It's the middle of NaNoWriMo and I need an infusion of writing wisdom. So I've turned to Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, PD James and Ian Rankin for their personal do's and don'ts of writing fiction.
1 Write."Finish what you're writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it." I need to hang that above my desk.
2 Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
3 Finish what you're writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
4 Put it aside. Read it pretending you've never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
5 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.
6 Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
7 Laugh at your own jokes.
8 The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it's definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I'm not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matte
1 Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can't sharpen it on the plane, because you can't take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
2 If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
3 Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
4 If you're using a computer, always safeguard new text with a memory stick.
5 Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
6 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.
7 You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there's no free lunch. Writing is work. It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you're on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine.
8 You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You've been backstage. You've seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it 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.
9 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.
10 Prayer might work. Or reading something else. Or a constant visualisation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.
"Don't sit down in the middle of the woods." Yes, I can see that could be dangerous! And in more ways than one. Though it can be painful to delete words, especially during NaNoWriMo.
1 Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. 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.
2 Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.
3 Don't just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.
4 Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.
5 Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.
"Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious." I've always thought this might be so. Especially when I was a kid, I had the habit of mimicking the style of the last author I'd read. But Ms. James' advice flies in the face of the often given admonition to read both good and bad writing. Why read bad writing? I think the idea is that one can learn a great deal about story structure from seeing it go wrong.
1 Read lots."Learn what criticism to accept." Readers tastes differ, what one person likes, another will despise. I've found it helps to send my work to several readers. I pay attention to a criticism if it rings true to me or if a few of my readers complain about the same thing. I've found that being part of a writers' circle helps enormously.
2 Write lots.
3 Learn to be self-critical.
4 Learn what criticism to accept.
5 Be persistent.
6 Have a story worth telling.
7 Don't give up.
8 Know the market.
9 Get lucky.
10 Stay lucky.
For more writing advice, read Ten rules of writing fiction as well as Ten rules for writing fiction (part two) and find out what advice Elmore Leonard, Diana Athill, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer, Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Esther Freud, David Hare and AL Kennedy, among others, give.
Photo credit: "liquid fire" by paul bica under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.