobs. Later still he watched the shopping channel for a while . . ."

8. The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement – if you can't deal with this you needn't apply.

9. Oh, and not forgetting the occasional beating administered by the sadistic guards of the imagination.

10. Regard yourself as a small corporation of one. Take yourself off on team-building exercises (long walks). Hold a Christmas party every year at which you stand in the corner of your writing room, shouting very loudly to yourself while drinking a bottle of white wine. Then masturbate under the desk. The following day you will feel a deep and cohering sense of embarrassment.

Joyce Carol Oates:
    Joyce Carol Oates
1. Don't try to anticipate an "ideal reader" – there may be one, but he/she is reading someone else.

2. Don't try to anticipate an "ideal reader" – except for yourself perhaps, sometime in the future.

3. Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!

4. Unless you are writing something very avant-garde – all gnarled, snarled and "obscure" – be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.

5. Unless you are writing something very post-modernist – self-conscious, self-reflexive and "provocative" – be alert for possibilities of using plain familiar words in place of polysyllabic "big" words.

6. Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: "A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

7. Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worst.

Magaret Atwood:
    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.

2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.

3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.

4. If you're using a computer, always safeguard new text with a memory stick.

5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You've been backstage. You've seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.

9. 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.

10. Prayer might work. Or reading something else. Or a constant visual­isation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

Read more:
From The Guardian, 20 February 2010:
  • 'Ten rules for writing fiction', part 1: Elmore Leonard, Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer, Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Esther Freud, Neil Gaiman, David Hare, PD James, AL Kennedy
  • 'Ten rules for writing fiction', part 2: Hilary Mantel, Michael Moorcock, Michael Morpurgo, Andrew Motion, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, Philip Pullman, Ian Rankin, Will Self, Helen Simpson, Zadie Smith, Colm Tóibín, Rose Tremain, Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson