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Russell Smith

Want to write that book? Read on Add to ...

So 2012 is the year you’re going to finally write that novel. Congratulations. To start you off on the right foot, I’ve compiled my top 10 rules for fiction. The latest vogue for setting out such guidelines was launched a year ago by The Guardian, which invited some best-selling writers to submit their tips and tricks. I have never been asked for mine as I am not famous enough. But I teach creative writing and I think I have learned, through editing and advising others, some principles that are actually broadly useful. So since my term has ended and my final marks submitted, I will use this end-of-year as an opportunity to impress my wisdom on all those interested in the secrets of the art.

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1) Don’t get distracted by “process.” It doesn't matter when you write, morning or evening. It doesn't matter if you have a regular schedule or write once a month. It doesn't matter if you use a pen or certain software. The only thing that matters is what comes out.

2) Don't think about selling your work until it is done. Don't think about market or about publishers' tastes. Don't think about how you are going to publicize it. Don't waste your time building a website or a blog or a social media campaign until you have work to publish. Making good paragraphs is absorbing enough.

3) Write an outline. And a title: Coming up with a title early on will help you to know what it's all about and where it's going. Do not, however, buy a guidebook or computer program with a ready-made “novel structure” for you to follow – you know the ones that make you draw diagrams and label your sub-plots with letters and decide who's the antagonist and what's the quest and where the “first act” ends. Those are for pulp. Novels don't have to have acts. Your job is simply to trust your own imagination and your intuition; you need no formula for this.

4) If you write a story based on something real that happened to you – as we all do – you must throw the real events out the window pretty much as soon as you get under way. You must make what happened to you into something significant for others. Real life, particularly when represented in the duration and sequence that it actually unfolds, does not make satisfying fiction. All the stuff that makes stories stories – structure, conclusion, epiphany – is artificial. This is liberating: It means you can abandon all the complicating and insignificant details of what really happened and focus on the interesting parts.

5) Be careful of victim protagonists. They are not just unsympathetic – worse, they are boring. Readers lose patience with heroes who do nothing but suffer persecution by obvious villains. Again, it doesn't matter if this is what really happened.

6) There has to be something funny somewhere, or at least fun. Relentless gloom kills even the most powerful stories.

7) “Don't explain your dialogue with dialogue verbs,” he warned. See how the verb warned is unnecessary? The dialogue itself is a warning; it needs no subtitle.

8) Eyes do not actually have emotions. I can't actually picture “laughing eyes” or “warm eyes” or “intelligent eyes.” I don't know what a gleam in the eye looks like unless it means that they are moist. A twinkle in the eye is equally baffling. But not nearly as vomitous as a mischievous twinkle in the eye. (I think psychologists say that emotion is most clearly expressed by the mouth, not the eyes.)

9) Don't be afraid of sex scenes. There is no reason to avoid them other than prudery. Sex is just as important to people's relationships as dinners are. You wouldn't skip the dinner scenes out of decorum, would you?

10) Spend much more time, in the upcoming very happy new year, writing stories than making lists like these.

 

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