Sarah Waters’ Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

Sarah Waters' Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

1. Read like mad. But try to do it analytically – which can be hard, because the better and more compelling a novel is, the less conscious you will be of its devices. It’s worth trying to figure those devices out, however: they might come in useful in your own work. I find watching films also instructive. Nearly every modern Hollywood blockbuster is hopelessly long and baggy. Trying to visualise the much better films they would have been with a few radical cuts is a great exercise in the art of story-telling. Which leads me on to . . .

2. Cut like crazy. Less is more. I’ve ­often read manuscripts – including my own – where I’ve got to the beginning of, say, chapter two and have thought: “This is where the novel should actually start.” A huge amount of information about character and backstory can be conveyed through small detail. The emotional attachment you feel to a scene or a chapter will fade as you move on to other stories. Be business-like about it. In fact . . .

3. Treat writing as a job. Be disciplined. Lots of writers get a bit OCD-ish about this. Graham Greene famously wrote 500 words a day. Jean Plaidy managed 5,000 before lunch, then spent the afternoon answering fan mail. My minimum is 1,000 words a day – which is sometimes easy to achieve, and is sometimes, frankly, like shitting a brick, but I will make myself stay at my desk until I’ve got there, because I know that by doing that I am inching the book forward. Those 1,000 words might well be rubbish – they often are. But then, it is always easier to return to rubbish words at a later date and make them better.

4. Writing fiction is not “self-­expression” or “therapy”. Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects. I think of my novels as being something like fairground rides: my job is to strap the reader into their car at the start of chapter one, then trundle and whizz them through scenes and surprises, on a carefully planned route, and at a finely engineered pace.

5. Respect your characters, even the ­minor ones. In art, as in life, everyone is the hero of their own particular story; it is worth thinking about what your minor characters’ stories are, even though they may intersect only slightly with your protagonist’s. At the same time . . .

6. Don’t overcrowd the narrative. Characters should be individualised, but functional – like figures in a painting. Think of Hieronymus Bosch’s Christ Mocked, in which a patiently suffering Jesus is closely surrounded by four threatening men. Each of the characters is unique, and yet each represents a type; and collectively they form a narrative that is all the more powerful for being so tightly and so economically constructed. On a similar theme . . .

7. Don’t overwrite. Avoid the redundant phrases, the distracting adjectives, the unnecessary adverbs. Beginners, especially, seem to think that writing fiction needs a special kind of flowery prose, completely unlike any sort of language one might encounter in day-to-day life. This is a misapprehension about how the effects of fiction are produced, and can be dispelled by obeying Rule 1. To read some of the work of Colm Tóibín or Cormac McCarthy, for example, is to discover how a deliberately limited vocabulary can produce an astonishing emotional punch.

8. Pace is crucial. Fine writing isn’t enough. Writing students can be great at producing a single page of well-crafted prose; what they sometimes lack is the ability to take the reader on a journey, with all the changes of terrain, speed and mood that a long journey involves. Again, I find that looking at films can help. Most novels will want to move close, linger, move back, move on, in pretty cinematic ways.

9. Don’t panic. Midway through writing a novel, I have regularly experienced moments of bowel-curdling terror, as I contemplate the drivel on the screen before me and see beyond it, in quick succession, the derisive reviews, the friends’ embarrassment, the failing career, the dwindling income, the repossessed house, the divorce . . . Working doggedly on through crises like these, however, has always got me there in the end. Leaving the desk for a while can help. Talking the problem through can help me recall what I was trying to achieve before I got stuck. Going for a long walk almost always gets me thinking about my manuscript in a slightly new way. And if all else fails, there’s prayer. St Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers, has often helped me out in a crisis. If you want to spread your net more widely, you could try appealing to Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, too.

10. Talent trumps all. If you’re a ­really great writer, none of these rules need apply. If James Baldwin had felt the need to whip up the pace a bit, he could never have achieved the extended lyrical intensity of Giovanni’s Room. Without “overwritten” prose, we would have none of the linguistic exuberance of a Dickens or an Angela Carter. If everyone was economical with their characters, there would be no Wolf Hall . . . For the rest of us, however, rules remain important. And, ­crucially, only by understanding what they’re for and how they work can you begin to experiment with breaking them.

 

Sarah Waters’ Ten Rules for Writing Fiction were first published by The Guardian in 2010 in a series inspired by Elmore Leonard’s legendary Ten Rules of Writing. For more writing advice, check out these tips from Zadie Smith, Jonathan FranzenHilary Mantel and Margaret Atwood.

Sarah Waters' FingersmithAbout Sarah Waters
Sarah Waters was born in Wales in 1966. She has written five novels: Tipping the Velvet (1998), which won the Betty Trask Award; Affinity (1999), which won the Somerset Maugham Award, the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Mail on Sunday / John Llewellyn Rhys Prize; Fingersmith (2002), which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize, and won the South Bank Show Award for Literature and the CWA Historical Dagger; The Night Watch (2006), which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the Man Booker Prize; and The Little Stranger (2009), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the South Bank Show Literature Award.

She was included in Granta’s prestigious list of ‘Best of Young British Novelists 2003’, and in the same year was voted Author of the Year by both publishers and booksellers at the British Book Awards and the BA Conference, and won the Waterstone’s Author of the Year Award. Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith have both been adapted for BBC television.

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7 Comments

  1. 14 July 2013 / 10:28 pm

    Sarah,
    Thank you!! Lovely advice, and written with your ten rules in mind. I am struggling right now with which chapter should be the first one. Maybe I need to finish the book and then look…who knows? Maybe I’ll begin with the final chapter.

  2. F. Armstrong Green
    15 July 2013 / 1:59 am

    Great list.
    Here’s some of my inviolable rules, if anyone is interested:
    1.There are no rules. (This has to be the first rule. See number ten above.) Of course, this presupposes that one has studied the conventions and knows when to break one and how to do it as seemlessly as possible.
    2.Thou shalt not bore the reader. One of the things art proposes to do is entertain. This doesn’t mean that every sentence has to be thrilling, though some sentences may be so well written that a large part of the thrill comes from the writing itself. Neither does the action proper need to be packed with action per se. Art exists also to instruct (not didactically) and to elevate the soul.
    3.Thou shalt not confuse the reader. This doesn’t mean that the writer cannot challenge the reader, but obviously if the writer does things that don’t make sense the reader will throw the book down.
    4. Thou shalt not disappoint the reader. Every word, sentence, paragraph makes a promise to deliver. The reader expects by the end of the book for the promises to be fulfilled in some way. As the French might put it, the knot must be untangled to the reader’s satisfaction.
    5.Thou shalt not stumble the reader. Don’t trip the reader with anything from matters of usage and style to unjustified actions proper.

    • 16 July 2013 / 10:23 am

      I really needed to read something like this today.. Just getting started and scared to death. New chapter of my life, at mid-life. KIds grown and gone, husband of 27 years to tired to engage. We will see what if desire and passion is enough. May have a bit of talent, maybe just wishful thinking. I will strap myself to a chair, and see what I can do.

      • 22 July 2013 / 7:36 am

        Perfect time to start writing! Learn, learn, learn then write, write, write!

  3. 20 December 2013 / 3:12 pm

    I love the “don’t panic.” I hit a wall around 20k words, then panic around half, force the third quarter and breeze through the last parts. After writing five novels, I don’t panic as much, though. 🙂

  4. Jill Pirdas
    3 October 2016 / 10:37 pm

    Thanks Sarah,

    Great advice and highly entertaining. I put my book for children into a drawer for a year and now I’m having fun reading it with new eyes.

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