Sunday, 21 February 2010

Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

Generally speaking articles like the Guardian's Ten Rules for Writing Fiction make me a little quaesy. The entries are often sarky or whimsical, and even those that really try and address the topic boil down to "read a lot, write a lot, edit a lot". It's my experience that gaining that knowledge is the easy bit; the tough bit is the arduous process of drafting and redrafting, which no one can help you with. The entries ring a bit hollow to me, therefore, and the occasional showing off makes me sigh. I'm sure the writers involved are generally aware of the pointlessness of the exercise, and one can't blame them for taking the cash (such as it is, not much I imagine) and the tiny breath of publicity that it will afford.

As a reader, though, I think they throw an interesting light on an author's work and what they value, and I always scan them for writers whose opinion I'm interested in to see what they have to say. One of my favourite writers is Will Self, and so I checked out his tips, reproduced below:

1 Don't look back until you've written an entire draft, just begin each day from the last sentence you wrote the preceeding day. This prevents those cringing feelings, and means that you have a substantial body of work before you get down to the real work which is all in . . .

2 The edit.

3 Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.

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).

5 You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.

6 Live life and write about life. Of the making of many books there is ­indeed no end, but there are more than enough books about books.

7 By the same token remember how much time people spend watching TV. If you're writing a novel with a contemporary setting there need to be long passages where nothing happens save for TV watching: "Later, George watched Grand Designs while eating HobNobs. Later still he watched the shopping channel for a while . . ."

8 The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement – if you can't deal with this you needn't apply.

9 Oh, and not forgetting the occasional beating administered by the sadistic guards of the imagination.

10 Regard yourself as a small corporation of one. Take yourself off on team-building exercises (long walks). Hold a Christmas party every year at which you stand in the corner of your writing room, shouting very loudly to yourself while drinking a bottle of white wine. Then masturbate under the desk. The following day you will feel a deep and cohering sense of embarrassment.

There's some of the usual advice here (and Will shows off a little) but I was struck by the commandment in point four to stop reading fiction. I smiled at the expression "it's all lies anyway," but it also appears to contradict the usual-advice staple "read a lot". He makes it clear, of course, that you must have already absorbed a great deal of fiction in the past, and so he doesn't abandon the idea entirely, but at the same time he seems to think it is something a writer should have done, rather than should be doing.

In the sixth comandment he develops the idea a little further, exhorting us to write about life, rather than "books about books" (which on the surface is an odd thing to hear from the author of The Book of Dave, but I don't think he's talking about books that are, literally, about books here, in fact that's just a kind of lame joke). Rather than drawing forever on their influences, or even on the easy prefabrications of genre, a writer should discover stories in the real world through experience (and, presumably, study through non-fiction).

In that sense it's pretty good advice for the mature writer, someone who's passed the early stages of imitation and stylistic experiment and has found their metiere, but it also tells us something about Self's own work. He has a keen analytical eye that probes and picks at the world, and he reports what he sees very clearly. All his books reflect his mellieu, even Great Apes, where everybody's turned into a chimp. That's what gives his work its grounding, no matter how outrageous the subject matter. It's based on observation and experience of people and the world around him transformed by his imagination into another form of truth.

I'm still going to read fiction, though, because I enjoy it so much. Why should I perform that kind of ascetic sacrifice for art? In the meantime, though, I think he's right that we should seek translate the real world into fiction, rather than dwell on what, in the end, amounts to a hobby only tangentally connected to the writer's mission.


  1. I think Will still reads fiction. I gathered from his "no fiction - it's all lies" comment that he was having a laugh at his own expense, or at least exagerating his message. A life spent reading fiction and not living would be a disaster, but the opposite extreme would be just as bad for a writer. I see Self gave a talk on Sebald recently, so he was reading fiction up until 2001, at least.

  2. Hi there mystery person!

    I agree it's unlikely that Will's stopped reading fiction. I think the larger point is make sure that (the general) you, as a writer, write about the world in your own voice and not just about other books in a voice you've borrowed from someone else. As a sci fi fan, I see a lot of books and stories that are kind of a reaction or development of some other book or story, which begets further reaction until one gets ... well, a genre ghetto. SF fans in general are rather blind to this phenomenon IME.

    Writers I've heard talk or read about have different ideas on this. Last night I was at a reading by Moya Pacey (a poet) and Amy Sackville (novellist). Moya said she can't be reading when she's writing at all, while Amy said she'd spend half an hour with something she loved every morning before writing.

    Find what works for you, is the boring answer, I guess.


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