The work of the writer is to write. The work of the writer has not necessarily been—until recently– to blog, tweet, post, or travel about the world promoting the work of the writer (though even Dickens went on author tours–and I seem to be posting at this very second). We live in a culture driven by celebrity and personality. But why is it that we write? When I ask this question of writers I respect, the answers vary, but many reduce to something like this: we write because we can’t not write. We are driven by mysterious forces.
It is, of course, wonderful to meet readers. Glorious, rewarding, and fun. When I was younger and first met the creators of the books I loved, I was too shy to open my mouth. Later, I stood in corners trying to get up the nerve to tell someone how much I loved a book of hers.I felt I had to do it—I owed it to the book. Now, on the occasion when a child or adult has approached me for a similar reason, I can’t actually believe it. Who, me? My book? Really? So let me impart this wisdom: no writer gets tired of hearing that her book has been loved.
Nevertheless, the work of the writer is to write. I have never met or emailed or talked to the vast majority of my favorite writers. To begin with, lots of them are dead, which is a problem. Yet I continue to seek out their books. What I really want as a reader are superb books, and those don’t get written when writers are doing other things.
Which brings me in a roundabout way to today’s topic: rules for writers. There are none for how to write a great book. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to check off ingredients one by one and bake at 350 until done? Lots of great writers have taken a stab at creating rules. For your general enjoyment, I’ve gathered a few from here and there that I found appealing. I’m including links to keep this post at a manageable size. At the end, I’ve added the one rule that I know has the greatest potential for actually working—for me, anyway.
First are ten rules from Michael Morpurgo, who writes for children (most of the list-makers don’t) and was the Children’s Laureate of Great Britain:
Next: ten rules from Elmore Leonard, which got wide attention. They are quite specific.
Ten from Zadie Smith:
Six from George Orwell (which are part of a longer essay well worth reading: http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit )
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Six from John Steinbeck:
And, while we might not look to Henry Miller for advice on writing books for children, he has his own helpful commandments:
1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
2. Start no more new books.[… add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’]
3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
5. When you can’t create you can work.
6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.
And my own? I am slightly famous among a very small group of people (can I qualify this any more?) for this statement, originally applied to playing music. “The less you play, the less you play; the more you play, the more you play.” So for writing: do the work. The more you write, the more you write, and vice versa. Whatever it takes to get you to sit down in front of that blank screen or page, that’s what you need to do.
Back to work.