Writing tips

by Henry on February 25, 2010

The Guardian’s Ten Rules for Writing Fiction feature has gotten a lot of attention. Here are Tim Howard’s supplementary guidelines.

3. “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a meat lovers pizza in his hands.” (Chandler)

4. Never use a verb other than “ejaculated” to carry the dialogue, eg. “’I don’t really know what to say to you, Ivan Ivanych,’ Nastasya Petrovna ejaculated tearfully.” (Chekhov)

5. Use as many exclamation points as possible! No! Really! Do! ! !

Feel encouraged to suggest others in comments. Via MJH.

{ 31 comments }

1

Gareth Rees 02.25.10 at 3:12 pm

2

alex 02.25.10 at 3:29 pm

I think miaow! is the most appropriate response here. Possibly followed by, “Ooh, get her!”

3

JoB 02.25.10 at 3:53 pm

0. Don’t.

!

4

Katherine Farmar 02.25.10 at 3:58 pm

All of these sets of rules should come with a disclaimer: “Follow these rules if you want to write like me and the authors I admire.” Elmore Leonard’s rules are fine if you want to write like Hemingway, but what if I want to write like PG Wodehouse?

(Also: hasn’t Margaret Atwood heard of pencil sharpeners? I’m pretty sure airlines let you bring those onto planes.)

5

Maurice Meilleur 02.25.10 at 4:01 pm

If you run out of things for a character to do or say, have her light a cigarette. Smoking is always interesting. (Philip Morris)

6

ice9 02.25.10 at 4:09 pm

Only problem with those rules is that they’re too written, you know, composed, writerly, that sort of thing. They ooze with personality and irony. Can’t someone just tell me what to do? (my 11th grade comp students)

7

00001001 02.25.10 at 4:10 pm

Good writing causes you to shit, immediately. ( Aristotle)

8

kid bitzer 02.25.10 at 4:12 pm

if you want to write like p.g. wodehouse, follow gareth rees’ link above and make your similes very accurate. it’s an old b. wooster trope: ‘i’m as surprised as a surprised person who has been surprised!”

for a different writing challenge for the ct crew, consider the newly discovered letter in which descartes discusses his composition of the meditations:

http://chronicle.com/article/Key-Letter-by-Descartes-Lost/64369/

“…the letter shows how Descartes drastically changed the book’s outline, cutting out three parts entirely. Before the letter was written, Mr. Bos said, “Descartes had a very different idea about how this book should appear.””

challenge for ct commenters: what were the three parts that did not make the final cut? how was the book originally meant to appear?

(“well, i was going to have a chapter on weight-loss tips, then another on managing your money, and finally a section on how to avoid waxy build-up. i wanted it to come out a bit more like vogue or elle, but with a touch of ladies’ home journal.”)

9

Substance McGravitas 02.25.10 at 4:15 pm

what were the three parts that did not make the final cut?

Drunken farting excised.

10

Bill Gardner 02.25.10 at 4:17 pm

I enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s advice (quoting from memory) to get “a thesaurus, a grammar, and a grip on reality”, but I haven’t figured out how to follow it.

11

Phil 02.25.10 at 4:46 pm

it’s an old b. wooster trope: ‘i’m as surprised as a surprised person who has been surprised!”

Well, that‘s an old Ben Elton trope, which for several years sounded as witty as a very witty thing, but now sounds as tired as Mr Wornout Weary, all-time winner of the Fatigue Olympics and official government consultant on exhaustion and shagged-outness.

12

ajay 02.25.10 at 4:51 pm

if you want to write like p.g. wodehouse, follow gareth rees’ link above and make your similes very accurate. it’s an old b. wooster trope: ‘i’m as surprised as a surprised person who has been surprised!”

That is, in fact, an old Blackadder trope. A PG Wodehouse simile is a thing of beauty, but not literally accurate – “there was a crash like G.K. Chesterton falling onto a sheet of tin”, for example. Or think of the various descriptions of Honoria Glossop’s laugh: “like a troop of cavalry charging over a tin bridge”, “like waves breaking on a stern and rock-bound coast”, etc.

