Last year, The Guardian asked several writers for their personal lists of rules for writing. Franzen’s is full of wisdom. He says things like: “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction. [True!] Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting. You have to love before you can be relentless.”
Geoff Dyer says, hilariously, “Don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov.”
Margaret Atwood is supremely practical: “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. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.”
I don’t at all agree with Esther Freud’s advice to “cut out the metaphors and similes.” When done well, they breathe life into otherwise pedestrian prose (I’m looking at you, Jhumpa Lahiri).
Colm Tóibín gets very specific with some of his suggestions: “Work in the morning, a short break for lunch, work in the afternoon and then watch the six o’clock news and then go back to work until bed-time. Before bed, listen to Schubert, preferably some songs. If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane. On Saturdays, you can watch an old Bergman film, preferably Persona or Autumn Sonata. No going to London. No going anywhere else either.”
Al Kennedy’s is my favorite list so I’m reproducing it in its entirety:
1 Have humility. Older/more experienced/more convincing writers may offer rules and varieties of advice. Consider what they say. However, don’t automatically give them charge of your brain, or anything else – they might be bitter, twisted, burned-out, manipulative, or just not very like you.
2 Have more humility. Remember you don’t know the limits of your own abilities. Successful or not, if you keep pushing beyond yourself, you will enrich your own life – and maybe even please a few strangers.
3 Defend others. You can, of course, steal stories and attributes from family and friends, fill in filecards after lovemaking and so forth. It might be better to celebrate those you love – and love itself – by writing in such a way that everyone keeps their privacy and dignity intact.
4 Defend your work. Organisations, institutions and individuals will often think they know best about your work – especially if they are paying you. When you genuinely believe their decisions would damage your work – walk away. Run away. The money doesn’t matter that much.
5 Defend yourself. Find out what keeps you happy, motivated and creative.
6 Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.
7 Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them, so you won’t need to take notes.
8 Be without fear. This is impossible, but let the small fears drive your rewriting and set aside the large ones until they behave – then use them, maybe even write them. Too much fear and all you’ll get is silence.
9 Remember you love writing. It wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t. If the love fades, do what you need to and get it back.
10 Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.