Jonathan Franzen’s 10 Rules for Novelists

I’m sure you all saw Franzen’s Rules on Twitter, because there were so many funny responses, but hey, if you missed it:

Here are Franzen’s 10 Rules. They are in fact ridiculous, and Literary Hub should be embarrassed to have given them space. More on that in a moment.

Many, many novelists jumped in with their own lists, as you might expect.

Much hilarity ensued, of which, taken in its entirety, my favorite was Chuck Wendig’s takedown.

Here is Literary Hub’s follow-up piece, showing that yes, they actually were embarrassed, at least after the fact.

Now, if you missed out on everything, I bet you’re curious, so if you are undecided about clicking through, here are Franzen’s 10 Rules:

1.The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.

2. Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.

3. Never use the word then as a conjunction—we have and for this purpose. Substituting then is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many ands on the page.

4. Write in third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.

5. When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.

6. The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than The Metamorphosis.

7. You see more sitting still than chasing after.

8. It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.

9. Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.

10.  You have to love before you can be relentless.

Here are two of Chuck Wendig’s responses:

“I really hate the prohibitions against language that demand you not use a whole chunk of words, or ask that you prescriptively remove a common word from your stable of words. NO ADVERBS is bad advice that writers should stop telling other writers, f’rex.”

And also this:

“I’m just gonna try to say something vaguely profound and hope people are moved by it. And if they’re not, they at least pretend to be moved by it, because they don’t want to feel stupid.”

There you go, I don’t have to say those things because Chuck said them. Along with a lot of other pithy things that you should click through and read, but moving on: 

I missed out on my chance to jump on this bandwagon until it was too late … partly because I follow Rule 8 more closely than I would like to … but sure, 10 Rules for Novelists, no problem. I love many of the short, funny versions produced on Twitter, especially the ones that are just song lyrics set to the ten-rule pattern, but I’m not that creative, so how about actual rules that are possibly more useful and certainly a lot less fake-profound than Franzen’s:

1.Not all readers will like your books. Even the readers who love most of your books probably won’t like them all. Don’t worry about that. There’s nothing you can do about it anyway. Put it out of your mind and write for yourself and for the readers who will love this particular book.

2. Writing for money is also okay.

3. If an adverb would improve your sentence or your scene, go for it. Ditto for other parts of speech, including “then” and “and.” If you’re concerned you might have gone overboard with a word such as “very,” it’s tedious but possible to look at your manuscript and take out 3/4 of the uses of “very” before you call it done. (That’s on my mind because I’m doing that in fits and starts for my current WIP, since I don’t want to do it all at once at the end.)

4. If writing is in any way reminiscent of a journey into the frightening or the unknown, maybe you should calm down a trifle before proceeding. Have some hot chocolate. Pet a puppy, I hear that helps. 

5. Write in third or first, whichever works. Write in present or past tense, whichever works. If it’s not working, switch and see if that’s better.

6. Listen to your beta reader’s opinions.

7. But don’t take that advice if you can’t stand to. It’s your book in the end and you hopefully have a pretty good feel for it.

8. If you fall down the rabbit hole of research and never come out, it might be hard to finish your book. But the internet is a super-keen means of quickly finding out how to make explosives out of common household items or look up how much weight a single Siberian husky can easily pull or whatever other adventurous details your life might not have prepared you to just know off hand.

9. It’s okay not to write every day if that works for you. Everybody’s process is different.

10. And imo the only truly universal rule for all novelists everywhere: If you want to be successful as a novelist, you must finish at least some of what you start.

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4 thoughts on “Jonathan Franzen’s 10 Rules for Novelists”

  1. C. J. Cherryh has the one unbreakable rule of writing fiction:

    Never follow any rule off a cliff.

  2. It would be interesting to put together a list of ten rules that actually apply universally.

    “Never follow any rule off a cliff” would certainly be one of them. The tenth and last, probably, just in case any of the other nine are actually arguable.

  3. Reminds me of the new dress code I read about at a Fortune 500 company. “Dress appropriately.” A commenter remarked that when he started a new job and asked about the expense account policy, the answer was “Don’t be a jerk.” Guidelines are usually more helpful than hard and fast rules.

    As an aside, Buddhism is an interesting example of this. The behavioral precepts are explicitly viewed as guidelines, not hard and fast rules, and there is a built in recognition that they will, and should, change over time. “Applying the dharma to the dharma.”

  4. Oh yes, and my favorite editorial rule, courtesy of the NYT Manual of Style:

    “Omit unnecessary words.”

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