The Ten Rules of Writing

By James N. Frey

Note: This article was written for a question/answer column in TEXTART, a German magazine for writers.


I recently retired from teaching. I have always wanted to write stories and now I have the time finally. I know I have a lot to learn. I read your book on how to write a novel and am working on improving my technique, but it's taking a long time to learn all these things. I want to learn more quickly. Do you have any suggestions for speeding up the learning process?


Once at a writers conference I said there were ten rules of writing that would GUARANTEE you'd become a great fiction writer. Everyone got their pens out, ready to take them down. I waited till everyone was ready. I then solemnly intoned the ten rules that would GUARANTEE they'd become great fiction writers:

Read! Read! Read!
Write! Write! Write!
Suffer! Suffer! Suffer!

Then I waited for the more astute of my listeners to remind me that I'd given them only nine (never mind that there were actually only three). When a chorus of voices rose to demand the tenth rule, I gave it to them in a loud, ringing voice: don't use too many EXCLAMATION points!

I said it as a joke, but, strange as it may seem, these are the rules you should follow now and for the rest of your life.

The first three rules, read, read, read, are extremely important. First, you'll need to be a general reader, because, as a writer, you need to know, well...a lot of stuff. A good fiction writer is a well read generalist (as opposed to a specialist, say, a chiropractor, a plumber, or a teacher). How can you create a Buddhist character if you don't know what meditation is for, what a sutra is, who the Buddha was? How can you create a carpenter if you don't know what a T-square and a level are for? A fiction writer needs a grasp of history and philosophy, art, religion, poetry, and so on, in order to understand different viewpoints and world views, to make his or her characters whole.

As a fiction writer, you need to be curious about the world and read about things you might not be interested in personally. Professionally, you need to be interested in everything: today's rock music, the Goth scene, vampirism, the Argentinean tango, body piercing, UFOs, medieval French poetry. If it is going on in the world, you, as a fiction writer, should know about it because you might create a character who will be involved in such stuff. You need to know the news, the latest trends, world events, sports, celebrities, the British royal family and their antics--anything and everything.

You'll need to read a lot of fiction to know what editors are buying and what modern readers--your readers--want to read. Read widely in your particular genre. If you write mysteries, say, you should read mysteries, mysteries, and more mysteries. You need to know your market and your competition.

So the first part of the joke is not a joke at all. To speed up your development as a fiction writer, read, read, read, and read, read, read some more.

Next, teachers of creative writing know that to learn the craft you must practice the craft. In other words, you must write, write, write. Some say you have to write a million words before you can begin to call yourself a writer. I've known writers, some of whom later became quite successful, who did not publish anything until they'd written five million words. The more you write every day, the faster you learn. So write as much as you can as often as you can. If there is any one commonalty among the people I know personally who have succeeded in the writing game, it's that they write, write, write.

Write not only for publication, but also practice in various writing styles. I strongly recommend that you do practice writing as part of your daily writing routine; I absolutely guarantee you will improve your prose style rapidly. I have seen writers go from clumsy and amateurish to fine prose writers in a few months by this method.

Begin by getting a sample of good writing by a master. You probably already have plenty of good samples on your book shelf. It is best to choose writers who are writing the type of stories you want to write. Let's say you want to write mysteries. I might choose, say Robert B. Parker or Elmore Leonard, both fine stylists and both very different from one another.

Once you've selected your sample, you copy it, either in long hand, or you type it. Type three to five pages or more every day. Get a feeling for the flow of the words, the cadence, the rhythms.

After you've gotten twenty-five or thirty pages, try writing in the same style, with the same flow and cadence and rhythms. After a while, you'll find you can write your story in that style. You'll probably be able to write fairly good imitations in just a few weeks.

Okay, now take another master, with a different style. Do the same thing. Every day when you get to work, copy pages, then do imitations. Before long you will be able to write imitations in two styles. Then find another author to imitate. Keep this up and you'll soon have a repertoire of several styles at your command.

As an example, take a look at the two short paragraphs that follow. One was written by Hemingway, the other by me in his style. Which do you think is the real Hemingway?

1. We stayed that afternoon in a village in the pine forested foothills and sat on the verandah of the inn in the late afternoon drinking a strong, sweet sangria and talked politics with the old innkeeper, who was a Royalist and a Catholic. Cantrell was in one of his dark moods, and he kept saying that the Pope in Rome was a Fascisti, which only made the old innkeeper chortle at what he took to be an absurd joke, and he poured us more wine and we sat there until it was quite dark.

2. Back in Paris in the heat of August when the city was deserted, Anna and I began to quarrel and it was worse in the evening and the lovemaking was bad. We fought about small things, the housecleaning and the buying of the day's bread and cheese, and more important things, too, about our future and the baby, and should I go to Istanbul and Switzerland. We fought about these things because the real thing was not even whispered. The real thing hung in the air above us like a cloud of doom, silent and foreboding. Then one morning I went out to the post office on the rue de Rivoli looking for the check from Mr. Foster in New York which as it turned out had not come. I returned to our rooms to find that Anna had gone and taken her clothes, her books, and the painting of the canals we'd bought in Amsterdam that winter, and she left a note hastily scribbled on a piece of brown butcher paper that I could not bring myself to read until later when I was quite drunk.

By doing these exercises, you'll soon discover that your own individual, distinctive style will emerge, a style suited to your personality, a style that is unlike any of the styles you've been imitating. Your friends and fellow writers who read your drafts will begin to tell you what a fine writer you are. Tell them it's a natural talent you were born with.

The next three, suffer, suffer, suffer, is the writer's lot in life. Learning the craft of writing is difficult, creating stories is sometimes agonizing, rewriting is torturous. Dealing with editors is like being tossed into the lions' den at lunch time. Then when you're finally published, often your publisher will not do enough publicity and the critics will probably crown you with thorns.

When you tell your mother you've become a writer she will likely disown you, your friends will think you've lost your mind, and your spouse will be lighting candles and saying prayers to cast out the demon. So that's it. The writer's life, suffering to make a work of art that is not appreciated, suffering the slings and arrows of insulting editors and agents, suffering the isolation of a life of an outcast, suffering at the hands of an uncaring and indifferent public and deranged, stupid critics out to get you.

So why do we do it? We do it to experience the ecstasy inherent in the act of participation in the creation of the world, my friend. That alone is more than adequate recompense. Living a writer's life, a life of reflection, of personal growth, of accomplishment, of working and striving and suffering for one's art, that is its own glory.

The tenth rule is obvious!!!

[Copyright ©James N. Frey; 1990, 2019]