Are there rules for writing a book? Of the principles that must absolutely be followed? History seems to teach us no: whenever a certain literary genre has tried to crystallize, giving rise to real rules, a revolutionary novel has immediately arrived, which has managed to reshuffle the cards on the table and propose new models.
Even the writers themselves, or at least the most important ones in our literature, seem to tell us that there are no rules, at least because everyone gives different advice. There are those who say that you have to experience the stories you want to tell in person, while those who prefer to work with fantasy.
Who says that before starting to write, you need to have the message you want to launch well in your head, and who, instead, maintains that looking for the end of a story is the task of the reader and not of the writer.
On some points, however, many authors seem to agree. We have chosen five, relying on the words of some of the most important of the twentieth century.
1. The six rules of the author of 1984
Let’s start with George Orwell, one who wrote the books – as he says in other sentences that we don’t have the space to bring back here – to communicate an idea, to tell the truth: for a purpose, in short, ethical and political.
On the other hand, it is enough to recall his two main masterpieces, 1984 and The Farm of the Animals, to understand how his being a writer was a necessity deriving from the fear of democracy at a time when totalitarianisms were on the agenda.
From this same idea of militant literature his writing suggestions also derive, mainly devoted to finding the best way to communicate his idea to his audience: and therefore the search for the best words, the most significant images, the vivacity of the representation.
George Orwell and the scrupulous writer
Born in India to an English family in 1903, Orwell (whose real name was Eric Arthur Blair) studied in Eton in the late ’10s, also having Aldous Huxley as his teacher.
After a brief stint in the Imperial Police in Burma, he wandered between Paris and London, mostly penniless, doing very humble jobs in an attempt to explore the slums of large European cities. Meanwhile, he started writing articles and reviews, as well as a few novels of modest success.
With the outbreak of the civil war in Spain, he left for the front, fighting alongside the Trotskyists. The repression to which his political side was condemned by the Stalinists convinced him to deal with ever greater lust for totalitarianism.
Already during the Second World War he wrote The Animal Farm, an anti-Stalinist libel which was only published to him after Hitler’s defeat, while it is dated 1948 (although published the following year) his most famous book, 1984, a masterpiece of dystopian literature. He died prematurely in January 1950.
2. No useless words
If George Orwell is now famous, above all because he was also studied at school, perhaps the name of Hunter Stockton Thompson, one of the most influential journalists in the American scene of the 60s and 70s, is perhaps less well known, although certainly an idea about his life you will have done it seeing the fear and delirium in Las Vegas, a film inspired by his report written in first person and interpreted by Johnny Depp.
His books are not really novels, but it is also difficult to call them essays or collections of articles.
Thompson is in fact considered the father of gonzo journalism, that particular style aimed at reproducing more personal impressions than actual facts, using a language taken from the story and applied to news stories, reportage, and descriptions of electoral campaigns.
The cardinal point of Hunter S. Thompson
Born in 1937 in Louisville, he began working as a sports journalist at a rather early age. He achieved success in the late 1960s, when he worked for Rolling Stone.
In ’71 he collected his articles written during an excursion to Las Vegas (to follow first a motorcycle race and then a convention of district attorneys) in the famous Paura e delirio in Las Vegas, then repeated the following year with Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, written while following Nixon’s presidential campaign.
After becoming a cult author by the nickname of Dr. Gonzo or Dr. Duke (a character from the famous Doonesbury strip, precisely Uncle Duke, he is obviously inspired by him), Thompson died in 2005 at his home in Woody Creek, at 67 years of age, for a gunshot.
For the police it was suicide, although – as is logical with such a character – the doubts raised by his friends were many.
3. Every day of one’s life
Instead, Ray Bradbury left a couple of years ago, another who – like Orwell – is considered one of the fathers of the dystopian novel. One of the most important writers of the twentieth century American science fiction, he produced an impressive series of stories and novels, with an enviable prolificacy.
The secret of his technique is very simple, as also emerges from the phrase we have chosen: to write a lot and to read the same, waiting for luck to do the rest.
And that he was a very friendly and versatile man is also demonstrated by his career, which was not limited to the literary field but also ranged in screenplays and adaptations for cinema and TV.
Ray Bradbury’s recipe for happiness
Born in Illinois in 1920, he moved to California in the 1930s and here he began to get interested in science fiction and more in general to pulp literature, that published, at low cost, in popular magazines.
The first successes came in the 1950s, when he first collected some of his stories in the Martian Chronicles volume and then published his most famous novel, Fahrenheit 451.
His other famous works are The game of the planets, Destination … Earth! and The People of Autumn, all published between the 1950s and 1960s, although its production remained conspicuous until the last years of his life.
He disappeared in June 2012 in Los Angeles. His latest novel, if we exclude the anthology Now and Forever, is Goodbye Summer, dated 2006.
4. This is how it is done
Even if this five is not ordered chronologically but according to a logical order, passing from preliminary to more technical advice, with the fourth point of our list we approach more recent times and to a writer not only alive and well, but also particularly active: Neil Gaiman.
Born as a journalist, converted to a comic book scriptwriter (with excellent results, as shown by the many accolades earned in his career but also the fact that we have just inserted one of his works among the best publications of 2014), Gaiman has moved on to traditional literature over the years. 90.
And it has also gained a growing consensus that culminated, between 2001 and 2002, in its two most popular novels, American Gods and Coraline.
Neil Gaiman and the ambivalence of writing
Born in 1960 near Portsmouth, in the south of England, Gaiman started his career working mainly as a music journalist and writing some stories here and there; he started working at DC Comics in the 1980s, being acclaimed by critics especially with Sandman, a character published by the Vertigo label.
Except for a first job in 1990 – Good Apocalypse to all !, written in collaboration with the fantasy author Terry Pratchett -, he has devoted himself to books since 1996.
In these eighteen years he started writing both novels for adults – in addition to the aforementioned American Gods, winner of the Nebula award and the Hugo prize, there are also No where and the boys of Anansi -, and books for boys, too much appreciated as Coraline, the wolves in the walls and the son of the cemetery.
5. The three rules for writing a novel
We conclude with the most cynical and disenchanted of the authors we have chosen, but perhaps also with the most sincere: William Somerset Maugham. On the other hand, the harshness, acidity and grim irony were also a feature not only of his aphorisms on writing, but also of his novels, in which he did not spare criticism of the bourgeoisie of his time.
As we said at the beginning, we can list many writing rules, we can write a lot of manuals (and some contemporary authors, driven by the growing demand, did it), you can open schools and teach techniques, but the novel, like any novel work of art, is by its nature free, does not respond to rules, does not take into account what is taught in schools.
Because if it did we wouldn’t have many of the twentieth century masterpieces, which those rules openly violate.
The conclusion of W. Somerset Maugham
Born in 1874 in Paris, inside the British embassy where his father worked, he was early orphan of both mother and father and was raised by a particularly cold uncle who gave him a troubled childhood.
He studied as a doctor, breaking the family tradition that all Maugham lawyers wanted, and the experience gained during the years of study and training provided him with much material for his novels.
He made his debut with the realist Liza of Lambeth and success succeeded him soon after, above all thanks to theatrical works that depopulated in the London of the ’10s.
Immediately afterwards he published Schiavo d’amore, one of his masterpieces and strongly autobiographical, followed by The moon and six money, The painted veil, La diva Julia and The razor’s edge. He died of tuberculosis in 1965.