Claire King


15 rules for writing novels.

Posted on: February 23rd, 2011 by Claire - 66 Comments

no-no-noAll the other writing blogs have lists of mistakes you should avoid making when writing. So here is mine.

1. Never write using a first person point of view

2. Never write in present tense

3. Don’t tell. Show (see illustration).

4. Don’t write dialogue in dialect.

5. Clichés are old hat.

6. You never write in second person POV. Dear God, I mean, not ever.

7. Don’t use adverbs. Or, if you must, use them sparingly. But never use ‘suddenly’ no matter what.

8. Don’t use prologues.

9. Never use a word other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. Even ‘says’. If you find you have used ‘says’ as a dialogue tag then you are writing in present tense. See (2).

10. Don’t write what you know. No do. No don’t. Um. It depends what you know really.

11. Using the passive voice is not recommended.

12. If using the third person POV, which obviously one is, avoid use of the omniscient narrator.

13. Make sure you read widely. Also, focus on reading books similar to your own.

14. Network like crazy and build your platform.

15. Don’t procrastinate. Shut up and write.

Once you have rewritten your manuscript according to the above rules it will be ready to blend in with others on the slushpile. Next week we shall discuss how you can make your work stand out by use of the query letter in ‘100 things not to do when querying literary agents’.

66 Responses

  1. Ange Barton says:

    Very helpful Claire. I think I ticked most of them! I especially need to pay more attention to number 15!!

  2. IanB says:

    Great. I’ve broken almost all of those!

  3. Ha! Speaking as the author of a novel written in present tense, and in future and in conditional, and also in simple past – I am delighted I chose close third/ omniscient for some sections, and first person for others, just to ring the changes.

    No second person, although I use that for a lot of short fiction…

    Interesting list. Just goeth to show how we all differ. Thank ‘eavens!

  4. Love this, Claire! ‘Network like crazy… Shut up and write.’ Stand up, sit down.

  5. Ha! Fun read. If someone tried to comply with every writing rule out there, they’d get themselves in an awful mess, so how about #16. Be aware of the rules but don’t be afraid to break them.

  6. Martha says:

    And don’t write about yourself because you’re boring.
    😉 (Seriously, I’m hoping you remember where this “advice” came from, otherwise I’m going to look damn rude! Tell me you do…)

    Also… no writing about dogs and do not use the word ‘atop’. No flashbacks. Don’t start a story with a character waking up, and don’t make the story a dream. No animal POV, and everyone writes about a bereaved spouse who killed their hub/wife, it’s NOT a surprise ending. Don’t start with dialogue, it’s amateurish. And don’t write ‘The End’ at the end. Still with me? No, don’t blame you. I’ll shut up and go and write my new story (The End by Yrs Truly, reckon? ‘Cos then THE END would appear at THE TOP! Sorry, I’ll slap my own forehead). It’s written in the 4th person (where the narrator talks to herself).

    So am I right in thinking you’ll ignore the rules and do as you want? Please say yes. I got into a snit about the advice avalanche recently and sub’d a story in 2nd person – it was commended but I haven’t shared it as I want to re-sub & publish. If it works, I’ll brandish it. If it doesn’t, I’ll be chomping on humble pie.
    I don’t mind. I like pie.

  7. Have joined in on the blog. I love this.

  8. Pete says:

    No writing about child wizards nor miserable teenage girls who fall in love with vampires – it just won’t sell.

  9. I must not write in first person.
    I must not write in first person.
    I must not write in first person.
    I must not write… oh damn.

  10. Marcus Speh says:

    makes me want to break all 15 rules (the list that is)…as i frequently do. but it also motivates me to make my own list. as if there were rules…i’d already started a post “the online writer’s manifest” and now i shall have to refer to your post. i suppose if you accept rules depends on what type of literature you want to write and who your ideal reader is.

  11. Hahahahahaha! Oh this is so familiar. Well, I can’t wait to read your debut novel written in the first person (shock, horror). Off to polish my too short/long/funny/boring/clever/stupid debut novel. Which is written in third. Oh no, that’s another rule broken, isn’t it?

  12. Eeleen Lee says:

    Would agree to disagree about never writing a novel in first person, and I’ve published short stories in second person…it really depends on what works best for the story.

    But this is a great list!

