Rules of Writing — explored or ignored?

We’re always looking for an edge in life, that little competitive advantage that helps us perform better. High achieving sportsmen will often go to apparently ridiculous lengths. US Open tennis champion Novak Djokovic, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and the world’s best footballer Cristiano Ronaldo all use a hyperbaric chamber to pump 100% oxygen into their bodies to speed up their recovery from their exertions. 

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This article originally appeared in the Booksaremycwtches blog

Authors are no exception, although their methods are a lot more mundane than spending an hour or more lying in a highly pressurised tank breathing in pure O2.

For many writers, one trick is to look at critically acclaimed, best-selling authors they admire and replicate what they do as writers and people — although that strategy has obvious drawbacks. 

Screenwriting lecturer Robert McKee once told me that if he wanted to learn to play golf, he’d find a golf coach with the exact same build, height and weight and ask him to teach him to copy his swing.  Great advice — until you decide you want to be the next James Ellroy. The self-confessed demon dog of American crime fiction and author of the brilliant American Tabloid, bragged about how, as a young man, he broke into the houses of girls he admired so he could sniff their knickers. Great for generating column inches but a conversation killer when you’re introduced to the in-laws.

The reality is there are no rules for good writing except those you already follow because of the way you work and live your life. 

Rules are very personal and idiosyncratic. What applies to one writer won’t necessarily apply to another. Chances are you’re pretty set in your ways so adopting new behaviours, styles and attitudes will be a distraction. If you like writing late at night, chances are you won’t want to change to writing first thing as advised by Hilary Mantel, quoting Dorothea Brande. If you like to constantly edit as you write (like I do), Will Self’s recommendation not to look back until you’ve written the whole first draft is going to fall on deaf ears. And if you’ve always written on a keyboard you won’t necessarily want to swap to writing long hand using pen and paper as suggested by Annie Proulx (I do both).  

The rules of other writers are interesting only because you like their work and their public personas —  just like it is fun to speculate who is the best heavyweight boxer without ever being able to draw a definitive conclusion. Fave authors of mine —  including Elmore Leonard, Kurt Vonnegut and Roddy Doyle — published their own rules, alongside many others, in the Guardian part one, part two).  

The rules that resonate receive a knowing nod of approval — the ones that don’t are dispensed to the trash bin.  

Here are six of my favourites with my comments added after the author brackets. 

  1. 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 (Roddy Doyle) … See James Ellroy, knicker-sniffing, conversation stoppers at parties etc etc … Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Hunter S Thompson and Yukio Mishima spring to mind as well.
  2. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” (Elmore Leonard) … I have studiously avoided the word ‘suddenly’ ever since this rule first leapt out at me … it stands out like a sore thumb when I see others liberally sprinkle it about.
  3. In the planning stage of a book, don’t plan the ending (Rose Tremain) … one of the reasons why so many endings in books and films are disappointing … evolution is organic …
  4. Don’t try to anticipate an “ideal reader” — except for yourself perhaps, sometime in the future (Joyce Carol Oates) … who do I write for? Myself, if I don’t like it, how can I expect anyone else to invest their time and money …
  5. Never take advice from anyone with no investment in the outcome (David Hare). … if you reacted to every bad review, you’d never go near a keyboard or a pen …. however, if it is valid think about it … I wrote Wicked Games (what became the first third of Without Rules) without speech marks … The chap with wrote No Country for Old Man did the same but he was Cormac McCarthy and I wasn’t …
  6. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter. (Neil Gaiman) … assurance and confidence comes with writing lots and honing your craft and skills. For Novak, Cristiano and Michael, the hyperbaric chamber is the icing on the cake. They would never have become brilliant at what they do without the relentless effort, practice and commitment to their sport! Which is probably the only other rule that matters — a bloody good work ethic.