Eight more rules for writing fiction

Yesterday Kim at Fast Approaching Middle Age posted a link to this article in The Guardian, “Ten rules for writing fiction.” It begins with Elmore Leonard’s ten rules (sample: “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language.”) and follows up with ten rules apiece from a number of other writers including Margaret Atwood. Some funny, some profound, all worth reading.

And worth adding to. True, I’ve never written a novel, but I’ve read a few, so I think that qualifies me to dictate how others should write them… right? Ok, here ya go:

1. Enough with the lengthy acknowledgements. Why do so many mediocre and first-time novelists out there feel compelled to thank everyone who had any contact with them whatsoever while they were writing their novel? If you did serious research during the course of your writing, and some scientist or archivist or whatever took a lot of time out of their busy day and did stuff for you which you could never have done on your own, okay, it is proper to thank them. But your writer’s group? Your book club? Your sister-in-law? Acknowledging them for their “guidance” or “support” or whatever smacks of false modesty.

2. If you need to provide a “Cast of Characters” or a “Glossary” there is something wrong with your writing. It should be obvious from the context, or the narrative voice, who is who. Dickens’ novels have casts of thousands and it’s no trouble at all to keep them straight. Don’t force me to keep flipping back and forth just so I know who’s talking.

3. Don’t begin the first sentence of the first chapter with “It was” unless you are writing A Tale of Two Cities.

4. Don’t try to create suspense by giving clues to the protagonist and withholding them from the reader. I’m thinking of Dan Brown here. If I recall correctly there was a scene in The Da Vinci Code where the main character gets a letter, opens it, reads it, obtains clues from it, and the content of the letter isn’t shared with the reader. That is the cheapest sort of manipulation. Very uncool. If you’re going to write a mystery at least make it potentially solveable by the reader.

5. Please leave spoilers off the cover. Surely this needs no explanation.

6. Avoid large blocks of italics. I think I’ve already made my feelings on that topic clear. In fact, unless you are Ray Bradbury, try not to use italics at all. (I wish I was better at following that rule myself.)

7. If a novel is based on true events let us know up front. I agree with Elmore Leonard on the subject of prologues (“Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.”) However, knowing that a story is based on historical events can put a whole different spin on the book and I always feel very frustrated and annoyed if I don’t find out it was “true” until the end. This applies to movies also.

8. Publishers, please give credit to the book designer and include a Note on the Type. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just pick up any book published by Alfred A. Knopf. You’ll find the Note on the Type either by itself on the very last page or under the copyright info along with the designer’s name. Dear old Alfred A. Knopf!

Man, this post was fun to write! What rules would you add?

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  1. Ray Bradbury can do no wrong. Dandelion Wine was the first really great novel that I read as a child.

  2. TOTALLY agree! He is one of the great under-appreciated writers of our time. A true prose poet.


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