This Writing Thing – Rules and Tips – Part Three

Here’s my final piece covering The Guardian‘s article Ten Rules for writing fictionPart 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.

Part One of this post is HERE and Part Two is HERE.

Once again, I express my intention 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.

Once again, 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 pick up the advice marathon with  Dame Hillary Mantel. She started her career in 1985 . . . let me do some math stuff . . . I’ll be 92 by the time someone comes around asking me for advice on writing. About the only thing I’ll likely do is yell something like “Get off my lawn!”.

She has a lot of advice already covered by other writers (there’s an obvious advantage to going first) but has two things I wish to highlight.

  • 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.

I linked the PDF of the book, and it does look interesting. I’ll be loading it to my kindle and read it piecemeal. Interestingly, she says you don’t need other books as they are mostly derivative. Good to know because most other books are not available as a PDF. 

The other tip . . .

  • 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.

I am very big on this. However, there is a caveat. With few exceptions, I’ve had little desire (little enough to qualify as “no desire”) to read most modern successful books. Harry Potter comes to mind, as does the Twilight series. Let’s not forget 50 SoG.

If I follow the inescapable logic, the books I want to read – and hence what I write – are not very popular. The Law of Large Numbers says there must be more readers like me out there, but readership of my fiction would point to very few people out of the current seven billion humans as liking to read books I like to read. Four, to be exact.

Fair warning to writers; yes, write what you like to read but be aware of the possibility the total readership for your stuff will be you plus four other people.

Dame Mantel had one other piece of advice I should mention, but I do so only to question it.

  • Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there.

Is she talking about the title, or is she saying only write from the present forward? Or is she nixing prologues? Maybe she’s mystic . . . mystics seldom make sense otherwise they would not be mystics.

Michael Moorcock is another English writer. By the way, if you want to get (certain) people to comment on your blog posts, make sure to write “British writer” as opposed to “English writer” and hilarity will ensue.

His tips are mostly expanding on one of the tips:

  • For a good melodrama study the famous “Lester Dent master plot formula” which you can find online. It was written to show how to write a short story for the pulps, but can be adapted successfully for most stories of any length or genre.

I linked Lester Dent’s plot formula and it makes for interesting reading. I plan to write a couple of short stories adhering to the formula.

Moorcock gives one other piece of advice that occasionally pops up:

  • Ignore all proferred rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say.

OK, but . . . then, why am I reading all this other advice?

The next set of tips comes from Michael Morpurgo. Morpurgo is an English author, poet, playwright and librettist who is known best for children’s novels. I know a few of you are looking up librettist; go ahead, I’ll wait.

Morpurgo (sounds like a good name for an villain) speaks of the act of living life as being an idea generator. That, and letting ideas simmer. Basically, they are not so much tips as a description of his writing process.

One of his tips did raise a feeling of camaraderie . . .

  • When I’m deep inside a story, ­living it as I write, I honestly don’t know what will happen. I try not to dictate it, not to play God.

This sounds to me like seat-of-the-pants writing, but he has the god part wrong; we very much play god because we choose what happens. But, I’m quibbling.

Andrew Motion is yet another name associated with poetry and literature, and therefore someone I am sure I have never read. Wait . . . Sir Andrew Motion. Another English knight. Are there no regular Joe Sixpacks (or Joe Bloggs) in England who write?

The only thing I got from Motion is:

  • Remember there is no such thing as nonsense.

I like that. It’s fiction; it’s all nonsense, but then so is life. He also said:

  • Honour {sic} the miraculousness of the ordinary.

But, him being a Sir and all, I paid no attention to it.

At this point, the advice started getting repetitive, and when it was not repetitive, it was of little use. 

Joyce Carol Oates, a rare american in this latter group, repeated advice to not anticipate readers but rather writing for oneself. She also used big words to say not to use big words.

Somewhat less than inspiring, she concludes with the following gem:

  • Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worst.

Truly inspiring.

Annie Proulx  is another American. Different than English authors, her advice; I’ll give her that much.

  • Write slowly and take care.
  • To ensure that you proceed slowly, write by hand.
  • Write slowly and by hand only about subjects that interest you.
  • Develop craftsmanship through years of wide reading.
  • Rewrite and edit until you achieve the most felicitous phrase/sentence/paragraph/page/story/chapter.

So . . . write slowly, read a lot, produce only the best stuff.

I did get a chuckle from Philip Pullman’s contribution:

My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work.

