In honor of this Guardian UK piece in which writers riff off of Elmore Leonard’s (don’t feel bad for not knowing who that guy is, I had to look him up, too) rules for writing fiction, I’m going to present my own rules for writing fiction. I previously discussed this article over at my own blog, but I now realize that the article is longer than I thought and in two parts, the second one of which I didn’t know existed until right now. So read all of it! I’m sure I will at some point.
Anyway, here goes nothing:
1. Like many of those other authors in the Guardian piece said, you should read your book aloud, preferrably from beginning to end eventually, although probably not all at once unless you want to lose your voice. I do this constantly, mostly because I’m vain about my own dialogue (I think I’m funnier and cleverer than I am) and like to hear it spoken the way I hear it in my head. It really does help, especially when you find that you read the sentence a bit differently than it’s written on the page, because it comes more naturally that way. When that happens, I almost always make that change, and it’s not always inconsequential.
2. Don’t let anyone tell you (and don’t tell anyone else, GUARDIAN UK) that you shouldn’t write prologues. I sold my second book based on its prologue. A good prologue, as long as it’s short, can be an awesome way to draw a reader in. Sorry to bring this up, but think of the Twilight saga prologues. I mean, they’re not all interesting, but the one in Twilight gives you a sneak peak of the end, so you know there’s going to be some action in that lumbering tome! I don’t know, I think they can work. Haters to the left.
3. Read. A lot. Obvi.
4. If it helps, talk about your writing. My friends might think I talk about my writing ALL THE TIME, but I don’t that much, really, to anyone. If I do, I talk about it in the vaguest sense, even avoiding titles–I still call All Unquiet Things “my first book” to most people. It makes me uncomfortable to get into specifics, because I’m afraid people will think what I’m working on sounds stupid, and also I’m superstitious and maybe I believe it will all go away if I let it out even a little, I don’t know. BUT, the one time I did talk in depth about what I’m working on recently, to Joanna a week or so ago, I did have a really great brainstorm that I know I would not have had on my own. It was the act of talking the problem through with Joanna that made me see a new path. So maybe you could try that, if you’re a close-to-the-vest-type writer.
5. Don’t confine yourself to one room. Believe me, I write mostly in my tiny New York City bedroom, and five hours of intense work in that space can make me feel cramped and achy, both intellectually and physically, and I don’t really want to do it again the next day. I’ve recently moved to the couch in my living room, and it has been way easier to get things accomplished.
6. Always carry a notebook and a pen. I once had a brainstorm on the subway without paper or pen and had to write a text message and save it to draft so I wouldn’t forget. That’s way less romantic than scribbling a note that can someday be mounted in a museum as a testament to your spontaneous brilliance or whatever. Also, cell phones die.
7. If you work hard, you should be proud. I think a lot of the time we writers tend to focus on the things that are outside of our control–sales, reviews, deals, bestseller lists, awards, other people’s success. But at the end of the day, if you’re working your ass off to write the best book you possibly can, give yourself some credit!
8. On the other hand, if you’re not working hard, don’t whine. You’re not doing your part.
9. Keep an open mind when it comes to criticism. Over the years, if you keep working and keep revising and keep taking feedback from people (friends, crit partners, agents, editors, random readers that email you with writing advice, etc.), you’ll begin to get a fine tuned sense of what criticism is useful to you and what isn’t. Until you have that sense, don’t ever assume you’re right–you’re probably not, especially if you trust the reader. I do my revisions on an informal points system in which I start out with a certain number of points and every time my agent or editor says something like, “Cut this,” or “This doesn’t make sense, change it,” or “Repetition” or whatever, I have a choice: change it, or spend a certain amount of points to keep it. A small deletion is worth less points; a big change is worth much more. I personally choose to make almost 100% of my editor’s small changes in order to save up points for something I really, really want to keep that is bigger and more important to me. Now, I very rarely have to dig my heels in about something, but it gives me a feeling of security, like I’m doing my part for the book by improving it in every way I feel comfortable with, which is leverage for the times I want to make an unpopular choice because I think it’s best for the book.
Of course, this is all in my head; I invented this system for myself and until this very moment have never mentioned it to anyone. And you should have your own system for revising. But I guess my point is that you should be open to everything and be willing to change a lot to save up for those times you adamantly don’t want to change something that’s important to you. Also, being flexible is how you prove to people (yourself at first, then your agent and editor) that you’re not a nightmare to work with and that you have good intuition.
10. Write. A lot. Think about writing all the time. It’s the only way to get good at it.
So, for what it’s worth, that’s my advice.