Books + Comics

Ten Rules for Writers

Not even rules, more like hidden truths.

Illustration by Emma D.

Etgar Keret writes short stories that are little fables that don’t teach you anything except how complicated it is to be human. If you live in Israel (and we know that thousands of you do: Google Analytics magic!) you don’t need to be told who he is; he’s the country’s biggest literary star. The rest of us are still catching up. If you’re not familiar with his work, listen to Tavi reading Etgar’s short story “Glittery Eyes,” from his collection The Nimrod Flipout:

Glittery Eyes

Etgar sent us these 10 rules for writers, but they’re not really rules. They’re not things anyone else ever tells you about writing. They’re like his stories—not what you’re used to hearing and not the usual lessons, and you can’t stop thinking about them afterwards.

1. Make sure you enjoy writing.
Writers always like to say how hard the writing process is and how much suffering it causes. They’re lying. People don’t like to admit they make a living from something they genuinely enjoy.

Writing is a way to live another life. Many other lives. The lives of countless people whom you’ve never been, but who are completely you. Every time you sit down and face a page and try—even if you don’t succeed—be grateful for the opportunity to expand the scope of your life. It’s fun. It’s groovy. It’s dandy. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

2. Love your characters.
For a character to be real, there has to be at least one person in this world capable of loving it and understanding it, whether they like what the character does or not. You’re the mother and the father of the characters you create. If you can’t love them, nobody can.

3. When you’re writing, you don’t owe anything to anyone.
In real life, if you don’t behave yourself, you’ll wind up in jail or in an institution, but in writing, anything goes. If there’s a character in your story who appeals to you, kiss it. If there’s a carpet in your story that you hate, set fire to it right in the middle of the living room. When it comes to writing, you can destroy entire planets and eradicate whole civilizations with the click of a key, and an hour later, when the old lady from the floor below sees you in the hallway, she’ll still say hello.

4. Always start from the middle.
The beginning is like the scorched edge of a cake that’s touched the cake pan. You may need it just to get going, but it isn’t really edible.

5. Try not to know how it ends.
Curiosity is a powerful force. Don’t let go of it. When you’re about to write a story or a chapter, take control of the situation and of your characters’ motives, but always let yourself be surprised by the twists in the plot.

6. Don’t use anything just because “that’s how it always is.”
Paragraphing, quotation marks, characters that still go by the same name even though you’ve turned the page: all those are just conventions that exist to serve you. If they don’t work, forget about them. The fact that a particular rule applies in every book you’ve ever read doesn’t mean it has to apply in your book too.

7. Write like yourself.
If you try to write like Nabokov, there will always be at least one person (whose name is Nabokov) who’ll do it better than you. But when it comes to writing the way you do, you’ll always be the world champion at being yourself.

8. Make sure you’re all alone in the room when you write.
Even if writing in cafés sounds romantic, having other people around you is likely to make you conform, whether you realize it or not. When there’s nobody around, you can talk to yourself or pick your nose without even being aware of it. Writing can be a kind of nose-picking, and when there are people around, the task may become less natural.

9. Let people who like what you write encourage you.
And try to ignore all the others. Whatever you’ve written is simply not for them. Never mind. There are plenty of other writers in the world. If they look hard enough, they’re bound to find one who meets their expectations.

10. Hear what everyone has to say but don’t listen to anyone (except me).
Writing is the most private territory in the world. Just as nobody can really teach you how you like your coffee, so nobody can really teach you how to write. If someone gives you a piece of advice that sounds right and feels right, use it. If someone gives you a piece of advice that sounds right and feels wrong, don’t waste so much as a single second on it. It may be fine for someone else, but not for you. ♦

Translated by Miriam Shlesinger

74 Comments

  • NotReallyChristian September 20th, 2012 7:15 PM

    Looking at that photo, I definitely thought this was going to be an article about nose-picking. It’s not, but here’s my PSA anyway: DON’T DO IT! I have a hole inside my nose like I snort coke, except I’ve never snorted coke!! And the only thing more embarrassing than your doctor asking you if you snort coke is telling her no, but you do pick your nose. Seriously you guys, I can touch my little fingers together if I put one up each nostril, and there’s a possibility that if I kept going my nose might collapse.
    In other news, good article!

