Monica Ali

My top ten rules for writers by Monica Ali

1.

Don’t write what you know. This rule, I realize, is liable to cause confusion, consternation, even panic. Because we are always being told the opposite – to write what we know. It is the single most destructive piece of advice that is commonly bandied about. There’s a nervousness, which comes from having been told so frequently to write what we know, about trespassing into areas that are beyond our experience. Well, that’s the job. Do your research, and then trust in your powers of empathy and invention. Trust the example of authors you love to read. Flaubert – ‘Emma, c’est moi.’ Was he a woman? We need, as writers, to reserve the right to be engaged with any aspect of human experience, so we can and must go beyond gazing at our own navels.  

 

2.     

Write the book that you want to read. Ignore all trends and fads in publishing. By the time you’ve written your own version of the trend, it may well have vanished in any case, and the audience with it. Write the book that you want to read. If you enjoy historical romance and fantasy fiction, and wish someone had written a love story in which a time-travelling Henry VIII meets Queen Victoria, then write it yourself. If you follow this rule, any and all problems you may be having with that elusive technique, voice, will most likely vanish. By writing the book that you want to read you’ll settle naturally into the voice.

 

3.     

End each writing day at a point at which you are eager to find out what happens next. Self-explanatory, but it takes a bit of discipline to stop at that point. The temptation is to carry on until you’re all out of creative juice, and then the next morning when you pick up you find it’s an uphill battle to get started again. Try instead to leave the story at a point where you’re burning with ideas – and by leaving them overnight you’ll give those ideas time to mellow. Some will burn themselves out, and others will burn brighter and you’ll be able to kick start your day.

 

4.     

Immerse yourself in your protagonist. Of course you’re deeply involved in your writing! But what I’m recommending here is something akin to method acting. Immerse yourself especially deeply in your protagonist or your key characters. If you succeed in doing that, in beginning to see the world through their eyes then you will do yourself a massive favour because you will find that many other aspects of technique, miraculously sort themselves out. Point of view, plot, detail, style, dialogue, setting and so on. If you begin to filter them through character then they will start to take care of themselves. You know that this is the kind of detail this character would notice, this is what they would say, what they would do.

 

5.     

Plan your ending. You probably hate this one. Novelists almost always seem to claim that they make it up as they go along. Even when they’ve just sat on stage and explained in great depth all the research and planning that went into the book. No, I don’t understand how that adds up either. You’ve got your brilliant idea for the opening. How does it end? If you’re relying on the muse to get you there then you may be sorely disappointed. The muse is usually otherwise engaged. You can always change the end if you think of a better one later or if your characters lead you away from it. I have always been led away from the ending I first had in mind, and that is totally fine. But not having any ending in mind dramatically lowers your odds of finishing the book. Your choice.

 

6.     

Read. It never ceases to amaze me when people tell me, as they frequently do that they want to write but don’t really have time to read. It’s like an athlete turning up for a race and saying, ‘I didn’t have time to train. Or buy running shoes. I’m sure I’ll be fine.’ Reading, careful reading, is the best way to learn your craft. Make time for it if you’re serious about writing.

 

7.     

Be observant, and be curious. Writing is a solitary occupation but we also need to be in the world, or we won’t have anything worth writing about. That doesn’t mean sitting at home and endlessly Googling stuff. I promise you I don’t spend my entire week doing that. No novelist who’s worth reading ever sat at home simply entranced by her own words. They paid attention to the big things and to the small – the state of the economy, the refugee crisis, how people say one thing and mean another, how a baby startles itself awake, how the neighbours’ feud over a hedge has escalated to barely contained rage. Fiction isn’t about ‘expressing yourself’. So be observant, be curious.

 

8.     

Indulge in rituals, if you must. Light a candle, create an altar to your favourite author above your desk, only write in your favourite pyjamas, sacrifice your first-born son. Do whatever it is that enables you to settle into your work. Everyone always wants to know about writers’ routines and rituals, but what works for one writer probably won’t work for another. So create your own rituals, if it’s helpful. So do whatever ritual feels right for you. But in the end you just have to work. Don’t let the rituals, the lack of them or not getting exactly the right pencil or candle, become an excuse.

 

9.     

If you don’t have to write, then don’t. Dorothy Parker said that the act of greatest kindness you can do to an aspiring writer is to shoot them now while they’re still happy. Which isn’t terribly encouraging, but it might just have a grain of truth in it. Writing is hard. You’ll never be satisfied with what you do. So if you don’t have to, then do something else. If you do have to, then nothing will convince you to stop.

 

10. 

Get a dog. I don’t know how I managed to write anything before I got a dog. Get a dog that sits quietly at your feet, and gives you encouraging looks while you’re writing. Get a dog that tells you it’s time to take a break because you’re never going to solve the problem unless you get up and move, and go on a long walk. Get a dog that is happy to listen to you reading your early drafts out loud, so that you can pick up when the rhythms are wrong, the pacing is off, or the dialogue needs to be honed. Get that kind of dog.

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