Zadie Smith wrote hers. These are mine.
1. Be born in a country with a reasonably well-run public education system, or, failing that, be born into a family wealthy enough nurture and educate you privately and spare you the privations of having entered the world via a poorly run, or just poor, country.
2. Read as much as you can. If the thought that you’ll die before having read every good book ever written depresses you, good. You’re halfway home, and it’s only rule #2.
3. Don’t restrict yourself to reading your favorite genre. There’s so much out there to learn in so many fields. Don’t let math or science frighten you. Do everything you can to soak up knowledge. It’ll enrich your work. The best writers I’ve met could all compete with Ken Jennings.
4. Write every day, whether you feel like it or not. Plying your trade regardless of how you feel is the mark of a pro–in any job.
5. Get to know the top writers in your field and (politely) find ways to show them your work. If two of them, coming from vastly different aesthetic viewpoints, think your work is worthwhile or better, then welcome to the show.
6. Don’t obsess over your status or compare yourself to peers. Accept that this is show business, not a field renowned for its fairness in allocating fortune or glory. Those richer or more acclaimed in the business may be lucky and lame (or lucky and brilliant), but they aren’t holding you back; and those below you aren’t looking up at you because you’re more talented or more deserving.
7. Don’t wait for people to respond to, or approve of, your work. Waiting’s for chumps. Put your queries and application forms and submissions in their envelopes, mail them, forget about them, and proceed with your next project.
8. Don’t get too excited about vague encouragement. The air thickens with it anywhere writers gather: MFA programs, readings, workshops, panels, and conferences. Get excited if someone in the business offers to help. When pros say something like: “I think your writing has a special quality/mordant sensibility/quirky wit,” they’re just pleasantly passing time until you’re gone or their drinks need refilling.
9. Develop a taste for your own company and jealously guard the frontiers of your writing space.
10. Remember that this game is long, and that if you’re both brilliant and lucky, it’ll go on after you, and everyone you know, has died. So don’t just write for the people you see around you. Write for their great grandchildren. They, not the National Book Awards panel, are your final judges. (That said, I’d really like a National Book Award.)
Good luck, and just remember, the odds are overwhelming that you’ll fail.