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February 20, 2010 4:10 AM   Subscribe

Inspired by Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing, other authors give their own lists of personal dos and don'ts (Part 1, Part 2).
posted by fearfulsymmetry (139 comments total) 141 users marked this as a favorite

 
10 Rules for Periodicals:

1. Make a list of something. It really doesn't matter what the list is about, just have a list. It helps if people can argue about which things belong on the list.

...
posted by bigmusic at 4:58 AM on February 20, 2010 [11 favorites]


Guardian features on writing are incredibly useful. Not for learning about writing, but for reminding you what an enormous wanker Will Self is.
posted by him at 5:12 AM on February 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


Tip One: Don't write like Dan Brown. Ever.
posted by bwg at 5:24 AM on February 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


Philip Pullman is truly a man amongst men.
posted by cerulgalactus at 5:30 AM on February 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


1. Use cliches. There's a reason they're cliches. It's because they're well worn and beloved shorthand for the human experience. People relate to them.

2. Don't just use said at the end of sentences. Tell us what the person is doing. Try grumbled, gasped, asseverated. And use an adverb to refine that. Did she asseverate firmly? Did he grumble gruffly? How audibly did she gasp? Words that end in -ly are your friends.

3. Just get around to it whenever you feel like it.

4. All great writers think writing is fantastically easy and knock out novels in about a month.

5. If you think you're really good, like better than Nabokov, Tolstoy and Hugo put together, you probably are. I mean, you've read them, right? So, you should know.

6. Try to kneecap your colleagues. Spread rumors, write nasty letters to the editor and sign their names, get into literary criticism.

7. The reader is your enemy. Don't let them get their greasy hands on your little nuggets of wisdom without a fight.

8. Use more similes. Everyone feels better after a simile.

9. Don't fix it. Your readers will thank you for being able to witness the raw genius of your work.

10. Always take advice on how to write and follow it to the letter.
posted by stavrogin at 5:32 AM on February 20, 2010 [60 favorites]


Just get around to it whenever you feel like it...

I'd just read almost all the lists & was feeling rather ill - your whole comment was a superb tonic, stavrogin:)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 5:47 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


As a screenwriter who has to read a heck of a lot of novels as potential adaptations for the screen (and has one under his bed) and then adapt them into forms that people will pay money to go see, I offer up the following, which may or may not be helpful:

1. A novel is a kind of contract with the reader. It promises that in return for reading, it will deliver an ending which lives up to what goes before. The better the foregoing, the better the ending has to be. A book whose ending fails to live up to its body is a disappointment and will make the reader feel like they have wasted their time. In particular, do not let the reader write a better ending in their head than you deliver on the page.

2. What makes a book a page-turner is the simple desire to know what happened next.

3. Readers judge the writer in the same way that passengers judge the driver of a car. If the driver misses shifts, gets lost, drifts into the middle of the road, they get nervous and start looking at the door handles. Novels are the same. Know where you're going and confidently work towards it.
posted by unSane at 5:51 AM on February 20, 2010 [18 favorites]


11. Indulge in shameless self-promotion when the conversation is even vaguely in the right area.
posted by him at 5:54 AM on February 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


Guardian features on writing are incredibly useful. Not for learning about writing, but for reminding you what an enormous wanker Will Self is.

Actually, he isn't at all, him.

But I agree the advice he offers here is an excruciating misfire.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 6:10 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


0. All of these rules were made to be broken.

Because...

1. Never open a book with weather.

Tell that to William Gibson. Neuromancer has of the best opening paragraphs in modern sci-fi. See, because most of his characters lived inside, or in a made-up cyberspace, the /actual/ world with /actual/ weather was a nice counterpoint.

Plus, it riffs on hackers talking about the "big room with the tall blue ceilings" that they don't see very often.

Putting in your 10,000 hours at something also gives you the latitude to know when to break these rules.
posted by clvrmnky at 6:26 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Tip One: Don't write like Dan Brown. Ever."

Amen, brother. Amen.
posted by clvrmnky at 6:26 AM on February 20, 2010


Will Self's list is hysterical, my favorite being number 10.

Regard yourself as a small corporation of one. Take yourself off on team-building exercises (long walks). Hold a Christmas party every year at which you stand in the corner of your writing room, shouting very loudly to yourself while drinking a bottle of white wine. Then masturbate under the desk. The following day you will feel a deep and cohering sense of embarrassment.
posted by ExitPursuedByBear at 6:35 AM on February 20, 2010 [6 favorites]


Until you get to Page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety – it's the job. Roddy Doyle.

That's nice and understated.
posted by From Bklyn at 6:36 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


clvrmnky my wife is on a Dan Brown binge right now. So I picked up one to see what it was about, I got to the sentence that said "kaleidscope of power" and I actually felt viceral disgust for the book, like I had been reading-molested.
posted by ExitPursuedByBear at 6:38 AM on February 20, 2010 [20 favorites]


Geoff Dyer: Never worry about the commercial possibilities of a project.

Well I got THAT one down TYVM.
posted by localroger at 6:40 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Guardian features on writing are incredibly useful. Not for learning about writing, but for reminding you what an enormous wanker Will Self is.

Actually, he isn't at all, him.


I apologise. It may well be that in his private life, he is a charming, kind and generous man, but his public persona seems to have been cultivated in such a way as to present him as the most arrogant, patronising, depressingly smug person on the face of what he would probably refer to as this blighted earth. And it works. For me, anyway, that's exactly how he comes across.
posted by him at 6:40 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Will Self's list is hysterical, my favorite being number 10.

Regard yourself as a small corporation of one. Take yourself off on team-building exercises (long walks). Hold a Christmas party every year at which you stand in the corner of your writing room, shouting very loudly to yourself while drinking a bottle of white wine. Then masturbate under the desk. The following day you will feel a deep and cohering sense of embarrassment.
posted by ExitPursuedByBear at 6:35 AM"

i agree. i do this regularly and i am not even a writer.
posted by marienbad at 6:44 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I know it shouldn't, but I get very bothered when writers making lists like this deal with the specific rather than the general. It makes me feel like they're terribly shallow people. One of your diehard rules for writing is to not use verbs like "grumbled"? Really you think that's an essential bit?