    • oleander September 20th, 2012 8:46 PM

      Ahahahaha!!! Such a great article, and then as i scroll down to comment this! It made me laugh out loud :) luckily I find it more fun to blow my nose like a sportsman in the shower (press one nostril closed and SNORT, now the other…) so I will heed your warning.
      <3 notreallychristian <3 rookie

    • Anaheed September 20th, 2012 10:02 PM

      oh my god, you need to write a whole article about the dangers of nose picking

      • allydoubleyou September 20th, 2012 10:05 PM

        like.

      • NotReallyChristian September 21st, 2012 5:58 AM

        Gladly: how about ‘Just Say Nose’ for a working title??

        • Hedwig September 21st, 2012 1:03 PM

          omgomgogmgog

        • purrr November 28th, 2012 4:11 PM

          have you sent your pitch in yet? haha

        • Maisie November 12th, 2013 5:04 PM

          Reading this over a year later… WHERE IS ‘Just say Nose’ !!!!

    • raggedyanarchy September 23rd, 2012 8:59 PM

      Seriously though, I look forward to reading an article about the dangers of nose picking.

  • MissKnowItAll September 20th, 2012 7:23 PM

    This is all really trie. I write songs and I can never cater for a person because I justw rite whatever I feel.

  • koolkat September 20th, 2012 7:37 PM

    My problem with writing is that I can never seem to get an idea going in the first place. I used to be able to work out whole intricate plots when I was younger, but now I can’t get past the intro. I found the bit about starting in the middle interesting–that could be my problem actually–I never plan ahead! Does anyone else have this problem / know how to fix it?

    • all-art-is-quite-useless September 21st, 2012 1:19 PM

      My problem is that I can come up with an idea for the beginning of a story, more like a scenario really, but I find it so hard to think of an ending. My stories are almost never finished because I get bored of them (or have another idea – and my other ideas for stories almost always seem better than the story I’m trying to write). I think trying to start in the middle could help me, or perhaps even thinking up an ending then thinking of how the story got there, does this sound like a good idea? I need help!

      Also, I find it really hard to share my writing with people, because my characters are so much a part of me, like I’m sure a lot of people who write’s characters are, and it would feel like someone was reading my personal thoughts… When I’m set creative writing tasks for english homework, I feel like I’m always censoring myself (is this too close to me? from somewhere too deep in me?), and I think my writing would be better if I didn’t. Should I stop self-censoring so much? Should I share more of my work?

      • LeatherStuddedFae September 23rd, 2012 8:20 AM

        Yeah. I have the same problems. I really want to write stories, I really do but there’s some many obstacles that I go through.

        It’s hard especially when writer’s block happens. =/

        • LeatherStuddedFae September 23rd, 2012 8:21 AM

          there are so many* :))

  • suburban grrrl September 20th, 2012 7:40 PM

    This is great help! Now if I can only find the time. . .

    http://sub-urbangrrrl.blogspot.com/

  • EveyMarrie September 20th, 2012 7:53 PM

    I really love this article. I’m in the middle of writing stuff too and I never considered starting from the middle of the story. I usually have a big idea and plan out lots of ideas I want to implement and then I ditch them when it seems to be too much work and well, maybe starting somewhere in the middle will help me out a bit first before tackling ‘the mood’ of my story.

    I don’t know, point is, this person is awesome and I’m bookmarking this :)

  • moonchild September 20th, 2012 7:57 PM

    This is so inspiring! I think I’ll write tonight! :) Thanks so much!

    Love,
    Gwen

  • missblack September 20th, 2012 8:05 PM

    This is excellent advice, right here. I especially like number three because, like, if writers really did set fire to living room carpets they didn’t like, literature would be a whole lot more interesting :D

    Little&Trivial

  • kzspygv September 20th, 2012 8:11 PM

    I’ve read so many books about writing I don’t know what to to believe anymore, but I really do agree about the nose-picking. When I’m in the car I think I’m invisible, so I pick my nose, until I’m at a stoplight and suddenly realize the person in the car next to me has been staring the whole time.

  • readyfortofade September 20th, 2012 8:16 PM

    Thank you so much for this! I love Etgar Keret. I just finished “Suddenly, A Knock on the Door” after reading some of the stories in the collection in various publications beforehand. I’m also so glad you posted a story in audio form – there’s something inherently powerful and unique about literature out loud.
    See this link for an article about more Keret audio:
    http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/10/etgar-kerets-stories-read-by-a-chorus-of-voices/

    (My favorite is Miranda July).

