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.

 

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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!    

 

 

10 Writing commandments from Jonathan Franzen

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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.

You’ve already had some practical advice from Margaret Atwood, who advised us that writers “most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality.” Meanwhile, Zadie Smith gave us timeless writing rules, reminding us to “Avoid cliques, gangs, groups: the presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.” And of course, who could forget Neil Gaiman’s deceptively-simple sounding tips, including: “Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.”

Now, it’s our turn to treat you to this fabulous set of writing rules from Jonathan Franzen. Enjoy!

  1. The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.
  2. Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.
  3. Never use the word “then” as a ­conjunction – we have “and” for this purpose. Substituting “then” is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many “ands” on the page.
  4. Write in the third person unless a ­really distinctive first-person voice ­offers itself irresistibly.
  5. When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.
  6. The most purely autobiographical ­fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more auto­biographical story than “The Meta­morphosis”.
  7. You see more sitting still than chasing after.
  8. It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.
  9. Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.
  10. You have to love before you can be relentless.

 

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 the brilliant poet, Rishi Dastidar, 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!   

 

Margaret Atwood’s 10 rules for writers

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“The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like,” writing legend Neil Gaiman said. But of course, the main rule of articles and lists of tips and rules about writing and for writers is that there will never be just one hard and fast rule: quite the opposite, in fact. So while Kurt Vonnegut’s first rule of writing is that one should never “use semicolons”; Zadie Smith takes a different view, arguing that you should “make sure you read a lot of books.”

When there are so many rules and pieces of advice out there, which ones do you follow? This is a question perhaps best suited to another article; yet a good place to start is – as it so often is when it comes to writing and literature – with one of the true literary greats: Margaret Atwood.

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 21st centuries. So without further introduction, we bring you Margaret Atwood with her personal writing commandments:

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.
  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
  7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
  8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
  9. 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.
  10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­isation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

 

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 the brilliant poet, Rishi Dastidar, 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!   

Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules for writers

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Few professions are as solitary – indeed, as secretive – as writing. Yet perhaps a strange quirk in the attitudes of authors is the willingness and desire of writers to share what they know with other students of the craft.

But of course, writing, to put it bluntly, is kind of a strange gig. There is a plethora of advice out there available to writers – aspiring or established – which they can choose to heed or ignore as they see fit. Some might term these pieces of advice as “rules” and, for want of a better term, we might follow them, especially when they come from some of the great masters of writing.

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 full list, previously bringing you the writing rules of the brilliant Zadie Smith. We’re on the case again, and here bring you some timeless counsel from one of the great writers of the 20th and 21st centuries: Neil Gaiman.

Some of Gaiman’s rules sound deceptively simple, enjoy:

  1. Write
  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
  3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
  4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
  5. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  6. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
  7. Laugh at your own jokes.
  8. 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.

 

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!    

It’s Not What You Know: Aristotle and the Authority of Experience

Writing Advice

Write what you know? “Bollocks”, as Aristotle would have said.

I view ‘advice for writers’ articles with suspicion. Strange opening for what looks like yet another example of the form, I know, but bear with me. I’ve read many that contain good tips and sage wisdom. I’ve adopted strategies other writers have used and found them effective. Still, whenever I see click-bait headlines like ‘10 Tips for Aspiring Novelists’ or ‘17 Mistakes You Are Making With Your Novel / Short Story / Poem / Play / Screenplay / Haiku’ (I might write this one day, 17 Mistakes You Are Making With Your Haiku’ – one per syllable and present it as a mega-haiku) I feel a great disturbance in the Force. Why? Because of the assumptions contained in them and because of the damage they can do.

These articles start from two simple premises:

  1. There is a right way of writing and a wrong way.
  1. Because I, the article writer, have published X amount of books, Y amount of articles and Z amount of blog posts, I know which is which.

 

Both are wrong, and embody what Aristotle would call a ‘false start’, being, as he was, a big fan of athletics.