This has frustrated me for a while. Not lists like this but dialogues with authors in general. Some of them do convey this sense that they've got things figured out, and they tend to be the ones who come across better — in this article, Atwood, Smith, and of course Pullman leapt out, and Gaiman and Moorcock seemed somewhat stable — but there're a lot of them who seem ignorant and blind regarding their craft/life in general. It's always struck me that if you spend all day analyzing things and thinking significant things and whatnot, you ought to at some point spend a lot of time shining light into all those dark nooks you've built for yourself. Perhaps it's elitism, but I feel writers especially ought to be holding themselves to a higher standard when it comes to thinking and to expression.

It also makes me think of how my favorite artists tend also to be the ones with the most relaxed approaches to their art. Like how the Coen brothers refuse to admit any depth to their stories when they're interviewed, or how Joyce famously said about Ulysses: "The pity is the public will demand and find a moral in my book — or worse they may take it in some more serious way, and on the honor of a gentleman, there is not one single serious line in it."

I think it's that, at some point, you come to the realization that whatever you're doing with your life is still somewhat limited. Doesn't matter how ambitious you're being, your work does not encompass the world. Then, rather than getting anal and focusing on these tiny God-damned details that make writing seem like some great feat that only the best among us can be accomplished, you relax and you write a few hundred pages or whatever. And when you're done, you've written something, and probably the next thing you'll write will be better. Then you do that a few times and by the end you're a genius. I'd bet that if you start to learn to write having figured that first bit out, the job is vastly less stressful and the writing produced more comfortable.
posted by Rory Marinich at 6:50 AM on February 20, 2010 [7 favorites]


Much of this meets Gore Vidal's estimate of the maxim, "write what you know": Good advice for bad writers.
posted by Faze at 6:53 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


1. Commission a really great cover.

2. Always add a scene where a girl gets in the shower.
posted by dng at 7:00 AM on February 20, 2010 [7 favorites]


Heinlein's rules for writing

Amazing how many people try to be writers while getting around rule 1.
posted by Artw at 7:05 AM on February 20, 2010 [6 favorites]


I actually felt viceral disgust for the book, like I had been reading-molested.

You are not alone in having been eye-raped by Dan Brown, I think there are local support groups for DB survivors.
posted by MikeMc at 7:06 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I know it shouldn't, but I get very bothered when writers making lists like this deal with the specific rather than the general. It makes me feel like they're terribly shallow people. One of your diehard rules for writing is to not use verbs like "grumbled"? Really you think that's an essential bit?

Yes. There isn't much you can tell someone about shining a light into the dark nooks of themselves or what have you, because that's a personal process and anyway: Believe me when I tell you that writers are perhaps only trumped by actors and would-be rock stars when it comes to boundless narcissism generally being possessed of introspective personality types. Nobody needs to advise any writer to look inside. But a lot of people need to tell writers to stick to "said" and "asked."
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:08 AM on February 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Most of those tips are jokes or things that have been said over and over in a zillion books on writing. If you write "she exclaimed" instead of "she said," you've either never read a single book about writing prose, or you read a book but didn't take it seriously.

A lot of those lists seemed to be written by writers who were caught with their pants down:

"Make a list of your ten rules."

"Uh... Okay..."

But here are a few items I thought worth saving. (There are many other good ones, but most of them I already knew, e.g. "don't use cliches.")

Anne Enright: Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.

Jonathan Franzen: Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.

Jonathan Franzen: You see more sitting still than chasing after.

Jonathan Franzen: The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.

Jonathan Franzen: Fiction that isn't an author's personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn't worth writing for anything but money.

Neil Gaiman: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

Neil Gaiman: The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like.

Zadie Smith: Don't romanticise your "vocation". You can either write good sentences or you can't. There is no "writer's lifestyle". All that matters is what you leave on the page.

Sarah Waters: Writing fiction is not "self-­expression" or "therapy". Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects. I think of my novels as being something like fairground rides: my job is to strap the reader into their car at the start of chapter one, then trundle and whizz them through scenes and surprises, on a carefully planned route, and at a finely engineered pace.
posted by grumblebee at 7:14 AM on February 20, 2010 [26 favorites]


kittens: I mean, certainly it's a good tip for, like, sixth-graders who just discovered synonyms. There's the old "I'm coming!" Joe ejaculated. But if you've been writing for thirty years and "said" is still something you give half a flying fuck about, there's such a petty feeling about you.

I'm also disappointed that no writers talked ambition. Nobody said: "If you're going to spend your time writing, figure out big and wonderful things to write about. Instead of just telling a story, figure out what else matters in writing and art and life and make something enormous, something scary, something that wears you out."

Kind of makes me wish Pullman would have said something, because in his literary output there's certainly a selfawareness that I don't see a lot of, and it's pretty clear he does think of those things. His semi-Victorian thrillers with Sally Lockhart were among the first books to make me realize that there was more to novels than stories, and I'm indebted to him because of that.
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:16 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was right. Margaret Atwood is a dick.
posted by Naberius at 7:20 AM on February 20, 2010


I get very bothered when writers making lists like this deal with the specific rather than the general. It makes me feel like they're terribly shallow people. One of your diehard rules for writing is to not use verbs like "grumbled"? Really you think that's an essential bit?

Wow.

Just... wow.

Yes, getting "grumbled" right IS the essential bit. Writing is about words. Choosing the right word and fitting it into the right spot is 90 percent of the job. If you don't see that, then you're a reader, not a writer.

As a reader, you're not required to see it. Perhaps you shouldn't see it, just as a movie-goer shouldn't be (or needn't be) attentive to photography.

Almost everyone has a story to tell, but what separates the great writers from the rest of us is that they know HOW best to tell it. And the how involves words.

Do you get equally miffed when auto-mechanics discuss spark plugs?
posted by grumblebee at 7:20 AM on February 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


1. Make a list of something. It really doesn't matter what the list is about, just have a list. It helps if people can argue about which things belong on the list.

