69 Rules for Novelists
By Alan Good
Jonathan Franzen recently poked his head out of his secret internetless lair in a bunker inside a mountain to publish an essay, for the website Literary Hub, called “Jonathan Franzen’s 10 Rules for Writers.” Like all good essays, it was adapted from a book of essays, this one called The End of the Earth: Essays. The essay I’m writing is adapted from my own book of essays called 69 Essays: Essays About 69ing.
You don’t have to make your narrator a writer, but you can, and the people who say they’re sick of novels about writers will still have shitloads, boatloads, and even butt-loads of non-narrated-by-a-writer novels to choose from.
You don’t have to have an agent, a publicist, an MFA, a friend on the inside, or any kind of friend anywhere, to write good novels, but it helps to have a dog.
I don’t really get the present tense, to me it seems overdone, it tends to put me off, but some people seem to really like it. This one is not so much a rule as a parable, which in itself is another parable.
Write in the first person. Or the third person if that works better. Maybe throw in a little second person, I don’t know. Is there a fourth person yet? Do that, too.
You probably won’t win if you attack them in public, but it’s OK to hate people who one-star your books. Feel free to badmouth them to me in private. It’s also a great idea to keep a list of their names, not—and I want to be very clear here—not so you can assassinate them, do NOT keep a hit list of people who one-star your books, and definitely do not assassinate them, but so you have a ready supply of names for your shittiest characters.
I don’t believe in Hell. I do, however, believe that any writer who one-stars another person’s novel will go to Hell. It’s one thing to trash or criticize it, but one-starring is irredeemable. Might want to double-check your Goodreads review of Purity.
You don’t have to care about all of your characters, but you should care about something. Shit, that one sounded a little too earnest. Sorry.
The trope of the isolated, antisocial writer is romantic, and alluring for awkward, grumpy people like me, but you’ll have an easier time booking readings if you have a ton of friends.
Try to get some exercise.
Respond to emails.
Blurbs are overrated.
Don’t let people kiss your ass.
If you can find some people you like, hang out with them, joke around with them, but don’t be in a clique.
Don’t kiss other people’s asses.
You should oppose fascism and racism and all forms of bigotry, but not as a marketing strategy.
Read other people’s work and let them know when you like it. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Self-deprecation is still good, even if some people say it’s not. One of the reasons people hate Franzen is he comes across in interviews as someone who takes himself really seriously, a trait he shares with many of his more strident detractors.
Some books are long. Some books are short. Some books are somewhere in between. Don’t be an asshole about how long a book is. A short novel isn’t inherently incomplete and a long-ass novel doesn’t mean the author is a pretentious blowhard.
Don’t whine about sensitivity readers. I don’t really like the term, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with the concept. Writers who whine about sensitivity readers need to stop being so damn sensitive.
It’s easy to make fun of Jonathan Franzen because sometimes he says some incredibly pompous things, but there are worse people, and worse writers, out there, and they deserve to be made fun of, too.
It’s OK to recycle tweets (as I’m about to do for the next few bullshit rules). Twitter is not a publisher; it’s more like a notebook where you write your deepest, dumbest thoughts even though millions of people have instant access to it.
If you’re a writer looking for an agent, you should know that Amy Schumer and the Obamas got all the money in publishing, so keep your regular job and get to know some small press folks.
Readability, likability, and relatability can all get fucked. Congratulations you’ve completed my MasterClass! Believability, also, can get fucked. Credit to Deborah E. Kennedy for suggesting that one.
Even if your book sucks, practically no one will read it, so go ahead and write it and then nominate it for a bunch of awards and shit.
Before you start a Patreon, consider doing a heist. You’ve got my email address. Don’t think of it as grand larceny. Think of it as a writing grant you received without having to fuck with all the paperwork.
Being offended by cuss words is fucking elitist.
Look, kid, in order to be successful in this business it’s important to already be successful.
Be fucking judicious with your fucking swears. Otherfuckingwise you’ll fucking sound infuckingaufuckingthentic as fuck.
Think about the world. Everything is political.
Don’t steal. Also, this list is neither definitive nor all-inclusive and if you read the whole thing and are like “Why the fuck didn’t he talk about __________? What an asshat!,” consider that maybe I thought about talking about that thing but didn’t because one of the four thousand other writers who made a list of writing rules in response to Franzen’s list already talked about it.
Whiteness is not the default.
Destroy your ego.
If you feel like writing culture or some term like that is tilting too far to one extreme, you don’t have to put on a fucking sombrero and make a spectacle of yourself by tilting to the other extreme for fuck’s sake.
Go ahead and complain about rejections, but don’t single out individual agents, editors, or publishers (unless they’re doing something exploitative or unethical) and don’t send assholey responses to your rejections and especially don’t send pictures of your dick or asshole.
More fucking. With this caveat: unless you’re going for laughs or trying to get nominated for a Bad Sex Award for the publicity, think really hard and then don’t even do it before using a simile or metaphor in a sex scene.
“Kill all your darlings” isn’t great advice.
Give people some room to fuck up and be wrong about stuff so they can grow, but if it’s time to jump in and try to persuade them to change their mind do it in a way that won’t make them hate you and be able to portray themselves as a victim of your bullying. That was advice for anyone, not just novelists, which reminds me don’t let me forget to give you my PayPal info.
You deserve to get paid.
There have to be better ways for journals and small publishers to stay afloat than charging submission fees.
Have a writerly name. Franzen was born with a double advantage because all Jonathans are guaranteed at least one book deal and his surname, which originates in Roman-Latin, actually translates to English as “big shot writer dude.”
Use precise language, except when making a list of writing advice, in which case you should use the word “rules” when you really mean “suggestions.”
You can pretty much put anything on a book cover or in your bio. For instance, I am the Man-Booker-nominated author of the internationally most famous Pulitzer-nominated Invasive Species series.
If you’re not sure whether it’s OK for you to use the n-word, don’t use it. It’s possible to write racist characters without that word. They might be more authentic anyway, since so many racist people think you can’t actually be racist as long as you don’t use the n-word.
Don’t publish stuff before it’s ready, but you also don’t have time to wait for some magic editor to pluck you from obscurity. This is your life. Work hard and make your own fucking opportunities.
You’re going to feel isolated and overlooked, but you can’t indulge in self-pity or blame your lack of success or popularity on other people (or on fake-ass bullshit like “misandry in publishing”). It is, however, OK to hex the assholes.
This isn’t new advice, but go for walks.
Be respectful and thoughtful and do some real fucking research when you write characters from outside your own culture or experience.
There’s a reason why so many novelists are somewhere on the left. Whatever conservative writer you can think of to contradict this rule is more overrated than blurbs, especially if you’re thinking of Tom Wolfe.
Regardless of your politics, if you’re a cheerleader for capitalism your novels are guaranteed to suck.
Amazon is not on your side.
It’s like Beckett said: “Ever tried. Ever fucked up. No matter. Try again. Fuck up again. Fuck up better.”
The only thing you should take less seriously than yourself is writing advice.
Online writing doesn’t have to be short.
Rules 56-68 aren’t really that important, so we can skip them. This is an online essay after all.
Page 69 of your novel should have a bit of 69ing. That’s how you keep the reader—wait for it—comeing back for more.
Alan Good is the Man-Booker-nominated author of the internationally most famous Pulitzer-nominated Invasive Species series. His novels include Barn Again: A Memoir, which was nominated by the author for a Colorado Book Award.