16 of the finest NaNoWriMo writing tips from Paul M.M. Cooper

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“Part of being able to write at all is giving yourself permission to write badly, to put down that first layer and not hate it.”

If you’ve always suspected there’s a novel in you, one writing project could help you get it on to paper in just 30 days.

Founded in 1999, NaNoWriMo (short for National Novel Writing Month), is an internet hub built for budding writers. Participants agree to start and complete a novel of 50,000 words or more during the month of November. To “win,” all you have to do is meet that goal.

If writing 1667 words a day, every day, for an entire month while balancing studies, work, socialising and general life admin sounds like a challenge, that’s because it is. But it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it – success stories include Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants (now also a feature film); and in total over 250 NaNoWriMo novels have been published.

Above all else, NaNoWriMo fosters the habit of writing every single day – which, if you read among all the various writing tips from writers – is probably the closest thing to a universally prescribed strategy for eventually producing a book. NaNoWriMo spurs aspiring authors to conquer their inner critics and blow past blocks. And it also enables many writers to practice another core tenement of writing: the act of rewriting and revision. 50,000 words written in a month will, almost inevitably, need to be rewritten.

NaNoWriMo writing tips from Paul M.M. Cooper

Paul Cooper

Paul M.M. Cooper 

It is a project endorsed by countless writers – both aspiring and established. Included in their number is Paul M.M. Cooper, author of the rather brilliant ‘River of Ink’.

Of his writing process, Cooper has explained: “Just getting words onto the page is important. I heard someone describe this recently as ‘piling sand into the sandbox to build things out of it later’ – this is usually how my first drafts work. I write a lot, fill scenes with everything I can, and then winnow things down later so it is light and strong in the final draft.”

NaNoWriMo, in this way, offers the perfect opportunity for writers to start filling their own writing sandboxes. And for those just setting out on their own NaNoWriMo journeys, Cooper has also set out his own list of NaNoWriMo writing tips. They are:

  1. It’s a cliché, but you can’t edit a blank page. Think of the phrase “Don’t get it right, get it written!”
  2. The hardest part about writing a first draft is getting through the self-loathing of writing something of poor quality.
  3. I always comfort myself by thinking about oil painters – how they put down a base layer first, and then return for shading and detail.
  4. Part of being able to write at all is giving yourself permission to write badly, to put down that first layer and not hate it.
  5. Remember that inspiration comes during work, not before it. If you’re stuck, just write something, anything! You’ll get unstuck.
  6. If you’re stuck, a good idea is to ‘have coffee with your characters’. Write a conversation you’d have with them, or a monologue.
  7. Often when you let a character speak, they come to life and tell you what’s going to happen next. They’re strange that way.
  8. You don’t always have to plan ahead too much, but it’s good to have some fixed points to work to. Scenes you can’t wait for
  9. Don’t skip ahead and write you favourite scene – your excitement about getting to it will give you urgency to the preceding scenes.
  10. Do think about the values of your story: truth, justice, friendship, etc. Every scene should turn on a value, either up or down.
  11. The criminal commits a crime (justice down), the detective finds a clue (justice up), the first setback occurs (justice down).
  12. Give yourself permission to delete work, to give up on story strands, to give up on the whole novel. Nothing is really wasted.
  13. The only truly scarce resource is your own excitement. Protect it in every way you can, and top it up at every opportunity.
  14. Even if you’re completely blocked, write something. Write one sentence, or half a sentence. That’s the only thing you should force.
  15. The most important thing isn’t winning, but setting up writing as a habit for the future. Don’t accept negativity if you lose.
  16. Just by trying #NaNoWriMo, you’re doing something very brave. It’ll change you whether you complete it or not. So good luck and stay strong!

 

 

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James Baldwin on the real meaning of words and the artist’s struggle for integrity – audio recording

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For all artists, there has long been a struggle between creative expression and meaning. Particularly for writers, there is a curious difficulty often in ‘choosing the right words’. This is because, as the post-modern critics and theorists like Derrida and Lacan argue, the meaning of words depends on their context. Yet we never understand contexts fully.  Consequently, ambiguity reigns.  Even our most cherished words – God, love, world, Jesus, hope – are ambiguous.