A lot of those lists seemed to be written by writers who were caught with their pants down

It's a conversation starter. A device. Some of the conversations are interesting. And no, it's not the same thing as the "List of 9 obvious things and one non-obvious thing you can argue about" style of article making, since as I say somethimes it's actually interesting.
posted by Artw at 7:21 AM on February 20, 2010


Nobody said: "If you're going to spend your time writing, figure out big and wonderful things to write about. Instead of just telling a story, figure out what else matters in writing and art and life and make something enormous, something scary, something that wears you out."

Jonathan Franzen: Fiction that isn't an author's personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn't worth writing for anything but money.
posted by grumblebee at 7:22 AM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


What's particularly interesting is that the only writer here who goes to the trouble of stating one vital maxim -- having a keen interest in other people -- is PD James. If you don't love people, if you aren't fascinated by their strengths and follies, then you have no business being a writer.

And Franzen is the real wanker here. Not Will Self.
posted by ed at 7:23 AM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's a conversation starter. A device. Some of the conversations are interesting. And no, it's not the same thing as the "List of 9 obvious things and one non-obvious thing you can argue about" style of article making, since as I say somethimes it's actually interesting.

I'm confused.

Are you saying that the article is a conversation starter? Maybe to you it is. To me, it's tips on writing.

Some of the conversations are interesting.

What conversations are you talking about? The tips themselves or the conversations you have with people after reading the tips?
posted by grumblebee at 7:24 AM on February 20, 2010


Are you saying that the article is a conversation starter?

The request for the list is the conversation starter.

What conversations are you talking about? The tips themselves or the conversations you have with people after reading the tips?

Well, obviously the conversation we're having here isn't interesting - this thread is a parade of dumbassery and obvious snark.

Sometimes theres something really stupid about Metafilter commenters when they are leaping over each other to proove how clever they are.
posted by Artw at 7:29 AM on February 20, 2010


grumblebee was grumbled by another's misuse of 'grumbled'.
posted by litleozy at 7:31 AM on February 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


If you don't love people, if you aren't fascinated by their strengths and follies, then you have no business being a writer.

See, to me, a good writer is one whose prose makes me feel something really concrete or specific. If a writer not only makes me think about a boat, but really makes me feel the roughness of the planks, then he's doing his job well. If he not only gets me to understand that there's a ghost in the bedroom, but also makes me terrified of that ghost, he's doing his job well.

It might help him to do this job well if he cares about people, but I can also imagine a writer who does this well because he's totally absorbed by his own sensations.

There are dangers in being self-absorbed. You might wind up writing ten pages about the lint in your navel. Fascinating to you, perhaps, but who else wants to read about it?

There are dangers that plague writers who care too much about other people. Such writers sometimes stop themselves from writing anything which might cause them personal embarrassment.
posted by grumblebee at 7:32 AM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yes, getting "grumbled" right IS the essential bit. Writing is about words. Choosing the right word and fitting it into the right spot is 90 percent of the job. If you don't see that, then you're a reader, not a writer.

Honestly? If you think that "choose said instead of grumbled" is at all a deep or meaningful piece of wordsmithing advice, then I feel bad for you. That's what I'm arguing with, not with the idea that words are supposed to matter. I mean, there are a hundred small little tips like that which I thought you were supposed to pick up in English 1 in high school. Also things like "don't use three adjectives in every sentence", and "show, don't tell". But such tips are such ludicrous bullshit in a larger perspective: Each one is good advice, but it's such very teeny good advice.

If I'm asking a big-name writer what his tips for writing are, and in his top ten is something as insignificant as that, then I feel let down. I fail to see how that's at all difficult for you to grasp. It's like interviewing a major painter, asking him what tips he has for painting, and having him say something like "Don't use purple next to orange because it looks bad." I'm not saying necessarily that it's bad advice, but rather than I read it and find myself wanting more.

I'll also kindly thank you to stop suggesting that my differing opinion somehow means I'm not a writer. If we want to wave dicks we can do it in private, Mr. Bee.
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:32 AM on February 20, 2010


bwg: "Tip One: Don't write like Dan Brown. Ever."

I would happily write like Dan Brown, daily, if it meant I could have his sales figures.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:32 AM on February 20, 2010


A good writer can take the worst of plot ideas, characters, and cliches and make an amazing story with it simply by not even knowing rules exist -- the rest are just making up rules to make themselves sound important...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 7:33 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


grumblebee was grumbled by another's misuse of 'grumbled'.

I really like the idea of grumbled as something one can be. Like the opposite of humbled.
posted by Nomiconic at 7:35 AM on February 20, 2010


What conversations are you talking about? The tips themselves or the conversations you have with people after reading the tips?

Well, obviously the conversation we're having here isn't interesting

So you were talking about the conversation that the interviewer had with the writers when he asked them to list their tips? Yeah, I guess that could have lead to something interesting. But for the most part it didn't. The interviewer should have taken the "cut" rule to heart and cut all the interviews with writers who didn't take the brief seriously or who had nothing to say.
posted by grumblebee at 7:36 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Nobody said: "If you're going to spend your time writing, figure out big and wonderful things to write about. Instead of just telling a story, figure out what else matters in writing and art and life and make something enormous, something scary, something that wears you out."

Do they really need to tell someone that? Because trying so hard to write something 'enormous' instead of just writing what you feel worth telling seems like a good way to write stuff like this.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 7:40 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


except not funny
posted by Solon and Thanks at 7:41 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'll also kindly thank you to stop suggesting that my differing opinion somehow means I'm not a writer. If we want to wave dicks we can do it in private, Mr. Bee.

I apologize for my harsh tone. I didn't literally mean that you're not a writer. I don't know you. I just don't get how a writer can think mechanics aren't important.

I now understand that you were looking for a grander statement. I was confused by your original post, because I though you were saying mechanics aren't important. To me, mundane as they may be, they are the most important things for writers to attend to. And I am saddened by the number of writers who don't attend to them -- the writers who leap towards big, lofty ideas and grand sentiments without attending to the "small stuff." As a reader, I can't stomach big ideas unless the sentences that express them are well wrought.
posted by grumblebee at 7:41 AM on February 20, 2010


Yes, getting "grumbled" right IS the essential bit. Writing is about words. Choosing the right word and fitting it into the right spot is 90 percent of the job. If you don't see that, then you're a reader, not a writer.

