1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading charcters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
(These are from the above link, which in turn borrows them from Vonnegut's Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction.)
Now, many successful writers have broken some (or nearly all) of these rules on several occasions, and I don't completely agree with all of them (my biggest quarrel is with #8). I do, however, think they comprise one of the better succinct "how-to" (or "how-not-to") guides to writing fiction, and I think they go a long way toward explaining why even fiction that isn't written that well can sell like hotcakes.
Now, it should also come as no surprise to you that I am decidedly not a fan of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books (to use a somewhat dated example). However! I think they sell for many reasons apart from this country's recent obsession with vampires and the perpetual attraction of teenage girls to mysterious, well-coiffed boys. Some of those reasons include: Meyer gives the reader someone to root for; every characer in her books wants something; terrible things happen to her protagonists; &c, &c.
Some of Vonnegut's rules are a bit vague (see #1), but I think they nonetheless provide good benchmarks for whether or not one's fiction is, at the very least, functional. What I like best about them is that they're reader-oriented, not craft-oriented, so the question "What does the reader want? What will engage him/her?" is always paramount.
So I ask you, mes auteurs: what are your favorite writing quote/unquote rules? Which do you follow and which do you break? Which authors/books have proved themselves most useful to you when writing your own fiction?
To the comments!