Hilary Mantel’s Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

20 March 2013 — 9 Comments

Hilary MantelIn 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing, The Guardian asked some of the world’s most respected writers to share their best tips. Here’s how Hilary Mantel, the first British author to win the Man Booker Prize twice, responded to the task.

  1. Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.
  2. Read Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible. You will particularly hate the advice to write first thing in the morning, but if you can manage it, it might well be the best thing you ever do for yourself. This book is about becoming a writer from the inside out. Many later advice manuals derive from it. You don’t ­really need any others, though if you want to boost your confidence, “how to” books seldom do any harm. You can kick-start a whole book with some little writing exercise.
  3. Write a book you’d like to read. If you wouldn’t read it, why would anybody else? Don’t write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book’s ready.
  4. If you have a good story idea, don’t assume it must form a prose narrative. It may work better as a play, a screenplay or a poem. Be flexible.
  5. Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there.
  6. First paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?
  7. Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. This is especially important for historical fiction. When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that’s the point to step back and fill in the details of their world. People don’t notice their everyday surroundings and daily routine, so when writers describe them it can sound as if they’re trying too hard to instruct the reader.
  8. Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It ­usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.
  9. If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.
  10. Be ready for anything. Each new story has different demands and may throw up reasons to break these and all other rules. Except number one: you can’t give your soul to literature if you’re thinking about income tax.

About Hilary Mantel
Since winning her first Man Booker Prize in 2009 for Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel has become one of the UK’s best known authors. Her books include Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988); Fludd (1989) winner of the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize, the Cheltenham Prize and the Southern Arts Literature Prize; A Place of Greater Safety (1992), winner of the Sunday Express Book of the Year award; A Change of Climate (1994); An Experiment in Love (1995), winner of the 1996 Hawthornden Prize. Her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost (2003), was the MIND Book of the Year.

Beyond Black (2005), was shortlisted for a 2006 Commonwealth Writers Prize and for the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize; Wolf Hall(2009), was winner of the Man Booker Prize and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction; and Bring Up The Bodies (2012), her most recent novel, was winner of the Man Booker Prize, and Costa Book of the year 2012.


9 responses to Hilary Mantel’s Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

  1. Reblogged this on catmandue and commented:
    I really, really want to be a writer, so this post is very relevant to me.

  2. Love: “Open a gap for [your lost words], create a space. Be patient.” The writing equivalent of non-violence!

  3. Thanks for sharing the wisdom!

  4. Bought the book she recommended, in the Kindle e-book version for $2.88 US. I’m reading it write now (PUN!)

    Seriously though… I have, for about the past 15 years, had a burning desire to write a book. I have had 2 ideas, 1 really good, and 1 not really that good for a book. But they were both just outlines… no flesh to them.

    Blogging here is a *great* way to be a writer. If you’re any good at it, people soon start to notice you. Leaving comments like this also will get you noticed. They might not go to your blog, but at least they will know you can put three or four words together and form sentences. From there you go to paragraphs (short posts perhaps), pages (longer posts or actual blog pages), chapters (child pages), and before you know it (metaphorically speaking) you’ve got a blog filled with interesting posts: re-posts, original stuff and who knows what else.

    Having a blog here is a dream come true for people like me… aspiring writers all of us, to finally be able to write, edit, and show our work off to the rest of the digital world. It’s a GoodThing™!


  5. Loving the advice but, as a writer, I’d say getting an accountant might be a bit..well..previous. I have six published books and have yet to make sufficient money to trouble the taxman (and that’s INCLUDING my day job!). All the rest of the advice, spot on.

    • As a former income tax preparer and certified bookkeeper (there is only one other word in the English language that has 3 double letters in a row, did you know that?) I can attest to the fact that retaining the services of an accountant is probably premature.

      Until you receive *some* sort of income from actually having a book published all you really need to do is keep track of the income and expenses that are directly attributable to writing a book for for the sole purpose of deriving income.

      Your income tax preparer should (for an extra fee no doubt) be able to take your receipts and turn them into a spreadsheet from which the information needed for your income tax return can be derived from.

      I know this because this is the way my father (and I off and on) did it for over 25 years. We used the same method for farmers, who had many many different forms of expenses and often more than 1 or 2 place they received income from.

      And… you have to ask yourself; “If I can use a spreadsheet program, then why am I paying someone else to figure out my bottom line income and expenses for income tax purposes?”

      By doing it yourself, you save *real actual *money at the expense of a little of your time each month (or week or whatever). I’ts really not hard to do.

      In point of fact, if you have any questions about how to set up such a spreadsheet, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. I can give you a copy of a spreadsheet already set up to record your income and expenses. All you have to do is punch in the numbers from your receipts.

      Saving money and having an up to date spreadsheet? That’s a GoodThing™

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