Margaret Atwood’s 10 Rules of Writing

The Queen of Canlit (consider Alice Munro the Empress) offers her take on Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.  Luckily, in this day and age, it’s not as bleak as A Handmaid’s Tale.

  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.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.
  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) 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.
  7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
  8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
  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. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­ization of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

Source: The Guardian, 2010.



I never trust anyone who’s more excited about success than about doing the thing they want to be successful at.


Breaking Down the Writer’s Block

What do you do when your usual writing techniques and traditions stop working?

First: get rid of the idea that you need the Muse. The Muse is like that friend who always replies that they’re coming to your event and *maybe* shows up at one of them, late and already a little buzzed. If we waited for the Muse every time we sat down to write, nothing would get done.

Second: remind yourself that your process is invisible to the reader. Your reader will engage with a beautiful, clean, finished piece of work; they will not engage with your blood, sweat, tears, and agony. (Nor will they engage with your Muse, for that matter.)

I don’t say this to stress you out or to make you feel like all of this hard work is pointless. It’s not pointless. Quite the contrary: the hard work is the point. You know the saying, “It costs a lot to look this cheap?” Well, it takes a lot of effort to make your writing appear effortless. You are normal. What you are doing is normal. Every writer goes through this. If they say they don’t: they’re either lying or have repressed the memory of the pain, much like with childbirth.

Third: when you’re suffering from writer’s block, don’t think of it like this: “Woe! The Muse has abandoned me! Here I must lie, listless and resigned, until that sweet wonder doth return!” Instead, look at it like this: “Huh. My brain, which craves novelty and structure, has grown bored with this existing system. How can I get it active again?

The power was within you all along!

So, Fourth and Last: you need to trick your brain by changing up your routine. In its attempt to develop the new routine, your brain will shift to learning mode. Learning mode is good! Learning mode means your brain is looking for ways to connect all this new information to old information and make sense of it all. Learning mode means your brain is thinking creatively, which is exactly what you want!

What are some ways to change up your routine? Here are a few examples of things that have worked well for me in the past:

  • Do you normally write on the computer? Try picking up a pen and notebook.
  • Write at home? Try going to a coffee shop or your local library !
  • Still doesn’t work? Try changing the font on your word processor. Hell, even put the thing into columns and pretend you’re writing for a newspaper.
  • Do you normally set aside two hours in the evening to write? Try write in small chunks instead. Give yourself twenty minutes in the morning or on your lunchbreak. Twenty minutes – no more.
  • Do you typically hunker down on one project at a time? Try shifting between two or three or four. Spend five minutes on one project, then close it. Open the next, and type away for five more minutes. Repeat.

In short, think of what you usually do and do the opposite. Because what you usually do isn’t working anymore. Just keep your brain engaged and guessing. There’s a science behind this art. Get creative with your process so you can get creative with your work.

Because, remember, it is a work of art, after all.


Elmore Leonard’s Famous 10 Rules for Writing

Crime and western author, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing are so famous they’re even mentioned in his Wikipedia article – and with good reason.

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Excerpted from the New York Times article, “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.”

I like to think of myself at home in the armchair, writing, smoking and occasionally wandering down the shop.

Stephen Fry

Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet for Novels

The Beat Sheet is a trick I picked up in film school. It covers all the major plot elements (“beats”) of a long form story. Now, Snyder was writing about film, which is much more structurally formulaic than prose, but I firmly believe that taking a good, hard look at structure is essential for any novel, especially if you are writing anything other than hoity toity high-brow experimental literary fiction.

So, if you not in that 0.00001% of writers who are writing hoity toity high brow experimental literary fiction, then the beat sheet is worth your time. At the very least, you’ll notice the formulas and structures that so inescapably pervasive that you probably just took them all for granted.

For myself, I find the beat sheet to come in handy after I have my cool idea, when I’m ready to start fleshing it out into an outline. I find it really helpful to lay out and plan my arcs, especially that dreaded second act. My second acts always end up too thin or too fat, which is unfortunate, because this really is where your reader either falls in love or puts down the books and walks away never to return.

Sometimes, as well, when you’ve finished your first draft, there’s just something about it that feels off. Going through that draft with a red pen, marking out the different beats Snyder outlines, can really help you identify those invisible problems.

