Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Great writers on 10 rules for writing fiction

Photo: “8/26 Day Write-a-thon for 826 Valencia” by Flickr user Steve Rhodes
under Creative Commons 2.0 License
Back in February 2010, the Guardian asked a number of well-established writers to offer their 10 Rules of Writing in response to Elmore Leonard’s own. Those who responded include: Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Esther Freud, PD James, Michael Moorcock, Helen Simpson, Zadie Smith, Colm Tóibín, Sarah Waters and Elmore Leonard himself.

The results, which can be read make interesting and entertaining reading.

Here are some of my favourite extracts:

Elmore Leonard:

Never open a book with weather… The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people.

Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction…

Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.

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. 

My most important rule: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Zadie Smith:

Try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.

There is no "writer's lifestyle". All that matters is what you leave on the page.

Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. 


Esther Freud:

Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they'll know it too.

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.

Hilary Mantel:

Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.

Michael Moorcock:

For a good melodrama study the famous "Lester Dent master plot formula" which you can find online. It was written to show how to write a short story for the pulps, but can be adapted successfully for most stories of any length or genre.

(Wikipedia gives this as Michael Moorcock’s summary of the Lester Dent master plot formula: Split your six-thousand-word story up into four fifteen hundred word parts. Part one, hit your hero with a heap of trouble. Part two, double it. Part three, put him in so much trouble there's no way he could ever possibly get out of it...All your main characters have to be in the first third. All your main themes and everything else has to be established in the first third, developed in the second third, and resolved in the last third.) 

If possible have something going on while you have your characters delivering exposition or philosophising. This helps retain dramatic tension.

Ignore all proferred rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say.

There is much more to savour in these lists. I recommend checking out the full article. Enjoy!

Seb Kirby

Seb Kirby is the author of the James Blake thriller series (Take No More, Regret No More and the soon-to-be-released Forgive No More) and the Raymond Bridges sci-fi thriller series (Double Bind). 

He says: "I was raised with books – my grandfather ran a mobile library in Birmingham and my parents inherited a random selection of the books. They weren't much interested in them; they were piled up in a box room, gathering dust. I would disappear in there and resurrect much used classics – Zane Gray's Riders of the Purple Sage, HG Wells' The Invisible Man, Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities and more obscure stuff that I don't now recall. I was hooked. I've been an avid reader ever since."

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