Back in February the Guardian ran an unexprectedly super list of Ten Rules for Writing Fiction. Unexpectedly good because the writers – well-known and highly regarded – seemed to take it more or less seriously; and delightfully – and not surprisingly – each writer’s advice was perfectly representative of her own style and personality.

So the grimly American recorder of the quotidian, Richard Ford, advises:

  1. Don’t have children.

The most recent Booker prize winner, the blackly comic Hilary Mantel says:

  1. Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.

Annie Proulx, whose The Shipping News I regard as a perfect kind of novel:

  1. Proceed slowly and take care.
  2. To ensure you proceed slowly, write by hand.
  3. Write slowly and by hand and only about subjects that interest you.

(Many years ago, as editor of The Sydney Weekly, I once had the obligation to sit next to Ms Proulx when she attended a literary lunch we had organised. She was as sharp and alert as a coyote in an open landscape. She came across just like her writing, wiry, distinctive and off-centre.)

The zingy Zadie Smith:

  1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.


How they work

Rodcorp, a blog for a designer of data services for police (dry, super dry!), has been running a fascinating list titled “How we work”. Which is about “the habits, rituals and small (and occasionally big) methods people and teams use to get their work done” – ie, nuggets of data about work habits. There’re currently 106 on the list including

John Cage, composer, artist

Jeffrey Eugenides, author

Bobby Fischer, chess player

Lucian Freud, artist

Bill Murray, actor

Joel and Ethan Coen, directors


The entry on Fred Astaire:

When he ordered a bespoke suit from Savile Row, the carpet was rolled back and Astaire danced on the parquet floor to check that the fit of his coat never came away from his collar.

The link above is to the blog of Thomas Mahon, bespoke Savile Row tailor, whence this marvellous tidbit:

“My former employer, Anderson & Sheppard are moving off Savile Row next week. I shall miss dear old Number 30 … I really hope that the spot where the rug was rolled up on the parquet floor, so Mr. Astaire could dance to check the fit of his coat never came away from his collar, won’t be the permanent resting place for a new Xerox machine. God forbid.”

And then:

Astaire was famous for practicing his steps over and over until he didn’t have to think about them. I read somewhere that his test was, while dancing, to read a book. If he could read the book and retain what he read, then he knew he had learned the dance.


The entry on The New Yorker‘s celebrated movie critic, Anthony Lane, (Helen Garner thought he was a perfect sort of film reviewer):

“I do have one very brutal writing ritual. If I’m working in the morning, I don’t allow myself a cup of tea until I’ve written two paragraphs. It’s harsh.”


And my favourite, Ricky Gervais aka David Brent of The Office, true to seeming form:

“I think doing something creative is the most important thing to me, and I think it’s probably just good for the soul for anyone, whatever it is … you can do gardening or something—but I think everyone needs to create something. I’ve always dabbled. I’ve always nearly written a book, I’ve always tried painting, I’ve always tried to make something out of ideas, really. It was never a plan …

What I do next is never strategic. It’s never, “If I did this, then I’ll get that demographic, and then they’ll like me for this, and then I can do that.” I go, “I want to do this next. This is the thing that interests me most.” I’ve got the attention span of a 5-year-old, so that’s why I don’t hang around doing one thing for very long. I have to be excited, I have to have an adrenaline rush about doing something, or it bores me, I feel trapped. I’ve never regretted saying no to anything, or finishing something. When I’m in the middle of doing something I love, I can have a better idea, and I’ll go, “Oh God, I can’t finish this.” Maybe I’ve got some sort of disorder.”