    Unfortunately, my computer couldn’t load Tavi’s version – help!

    (Also, rule #1 made me remember how groovy writing really is. Now I can’t wait to get back to the play I’m working on…)

    • Anaheed September 21st, 2012 2:55 AM

      Try playing the audio on a different browser — that usually works.

  • la fee clochette September 20th, 2012 8:35 PM

    wow, these are all potently inspiring points! I liked 4 and 7 and 10 best. But really. ALL.

  • sarahelizabeth September 20th, 2012 8:40 PM

    I love this!

  • roserach September 20th, 2012 8:45 PM

    When I first saw the title I got really excited. The article completely lived up to my excitement. Such good tips. 7 can be applied to anything at life. For example I like –, blank likes so and so. I now want to be so and so. But so and so will always be better at being them. Loved the article!!

  • Ben September 20th, 2012 8:47 PM

    these are great! I feel inspired to write now and i love how he dosen’t enforce all the rules they teach you in school! write the way you want! have fun with it!

  • Mags September 20th, 2012 9:16 PM

    This is the best advice on writing that I have ever read. It’s not pretentious or condescending; it’s just right.

  • faithdarwin September 20th, 2012 10:11 PM

    ETGAR KERET! YES! He is one of my favorite authors; I was just recommending him to someone in my fiction-writing class yesterday. This could not have come at a more perfect time. Thanks, Rookie!

  • taylorhotel September 20th, 2012 10:34 PM

    This is great and inspiring and accurate on what I’m being called out on (oh, how romantic to be writing in a coffee shop). More like this, please! :)

  • litchick September 20th, 2012 10:46 PM

    All of these “rules” are great, but the tip about starting from the middle of the story is my favorite! And it was nice to see that other people found it helpful/have the same getting-halfway-through-a-story-before-trashing-it problem! Hopefully we can all work that out! :)

  • FiveDimesForNineLives September 20th, 2012 10:52 PM

    This is great help! I’m a writer and these tips will help for sure.

  • Grrrl Life September 21st, 2012 12:51 AM

    This is a great article! I am a writer, and this is very helpful for when I’m in a large, black pit of writer’s block. Thanks for the great advice!

  • cristal22 September 21st, 2012 1:34 AM

    writing this comment while i procrastinate on writing an essay hehe

  • justcallmekatie September 21st, 2012 2:24 AM

    This is all 100% true, not to mention helpful. Thank s!!! <33333

  • ivoire September 21st, 2012 3:59 AM

    does anyone have wattpad? its a site for writers and aspiring writers and everybody in between!

    • whisperedglasswords September 22nd, 2012 4:10 AM

      I do! I’m Lynira on there. :)

  • ahinoam September 21st, 2012 7:28 AM

    I’m from Israel and LOVE Etger Keret! (I even played in a play based on the story “Glittery eyes”)
    What a lovely surprise to see an article about him here :(

  • raquellabella September 21st, 2012 11:44 AM

    This is refreshing and fun, on a subject that is often taken too seriously. Thanks for sharing!

    http://www.soulcandymag.wordpress.com

  • Hedwig September 21st, 2012 1:01 PM

    4. Always start from the middle.
    The beginning is like the scorched edge of a cake that’s touched the cake pan. You may need it just to get going, but it isn’t really edible.

    SO TRUE. Thank you for expressing what I’ve been looking for

  • eliselbv September 21st, 2012 1:45 PM

    Those are great advices and I hope it will help me because I always start writing pages and pages but never finish my stories because I always think that they are bad. But I don’t agree with the fact that you must write with nobody around you, for me inspiration comes from people around me, when I’m at my desk the only thing I see is a white wall and it does not inspire me at all.

    http://www.iloveyourjokes.blogspot.com

  • M.Rose September 21st, 2012 1:54 PM

    I love this! Whenever I try to write, I can only ever do it for me. These are brilliant.

    http://fledglingstyle.blogspot.co.uk/

  • RhiaSnape September 21st, 2012 4:06 PM

    This is really cool advice that I’ll definitely try. The one about starting from the middle is something that I’ve never heard before, so will have to see if it works! I can often think of ideas, but get lost in thinking about it, and never feel able to write it. I need to work on the whole loving my characters thing too…

  • rhymeswithorange September 21st, 2012 6:56 PM

    Yay Etgar Keret! I really like “What, of this Goldfish, Would You Wish?” Good writing about writing too

  • AnaRuiz September 21st, 2012 7:23 PM

    This is what I love about Rookie! It tells you what nobody else does.