And yet the advice Elmore Leonard gives about using grumbled and similar words is hugely specific, and only really applies to a certain type for fiction (mainstream, serious fiction). Does it apply to humourous fiction at all, for example? Here's a bit from Atom by Steve Aylett (a satirical/parodic science fiction novel, which coincidentally contains a "grumbled"):



"That's a sixpack o' lies, Mr Thermidor," shouted Fiasco. "Sure I boosted a brain but I did it for you, it's safe Mr Thermidor I swear."

"I happened to have different information," rumbled Thermidor, gunning his ego. Murky motivations clashed in the air like stormfronts.

"Like the hair, Harry," Atom remarked. "Got its own passport?"

"The gumshoe says the brain's in here." Thermidor flicked the gun toward the metal orb.

"Sure, and there's bees in the TV," Fiasco scoffed. "Take a look, you don't believe me."

"A man with a gun is in no need of advice, boy," stated Thermidor. He was trembling. "I'll make you bleed till you can't stand the colour clash."

"The hick's right, Mr Thermidor," said Jed Helms.

"Lemme speak, I'm in the eye of an emotional hurricane here!" roared Thermidor, blasting the fishtank."




If you dutifully replaced each roared and scoffed with said you'd lose half the colour and vitality of a scene that's supposed to be over the top and ridiculous.
posted by dng at 7:49 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Looks suspiciously like bad writing for effect.
posted by Artw at 7:52 AM on February 20, 2010


dng, I'm not a huge fan of that passage, but campy stuff is always an exception to rules like this, because camp is supposed to be bad. Bringing this up is like bringing up "Mystery Science Theatre" to someone who says, "I hate it when people talk during movies."
posted by grumblebee at 7:56 AM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Do they really need to tell someone that? Because trying so hard to write something 'enormous' instead of just writing what you feel worth telling seems like a good way to write stuff like this.

Hee hee. Er, I don't think that specifically what I just wrote up there is in and of itself a brilliant piece of advice. But I think that such an intent is necessary and useful, and there's a lot that writers do that I rarely hear them talk about, and instead they talk about all the grade-school rules. So it's frustrating.

I mean, perhaps my personal history of reading is weird or different (or perhaps it's the most common path there is), but I know there are books I read and enjoy, and then there are books that actively jolt me because I realize I'm seeing something happening that I've never seen before. I think the typical example is Beckett, who even got an article in the NY Times about how reading his oeuvre makes other writers want to give up writing, but there are others.

Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake made me feel that way. I read it, parts of it shocked me, and then I went about trying to find what people had said about the things that so reached me and found that they'd completely ignored that stuff and focused on the plot and the characters. I mean, that's worth discussing, but I feel like once you've talked about what happens (usually selfexplanatory) it's time to start talking about why things happened that way, but that's not a conversation I see often.

It's that selfaware craft that most fascinates me as a writer. And I keep getting this nagging feeling like lots of writers don't ever think about that, not the way film directors think about setting up their shots or composers align their various pieces. You don't have many writers talk at length about how they compose their sentences, or how they choose what sounds to evoke at what points of the story. Even when it's obvious they're doing something very convoluted and involved and fascinating, it's rare that you find interviews specifically talking about that part of their craft. Instead you get tripe like these lists, where, with only a few exceptions, the authors sound about as experienced as a college student starting a blog for the first time. "I learned that you should use the word said." To say that with a straight face you either have to be an idiot or contemptuous of your audience.

This is why I have a huge crush on Mark Z Danielewski (of House of Leaves fame), by the way. It's not even that he's a brilliant writer — he's very good, and he does very interesting things, but his prose isn't the best. But in interviews, if he's not fucking with the guy interviewing him, he insists on talking about those nitty-gritty parts of his writing. He'll get really obsessed with explaining how he determined sentence length in each chapter. Or how he establishes "shots", like in a movie, where he builds up establishing scenes and then faster, more broken scenes. He gets very technical. Before I read interviews with him I'd never heard a writer talk about things like that.

I now understand that you were looking for a grander statement. I was confused by your original post, because I though you were saying mechanics aren't important. To me, mundane as they may be, they are the most important things for writers to attend to. And I am saddened by the number of writers who don't attend to them -- the writers who leap towards big, lofty ideas and grand sentiments without attending to the "small stuff." As a reader, I can't stomach big ideas unless the sentences that express them are well wrought.

Yeah, I should stop posting early in the morning. Sometimes I get incoherent. Sorry about that.

And I definitely agree. Two years of being an editor at a high school literary magazine and you start really loving people who're writing good sentences and good lines, regardless of what the bigger picture is. Fond memories of trying to write books when I was thirteen where I didn't know the plot as well as I knew the "bigger picture". I feel bad for all parents of aspiring deep writers; their adolescence is difficult to deal with. It's also really frustrating to try and explain why sentences are more important than deep, crushing message, or it was at the time.

I think the solution is to add P. G. Wodehouse or similar fun writers to the curriculum to balance out Nabokov and Garcia Marquez. Wodehouse was another of those writers where I didn't realize for a little while that you were allowed to write like that. It's not like I want to become a writer like Wodehouse, but I feel comfortable that his stuff's there. If that makes sense.

Now I fear I sound ludicrously pretentious, so I'll stop.
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:58 AM on February 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


I now understand that you were looking for a grander statement. I was confused by your original post, because I though you were saying mechanics aren't important. To me, mundane as they may be, they are the most important things for writers to attend to.

Right — but then the rule, surely, should be "pay attention to mechanics", not "never use the word 'grumbled'", which I agree feels like Leonard not taking this exercise very seriously. (And fair enough, I guess, if his time is better spent writing novels.) I suppose you could argue that his advice about "grumbled" is meant to be indicative of a broader guideline to pay attention to mechanics, but what he actually says is "never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue". That might be useful advice for a new writer prone to floweriness, but as a real rule for writing it's obviously silly. Anyone who actually is paying attention to mechanics will learn to judge those times when something other than "said" is allowable.

