07 March 2010

writing rules

Elmore Leonard compiled his writing experience and wrote a list of rules for writers. His 2001 article in the NY Times: WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.

Inspired by Leonard's list, The Guardian recently collected writing rules from 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: Ten rules for writing fiction.

I love these. I love how conflicted the lists are. I love "Hooptedoodle." While I can't speak at the celebrity-level success as these authors, I do write. Here's some things I know. Also conflicted.

1. Write every day. I would love to have a special, established, sacred time in which I get to write, but I don't. That is the nature of my current reality. So I write whenever and wherever I can. Even if it is a single line that shakes out of my head while I am going to work and I have to write it on the back of a grocery receipt while driving down the freeway, although not advised due to some of the traffic implications. My writing brain does not stop just because I have to buy a gallon of milk or do a load of laundry. Honor that.

2. Capture those brilliant epiphanies in the moment. No matter what it is. If I wake up in the middle of the night with some amazing turn of phrase, I make myself get up and write it down right then so that I can read it in the morning and usually discard it for the rubbish that it is. Otherwise, it is gone from my head by morning, and I am left with a nostalgic fragment of memory that I had The Perfect Line. The glory of those moments of brilliance is generally "hooptedoodle," but the regret of not writing them down is real, and the process is far more important - it keeps me engaged.

3. Muses are overrated. Vodka was my Muse for a very long time. Although my writing from those vodka-years was mostly drivel, it was necessary. In retrospect, I probably could have written loads of drivel without the vodka, but that is not my reality. After a ten-year dry spell without either vodka or writing, I discovered that writing doesn't need a muse as much as it needs a sustained, consistent, daily practice.

4. Discover what process works for you and then keep doing that. My brain works faster than my fingers and eyes. It always has. They have real names for this now: ADD, OCD, neurosis, etc. I lack a formal diagnosis. But more than 25 years ago, my math teacher sat me down in front of an Apple computer (DOS), instructed me to write, and turned off the screen. When I just need to get what is in my head out, I turn off the screen and type. Or close my eyes. The trick is two-fold: don't stop until it's all out; and for god's sake, keep your fingers on the home keys.

5. Get everything down at least once. I always write more than what ends out in a finished piece. Better to write it all, and then cut the crap. Some of the crap will end up in something else. Some of it, thankfully, will never surface again. It's all part of the process.

6. Every pre-conceived ending always changes. I just expect it now.

7. Read every day. Novels, biographies, non-fiction, articles, blogs, newspapers, magazines, billboards, websites, backs of cereal boxes. I need language in all forms if I ever expect to be able to write it.

8. The greatest source of authentic dialogue is real people. I hang out in coffee shops, markets, business meetings, parties, hallways, city streets - anywhere there are people talking to each other - and listen. Then I write it down. Word for word if I can. I have not found any better published source for teaching real dialogue.

9. All input has value. A renowned national poet laureate evaluated one of my early pieces (from the vodka-muse years) in a university class I was taking at the time, and his written comments included a suggestion that I choose a different art form. After the sting had worn off, I was able to find helpful direction in his comments. If I am unafraid to look at it, both the negative and the positive input, I always learn something. For the record, I took up drawing and am an adequate artist to this day.

10. You can't make up better stuff than real life. For all the hair-brained, elaborate, whimsical, imaginary stories that flit through my head, the best ones for me are about real life. My absolute favorite rejection letter came from an East coast magazine declining my story, "Doing Time in the Real World" that said, "...while the writing was genuine, the material itself seemed unbelievable." The story, later published online by the Noneuclidean Cafe, is based on my several years of employment in the child welfare system as an Outreach worker, and my own early poverty-stricken years as a college student living in a trailer court with two small babies. All the facts are real, even if they are not exactly mine or not factually in order. Among other things, I did find a fly wrapped up in a package of meat, and there was a horribly embarrassing scene at the grocery afterward. Once I did burn my bangs right off with a lighter. And I was miserably grateful for government cheese back in those early years. I don't actually think you can do better than reality when it comes to a good story.

So there they are. Not so much rules, as just my experience.



  1. "Vodka? When do you drink vodka?"


    "A lot?"


    you know, I always had a thing for that girl... ;)

  2. That girl was wrong about one thing: when you get older, your heart doesn't die. At least mine didn't. My older heart is so full of all that is good and amazing in our world, even full enough to have embraced great sadness and have love left over.