On Thursday, I listed Jane Kenyon's instructions to herself for writing (via a quote from Dani Shapiro) -- which reminded me of an article in The Guardian a few years back in which contemporary authors were asked to list ten "dos and don'ts" for writing fiction (inspired by Elmore Leonard's "Ten Rules for Writing," originally published in The New York Times in 2001).
The writers polled included Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel, Zadie Smith, Andrew Motion, Michael Moorcock, and Philip Pullman...an interestingly wide-ranging list. The variety and contradictory nature of their "rules" makes it clear how individual such things are...and yet the lists make for fascinasting reading, and contain a few gems of advice.
My own personal favorite is Neil Gaiman's list, which is limited to eight:
2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
3. Finish what you're writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you've never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
5. Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
6. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
7. Laugh at your own jokes.
8. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it's definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I'm not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
Helen Simpson is more succinct:
"The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying "Faire et se taire" (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as 'Shut up and get on with it.' "
If you were asked to list your own ten "dos and don'ts" for writing or other creative work, what would they be?
Or, if you're a rebellious soul put off by the notion of "rules" altogether, then what are some pieces of advice you wish someone had given to you when you were younger...things you've gleaned over the years of working in the arts and/or living a creative life?