Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Rules of Writing

This article from the Guardian is making its rounds: Ten Rules for Writing Fiction. It's inspired by Elmore Leonard's upcoming 10 Rules of Writing, about which I'm somewhat conflicted. Rule #1, you see, I'm breaking in the book I'm writing RIGHT NOW, and I'm breaking it something fierce. The rules about verbs of utterance, adverbs, and--for the love of all that's holy--exclamation points, are good ones--though, like with chocolate, commenting on political web sites, and em dashes, I would urge self-control rather than total abstinence.

Really, I'm not a huge fan of writing rules--my rule is: "You can do whatever you want, as long as it works." That last part is the sticker.

The Guardian's asked a bunch of writers for their lists, and they are really worth reading. I will vehemently argue against some of the rules here. Cut out the metaphors and similes? Really? The last thing I want to read about are things that are only like themselves. Meanwhile, Jonathan Franzen looks like he's striving after a career in fortune cookie writing. I hear it's quite lucrative.

Arguing, though, is probably part of the point. But the more interesting rules, to me, are the writing life rules. Write, they tell us. Read. Have a Thesaurus. Don't write reviews. Don't write letters to the editor. Be fearless. Love what you do. Don't have children. (I would amend that to "Have kids, just don't let them get the croup.")

My favorite list is Neil Gaiman's. Maybe because he says what I think, only a heck of a lot better:

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 matter.

That guy's smart. He must write children's books.

Meanwhile, congratulations to Hamline MFA' 10 student Cheryl Bardoe for the publication of Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age.

This is a fabulous cover.


  1. Yeah, it's too late for me and the "don't write reviews" rule. Let's just say that writing reviews for so many years has given me a broader and deeper knowledge of--and respect for--the field than I ever would have gotten otherwise. It's taught me to economize with language. Taught me to work hard to say what I really mean. To use adjectives carefully and sparingly. Not a bad apprenticeship for creative writing, is it?

    Haven't had the privilege of reading Cheryl's book yet, but the author gets a starred review from me.

  2. Thanks for posting the guardian link, Anne. I like Philip Pullman's rule to saying no when asked to write rules like this that take him away from his work.
    We all have to come up with our own rules in the end. What works for one writer doesn't necessarily work for the other.

    Cheryl's book is brilliant. Really. Buy it! It will nake you want a mastadon of your very own.

  3. Oh, yes, I should say I don't agree with the "Don't write reviews," thing. I think it's amazingly useful to think that way. And Phillip Pullman's, while a little cranky, is terrific. There's a jillion demands on your time. Remember you can say no.

    I so want a Mastadon.

  4. I saw this too, and was happy to check off the box that said get up early and write, as I have started waking up three days a week at 5:00 a.m. to write in the morning. I consider this somewhat like offsetting my carbon usage because I, too, have kids. Saying this, I admit that Philip Pullman's was my favorite, and truly the whole exercise brought out my punk rock feelings...if you know what I mean. I hope you know what I mean.

    Perhaps the Hamline MFAC mascot could be a mastadon.

  5. Julianna Baggot was asked to participate in this Esquire Write-a-Story-on-a-Napkin thing. She wrote something on a napkin--it had a lot of expletives. She said, in part:

    I'm an American writer, a woman hauling my family around on my back. I'm 36 & have signed for my 13th book & day after day, the indelible feeling is FAILURE. I fail my family--not enough money--& I fail my art to try to make enough money. I've already become a whore for my profession--I've already been REDUCED & REDUCED & now you ask me to fit on a cocktail NAPKIN? You say you'll "pay a little" for the pieces you use & maybe even throw in a free tumbler?


  6. No similes or metaphors! Are you freaking kidding me? There goes my career!!!


  7. Wow - everybody is cranked up this morning! I hate exclamation marks. Ask my students. But I hate rules even more. Just do it with panache. I say or at least just do it. I had the privilege of reading Cheryl's amazing book in draft form. You rock, CB. Molly, I like the idea of a mastodon mascot. Indeed. Anne, thanks for your always stimulating blogs.

  8. Thanks all for your excitement about the mammoth book! You all rock! If the mammoth becomes our mascot, perhaps we could all greet each other at Hamline by lifting our arms like trunks and trumpeting...or perhaps that's going too far. ;-)

    Interesting to see how the personalities of all these writers come through in their "rules."

  9. What I really want to know is, How does Margaret Atwood slip a nail file onto the airplane to sharpen her pencils? (I've never dared.) And wouldn't a sharp pencil be more dangerous than a nail file in the first place?

    Congratulations, Cheryl! I lift my arm/trunk and trumpet just for you. Hmmpkfhurrah!