In 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, The Guardian asked authors for their personal lists of dos and don’ts. We’ve gone through the whole list and, week by week, will be bringing you the timeless counsel of the great writers of the 20th and 21stcenturies.
Last time out we brought you the sagely advice of the one and only A.L. Kennedy, who reminded us of the importance of humility in writing, and also having the willingness to defend your own work.
We’ve also featured Zadie Smith’s exquisite balance of the practical, the philosophical, and the poetic. Then there’s Neil Gaiman’s timeless counsel on writing, which complements the writing commandments of Jonathan Franzen, as well as the wise decree of Margaret Atwood. Today, we’re pleased to feature the writing advice from Booker Prize winning author Hilary Mantel. Enjoy!
- Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.
- 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.
- 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.
- If you have a good story idea, don’t assume it must form a prose narrative. It may work better as a play, a screenplay or a poem. Be flexible.
- Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there.
- First paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?
- Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. This is especially important for historical fiction. When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that’s the point to step back and fill in the details of their world. People don’t notice their everyday surroundings and daily routine, so when writers describe them it can sound as if they’re trying too hard to instruct the reader.
- Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.
- If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.
- Be ready for anything. Each new story has different demands and may throw up reasons to break these and all other rules. Except number one: you can’t give your soul to literature if you’re thinking about income tax.
For more excellent wisdom on writing, consider the excellent musings of ground-breaking Scottish author, Iain Maloney; and complement that with some priceless advice from Kurt Vonnegut, alongside our compendium of writing advice from some of the greatest authors.
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