Tag Archives: Geoff Dyer

Writers: why don’t you tear up those rules?

There are three rules for writers, according to Somerset Maugham, but unfortunately nobody knows what they are.

Only three? You can find hundred, no millions, out there.

  • Kill your darlings!
  • Show, don’t tell!
  • Start late, leave early!
  • Never use an adverb!
  • Never open the book with the weather!
  • Cut! Cut! And cut again!

Ten rules for writers

The Guardian, in 2010, asked 27 well-known writers to give us their 10 rules for writing fiction. I warmed to Helen Simpson who did not follow the given format but said

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’.

Flaubert’s travel diary

Among these rules there is a great deal of wisdom and good advice. Neil Gaiman’s first rule is simple:


Or not so simple.

Here are a few others, some of which are more advice than rule.

Read Keats’s letters. (Helen Dunmore)

The first 12 years are the worst. (Anne Enright)

Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life. (Esther Freud)

My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work. (Philip Pullman)

Rules for other creative, artistic workers?

I am intrigued. Why are there so many rules for writers? For no other art form are amateurs given so many instructions, or thought to want or need them. A Google search came up with more than 6 million possibilities of rules for writers., 500,000 for sculptors, 1 million for composers and slightly fewer for artists.

That’s six times as many rules for writers as for any other category. If I could create a chart I would insert one here to make the point visually.

Perhaps the reason that everybody, well 6 million people, feel entitled to provide rules for writers is because everyone, it is said, has a novel in them. And it is also said that those who can do (that is, they write), and those that can’t (write) teach, or in this case tell everyone else how to write.

Why rules at all?

There is a strong belief that writing can’t be taught. It is quite common, although you would never find people who suggest that musicians or artists shouldn’t have lessons.

Most rules for writers are behavioural. They imply that only people with certain behavioural characteristics can write. The rules include words and phrases such as honesty, self-discipline, hard work, attention to detail and so on. The ability to endure rejection is often referred to. The word never appears with frightening frequency. So does avoid. The consequences of sometimes or embrace are not revealed. Don’t do this, always do that! On and on. The tone is moralising. Avoidable.

Here are more. Some of these are tongue in cheek, and make good points.

Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire. (Geoff Dyer)

Don’t drink and write at the same time. (Richard Ford)

Write only when you have something to say. (David Hare)

Work hard. (Andrew Motion)

Finish everything you start. (Colm Toibin)

Advice not rules

Of course many writers interpreted the idea of rules as advice and offered some useful thought. Neil Gaiman (again):

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 of writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it the best you can. I’m not sure there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

So with Philip Pullman’s only rule (above) in mind I’d better get back to my proper work.

My rule for writers?

Only follow a rule for a good reason, otherwise transgress.

And your rules?

Do you have any rules to offer? Or comments on the topic of rules for writers?


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Filed under Writing

Thinking about … Book Covers

A book’s cover is part of its aesthetic pleasure. This is one reason why I don’t warm to kindles. I’m not a luddite. I felt this way when LP albums gave way to CDs and we needed magnifying glasses to appreciate the cover art. Put it another way, book covers are an art form.

Of course they say you shouldn’t judge a book – and all that – but covers play an important role in placing a book, especially within a genre. I was brought up on Penguins, and not just the orange ones, but the green whodunnits, blue intellectual texts, black classics. Even before they stopped being purely typographical they gave out some information about the contents. Did pretentious youths of both sexes really wander about with the blue ones to impress people with their intellectualism? Oh yes they did!

75 VW mugThe penguins have been such a strong brand that they are marketed on all kinds of merchandise. What booklover hasn’t got at least one mug, tea-towel, totebag adorned with a favourite novel?

75 Steb mug

Among my favourite livery in the ‘70s and ‘80s were the green covers of Virago books, and the zebra stripes of The Women’s Press. When I moved to London in the early ‘80s I visited an English teacher who lived in Camden. Her bookcase full of the green-backed Virago books made a huge impression on me. The reproduction of a painting on the cover of those books were additional delights. The new livery is nothing like as pleasing. Blogs sometimes comment that the original Virago cover was an improvement on the current jackets, especially for Elizabeth Taylor’s novels.

Today the elegant dove-grey Persephone books, with the addition of the delightful endpapers, have replaced Virago’s covers in my affection. It helps that Persephone is mainly dedicated to women writers and to neglected books. The Persephone endpapers are photographs of colourful fabrics associated with the period of the book’s original publication. And at the shop you get a matching bookmark. Love it!

Of course, these covers, identified by their uniform colour might appeal to people who organise their books by either publisher or colour. There are people who do both, see the blogpost How do you organise your books? People like the Camden English teacher. Or my nephew.

The cover of a book has always been key to my memories of it. I remember the colour and size, even if I can’t remember where it is now I have moved after 30 years.

The Guardian’s paper version of Geoff Dyer’s tribute to Albert Camus in the series my My Hero was accompanied by six different penguin covers for The Outsider. For some reason the on-line version here has a moody black and white picture of le grand homme, smoking. The six covers are fascinating, of their time and all saying something about the alienation of the novel’s narrator.

75 Etr covers

And here are a further two covers from my shelves. (The French version is nearly 50 years old!)

75 2 more Camus

I am getting interested in the production of book covers. Some of the smaller independent publishers have encouraged innovative and imaginative book covers – Peirene Press and Salt Publishing for example. My co-author and I are excited about the cover of our forthcoming book, Retiring with Attitude. Retiring is a word that describes what is no longer, difficult to capture visually. We wait to see what the designers will produce.

Here are some links to other sites looking at cover design.

London Fictions has a great page exploring some of the covers of historical London fiction. You can find it here. Actually it’s a great blog, celebrating a rich seam of fiction, lots of it.

In 2012 one hundred artists from 28 countries were asked to draw attention to illiteracy by the Belgian graphic design studio beshart by designing covers for the Observer’s 100 best novels of all time, plus 10 Belgian novels. I can’t remember where I first came across this wonderful site, but I could browse for hours among doedemee’s 100 covers here. Great project.

And this one does what it says on the tin: The Book Cover Archive. I think this might be book designer’s porn.

Authors, especially self-publishing authors, might want guidance about covers. Here’s some from Writer.ly blog, three articles. They cover colour, legibility focusing on fonts, and DIY covers.


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Filed under Books, Publishing our book