Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Inspired by Elmore Leonard’s list, The UK newspaper The Guardian recently surveyed a number of established writers on their ten rules for writing fiction. The results were inspiring, funny as well as practical and I thought I’d share my ten favorites with you.

  1. The first 12 years are the worst. (Ann Enright)
  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down. (Neil Gaiman)
  3. Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worst. (Joyce Carol Oates)
  4. Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious. (PD James)
  5. Don’t romanticize your “vocation”. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle”. All that matters is what you leave on the page. (Zadie Smith)
  6. If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane. (Colm Toibin)
  7. 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. (Roddy Doyle)
  8. 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. (Margaret Atwood)
  9. Try to think of others’ good luck as encouragement to yourself. (Richard Ford)
  10. The two most depressing words in the English language are “literary fiction.” (David Hare)

If you had to write your top ten rules what would be number 1 on your list?

18 thoughts on “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

  1. I was glad to see these were ‘rules’ that actually made sense–not the typical ‘don’t use adverbs’ ones, which I really hate.

    1. If you want to write novels, then you need to write novels, not short stories. No one’s ever recommended that you write a novel to learn how to write short stories after all!

    2. Be willing to toss out the entire story if it will help you get published.

    (I know this one goes against the grain of what everyone says. I had a novel I worked on for many years. It had a problem I could not resolve at all and got endlessly revised. I finally came to the conclusion that if I wanted to get published, I had to toss that book and start a new one. Once the book was out of the loop, I was able to finish one and then another and another),

  2. My number 1 would be . . .

    Rule 1
    There are no Rules when it comes to writing. There are however, a million-and-one tips, guidelines, hints, and pieces of good writing advice that new, and unpublished, writers ignore at their peril. This is what people are really talking about when they’re talking about writing rules. When thinking about these a writer should always bear in mind Rule 2.

    Rule 2
    What works for you, works for you. What doesn’t, doesn’t. Always remember this. However, see Rule 3.

    Rule 3
    What works for you and what doesn’t work for you can change. If that’s a problem consult Rule 4.

    Rule 4
    If in doubt consult Rule 1.

  3. “Don’t quit. It’s very easy to quit during the first ten years.” – Andre Dubus

    “I only write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.” – Peter De Vries

  4. My main rule is the most basic:

    If you’re a writer, write. Write every day. Produce pages. It doesn’t matter how many — if two pages a day is the best you can do, that’s fine. Six months later, you’ll have a book!

  5. I’d like to take James Scott Bell’s chapter heading 24 from The Art of War for Writers as a rule for writing:

    “Put heart into everything you write.”

  6. Neil stole my Rule 1, lol! So Rule #1 is Write Every Day. Rule #2 is Write at the Same Time Every Day. It trains your brain muscle to think creatively, just like resistance exercise trains your other muscles to grow stronger.

  7. Great rules! I’ll echo the write every day and add learn to write in public–coffee shops, libraries, restaurants. Change of scene can help change your scenes.

    Learn to recognize the difference between short stories and novels. Frustrated writers may be so because they are trying to make a novel out of what’s really a short story, and vice versa.

    My favorite quote on this subject:
    “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
    W. Somerset Maugham

  8. Thanks everyone – what a great collection! I loved the Guardian list. My own number one is “do what scares you in your writing.” I just finished a book (sent it to my agent at 1 am this morning!) that is a YA book (never done that before) in present tense (never done that before) with multiple POVs (OK done that) but with a lot of mythology that was totally new to me…It was scary to write but now I feel my craft has really benefitted from going out on a limb…let’s just hope my agent agrees with me!

  9. #1: (paraphrasing Stephen King) “If you need permission to get started writing, okay, you have it.”

    #2: “Final Draft = First Draft minus 10%” (also King, that one I actually use, not that I have his permission to write!)


  10. Forgot to add, I downloaded my copy of “Fresh Kills” today from Smashwords.

    Amazon has enough business, I like to support a smaller company! (I am also fond of Smashwords because they co-hosted a contest where I ended up winning $25 with a flash fiction story that was included in an anthology pubbed through them.)

    I am emailing the ebook to myself from my work computer so I can access it on my home laptop for some bedtime reading. Gotta love technology!


  11. Rule # 39.6

    It is quite appropriate to practice lively dialogue aloud and in character while walking alone through crowded city parks

    revision 39.6.01
    learn to run fast through the trees, those guys from the mental hospital tend to be in good shape

  12. I just loved this Guardian article!

    I posted my own writing rules, which happen to double as dating advice, on my blog. ๐Ÿ™‚

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