The Guardian’s round-up of authors’ rules for writing fiction has been making the rounds for a couple weeks now. If you haven’t checked it out yet, it’s well worth it. Contributors include Geoff Dyer, Margaret Atwood, Sarah Waters, Neil Gaiman among others.
Zadie Smith shares ten rules too but leaves out a piece of advice I’ve seen her mention before and found useful. It’s from a 2008 talk on novel-writing she gave at Columbia, later published in The Believer:
My writing desk is covered in open novels. I read lines to swim in a certain sensibility, to strike a particular note, to encourage rigor when I’m too sentimental, to bring verbal ease when I’m syntactically uptight. I think of reading like a balanced diet; if my sentences are too baggy, too baroque, I cut back on fatty Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka, as roughage. If I’m disappearing up my own aesthete’s arse, I stop worrying so much about what Nabokov would say and pick up Dostoyevsky, the patron saint of substance over style, a reminder to us all that good writing is more than elegant sentences.
I’ve started using this open-books-on-the-desk method too. Partly as inspiration and encouragement when I’m dragging, but also as a practical aid; a way to remind myself about the basics of construction and how writers accomplish simple things like getting a character to walk across a room (“he walked across the room”) or go outside (“she went outside”), which it’s easy to over-think (“he lumbered across the oak-floored palladium” “she hastened down the hallway, through the doorway, and out to the great outdoors”).
This reminds me of a time we were reading Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge in a writing class. There was a place in the book where the narrative skipped forward a year or so. O’Connell handled the jump this way: “Time passed.” No “the leaves fell, snow came and melted, and spring tripped in like a million ballerinas in a million long pink tutus.” Just “Time passed.” It blew our minds. That’s the sort of help the open books can offer. When I’ve gotten myself in a snarl it’s good to peek in one and be reminded that it can be that easy. Time passed. He walked across the room. She went outside. Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.