Andromeda/Your Turn: Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

Kay pointed us toward this article in the Guardian, in which many wonderful writers were asked to submit their rules for writing.

Anne Enright: “The first 12 years are the worst.” I’ve also heard, from Stephen King and others: don’t worry too much about the first million words. Puts it into perspective, doesn’t it?

Richard Ford : “1. Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.” I agree. “2. Don’t have children.” Uh-oh.

Jonathan Franzen: “8. It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” So that’s how he wrote The Corrections, and the rest of us didn’t. Darn.

Neil Gaiman: “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.”

Kay asked Deb and me what our rules are. A few from my own list that come instantly to mind:

1. A variation on Ford’s: Surround yourself with people who believe in you as a writer. Distance or protect yourself from those who don’t.

2. Develop a serious reading plan. Log it, including books to read and brief responses to what you’ve read. Follow the map of influence from a writer you love to the writers that influenced him and her, and the books that influenced those writers, and so on. (This applies to genre books, as well as literary classics.) Take pleasure in being part of a long-running literary/cultural conversation. Become an expert auto-didact.

3. However — don’t let reading be a substitute for writing. If you’re only reading, fiction looks easy. If you’re reading great fiction while also stuck in the middle of your own thorny set of plot, character, and POV problems, you can bounce between the two modes and get more from each.

4. Aside from the occasional, necessary freelance job, put your main writing energies into something you’re passionate about. If the subject seems obscure or your personal interest is an idiosyncratic one, all the better.

5. Be patient. It’s a long road that seems even longer after the first 10 years, when it strikes you with full force how much there is left to learn.

6. E.M. Forster said it best: “Only connect.” It’s a good antidote to the stress and anxiety of developing a career, dealing with markets and publication, and charting one’s own path to self-improvement.

7. Reward yourself memorably along the way. I have two favorite ceramic serving dishes, each one purchased during important turning points in my writing life. When I need a pick-me-up, I serve something on them and am reminded of previous successes.

Anyone else?

6 thoughts on “Andromeda/Your Turn: Ten Rules for Writing Fiction”

  1. Great inspiration, thanks! I especially like the one about surrounding yourself with people who believe in you as a writer–I needed to hear that right now.

    One question: Can you explain "Only connect"?

  2. Guess what I learned about writers when this Guardian piece made the blog rounds last week? They aren't keen on rules. At least that's what I got from my friends on a list-serv. Still, there must be some substance to this free-wheeling pursuit. I like what Andromeda says here (though I need a definition for auto-didact), and I'll follow-up with my own post with a slight twist, once our book club discussion is over. You all do remember book club next week? See Andromeda's rule #2.

  3. When I edit, I forget myself as writer and become the most ornery reader possible. I actively try to misinterpret what the lines are saying. I become the ogre reader. It works for me.

  4. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    "Only connect" refers to making personal connections, and it's at the heart of Forster's novels (Room with a View, Passage to India) — but it's also at the heart of what we try to do here at 49 Writers (put us all in touch with each other, so that we can learn more about writing and publishing). Thanks for asking, Lynn!

    As for "auto-didact," it means self-teacher. I think we teach ourselves what we need to know about writing at least 90% of the time — mostly through reading, certainly also through writing and revising. I absolutely believe in writers' workshops, but I think the best thing you can get out of them is learning how to continue to teach yourself after the workshop is done.

    That might be one way to evaluate a writing teacher or mentor as well — is he/she trying to fill you up with his/her knowledge, and fostering dependence along the way, or is he/she teaching you how to be a more independent learner?

  5. Well… I don't write fiction, but I sometimes read it…

    Richard Ford : "1. Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer's a good idea." I agree. "2. Don't have children." Uh-oh.

    I absolutely agree with his first assertion, but that second one is pure BS. My children have been the most empowering, inspiring force in my life. Anyone who advises not having children never had any.

    Jonathan Franzen: "8. It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction." So that's how he wrote The Corrections, and the rest of us didn't. Darn.

    Ah, but then we wouldn't have access to awesome resources like yours!

    For what it's worth, I agreed with all your suggestions. As for my own advice?

    Get out of here!

    Seriously. Outside, doing anything beyond enclosing walls, always makes me want to go back to my writing, not merely to hide inside, but because being outside renews my perspective and fills me with ideas, inspirations, boundless insights I simply cannot wait to share with others!

    One might think that's because I write about outside things things, like sled dog racing, but that isn't necessarily so. The bulk of my writing is about children and learning and education policy and politics. Being outside seems to provide room for the larger ideas encompassed by those subjects to expand, and grow, and develop properly. And then there's the whole related sense of being properly, securely grounded. My writing is known for being very grassroots, and where better to find that than amongst the grasses themselves?

    With kind regards,
    Helen Hegener

  6. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Helen, I enjoyed your additional thoughts/rules and I emphatically agree with what you said about having children. Despite my "uh-oh" in response to Ford's "rule," I also feel that my children taught me many things, including how to manage my time (at least in the beginning), and just seeing the world through their eyes changed who I am and how I write. Thanks for speaking up.

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