description

Retread #5: The Rules of Writing: Fun to Make and Break

A sudden painting project means at least one more retread for the blog. I saw a post about Elmore Leonard’s writing rules recently, which brought to mind this post from February 2012. No grumpiness warning needed.

Recently [in 2012] CBC Radio issued a challenge to its followers to write sentences breaking Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing. I suspect the assumption was that the results would be examples of really bad writing, and therefore chuckleworthy.

Setting the challenge aside here, I wonder if that assumption is justified. Surely it depends on what kind of thing a writer is writing. Rules that apply to gritty, hard-boiled urban fiction may be totally wrong for romance, or fantasy, or Literature with a capital “L.” There may be a few fundamental rules that apply to all writing, but I’m not sure that Elmore Leonard’s list qualifies.

I have to admit, this topic of Rules of Writing is one that I find hard to leave alone. It’s like salted nuts, or maybe like a burr, because I find such rules irritating. Never mind whose rules they are; as soon as I perceive that someone is pontificating to writers (even other writers), I go into combat mode, or at least argument mode. A year ago the Guardian newspaper published writing rules by a large number of writers. Some are quirky, or just funny. From Canada’s own Margaret Atwood:  take two [italics mine] pencils with you on planes, in case one breaks and you can’t sharpen it because no one can take a knife on a plane any more. (But are those little stick-it-in-and-twist pencil sharpeners confiscated by security, I wonder?) See what I mean about arguing?

So what about Mr. Leonard’s rules? I agree with a few of them, such as the one about avoiding adverbs (words that end in “ly,” including “suddenly”) — and not just to modify “said.” Ditto exclamation points and dialect.  Also, I would add, italics.

But I think some of the rules are too restrictive. Yes, it’s best to carry dialogue with “said,” but sometimes you need another word, as when a character doesn’t just say something, but splutters, groans, sighs or mutters. Words like these add texture and juiciness. They should be used sparingly, like spices, but not banished from a writer’s vocabulary.

Come  to think of it, Mr. L. uses “never” way too many times in his rules.

Weather and description. Mr. L. says never to start a book with weather and to avoid descriptions of people, places or things. I think it’s a matter of degree. Having your character stand there like a dummy while you give a verbal snapshot of their clothing, hair and accessories doesn’t work. But readers want to know something about your main characters, including what they look like. The trick is to create vivid images of them by slipping details into sections of action or dialogue, so people don’t even recognize the descriptive bits as such.

As for weather and places, these can be opportunities for “beautiful writing,” the kind that gives the writer a frisson when he or she reads it over at the end of a writing session. The trouble is that readers don’t always share those frissons and often skip over those sections to find out what happens next. Sad but true, at least for plot-driven books. Writers of the literary type may get away with beautiful writing, because they attract readers who enjoy that sort of thing.

Rule #10 is one of those sneaky lines that gets remembered and quoted; it’s also guaranteed to induce anxiety in the insecure writer (and just about all of us are insecure at some point). “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” So what parts are those? Here is my quick top-of-brain list of what to look for in your never-ending revision sessions:  1. Long paragraphs that contain extended descriptions or backstory, even though the writing is beautiful. Consider cuts or moves. 2. Extended sections of dialogue with no action, especially those where the speakers are not identified. 3. Long action sequences of the sort where all hell breaks loose for several pages. They may be crammed with verbs, but when they go on and on, the little movie-maker in the reader’s brain gets tired and wants a break. Have your characters go for a drink and talk about the weather.

Image from Pixabay

Advertisements

The Movie in the Mind

What happens in your head when you read fiction? I see movies. They are sort of fragmented and compressed, and share some qualities with dreams, but I definitely see pictures. I see the characters and settings as described by the author and hear the conversations represented by the written dialogue.

Each scene is a separate little film, ranging from (to mix a metaphor) a sketch to a fully-realized, detailed picture, depending on the amount of description furnished by the author. If the scenes all take place in a single building, city or some other discrete place, but without a description of the place as a whole, I have only the vaguest notion of how the various rooms, streets, squares, hills, water bodies, etc. fit together. They just float around separately. This is one of the reasons for the dreamlike feel of mind-movies. But unless an idea of the big picture is necessary in order to follow the plot, it really doesn’t matter.

If the big picture is necessary, there is often a map supplied to help the reader. Maps are great, but they have a peculiar compressing effect. I see the events happening right on the map itself, tiny but vivid, and have to zoom in.

Fictional people can be both shadowy and vivid at the same time — not so much sets of multiple physical characteristics as conglomerations of mannerisms superimposed on physical types. The writer doesn’t need to give detailed descriptions of a character, as though for a police file; a picture emerges as I see the person moving around and hear them speaking.

