This Writing Thing – Rules and Tips – Part Two

Guess what? I found The Guardian‘s article Ten Rules for writing fiction, Part 1 and Part 2

It’s a compilation of many authors giving their ten rules or tips for writing. I counted at least 26 authors . . . that’s 260 tips or rules. There may be more, or less, if I counted wrong.

Don’t worry, I won’t reference all of them. Some are the same as I covered in Part One of this post (HERE).

I aim to hop and skip through the authors and pick up the gems, a few duds, and anything I find interesting. I think rules and tips are great . . . when properly evaluated against my own abilities, proclivities, and other applicable -ities.

I’m warning all but the hardiest of readers: this is gonna bore unless you are a writer looking for easy answers. If you are a writer looking for easy answers, you’ll not be bored but you’ll be disappointed.

I’ll begin with Elmore Leonard. He began his career writing Westerns and eventually specialized in crime and suspense fiction.

Aside suggesting one should never open with weather, he had two tips near and dear to me:

  • Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.

I get comments about the lack of descriptions of characters; describing characters is something I purposefully avoid.

I attribute the practice to my own lack of smoldering good looks; my deficiency in the good-looks department leans me toward judging a person by their actions.

The other tip . . .

  • Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

One of my few friends once told me I should give the reader more of an anchor both for the characters and the environment they inhabit. On a lark, I wrote the following passage:

His steel gray eyes swept the room upon entering.  Taking note of the old telescope atop the tripod that has seen better days, he shifted his gaze away from the knurled knob with the inlaid mother-of-pearl disk.  He would have liked to spend more time examining the emblem on it. He was intrigued by the crown etched on it; a crown with seven points, each representing the royal houses, their sigils capping each of the points, and each rendered  with delicate strands of gold interspersed with diamond flecks at strategic portions of the mythical beasts they represented.   He looked instead at the naked woman standing near it, noticing one earlobe was slightly lower than the other . . .

When I write, I do have a rough image in mind, a set, if you will. But unless the set interacts with the characters, I don’t see the need to bring it within the attention sphere of the reader.  Leonard and Steinbeck seem to agree with me.

Leonard had one other great piece of advice:

  • Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

The prime examples of this are The Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of Time. Lots of material I used to skim as I navigated between interesting parts. The Lord of the Rings movie also offers lots of skippable parts (anything with Frodo whining).

Another series I lost patience with, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.

I should mention all those works have huge fan bases. All I can draw from that fact is, they are not likely to ever be my readers unless I write as in the passage above.

Margaret Atwood is known to me more for inventing Long Pen than for anything she wrote. In fact, I am reasonably certain I’ve never read anything of hers.

Her contribution netted me two pieces of advice:

  • 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

This I interpret the same as “write what you like” and/or “write for yourself”, something I already do. The other piece of advice is:

  • 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.

I like this, but with a caveat . . . I have not experienced getting stuck. If I ever do, the above is Plan A.

The next set of tips comes from Roddy Doyle. Before I go on, let me suggest you, dear reader, go watch The Commitments. He wrote the book, but I only watched the movie.

He suggests naming your work as soon as possible. He says it eases the writing effort. My own experience is that titles get in the way of writing. This could be because I don’t have a plan going into it; writing by the seat of the pants almost necessitates a placeholder title like, for instance, NaNoWriMo #2 (that novel is still unnamed – perhaps I should hold a naming contest). I do name my short stories and flash fiction, but it’s usually after the fact.

One of his rules, I do take to heart . . .

  • Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg “horse”, “ran”, “said”.

I am big on simple writing. I know lots of words, but there is no need for anything but the simplest most everyday word that fits the narrative. If I’m reading and come upon a word I don’t know, it throws me out of the novel and story . . . the real world intrudes in the form of a dictionary search. Not cool.

Helen Dunmore is a name associated with poetry and literature, and therefore someone I am sure I have never read.

Some people may get the idea I am proud of not having indulged in the classics, poetry, and so on.

Not so; it’s just a fact. Certain writing does not suit me, and I don’t read it. I make no claims regarding its merits or lack thereof. It’s a bit like a rare steak. People tell me it’s the way meat should be eaten, but I don’t agree.

The only thing I got from Dunmore is:

  • A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.

I take that to mean I should get up and have a Nutella sandwich. In my book, close enough to a long walk.

