We’re in the middle of wrapping up the May issue; we’re
copy-fitting articles and making last-minute changes. As I reread contributing
editor Sarah Anne Johnson’s interview with Aleksandar Hemon, author of three
story collections and a novel and recipient of a “genius grant” from the
MacArthur Foundation, I was struck again by his response to her question about
what makes for a good opening to a story or novel:
There is no rule. It depends on the story or the book. I do
have to say that I find those pseudo-rules related to openings, rules like “The
first paragraph has to grab the reader by the throat,” entirely nonsensical and
I appreciate where he’s coming from, and he does offer
thoughtful responses and helpful advice. But, of course, we at The Writer aim
to give you (useful) rules to guide you in your writing. Don’t writers like
rules and lists and lists of rules—even if only because we feel all the more
empowered when we break them? That’s why I love the massive (as in, 18 printed
pages) list of rules for writing fiction that UK’s The Guardian compiled (and contributing editor Chuck Leddy kindly shared with me). The paper asked more than 25 top writers, including Margaret Atwood, Richard Ford, Annie
Proulx, Ian Rankin and Zadie Smith, for their “personal dos and don’ts.”
Some of my favorites:
Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease
would you finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this
10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it.
Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.
Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t
work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what
they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
Remember you love writing. It wouldn’t be worth it if you
didn’t. If the love fades, do what you need to and get it back.
And, finally, from Philip Pullman:
My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt
me away from my proper work.