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Printed Matter

If You Get Stuck Make a Pie and Other Rules for Writing Fiction

By Candice Rainey | February 23, 2010

Marion Ettlinger

I'm a sucker for writer biographies, especially when the author's process is unspooled, laying bare their weird ticks and obsessive compulsive behaviors (Nabakov never used an eraser!?). I'm always writing under the assumption that there's some trick I'm not aware of, what Steven King calls a "magic feather" in On Writing (his memoir on the craft), that can rescue me when I'm inevitably staring at a blank computer screen and thinking to myself...crap. I've got nothing. When I came across The Guardian's ambitious survey, asking some of the world's most important literary giants working today to impart their ten rules for penning fiction, I poured over the thing. The cruel joke is that most of the advice here (and in any book on writing ever published) is some iteration of this evergreen: Read a lot. Write a lot. Still, I found a few practical—albeit, somewhat depressing—tips I plan on trying to adopt next time I come to the page, including my favorite piece of advice  from Joyce Carol Oates (pictured above) who urges "Keep a light, hopeful heart. But ­expect the worst." Below, a few other rules to live—and write—by.

"If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don't just stick there scowling at the problem. But don't make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people's words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient."Hillary Mantel

"Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied."Zadie Smith

"The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying "Faire et se taire" (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as "Shut up and get on with it."Helen Simpson

"Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can't sharpen it on the plane, because you can't take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils."Margaret Atwood

"Write slowly and by hand only about subjects that interest you."Annie Proulx

(And if my handwriting is just too terrible to read, I'll try this...)

"Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet."Zadie Smith

Photo: Marion Ettlinger


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I love Helen Simpson's quote from Flaubert. Getting on with it is the essence of writing--or any creative endeavor, for that matter: Dancers dance, painters paint, singers sing, cooks cook and writers write.
Thanks for the great blog!

I love the lit life! A wonderful indulgence, and a lovely way to pass the time. I consider myself a master procrastinator when it comes to well, anything---so I thank Elle for presenting me with a chance to skim this bookworm blogs well organized sections [from writer envy to novel obsession back up to caught reading]. Oh, and it doesn't help that your index of 'sites we love' only fuels my fire to put off writing my college term papers for another hour. Thanks a bunch! And from one bookworm to another, keep on reading and keeping on blogging!

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