One hundred ‘rules’ for writing fiction: 1-9.








Having tea with a writer friend the other day, he challenged me as to why I haven’t yet written about fiction. Although my specialism is in playwriting and dramaturgy, I have published short prose in a variety of anthologies and am in the final (dying? thrashing? please-god-will-it-never-be-over-and-how-will-I-bear-it-when-it-is?) throes of completing my first novel.

He knows I’m a magpie for quotations and snippets of advice. I have books filled with notes from authors I’ve interviewed for Irish newspapers and Welsh journals, or scribbled down at literary festivals, or sucked up from articles and features, or worked out myself.

‘So why not share them?’ he suggested. So I will.

The title of this section has ‘rules’ in inverted commas, simply as I’m not a great follower of rules and am more likely to do the opposite once given them as commands. I prefer to be descriptive and disobedient, although I think the trick is to learn what others may think these commandments are – and then break them. I also found my original title One hundred quotations or snippets or pieces of advice for writing fiction isn’t as pithy a title and besides, it was too long for the ‘subject’ title.

So one hundred ‘rules’ it is and perhaps the first should be

1.   Learn what successful writers think the ‘rules’ are, then break them. (KOR)

2.   Do back exercises. Pain is distracting. (Margaret Atwood)

3.   Do not place a photo of your favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide. (Roddy Doyle).

4.    True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,                               As those move easiest who have learned to dance.  (Alexander Pope. An Essay on Criticism 1711).

5.    Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. (E.L.Doctorow).

6.  Do it every day. Make a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct. This is the most important rule of all and, naturally, I don’t follow it. (Geoff Dyer).

7.   When you are in difficulties with a book, try the element of surprise: attack it at an hour when it isn’t expecting it. (HG Wells).

8.   The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page.  (Anne Enright).

9. 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. (Hilary Mantel).

I hope these are amusing, illuminating, or helpful.

If you have any quotations or ‘rules’ to share, please do.

Enjoy writing, and good luck!

5 responses to “One hundred ‘rules’ for writing fiction: 1-9.

  1. Thanks for sharing those. I particularly like the one from Margaret Atwood, I like to be free from distraction! Comfort is good.

  2. When I get absorbed in writing, I can sit still, in the same cramped position for a long time – too long – and suffer for it, later. I know some might see that advice from Margaret Atwood as being a little quirky – tongue-in-cheek, even – but I think it’s essential advice we should pay attention to (and remembering it helps me cut down on physio’ bills). Thanks for the comment, Pete. Good luck with your writing.

  3. Thank you, Kaite.

    I think Anne Enright’s advice is spot on. I’ve spent years dithering about how I should embark upon writing a novel. In the past, I have only ever written technical articles, short stories and poetry, so I don’t feel qualified to begin something as lengthy and complicated as a novel. It’s daunting, as I feel I need to have the narrative/plot already written in my head before I begin, or at least some sort of a plan. Anne says ‘the way to write a book is to actually write a book’, ie, we can’t edit what is not there, so the physical act of getting some words down is vital. Have I done this? Not yet – I’ve only just read this advice, but I’ll let you know if I ever do! 🙂

    • Thanks for a great comment – I’m trying to finish editing my first novel at the moment, so your comments are particularly apt, and helps me remember to check out the info I have on the blog!
      I hope you get to write that book – and do let me know how you get on.

      • Your first novel! Best of luck with that, Kaite.

        I’ll be in touch if I ever get started – but I wouldn’t hold my breath lol


        BTW I was directed here from your piece featured on The Irish Literary Times on the Muldoon workshop in Singapore. I hadn’t even noticed this post was from 2011, but I guess good advice doesn’t go out of fashion 🙂

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