As we interpret and reinterpret words, we realize no foundational, final, or fixed interpretation is available.  Words refer to other words, those refer to other words, and those words refer to still others.

Meaning seems to exist only in relations of matrices.  Language is a web without any fixed cables.  If we think we have a solid foundation, “things fall apart,” as the poet William Butler Yeats put it, and “the center cannot hold.”

This struggle provides the starting point for one of the most interesting and unique lectures on creative writing available to us today.

Speaking at New York City’s Community Church in 1962, the literary legend James Baldwin emphasises the difficulty of using words to convey meaning that is ‘true’ or ‘real’:

“Words are attempts made by us all to get to something which is real and which lives behind the words […] The terrible thing is that the reality behind all these words depends on choices one has got to make, for ever and ever and ever, every day.”

From this point onward, Baldwin continues his terrific reflection on creativity and art, particularly focusing on some of the core challenges central to any artist.

In one of the many moments during the lecture when Baldwin’s passion for art – and the possibilities art can create – truly comes to life, he considers the role of the artist (of the writer, poet, photographer, painter, and so on ad infinitum) in a world beset by chaos and uncertainty. Though Baldwin was speaking in 1962, his words bear that rare timeless quality that make them all the more pertinent here today, in 2016, particularly as our world faces crises posed by Donald Trump, and the rise of fascism across the developed world:

“I am not interested really in talking to you as an artist. It seems to me that the artist’s struggle for his integrity must be considered as a kind of metaphor for the struggle, which is universal and daily, of all human beings on the face of this globe to get to become human beings. It is not your fault, it is not my fault, that I write. And I never would come before you in the position of a complainant for doing something that I must do… The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets.

[…]

[This is] a time … when something awful is happening to a civilization, when it ceases to produce poets, and, what is even more crucial, when it ceases in any way whatever to believe in the report that only the poets can make. Conrad told us a long time ago…: “Woe to that man who does not put his trust in life.” Henry James said, “Live, live all you can. It’s a mistake not to.” And Shakespeare said — and this is what I take to be the truth about everybody’s life all of the time — “Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.” Art is here to prove, and to help one bear, the fact that all safety is an illusion. In this sense, all artists are divorced from and even necessarily opposed to any system whatever.”

Listen to the full audio recording of Baldwin’s stunning lecture via the Youtube video below:

If that hasn’t left you pondering your struggle for your own artistic integrity, why not explore some other fine pieces of worldly advice for creative writers and artists available right here at Nothing in the Rulebook.

 

“Nobody ever became a writer just by wanting to be one” – Stunning letters from F. Scott Fitzgerald on the secret of great writing

 

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Good writing advice is hard to find. We’ve compiled various collections of writing tips from some of literature’s greatest minds; but when it comes to motivation and inspiration sometimes the ordered lists and quotes don’t go far enough.

As such, today we’ve brought you some uncompromisingly honest advice on the essence of great writing from F. Scott Fitzgerald – one of the 20th century’s finest authors.

In two letters, one to a close family friend and college sophomore, Frances Turnbull, and one to his fifteen-year old daughter, Scottie, Fitzgerald insists upon the importance of emotional investment in writing, and provides some timeless advice for all aspiring writers.

Happy reading!

 

“November 9, 1938

Dear Frances:

I’ve read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.

This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories ‘In Our Time’ went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In ‘This Side of Paradise’ I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile.

The amateur, seeing how the professional having learned all that he’ll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming — the amateur thinks he or she can do the same. But the amateur can only realize his ability to transfer his emotions to another person by some such desperate and radical expedient as tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see.

That, anyhow, is the price of admission. Whether you are prepared to pay it or, whether it coincides or conflicts with your attitude on what is ‘nice’ is something for you to decide. But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the ‘works.’ You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.

In the light of this, it doesn’t seem worth while to analyze why this story isn’t saleable but I am too fond of you to kid you along about it, as one tends to do at my age. If you ever decide to tell your stories, no one would be more interested than,

Your old friend,

Scott Fitzgerald

P.S. I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent — which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.”

