News | 2010 | Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

I found a two-part article the other day on The Guardian's website called Ten rules for writing fiction. Well, it's not really an article, it's more of a two-part compilation of writing tips from famous writers (including Elmore Leonard, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Richard Ford, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, and Ian Rankin, among others). I've read the rules--some of which I agree with, some I don't, and some I found hilarious (see Will Self's take on corporate Christmas parties). In any case, the collection got me thinking--if I had to generate a similar list, what would my ten rules for writing fiction be?

As of right now (and I reserve the right to change my mind and my list without notice) my ten rules for writing fiction are listed below. I present them with the cover-my-ass caveat I know this list is not complete, nor will following it necessarily generate good fiction--it's just a list of things I keep in mind while I write and revise my own work.

  1. The first draft of anything is shit.
    I stole this from Hemingway, and it's the most liberating writing advice I've ever come across. Know your first draft is for you alone and you will probably throw most of it out. The purpose of a first draft is to get your story on paper so you can never lose it. Once done you can breathe easy, the pressure's off, so create and have fun. Trying to write an award-winner when you're staring at a blank page is crippling. Besides, the real work in writing is rewriting (turning that big stinking heap into something share-worthy). You can't get a story perfect the first time through, so don't even bother. In an ideal world, any and all mistakes will be corrected in your next drafts (yes, "drafts" is plural).

  2. Never bore your readers.
    If you're writing to share, always remember your readers could be having sex rather than reading your work. Make your stuff so good that thought never crosses their minds.

  3. A story must have a capsize point.
    John L'Heureux wrote "a story is about a single moment in a character's life when a definitive choice is made, after which nothing is the same." Steven Galloway likens this moment to the point when you've been filling your boat (story) with as much crap as you can (obstacles or reasons to change). Without this moment of choice, this moment your whole work has been building toward (your boat has been filling up and the waterline is fast approaching the gunwales), you may have fiction, but you don't have a story.

  4. No adverbs.
    They're weak, imprecise, and sloppy--find the right verb instead. English is a rich language. The word you need is out there, just ask Roget. He'll be happy to tell you what it is. To a somewhat relaxed degree, this same rule applies to adjectives as well.

  5. Where possible, use Anglo-Saxon words.
    Although this may seem to counter my previous rule (where I encourage field trips to the thesaurus), it doesn't. In English (which is a Germanic language), short words with Anglo-Saxon roots are always preferable to complex, polysyllabic Latinate words. Anglo-Saxon words are generally more direct and consequently, have more power. A case in point is the difference between "use" and "utilize"--they're not the same word (the first is efficient, the second pompous). Another example: the convoluted "manoeuvre your fornicating posterior" versus the direct "move your fucking ass." See my point?

  6. Swear as little as possible.
    Not so you don't shock your readers, but so you can shock your readers when you want to. A single "motherfucker" stands out so much more when it's the only profane word in your story; use it too many times and it becomes meaningless and invisible. Swear words are some of the most powerful words around--use them when you need their power. Or, if you're overusing profanity just to mimic real speech or just because you can or to show it becomes meaningless and invisible with overuse--don't bother, those points have already been made, by writers probably far better than you.

  7. Use invisible dialogue tags.
    You include dialogue so your readers gain a sense of who your characters are. Let your readers hear your characters' words spoken from their own mouths, but don't tell your readers how your characters say something. Said and ask are the only two dialogue tags you'll probably ever need--anything else just calls attention to the tag and draws attention away from your characters' words. Furthermore, word order is important, too--use "she said" not "said she," unless, of course, you're writing in the nineteenth century.

  8. Differentiate your characters.
    Your readers should know at a glance which character is speaking, what their name is, and essentially who they are. Any unintentional reader confusion is a failure of the writer. Use different vocabularies, patterns of speech, and preferred swear words to help keep your characters distinct in your reader's minds. Also, using a different letter of the alphabet for each character name is a good idea (unless you've got a justifiable reason to make names visually similar). I usually go one step further and reserve names with long vowel sounds for my main characters, while leaving minor characters all the short vowel sounds (Tolkien did it, and I think it adds extra weight where it's needed).

  9. Deal with specifics, not generalities.
    Tell your story about the heres and nows, not the generallies, sometimes, and most oftens. Readers want to know what's actually happening, not what usually happens. There must be something special about events right now in each of your stories. Anything non-essential or non-immediate deserves the red pen.

  10. Writing is a game of attrition.
    My last rule is this--do not quit. Writing is hard. Rejections the norm. Many people may say they want to write, but few actually do it. Dropping out is very, very common, for a number of reasons (some, seemingly valid). If you want to write--if you really want to write, no matter what--then do it. Give no one the power to make you stop--not an editor, not an agent, not a publisher, not a critic, not a teacher, not even me. I honestly believe if you want to write badly enough, if you truly care about your writing and do your best to get better and write often and read voraciously and never give up, you will eventually succeed. It won't be easy, but then again, few worthwhile projects are. It's up to you.

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