In response to the Guardian‘s excellent round-up of advice for writers from writers (Elmore Leonard’s advice being the best of the bunch), Salon’s Laura Miller offers up her own advice. The difference is she’s offering her advice as a reader, not a writer.


It’s shockingly easy to forget that we are writing these novels for readers, therefore we should have their interests and desires in mind. Miller does a fantastic job of crystallizing the mistakes we most often make. I won’t quote the whole thing, but my favorite bit is this:

The components of a novel that readers care about most are, in order: story, characters, theme, atmosphere/setting.

Of course, you already know that, writers. But don’t you frequently forget that you know it? Print it out and tape it above your desk.

I’m still technically a rookie in the fiction department, so you probably shouldn’t take my advice on anything. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist adding to the genre. And so I give you, McLaughlin’s Rules for Writing Better Novels.

1) Stop hating yourself. Actually, if you want to hate yourself, that’s fine, but please stop creating self-loathing protagonists. The strategy is so poignantly obvious. By creating a nerd/geek/loser/fill-in-the-blank misfit who repeatedly refers to him or herself as a nerd/geek/loser/fill-in-the-blank misfit, you’re trying to get the reader to effectively say: “Why no, protagonist (read: author), you’re not a loser. You’re amazing. So smart, so clever, so insightful. It’s the world that’s messed up. Here, have a cookie.” This is little more than a thinly-veiled attempt at getting the kudos you think you were cheated out of in high school. Get over it already.

2) Stay fit. Writing is back-breaking work. You have to sit for a long time to grind out all those words, then re-grind them over and over again until they sparkle. Take breaks. Go for a walk. Do yoga or pilates. Take up Tango. Something. But don’t become, what Woofy once called “a brain in a jar.” Writing is mind work, but it takes a fit body to endure the long sit.

3) Get dressed. Don’t shlump around in cruddy clothes or pajamas. If you look sloppy, you’ll feel sloppy. And if you feel sloppy, you’ll probably write sloppily. Would it kill you to put on a pair of trousers? Do you think Hemingway wrote in sweatpants? Honestly, I have no idea whether this will improve your writing. It’s more of a thing I have against the on-going creep of casual dressing, so take it for what it’s worth.

4) If at all possible, live within walking distance of a library. The walk there will clear your head before you begin writing. Plus, if you’re lucky, the nearest branch will not have wireless so No Tweeting For You! Just three solid hours of words, words, words, followed by a lovely walk home then lunch. There is no better way to enjoy the writer’s life. Seriously, a ham sandwich is always good. But after 2000 words and a nice walk, it’s even more delicious. Hopping out to a cafe to meet other writer friends is also good and has the added benefit of providing you with living, breathing thesauri.

5) Be fanatical in your commitment to the story, but clear-eyed in your understanding of the market. That does not mean that you should write for the market. You should only ever write what you passionately believe. Write the story you hunger to read. But, if the market for that particular genre or subject is small, think about other ways to earn a living. That way, you can remain true to your artistic convictions without having to worry about the rent.

I’m pretty sure if you follow those five rules, you will automatically achieve instant success. So, go get ’em, Tiger!

P.S., if I’m wrong, just do what Elmore Leonard said. He’s pretty smart.