I don't like the term "rules", so think of this as "advice".  Most of it works well for me.




1. Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.

2. Read Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible. You will particularly hate the advice to write first thing in the morning, but if you can manage it, it might well be the best thing you ever do for yourself. This book is about becoming a writer from the inside out. Many later advice manuals derive from it. You don't ­really need any others, though if you want to boost your confidence, "how to" books seldom do any harm. You can kick-start a whole book with some little writing exercise.

3. 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.

4. If you have a good story idea, don't assume it must form a prose narrative. It may work better as a play, a screenplay or a poem. Be flexible.

5. Be aware that anything that appears before "Chapter One" may be skipped. Don't put your vital clue there.

6. First paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?

7. 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.

8. Description must work for its place. It can't be simply ornamental. It ­usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.

9. If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don't just stick there scowling at the problem. But don't make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people's words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.

10. Be ready for anything. Each new story has different demands and may throw up reasons to break these and all other rules. Except number one: you can't give your soul to literature if you're thinking about income tax.

• This piece was first published on 25 February 2010

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Anyone know why she eschews dialog quotation marks a lot of the time?

I don't, but I hear she's not the only one. I have some problems with her books. WOLF HALL still sits on the shelf halfread. I don't relate to the character, and this is a big problem for me in books. Quotation marks don't bother me.

I'm a huge Cormac McCarthy fan. When I first started reading his work the lack of quotation marks through me off, but now reading his novels is just like reading any other. He's proven (at least to me) that when dialogue is well-crafted, quotation marks are not needed. The reader can instantly tell whether it's dialogue or not. 

Good stuff. Number 7 is one I don't hear as often, but it sure makes a lot of sense.

I especially like the part about making a pie.

I'd make ice cream myself, but will note that I've found monotonous, repetitive physical labor to be awesome for creativity. I've had some of my best ideas sweeping floors, for example.

And another yes!  Showers are good, too. (Actually cooking or baking don't work for me. You have to keep your mind on what you're doing).

Well mine could use it.  Are you available this weekend?

...but will note that I've found monotonous, repetitive physical labor to be awesome for creativity.


I'm finding these numbered diatribes on writing tedious.  I think they have more value as a checklist for the author's own issues.  They remind me of someone who has quit smoking or found a new religion.  They want to share these magic bullets with others of their kind.  In fact, I've never seen a response that says eureka, you have made me a happy, productive writer.  I know.  Like you, I've read a lot of them and have yet to change my habits.

   Maybe I'm ....well, too much me.


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