...he ejaculated.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 8:01 AM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Digging deeper into that example, I don't get the point. IF the goal is to replace "said" with over-the-top verbs, why not really choose actual over-the-top words, rather than boring ones that sound like they're the work of a student in Comp 101, e.g. "stated" or "remarked."

"Scoffed" is redundant, because we can tell he's scoffing from the dialog. "Rumbled" doesn't make sense. How do you rumble when you speak? I understand grumble and mumble, but not rumble.

I get that the writer isn't trying to make sense. He's using words for a campy effect, but he's not doing it well. His camp is meh. Interesting purple prose is more bombastic, more wrong, more tin-eared, more... something.
posted by grumblebee at 8:02 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I actually just read Year of the Griffin, a delicious YA fantasy novel by Diana Wynne Jones, in which the verb "rumbled" is used to describe the low, grinding voice of a dwarf trying to whisper.
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:04 AM on February 20, 2010


More generally, Elmore Leonard's rules for writing seem to be rules for writing like Elmore Leonard. And that's fine for him, but anyone else trying to do that is likely to come off worse than if their end goal, eventually, is to learn to write like themselves.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 8:07 AM on February 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


You don't have many writers talk at length about how they compose their sentences, or how they choose what sounds to evoke at what points of the story. Even when it's obvious they're doing something very convoluted and involved and fascinating, it's rare that you find interviews specifically talking about that part of their craft.

As it turns out, we're in complete agreement. I'm not interested in grand statements about the life of a writer, the ethics of a writer or the responsibility of a writer to society. (It's not that I think these matters are trivial. It's just that I don't think there's any specific sort of lifestyle or ethics that leads to good writing. Good writing comes from all sorts of people with all sorts of philosophies and ethics.)

Nor am I interested in "said" vs. "grumbled." It's important, but we agree that it's writing 101 stuff.

What I want to hear is exactly the sort of thing you're talking about: writers excavating their mechanics beyond the surface rules.

Alas, the ten tips format doesn't work well for that sort of deep analysis.
posted by grumblebee at 8:11 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Elmore Leonard's ten rules of writing fiction is as splendid an example of unhinged dipshitery as I've ever seen, and its longevity never ceases to depress me.
The eleventh rule is: If you come across lists such as this, ignore them. The rules may sound sensible enough, but, with the exception of No 5, each could be replaced with its opposite, and still be reasonable advice. Leonard complains that, while reading a book by Mary McCarthy, he had to "stop and get the dictionary" - as if it were a form of pain (William Faulkner, who broke most of these rules whenever he wrote, complained of Hemingway that he "never used a word you had to look up in the dictionary"). And what is meant by "leave out the part that readers tend to skip"? If every writer tried to be as exciting as Leonard, there would be no Brothers Karamazov, no Anna Karenina (remember those exquisitely boring sections on agronomy?), and the shelf reserved for Dickens or Balzac would measure about a foot. Banish patois, and we lose a library of fiction stretching from Huckleberry Finn to Trainspotting. As for dialogue, if Leonard samples Henry James, he will find "remarked", "answered", "interposed", "almost groaned", "wonderingly asked", "said simply", "sagely risked" and many more colourful carriers (these from a page or two of Roderick Hudson). Should they all be ironed out into "said"?

Our rule for the cultivation of good writing is much simpler: stay in, read, and don't limit yourself to American crime fiction.
posted by stbalbach at 8:17 AM on February 20, 2010 [8 favorites]


My favorite is Margaret Atwood's #7: "...Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine."

Why are so many writers whiny?
posted by morganannie at 8:24 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


"1. Commission a really great cover.

2. Always add a scene where a girl gets in the shower.
posted by dng at 7:00 AM on February 20"

oh. my. god. i read that when i was about 15, i found it on a stall at a local fete and just knew i was going to buy it. just the worst book ever!
posted by marienbad at 8:25 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


The only "rules" of writing that have ever helped me (speaking as an unpublished amateur who writes solely for his own amusement yet harbors dreams of one day trashing a hotel room while on a book-signing tour):

1. Write every day.
2. You don't have to start writing
at the beginning of the story.

It took me a good two decades of false starts and abandoned projects to realize that books aren't always written in the order that they're read. Obvious, huh? Yeah. I'm really fucking stupid sometimes. Now if I could just exert enough self-discipline to master Rule 1.....
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:40 AM on February 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


I suspect that some of this advice is actually intended to damage or deter potential competition.
posted by Phanx at 8:41 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


stbalbach, that's an interesting quote. I think it's flawed in the same way that the rules are flawed. Rules and counter-rules are always dumb if they aren't accompanied by explanations of WHY one should follow (or not follow) them.

It bugs me that, in your quote, the writer claims that Leonard is wrong because various famous writers have broken those rules. So what? A rule is right or wrong regardless of who follows or breaks it. But Leonard is equally at fault for wanting us to follow a rule because ... why? ... he's Elmore Leonard and he says so?

I agree with Leonard that it's a bad idea to use words that the reader has to look up. It's not that it's a pain to look up words. I have a collection of dictionaries, including the complete OED, and I dearly love them. But what's most important to me when I'm reading fiction is staying in the flow. I want to believe that I'm IN outer space, Viet Nam, an English Country manner... if I have to stop and look stuff up, I'm taking out of the novel's world, and I start thinking about mechanics. As a reader, that's not what I want to think about. I want to think about how deeply in love I am with the farmer's daughter or how scared I am of the mobster.

So Leonard's rule is a good rule IF he's writing to entertain readers like me. There are, of course, other kinds of readers. For a reader more interested in vocabulary for its own sake than as a tool for evoking real-time feelings, Leonard's advice is terrible.

I have a similar problem with "leave out parts that readers tend to skip." Which readers? Depending on how I interpret that rule, it's great advice. Yet your counter-rules bring up Twain and Dickens, claiming that if they followed Leonard's advice, we wouldn't have "Huckleberry Finn" or "Bleak House." That confuses me, because I love those books -- I love literary fiction -- and I don't see them as being full parts a reader (like me) would skip. In fact, I could imagine Twain or Dickens giving the same advice!

