Saturday, September 18, 2010

Riding A Bike With The Brakes On

By Pat Browning

I’ve lived in my apartment for almost six years and I’m still picking up, throwing out and rearranging. This week I spotted a sheaf of papers underneath an end table. What it was doing on the floor is anyone’s guess but I finally picked it up.

It’s a 13-page printout I did in February of an article from The Guardian newspaper online. The headline: “Riding A Bike With The Brakes On: The First 12 Years Are The Worst.” A survey of British writers inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, the article is both funny and spot on.

Some highlights:

Margaret Atwood – You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.

Roddy Doyle – Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy. Do spend a few minutes a day working on the cover biog – “He divides his time between Kabul Tierra del Fuego.” But then get back to work.

Helen Dunmore – Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.

Geoff Dyer – Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire. Never ride a bike with the brakes on. If something is proving too difficult, give it up and try something else.

Anne Enright –Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.

Richard Ford – Don’t drink and write at the same time. Don’t write letters to the editor. (No one cares.) Don’t take any shit if you can possibly help it.

Jonathan Franzen – 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.

Esther Freud – Cut out the metaphors and similes. In my first book I promised myself I wouldn’t use any and I slipped up during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it.

Neil Gaiman – Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing.

David Hare – Never take advice from anyone with no investment in the outcome. If nobody will put your play on, put it on yourself.

PD James – Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.

AL Kennedy – Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.

Hilary Mantel – First paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?

Michael Moorcock – Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.

Michael Morpurgo – It is the gestation time which counts. By the time I sit down and face the blank page I am raring to go. I tell it as if I’m talking to my best friend or one of my grandchildren.

Joyce Carol Oates – Don’t try to anticipate an “ideal reader” – there may be one but he/she is reading someone else. Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worst.

Annie Proulx – To ensure that you write slowly, write by hand.

Will Self – Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea forever.

Helen Simpson – The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying, “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as “Shut up and get on with it.”

Zadie Smith – Don’t romanticize your “vocation.” You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle.” All that matters is what you leave on the page.

Colm Toibin – Stay in your mental pyjamas all day. No going to London. No going anywhere else either.

Rose Tremain – Learn from cinema. Be economic with descriptions. Sort out the telling detail from the lifeless one. Write dialogue that people would actually speak.

Sarah Waters – Respect your characters, even the minor ones. In art, as in life, everyone is the hero of their own particular story.

Ten Rules For Writing Fiction – The Guardian Feb. 20, 2010 - is still in the archives and includes Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules. Read the article at:

Reader graphic from (Books)


Poker Star said...
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Vicki Lane said...
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Vicki Lane said...

Good list, Pat! Thanks for unearthing it.

Jean Henry Mead said...

A fun and informative article, Pat. And I like your illustrations. Strange what treasures we find when we're clearing things away.

Kaye George said...

Interesting stuff, Pat. I disagree with a few of these, but that's good. It means not everyone writes just like everyone else.

Thanks! And good luck with the organizing.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Great post, Pat.

Beth Terrell said...

There's lots of food for thought here, Pat. Thank you for sharing these quotes. It's always nice to glean a little wisdom from the greats.