  13. claire says:

    In just four hours, this has become one of my most popular blog posts ever. Did everyone come here seeking rules, or ready to argue about having rules, or…?

    • Marcus Speh says:

      people are probably thirsty for rules because there are no obvious rules, really, enforced by nobody. perhaps a prompt to start a “how to” writing blog. or just get on with your own work, of course… 😉

  14. William Topek says:

    Oh, I enjoyed this. How to Suck Every Bit of Life and Soul out of Your Writing in 15 Easy Steps!

    For those interested, I recently wrote a guest blog article regarding my own approach:

  15. Debi says:

    Talk about timely. I’ve also published a recent post on this subject in advance of leading a workshop at York on Breaking the Rules. I’ll have to name check both you and Vanessa.

    • claire says:

      Hi Debi,
      Thanks for coming by. I just read your blog post, so pleased to see how you’re approaching the subject. I feel much more comfortable with someone saying ‘These are some of the things writers do that can sabotage their manuscript…and here’s why, and what to do about it.’ Than someone saying ‘first time novelists should stick to a 3rd person POV’
      Have a great time at York!

  16. Rebecca Emin says:

    Well that will teach me to read your blog before my first coffee has been absorbed. Points 1 and 2 combined sent me off in a head spin… and then five minutes later I read the rest. Great post. Just, not before you’re properly awake!!

  17. Sheila says:

    Guilty x 15 and then some! Great post, Claire x

  18. AJ says:

    In the words of the late, great Private Frazer….We’re doomed!!

  19. Marcus Speh says:

    i don’t think anybody has yet posted my own favorite “rules” by the late kurt vonnegut: – now, these i’ve always found incredibly useful.

    1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

    2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

    3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

    4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

    5. Start as close to the end as possible.

    6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

    7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

    8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

    — Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999), 9-10.

  20. claire says:

    Ah yes, Marcus, thanks for posting these – Kurt Vonnegut’s advice still so relevant. 3 & 4 my absolute favourites.

  21. AJ says:

    The Guardian ran a 3 page feature on ‘rules for writers’ last year.

    Colm Toibin’s were:
    1. Finish everything you start.
    2. Get on with it.
    3. Stay in your mental pyjamas all day.
    4. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.

    I like these apart from no. 3 which worries me as my pyjamas are from Marks and Spencer and not even vaguely peculiar, let alone mental.

    As I say…doomed.

  22. after grappling with “suddenly” and “said” a few years back, the light bulb turned on, blinding me, and I am now a huge proponent of those two rules. Great list. Thanks!

  23. D.J.Kirkby says:

    Number 12 and 15 made me laugh!

  24. Don’t write dialogue in dialect.

    I love this one. I can’t stand reading someone’s version of a written foreign accent either.

  25. Marcus Speh says:

    believe it or not, i found another set of rules that i hadn’t heard before – by jonathan franzen (in the guardian) – odd mixture between description and prescription…i concur with a number of these though, especially 7,10, while 8 gives me personal pain…

    1. The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.

    2. Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.

    3. Never use the word “then” as a ­conjunction – we have “and” for this purpose. Substituting “then” is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many “ands” on the page.

    4. Write in the third person unless a ­really distinctive first-person voice ­offers itself irresistibly.

    5. When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.

    6. The most purely autobiographical ­fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more auto­biographical story than “The Metamorphosis”.

    7. You see more sitting still than chasing after.

    8. It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction (the TIME magazine cover story detailed how Franzen physically disables the Net portal on his writing laptop).

    9. Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.

    10. You have to love before you can be relentless.

    • claire says:

      Hmmm, still not keen…but number 1 is interesting because we (Vonnegut excepted) often forget about the reader! Margaret Atwood said something interesting last night – that a book doesn’t exist until it is paired with the reader’s imagination. I do love that concept and of course it’s the big differentiator of written fiction from television and film. (I know that’s a generalisation…)

  26. kiril says:

    beigbeder, houellebecq, orhan pamuk. they ar all writing in I’s.

    the list is absolutely ridiculous. present it to a writer and he will smile at y. who ever does not.. if you write document fiction you will for sure not write in present, take Yourcenar.

    of course show, that should not be said, i mean.. i have to ask: is imagination listed somewhere, like the lists umberto eko was talking about?, is there a formula for the attention/libido?, the psychic mind and the black subconsciousness that drive us?, or take for example: “body without organs”. or, procrastinate around interpersonal neurobiology.

    lists are imaginative non-sens.
    i must be out of my mind.
    take care..

