Our Ten Rules

by members of the Great Smokies Writing Program Prose Master Class

Elmore Leonard’s best-selling Ten Rules of Writing inspired the (U.K.) Guardian editors to ask more writers for theirs. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/20/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-part-one] Here is a sampling:

Margaret Atwood

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.

Jonathan Franzen

  1. Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.

Roddy Doyle

  1. Do not place a photograph of your ­favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.
  1. Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine; e.g. “horse,” “ran,” “said.”

Richard Ford

  1. Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.
  2. Don’t have children.

Inspired by the proliferation of rules, members of Elizabeth Lutyens’ Spring 2011 Prose Master Class came up with a few rules of their own. The following is a selection from their lists:

Michael Hopping

  1. Find a way into the story’s world and write from there—as guest not dictator. Stories establish their own rules. Learn and respect them.
  2. Focus attention where the story wants it; avoid provoking questions the story doesn’t want asked.
  3. Depart from standard language usage only to serve the work.
  4. Be sure-handed on the page. No unnecessary scatteredness, equivocation, conditionality or uncertainty. Don’t fake what could be researched.
  5. Readers notice beginnings and endings. This applies to clauses and sentences as well as paragraphs and entire books. Take advantage.
  6. Engage the reader’s gut with vivid sensory detail, allusive imagery and tension. Use rhythm, sound, sentence structure, etc. to enhance atmospherics.
  7. Disconfirm expectation. Readers sleepwalk through what they think they know.
  8. Don’t weigh readers down with fat or wear them out with excess complexity.
  9. Sweat the modifiers.
  10. The only absolute rule for fiction writing is: This is the only absolute rule.

R.R. Brooks

  1. Tell a story in which change happens.
  2. Be sure that some part of your story makes you feel good.
  3. Incubate and then edit.
  4. Edit and then incubate.
  5. Read aloud to the dog. Respect her feedback. Expect nothing from the cat.
  6. Read as if you are an editor, red pen in hand.
  7. Ask “why” about every action in your work.
  8. Embrace a comma after the penultimate item in a list.  Unless you mean “peas and carrots” as one dish. In which case, precede it with “and.”
  9. Fear not the Internet.
  10. Use a critique group to kick your butt as a writer.

Lenny Bernstein

  1. Tell me a story. Character development and scene-setting are important, but it is action that keeps me reading.
  2. Keep it simple. I stop reading if I have to go back more than once or twice in a story to re-read some of the text to understand what you’re trying to tell me.
  3. Keep it believable. Unless I’m reading science fiction or fantasy, I don’t want magic or unbelievable coincidence.
  4. Stay on track. Secondary plots and side stories make the primary story more interesting, but they shouldn’t take over.
  5. Don’t assume that I’m a psychiatrist. You may leave clues in your story that would allow a psychiatrist to develop a profile of your character, but they aren’t going to mean anything to me. I need some overt indication in your story before I will conclude that a character is misogynistic, psychotic, schizophrenic, or anything else.
  6. Apply Occam’s razor. If your story can be interpreted in two ways, I’m going to pick the simpler one. If that’s not the one you want me to pick, rewrite the story so that picking your interpretation becomes the simpler choice.
  7. Children should be child-like. Children, including teen-agers, are usually self-centered, impulsive, and thoughtless. Portraying them in any other way is unrealistic.
  8. Inanimate objects are not characters. Characters have to be able to act and react.
  9. Be true to your time and place. You wouldn’t give an 18th century character a cell phone. It makes no more sense to give him or her 21st century attitudes.
  10. Don’t overdo the sensory detail. Description is fine, but I don’t need to know every object in a room or the color of every article of clothing a character is wearing.

Pete Solet

  1. Read what you like and what you don’t. You can learn a lot.
  2. Do not think about craft until you are well along.
  3. Tell the truth. This is more important than talent or accomplishment.
  4. Do your research.
  5. Be grateful for everything that’s happened to you, good, bad, and ugly. They got you where you are.
  6. If you tend to go through many revisions, go back to your original draft and couple of early revisions and see what you have lost.
  7. Try not to think about readers when you write. You are probably delving into unknown, sometimes difficult territory when you write. It can be a spiritual experience. Respect it.
  8. If in a workshop, there may be feedback that is especially helpful, not only that which gives you a different perspective on your own writing but also, and perhaps more importantly, will make you a better reader.
  9. Remember that you are acceptable the way you are and that you are loved.
  10. To thine own self be true. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Writing is not the most important thing in the world.

Maggie Marshall

  1. Listen to what your story wants to be, not just what you want it to be.
  2. Try getting rid of the last sentence of any paragraph or section and see what happens.
  3. Start the story as far into it as you possibly can.
  4. When stuck, lie down and make yourself “dreamstorm” about your characters.  Take the road not yet taken and see where it leads you.
  5. When really stuck, take a break and read someone else’s good work.
  6. Plot.  It’s a good concept. Worth incorporating into any story!
  7. Read your work aloud as much as possible, not just to check dialogue, but for rhythm and pacing.
  8. Make physical descriptions organic –preferably from a character’s of point of view, rather than emanating from some omniscient narrator hovering above the scene.
  9. Cut dialogue in half when editing (I never seem to follow this one but I know it works).
  10. Don’t choose as your public place to write a café with the best scones in town, unless you want to gain an unattractive amount of weight around your middle. You will then have to take away a good part of your writing time to exercise off the aforementioned scones.