Sunday, July 3, 2011

Rules for Writing

I ran across this Guardian piece today- it's a massive list of rules for writing fiction, as written by several well-known authors. Reading it through is pretty inspiring, and a little eye opening in some ways. I managed to break two of these "rules" in that last sentence. Anyway, this is long, but many of the rules were just too interesting not to share.

A few of 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."

Interesting, I interjected suddenly. I'm guilty of using words other than "said" in my own fiction. I think it's perfectly permissible as long as it's done sparingly.

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."

Too true. There's no possible way to please everyone, I exclaimed.

Roddy Doyle- "Do not place a photograph of your favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide."

I have a figurine of Oscar Wilde on mine. Does that count? I'm thinking not.

"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."

I've found in non-fiction that this is vital. I've been guilty of writing to a topic and meandering around until I finally put a title on it. That forces a focus. Did you see the Bleak House version with Gillian Anderson? That was outstanding. Netflix it if you haven't.

"Do not search for the book you haven't written yet."

Oddly, I did that yesterday on, I argued. It wasn't there. Get ready for it, suckers!

Helen Dunmore- "Finish the day's writing when you still want to continue."

This is the only one of the bunch that I can't figure out. Why would you do that, and how can you? When I'm going, I have to go. If it's 4 a.m., then it's 4 a.m. When the work demands it, it simply demands it.

Geoff Dyer- "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."

This is likely why I have at least eight novels in various stages of completion but never seem to actually finish any of them. One will start to piss me off and I'll punish it by spending time with one of its brothers. Because, you know, fuck him.

"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."

This may be the most thought provoking of them all. I have actually struggled with getting back into the cliches of observation and thought out of fear that my stuff is not the expectation. It's not what the masses want, and that makes it a little scary. These little bastards may end up living with me for the rest of my life instead of leaving home and finding the safety of a bookstore to rest in.

Anne Enright- "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."

True. It is quite freeing, in a tied-down kind of way.

Richard Ford- "Don't drink and write at the same time."

Don't be insane.

Jonathan Franzen- "The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator."

That is a fascinating statement. Imagine your reader as a friend, and here is a story that you are sharing with him. I can imagine that JK Rowling saw readers as friends and confidants as she wrote her series. I don't think that I have ever, ever done that, but it makes all the sense in the world. I'm going to sincerely try to do this instead of seeing him as a spectator and wanting him to sit down and shut up and listen to what I have to say.

"The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more auto biographical story than "The Meta­morphosis"."

This is an interesting thing that doesn't sound as true as it is until you think of fantasy works and just how personal they are. I do think that my fantasy items are far more personal than my other pieces.

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

I think I've cut more than I've kept in my fiction. Maybe it's meant to be that way. Editing your own work out is so painful, though. All of those imagined scenes that will never be. :(

"Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they'll know it too."

This is the difference between knowing what the force is, what it does and what it feels like and being fed some crap about midichlorians. Sometimes, you have to trust the reader and let the story loose so the reader forms his own conclusions.


Joseph Devon said...

"Finish the day's writing when you still want to continue."

I think Hemingway has a similar line. I've found it very helpful in fiction, but it's more about the long haul than your daily word count. If I write until I'm out of ideas then the next day I tend to be terrified of my keyboard. If I stop when I know exactly what's going to happen next, I find it very easy to sit down the next day and write more.

L. Shepherd said...

Ahh, that makes perfect sense. The fear of being out of ideas can throw a boulder in things and makes doing anything else seem fascinating. OMG- the dishes are so clean! I think I'll look at them for a while.