Writing tips from big-time novelists

Elmore Leonard once weighed in with his rules for writing. The Guardian rounded up responses from PT James, Hilary Mantel, Joyce Carol Oates and others. Steal ideas for your own work.


Several years ago, the late novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard came up with a list of rules for writing.

The piece, offering tips such as “Never open a book with weather,” periodically surfaces, drawing praise from some writers and eliciting spasms of helpless rage from others.

But one of the best things the list did was inspire The Guardian newspaper to publish tips from a host of successful fiction writers.

Leonard’s list tends toward the mechanics—”Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue”—while the Guardian authors focus on everything from your pencil supply to whether to have children. (Richard Ford, who apparently has never read Tolstoy, says don’t.)

Here are a few of our favorite pointers from the Guardian’s list. And if they sometimes contradict each other, well, never, ever pay attention to a list.

Shut up and write

“The nearest I have to a rule,” says author Helen Simpson, “is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying ‘Faire et se taire’ (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as ‘Shut up and get on with it.'”

How best to do just that? In case you haven’t figured it out, the Internet is a big distraction. “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction,” says novelist Jonathan Franzen.

That’s fine for ivory tower types, but is it possible for the rest of us to unplug every now and then for an hour and pound out a few hundred words? Or will all hell break loose the minute you vanish? (You’re right. Never mind.)

Short of going offline, here’s a tip from speechwriter Michael Long: On your primary browser, block sites where you tend to waste time during the day. Check them with a secondary browser after hours.

Edit yourself

Break those long paragraphs in two, Joyce Carol Oates urges (I think): “Unless you are writing something very avant-garde—all gnarled, snarled and ‘obscure’—be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.”

She also insists that you be ruthless when looking over your own copy: “Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!”

(Oates doesn’t need any advice from Leonard, but he does say to keep exclamation points under control. “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” Well, all right, then!)

Cut to the chase

“First paragraphs can often be struck out,” says Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall.

Entertain yourself

Margaret Atwood says: “Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.)”

How to do that? Here’s another tip from Mantel: “Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change.” Who is changing? How? Why? What’s driving the change?

Incidentally, Atwood also always takes two pencils to write with on airplanes. (“Pens leak.”) If your interviews ever take you to cold places (refrigerated warehouses, outdoor sites, morgues), pencils also have this advantage: Unlike ink, the lead won’t freeze and stop writing.

Swipe ideas from the movies

Movie directors generally don’t have time or the budget to mess around. Every second counts, every moment advances the plot. Characters are not static, but move in time and space.

“Learn from cinema,” says Rose Tremain. “Be economic with descriptions. Sort out the telling detail from the lifeless one. Write dialogue that people would actually speak.”

Increase your word power. Or, on second thought, don’t

“Increase your word power,” PD James insists. “Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it.”

Try telling a Frenchman, a Russian or a Japanese that English is more expressive. But still: point taken.

Then again, Oates says, “Unless you are writing something very post-modernist—self-conscious, self-reflexive and ‘provocative’—be alert for possibilities of using plain familiar words in place of polysyllabic ‘big’ words.”

Franzen says, “Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.”

Read lots of books

“Read,” AL Kennedy says. “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.”

But be forewarned, says PD James: “Bad writing is contagious.”

Read aloud

“Read [your copy] aloud to yourself,” Kennedy says, “because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK…”

Keep it to yourself

Richard Ford warns, “Don’t write letters to the editor. (No one cares.)”

I like this tip. May we expand on it? Don’t rant on Facebook or get in spats on Twitter. (I’ve been guilty of both.) Don’t even write reasonable discourses. No one cares. Your friends have figured out your politics. They like you anyway. Those who don’t have unfollowed you.

Now, go write.

@ByWorking

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