The Writer’s Rules

For many years, I have collected the thoughts and observations of writers about the process and the profession of writing. The authors can be dead or alive, famous or obscure, literary titans or contemporary crowd-pleasers. If they have something interesting, funny or perceptive to say about the strange business of creating in words, then I have added it to my collection of rules for writers.

The result has been that I now have a mighty archive of writerly tips and opinions. Some are wise, others eccentric; all, I think, are thought-provoking in their own way. Whether the topic is research or ideas, inspiration or the best time of day to write, there is rarely a consensus.  These are writers, after all.

When I started using Twitter, I took to tweeting a couple of the shorter rules on most days under the hashtag#writersrules. Readers, authors and would-be authors seem to have liked the rules I have posted, sometimes responding with those of their own. I waited confidently for an overture from a publisher with an eye for a reference book that would be read in creative writing classes across the land, The Writer’s Rules: 1000 Quotations to Help You Write Your Masterpiece.

I’m still waiting.

So here is an alternative approach. Visitors to this website will be able to compile their own book of rules. Once a week, I shall choose a topic to do with writing and list my favourite nine quotes from the great, the good and the popular. The tenth will be yours – you are cordially invited to add your words of advice in the comment section to be included in the archive.

 

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 #1. STARTING

 

1. GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ

‘One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on first paragraph and once I get it, the rest comes out very easily. In the first paragraph you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone.’  

2. MURIEL SPARK

‘ I think everything through  before I write and then I strike rather like a cat. I wait at the mousehole and then I pounce.’                                                           

3. CHARLES DICKENS

‘Unless I were to shut myself up obstinately and sullenly in my room for a great many days without a word, I don’t think I should ever make a beginning.’  

4. JENNY DISKI

‘The books start out with the ideas. The novel comes afterwards… It’s always a bit of nuisance when I have to move people around and make them do things.’

5. ALAN GARNER

‘I have to start not thinking. It’s hard… The nearest I can describe it is to say it’s like a self-induced light hypnosis. It leaves me stricken. When I’m working, I just go into my study and I sit and I wait without thought. I stare into my fire…I can’t think my work. I have to feel it, hear it, find it. I keep my appointment every day and wait. I wait for the word, the hard-edged word.’  

6. JACK KEROUAC 

‘The first thought is the best thought.’  

7. GRAHAM SWIFT

‘I certainly don’t start with an idea  –  people talk about having an idea for a novel, but I think that’s just a convenient phrase. What I think I start with is some odd and incidental-sounding fragment which  –  I can’t explain this at all – just resonates in some way.’  

8. PG WODEHOUSE

‘A good novel ought to have a theme, so I start by trying to think of one. Failing this, I dig up a scene  –  any scene, so long as it seems to have possibilities.’                                                           

9. VIRGINIA WOOLF

‘I believe that the main thing in beginning a novel is to feel, not that you can write it, but that it exists on the far side of a gulf, which words can’t cross… A novel… to be good should seem before one writes it, something unwriteable; only visible.’  

10.

 

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#2: INSPIRATION

 

1. JACK LONDON

‘You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.’

 

2. MARTIN AMIS

‘I’ve learnt not to force inspiration when it’s not coming… I walk away and read something else. This allows the subconscious to catch up. When I return to my desk, the problem tends to be fixed. Writing is more physical than people think.’

 

3. ANNE TYLER

‘It doesn’t take very long for most writers to realise that if you wait until the day you are inspired and feel like writing you’ll never do it at all.’

 

4. DON DELILLO

‘We stand around, look out of the window, walk down the hall, came back to the page, and, in those intervals, something subterranean is forming, a literal dream that comes out of daydreaming. It’s too deep to be attributed to clear sources.’

 

5. EDNA O’BRIEN

‘I have to read something beforehand. Very often it is a poem, or it can be a scene from Shakespeare that is absolutely dynamic and contagious in that it gives one a longing to write something that isn’t totally a dud.’

