Rules for Fiction Writing


Check out this great article at guardian.co.uk on “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.” The paper asked 28 authors, from Richard Ford to Neil Gaiman to Jonathan Franzen to Elmore Leonard (based on Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing), to give their best advice. It’s a great read.

Here’s my favorite one from each writer:

Elmore Leonard: Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

Diana Athill: Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK. Prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out–they can be got right only by ear.

Margaret Atwood: Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road and/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.

Roddy Doyle: 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.

Helen Dunmore: Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away.

Geoff Dyer: Never worry about the commercial possibilities of a project. That stuff is for agents and editors to fret over–or not.

Anne Enright: 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.

Richard Ford: Don’t have children.

Jonathan Franzen: Never use “then” as a conjunction–we have “and” for this purpose. Substituting “then” is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many “ands” on the page.

Esther Freud: Don’t wait for inspiration. Discipline is the key.

Neil Gaiman: 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.

P.D. James: Don’t just plan to write–write. It is only by writing, not by dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.

A L Kennedy: Be without fear. 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.

Hilary Mantel: 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.

Michael Moorcock: If possible have something going on while you have your characters delivering exposition or philosophizing. This helps retain dramatic tension.

Michael Morpurgo: Record moments, fleeting impressions, overheard dialogue, your own sadnesses and bewilderments and joys.

Andrew Motion: Think with your senses as well as your brain.

Joyce Carol Oates: Don’t try to anticipate an “ideal reader”–there may be one, but he/she is reading someone else.

Annie Proulx: Rewrite and edit until you achieve the most felicitous phrase/sentence/paragraph/page/story/chapter.

Ian Rankin: Read lots. Write lots.

Will Self: 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.

Zadie Smith: Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.

Colm Toibin: If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane.

Rose Tremain: Never be satisfied with a first draft. In fact, never be satisfied with your own stuff at all, until you’re certain it’s as good as your finite powers can enable it to be.

Sarah Waters: Don’t panic. Midway through writing a novel, I have regularly experienced moments of bowel-curdling terror, as I contemplate the drivel on the screen before me and see beyond it, in quick succession, the derisive reviews, the friends’ embarrassment, the failing career, the dwindling income, the repossessed house, the divorce…Working doggedly on through crises like these, however, has always got me there in the end.

Jeanette Winterson: Trust your creativity.

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About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and suspense. As Suzanne Johnson, she is the author of the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate’s Alley, Belle Chasse, Frenchmen Street (March 2018). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance; ILLUMINATION); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the Wilds of the Bayou series (Wild Man’s Curse; Black Diamond).

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