 

 

“Grove Park Inn
Asheville, N.C.
October 20, 1936

Dearest Scottina:

[…]

Don’t be a bit discouraged about your story not being tops. At the same time, I am not going to encourage you about it, because, after all, if you want to get into the big time, you have to have your own fences to jump and learn from experience. Nobody ever became a writer just by wanting to be one. If you have anything to say, anything you feel nobody has ever said before, you have got to feel it so desperately that you will find some way to say it that nobody has ever found before, so that the thing you have to say and the way of saying it blend as one matter—as indissolubly as if they were conceived together.

Let me preach again for one moment: I mean that what you have felt and thought will by itself invent a new style so that when people talk about style they are always a little astonished at the newness of it, because they think that is only style that they are talking about, when what they are talking about is the attempt to express a new idea with such force that it will have the originality of the thought. It is an awfully lonesome business, and as you know, I never wanted you to go into it, but if you are going into it at all I want you to go into it knowing the sort of things that took me years to learn.

[…]

Nothing any good isn’t hard, and you know you have never been brought up soft, or are you quitting on me suddenly? Darling, you know I love you, and I expect you to live up absolutely to what I laid out for you in the beginning.

Scott”

 

Monday inspiration: Hunter S. Thompson on finding your purpose

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Aspiring creatives know only too well the difference between how we think things will turn out when we are younger and how they actually happen as we grow older. At school, when we are often in the top groups for art, theatre, English, music, it’s easy to get stuck thinking that it will be this way forever, and while we might be aware that most people find becoming professional artists quite difficult, there’s always that lingering suspicion that that sort of difficulty only happens to other people; and people will be celebrating our work continually from now until we retire.

Of course, it nearly never turns out this way. We start to realise we are not guaranteed recognition and acclaim for our creative pursuits simply because we accustomed to receiving it in our youth. And life often starts to get in the way of where we thought we would be: whether that’s through work, which is increasingly stifling as a social construct, through our increasingly digital world that never switches off, or through our changing social or personal lives.

There is a risk, as this starts to happen, of finding ourselves borne along through life via currents not of our choosing. This sensation that we are not quite in control of our destinies – though ultimately still personally responsible for them – can be crippling both mentally and creatively.

We have therefore brought you some timely and worldly advice from legendary writer Hunter S. Thompson. The author of the Rum Diary and Fear and loathing in Las Vegas knows a thing or two about life’s changing paths and how they can affect you. In a letter to his friend Hume Logan, Thompson offers deeply thoughtful ideas, suggesting that the most important thing we can do is choose our lives and our paths for ourselves; because if we don’t our choices will ultimately be made by circumstance.

What perhaps makes the letter all the more profound is that at the time he wrote it he had no idea he was to become one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. This is important because it is an accusation often levelled at great artists who offer their advice to aspiring creatives that the advice they give is all very well – but is often divorced from the realities that young and new artists find themselves living. Yet as Thompson was not successful when he wrote this letter, the beliefs he shares within it do not come tainted with success: they are raw, hypothetical statements of faith. If anything, that makes them all the more real. Read his words of wisdom below.

 

 

“April 22, 1958
57 Perry Street
New York City

Dear Hume,

You ask advice: ah, what a very human and very dangerous thing to do! For to give advice to a man who asks what to do with his life implies something very close to egomania. To presume to point a man to the right and ultimate goal — to point with a trembling finger in the RIGHT direction is something only a fool would take upon himself.

I am not a fool, but I respect your sincerity in asking my advice. I ask you though, in listening to what I say, to remember that all advice can only be a product of the man who gives it. What is truth to one may be disaster to another. I do not see life through your eyes, nor you through mine. If I were to attempt to give you specific advice, it would be too much like the blind leading the blind.

“To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles … ” (Shakespeare)

And indeed, that IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives. So few people understand this! Think of any decision you’ve ever made which had a bearing on your future: I may be wrong, but I don’t see how it could have been anything but a choice however indirect — between the two things I’ve mentioned: the floating or the swimming.

