Rules for Writing (2)


A big rule in children’s books is: no stand-alones. It’s important to think in trilogies, sets of six, that kind of thing. So let’s do three of these ‘Rules for Writing’ riffs and take it from there. You never know. I might sell translation rights and get a licensing deal. It’s important to be open-ended.

Margaret Atwood: showing how it’s done

After the disappointment of Elmore Leonard (see Rules of Writing (1)), who better to analyse next than Margaret Atwood? Her book THE HANDMAID’S TALE totally out-dystopes THE HUNGER GAMES and boots it into a cocked cornucopia. How would Ms Atwood fare in the cut-throat world of ponies, bottom jokes and amusing chapter-head puns inhabited by phraseandfable? Here are her ten rules.

1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.

This is not just advice about writing, friends. It’s advice about life.

2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.

This woman really thinks things through. You could give her a dragon rampaging through an enchanted forest, no problem. No randomly burned villages. No continuity issues with the heroine’s hair or ill thought-out knight scenarios.

3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.

You have an idea and you desperately need to write it down because your brain is like a teabag and just the tiniest amount of hot water will wash all your thoughts into the chipped mug of forgetfulness. And YOU HAVE NO PAPER! It’s a disaster! A… what was I talking about again?

4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.

Yes. Unless you really REALLY enjoyed that extremely complex exposition about your future world / alien planet / superpower accident and fancy doing it all over again in exactly the same way.

5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.

Comfy writing chair: check. Well-positioned keyboard: check. That’s your lot. Be grateful.

6. Hold the reader’s attention. But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.

Children’s writers have a small advantage of writing for age bands / genders here. As a rule of thumb, boys hate ballet, girl heroes and kissing. Girls like everything. Editors and sales folk believe this to be true. I can’t speak for the writers or the actual children themselves.

7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality.

Lose the grip on reality, Mags. It’s a hindrance.

How did I get here again?

8. You can never judge your own book because you’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. 

I’m deeply interested in those rabbits. Were they up your sleeve? Inside your shirt? Whipped up from a parallel universe with an incantation whose precise origins are lost in a sea of time and wizards?

9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. 

THE GRUFFALO is a good example of what can happen if you sit down in the middle of the woods without having first checked everything out. Even if your nut is Fairtrade.

*NEWSFLASH* Gruffalo loses the plot

10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­isation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

Also prawn cocktail crisps and Mah Jong online.
A whopping 8/10 for Margaret Atwood there, people. But we shouldn’t be surprised. She’s done children’s books already and the titles are fabulous. WANDERING WENDA AND WIDOW WALLOP’S WUNDERGROUND WASHERY, for goodness sake! Genius!

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