30 January 2013

Herley's golden rule for writers

I am a sucker for those interviews featuring writers who lay down the law about their craft. To be asked one’s opinions on such things is flattering, and writers above all love a bit of flattery, especially if it is disguised in this way

Alas, some writers seem to have such an inflated view of their own significance that their advice transcends the helpful (e.g. “work at it every day”) and enters the realm of the patronizing or the downright surreal. Here, Margaret Atwood tells us: “Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.”

I sincerely hope she was being ironic, but the rest of her pearls of wisdom suggest otherwise.

The one to blame for this recent plethora of advice may be Elmore Leonard, who has issued his Ten Rules for Writers.

Now I greatly admire Mr Leonard’s spare and very funny prose, and if Leonardesque prose is what you want to write you would do well to heed his advice. But not all of us do, and not all of us want to read that to the exclusion of other sorts of literature.

As you can see, I have been giving this matter deep thought, and have condensed his Ten, and all the others’, Rules into a single maxim, which I urge all writers to inscribe in copperplate (cursive, not uncial) script, using only black ink and on yellow paper, size exactly 200 x 100 mm. The motto must be pinned (not glued) to the wall above their desk no more than 500 mm above its surface, and ideally on an exact level with their line of sight while working. It reads thus:

There are no rules. 

If you follow anyone’s ideas but your own, you are not speaking with an authentic voice. You are cramping yourself, condemning yourself to be an also-ran. What works for you and your readers will evolve only with time and faithful adherence to your craft. Everything else is bollocks, and it is a measure of writers’ lack of self-knowledge that they suppose their conscious mind capable of understanding what the hell is happening when they commit their words to paper or screen.

On second thoughts, scrap the bit about the copperplate motto. That’s bollocks too. Obviously.

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