Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Rules? Don't talk to me about rules!

Well it was bound to provoke, wasn't it? Last Saturday's Guardian newspaper printed Elmore Leonard's already well known 10 rules and asked many other writers to provide their own, here:

I've come across the Leonard rules before so don't understand how come they are just being released as a book here. And I can't honestly be bothered to find out why. I hate writing rules!

If they worked, then everyone who followed them would produce similarly successful books, wouldn't they?

Here are a few taken at random:

Margeret Atwood - take 2 pencils so you can write on a plane because "pens leak" - honestly, I ask you! Did she get to be the great writer she is by eschewing biros? I don't think so.

Roddy Doyle - do not search for the book you haven't written yet. Is the man mad?

Richard Ford - don't have children. Back to the old Enemies of Promise premise, I see. How many male writers look after their own children?

P. D. James Increase your word power. This from a woman who misuses "fortuitous" in almost every novel.

Dip in almost anywhere and you will find such dross - this really is just filling column inches.

Tips, I can take. I've written some myself on because so many teenage writers asked for them and it saves repeating myself (I think I have 10 rules for writing fantasy there but done tongue in cheek - do not let your plot hinge on a birthmark, for example)

Hints are good. I love hearing about the way writers work. I loved it when the Guardian ran those pictures and descriptions of writers' rooms.

Advice? Good when asked for and given by someone one respects.

But rules? Nah. Rules schmules.


Keren David said...

Hurray! Very reassuring - I'm sure that feature must have put off many would-be writers. Hints - yes please, rules - no thank you.

Stroppy Author said...

Oh, I *loved* the Writers' Rooms column. We shd do that here.... Maybe I'll do one as my next post. Or maybe we shd do a special feature for a month.

'Roddy Doyle - do not search for the book you haven't written yet. Is the man mad?'

Well, I thought that, but then I did search amazon for the book I haven't written yet. (It had never occurred to me to do it before I read that.) And there was the book, on Amazon, written by someone else. Big trauma. Panicked email to Nicolette J, co-conspirator on said book, sent off £8 to buy the book. All very dismal (it comes tomorrow - have to see what they did with it). So I won't do that again - I'll just write the book, like I usually do.

And so the moral of the story is - you're absolutely right (as always), and other people's rules are not worth the paper they are written on. Especially when the paper costs £1.80. Just as well we read it online ;-)

Mary Hoffman said...

Oh, so THAT was what that meant! Check it hasn't been written already. That might not be bad advice in the circumstances but hang on, he said don't do it! Am now confused. Hope your rival book is nothing like your planned one.

catdownunder said...

Rules? What rules? We cats do not abide by rules. We are our own beings thankyou very much!
PS Didn't anyone tell that poor human that pencil points break?

Kathryn Evans said...

Lol Mary you wicked thing , of course it was just filling column inches...I took a lot of it as tongue-in-cheek? And Stroppy, reading it online means you can't then use it to line the rabbit hutch. Or crow shed in your case ;O)

Kate Forsyth said...

I can remember being told that one should never have more than three POVs in a novel which I went home very panicky about as I had much more than that in the novel I was writing at the time. What should I do, what should I do??? I raved all night. And then I got up in the morning and said rules schmules and kept on writing & that was my first published novel. And one reviewer even said something along the lines of 'in Kate Forsyth's novel we get a strong idea of the impact of the grand sweep of history on the ordinary people, as the narrative moves from the mind of a common soldier to a pot-boy to a queen'. Or something like that. Anyway, since then I've always done exactly what I wanted, regardless of the "rules".

Anonymous said...

Ah, but you can sort out your pencil by taking a knife along to the plane and...

Or maybe not.

Though I successfully (and accidentally) carried a very sharp knife on several flights before discovering it when clearing out my bag one day. So much for those machines.

Lucy Coats said...

Rules schmules! Love that, and totally agree. Misquoting the Buddha (sorry): "There is no way to Writing...Writing is the way." Tips: now tips are fine--I'll agree about that one. Let's all share what works for us. But rigid rules? Nah! Can't be doing with them at all.

Lucy Coats (aka rulebreaker and rebel) @

Chris Priestley said...

But weren't most of these 'rules' actually tips? Or jokes? I'm not big on advice from wherever it comes. Most people have an agenda - me included. But I like hearing what writers have to say.

Tips are only useful in relation to how much you admire that particular person's work. There's no point in taking singing tips from Bob Dylan if you want to sound like Pavarotti.

But if you like the way Dylan sounds. . .

Linda Strachan said...

Right with you there, Mary. If it was just down to rules everyone would be writing a bestseller.

What other writers do is often fascinating mostly because there are no rules.

Nicola Morgan said...

Whether they were rules or tips, they were very silly / banale / tongue-in-cheek ones and not likely to help anyone at all. I think it's perfectly possible to make a very sensible set of rules - and then watch the best writers break them.

Joking apart, I think that writing, like many other things, needs rules (good ones) for starters, but then once you learn what they're for you can discover how most beautifully to break them.