  • gia September 21st, 2012 10:03 PM

    YES. Yes yes yes yes Etgar Keret?? Rookie you are a dream. He visited my school but I forgot to take notes on his lecture… I know. Before that talk short story writing seemed completely impenetrable to me but the advice he gave me, something effectively around the lines of “I write questions, not answers” completely changed my perspective

  • Sea goddess September 21st, 2012 10:49 PM

    This is BRILLIANT, it has encouraged me a whole lot to keep on writing :D thanks Rookie…ps: the story of the girl who loved glitter is painfully sweet!! And so harsh yet so innocent amazing work..ill def be reading something of Etgar later on ;)

  • Caits September 22nd, 2012 12:21 AM

    ETGAR KERET! He is a brilliant writer and this article has made me love him even more. “You’ll always be the world champion at being yourself” what a great guy :)

  • Yani September 22nd, 2012 12:32 PM

    anaheed, i love you. i don’t know why. i just do. you are a calming presence in the commenter-sphere and i admire you.
    /*

  • anywherebuthere September 22nd, 2012 2:02 PM

    I went to go see Etgar at a writer’s fest in Israel… he was the strangest, sweetest guy ever (and he doodled in my book!)
    Also, all of this is ridiculously true. I never feel like “me” writing in a coffee place – I always feel like it’s me + Stacy + Bob in the corner over there.

    Is there a nose pickers anonymous group?

  • AClementine September 22nd, 2012 2:57 PM

    Haha completely agree with number 8 coz the guy who wrote Mme Bovary used to repeat sentences just to out loud over and over again just to know where to put the comma – so I’m pretty sure he didn’t do that in his local cafe (though maybe he did, you never know).

  • aya September 23rd, 2012 3:14 AM

    I love him. He is ine if the best writers ever. Keret is famus in israel but for a reason. As an israely im really glad that i can read his peaces in hebrew. I wish you all could.
    And a litel israely pride. I cab say that i am a Rookie adict. I just loooove it

  • EmilyB September 23rd, 2012 11:10 AM

    I have the exact same problem, I always start so inspired and have the first five sentences down and then I get to the middle and I’m like, You know what would be fun? ANOTHER STORY. With another beginning and even prettier interesting problems. Alas, that is the truth, that is the joy of blogging. And of course practising writing.
    http://dottedblazer.blogspot.co.uk/

  • lollie September 23rd, 2012 2:33 PM

    This article is great. I love writing. I don´t know how to live without it. These tips are…they just helped me on my way finding my own style. I think it is not easy nowadays. I love Rookie and every author of this mag! Thank you!!!

  • ella-t September 24th, 2012 2:46 PM

    All things I knew, but sometimes you really need to hear these things from someone who isn’t you. Like, numbers 1, 2, 3 and 5.

    Thank you.

  • annne September 24th, 2012 3:58 PM

    i just sat down to start a new story…perfect timing!

  • Harley September 24th, 2012 7:00 PM

    This makes me want to write again, I can always create my characters and I know what their purpose is in the story, but I don’t know how to get them to their destination. This helps!

  • rockslita September 25th, 2012 10:42 AM

    I started a new story yesterday. I needed this tips so much, thank you!

  • vonSeck September 25th, 2012 5:33 PM

    Very true, and if can add one thing. Put your characters through hell (even if it’s a fluffy hell) it always pays off when they overcome.

  • Betti E September 26th, 2012 12:12 PM

    I have a question about points #9 and #10, which involve feedback on your work. I’m currently majoring in Creative Writing and one of my professors told us the importance of constructive criticism. I’ve been in 3 writing workshops, and I agree that when people compliment the work I feel great about it, but it’s when I receive criticism (constructive and educated opinions) that I learn the most. I think it’s an error to “ignore” people’s feedback, but one should always listen to it, and try and learn from it.