Their books MIGHT be full of things that a reader who only cares about plot would skip. And I can see how someone might think that's what Leonard is talking about. MAYBE he means "leave out stuff that doesn't more the plot forward." If you interpret his words that way, then I can see how you'd see his advice as a poison pill to great literature. And I wouldn't blame you for interpreting it that way, since the rule isn't specific.

To me, it's a great rule if you interpret it as meaning that novels should contain no redundancy. In other words, every sentence should work to evoke new information. The new information doesn't have to be new plot information. It can be new character information, new descriptive information, new mood information, etc. (This is also why cliches are bad. They don't evoke new information. They might CONVEY new information, but because they are overused, they fail at making readers really take the new information to heart.)

All the writers I like, including Dickens and Twain, follow this rule. If you follow it, your prose style can be minimalist or ornate. It doesn't matter. What matters is that each sentence puts some new idea or sensation into the readers head -- and into his guts.
posted by grumblebee at 8:41 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Why are so many writers whiny?

Because they are people?

So many of the people I meet are whiny, regardless of their professions.
posted by grumblebee at 8:42 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


As to Real Wanker status, Elmore Leonard nearly put me off reading the rest of the article.
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.
Too many words? Really?

The rest of his list boils down to don't try to do X unless you are famous writer Z.

Unsane's list was better than any of those published in the Guardian.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 8:43 AM on February 20, 2010


I like Vonnegut's rules, which are more about holding your work together than holding yourself together.
posted by gum at 9:07 AM on February 20, 2010 [6 favorites]


I like Vonnegut's rules. But I am deeply troubled by the mangled hand above them.
posted by Babblesort at 9:35 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


On second look I see that it is on a site called Troubling Info so I guess they're doing it right.
posted by Babblesort at 9:35 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


11. Don't give away your best stuff to journalists.
posted by mecran01 at 9:58 AM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


I remember Vonnegut doing an Online Chat on Prodigy in the early 90s. He said a writer should be a good date for the reader.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:00 AM on February 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Good old Elmore, eh?
posted by Elmore at 10:01 AM on February 20, 2010


"If you don't love people...then you have no business being a writer."
posted by ed at 10:23 AM on February 20

Sorry, Celine. Sorry, Voltaire. Sorry, Jonathan Swift. You're all out.
posted by crazylegs at 10:13 AM on February 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Here are my rules:

The following rules assume that you're writing for a reader whose main interested is getting lost in your story. By which I mean that the point of reading, for him, is more sensual than intellectual. Ideas are fine, but this reader doesn't just want to "get the point." He doesn't want to be handed an idea; he wants to feel it in his gut. Example: if he's reading a theme-based story about war, my reader doesn't just want to hear that war is evil, he wants to learn that it's evil by feeling a bayonet twisting inside his chest.

There are many other facets to good writing (for my type of reader) than the ones I've listed below. For instance, I don't talk about style (e.g. minimalist prose verses ornate prose). That's not because I devalue it. It's because my goal is to discuss the minimum items that must be present for my readers to enjoy a story.

Note: if you write the way I do, most of these rules should be applied when you edit. If you try to follow them while writing the first draft, you'll stifle valuable creative impulses.

1. Cut redundancy. Each element of the story should evoke new information or (better yet) sensation. Redundancy is not only about plot. So I don't mean you should cut anything that doesn't move the plot forward. Plot is (often) the story's skeleton. A story also needs muscles and flesh. But it doesn't need fat. The words and sentences you allow to remain on the page should work to evoke specific feelings, convey specific ideas or revisit older elements from new angles. As long as an element is doing one of these things, it's not redundant. As you edit, justify the purpose of each sentence -- of each word. What is it adding?

2. The problem with rule one is that it's incomplete. Writers COULD insert all sorts of descriptions that are strong in their own rights, but that still feel gratuitous to the reader. Yes, that two-paragraph description of the polar ice-caps was interesting, but how is it serving your story about Robin Hood?

So you want to keep your sensual, evocative prose on track. But what track? It's possible to write a super-lean story that starts at point A and moves, in a straight line, to point B. Stories like that can be gripping, but who wants all stories to be that sparse? If you're like me, you also enjoy stories that have twists and turns, plots and subplots, direct routes to the bank and long meanders through the woods.

So how do you tell if an element is gratuitous or not?

I don't think there's an easy answer. What you have to do is allow weeds to infest your garden as you write. Live with them (and don't fret over them) until you've finished drafting the entire story.

Your story is about a road trip from San Francisco to New York: is that detour to Houston okay? You won't know for sure until you get to New York. Maybe, when you get there, you'll finally be able to sell that antique watch you bought in Houston. Maybe you won't. If you don't -- if Houston doesn't extend tendrils to early or later parts of the story -- then nuke it. Remember, though, plot is not everything. Does Houston evoke a mood that is the second course of a three course meal? If so, they story might suffer without it.

What's vital is that when you've finish a draft, you go back through it and sniff each element, checking for whiffs of redundancy.

3. My readers may be atheists in real life, but they want their stories to be intelligently designed. They feel shivers up their spine when that almost-forgettable post card from page three becomes deeply meaningful on page 103. It's almost impossible to insert these sort of detail as you draft, but upon revisiting, you should play game of seeing how many hints of later events you can insert early on. Ten points for each hint!

(Note: though readers may love such hints when they're present, they probably don't miss them when they're absent. But as this rule is so important to me, I obsess about it. When, in the last chapter, the villain, Mr. Bradshaw, says to the hero, "You want to know why I'm bent on killing you? It's because you ignored me at that party!" I flip back to see if the writer actually mentioned a Mr. Bradshaw in chapter one, when he described the party.)

4. This rule is obvious, given my general aesthetic: make your writing sensual. I don't mean sexual (not necessarily, though that is one possibility), I mean write in images that ping the five senses. Again, this is tough to do when drafting, so go back and do it (or buttress it) during editing. Look at each paragraph, sentence and phrase to see if there's a way to make it more sensual. Is there some way that you can make a sentence fire off visual, auditory, olfactory or tactile neurons in the reader's brain?

