Writing Good


The Guardian recently ran an article in which many of the leading authors in the world were asked for their most important rules regarding writing good fiction. As could be expected, the answers were interesting, diverse and both exceptionally useful and totally useless.

Beyond the rules themselves, I was fascinated by the authors they chose to ask. Most of them were plucked from the shelves of “quality” fiction or modern literature, the usual suspects such as Margaret Atwood and Roddy Doyle. Ho Hum. However two of my favorite authors of all time, Neil Gaiman and Michael Moorcock, also found their way into the list. Their rules were totally consistent with what I know of them and their work, but held one enormous surprise.

The thing is, Gaiman has said publically that he views Moorcock as his hero and the main influence on his work. In turn, Moorcock has stated how much he respects and loves Gaiman’s writing. Despite that, their rules are almost direct opposites of one another, to the point that as the first rule Gaiman says WRITE, while Moorcock says READ.

Also of interest to me was that Gaiman feels that anything goes when writing, and focuses completely on being true to your own unique vision and using feedback from friends, while Moorcock is the technician, all about emulating favorite authors and books while working with very specific, rigid formulas.

It just goes to show that there are many roads to the same place.

Here are the rules of these two Masters of the Macabre and Miraculous…enjoy.


Neil Gaiman

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

Michael Moorcock

1 My first rule was given to me by TH White, author of The Sword in the Stone and other Arthurian fantasies and was: Read. Read everything you can lay hands on. I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.

2 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.

3 Introduce your main characters and themes in the first third of your novel.

4 If you are writing a plot-driven genre novel make sure all your major themes/plot elements are introduced in the first third, which you can call the introduction.

5 Develop your themes and characters in your second third, the development.

6 Resolve your themes, mysteries and so on in the final third, the resolution.

7 For a good melodrama study the famous "Lester Dent master plot formula" which you can find online. It was written to show how to write a short story for the pulps, but can be adapted successfully for most stories of any length or genre.

8 If possible have something going on while you have your characters delivering exposition or philosophising. This helps retain dramatic tension.

9 Carrot and stick – have protagonists pursued (by an obsession or a villain) and pursuing (idea, object, person, mystery).

10 Ignore all proferred rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say.


1 Comment

  1. *murmurs ‘Lester Dent plot formula’ to herself and wanders towards Google to look*

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