The structure below is Snyder’s; the commentary is my own. These are notes I’ve made from my own experience in adapting this to a novel. Snyder is quite specific with regards to when in the film each part of the structure should occur, but I have been a bit more vague. Novels are a much more varied beast than a film.

If you are interested in writing a screenplay, I haven’t repeated all of Snyder’s specifics here, but I strongly recommend you check out his book Save the Cat. It’s an invaluable resource and a fun read.

Act One

Opening Image

This is our first page. Not only will we need to hook a reader with this, we’ll probably also want to hook a publisher! Snyder describes the opening image as something thematically significant. The scene we’re writing can go on for much longer than a page, but on the very first page, we need to establish two things: tone and character.

Imagine the reader thinking: “There are a lot of books out there. Why am I reading this one? Whose story is this and how is it being told?”


In film, this is the first ten minutes; in a novel, it’s generally your first 1-3 chapters. In this time, show (don’t tell!) your reader more about the main character(s) and the world they inhabit. We need to know what they want, what they need, and what stands in the way of them getting both of those things.

Furthermore, Snyder argues this is where we need the titular “save the cat” moment: we need a reason to root for our character. Do they help old ladies across the street? Do they save a cat from an air duct aboard a space station? Are they kind to children even though they’re a hardened mob boss?

Maybe the point of our character is that she’s unlikable. That’s fair! But think of yourself as a reader. Why would you keep reading if you didn’t see some hope for redemption?

Theme Stated

At some point in these early chapters, we need to know this novel’s purpose. We need at hint that it will all add to something interesting. This is not the moral of the story, so to speak, but rather an indication – perhaps even a subconscious suggestion – of what deeper meanings are at play here.

For instance, in the first three chapters of Katherena Vermette’s The Break, we are introduced to three different characters and get a strong sense of the different trajectories of their lives, how inter-connected (or disconnected) they are, as well as a character reacting to witnessing violence. This will tie in later to the prevalent themes of inter-generational violence.


This is the moment where everything we’ve set up gets turned on its head! This happens at the end of the set up: 10 or 15 minutes into a film, or introduced at the end of roughly our third chapter. (Side note: I firmly believe this is why lots of agents ask for your first three chapters attached to your query. They want to see your set-up and then how you introduce the main conflict. If you drag out your set-up for too long, your reader will get bored – and so will the agent!)

The catalyst is the wrench thrown in the character’s plans, the case that lands on their desk, the meet-cute that occurs in the coffee shop, the lab accident that gives them super powers! Plenty of in medias res stories start here – the classic *record scratch* “Now I know what you’re thinking: how did I end up here?” – which is always intriguing (and the aforementioned The Break is one of them), but we do need to remember to go back and lay our groundwork.

We need that important backstory or development that got us to this moment. For instance, if we join the detective on the scene of the big case, we need to understand what life was like before the catalyst arrived and how the catalyst is flipping the board. Otherwise, how do we know our character is even being challenged? How do we know this isn’t just business as usual?


Very few characters will accept a challenge head-on and with enthusiasm. For instance, I always wondered why Luke Skywalker so happily ran off with Obi-Wan Kenobi after the massacre of his aunt and uncle. I mean, yes: we did establish that he really, really wanted to go join the rebellion and Uncle Owen was an obstacle to that goal, but I mean… that obstacle was straight-up murdered. Cold, Luke. Cold. This was a case of focusing on what the character wants rather than needs, and – I would argue – a huge flaw in Luke’s character arc. (I could elaborate, but I’ll spare you. Ask in the comments if you really want to hear my hot take on Luke Skywalker.)

In the Debate (which Snyder says should last another 8-10 minutes or so, and which I think should be another chapter or two), we really have to drill down into the character. What is it within them that is holding them back from this catalyst? Why are they so resistant to change?

Something I have heard recently, which I think applies beautifully here is that people are not afraid of change; they are afraid of loss. What will our character lose by engaging with this catalyst? Will it be something tangible, like their job or custody of their kids? Or will it be some integral part of their identity?

