Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Next Five Rules of Writing

What I'm reading: The World According to Ali, by T.L. Gray. Also, rereading Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich before 15 arrives from the library.

About a week ago, I posted the first five of Elmore Leonard's "Rules" of writing. "Rule" vs. "Guideline" was discussed at that time, so I won't repeat it, but I thought I ought to finish with the second five "rules." If you missed the first post, it's here:

6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
This rule doesn't require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use "suddenly" tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won't be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories "Close Range."

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" what do the ''American and the girl with him'' look like? "She had taken off her hat and put it on the table." That's the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

Keep Reading...

9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
Unless you're Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you're good at it, you don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he's writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character's head, and the reader either knows what the guy's thinking or doesn't care. I'll bet you don't skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can't allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It's my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character -- the one whose view best brings the scene to life -- I'm able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what's going on, and I'm nowhere in sight.

What Steinbeck did in "Sweet Thursday" was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. "Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts" is one, "Lousy Wednesday" another. The third chapter is titled ''Hooptedoodle 1'' and the 38th chapter ''Hooptedoodle 2" as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: "Here's where you'll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won't get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want."

"Sweet Thursday" came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I've never forgotten that prologue.

Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.

This article is part of a 2001 NY Times series in which writers explore literary themes. Previous contributions, include essays by John Updike, E. L. Doctorow, Ed McBain, Annie Proulx, Jamaica Kincaid, Saul Bellow and others.

Tomorrow, it's another chapter from Mark Hussey. This one he calls "Sex and the Badge." A definite Must Read.


J L said...

I think the link to the first 5 rules isn't right: it takes me to the summary of Bettina's talk (she was a founding member of my local RWA chapter; small world, hmm?)

I'd love to see the 1st 5 rules. I'm posting 'em all by my computer to remind me 8)

Terry Odell said...

JL - Thanks for pointing that out. My error. It should be fixed now. Please let me know.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Good morning Terry. I've given you a Humane Award this morning for your regular and tasteful blog posts, and for your ongoing support and championing of fellow authors. To see how I came to receive this award (and thus pass it on to worthy blogging friends), drop by my blog this morning.

Sheila Deeth said...

Oops. I definitely have a suddenly in the latest bit of my textnovel entry.

Terry Odell said...

I know I'm guilty of some 'suddenly's. Also, my Aussie editor took exception to "all of a sudden" because she wasn't familiar with the American idiom and told me if I can't have half of a sudden, why should I have all of one?

Right or wrong, bottom line was I'd overused it and suddenly to begin with, so I did some cutting.

Terry Odell said...

Thanks for the award, Pat. "Tasteful" blog posts? Wait until tomorrow when Detective Hussy takes over.

Maggie Toussaint said...

I love the word hoopdedootle. Enjoyed reading the post.

Terry Odell said...

Thanks, Maggie. Wish I could take credit for the word!