Rules for Writers – rule number one: be a reader

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There are no rules about writing. But…

Rules for Writers: be a reader

We’ve already noted that there are no rules. That’s Rule Number One.

Writers – and writing – work in mysterious ways.

No two writers have the same working methods. Some, for example, will struggle through the first draft of a story, a poem, or a novel, without changing a word.

The impetus for them is to get the essence of this new piece of work down on paper first and fast – change and development and precision come later, in subsequent drafts.

Others struggle through the first draft in a different way. They can’t leave the untidy sentence, the unwieldy paragraph, the underdeveloped character until subsequent drafts: they need to fix all that troublesome stuff right now. Later drafts are all about fixing more stuff: or even the same stuff, over and over again.

The one common experience, though, is the struggle to create the first draft of just about everything.

How could it be any different?

The fear

As a novelist, for example, you are trying to pull a story out of the ether. You are trying to capture something that does not yet exist – something that will only come into being as you create it. And every time – yes, every time – this novelist is terrified of the first paragraph, the first sentence, the first view of that menacingly empty white page.

Even (no, especially) ten novels later, the fear is this: this time, the well will have run dry.

This time, no story will present itself to me, gripping my imagination in a way that will not let me go until I hear it, see it, tell it.

But if I’m patient, if I’m open, if I take the time to reflect, to listen and to be receptive, the stories will come.

I’ve said before, because it has been true in my experience, that writers don’t choose their stories: our stories choose us. I’ve discovered that, over and over again, down through the years. I’m learning to trust the process now
So how do we writers encourage our stories to choose us?

For me, the most important preparation for being a writer is to be a reader.

When I think back over my reading life – which began at five years of age and is still going strong – reading books written by others was what helped me form my own ideas about writing. I don’t believe that there is any substitute for being a passionate reader.

Widely & actively

We often begin writing when we admire the way our favourite books are written. It’s through our own reading that we learn about style, about plot, about characterisation. About suspense: what is keeping me here, turning these pages with such feverish intensity?

Reading widely and actively is the foundation of every writer.

By actively, I mean learning to become aware of how other writers have created and constructed the books you love. Figure out what you like, what makes the plot work for you, what makes the characters feel authentic. Once you can do that, you’re on your way.

For years, I was reluctant to leave any book before I had completed reading it. I’m a little more discerning now: time is precious. But in a way, my instinct then was right. It’s as important to find out what you don’t like as to discover what you do: and reading and writing is so much about taste. I’ve been at Book Club events where readers almost come to blows.

They can agree that something is well-written, or badly-written.

They can discuss strengths and weaknesses. They can admire and dissect and deconstruct.

But the one thing that defines their fundamental response to a book is: ‘Do I like it?’
And there are definitely no rules for that. Or if there are, then you must make them up for yourself as you go along.

Let me know how you get on – your feedback is welcome.

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Catherine Dunne author - photo Noel Hillistra una vita e l'altra