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Mike - What's your take on these writing tips

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  • Mike - What's your take on these writing tips

    WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle

    By ELMORE LEONARD - Published: Monday, July 16, 2001

    These are rules I've picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I'm writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what's taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

    1. Never open a book with weather.

    If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

    2. Avoid prologues.

    They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

    There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's ''Sweet Thursday,'' but it's O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: ''I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy's thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That's nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don't have to read it. I don't want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.''

    3. Never use a verb other than ''said'' to carry dialogue.

    The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ''she asseverated,'' and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

    4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ''said'' . . .

    . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.''

    5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

    You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

    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.

    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.
    Though there are a couple points I agree with, there are several that I do not. I think - just as there are different styles of writing - there are different readers who demand different things from their stories. Your thoughts, Mike?


    das
    Last edited by dasNdanger; 05-04-2010, 07:22 PM.

  • #2
    Works for Leonard clearly. Wouldn't work for me. Which is so far why I've never taught writing. As I said about DEATH IS NO OBSTACLE --all I can do is show how I solved a problem, not how you should solve a problem.

    Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in Europe:
    The Whispering Swarm: Book One of the Sanctuary of the White Friars - The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction
    Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles - Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - Modem Times 2.0 - The Sunday Books - The Sundered Worlds


    Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in the USA:
    The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction - The Sunday Books - Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles
    Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - The Sundered Worlds - The Winds of Limbo - Modem Times 2.0 - Elric: Swords and Roses

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    • #3
      It doesn't work for me as a reader, either. Very...Hemmingwayesque, perhaps? I need far more description (we all know how I LOVE a microscopic views of Elric, for instance ), and prefer a book that allows me to easily visualize scenes without forcing me to make the stuff up myself.

      And one thing (amongst many) I enjoy about your writing, Mike, is that you switch styles up a bit, depending on the story. Elric's gothic take is much different than the pulpy Metatemporal Detective, and yet I loved them both. I think versitility in a writer is more imporant than sticking to hard and fast 'rules'.

      Thanks, pard.


      das

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      • #4
        And thank you, pard. My view is that different kinds of book need different methods. It would be nuts using, say, the Hawkmoon method to write Mother London.

        Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in Europe:
        The Whispering Swarm: Book One of the Sanctuary of the White Friars - The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction
        Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles - Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - Modem Times 2.0 - The Sunday Books - The Sundered Worlds


        Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in the USA:
        The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction - The Sunday Books - Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles
        Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - The Sundered Worlds - The Winds of Limbo - Modem Times 2.0 - Elric: Swords and Roses

        Comment


        • #5
          My view is that different kinds of book need different methods. It would be nuts using, say, the Hawkmoon method to write Mother London.
          That's my view.And it's laso one of the (many) reasons I like Mike's books.Hawkmoon,Mother London,Metatemporal detective,Behold the man...each one could have been writen by a different writer.How can I appreciate say Dan Brown(alhtough I'm not saying he is bad) when all of his books seem to be written according to a strict set of rules and guidelines.
          Very...Hemmingwayesque, perhaps? I need far more description
          There's a misconception about Hemmingway I'd say.I mean everyone knows his simple short style and personally I love it-the way Ernest does it.BUT if you check his book(even his short stories) he likes giving you a description of the landscape all the time.Not very precise,more like a vague painting.But he always does it,whether it's the plains of Kenya,the mountains of north Italy or the forests of Spain.

          Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
          How about Grapes of wrath,then? :P

          Generally I think pe action driven novels should be simpler.I don't really care if Drizzzztztztztzt did this or that move with his swords,Elric would just slice the guy in two or call some demon/Arioch for help. :)

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          • #6
            [QUOTE=Heiron;197453]
            There's a misconception about Hemmingway I'd say.I mean everyone knows his simple short style and personally I love it-the way Ernest does it.BUT if you check his book(even his short stories) he likes giving you a description of the landscape all the time.Not very precise,more like a vague painting.But he always does it,whether it's the plains of Kenya,the mountains of north Italy or the forests of Spain.
            I'm ashamed to say I've only read one Hemmingway - back in high school. But you may be right about the description aspect of his writing. When you think about it Mike can be vague about unimportant details - the painted landscape, as it were, full of color and imagery but not too much detail - and that works well for me. It keeps the story moving, and allows time for more detail in more important passages, or for the characters themselves. I think there is a delicate balance between being overly vague, and overly detailed. Mike strikes a good balance for me.

            It's much like when I read C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower series - his writing was so fluid, and with just the right amount of detail, that I almost felt like I was watching a movie instead of reading a book. When I first picked up Elric it was the same thing...just such a smooth, enjoyable read. Anyway - back to Forester - because I liked his age of sail stories so much, someone suggested I should read Patrick O'Brian's seafaring tales - and I tried...but, alas, they were just too detailed and it made reading a chore.