There isn’t a right way or a wrong way of writing. There are ways that have met with success and ways that haven’t. Some writers plan every scene, making charts of weather, hours of darkness and light, what was in the news and who was on the 6 Music playlist on the days in question. Others begin with a sentence, a mood, or a voice and follow it for 80’000 words. Some writers set out to deal with an issue, a theme, to explore an argument or an assumption. Others want to tell a story and allow any themes to arise naturally. All are valid. Try them. See what works. But the following argument is what Aristotle would call bogus, being, as he was, a fan of the Bill and Ted movies:

JK Rowling planned her whole series in advance.

She has been almost insultingly successful.

Therefore, in order to be successful, I must do what she did.

Hemingway said about getting started: ‘All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’ He didn’t cover his office with sticky paper yet he was quite successful too.

Secondly, as Aristotle wrote in the Poetics, ‘Danger, Will Robinson.’ Good advice is helpful, maybe it nudges you in a better direction, maybe it lets you see a problem from another angle. Great. Bad advice however can be destructive. It doesn’t just nudge you, it can push you off the road like an elderly driver. At times it can stop you in your tracks like an elderly driver. Occasionally it can metaphorically kill you like a metaphorical elderly driver.

I studied creative writing at the University of Glasgow. It was a great course with fantastic teachers, wonderful writers and I’d do it all again in a second but boy did it stop me from writing for years. The problem, I now realise, is that I had so many competing pieces of advice, so many contradictory opinions bothering me like Hitchcockian birds that I couldn’t work out what to do or where to go. There is a well-established backlash against creative writing courses, and writers like Hanif Kureishi have famously spoken out against them (not very controversially to be honest, his point boiled down to ‘we can’t teach talent, only technique’ which is fair enough. Learning how to hold a brush and reading about the theory of the golden ratio won’t turn me into Leonardo da Vinci and cutting off my ear won’t make me Van Gogh).

I don’t really agree with the backlash. The courses are good and writers get a lot out of them. Whether they are value for money is a question about tuition fees and the nature of education, a separate issue. Whether you become a successful writer after graduation is down to talent and luck, neither of which is guaranteed with your degree certificate. In the main, they provide a safe, supportive environment in which to learn and to make mistakes, exactly the same as art school and football academies. However they are not like law degrees or medical degrees. To be a doctor you have to learn anatomy, biochemistry, surgical procedure. To be a lawyer you need to learn precedent, legal codes and how to write offensively expensive letters. There are rules. Memorise them. Follow them. If you deviate, people die. If you internalise everything you’re taught, one day you too can be screwed by Jeremy Hunt.

Not so with writing, though you wouldn’t know it if you Google for writing tips: Don’t use adverbs. Don’t use adjectives. Don’t use present tense. Don’t use the second person. Don’t use too many auxiliary verbs. Don’t use anything other than ‘said’ (and specifically never, ever use ‘ejaculate’ in reference to speech, I mean, come on, JK). Don’t use passive verbs. Don’t use distancing tenses. If a gun is introduced, it must be fired. Never use your story to get revenge. Write what you know.

Look again at your favourite writers. They break all of these ‘rules’. David Mitchell does (he has twice written about a writer getting revenge on an unkind reviewer). So does Marlon James (A Brief History of Seven Killings is a triumph of voice and when people speak they use adverbs, adjectives, second person, present tenses, the lot). They’re both quite successful as well.

But the worst of them all, the most insidious piece of advice is ‘Write What You Know.’

Bollocks, as Aristotle would have said.

Write what you know. Because Tolkein was a wizard, Thomas Harris was a cannibal and Shakespeare exited pursued by bear.

Write what you know because the only real literature is realism, the only authority is experience and empathy is patronising.

Bollocks, says Aristotle. A load of.

Literature is empathy. Writing a novel is the ultimate act of empathy. You take on the voice, the mannerisms, the opinions of a character or a number of characters in order to tell their story. Dostoevsky didn’t steal from Alyona Ivanovna after murdering her, he imagined what it would be like. Ian Fleming didn’t have sex with all those women. He imagined what it would be like. Presumably often and at great length. HG Wells didn’t travel in time, to the moon or to the Island of Dr Moreau.

