There has been a thing going round the blogs, networks and creative writing fora recently about ‘Thou shalt not’ rules for writers. Here’s my contribution. It’s just how I see it, and I’m sure there’s loads of good stuff I’ve left out.
Do not go on forever.
It took me a while to learn how to kill my darlings. When I finally learned (from a drink with a very good, published novelist whose casual advice is worth four years at UEA) my writing moved on, palpably. You must be economical, and unafraid of deleting treasured sentences, characters or concepts. You need to get to the stage of E I Lonoff, happy to spend the afternoon reworking the same para fifty times. If in doubt about a word or line, cut.
Don’t be half-arsed (1)
Don’t pass off good or reasonable or mediocre writing as your best writing. If there’s a sentence in your story that you have doubts about – chances are it needs working on. Go back to it. Walk around all day thinking about it. Rewrite. Leave it for three months and rewrite again. Faulkner told readers of the Paris Review that: ‘Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.’ If it still doesn’t feel right – again, cut it out.
Don’t be half-arsed (2)
You need to be writing for at least two hours a day, six days a week. It’s essential for flow. You’re thinking: ‘But I have a job, I get tired on weekday evenings.’ Tough. Get some coffee on, get at your computer, get iTunes on and stay there for two hours. People worry that all this writing time may overshadow other, more important areas of their life. They are right to worry. Be prepared to wake up in the middle of the night with a perfect line or edit that just can’t wait until morning. And no one’s putting a gun to your head. No spare time? If you want to write, you’ll find time.
Don’t talk (1)…
It still astonishes me after all these years how many aspiring writers you meet who do not read fiction because they are afraid that exposure to different styles will corrupt their unique individual voice. In fact the opposite is true. Influence and eclectism will deepen and personalise your own writing. Read anything. Read everything. You’re not the Tower of Babel. We become people through other people and we become writers through other writers.
Don’t talk (2)
Read more than you write and try to go out a lot, too. Try to meet as many different people as possible and let them do all the talking. People are natural storytellers, everyone’s got a story to tell and there is more joy and tragedy (and elegy and complication) to the dullest suburban real-life mediocrity than to the majority of fictional characters. You don’t have to travel the world. You can just find a town or city and walk around it and keep your eyes open and know it. There’s more material out there than there can ever be inside your head.
Of course you should submit and network and get it out there. But, as Red says, ‘do it objectively, because there is nothing worse than a mediocre writer blowing their own trumpet.’ In particular, don’t set up a Facebook or Twitter profile called ‘[Your Name] Writer’ or ‘[Your Name] Author’. It always reminds me of Rincewind writing ‘Wizzard’ on his hat.
Be careful of who you submit to and, if someone asks you for money, turn right around. Remember Yog’s Law: money flows towards the writer. There are a lot of clever people out there who want to make money out of writers. The slack-jawed futurism and revolutionary rhetoric of unpublished literary circles make it easy for the twentieth-century vanity publisher to make a old-fashioned killing. The charge may be called administration levy or marketing contribution or specialist promotional package fee – whatever name it goes by, it’s not worth paying. There are good people out there who will help you watch out for the scammers.
And, for Christ’s sake, don’t self publish. If you have talent someone else will publish your work. Which brings us to the final point…
Don’t call it ‘work’
I have never understood anyone who has told me that writing is a curse or a chore. Writing is not torturous or laborious. Writing is fun. Writing is good times. It’s exhausting, sure – but in the good honest glow of football or sex. It is a physical buzz. For me the afterglow of two hours’ good writing is like a mild shot of ecstasy or cocaine. You may be afraid at first. You may fear that everything you write will be terrible. Maybe it will, at first. But go on and exercise that muscle and you will produce good stuff. Because that is how it works.
You may have demons. So what. So it goes. You have the opportunity to tell stories, create new realities and explore other worlds. This is an amazing thing. The imagination is a mortal miracle.
The enigmatic classical tutor of The Secret History erupts in incredulous passion when one of his students describes their seminars as ‘work’.
‘Work?… Do you really think that what we do is work?’
‘What else should I call it?’
‘I should call it the most glorious kind of play.’