  27. […] However, I was most intrigued by the fifteen rules of writing that featured in another post: […]

  28. Christopher says:

    I love the contrast between Marcus’s list (I think Vonnegut makes some valid points), and I love your sarcasm with your list, Claire.

    I usually experiment with POV early on in longer stories to make sure I’m seeing the story from a place that pleases me. Sometimes it’s first, sometimes third, and once even the nasty, evil omniscient narrator. I once wrote an entire novel in the second person but then trashed the idea in the end. It was too cutesy.

    The only rule I’d take quite seriously is “never use the word suddenly”. I’d also add “immediately” in action scenes. These polysyllabic words actually slow the action down when the reader should be speeding up.

  29. […] Not everyone is a fan of present tense writing in fiction. Indeed, many might feel that it’s like reading screen directions in a movie script. Renowned critics of the present tense will tell you that it narrows the range of expressiveness, whilst other writers outright forbid you to use present tense. […]

  30. […] Not everyone is a fan of present tense writing in fiction. Indeed, many might feel that it’s like reading screen directions in a movie script. Renowned critics of the present tense will tell you that it narrows the range of expressiveness, whilst other writers outright forbid you to use present tense. […]

  31. Lynda Nash says:

    Here are a few more:

    1. never write in third person, present tense because that does sound like screen directions – not so much when you have a strong first person narrator.

    2. Never start a sentence with an ‘ing’ (really NEVER unless your character is a superhero contortionist).

    3. ‘As’ is a little flea that should be sprayed with Inorex. As is just as bad as ‘ing.

    4.Unless you are Stephen King watch out for disembodied body parts – eyes that roam around a room and feet that pad along corridors.

    Rules rule!

  32. D.J. Kirkby says:

    Number 10 and 15 made me laugh. I am now off to remove the word ‘suddenly’ from my text.

  33. Catdownunder says:

    Oh miaou – and then a nice publisher actually suggested I might rewrite something in the first person…
    Hmmm…rule 16 never follow other people’s rules? But they are good to read and consider if they apply to my (not so) neatly arranged cat hairs!

    • claire says:

      I see you can read between the lines! I prefer to write in first person. I’m trying to write this one in third person and every few pages I lapse, and have to go back any tidy up after myself.

  34. Cariad Martin says:

    I pretty much agree with all of them apart from the first. I write in first person 99% of the time. They taught me to do that on my degree in CW because it’s more contemporary & in fashion in lit fiction (so they said).

    • claire says:

      It’s really interesting that you were taught to write in First Person. I had so much advice to rewrite my novel in third person. It would never have worked. In the end it’s all so subjective that it really is up to the writer to learn the basics and then break ‘the rules’ as they see fit. I’m not really a ‘No, No, No!’ person. I say try it, and see what you think.

  35. kate says:

    There’s only one rule: Don’t Be Boring

  36. Bakslashjack says:

    What you are saying is, ONLY write in 3rd person past tense.
    Very narrow in my opinion. Charles Dickens wouldn’t have ever done such a stupid thing as to write in 1st person or god forbid present tense. No wait he did. So did Suzanne Collins, Margaret Mitchell and Ernest Hemingway. Stephen King, Chuck Palahniuk, etcetera, etcetera.
    Your rule #10 just made me laugh.
    10. Don’t write what you know. No do. No don’t. Um. It depends what you know really.
    Parable: “I want to write something on writing, but don’t know what to write. Um, don’t write about science fiction, but wait, Stranger in a strange land was really good, so was H.G. Wells The time machine. Uhh, so I guess only write science fiction if its going to become an instant classic.” LOL.

    Here is a list of rules to writing no one can hold a candle to.
    1. Write.
    That’s it.

    • claire says:

      Hi, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment. Your reaction is a nice summary of the annoyance I felt at all the ‘writing rules’ I read, which provoked me to write this tongue in cheek piece in the first place. 😉

  37. gill edwards says:

    Brilliant Claire and a Happy April Fools Day to you too. I love rule 10 best. Umming and Aaghing is my forte.
    Gill xx

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