While looking for resources for the creative writing course I am running this semester, I came across some fantastic sets of rules put together by a number of well-known authors at The Guardian‘s request. The lists are introduced as follows: “Inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, we asked authors for their personal dos and don’ts”
Ten rules for writing fiction – part one
Ten rules for writing fiction – part two
Authors include: Elmore Leonard, Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer, Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Esther Freud, Neil Gaiman, David Hare, PD James, AL Kennedy, Hilary Mantel, Michael Moorcock, Michael Morpurgo, Andrew Motion, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, Philip Pullman, Ian Rankin, Will Self, Helen Simpson, Zadie Smith, Colm Tóibín, Rose Tremain, Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson.
Quite a roll call! The rules are, of course, as diverse as the authors’ works. The additional research I have been doing for my course has been inspiring me to consider revisiting early ambitions to write fiction before I was diverted into the byways of the academic writing genre.
Many of the often highly entertaining rules on the list are naturally variations on the bread and butter rules for all those who write and ones I am all too familiar with, although possibly more honoured in the breach than the observance. The rules I most connected in with were Michael Moorcock’s – although I am no big fan of his fiction.
One of my difficulties has always been how to devise a plot. Moorcock suggests in his second rule: “Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.” This kind of reworking of another source is something I have always found fascinating in general – but hadn’t thought to actually apply it systematically to my own attempts at fiction.
I like Moorcock’s 7th rule as well: “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.”. Here is a link to this formula for general edification, appropriately posted in the Creative Writing section on the ‘Fandom’ site.
I did like Colm Tóibín’s rules – which apply to any kind of writing – particularly these:
1 Finish everything you start.
2 Get on with it.
3 Stay in your mental pyjamas all day.
4 Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
9 No going to London.
10 No going anywhere else either.
It just goes to show that writers have long been familiar with the concept of lockdown. Having said all this, my fiction writing projects are probably not for the immediate future in a university environment that is in meltdown at present. But let’s not venture onto that sad territory today!