“Rules” for Writing Fiction – Part 1

Some years ago, The Guardian newspaper collected “Rules for Writing Fiction” from numerous authors, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s famous “Ten Rules.” Some of them made me laugh or at least chuckle appreciatively (note how I just violated Leonard’s Rule #4—no adverbs!).

  1. Never open a book with weather. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. (Elmore Leonard)(And see this)
  2. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting. (Margaret Atwood)
  3. Ask a reading friend or two to look at your book 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. (Margaret Atwood)
  4. Do not place a photograph of your favorite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide. (Roddy Doyle)
  5. Do feel anxiety – it’s the job. (Roddy Doyle)
  6. Listen to what you have written. A dud rhythm in a passage of dialogue may show that you don’t yet understand the characters well enough to write in their voices. (Helen Dunmore)
  7. Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand. (Anne Enright)
  8. Try to think of others’ good luck as encouragement to yourself. (Richard Ford)
  9. The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator. (Jonathan Franzen)
  10. Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they’ll know it too. (Esther Freud)
  11. 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. (Neil Gaiman) (Or, as I used to say about my writing group, they were super at diagnosis, but not so good at treatment.)
  12. 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. (PD James)

Next week – More Rules!

3 thoughts on ““Rules” for Writing Fiction – Part 1

  1. This is an excellent collection of rules for writing fiction. Learning from the masters is something we should all be doing. Thanks for posting such a diverse and comprehensive list, and you’re comment about excessive descriptions is right on as well.

    • Agree. Also, I avoid unnecessary descriptors. If a man has a limp and it makes a difference in the story, then mention it. Otherwise, it’s just a detail the author is cluttering up the reader’s attention span with. Like names of characters that appear only once, or briefly. I try valiantly to remember such things and become annoyed to discover they didn’t matter!

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