But why not float if you have no goal? That is another question. It is unquestionably better to enjoy the floating than to swim in uncertainty. So how does a man find a goal? Not a castle in the stars, but a real and tangible thing. How can a man be sure he’s not after the “big rock candy mountain,” the enticing sugar-candy goal that has little taste and no substance?

The answer — and, in a sense, the tragedy of life — is that we seek to understand the goal and not the man. We set up a goal which demands of us certain things: and we do these things. We adjust to the demands of a concept which CANNOT be valid. When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you. Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.

So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis?

The answer, then, must not deal with goals at all, or not with tangible goals, anyway. It would take reams of paper to develop this subject to fulfillment. God only knows how many books have been written on “the meaning of man” and that sort of thing, and god only knows how many people have pondered the subject. (I use the term “god only knows” purely as an expression.) There’s very little sense in my trying to give it up to you in the proverbial nutshell, because I’m the first to admit my absolute lack of qualifications for reducing the meaning of life to one or two paragraphs.

I’m going to steer clear of the word “existentialism,” but you might keep it in mind as a key of sorts. You might also try something called “Being and Nothingness” by Jean-Paul Sartre, and another little thing called “Existentialism: From Dostoyevsky to Sartre.” These are merely suggestions. If you’re genuinely satisfied with what you are and what you’re doing, then give those books a wide berth. (Let sleeping dogs lie.) But back to the answer. As I said, to put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.

But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors — but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires — including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.

As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal), he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).

In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life — the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.

Let’s assume that you think you have a choice of eight paths to follow (all pre-defined paths, of course). And let’s assume that you can’t see any real purpose in any of the eight. THEN — and here is the essence of all I’ve said — you MUST FIND A NINTH PATH.

Naturally, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. You’ve lived a relatively narrow life, a vertical rather than a horizontal existence. So it isn’t any too difficult to understand why you seem to feel the way you do. But a man who procrastinates in his CHOOSING will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance.

So if you now number yourself among the disenchanted, then you have no choice but to accept things as they are, or to seriously seek something else. But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life. But you say, “I don’t know where to look; I don’t know what to look for.”

And there’s the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know — is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.

If I don’t call this to a halt, I’m going to find myself writing a book. I hope it’s not as confusing as it looks at first glance. Keep in mind, of course, that this is MY WAY of looking at things. I happen to think that it’s pretty generally applicable, but you may not. Each of us has to create our own credo — this merely happens to be mine.

If any part of it doesn’t seem to make sense, by all means call it to my attention. I’m not trying to send you out “on the road” in search of Valhalla, but merely pointing out that it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it. There is more to it than that — no one HAS to do something he doesn’t want to do for the rest of his life. But then again, if that’s what you wind up doing, by all means convince yourself that you HAD to do it. You’ll have lots of company.

And that’s it for now. Until I hear from you again, I remain,

Your friend,
Hunter”

 

 

 

Roddy Doyle’s 10 writing tips

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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 rules of writing from literary legend Esther Freud. And in the past 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 renown Irish novelist, dramatist and screenwriter, Roddy Doyle. Enjoy!

  1. Do not place a photograph of your ­favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.
  2. Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph ­–
  3. Until you get to Page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety – it’s the job.
  4. Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy.
  5. Do restrict your browsing to a few websites a day. Don’t go near the online bookies – unless it’s research.
  6. 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”.
  7. Do, occasionally, give in to temptation. Wash the kitchen floor, hang out the washing. It’s research.
  8. Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones. I was working on a novel about a band called the Partitions. Then I decided to call them the Commitments.
  9. Do not search amazon.co.uk for the book you haven’t written yet.
  10. Do spend a few minutes a day working on the cover biog – “He divides his time between Kabul and Tierra del Fuego.” But then get back to work.

 

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.

Esther Freud’s seven golden tips for writing

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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 rules of writing from Elmore Leonard himself. And in the past 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 renown British novelist Esther Freud. Enjoy!

