The Mantra of Writing Fiction


On the occasion of Elmore Leonard‘s new book, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, The Guardian has commissioned the sage advice of other career fiction authors, with entertaining results. Some get specific, like panning the online timesuck (sorry!) — Zadie Smith’s suggestion to “work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet” is echoed by Jonathan Franzen’s sentiment that “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” Others spout general maxims, such as David Hare’s “No one has ever achieved consistency as a screenwriter.”

Click through for some of our favorites, and see if you can spot the parallels (and contradictions) to the writers’ own work.

Jonathan Franzen — 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.

Excerpt from The Discomfort Zone (2006): “Our friend Kirby, it turned out, had charmed the owner of the Florida house, and the beer keg was fully operational, and so our last week of living like rich people unfolded amicably. I spent morbid, delicious amounts of time by myself, driven by the sort of hormonal instinct that I imagine leads cats to eat grass.”

Colm Tóibín

Annie Proulx — Proceed slowly and take care. To ensure that you proceed slowly, write by hand. Write slowly and by hand only about subjects that interest you. Rewrite and edit until you achieve the most felicitous phrase/sentence/paragraph/page/story/chapter.

Excerpt from That Old Ace in the Hole (2002): “It was a roaring spring morning with green in the sky, the air spiced with sand sagebrush and aromatic sumac. NPR faded from the radio in a string of announcements of corporate supporters, replaced by a Christian station that alternated pabulum preaching and punchy music. He switched to shit-kicker airwaves and listened to songs about staying home, going home, being home and the errors of leaving home.”

Margaret Atwood

Geoff Dyer — Don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov.

Excerpt from But Beautiful (1991): “Everything had to form right angles and sharp edges. The sheets of his bed were folded hard as the metal angles of his locker. They shaved your head like a carpenter planing a block of wood, trying to make it absolutely square. Even the uniforms were designed to remould the body, to make square people. Nothing curved or soft, no colors, no silence. It seemed almost unbelievable that in the space of a fortnight the same person could suddenly find himself in so totally different a world.”

Richard Ford

Roddy Doyle — Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg “horse”, “ran”, “said”.

Excerpt from Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993): “Kevin was waiting. He’d told some other fella’s. They were waiting I didn’t care. I wasn’t scared. He’d beaten me every other time. They were different; I hadn’t wanted to win. Now I didn’t care. He hurt me I’d hurt him. It didn’t matter who won.”

Zadie Smith

Esther Freud — Cut out the metaphors and similes. In my first book I promised myself I wouldn’t use any and I slipped up ­during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it.

Excerpt from Love Falls (2007): “They smiled at each other — a seal on their pact, and then spirals of alarm, of dread, of delirious excitement shot through her body with such force that her appetite disappeared and finishing her breakfast seemed suddenly as arduous a task as being asked to plough a field.”

Joyce Carol Oates — Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”

Excerpt from A Fair Maiden (2010): “And that striking white hair, soft-floating white, lifting in two wings from his high forehead. His skin was creased like a glove lightly crushed in the hand and was slightly recessed beneath the eyes, yet no more, Katya thought, than her own bruised-looking eyes when she had to push herself out of bed at an early hour after an insomniac night.”

Phillip Pullman