Puget Sound English Department

March 17, 2010

Advice from the Experts

The Guardian recently offered up lists of “ten rules for writing fiction” from a dazzling constellation of contemporary authors, including but not limited to Hillary Mantel, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, P.D. James, and Zadie Smith. You can find the full list at The Guardian’s site. (I was drawn in immediately by two of Elmore Leonard’s nuggets of wisdom, particularly since they address my pet peeves: “Using adverbs is a mortal sin” and “Keep your exclamation points under control”). Many of these bits of advice have already made the rounds, and will likely be familiar to many of you writers, but there’s perhaps something to be gained in the aggregate. There’s also a certain amount of repetition, and some tricky paradoxes: “If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane,” suggests Colm Tóibin; while Roddy Doyle cautions, “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.” Read widely, most of these writers assert, but Geoff Dyer urges you not to “be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov.” And P.D. James reminds us that “Bad writing is contagious.” When all else fails, take hope from Anne Enright: “The first 12 years are the worst.” Or from Margaret Atwood: “Prayer might work.”

And as Jonathan Franzen warns, no matter what the circumstance, “Never use the word ‘then’ as a ­conjunction – we have ‘and’ for this purpose. Substituting ‘then’ is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many “ands” on the page.”