This is doubly important for intellectual or technical writing. We were built to understand things we can feel, taste, touch, smell and see. If you're writing about computer programming, is there a way you can sensualize it? Can you describe an if-then statement as a path that splits, one fork leading to the city and the other path leading to the country? If you're writing about democracy, can you evoke a classroom in which every student gets a turn to raise his hand?

The need for sensuality also explains the only reason why cliches are bad. "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink." That would be doubly sensual (leading the horse, making him drink) were it not overused. Just as you don't notice the flowers when you walk home the same way you've walked home for the past ten years, you gloss over sensual information in well-trodden phrases. However: you can seduce a guy who has chugged a six pack, but you can't force him down the aisle when he's sober.

Bonus points: it's fairly easy to evoke visual images in prose. For the big win, make the reader smell, feel or taste something. I will forever want to embrace (and curse) Orwell for describing his hero's bite of a sausage as "bombs of filth exploding in his mouth."

5. The main use of metaphor is to make the abstract concrete. Which is why it's so much easier to worship God's son on Earth than His essence in heaven! Don't use metaphor "to be deep" or writrerly. Don't use it cheifly to be poetic. Use it to help achieve rule four, above.

Use it to when it's impossible to convey an idea literally, because that idea is too abstract or technical to describe in words. Or use it when the metaphor is more sensual than the literal description. "Alice's living room bored her. It was like dry chicken on white bread, without any mustard or mayo."

If the literal is sensual already, you don't need metaphor.

6. We were built best to grasp a causal universe filled with objects. Try to make as many of your sentences about somebody doing something to something. The cat ate the rat. If there isn't an obvious agent, can you conjure one up with metaphor?

The human needs for agency and causation explain why sentences like this are bad:

"Clicking the okay button will cause the options window to appear."

Who is doing the clicking? What is causing the options window to appear? Try something like...

"When you click the okay button, Excel will display the options window."

7. As I mentioned in rule three, my readers want a story god. That god (you or a persona you put on for a particular tale) has opinions. It's not enough to just describe. You must have a take on what you're describing.

This may sound paradoxical, but I love "journalistic" stories -- ones where the writer has taken a strong stance of neutrality. The key is that it's a STRONG stance. If you're telling me a political story, I want you to tell it with a strong liberal or conservative bias -- or I want you to stay neutral. But a neutral observer is still involved. Just as the liberal praises Obama and berates Bush (and the conservative does the opposite), the neutral observer either praises and blames both men, or he steadfastly refuses to comment.

So for every element of your story, ask yourself how you feel about it. Then inject your opinion, inject the opposing opinion (if you're taking on a persona that's the opposite of yours) or make a conscious choice to keep your opinion to yourself. If you simply "don't have an opinion," then maybe you're writing about the wrong subject.

It's perfectly fine to be "torn." If you are, lead the reader to the crux of what you're torn about.
posted by grumblebee at 10:15 AM on February 20, 2010 [9 favorites]


In any event, I think mechanics are about all you can teach someone. I'm not saying writing is magic!, exactly, but I am saying it's just really fucking hard to teach a generality or a truism. "Learn to love people" is nice advice and all, but what it means means is going to differ from person to person, and -- to be straight-up with you guys -- is probably a much more challenging task for anyone to whom it does not come naturally than would be just writing a damn story. More to the point, learning to love people! is surely part of an ongoing life process (as is learning to hate people!, which may also happen over the course of a person's life, should that life go less than satisfactorily, and which may also lead to some extremely compelling writing); I think it should be obvious, but maybe it's not, that writers whose work seems to mature over time are growing as people at least as much as they are growing as artists.

Anyway: You can't really instruct someone on how to mature and grow as a human being. What are you, Doctor Phil? No. But you can help people square away the ancillary matters so that they're freer to concentrate on the ideas and intent of their work.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 10:28 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Why is it that when we talk about "writing" the conversation is limited to imaginative writing and novels and fiction and screenplays? What about the other writing that exists in the world, you know... magazine writing, metafilter postings, supreme court opinions, introductory prefaces to photography books and so on.
posted by i'm being pummeled very heavily at 10:45 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I experience writing as so many dilemmas, paradoxes and economies of expression that I believe I can find value in almost any advice on it. If I sum it all, the contradictions cancel out, and what remains patiently awaits my the next project for something that will prove it false.
The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne,
Thassay so hard, so sharp the conquering,
The dredful Ioy, that alwey slit so yerne,
Al this mene I by love, that my feling
Astonyeth with his wonderful worching
So sore y-wis, that whan I on him thinke,
Nat wot I wel wher that I wake or winke.
Thank you everyone.
posted by wobh at 10:49 AM on February 20, 2010


Lutoslawski's rules for writing:

writing about writing does not a good writer make. especially writing about writing on an internet site about the internet.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:24 AM on February 20, 2010


I have always liked, "Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule." Of course, I disregard this regularly.
posted by emilyd22222 at 11:25 AM on February 20, 2010


So you want to be a writer? - a poem by Charles Bukowski
posted by theCroft at 11:26 AM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm also disappointed that no writers talked ambition. Nobody said: "If you're going to spend your time writing, figure out big and wonderful things to write about. Instead of just telling a story, figure out what else matters in writing and art and life and make something enormous, something scary, something that wears you out."

My favorite advice about almost anything answers this question:

"Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I've understood the art, a punch is just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. The height of cultivation is really nothing special. It is merely simplicity; the ability to express the utmost with the minimum." - Bruce Lee
posted by Bookhouse at 11:32 AM on February 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


Rule 1. You don't talk about write club, you write.
Rule 2. Don't talk, write.
Rule 3. When a sentence says stop, or goes limp, even if you can continue the sentence, the sentence is over.
Rule 4. One sentence at a time.
Rule 5. If you are just standing around doing nothing, you have to write.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 11:38 AM on February 20, 2010 [6 favorites]


I remember once hearing a poet discuss her passion for gardening on the radio. She referred to it as a confluence of concerns: her own passion and goals filtered through her commitment, her imagination, her research, her experience, her "talent" and, of course, an almost fanatical attention to detail ... and yet, at the heart of it all was this mysterious, inexplicable, living dynamic over which she had no real control, except to the degree to which she could help guide it in the direction it was probably going anyway.

