Beyond Elmore Leonard: 10 rules for writing

The Guardian asked a cluster of well-known authors for their tricks of the trade. Some of their answers may surprise you.

Jayson Wold/HarperCollins
Neil Gaiman is very concise: "Find the right word, put it down."

Take a long walk. Don't be intimidated by Nabokov. Have fun. Don't have children. Prayer might work.

These are among the trenchant bits of advice collected when The Guardian surveyed more than 20 noted writers (including Margaret Atwood, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Neil Gaiman, Joyce Carol Oates, Ian Rankin, and P.D. James) and asked them for their personal rules of writing.

The project was inspired by Elmore Leonard and his 2008 book "10 Rules of Writing" (which a Monitor reviewer summed up as, "Leave out adverbs, skip description, and keep the writer out of sight.")

Some of the advice offered in the Guardian is strictly practical. Margaret Atwood recommends taking two pencils on an airplane (pens leak and one pencil might break). Geoff Dyer advises against writing in public places – even Parisian cafes. P.D. James – who recently devoted a whole book, "Talking About Detective Fiction," to an analysis of her craft – counsels increasing one's vocabulary. ("We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world," she declares. "Respect it.")

Other tips are more philosophical in nature. "You have to love before you can be relentless" (Jonathan Franzen). "Write only when you have something to say" (David Hare). "Live life and write about life" (Will Self).

And much of what is suggested makes good advice for the rest of life as well. (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. That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it's definitely true for writing.")

And then of course there's Philip Pullman, who seems to be of one mind with Helen Simpson. Simpson's only rule comes from Flaubert: "Faire et se taire" – which she translates as "Shut up and get on with it."

Pullman appears to take that pretty seriously. When asked by The Guardian for his rules, he responded: "My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work."

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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