She also suggests reading Keat’s letters . . . ‘K’ as in Kilo, ‘e’ as in Echo, ‘a’ as in Alfa, ‘t’ as in Tango . . . nope! I did not feel any improvement in my writing.

Geoff Dyer is an English Writer, so much of his advice is unlikely to make sense. I know they mean well and are all proud of their self-appointed role as ‘keepers of the language’, but in their effort to be, you know, something more, the English often put together baffling sentences. I presume other English people can then bask in their Englishness, but for this poor immigrant from Italy the nuances are often lost in the confusing choice of words.

For instance, one piece of advice is “Don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov.” I’m not clear why anyone would be sucking up to the dead writer of Lolita. I’m sure there is deep meaning somewhere in there, and were I English it would jump right up at me. As it is, the tip makes no sense at all.

Even when he does give good advice . . .

  • Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It’s only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other. I always have to feel that I’m bunking off from something.

. . . he still manages to put a couple of words in there to trip me up and make me wonder what he meant.

For instance:

  • Never ride a bike with the brakes on. If something is proving too difficult, give up and do something else. Try to live without resort to perseverance. But writing is all about perseverance. You’ve got to stick at it.

The first two sentences are gold but instead of stopping, he goes on to muck things up.

Anne Enright is another writer with nebulous tips. She’s Irish, so maybe the proximity to the English affects her advice.

  • Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.

Yeah . . . I’ll get right on that. I think she means write from a point of view, perhaps a strong one. Then again, she may be one of them strange people who work standing up.

She does have a couple of clear contributions:

  • Only bad writers think that their work is really good.
  • Try to be accurate about stuff.
  • Have fun.

Uh-Oh. I don’t think my work is really good, but I do think it’s not bad . . . does that make me a somewhat bad writer?

I can certainly buy into having fun. Otherwise, I would not be writing.

That ‘accurate about stuff’ can be a hiccup . . . like when I write fantasy.

Richard Ford was the only one I agreed with for all ten of his tips. Of course, he cheated a bit, but . . .

  • Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s {sic} a good idea.
  • Don’t have children.
  • Don’t read your reviews.
  • Don’t write reviews. (Your judgment’s always tainted.)
  • Don’t have arguments with your wife in the morning, or late at night.
  • Don’t drink and write at the same time.
  • Don’t write letters to the editor. (No one cares.)
  • Don’t wish ill on your colleagues.
  • Try to think of others’ good luck as encouragement to yourself.
  • Don’t take any shit if you can possibly help it.

All good tips, but I’m not sure how any apply to my writing. I believe them as more applicable to someone who is already an author and now possibly writes for a living. Some of the tips can be applied to life and increase in usefulness if looking at them in that manner.

Jonathan Franzen sounds like someone one should take seriously when it comes to tips and advice. Except that he writes serious stuff; he’s in the literary clique. The Great American Novelist; he was so dubbed by no less than Time magazine, that bastion of  . . . I don’t know what, but they are bastions, or maybe some homonym of the word.

I don’t write serious stuff but was intrigued by his:

  • Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.

I find third person awkward for longer pieces, but perfect for many short stories and flash fiction. Writing in first person offers its own challenges. As the writer, I find it sometimes difficult to ‘say’ or ‘think’ certain things for the character.

There’s also always the danger a reader might interpret what a character says or thinks as being my own words or thoughts. The reader might also be uncomfortable reading “I enjoyed ripping out his guts and strangling him with them” thus making it difficult to identify with the character. Or, perhaps they might identify with the character, but that’s another issue altogether.

As I said, it’s not just the reader that might feel uncomfortable. For instance, I feel more comfortable writing looked at her ass with a sudden and intense desire if I put a “he” in front of that sentence instead of an “I”. Perhaps I’ll do a future post on first and third person as it relates to my writing.

As for the rest of his advice . . . he’s a literary type; I missed the point of most of what he said. He had one tip that said “Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting” which, if I understood the advice, I thought he should apply to other words as well, and not just verbs. Possibly, even his sentences.

Esther Freud was named as one of the 20 “Best of Young British Novelists” by Granta magazine in 1993, and she’s also an actress. I was not surprised, therefore, when some of her advice captured my attention.

  • Cut out the metaphors and similes. In my first book I promised myself I wouldn’t use any and I slipped up during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it.