 

6. NEIL GAIMAN

‘Tell your story. Don’t try to tell the stories that other people can tell… Start telling the stories that only you can tell. There will be better writers than you… but you are the only you.’

 

7. V.S. PRITCHETT

‘Discipline yourself to the habit of writing. Write every day. Keep office hours. Inspiration comes from the grindstone, not from heaven.’

 

8. A.L. KENNEDY

‘I have a personal rule that I don’t argue with dreams … If you’re working all the time with that stuff and it comes and pokes you in the eye, you don’t ignore it because it might get offended.’

 

9. PHILIP LARKIN

‘I’ve always thought that expression was easy, but “inspiration” hard, but really they’re just the same.’

 

10.

 

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#3: MARRIAGE

1. PHILIP LARKIN

‘I seem entirely lacking in that desire to impose oneself that is such a feature of masculine behaviour: by marriage, by “sexual intercourse”. Bothering people. Inflicting oneself on people. I’m devoid of all that, & it leaves a sort of central motiveless vacuum.’

 2. WENDY COPE

‘The reason why modern poetry is difficult is so the poet’s wife can’t understand it.’

 3. GK CHESTERTON

‘I have a wife, a piece of string, a pencil and a knife; what more can a man want on a honeymoon?’

4. JANE SMILEY

‘Even if my marriage is falling apart and my children are unhappy and my spouse is unhappy, there is still a part of me that says, “God! This is fascinating!”’

5. PATRICK WHITE

‘I believe that all those painters and writers who leave their wives have an idea at the back of their minds that their painting or writing will be the better for it, whereas they only go from bad to worse.’

 6. BERYL BAINBRIDGE

 ‘Marriage is very difficult if you’re a woman and a writer. No wonder Virginia Woolf committed suicide.’   

                                           

7. A.S.BYATT

‘I think of writing simply in terms of pleasure. It’s the most important thing in my life, making things. Much as I love my husband and my children, I love them because I am the person who makes these things.’

8. GEORGE STEINER

‘The thinker inhabits fictions of purity, of reasoned propositions as sharp as white light. Marriage is about roughage, bills, garbage disposal, and noise. There is something vulgar, almost absurd, in the notion of a Mrs Plato or a Mme. Descartes, or of Wittgenstein on a honeymoon.’

9. RUSSELL HOBAN

‘Without knowing it I wanted to get into adult fiction, to use all of myself and my experience. Only after my wife and I separated did I feel free.’

10. 

 

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#4: RESEARCH

 

1. W SOMERSET MAUGHAM

‘I forget who it was who said that every author should keep a notebook, but should take care never to refer to it… The danger of using notes is that you find yourself inclined to rely on them, and so lose the even and natural flow of your writing.’

  

2. IRIS MURDOCH

‘ I would abominate the idea of putting real people into a novel, not only because I think it’s morally questionable, but also because I think it would be terribly dull. ‘

 

3. ANDREW O’HAGAN

‘You’ve got to know how to recognise the kind of material that releases your imagination.’

 

4. GRAHAM GREENE

‘Interesting experiences, fascinating people you meet in extraordinary places  –  of course that’s all very enjoyable, but they don’t make one a better writer and they don’t always make for good books. Failure and boredom, the feeling of loneliness, of being flat and empty, have more influence on a novelist.’

                                                 

5. MARTIN AMIS

‘Tom Wolfe said that the novelist should get out there and be more like a journalist. That is should be 90 per cent research, 10 per cent inspiration. I think it should be roughly the other way round… I think you don’t want to know too much about what’s going on out there.’

 

6.  GUSTAVE FLAUBERT

‘It is perhaps a perverse taste, but I like prostitution  –  and for its own sake quite apart from what lies underneath… Prostitution is a meeting-point of so many elements  –  lechery, frustration, negation of human relationship, physical frenzy, the clink of gold  –  that a glance into its depths makes one giddy and teaches one all manner of things. It fills you with such sadness! And makes you dream so of love!’

