On February 20th, the UK’s Guardian ran the results of a survey of famous authors, requesting their tips for aspiring writers.
The article was inspired by Elmore Leonard’s how-to book for writers, 10 Rules of Writing, which is about to come out in paper in the UK from Weidenfeld & Nicolson. (It doesn’t seem to be available in the US except as a grandly overpriced $50 hardcover or Kindle ebook.)
But the Guardian article is free and has some wonderful advice from an assortment of contemporary literary heavyweights from Joyce Carol Oates to Neil Gaiman.
Some suggestions were common to most of the lists: edit to the bone, always read your stuff aloud, and don’t write for markets.
I was interested to note that most of them also agree with the agents I quoted last month in advising against prologues.
Here’s Elmore Leonard on the subject:
“Avoid prologues: they can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want."
And Hilary Mantel:
“Be aware that anything that appears before "Chapter One" may be skipped. Don't put your vital clue there.”
Here are ten of my favorite tips from the survey:
1) Roddy Doyle
“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.”
2) Richard Ford
“Think of others' good luck as encouragement to yourself.”
3) Anne Enright
“Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.”
4) Jonathan Franzen
“Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.”
5) Esther Freud
“Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained.”
6) Neil Gaiman
“The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like”.
7) Michael Morpurgo
“It is the gestation time which counts…By the time I sit down and face the blank page I am raring to go. I tell it as if I'm talking to my best friend or one of my grandchildren.”
8) P. D. James
“Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.”
9) Joyce Carol Oates
“Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: "A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."”
10) David Hare
“Write only when you have something to say.”
But in closing, it’s good to keep in mind Al Kennedy’s tip on taking advice from other authors: Don’t “give older/more experienced/more convincing writers…charge of your brain, or anything else – they might be bitter, twisted, burned-out, manipulative, or just not very like you.”
And this from Margaret Atwood: “Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine.”