The Top Nine Writer’s Rules (the tenth is yours) #1. STARTING

 For many years, I have collected the thoughts and observations of writers about the process and the profession of writing. The authors can be dead or alive, famous or obscure, literary titans or contemporary crowd-pleasers. If they have something interesting, funny or perceptive to say about the strange business of creating in words, then I have added it to my collection of rules for writers.

The result has been that I now have a mighty archive of writerly tips and opinions. Some are wise, others eccentric; all, I think, are thought-provoking in their own way. Whether the topic is research or ideas, inspiration or the best time of day to write, there is rarely a consensus.  These are writers, after all.

When I started using Twitter, I took to tweeting a couple of the shorter rules on most days under the hashtag #writersrules. Readers, authors and would-be authors seem to have liked the rules I have posted, sometimes responding with those of their own. I waited confidently for an overture from a publisher with an eye for a reference book that would be read in creative writing classes across the land, The Writer’s Rules: 1000 Quotations to Help You Write Your Masterpiece.

I’m still waiting.

So here is an alternative approach. Visitors to this website will be able to compile their own book of rules. Once a week, I shall choose a topic to do with writing and list my favourite nine quotes from the great, the good and the popular. The tenth will be yours – you are cordially invited to add your words of advice in the comment section to be included in the archive.

Today, the first theme is Starting, and features the kind of mixed company in which The Writer’s Rules tends to specialise. The list includes the advice of, among others, Virginia Woolf, PG Wodehouse, Jack Kerouac, Muriel Spark.

And, I very much hope, you.  


‘One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on first paragraph and once I get it, the rest comes out very easily. In the first paragraph you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone.’  


‘ I think everything through  before I write and then I strike rather like a cat. I wait at the mousehole and then I pounce.’                                                           


‘Unless I were to shut myself up obstinately and sullenly in my room for a great many days without a word, I don’t think I should ever make a beginning.’  


‘The books start out with the ideas. The novel comes afterwards… It’s always a bit of nuisance when I have to move people around and make them do things.’


‘I have to start not thinking. It’s hard… The nearest I can describe it is to say it’s like a self-induced light hypnosis. It leaves me stricken. When I’m working, I just go into my study and I sit and I wait without thought. I stare into my fire…I can’t think my work. I have to feel it, hear it, find it. I keep my appointment every day and wait. I wait for the word, the hard-edged word.’  


‘The first thought is the best thought.’  


‘I certainly don’t start with an idea  –  people talk about having an idea for a novel, but I think that’s just a convenient phrase. What I think I start with is some odd and incidental-sounding fragment which  –  I can’t explain this at all – just resonates in some way.’  


‘A good novel ought to have a theme, so I start by trying to think of one. Failing this, I dig up a scene  –  any scene, so long as it seems to have possibilities.’                                                           


‘I believe that the main thing in beginning a novel is to feel, not that you can write it, but that it exists on the far side of a gulf, which words can’t cross… A novel… to be good should seem before one writes it, something unwriteable; only visible.’