Ten Essential Rules I Live (And Write Fiction) By
A writer’s life - or rather, life in general - can be unpredictable and chaotic.
For example, as an expat, I never know which country I might live in next. (After living in Dubai for a long time, we recently moved to the USA.)
As a writer, the murky middle of a book is usually the point at which I’m often confused and want to quit.
And who could have predicted the pandemic?
As someone who lives and dies by routines and systems, what helps me is creating a structure or a plan and nothing makes me happier than a color-coded spreadsheet. After reading, The Rules of Life by Richard Templar, I started thinking about some of my own rules I follow and discovered they apply both to my life and my writing.
Do I always stick to them? No, but during those times when I’m stuck or overwhelmed, I find them useful so I thought I would share them with you along with questions to help apply them to your own life, should you wish.
1. Quality over quantity.
Luxury pieces over fast fashion, 100% Egyptian cotton over cheap bedding, a home-cooked meal with fresh ingredients over processed food.
The older I get, the more I appreciate the finer things in life and will often forgo cheaper items for their better-quality counterparts. Interestingly, the same concept also applies to writing; the length of time I spend at my desk doesn't always equal to quality output. As a result, I know after a few hours, I've hit the diminishing point of return.
Could I continue?
Yes, but it probably wouldn’t be very good and I’d either have to extensively edit those words or re-write it completely. It's taken me a few years to learn this important rule, but whenever I apply it, my words of prose tend to flow better when I know I'm writing for a set amount of time.
And let's be honest, getting into bed with quality sheets is definitely one of the best things in life :)
Question: How long do you spend writing before you start to tire?
2. Edit for clarity.
Speaking of editing, it’s always slightly galling to delete words from your manuscript but absolutely necessary to improve your work. You may love that particular line of dialogue but if it doesn't add to the story, it's time to delete.
I believe the same goes for life.
In today’s world, we are often overwhelmed - our homes are bursting at the seams, FOMO has led to packed calendars, and our to-do lists are never-ending. And don't even get me started on the never-ending flow of social media.
When I feel like I'm spiraling and my mental health is suffering, it usually means I need to take a step back and see what I can delete or delegate.
Question: What one thing could you remove from your life that would make it easier and give you peace of mind?
3. One thing at a time.
With two children, my life is a series of half-completed projects. It takes me so long to finish something because I’m usually multi-tasking or have hands pulling at me for attention. While multitasking often comes with the territory as a working parent, I know that if I make a conscious effort to focus and finish one thing at a time, the day runs much more smoothly.
Luckily, I don’t have the same issue with writing, focusing on only one book at a time. I don’t have multiple half-finished manuscripts stuffed in drawers or in hidden in the depths of my laptop and I advise my writing students to adopt the same approach.
Because working on one manuscript at a time means you’re more likely to finish it and that is always the best thing when it comes to writing a book.
Question: If you could only write and publish one book in your whole life, what would it be?
4. Talk is cheap.
I grew up in an environment where hard work was valued and actions spoke louder than words. However, I could easily spend a week with other writers talking about books, all the while telling myself ‘it’s part of my job’.
But, do I have detailed descriptions of characters or an idea of the flow of the story for my manuscript?
If no, then the only way is to get down to business.
While connection with a community is important, the goal should always be getting the words down on paper. The same applies to life; if you want to achieve something, people are only really interested once you have something to show for your efforts.
It's a simple rule but definitely one of the more challenging ones.
Question: What goal have you talked about or thought about but haven’t taken any action? What is the smallest step you can take today to work towards it?
5. It’s not a failure if you’ve learnt something.
Like most things in life, failure is part of a writer’s journey.
Rejections from agents, negative feedback from a beta-reader, plot lines that don’t work, books that don’t sell, the pressure of a blank page - the list goes on.
One of my most memorable failures was in the form of feedback from a publisher who told me (in great detail) the second half of my book needed a complete rewrite.
More recently, all my book ideas were rejected by my agent and I had to go back to the drawing board.
There were many instances where it was easier to give up and the same can be said of any disappointment in life. The trick to success is to put aside the negative energy and be able to pick yourself up and continue.
Question: What lesson did you learn from your last failure? How can it help you in the future?
6. Don’t spend too much time online.
There’s a reason why many writers disconnect the internet when writing; it’s incredibly distracting and the biggest form of procrastination. While I’m pretty disciplined with my online usage during my writing sessions, the rest of the time, I spend way too much time online.
Anyone else check their phone first thing in the morning? I remember the day we moved into our current house and we had no internet connection - it was a stark reminder about how the constant distraction of a phone can really impact the quality of your life.
Reminder - too much time online kills creativity.
Question: Is your time online affecting you negatively or positively?
7. Active rather than passive.
Using the active voice in your writing will make your work more dynamic and fast-moving - crucial for good fiction. It also forces you to use less words, making it more concise.
Too much use of the passive voice will create a distance between you and your reader.
Similarly in life, I’ve always found pleasure in taking an active role in shaping my personal growth. While things don’t always work out as I intended, I believe taking action is the first step to a more satisfying way of living.
Question: What is one small action you could do today to achieve one of your goals?
8. Avoid too much small talk.
While small talk is a useful skill in some situations, it gets mundane pretty fast. As Elmore Leonard wrote in his 10 rules of writing for the New York Times, his first rule was never to start a book with the weather, commenting: “The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.”
If you meet someone new, this is a prime opportunity for you to add to your toolbox as a writer because people are an incredible source of inspiration.
One of my personal rules is if I know I'm going to be out of my comfort zone and in an environment where I don’t know many people, I prepare a few interesting questions in advance. There are dozens of ideas online. Because of my job, I tend to ask: Are you a reader? People are always happy to talk at length about their favorite book and the rhythm of the exchange feels natural and easy.
Question: What meaningful question could you use when meeting a group of strangers?
9. Don’t be afraid to try something new.
I never thought I’d be the type of person to get stuck in my ways but age and the pandemic have made me less adaptable than I’d like. But, as the world opens up, I’m finding my adventurous spirit once again. New destinations, new restaurants, even a different way to work can all provide a fresh perspective on life - and on your manuscript.
Creative writing is all about experimentation, so make it part of your writing journey. If your only reference point is your office, you might find your writing gets a bit stale. Try different ways of working and change locations if necessary. You might feel less control, but you just never know what you might discover.
Question: Embrace change by asking yourself what is one new thing you would like to try this year?
10. Courtesy and kindness go a long way.
As my Grandma used to say: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.
Whoever you’re dealing with, whether it’s your screaming little kids, a complete stranger, or a potential literary agent, good manners never hurt.
This also applies to yourself; it’s so easy to tell ourselves our writing is rubbish or we’ll never be good enough. Replace these thoughts with encouragement and gratitude because after all, the world needs more writers and it takes courage to put your art out into the world.
Question: What small act of kindness can you show yourself today?
A few more questions for you:
What would you put on your list of life rules?
Do you have a golden rule?
What are the key ingredients for a happy life?
Editorial note: This post was originally published in 2022 - it's been updated for accuracy and relevancy.
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