Admittedly, Act One is difficult. Especially if we have a detailed plot with a series of interconnected events and / or a complicated character who is very much a product of their backstory. How can we know at which time to enter the story? What is the cut-off between backstory and story story?

To answer this, we really need to drill down into what the heart of our story is. What is the character’s true, emotional arc? We might have to lose a lot. That’s why we call it “killing your darlings.”

Act Two

Break Into Two (Choosing Act Two)

Act Two thus begins after the Debate ends and the character moves into action. This is roughly a quarter to a third of the way through the complete story. To put it into Campbellian terms, this is the hero Crossing the Threshold to enter anew, unknown world. This is Samwise Gamgee taking that “one more step” to go further from home than he’s ever been. (And, as the saying goes, this “unknown world” is not a place, but a state of mind.)

Also, Act Two doesn’t just happen; the character needs to choose to engage with the catalyst. If they – practically speaking – have no choice in the matter and are forced to engage, then how are they now emotionally involved? How can we see them embarking on a journey they might not even know they are taking? How have they begun to change?

B Story

Snyder says that the B-Story should be introduced shortly after Act Two begins. It is embedded within and informs the A-Story, and thus should be introduced well after and resolved well before. For Snyder, this B-Story is usually something like the “love story,” which gets used as a vehicle for discussing theme. For instance, how many times have you seen that love interest reduced to the “voice of reason” spewing truths we know the main character won’t listen to until Act Three?

For this reason, I tend to ignore a lot of the B-Story elements when developing structure, as it is so clearly one those film tropes that always calls attention to itself.  This is not to say that novels don’t end up having B-Stories, just that I feel, in novels, they need to unfold in a more organic way. In short: they are inessential.

However, if we are working with multiple plot threads, it would be useful to identify which story is our A-Story, which our B-Story, our C-Story, and so on. The point here is that the C-Story had to inform the B-Story, which has to inform the A-Story, and so they must be resolved in that order. If the stories are not this interconnected, then why are they all one novel to begin with?

As an example, referring back to Samwise Gamgee, the B Story in Lord of the Rings begins a short while after the crossing of the threshold into Act Two, when we meet up with Aragorn in Bree. We would have no cause to explore Aragorn’s story were it not for this connection he makes with the hobbits.

The Promise of the Premise

When we picked up The Martian, no one really wanted to read about Mark Watney getting rescued. Of course we wanted him to be rescued, but what we really wanted to read about how he was going to survive on Mars until he was rescued.

The Promise of the Premise is just that! What did we sell our reader on? Is our book about pirates in space? Then this is where we have our goddamned pirates out in space. Snyder also calls this the “fun and games,” because that’s what this should be: the chance to let loose and really explore this new world we’ve just dropped our character into.

This should take us from a quarter or a third of the way into your novel to the half-way point or even a little closer to two-thirds, depending on how much of our novel’s development is plot-based versus character-based.


For Snyder, this happens, obviously, right in the middle of the movie. For novels, which I think need more room to breathe, this isn’t so much a “midpoint” as it is a false ending, and can thus occur as late as two-thirds of the way into the novel.

Snyder frames this as a “false high” or “false low,” but as film tends to focus more on plotting, for the purposes of novel-writing, I prefer to think of it as the character’s first big failure. This failure is how they are finally forced to realize that they themselves need to change before they can achieve their true goal.

Either they achieve their explicit goal and realize the victory is hollow or their first attempt at success fails miserably. Either outcome will result in – perhaps for the first time – some inward reflection.

Bad Guys Close In

This takes place just following our midpoint. The false victory will be revealed as a sham! Or, the hero is even further downtrodden as the bad guys take advantage of their apparent defeat. Again, with Snyder, this tends to be more plot-based, but I see is as the character succumbing to their demons (whether literal and/or figurative).

All is Lost

This is, so to speak, the character in an emotional tailspin.  According to Snyder, this is the “whiff of death.” Either the sage or parental figure dies (insert death of white bearded character here), the trusty, road-tripping Cadillac breaks down, or the character stares mournfully off a bridge as if in quiet suggestion of how deep their despair has finally become.

I see this as the character beginning to realize how helpless their situation is. They are starting to panic. Perhaps they even feel like they don’t know themselves anymore.