Well, sure as bullshit flows from politicians and liquid crap flows downhill, I’m gonna try and follow that advice as if I were British and some inbred monarch told me to do it.

She also offered up this gem:

  • Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life.

I tend to write fast and furious. When I write short fiction, I am as naturally stingy with words as CEOs are with compassion. That’s why I find it difficult writing to a word limit. Then again, perhaps everyone does.

When I write longer fiction, I am not as careful and sprinkle all manner of extra words with the abandon of a politician giving away other people’s money. During re-reads, I often cut a significant number of words, and even whole paragraphs.

The result suits what I like to read; I like my fiction fast and easy to read. I literally race through novels, quickly losing interest if words are thrown in there to slow me down.

Two last pieces of advice from Freud:

  • Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they’ll know it too.
  • Never forget, even your own rules are there to be broken.

The first is a bit dicey.

I know what I mean to say when I put something down in words but, as I’ve painfully learned in many Internet discussions, what one intends and what a reader understands are two different things.

In fiction, the consequences are not as bad as in the real world, but still, I prefer explaining stuff over letting readers guess at it. But I get it; I can just say “I like Nutella” without explaining the minutia of the various flavor combinations that make it true.

The one about the rules is also interesting. There is a popular saying: “you have to know the rules before you can break them”. I touched on this point in other posts about writing, life, and the universe.

Specific to writing, I often bump up against grammar, the order of words in the sentence, and sentence structure itself. By ‘bump up’ I mean that I have a particular way I want to say something, and various tools I use to help me write all say it’s wrong.

Wrong is a funny word. Sometimes wrong means ‘it’s not accepted practice’. Many things are not wrong per se; just not in fashion. I often ignore fashion and convention.

Now, were I a literary giant, people might be more likely to say something like “Oh! Look how clever he is!” as opposed to “That rube can’t write worth crap!”

It’s the curse of the unknowns; we are held to a higher standard than someone who has ‘made it’. For instance, my grammar checker wants me to put the period inside the quote, but I don’t like it there. I’m the writer, so I’ll do what I want (in this case).

The next author in the article is Neil Gaiman, and we already covered him in previous the post, so on we go.

(Sir) David Hare. This guy is a playwright, so I was skeptical of the usefulness of his advice. And he’s not just a playwright, but a British playwright.

But, proving once again that appearances can be deceiving, he did have a few good bits of wisdom.

  • Write only when you have something to say.

Many writers  stress one should write. Write every day. Write even when you don’t feel like it.

It’s refreshing to hear someone, even if British, say otherwise.

Now, I understand the reasoning behind the ‘write every day’ advice. If having food on the table depends on you selling your work, you better be treating it as a job, and you better sit down every day and churn out words that will hopefully be converted into cash.

However, most writers I hear and read about have day jobs. Their writing careers are not their main source of income (unless writing about wizard boys or ancient vampires in love with teenagers).

Most people, me included, who get into writing should assume the revenue stream from words on paper will be relatively small. Writing is just not as profitable as it used to be.

How does that fit into Hare’s advice? Personally, I’m only going to write when words flow with ease and with a purpose.

That said, I’ve been lucky with both my NaNoWriMo efforts – and my writing in general – insomuch that I get an idea, I want to put it on paper, and do so with relative ease.

On the other hand, I’ve not been motivated to write anything since my novel, despite two strong writing ideas I’m mulling. Perhaps it’s good to gently push oneself to write.

  • If nobody will put your play on, put it on yourself.

Obviously, I don’t write plays. However, these days that advice can be applied to books. If no one is buying your books, publish them yourself. The question is whether anyone will buy them. I suspect that, as with plays, without proper backing the odds are very much against widespread success.

This next piece of advice is something I think I both like and have some facility for . . .

  • Jokes are like hands and feet for a painter. They may not be what you want to end up doing but you have to master them in the meanwhile.

I love humor. I live for humor. I always try and incorporate humor in what I write. It might not be laugh-out-loud funny, but there will be comments and observations – the kind of comments and observations I like to make. Enough said.

Not advice per se, but one tip he gave warmed my heart toward the man.

  • The two most depressing words in the English language are “literary fiction”.

Right on, (Sir) brother!

PD James wrote detective novels and provided only five tips. The two facts are not related, that I know of, and what she lacked in quantity she made up in quality.

