Hilary Mantel’s Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

In 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.

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