Writing fiction: 40 rules, okay

  1. Before you put finger to keyboard, ask yourself this question: who’s the reader? Is it you? Is it someone you love? Or are you writing for a demographic? Write a character biography of your imagined reader.

  2. A generous writer mixes narrative modes, uses gold coins and cliffhangers, and asks key questions to keep their readers engaged. But nothing hooks ‘em like characters they care about and a jolly good story.

  3. Make lexical music (euphony) with a neologistic, lush vocabulary. Use assonance, consonance (including alliteration), rhyme, and onomatopoeia in the broadest sense: a word’s connotation is often shaped by whether a word sounds e.g. sonorous, alveolar, fricative, nasal, or chiming. But recall the Pope quote: ‘the sound must seem an echo of the sense.’

  4. Use phrases and clauses of all kinds to give your prose rhythm: noun phrases, verbal phrases (gerund, infinitive, and participle), prepositional phrases, appositive phrases, and absolute phrases; along with independent and subordinate clauses as you see fit. But avoid dangling participles.

  5. Together with phrases and clauses, the way the sentence lengths vary in a paragraph or passage helps define a text’s rhythm, pace and drama.

  6. The rhythm di DUM di DUM di DUM di DUM di DUM runs through the English language like GBS scarpering from a bardolator.

  7. Repetition can provide rhythm or a counterpoint to lexical richness. But if it’s there by habit or mistake, it likely shouldn’t be.

  8. A parallelism is a rhetorical device. Lyrical prose never tried to persuade anyone of anything.

  9. Writers need grammar. And then they don’t. The human mind creates the dynamism of language, not the words. Language belongs to people, not the lexifuzz. Innovate inside and outside the rules. Y’dig?

  10. Connotation, imagery, metaphor, and symbolism transform words into visions. But figurative language has to be done well or not at all.

  11. Too many subjects and the verb won’t know who’s doing.

  12. The subject and verb in a sentence must be in agreement. And to agree, they generally need to be in shouting distance of each other.

  13. If linking verbs (especially ‘to be’) pepper your prose, or quotidian verb forms like has, does, goes, gets and puts, you’re probably writing in a rush! Then again, if you nudge your reader ever closer to the edge of her seat with a hyperbole of dynamic verbs, she’ll end up on the floor, laughing. Match and mix your verbs to the music you’re making.

  14. When choosing a verb, avoid clichés and clumsy phrasal constructions. What’s the point of being in error? Just err, sir! Instead of being productive, why not produce it? Are you sure you want to seem? No! Do I appear doubtful? I doubt it! Does he exhibit a tendency to write limply, or just tend to? Do we implement, utilize, or use? If a writer can’t find the right verb, should he clumsily verbize the nearest noun?

  15. Always use the active voice unless the passive one is what you need.

  16. A verb used imaginatively is as magical as any metaphor. A good verb cleanses the windows of perception; bad ones smudge the glass. And the absence of one makes you sound like Donald Trump. Fact!

  17. If your characters repeatedly ‘gasp’ and ‘grate’ and ‘exclaim’, they’re probably taking steroids. Let them say their piece rather than bray.

  18. Phrasal verbs soothe but never use two words if one works better.

  19. A sharp verb stood next to a dressy adverb looks gauche; a photogenic noun doesn’t need an adjective drawn over it, like a moustache on the Mona Lisa. Make your adverbs and adjectives powerful not purple.

  20. Be playful when choosing nouns. Let them render an image precisely, evoke pertinent feelings and sensations, and be apt to their context. They may tell readers exactly where they are. They can also carry big ideas.

  21. Vibrant, multicoloured nouns bring descriptions vividly to life. They animate scenes and people by folding the psychological into the physical.

  22. A well-situated adjective can influence character, landscape, and mood. Just don’t trip up your pacey prose by misplacing them.

  23. A flamboyance of adjectives in flight is fabulous if they paint the sky a firestorm pink. But if they turn the heavens a turgid purple, shoot ‘em!

  24. Beware redundant adverbs. They pretend to modify the verb, but don’t. They make-believe they add emphasis, but subtract it. Others try to spruce up tired verbs when a more vivacious verb is what’s needed.

  25. There are more ways to describe something than description.

  26. If a sentence or paragraph looks clear enough, think of how to make it clearer, but don’t turn a melodious fugue into a cheap ditty.

  27. If your sentence sounds like a cheap ditty, check for stacked-up prepositions. Sometimes a less cluttered sentences sounds sweeter.

  28. Prepositional stranding is another example of how some words are like soul twins: nothing makes sense when they drift too far apart.

  29. A preposition is just the kind of word I like to end a sentence with. Pedants who avoid the practice write unwieldy sentences.

  30. Starting a sentences with a conjunction troubles only the lexifuzz, whereas a sentence with too many contradictory conjunctions is like trying to steer a lop-sided go-cart down a steep windy road.

  31. A paragraph of evocative paratactic sentences can be just as coherent as one that marches resolutely towards a hypotactic conclusion. But if it isn’t topically (i.e. topic sentence) and structurally (e.g. parallelism) coherent, you’ll need the creativity and cadence of Joyce to pull it together.

  32. A new paragraph can feel like a shift onto the other foot, a step into a new city, or any one of a thousand kinds of change in-between.

  33. Narrative inhabits every level of discourse, every rhetorical mode. It occupies every living sentence; every paragraph; every thrusting filament in Freytag’s five act dramatic arc: the exposition, the rising action, the climax, the falling action, and the dénouement. Narrative invigorates every catchy description and conversation. Its absence slows down the show.

  34. Sentences can be simple, compound, or complex. Long sentences should be, as Mark Twain put it, “a torch-light procession.” Used well, sentence fragments inject humour, timbre and pathos into a text.

  35. If a sentence begins with ‘it is’ or ‘there are’, it’s probably a stinker.

  36. Two tone prose is like two tone shoes: hip, playful, and interesting.

  37. Match the mood to the material and your voice to the audience, but make sure the voice is yours. A clear, honest voice – that’s the thing! Listen carefully, though, and you’ll hear voices within y’voice.

  38. Some genre writing alternates between proactive scenes, where the character tries but fails to achieve a goal – and often makes a bigger mess in the process, and reactive scenes, where the character struggles with a dilemma and then decides what to do next. Play with this.

  39. Where’s your thesaurus? Where’s the dictionary? Both are essential writer’s essential tools, along with a commitment to revise, revise.

  40. Revise by lexical category: nouns, then verbs, and so on, but bear in mind that the most important editorial tool is not the thesaurus or the blue pencil, but your ability to reorder words and recast sentences.

  • Now immerse yourself in writing until you no longer need these guidelines; until you live the language; until you know.

 Julian Yaqub