Saturday, November 8, 2014

Antonya Nelson's Ten Writing Rules

In the 33rd in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Antonya Nelson, author of Funny Once (Bloomsbury), tells writers what they need to figure out and some of the best ways to do it.

1. As a fiction writer, learn early whether your temperament is more suited to the novel or the short story. Rarely does a writer do each equally well.

2. Learn how to revise. Your original impulse to tell a story is to be trusted; it's the follow-up that generally lacks diligence and labor. Discovering how to be happy in the revision process is a giant breakthrough.

3. Figure out how to read the work you love in a way that teaches you how to write better. Craft books, in my experience, are far less important to the writer than the literature you admire. Own the stories you love by committing them to memory, by studying them, by unearthing the care with which they are made. The process of re-reading is not unlike the process of revision: You are mastering the methods behind the artwork, complicating and texturizing and making it, inasmuch as you can, bulletproof.

4. Discover your own best process. Sprinter? Or marathoner? Wait for inspiration to build to a boiling point? Or labor every day at the precise same time? Subscribe to the method that works for you. Do not feel threatened by not being of the other type.

5. Locate three trusted readers to give you feedback when you're no longer able to improve the work. Return the favor. (That last is very important.)

6. Do not write to please everyone. Your first audience is yourself—and if you aren't charmed or amused or enlightened by what you're writing, nobody else is going to be, either. Do not hope to publish in every journal in the country. Instead, locate a few who get you. And be loyal to them. They will return the favor.

7. Write into the mystery. Write what you do not know. Write without having any eyes looking over your shoulder. Write the way you would dress for a party: utterly naked and alone, at first, and then, finally, stepping out and asking a trusted companion "Do these shoes go with this romper?"

8. Be tolerant of dry spells. Understand that being a writer is not illustrated solely by the act of typing. Mulling, reading, meditating, lollygagging, cooking, joking, traveling, watching television—all activity, as pursued by a writing sensibility, is potentially the stuff of writing.

9. Do not participate in the Writer Biz. That is, do not check Amazon ratings or PW triple-digit deals, or waste time being jealous of success or gleeful at the failure or humiliation of others. The only real way to be happy as a writer is to enjoy writing. To find in the solitary process some kind of succor. If you aren't satisfied with that, you will never be satisfied with any part of the life.

10. Report truthfully the world as you find it. Name it honestly, freshly, and put yourself on the line. A reader can tell if the work isn't revealing a genuine self behind it. It's the only kind of work that really matters.