The entire canon of world literature is treated like the exception that proves the rule. Dickens, Kundera, Murasaki Shikibu and the recently lost, much lamented Umberto Eco all did it the wrong way. They imagined people and worlds and stories about which they had no personal experience, about which nobody had any personal experience. Yet still there’s the advice; write what you know.

So why then all the fuss about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series? If you don’t know, it’s a six book series that details, in the kind of minute detail Joyce would have appreciated, Knausgaard’s own life. A publishing sensation in his native Norway and in translation, what’s so special about someone writing their own life, writing openly about their family and friends and intimate thoughts and washing up? If all we do is write what we know, a Norwegian man writing what he knows should be unremarkable. Yet it is remarkable precisely because we tend not to write what we know. We write what we imagine, spice it with our own experience and back it up with research.

My new novel is called The Waves Burn Bright. It deals with a survivor of the Piper Alpha disaster and the PTSD that destroys his family. Half of the novel is told from his perspective. The other half is narrated by his daughter. I could write this book because I did extensive research and because I took empathic leaps to try and understand what it would feel like to think you’re going to die, to have PTSD, to suffer from survivor’s guilt, to be an alcoholic, to commit adultery, to become a geologist, to live in New Zealand and Hawaii, to be a woman, to be gay. Write what you know? Experience isn’t the only source of authority. Research, talking, listening, empathy, imagination. A writer’s tools. Don’t just write what you know. Find out what you don’t know. Mix the two.

Why, Aristotle would ask, the big fuss?

Because I’ve seen what bad advice can do to a writer. I struggled to get back to work after studying at Glasgow but eventually I worked out which advice was useful, which I could ignore and which I could actively fight against (during my time in Glasgow, someone (not a member of the university or another student I hasten to add) told me that I wasn’t writing proper Scottish literature because I wasn’t writing about working-class men from the Central Belt. That person can, as Aristotle would say, Γαμήσου). Long before then, however, I was a member of the University of Aberdeen Creative Writing Society. As with all groups of this kind we wrote, critiqued each other’s work and then got drunk. We were all undergraduates, young, horny and oh so damn serious about literature. We stayed up late drinking wine and discussing Keats. We wrote ‘responses’ to Beckett and ‘homages’ to Kerouac. We really deserved a good slap. One writer, however, didn’t. He wrote fun short stories of an Ian Fleming meets Tom Sharpe variety: heroes with guns, cartoon bad guys, slapstick and Tarantino-esque levels of blood. They were over-the-top and unrealistic and every week we told him that. ‘You’re talented,’ we’d say, ‘you should write realism, you should write proper literature. You should write what you know.’ We really deserved a good slap. As our lack of enthusiasm for what he was doing became apparent, so his enthusiasm waned. He kept coming to meetings, but didn’t hand in work as often. Eventually he stopped handing in at all. As far as I know he stopped writing. We remained good friends for years afterwards but eventually lost touch. I’ve never been able to shake the fear that our ‘advice’ derailed him. I wish, instead of saying what we did, we’d said something like, ‘It’s not very believable. Why not do some research into firearms and explosives. Look at anatomy books and trauma studies. Skulls don’t make a pop noise when you shoot them. But what noise do they make?’

Don’t write what you know, but make sure you know what you write.

Write what you want. Write how you want. Write where you want, why you want, when you want, who you want. It’ll either work or it won’t. There’s no right way. There’s Tolstoy’s way and Woolf’s way and Voltaire’s way and Oe’s way and they’re all different and they’re all right.

And don’t take advice from anyone just because they say it with authority, least of all me. Aristotle would say the same.

 

About the author of this post

Iain Maloney was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, and now lives in Japan. He is the author of three novels and has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker Prize’ and the Dundee International Book Prize.

His third novel, The Waves Burn Bright is out on Freight Books May 19th 2016. First Time Solo and Silma Hill are out now. Iain will be touring the UK in May to promote his new book. To book him for an event please contact him via Twitter. More at www.iainmaloney.wordpress.com and @iainmaloney

Writing tips from writers (Volume II)

Writer’s Block. It sounds like a fearsome condition, a creative blockage. The end of invention. But what is it, really?