Dark Night of the Soul

After that tailspin, the character has hit the ground. And not just the ground: rock bottom. And, as we all know, sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you can pick yourself up again. This is the time to mourn the death that occurred, whether it was their sage or their dashed hopes and dreams, or their lost sense of self. Perhaps it is even mourning what was left behind in the old, known world of Act One.

In the same way that the Debate preceded the Break into Two, the Dark Night of the Soul precedes the Break into Three, and is a Debate of a different sort. Whereas the first debate consisted of the character equivocating what they think they were willing to give up in order to go after their goal, the Dark Night of the Soul is the character figuring out what they really need to give up. This is about the character accepting that change that has taken place or will need to take place within themselves.

This is Dumbo learning that he had the power to fly all along. This is the character completing their internal arc before striving for the superfluous rewards. Emotionally speaking, by the end of the Dark Night of the Soul, the character’s journey is done. Act Three is the icing on the cake.

This is also where the resolution of the B-Story dovetails with the A-Story. For instance, to go back to Lord of the Rings, Aragorn accepting his role as King (the B Story) actually contributes to destruction of the One Ring (the A Story), in that Aragorn leads the army with his epic speech and provides the distraction Frodo needs to get to Mount Doom.

Act Three

Break Into Three (Choosing Act Three)

Structurally speaking, Act Three is remarkably short. For a novel, it could be as much as the last third or as little as the final page. All of this depends on our novel’s balance between plotting and character work. As a rule of thumb, the more it skews towards character, the shorter it will be. As per Snyder, it could be as much as the last third of the film, but again, that is because so much is plotting and action.


As the bulk of Act Three, this is where the lessons learned during the Midpoint failure are applied, this time with different results. This is where all plots that need resolving are resolved and the theme is connected back to what was hinted at in Act One.

The character has become the person we were rooting for them to become all along and now we just get to watch them resolve the main conflict and achieve their goal: fight bad guys, solve the mystery, or save the day.

Final Image

In many ways, this last page/scene is a mirror to our Opening Image. We should be able to show what has changed from that opening scene. How is the character different? How does the tone inform that? This is a little more than putting a neat bow on things. We want this scene to remind the reader, in some way, of where you started. If they remember and appreciate the journey, the entire experience will be all the more meaningful.


So there you have it. Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet adapted for novel-writing. As noted, it’s not as specific as Snyder, for instance, with how many pages you should devote to such-and-such plot element, but I just don’t think that level of structure applies in the same way to novels as to film. With that said, I hope this is useful to you when outlining, as I know it is for me!

Please let me know in the comments below (or contact me directly) if you have any questions or contributions!

Source: Blake Snyder, Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, 2005.

On Keeping a Log-Line Book

I keep tiny notebooks of log-lines. These are brief kernels – nay, seeds – of a story. This something I picked up from film: the need to pitch a story in a single phrase. It has been an invaluable trick not just for getting to the heart of an otherwise complicated story, but for brainstorming writing prompts.

For instance:

A bored office worker finds himself stuck in a carpool with his most annoying co-worker.


Ted wakes up in the morning to find a werewolf drinking a cup of coffee and reading the newspaper at his kitchen table.

(Aside“Ted” and “Lucy” are my go-to placeholder names. It’s rather helpful, as sometimes just trying to think of a name, even if it takes ten seconds, can mean losing your crazy train of thought.)

I write these log-lines down, one per page. Maybe I can flesh them out into something later; maybe not. Sometimes I will make myself sit down and come up with, say, ten log-lines. Then, I will sit there and think of them, just to write them down then forget them.

It’s a simple exercise, the point of which is really just to start thinking. It helps focus what I’ve got rattling around in my head. A lot of the ideas are terrible, but sometimes just writing them down so I can forget them is a good way to deflate that bloat that creeps into your creative process.

There are so many log-lines I have that I just know I will never write. Mostly because they are either a joke that only I found funny, or because they just seemed too gimmicky, in either structure or conceit, or because, as much as I would want to read them, they aren’t the sort of thing I could write. 

But I’ve found having these log-lines to go back in a pinch a great way to help you get over that hump when you want to write something but just don’t know what, especially a short story. As my natural story-telling drive pulls me towards a longer piece, this helps me keep it focused.



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