In 2001 Elmore Leonard wrote a piece for The New York Times in which he laid out his famous ‘Ten Rules for Writing’ which include such dictates as ‘never open a book with the weather’ and ‘cross out the parts which readers tend to skip.’
These are rules, really, for editing. And they are, crucially, Leonard’s rules, not mine or yours.
On more than one occasion, I’ve met people who have said, “You must be so disciplined.’ This makes me laugh like a drain, because I am a person who is guided by my own desires. I run because I feel better after I run. I swim for the same reason. And I write because I love it.
But I am, I suspect, secretly quite a lazy person (don’t tell anyone). And so, I have rules. These are not editing rules – they’re not rules telling me how to write. I don’t care about those very much. My rules are rules to give me boundaries. To give me freedom.
I love rules. They really do give me freedom. Each day I don’t have to make a new set of decisions for every damn thing – because I have some rules. This is how I wrangle myself, how I get myself to my desk, how I stay there even when it feels a bit tedious. I check my rules. Mine are pretty simple and include things like:
– No internet before midday
– Write your words (on whatever project I’m working on) first thing *
– Move every day – run or swim or dance.
– Find some nature every day
– Sleep properly. Eat properly. Stop coffee at midday.
– Read daily.
* Usually I will have some specific daily writing goal – it might be a word count or a chapter or a scene. I’m not going to tell you the details because I don’t want you obsessing on getting the same number – I need to write ten thousand words a day because Kathryn does and that must be normal. (I don’t write ten thousand words a day. I think Anita Heiss does, though. That woman is a machine.)
So these are rules for writing which are really rules for living. Woody Guthrie wrote some ‘New Year’s Rulins’ in 1943 which are much more comprehensive than mine:
1.Work more and better
2. Work by a schedule
3. Wash teeth if any
5. Take bath
6. Eat good — fruit — vegetables — milk
7. Drink very scant if any
8. Write a song a day
9. Wear clean clothes — look good
10. Shine shoes
11. Change socks
12. Change bed cloths often
13. Read lots good books
14. Listen to radio a lot
15. Learn people better
16. Keep rancho clean
17. Dont get lonesome
18. Stay glad
19. Keep hoping machine running
20. Dream good
21. Bank all extra money
22. Save dough
23. Have company but dont waste time
24. Send Mary and kids money
25. Play and sing good
26. Dance better
27. Help win war — beat fascism
28. Love mama
29. Love papa
30. Love Pete
31. Love everybody
32. Make up your mind
33. Wake up and fight
The Guardian ran a series a few years back in which they asked writers to contribute their own rules, after Elmore Leonard. Some are facetious or self-serving. Others are more like Leonard’s preferences for a certain type of writing. My favourites are from Helen Dunmore and Anne Enright, rules which reflect a view of life and of self-management. All of Helen Dunmore’s are below, and a few from Anne Enright:
1. Finish the day’s writing when you still want to continue.
2. Listen to what you have written. A dud rhythm in a passage of dialogue may show that you don’t yet understand the characters well enough to write in their voices.
3. Read Keats’s letters.
4. Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.
5. Learn poems by heart.
6. Join professional organisations which advance the collective rights of authors.
7. A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.
8. If you fear that taking care of your children and household will damage your writing, think of JG Ballard.
9. Don’t worry about posterity – as Larkin (no sentimentalist) observed “What will survive of us is love”
1. The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page.
2. Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.
3. Have fun.
4. Remember, if you sit at your desk for 15 or 20 years, every day, not counting weekends, it changes you. It just does. It may not improve your temper, but it fixes something else. It makes you more free.
Take a moment today to harness your own rules. Don’t overload yourself. All you’re doing with your own ‘rulins’ is allowing a boundary in which to play. You’re removing the requirement to figure things out anew each day. Philip Pullman getting to his desk at 10am is a self-management rule, no less so than Roal Dahl writing before dawn.
Take fifteen minutes or so. Take a pen. Perhaps return to thinking about your perfect writing day. What do you need to do to make your perfect writing day a regular occurrence? What are your own rulins? Write them down. Stick them above your desk or in your diary. Stick to them and allow them to make you free.
Make up your mind
(after Woody Guthrie)