Often, it’s created from conflicting, unhelpful desires – we want the writing to be perfect; but we also want the novel to be finished as quickly as possible. We want the words we write to be good; but can’t bear to put them down on the page in case they are bad. We like using semi-colons, because we’ve been to college; but we also love Kurt Vonnegut and we know how he feels about them, so we just use boring old commas instead.

Okay, so that last one isn’t the most difficult challenge to overcome in writing our magnum opuses; but it’s often these smaller, minute details that cause writers the most grief. You can be overcome by a fear that the precise way you’ve written a sentence isn’t quite right – and you grow frustrated as you try to change your story on a sentence-by-sentence basis. Surely, if every sentence and word and turn of phrase is constructed perfectly, the novel will take care of itself?

Such concerns are, of course, ultimately self-defeating. Because the only way to actually write something is to write it!

But then, perhaps the hardest part of writing is actually starting to write. Hemingway, after all, famously opined that the most frightening thing he had ever encountered was “A blank sheet of paper.”

So just how do you go about facing an empty page, coaxing your ideas into the world of form, and steering the end result toward shore? To help you cast off, we’ve compiled a list of #WritingTips – from writers; for writers.

 

Cherish feelings of inadequacy – Will Self

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“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.”

Stay drunk – Ray Bradbury
raybradbury

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”

You need rules you can rely on – George Orwell

George Orwell at a typewriter

“One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

Only tell stories you can tell – Neil Gaiman

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“Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that — but you are the only you.”

Allow yourself to lose track of your writing – John Steinbeck

 John Steinbeck

“Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.”

Cut out exclamation marks – F. Scott Fitzgerald

F Scott Fitzgerald

“Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.”

You need to have guts – Sylvia Plath

 Sylvia Plath

“Everything in life is writable is you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

Find your writing signature – Raymond Carver

 raymond-carver

“Every great or even every very good writer makes the world over according to his own specifications. It’s akin to style, what I’m talking about, but it isn’t style alone. It is the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There’s plenty of that around. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time.”

Protect your writing time and space – Zadie Smith

 Dress to impress … Zadie Smith's Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets has been nominated for the BBC's £15,

“Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.” 

5 top writing tips for writers, from Rishi Dastidar

Stipula_fountain_pen

In a series of posts, we here at Nothing in the Rulebook have been asking writers to share their top tips and advice on writing. Today, it is our pleasure to bring you the top writing tips from journalist, copywriter and poet, Rishi Dastidar.

Whether you enjoy writing simply for the pleasure it gives you, or if you are looking to develop and improve, these great little pieces of advice will set you on your way!

Rishi Dastidar’s top five writing tips:

  1. Always carry a notebook and a writing implement: I mean a phone is OK, but there’s nothing quite like dashing something off in a cursive script that only you can decipher.
  2. Read more, and then read more than that again: Other people’s words are your fuel. What you do is compress, re-interpret, play, dance with them to make your new things. If you don’t read, you won’t write.
  3. Find your place and time to write: and the trick is that it doesn’t have to be a long time. 15, 20 minutes every day starts to mount up very quickly. The habit of doing so soon becomes addictive, and you’ll find that the time constraint gets good stuff out of you – fast.
  4. The blank page is scary. So don’t leave it blank before you start. Make some form of mark. Try writing 1 to 10 down the side – then you only have ten lines to write. And you’ll find you blow past that fast enough. Or pick a word from the nearest newspaper or magazine, and write that at the top of the page, then start scribbling.
  5. Because ultimately you’re writing for you, it doesn’t really matter if another souls reads what you write. So be bold and brave when you start – there’s no one else you need to please.

About the author

Rishi Dastidar has worked as a journalist, copywriter and poet. He has written for a wide variety of brands in different sectors during his career, while his poetry has been published by the Financial Times, Tate Modern and the Southbank Centre amongst many others. His work was most recently in Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe, 2014). A winner of And Other Stories short story prize in 2012, he has also had reviews published in the Times Literary Supplement. He was part of the 2014-15 Rialto / Poetry School editorial development programme, and also serves as a trustee of Spread The Word. Rishi was recently featured in our Creatives in profile interview series.