  • Glenny September 26th, 2012 3:07 PM

    It would be AWESOME if someone on the Rookie staff recorded herself reading a story liiiike… every month. Anyone else think so?

    I loved this article/ listening to the story. Thanks, Rookie.

    • Cutesycreator aka Monica September 29th, 2012 8:51 AM

      Ooh, that sounds like a great idea! That would be sooooo cool.

  • littlemissx September 26th, 2012 4:25 PM

    This literally made me cry. I’ve never even heard of this man, but he just summed up everything I’ve been dying to hear from my own creative writing teacher.

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica September 29th, 2012 8:49 AM

    Great article! All the rules are very helpful. :)

  • ZisZisZis September 29th, 2012 9:34 AM

    Great article. I’m writing songs and those rules definitely work for that too. I especially like the last rule, ’cause when I’m playing live, I always have a lot of people giving me their advice and opinion, and I think it’s super important to listen to them, and always interesting, but then again, most of the time it does not really help me or anything, and thou shalt not worry about it.

  • 209478rosie September 30th, 2012 2:44 AM

    LOVE!!! I think these are great rules to have if you are an aspiring writer and don’t know where to start. My favorite is the rule that tells us to toss conventions. You will never hear this in an English class and that is why it is so great!

  • justnat October 11th, 2012 5:23 PM

    These are great! #5 is difficult to follow for me, though, because if I have the end planned out in a way that I like, it’s motivation for me to finish. If I don’t know how I want it to end, I’ll never finish it.

  • Lolly October 19th, 2012 2:56 PM

    Most of that list is poor advice for anyone whose work will be seen by other people. Replies below (1 of 2).

    1. Of course writing has hard bits. Everything worth caring about has hard bits. It doesn’t mean you don’t love something if you don’t enjoy every second of it.

    2. There is the risk of loving your characters in inappropriate ways and using them to bad effect (Mary Sue, anyone?) Love your characters, but have a realistic view of their flaws and how others should react to them.

    3. True. If you publish it, though, you owe your readers a piece into which you’ve put some effort and sense. If not, don’t expect favourable reviews.

    4 & 5. It’s useful to have an overview, but if something else works better than the structure you had, go with it. There isn’t a right place to start, once you’re into the detail.

    6. Some rules can be broken, but FOR THE LOVE OF SANITY, LEARN GRAMMAR, SPELLING AND PUNCTUATION. They matter to everyone who doesn’t want brains trickling out of ears during reading. Quotation marks indicate speech, and it can be very confusing to leave them out. The format should clearly point the reader in the right direction, unless you have a very good reason not to.

    7. Write like yourself, but at some point, you’ll have to learn a lot of different ‘voices’ for your characters.

    8. Write wherever you’re comfortable and productive. Solitude might not work if you’re an extrovert who likes to bounce ideas off other people.

  • Lolly October 19th, 2012 2:57 PM

    Replies, (2 of 2):

    9. If you’re surrounded by people who tell you everything you do is great, sooner or later you’ll find your head firmly lodged up your arse. Sometimes, people can have valid concerns about your writing without being nasty. Constructive criticism is essential.

    10. See 9. A better way to phrase this one would be, “Does the advice make sense?” Nobody else can dictate how your story should go, but if someone tells you your magical psychic mysterious space elf princess is overblown, or that ‘a lot’ is two words, not one, for goodness’ sake, listen.

    • Lolly October 19th, 2012 3:01 PM

      Typo re: 10 – ‘tells you your’.

  • fabiola_meza November 5th, 2012 12:33 AM

    Ok, I LOVE you, thanks for posting this, I love Etgar, and the fact that his stories are becoming more and more available to the public (I’m from México and is almost impossible to get a copy of any of his books). So, thanks for promote such wonderful writers.

  • Summer November 5th, 2012 7:09 PM

    I think I’m going to print this out and put it in my notebook

  • vintagewhimsy November 6th, 2012 6:27 PM

    This is great advice! I love writing.

    http://vintagereverie.wordpress.com

  • adacharlotte November 2nd, 2013 7:00 PM

    This is absolutely the BEST advice about writing, like, ever. OMG I LOVE IT SO MUCH

  • greyelephant November 2nd, 2013 7:10 PM

    I love this. It truly inspires me to continue to love what I tell people I love, and that is being the chemist that concocts a formula of words to meet my own contentment.