  

7. LOUIS DE BERNIERES

‘Whatever research I do will give me better ideas than anything I could make up on my own.’

 

8. V.S. NAIPAUL

‘Twenty-five years ago, when I was working on In a Free State, I was determined to simplify the African landscapes I was using, and just choose a few elements, and stress them repeatedly at different stages, to give the reader the illusion of knowledge. The reader creates his own landscapes anyway. So I thought I would give him something very formal to work with.’

 

9. E.L.DOCTOROW

‘Anything that you want to use too quickly is suspect. You need time.’

 

10.

 

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#5: BLOCK

‘There is nothing more painful for a writer than an inability to work.’

 

2. TONI MORRISON

If you’re blocked, you probably ought to be.’

 

3. JOSEPH CONRAD

‘I sit down religiously every morning. I sit down for eight hours every day  –  and the sitting down is all. In the course of that working day of eight hours I write three sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair… it takes all my resolution and power of self-control to refrain from butting my head against the wall. I want to howl and foam at the mouth but I daren’t do it for fear of waking the baby and alarming my wife.’

 

4. ALAN BENNETT

‘I find it harder and harder to write but then I always have found it hard to write. I never really believe in writer’s block; all writing is writer’s block.’

 

5. SIMON GRAY

‘Writer’s block is an obscenity invented by 20th century for writers who want an excuse for not working. Accountants don’t get accountancy block. And you never hear of window-cleaner block. Nineteenth century writers like Dickens or Trollope never got it. Writing’s a job like any other. You’re good at it or you’re not.’

 

6. KINGSLEY AMIS

‘The best treatment for writer’s jitters is the one mentioned by Graham Greene, seeing to it that you stopped the previous session in the middle of a chapter or scene or paragraph and so are today merely going on with something, not starting afresh.’ 

 

7. E.M. FORSTER

‘I think that I’ve stopped creating rather than become uncreative… I have never felt I’m used up. It’s rather that the scraps of imagination and observation in me won’t coalesce as they used to.’

 

8. PHILIP LARKIN

‘Empty-page staring again tonight. It’s maddening. I suppose people who don’t write (like the Connollies) imagine anything that can be thought can be expressed. Well, I don’t know. I can’t do it. It’s this sort of thing that makes me belittle the whole business: what’s the good of a “talent” if you can’t do it when you want to?’

 

9. NOEL COWARD

‘I’m bored by writers who can only write when it’s raining.’

 

10.

(Your own contribution, block permitting)

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#6: CONFIDENCE

1. ELIZABETH SMART

‘Writers have to construct an importance, a sacred vocation, not to feel fiddling….  If you feel foolish doing it, think of those who have done it and earned your everlasting gratitude.’

 

2. JONATHAN FRANZEN

‘However sick with foreboding you feel inside, it’s best to radiate confidence and to hope that it’s infectious.’

 

3. ANTHONY TROLLOPE

‘As for conceit, what man will do any good who is not conceited? Nobody holds a good opinion of a man who has a low opinion of himself.’

 

4. 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).’

 

5. ALICE MUNRO

‘When I was younger… there was a very good chance I wouldn’t write anything – I was just too frightened.’

 

6. MARTIN AMIS

‘All any writer has is a share of the truth  –  even Tolstoy. But to be any good you have to think you’re the best of your generation…. Without that ridiculous competitive pride I don’t think you’ve got a chance, really.’

 

7. TIM BOWLER

 Self-doubt definitely has virtues. It makes me fight for my story. So, welcome, friend, stay as long as you want. You make me stronger.’

             

8. NORMAN MAILER

‘I never sit down to begin a book without thinking I’ve lost it, it’s not there any more. And then the feeling comes back.’

 

9. CAITLIN MORAN

‘Fake it ’til you make it.’

 

10.