            Generally I think pe action driven novels should be simpler.I don't really care if Drizzzztztztztzt did this or that move with his swords,Elric would just slice the guy in two or call some demon/Arioch for help. :)
            Forester wrote great action sequences - and so does Mike. Just enough to 'see' what's going on, without having to have everything spelled out.

            That said, I do like a more detailed description of what the hero does. I remember a bit in Stormbringer towards the end where Elric runs his fingers through his hair...and I could just see it happening. That sort of close-up look at a character is what pulls me in - puts me in the character's shoes and makes me care about them. If a character is too distant, I just can't get into the story.


            das

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            • #7
              The "said" part is certainly the opposite of what people have told me for years: don't keep using "said" all the time. Still, good to know Mike and I are on the same page about how you can teach what worked for you, but not as if it's a universal fact of writing.
              Thick as wind-blown leaves innumerable, since 1985

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              • #8
                I'm not one to talk really, as my attempts of creative writing usually end in crushing disappointment, but I think these rules are a pretty good guideline for a modern prose style, but like all rules for creative endeavour the skill is in knowing when to break/bend them. In Man without a Country, Vonnegut has a similar rule about never using the semi-colon, but then goes on to use it in the final essay - because it was needed. Still I think the 'said' rule is one widely used by most writers I can think of.
                forum

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                • #9
                  Mike - How about the Eleventh Commandment? When you learn the rules, then you learn when and how to break them? There's stuff you pull off in the Pyat books that certainly doesn't fit "the rules" yet works beautifully.

                  What I get amused/irritated by is forgetting to turn off Word's hoity-toity writing tips. I guess i write very little that isn't a sentence fragment. What's amusing is when it "corrects" dialogue and/or dialect. Can make you nutso wit all de green underlinings! Dang! Epps! Mwah-ha-ha! And all thet jazz.

                  I like Stephen King's stuff on writing, and (okay, here's where you blow a gasket) heinlein's one short piece. I learn every time I read a book.

                  Another point is the "don't describe the character". i guess sometimes one does, and other times one does not. I'm thinking it has much to do with how much one wants the reader to project him.herself into the character. There are drawbacks, sometimes one does not get even a rough sketch. Sometimes each line is delineated.

                  Guess the best advice is whatever works to sell de books.
                  Miqque
                  ... just another sailor on the seas of Fate, dogpaddling desperately ...

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                  • #10
                    Originally posted by Miqque View Post
                    Mike - How about the Eleventh Commandment? When you learn the rules, then you learn when and how to break them? There's stuff you pull off in the Pyat books that certainly doesn't fit "the rules" yet works beautifully.
                    I'm guessing first person narratives have to break many of the above rules.

                    RAy Bradbury's Zen and the Art of Writing is also worth a read. Not really rules, just a few pieces about writing, which are well worth a read.
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                    2. a medium for open discussion, such as a magazine
                    3. a public meeting place for open discussion

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                    • #11
                      "Don't describe the character" is something I gleefully smash, possibly to excess. If it's the one most important character in the book, you're going to get a crisp idea of how she looks. Most others, though, have more cursory descriptions, a more efficient use of words. I'm not saying I'm Tolkien, by any stretch, but creating a richly textured fantasy world surely has different guidelines than what Hemingway or Leonard want to accomplish. Surely there are some things you can take for granted when you write in a replica of the "real world".
                      Thick as wind-blown leaves innumerable, since 1985

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                      • #12
                        Originally posted by dasNdanger View Post
                        WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle

                        By ELMORE LEONARD - Published: Monday, July 16, 2001

                        ( snip )

                        2. Avoid prologues.

                        They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.
                        Alasdair Gray managed to pull that - a prolog following and introduction following a foreword - off quite convincingly with "Something Leather". I don't know who else might've been able to pull of multiple openings as convincingly as he does ...

                        Originally posted by dasNdanger View Post
                        3. Never use a verb other than ''said'' to carry dialogue.

                        The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ''she asseverated,'' and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.
                        The rule I follow is to only use alternative verbs when you want to drag the reader into the emotional state of the protagnostic under pressure.

                        And drop even "said" when it's possible to let the dialog carry itself.

                        "asserverated" - my god! that's overdoing it though.

                        Originally posted by dasNdanger View Post
                        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.

                        I can't do detailed descriptions. And I prefer to let other characters in the story to do the descriptions for me. I got turned off detailed descriptions by the way an awful lot of them in commercial pulp were infodumps.
                        sigpic Myself as Mephistopheles (Karen Koed's painting of me, 9 Nov 2008, U of Canterbury, CHCH, NZ)

                        Gold is the power of a man with a man
                        And incense the power of man with God
                        But myrrh is the bitter taste of death
                        And the sour-sweet smell of the upturned sod,

                        Nativity,
                        by Peter Cape

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