Literature Writing

Ten brutally brutal writing commandments

I used to have these ten writing commandments that I typed up once for some discussion, and recently I found the file in an external USB drive. Here, have them, and leave a comment if you happen to disagree, etc. (There’s also a sister-post by Caleb Ross, called Nobody Gives a **** That You Wrote Something)


1. Temper cruelty with moral uprightness. Be cruel to the world, but kind to your characters. Be kind to your readers, but cruel to your characters. Be cruel to your readers, but have the world’s best interests at heart.

Take some responsibility for the horror of being a human being. You didn’t ask to be born, but you have asked for a fuckload of other things since then.

2. A safe guideline for rule-breaking is: For every four literary conventions you follow, break one. Too little rebellion is as boring as too much. Break this rule as well, but not just for the sake of breaking it.

Actually, don’t break this rule, just be subtle in how you follow it.

3. Try writing in response to another novel. The dialogue between the two could amount to something greater than either.

The following would be some places to start:

If you thought Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian was nihilistic to excess, try to create a response to that nihilism without mentioning cowboys or bloodshed, but also without ever forgetting that you’re responding to Blood Meridian.

If you don’t like Jane Austen’s novels because they’re “too girly” or whatever, write a Jane Austen novel as you’d like to read one.

If Homer’s Odyssey was boring in high school, reread it, then read Joyce’s Ulysses, and then rewrite the Odyssey using Joyce’s techniques. So, so, so meta.

4. Read some of the world’s great aphorists. An aphorism, when it’s well crafted, contains good lessons in writing.

Cioran, Nietzsche, Lichtenberg, Paul Valéry are my choices, but you are probably allowed to find your own.

5. If you are not arrogant enough to want to surpass your inspirations, and if you aren’t humble enough to accept the help it takes to get there, you may be boring.

And only correct someone’s spoken English when you’re willing to make an enemy for no good fucking reason. Written English, though — that’s fair game, always, because it is Important.

6. Read good literary criticism. Try your hand at the art of writing about sophisticated concepts accessibly. It helps.

Maybe the most fruitful literary criticism to read is the kind that explains a book you love in a way that you disagree with so intensely you’re almost tempted to send hate mail. Now is the time to defend your interests.

7. Recoil in horror every once in a while. Be amazed. Get your feelings hurt. Regret something new.

I recommend watching an occasional movie (I can only manage one every few weeks, but that’s usually enough to inspire me), being cruel to a dog by pretending to throw the ball even though you’re not really going to throw the ball (and then ask yourself how you’d react if you had a mentally handicapped child, and someone was doing the same thing to the child, and think about that for a while, and about the idea of intelligence in general and the idea of cruelty…) and, finally, call up an old acquaintance and try to find out what people used to think about you five years ago (it’s going to be painful, regardless, because you don’t feel like that person anymore).

8. Hate other writers but help them however you can, and love them when you aren’t doing your best to destroy them. A good degree of competition always helps, but being too eager to win rots your soul. Spread the love even as you envy the successful and mock the weak. Everything should even out.

You do have a soul, even if it’s not a soul in any meaningful religious (or “spiritual”) sense; you have a spiritual or psychological track record, even if it’s just in your own private world. Don’t rot your soul, twist it around, or hang yourself with it. Cultivate a balance between giving not even a tiny damn about being considered pretentious and obsessive, on the one hand, and being sensitive to the pain of others, even idiots, on the other. You will meet many lovely people who are writers, and many horrible writers who are people, and if your social life isn’t kind of in order, or at least if you haven’t yet found a friend, then adjust your attitude accordingly, flirt a bit with your best friend’s girlfriend (for research) or protect her depending on the circumstances. You need a social life if you’re going to retreat from your social life from time to time to change the face of literature. Also you will occasionally overhear amusing things, and place them in your fiction.

9. If you don’t write, you are not technically a writer (Proverbs 25:17). It’s not about setting routines so much as getting something done. If routines help, wonderful. If you prefer to write in the spur of the moment, do it. Nobody cares how much you fart or twiddle your thumbs in the process, as long as in the end the work gets done.

Ideas are not enough. Inspiration is not enough. Knowledge is not enough. Touch-typing skills are not enough. Dreams are not enough. Everyone having a story inside them is not enough. Being in love is not enough. Finally fucking that girl you had a crush on in high school ten years later, when you really should have moved on and stopped calling it “a crush” but that’s okay because your most powerful writing comes from that mix of resentment, lust and ambivalence toward who and what you were as a teenager — that’s not enough. You have to sit down and do your writing and neglect everyone you love, and it is your fault, and it’s worth it.

10. What does it mean to ask questions?


  1. Being an author: one of the few careers in which you can be crazy, delve into the illicit and amoral, and call it all part of the job. 😉 Experience life and your writing will grow.

    1. neyska: My view exactly… Go to happy hour. Dance your butt off. Pet the kitties. Weed the garden. Make new friends. Watch the sunset and stay in the moment. Be curious.

      I wish I could remember who said that a writer without an outside life was like a house that was all porch.

      Already doing #3.

      Don’t understand in #8, though I have felt the pain of envy (and the disappointment with myself that comes with it), how people put effort into tearing each other down. I hear it is done, but not where I come from.

      So nice to see you here…now for a moment of silence.

      1. Okay. Enough of that silence crap. 😉

        Sorry. Couldn’t help it.

        I always thought perhaps I should envy and dislike successful writers, but I can’t do it. I love helping other writers when I can, even if it means giving the competition a boost.

        Anyway, going back to editing and engaging actively in #3 now.

    1. Thanks Michael. I liked your example of being overweight and seeing a well-built man in the street; I can relate too!

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