  1. 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.
  2. A story needs rhythm. Read it aloud to yourself. If it doesn’t spin a bit of magic, it’s missing something.
  3. Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life.
  4. Find your best time of the day for writing and write. Don’t let anything else interfere. Afterwards it won’t matter to you that the kitchen is a mess.
  5. Don’t wait for inspiration. Discipline is the key.
  6. Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they’ll know it too.
  7. Never forget, even your own rules are there to be broken.

 

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.

Alternatively, you could get all this and more by signing up to our free, weekly newsletter for everything interesting. Join the gang!   

Elmore Leonard’s ten rules for writing

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In 2010, 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 Michael Morpurgo’s writing tips. And in the past 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 thewriting commandments of Jonathan Franzen, as well as the wise decree of Margaret Atwood. Today, we’re pleased to feature the writing advice from renown author Elmore Leonard (who also inspired the Guardian’s project to collect together all the writerly wisdom they could). So this is a big one. Enjoy!

 

 1 Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2 Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”

3 Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.

5 Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6 Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”. This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7 Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8 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.

9 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.

10 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.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

 

Michael Morpurgo’s 10 writing tips

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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 Hilary Mantel’s wisdom and writing tips. And in the past 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 thewriting commandments of Jonathan Franzen, as well as the wise decree of Margaret Atwood. Today, we’re pleased to feature the writing advice from renown author Michael Morpurgo. Enjoy!

  1. The prerequisite for me is to keep my well of ideas full. This means living as full and varied a life as possible, to have my antennae out all the time.
  2. Ted Hughes gave me this advice and it works wonders: record moments, fleeting impressions, overheard dialogue, your own sadnesses and bewilderments and joys.
  3. A notion for a story is for me a confluence of real events, historical perhaps, or from my own memory to create an exciting fusion.
  4. It is the gestation time which counts.
  5. Once the skeleton of the story is ready I begin talking about it, mostly to Clare, my wife, sounding her out.
  6. By the time I sit down and face the blank page I am raring to go. I tell it as if I’m talking to my best friend or one of my grandchildren.
  7. Once a chapter is scribbled down rough – I write very small so I don’t have to turn the page and face the next empty one – Clare puts it on the word processor, prints it out, sometimes with her own comments added.
  8. 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.
  9. Once the book is finished in its first draft, I read it out loud to myself. How it sounds is hugely important.
  10. With all editing, no matter how sensitive – and I’ve been very lucky here – I react sulkily at first, but then I settle down and get on with it, and a year later I have my book in my hand.

 

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.

Alternatively, you could get all this and more by signing up to our free, weekly newsletter for everything interesting. Join the gang!   

 

Hilary Mantel’s ten rules for writing

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Hilary Mantel – photography by Chris Boland. Image via Flickr CC.  

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!

 

  1. Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there.
  6. First paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Alternatively, you could get all this and more by signing up to our free, weekly newsletter for everything interesting. Join the gang!    

 

10 Writing Rules from AL Kennedy

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AL Kennedy, photo via Wikipedia Commons

Avoid interesting verbs and internet connections; take pencils on aeroplanes; spend more time reading books than anything else; put one word after the other; write. These are just a handful of the numerous priceless tips and pieces of advice from famous authors that we have been featuring here at Nothing in the Rulebook for the last few weeks.

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.

We’ve seen 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 the one and only AL Kennedy. Enjoy!

 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Defend others. You can, of course, steal stories and attributes from family and friends, fill in filecards after lovemaking and so forth. It might be better to celebrate those you love – and love itself – by writing in such a way that everyone keeps their privacy and dignity intact.
  4. 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.
  5. Defend yourself. Find out what keeps you happy, motivated and creative.
  6. Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.
  7. Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and ­irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them, so you won’t need to take notes.
  8. Be without fear. This is impossible, but let the small fears drive your rewriting and set aside the large ones ­until they behave – then use them, maybe even write them. Too much fear and all you’ll get is silence.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

 

For more excellent wisdom on writing, consider the writing tips from author and creative writing lecturer Julia Bell; and complement that with some priceless advice from Kurt Vonnegut, alongside our compendium of writing advice from some of the greatest authors.

Alternatively, you could get all this and more by signing up to our free, weekly newsletter for everything interesting. Join the gang!