Ian Rankin offered little. The Scottish crime writer resonated with this advice:

  • Be persistant.
  • Don’t give up.
  • Get lucky.
  • Stay lucky.

The first two are self-evident, but he don’t explain how to achive his last two suggestions.

Will Self, another Englishman, says to . . . 

  • Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.
  • Stop reading fiction – it’s all lies anyway, and it doesn’t have anything to tell you that you don’t know already (assuming, that is, you’ve read a great deal of fiction in the past; if you haven’t you have no business whatsoever being a writer of fiction).
  • 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.

Most of the times I get an idea I’m doing something where I would not be able to use a notebook, so the first is not applicable to me. 

The second one seems to . . . how should I say it? Oh, yeah . . . counter all the other writers. 

The third . . . yet another inspiring quote to make my heart soar to the pits of no hope.

Helen Simpson, no relation to Homer,  has the following:

  • The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as “Shut up and get on with it.”

Weird . . . an Englishwoman quoting in French. I thought the English hated the French, and vice-versa.

Zadie Smith is another English novelist. She also writes short stories, so I should probably listen to her. Let’s see what she has to say.

  • Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.

Uh-oh . . . And here I am, trying to get into a workshop, thinking of joining a writing group, of perhapps even making *gasp* friends! 

. . . I feel like a dodged a bullet. Thanks, Zadie.

The Irish writer Colm Tóibín has three notable pieces of advice, none of which apply to me.

  • No alcohol, sex or drugs while you are working.
  • No going to London
  • No going anywhere else either.

Wow . . . and here, I thought writers were drunk horny addicts who reveled in misery and abasing themselves for their art.

And, what if you have to go? I mean, I drink a lot of fluids and my fair share of solids, too. 

Another English author, Rosie Tremain, is a bit of a contrarian, at least when compared to others in this collection:

  • Forget the boring old dictum “write about what you know”. Instead, seek out an unknown yet knowable area of experience that’s going to enhance your understanding of the world and write about that.
  • In the planning stage of a book, don’t plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.
  • Learn from cinema. Be economic with descriptions. Sort out the telling detail from the lifeless one. Write dialogue that people would actually speak.

Mind you, she’s walking in step with me, but it’s unusual to hear it from a writer. Although, she did have one additional piece of contrarian advice that has me puzzled . . . 

  • Never begin the book when you feel you want to begin it, but hold off a while longer.

Perhaps I should get that notebook after all.

Sarah Waters is Welsh. Not that it’s important or notable. She wrote really wordy rules and tips that took up nearly two printed pages, and then wrote this:

  • Talent trumps all. If you’re a ­really great writer, none of these rules need apply. If James Baldwin had felt the need to whip up the pace a bit, he could never have achieved the extended lyrical intensity of Giovanni’s Room. Without “overwritten” prose, we would have none of the linguistic exuberance of a Dickens or an Angela Carter. If everyone was economical with their characters, there would be no Wolf Hall . . . For the rest of us, however, rules remain important. And, ­crucially, only by understanding what they’re for and how they work can you begin to experiment with breaking them.

Gosh, I sure hope I have talent . . . it seems a lot easier than remembering all them rules.

Part 2 ended with Jeanette Winterson. She did not add anything new, reiterating what others had written. She did have this, which was interesting . . . 

  • Be honest with yourself. If you are no good, accept it. If the work you are ­doing is no good, accept it.

I’m not sure how one goes about being honest with themselves. Rather, I don’t know how one would know if they were no good. 

I like what I write. I read more of my writing than all the other writing combined. Being honest, I think what I write is good . . . for me. 

. . . it don’t mean squat. The world is full of people who think themselves as talented. Why, various reality shows are making money hands-over-fists from that very notion.

Yes, some people are good, have talent, but they are the rarity, and even then, it comes down to a popularity contest. 

The point is, in those reality shows every contestant, even the ones who really suck, think they have talent. 

What I still want to know, is this:

How does anyone really know if they have talent? And, ultimately, does it matter if it’s all going to be luck and popularity?

No one can answer that. You go out there, you try your best, and you hope it strikes a chord, creates a spark, and maybe, just maybe, the odds lean in your favor. But don’t hold your breath. I mean it; don’t. You turn all blue and stuff, and you start seeing flashing lights. They are pretty, but you’re gonna have such a headache . . . 

This concludes my coverage 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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