A few years ago, the Guardian celebrated Elmore Leonard’s famous rules for writing fiction by soliciting further rules by other well-knowns – people like Athill, Enright, Ford, Gaiman, Kennedy, on and on. From time to time my author, L, will lead a writing workshop, and often she’ll pack along a printout of the many rules that appeared at the Guardian site. They make for light relief or discussion starters when she wants a change of pace. Or when she wants a laugh. The advice from Margaret Atwood, for instance, is funny as well as wise.
From now on, L will also pack along the link to Lynn Coady’s 10 rules for writing fiction. Coady’s version is a great send-up of such lists. It’s hilarious. Then again, it’s more than a send-up. For instance, here’s her final tip: Remember: Writing is freedom.
But like so many things to do with writing, I wonder, does anyone ever ask the characters if they have their own rules for writers? I mean, for us the stakes are pretty high. And so, grounded in my own experience as a character being written, I offer the following:
1. Jeez, remember whose story you’re working on. Yesterday I had to bring it to the attention of my author that I was beginning to act more like Sylvie than like myself. Sylvie’s another one of L’s creations, and she lives in an entirely different novel-in-progress. We do not share the same tastes in music, art, food, men, anything. I don’t sound like her at all, though I admit we both have moments when we sound a little like L. Or we sound like what goes on in L’s mind when she has the sort of thought her upbringing prevents her from saying out loud. So, writers, go ahead and work on multiple projects, but remember who you’re dealing with.
2. Don’t put stuff from your own life in your novel. Both L and I have worked in libraries, and in an early draft she made me stagger through the discovery of what she called ‘found poetry’ buried in the pages of the Dewey Decimal Classification Manual. The ‘found poem’ dealt with how a conscientious librarian might classify books to do with Penology and various related subjects, for example, Forms of punishment, early, which included Boiling in oil, etc. and Pressing to death. The heading Minor punishments included subheadings for Ducking stool and Scold’s bridle and … but enough of that. Need I say this passage was heavy with metaphor? L was just tickled with it, while I would sooner, I don’t know, watch Honey Booboo than read something like that. Fortunately, L realized you might feel the same way, and she excised the whole bit. I’m now 500 words less weighty.
3. Be sure to put stuff from your own life in your novel. L admits she has occasionally felt a longing for a father she hardly knew. That longing found its way into my own story, and I’m happy it did. L hasn’t laced her own story through mine to any great extent, but those photographs my dad left behind – and my quest to take my own shots in all those same places – L did the same thing with photographs her own dad left behind.
4. Contradiction: Embrace it. It will sink a novel; it will save a novel.
5. Regarding sex: Let your characters have some. Arousal, at the very least. We deserve it, and we so appreciate it. You needn’t go into a whole lot of detail if you’d rather not. Trust your readers: Once you get them started, they’ll know what to do. As will your characters. Trust me.
I’ll leave you with only those five for now, because it’s my experience that novelists need time to absorb, process, integrate. At any rate, my novelist does.
Always Under Revision is a series of posts in the voice of Kate Mueller, the protagonist of a novel-in-progress by Leona Theis. Kate is also narrator of the first and last stories in one of Leona’s earlier books, Sightlines.