Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Neil Gaiman Rules

I’m a Neil Gaiman groupie, so I was delighted to find his 8 rules for writing fiction in a recent Gotham Writers Workshop newsletter, reprinted from an article in The Guardian.

Here’s how Gotham ran it:

Neil Gaiman: 8 Good Writing Practices
Neil Gaiman has become so popular he is often considered the “rock star” of the literary world. He trades mostly in science fiction and fantasy in a variety of forms—novels, children’s books, graphic novels, comic books, and film. Among his trend-setting works: Coraline, The Graveyard Book and The Sandman series. He takes readers, of all ages, to the very edge of imagination.

8 Good Writing Practices
1. Write.
2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
3. Finish what you're writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
5. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
6. Fix 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. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
7. Laugh at your own jokes.
8. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I'm not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

I was particularly struck by item 5, since it relates to good critiquing practices. At first, I thought Mr. Gaiman was spot on: If you tell a writer exactly how to fix something, you’re imposing your vision on his or her story. Not good.

But after rereading the item, I wasn’t so sure I agreed with him. I mean, if you’re a seasoned critiquer, who knows a WIP well, and has a perfectly brilliant solution for a completely stuck writer, whom you may also know well, why not offer it up? It’s up to the writer to decide whether or not to run with it and make it his or her own. He or she might even hug you in gratitude. Or better yet, buy you a margarita.

Fellow critiquers (and writers), what do you think? Oh, and if there’s another item that struck you, which one was it and why?

p.s. To see the complete article from The Guardian, which includes wonderful rules for writing from a dozen or so famous writers, click on the link above.


  1. This is fabulous. Thanks for posting it and the link (which I've yet to check out). As for the critiquing thing, I agree with you. If a critiquer just says, "hmm. This part's not working for me." and leaves it at that, I don't find that helpful. If they tell me why they think it's not working and what would improve it for them, all right. Like you said, I don't HAVE to do what they said, I don't even have to agree with what they said, but at least I know it's coming from a thoughtful place.

  2. Interesting tips. Often a person offering a critique can't tell you what it needs, just that it needs something. If they offer comments for improvement and they don't help, that's okay. They got you thinking. And that's good.

    Linda A.

  3. Sometimes knowing what doesn't work is as valuable as knowing what does work. Usually -- and especially if there is group think from my crit group about something not working, I've known it, too. But some times are harder than others to kill your darlings.

    And count me in as another writer who disagrees with Mr. Gaiman here. Suggestions from others can be the springboard to improving work. Suggestions that help the writer expand "what if" thinking are the most valuable suggestions, IMO.

    ANd on a totally random note, I wasn't signed in when I logged into the blog, so I need to give a word verification. The word is author.

  4. I like these, especially the one about rule-breaking applying to life. As far #5, I'm on the fence. I took it to mean that when someone tells you how he/she would write it (which both of my writing groups have a very rigid rule against doing), you need to ignore that kind of advice. That's not to say specific critiques, such as "this character seems weak to me" or "I fell asleep on page 2" aren't super helpful. But both are comments about the work, and not "Here's how I would do it."

  5. I agree whole-heartedly with Mr. Gaiman on #5. Hearing "what doesn't work" is as important as hearing "what does." As for offering suggestions, I think his point is, it depends on how it's offered and it's intention. A fellow critiquer can never know the work as well as the writer, so suggestions can only be suggestions. Therefore, "you could" is much more acceptable than "you should."

  6. Nelsa and Linda: Yes. Any comment that comes from a thoughtful place and gets me thinking is valuable. It's up to me to use it or lose it.

    J.A.: Sometimes that "what if" has turned out to be something I'd already pondered when I was writing the ms.

    Author? That's funny. My current word verification is "albared." What should I make of that? That I've got to bare all when I write? Haha.

    Jen and Meg: You're right. The way you present your suggestions as a critiquer es muy importante.

  7. I have number 7 under control.

    I don't know that most times something doesn't work for a reader, they are always "right." I think this leaves out the very real possibility that the work just isn't for them.

    I would give them alot more credence if the they were a fan of the genre.

    But then again, what do I know?

  8. Brad: Your comment made me laugh. I also completely agree with what you said about making sure you give your manuscript to the right reader. That's why I always give mine to my mom first! (I just got number 7 down, too.)

  9. Janice

    That's because your jokes are funny!

    I agree with most of the comments on the writing tips.A suggestion of a very specific detail or plot point can be useful and it does always involve, however, the manner of delivery of the suggestion.

    At the famous Bunny Gabel writing class at the New School the class participants always followed the rules of the room and would say, "perhaps this could help the author," when making a suggestion.

  10. Eileen: First, you have an excellent sense of humor. Second, I'd love to hear the rest of the rules from Bunny Gabel's legendary writing class. Care to share?

  11. Umm...hmm...I think I was going to say something but just got sidetracked by the picture in the post...sigh...oh yeah, writing..

    I struggle with #4 - I tend to be a puppy with a chew toy at times when I'm working on something. I even print out pages and put it on my night stand as if the pages could infiltrate my dreams...

    I happen to agree with #5. It's one thing to make suggestions - to tell a writer why something isn't working for you, but to outright tell someone this has to be fixed this way...I avoid that completely. And when I'm on the recieving end I just nod politely.

    Am actively working on #8!

    Great post! (and photo)

  12. Robin: He's even dreamier in person. Haha. As for your number 4 answer, I think you may have a great plot for a YA fantasy. A riff on Inkheart?