I said earlier I only completely agreed with the tips of one writer; I was wrong. Here’s another. Now, I should go back and revise the previous passage. Nope. I think it’s part of my writing’s charm to leave it as is.  Here are her tips.

  • 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.

I only agree with half of this, thus making my earlier assertion a correct one. I agree with increasing one’s word power. That does not mean one uses a thirty-seven cents words when a sixteen cents word would do. No; it means one is familiar enough with words to use the appropriate word when needed.

. . . there might be a word for someone with that ability . . . 


Her second tip speaks to me in profound ways.

  • Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.

I don’t read as much as I used to. It’s easy to blame the Internet or TV, but the real reason is that most fiction and I have drifted apart.

I used to read Analog cover to cover and retirement meant having the opportunity to catch up on nearly seven years of unread Analogs. I’m having a tough time slugging through them. I don’t know why and I don’t know what, but about eight years ago something changed in the magazine’s stories selection process.

. . . maybe it’s just me . . .

Next up . . .

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

OK, at first glance this seems counter to Hare’s advice, but it’s not. When you have something to say, say it; don’t just plan to say it.

So many people say “I wish I could write” . . . what I hear is “I don’t really want to write”. Regardless of how many readers I have or don’t have, I am going to write. I will write until I find something I rather do more than writing.

That goes with her next piece of advice.

  • Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.

I’ve heard this advice a lot, and it’s not something I have to guard against. I live for not doing the popular thing . . . within reason, of course.


  • 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.

This is important, and I already knew it from experience. This speaks to believable characters, yes, but also their actions.

Nothing throws me out of a story or movie more than a character doing something a regular person would not do. Or, doing something only a stupid person would do. For example, running to the top floor of a building when trying to escape from someone. I then immediately root for the pursuer, be they good or bad.

I see this advice speaking to understanding people, understanding their motivations, understanding their strengths and weaknesses. You don’t have to agree with them, but you need to write them realistically.

OK, there’s one more author in Part 1 of this series, and I’ll stop after her because I’m pushing 4,000 words. I’ll cover Part 2 of the series in a future post.

AL Kennedy sounds like a guy’s name; it isn’t. A Scott, she is yet another author I have never heard about, have not read, and will probably not read as she is listed as weaving a dark tone to her tales. As I mentioned many times, not my cup of non-English tea.

But her advice . . .

  • Have humility. Older/more ­experienced/more convincing writers may offer rules and varieties of advice. Consider what they say. However, don’t automatically give them charge of your brain, or anything else – they might be bitter, twisted, burned-out, manipulative, or just not very like you.

Something I do live by . . . it may not seem like it, but I do listen to what other people say. What I don’t do, is automatically give them agency over my actions or opinions. I hope I used that word correctly – trying to expand my word power, I am.

Even if it’s sound advice, I’ll likely mull it over, examine it from multiple angles, and only then try to fit it in the mess that is the total me.

I believe strongly in the value of experience, but less strongly in conclusions different people draw from similar experiences.

  • Have more humility. Remember you don’t know the limits of your own abilities. Successful or not, if you keep pushing beyond yourself, you will enrich your own life – and maybe even please a few strangers.

This speaks to not being afraid of failure. Not being afraid of looking foolish. Not being afraid of negative criticism.

Not being afraid of being who I am while being aware of the near-certainty of failure, of being ridiculed, of being criticized.

  • Defend your work. Organisations, institutions and individuals will often think they know best about your work – especially if they are paying you. When you genuinely believe their decisions would damage your work – walk away. Run away. The money doesn’t matter that much.

Always. I might add, it’s also good advice for life – honesty, honor, self-respect; never compromise any of those for any reason, least of all money.

  • Defend yourself. Find out what keeps you happy, motivated and creative.

What could I add to that? Nothing.

  • Remember you love writing. It wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t. If the love fades, do what you need to and get it back.
  • Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.

Again, nothing for me to add.

~ ~ o ~ ~

This concludes my coverage of Part 1 of the series. I should caution readers; I barely scratched the surface of the advice offered, touching only on things that spoke to me or which struck me as significantly departing from my modus operandi. 

This post is not advice. Or, it is advice, but only for me. 

People should read the articles and draw from them whatever writing nourishment they need or want.

That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.


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