Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

A Draft of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" from 1843

The Guardian’s two-part series “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction” has been a popular topic of discussion in the writing community in recent weeks. The idea was inspired by Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules of Writing,” which originally appeared in The New York Times. The Guardian asked writers like Zadie Smith, Philip Pullman, Margaret Atwood, and Jonathan Franzen to provide their own list of rules for fiction writing.

The advice ranges from the maternalistic (“Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine”) to the practical (“get an accountant”).

Richard Ford includes recommendations about domestic life: “Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea” and “don’t have children.” In marked contrast, Helen Dunmore takes a stand for creative parents everywhere: “If you fear that taking care of your children and household will damage your writing, think of J.G. Ballard.” (In addition to writing over forty books, Ballard raised three children on his own after his wife died of pneumonia).

Several authors suggest carrying a notebook or journal. Ted Hughes advised Michael Morpurgo to “record moments, fleeting impressions, overheard dialogue, your own sadnesses and bewilderments and joys.”

Another key theme is discipline. “Write,” may be the best advice of all (or as Walt Whitman said, “Make the work.”) This may be common sense, but the act of being alone with one’s self and creating something out of nothing can be overwhelming, even for the most experienced writers. “Don’t wait for inspiration,” says Esther Freud. “Discipline is the key.” As A.L. Kennedy observes, “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.” “You see more sitting still than chasing after,” says Jonathan Franzen. Anne Enright agrees: “Remember, if you sit at your desk for 15 or 20 years, every day, not counting weekends, it changes you. It just does. It may not improve your temper, but it fixes something else. It makes you more free.” “Discipline allows creative freedom,” says Jeanette Winterson. “No discipline equals no freedom.”

There are other memorable rules as well “Write a book you’d like to read,” recommends Hilary Mantel. “Think big and stay particular,” appears on Andrew Motion’s list. David Hare observes that “style is the art of getting yourself out of the way, not putting yourself in it.” Neil Gaiman offers this gem about the editing process: “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.” Anne Enright suggests a writer’s version of death meditation: “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.”

And no discussion about the writing life would be complete without some mention of fear. “Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money,” says Jonathan Franzen. “Be without fear,” advises A.L. Kennedy. “This is impossible, but let the small fears drive your rewriting and set aside the large ones until they behave–then use them, maybe even write them. Too much fear and all you’ll get is silence.” I’m especially fond of Will Self’s advice: “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.”

Finally, Esther Freud gets the prize for the most obvious, but essential rule: “Never forget, even your own rules are there to be broken.”

Click here to read part one of The Guardian’s “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.” Part two is available here.

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About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.

One Comment

  1. Robin MacArthur May 8, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    Adore, and am frightened by, the 10-weeks-to-live test.

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