A tweet linking to George Orwell’s famous rules for writing (‘Never use a long word where a short one will do’, etc.) prompted me to invite competitors to come up with the six rules of a well-known author of their choice.
Honourable mentions go to Hugh King, whose Revd W.A. Spooner urges writers to ‘be sure to merge all pisstakes’, and to J. Seery, who reckons Hemingway’s sixth rule would be: ‘It is you or the reader. Only one of you is going to walk away from this alive. Make sure it is you.’ I also liked this one from Rob Stuart, who was channelling Dan Brown: ‘Chase sequences are a swell opportunity for characters to reflect appreciatively on local art and architecture as they dodge bullets.’ And Will Self’s second rule, via Sylvia Fairley: ‘Discombobulate the reader by cutting arbitrarily between narrative sequences, with disorientating shifts in time, preferably in mid-sentence.’
W.J. Webster earns the bonus fiver for crafting an eloquent riposte to Orwell on the part of Henry James. The rest take £25 each.
W.J. Webster/Henry James
1. Do not think that using three words where one will do is a cardinal sin. To produce what ‘will do’ can never be an artist’s aim.
2. Precise punctuation brings order to a necessary complexity: master the use of the comma and the semi-colon. Also consider how inverted commas may be used to ‘check the credentials’ of a word or phrase.
3. Do not abjure the use of foreign words: judiciously employed, they add nuance while making a civilised nod towards other cultures.
4. The adverb is a part of speech to relish: know it for what it beautifully is!
5. Heighten the apparently commonplace by the generous use of such words as ‘wonderful’ and ‘magnificent’: they raise the reader’s expectations to a loftier plane.
6. State little, imply more: intimation is all but everything. Half the author’s art lies in framing the unseen and the unsaid.
Bill Greenwell/Ted Hughes
1. No word can have too many consonants: the tongue loves to feel their thickness.
2. There is only one theme and it is the elements — if there is no element in your writing, then it will be weak, flaccid, disposable, scran.
3. Use a single Northern word with care, but use it all the same. It might be proddle, it might be gumption, but it will draw the eye and give pleasure to the ear.
4. A poem without a creature is like a proverb without point.
5. There is no sense in a poem; it does not admit to sense; it does not admit to meaning; it is what it is, no questions to be asked.
6. The tribe must feel the resonance of words in its gut, and not in what passes for its brain — words are immemorial time transmuted by the writer into the nature of all things.
Annie Somers/Jeffrey Archer
1.Be a natural storyteller. If you’re not, the game’s up before you start.
2.Employ a good research team. Shakespeare never actually went to Verona.
3. Don’t let your characters get in the way of the plot. No one ever turned a page to see how a character develops.
4. Avoid clichés like the plague — boom-boom! Seriously, life’s too short to worry if something’s been expressed in the same way before. Think of clichés as tried and tested old friends that you share with your readers.
5. Fine writing butters no parsnips. It simply teaches the average reader to skip.
6. Ignore critics. How many books do they sell?
Alan Millard/Agatha Christie
The six rules for writing are all contained in the acronym, CRIMES.
Confuse your reader by introducing too many characters all at once but always include a spinster or foreign bachelor (preferably Belgian) who knows and sees far more than the reader.
Restrict the location to somewhere accessible only by steam train, bus or boat in the southwest of England, a sleepy village or island off-shore.
Invent some unlikely reason for bringing your characters all together in spite of their tenuous links and disparate temperaments.
Mystify your reader by introducing a murder and giving each possible perpetrator a plausible alibi.
Examine your characters one by one explaining the whereabouts of each at the time of the killing and what might have been their motive for murder.
Solve the suspense by letting the spinster or Belgian reveal the villain, ideally a person the reader would never suspect or, possibly, even remember.
Chris O’Carroll/P.G Wodehouse
1. Never fail to be intelligent. And never fail to conceal it.
2. Never be ashamed of a joke simply because it’s broad or silly. The value of pure foolishness should not be underrated.
3. Slang and elevated formal diction get along together like billy-o.
4. An apparently free and easy style is the result of the very strictest attention to craft.
5. It is vitally important to be clear and direct. Dithering and circumlocution are also crucial.
6. Don’t have more than six rules. God went in for ten, but you mustn’t give yourself airs.
Basil Ransome-Davies/John le Carré
1. Cultivate paranoia. To foment drama in your fiction, picture a world in which nobody can be trusted, lies are a common currency and every friendly face may be the mask of a traitor.
2. Your protagonist: do not give him superpowers. In fact do not give him youth, sexual attractiveness, charisma or success in his personal life. His professional acuity will stand out the more.
3. Setting: a driven man faced with a taxing task, alone in a soulless furnished room or a seaside guest-house with a Teasmade and a coin-operated gas meter, creates more suspense than a fully staffed global command centre.
4. When rendering the talk of uneducated people, remember their attachment to archaic speech patterns which underline their subordination. Sprinkle their dialogue with expressions such as ‘If I may make so bold…’ and ‘Saving your pardon…’.
5. Misplaced idealism is a useful plot motor.
6. Americans are bastards, OK?
Your next challenge is to submit a poem in praise or dispraise of the BBC. Entries of up to 16 lines should be sent to email@example.com by midday on 21 May.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.