13

ajay 02.25.10 at 4:53 pm

Further to Phil, some Elton/Blackadder similes are still good : “I’m as happy as a Frenchman who’s just invented a pair of self-removing trousers/a man who thought the cat had done its business on his pudding, but then discovered that it was actually an extra-large blackberry”.

14

Steven 02.25.10 at 4:57 pm

1. Universirty rules permitting, have a pistol handy in case other writers try to shoot you at a workshop. It could save your life and the life of other writers.

2. When writing fiction, stay away from philosophers. Good fiction has never concerned itself with proof.

3. To add to Ford’s comment about never writing letters to the editor: Also, don’t blog. And don’t comment on blogs. (Nobody cares.)

You know you are a good writer, that you have arrived, when you don’t feel the slighest inclination or need to blog, or comment on blogs, or maintain a website about your writing. Strictly the province of the critics and the chattering class. Writing in these venues forms bad habits for the novelist. As a caveat, your publisher may maintain a website or blog for you, but apart from a small photo of you at the Maine seacoast with your dog, it must be clear that you have nothing to do with it, and will never contribute to its contents. There are maybe a dozen people presently writing in English who have arrived.

And a more general observation: Every humanities professor thinks meanly of himself for not having been a novelist, or to sea.

15

steven 02.25.10 at 5:42 pm

#13 — since you are commenting on a blog, you are not, by your own definition, a “good writer”. So how can you know how one knows when one is a good writer?

16

kid bitzer 02.25.10 at 5:47 pm

re 10, 11, 12
are my recollections of the novels so contaminated with memories of the tv show that I have attributed to wodehouse what was really an innovation of elton’s adaptation?

only too possible, tho a bit sad.

17

Steven 02.25.10 at 5:51 pm

#13 — since you are commenting on a blog, you are not, by your own definition, a “good writer”. So how can you know how one knows when one is a good writer?

In the same way that I know how one knows one is a good cyclocross racer.

18

ajay 02.25.10 at 5:51 pm

15: It’s worse. Elton didn’t even adapt PG Wodehouse. You’re confusing things said by Hugh Laurie as Wooster with things said by Hugh Laurie (and other characters) in the Elton-scripted Blackadder.

19

ajay 02.25.10 at 5:52 pm

13: I don’t think meanly of myself for never having been to sea. I think meanly of Steven for ever coming back ashore again, though.

20

Steven 02.25.10 at 5:53 pm

I think nicely of ajay for never having been a novelist.

21

Cryptic Ned 02.25.10 at 6:02 pm

The Jeeves and Wooster episodes set during the Wars of the Roses had the best quips.

22

J. Fisher 02.25.10 at 7:50 pm

It’s not really a tip, and it’s not my own, but it’s funny, and it speaks to this post. Click here.

This one’s pretty good as well.

23

JoB 02.25.10 at 8:32 pm

16- “In the same way that I know how one knows one is a good cyclocross racer.” And how do you know how one is a good cyclocross racer.

24

Edward 02.26.10 at 1:29 am

Always use a verb other than “gribulox” to convey dialogue.

25

skippy 02.26.10 at 2:22 am

all you need to know: how to write good by michael o’donohue.

i’d tell you more but suddenly i am run over by a truck.

26

ajay 02.26.10 at 11:46 am

20: touche. Though, for all you know, I’m Martin Amis.

27

Hogan 02.26.10 at 6:14 pm

#12: Not a simile, but: “the unmistakable sound of a butler falling off a bicycle.”

28

John Quiggin 02.28.10 at 7:21 am

Derived from the writing of Australia’s greatest contributor to contemporary literature (sorry, TW), Matthew Reilly:

Never try to convey emphasis with words. We have an italic font for that.

29

roac 03.01.10 at 9:39 pm

One of my pet snobberies is that I refuse to look at a thesaurus, on the grounds that if a word doesn’t occur to me spontaneously, I must not know what it means, and there are no such things as synonyms. But since respected professionals admit to using thesauri, apparently I am wrong.

(On the other hand, I would never write “thesauri” without verifying that it is the correct Latin plural.)

30

fourcultures 03.02.10 at 12:31 pm

Most of these tips say something like ‘writers are people who write’. That can’t be true can it?

31

Gargantua 03.03.10 at 2:12 pm

Honestly, do writers really need a whole lot of advice? Especially when the tips of one are not any better than the tips another.

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