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Ten (or fewer in some cases) rules for writing fiction from several of today’s best, best-selling, and most-admired (not always the same things) writers, mostly British, Canadian, Australian. I haven’t tried seriously to write fiction since the ’70s, but if I ever do, I’ll take another look at this. In the meantime, I know a lot of people who are writing, and they could do worse than consider some of these rules.

And as I read the various authors’ rules, I couldn’t help commenting here and there:

Elmore Leonard:

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

An excellent rule, and one that would do some MFA program graduates a great deal of good. On the other hand, there’s a time and place for everything. Not everything has to sound completely naturalistic.

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.

Has the woman never heard of mechanical pencils? Don’t leave home without one! Or two, if you like.

Margaret Atwood again:

9 Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road.

I believe this is where J.K. Rowling went wrong in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, leaving Harry, Ron, and Hermione camped out in a forest for many dull pages.

Hilary Mantel:

5 Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there.

This may explain why today’s students have so much trouble with The Faerie Queene—Edmund Spenser puts several vital clues in his introductory “Letter.” If only he’d known!

Several writers advise expanding one’s own reading & vocabulary:

P.D. James:

1 Increase your word power. 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.

Michael Moorcock:

1 My first rule was given to me by TH White, author of The Sword in the Stone and other Arthurian fantasies and was: Read. Read everything you can lay hands on. I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.

And Will Self says:

4 Stop reading fiction – it’s all lies anyway, and it doesn’t have anything to tell you that you don’t know already (assuming, that is, you’ve read a great deal of fiction in the past; if you haven’t you have no business whatsoever being a writer of fiction). [emphasis added]

Helen Simpson’s one rule may be the best:

The nearest I have to a rule 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.”

I prefer “Just do it & shut up,” myself.

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