An interesting thing is that reading any piece of written narrative unreels a mind-movie. It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or nonfiction, well or badly-written, exciting or boring.

Some pieces of writing leave colourful, vivid impressions in my mind. H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is one; Richard Adams’s Maia is another, along with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth books. All of these involve a good deal of description, because they are set in fictional worlds created by their authors. That got me thinking about description in writing.

Edgar Allan Poe’s story “Landor’s Cottage” is almost pure description. The narrator, wandering the countryside, becomes lost and comes upon a cottage in a valley. That’s pretty much all that happens; 95% of the piece is a detailed description of the house and its setting. Recently I tried reading it again, having remembered it from my first reading at least 40 years ago. I remembered the mental picture I saw when I read the piece, even to details such as the grassy road that leads to the place, with carefully arranged stones at the sides, and the great tulip tree that is a dominant feature of the site. Clearly, all this description made a lasting impression on me. But was “Landor’s Cottage” a riveting read the second time? No. About half way through, I got bored and started skimming.

So now I have a theory — whatever part of the brain makes those mind-movies can’t cope with too much of any one element. I have said in an earlier post that I find long action sequences boring. Most writers believe that too much description and long stretches of dialogue unrelieved by action (the infamous “talking heads”) are to be avoided. Yes, yes and yes.

It’s best to mix up the elements. A bit of action, a bit of dialogue (possibly interlayered with the action), brief, vivid bits of description, and a very small amount of narrator’s commentary (or none; the author should know whether it’s needed). That will keep the movie-maker in the brain happy, and the reader reading.

The Rules of Writing: Fun to Make and Break

Recently CBC Radio issued a challenge to its followers to write sentences breaking Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing. I suspect the assumption was that the results would be examples of really bad writing, and therefore chuckleworthy.

Setting the challenge aside here, I wonder if that assumption is justified. Surely it depends on what kind of thing a writer is writing. Rules that apply to gritty, hard-boiled urban fiction may be totally wrong for romance, or fantasy, or Literature with a capital “L.” There may be a few fundamental rules that apply to all writing, but I’m not sure that Elmore Leonard’s list qualifies.

I have to admit, this topic of Rules of Writing is one that I find hard to leave alone. It’s like salted nuts, or maybe like a burr, because I find such rules irritating. Never mind whose rules they are; as soon as I perceive that someone is pontificating to writers (even other writers), I go into combat mode, or at least argument mode. A year ago the Guardian newspaper published writing rules by a large number of writers. Some are quirky, or just funny. From Canada’s own Margaret Atwood:  take two [italics mine] pencils with you on planes, in case one breaks and you can’t sharpen it because no one can take a knife on a plane any more. (But are those little stick-it-in-and-twist pencil sharpeners confiscated by security, I wonder?) See what I mean about arguing?

So what about Mr. Leonard’s rules? I agree with a few of them, such as the one about avoiding adverbs (words that end in “ly,” including “suddenly”) — and not just to modify “said.” Ditto exclamation points and dialect.  Also, I would add, italics.

But I think some of the rules are too restrictive. Yes, it’s best to carry dialogue with “said,” but sometimes you need another word, as when a character doesn’t just say something, but splutters, groans, sighs or mutters. Words like these add texture and juiciness. They should be used sparingly, like spices, but not banished from a writer’s vocabulary.

Come  to think of it, Mr. L. uses “never” way too many times in his rules.

Weather and description. Mr. L. says never to start a book with weather and to avoid descriptions of people, places or things. I think it’s a matter of degree. Having your character stand there like a dummy while you give a verbal snapshot of their clothing, hair and accessories doesn’t work. But readers want to know something about your main characters, including what they look like. The trick is to create vivid images of them by slipping details into sections of action or dialogue, so people don’t even recognize the descriptive bits as such. As for weather and places, these can be opportunities for “beautiful writing,” the kind that gives the writer a frisson when he or she reads it over at the end of a writing session. The trouble is that readers don’t always share those frissons and often skip over those sections to find out what happens next. Sad  but true, at least for plot-driven books. Writers of the literary type may get away with beautiful writing, because they attract readers who enjoy that sort of thing.

Rule #10 is one of those sneaky lines that gets remembered and quoted; it’s also guaranteed to induce anxiety in the insecure writer (and just about all of us are insecure at some point). “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” So what parts are those? Here is my quick top-of-brain list of what to look for in your never-ending revision sessions:  1. Long paragraphs that contain extended descriptions or backstory, even though the writing is beautiful. Consider cuts or moves. 2. Extended sections of dialogue with no action, especially those where the speakers are not identified. 3. Long action sequences of the sort where all hell breaks loose for several pages. They may be crammed with verbs, but when they go on and on, the little movie-maker in the reader’s brain gets tired and wants a break. Have your characters go for a drink and talk about the weather.