At some point, of course, I realized she was really talking about writing. Wish I could remember her name.
posted by philip-random at 11:45 AM on February 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


If you are just standing around doing nothing, you have to write.

If you are just standing around doing nothing, sometimes you are writing.
posted by philip-random at 11:46 AM on February 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


DevilsAdvocate's meta-rule about writing:

Given any rule about writing, it is always possible to identify at least one great writer who broke that rule. That doesn't mean you should.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:56 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


dng - as far as I'm concerned, in a discussion about good writing, anyone quoting Steve Aylett automatically wins. He's brilliant, even though he has his characters speak in slick maxims and lards his text with exposition and editorialising - in fact, he's brilliant precisely because of those tendencies. A lot of our favourite authors break 'the rules' willy-nilly. Philip Pullman tells instead of shows all the time, and often summarises what sound like pretty dramatic scenes - so what? He's ace. Probably no accident that his response is my favourite. I wish I'd had the good sense to answer something similar whenever I've been asked this question!
posted by RokkitNite at 12:03 PM on February 20, 2010


7 By the same token remember how much time people spend watching TV. If you're writing a novel with a contemporary setting there need to be long passages where nothing happens save for TV watching: "Later, George watched Grand Designs while eating HobNobs. Later still he watched the shopping channel for a while . . ."

How can you not love Will Self?
posted by ovvl at 12:06 PM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Given any rule about writing, it is always possible to identify at least one great writer who broke that rule. That doesn't mean you should.

What does it mean when a great writer breaks a rule? I drives me nuts how almost no one wants to examine it. "Don't do X unless you're Hemmingway." Okay, but what is it about Hemmingway that let him get away with X while the rest of us can't? Is it just the fact that he was a great writer? Don't break the rule unless you have magic powers?

If Hemmingway did it, and it worked, then there must be some reason why it worked. It's possible that the rule is bogus. It's possible that it's a good rule in general, but in this instance it fails because Hemming was also doing Y & Z, which counteract the rule. (If so, that's really useful information! You CAN break rule X as long as you're following rules Y and Z!) Finally, it's possible that the rule is good for everyone including Hemmingway. Maybe he's a generally great writer but in this instance he screwed up.

Almost no one seems interested in delving into this stuff. Why not? Most of the time, "Hemmingway did it" is used as a chess piece in a war between the rule-makers and the rule-haters. And both sides use it:

- Don't break the rule unless you're Jane Austen. Do REALLY think you have her talent?
- Oh YEAH! It worked fine for Shakespeare! Are you saying he was a bad writer?

Both statements say nothing. They reduce to "is NOT!" and "is SO!"

There's another issue that comes into play, and I don't think it's based on intellectual dishonesty (like the above bullshit). I think it comes from getting trapped in mental ruts: someone reads ten books by writer Q. Q's books are fantastic, so Q gets shelved in the reader's mind as "a great writer." And he is, in general, a great writer. From that point on, the reader will have a really hard time seeing anything Q does as bad. If Q makes a choice that is generally considered bad, it can't be bad in that case, because Q is a great writer.

We don't find fault in those we worship.

Also, when a writer is generally excellent enough to enthrall his readers, they don't tend to notice small gaffs. This is normal. It's the same mechanism that keeps us from seeing flaws in a new lover we're smitten by. But that doesn't mean the flaws aren't there. It doesn't mean that rules advocating against those flaws are wrong. Maybe Hemmingway is getting away with the rule violation because all the stuff surrounding it is fantastic.
posted by grumblebee at 12:16 PM on February 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


(quietly takes down photo of Osamu Dazai, replaces with Margaret Atwood)

I think this is the only writing advice I give my students: don't confuse 'write what you know' with 'write about stuff that's happened to you.'

And then we return to discussing their confetti-like use of commas.
posted by betweenthebars at 12:18 PM on February 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Yeah, Will Self's rules were great.

Saw this earlier and dashed down my own five rules (because, since I haven't made much of my writing yet, I realize that it's ridiculous to hope anyone would read ten), informed by my two years in an MFA program and slogging through three currently incompletely edited manuscripts (Don't rush me! I'm working on it!) in the last year:
  1. Writing makes you a writer. Nothing else–not self-identification or delusions of grandeur or academic credentials. When people ask me about MFA programs now (and oh, do they ask!), I tell them that they’re a good place to make friends, drink, and avoid student loan payments. But they do nothing to make you a writer. Writing makes you a writer (and of course, plenty of MFAs don’t write any more while they’re in their MFA program than they do out of them. If you can’t write while working a desk job, you probably can’t write with a pile of papers to grade and friends urging you to go get smashed, either.)
  2. A novel is a problem to be solved. Which is to say, your characters must face problems and solve them, but also you, as a writer, need to be actively engaged in resolving your characters’ conflicts too. Otherwise you just have a 300-page-vignette of word vomit, and the reader won’t care. Or this reader won’t, at least.*
  3. Novels are written in two places: while you have the manuscript in front of you, and at quiet moments when you’re doing something else, like going for walks or staring out the train window on your morning commute. Or in the shower. Give yourself time to be in it. This makes you a terrible guest at parties, but a much better writer.
  4. Eventually, your characters will get away from you. Let them. This is scary at first, and will make you sound and feel like a 12-year-old fanfiction writer. But if your characters don’t have their own motivations, then you’ve failed to breathe life into them. Let them become their own people and shape their situation, not their actions, to drive the plot.
  5. Write. When inspired, write. When in doubt, write. You’re smart enough to get through this, but smart isn’t enough. Talented isn’t enough. If you’re not working so hard it hurts, you’re not working hard enough.
Mostly, though, I think lists like these are just an easy way for people who love to hear themselves talk procrastinate. Writing habits are ridiculously subjective.



*This says more about my tastes than anything else. I had a graduate instructor tell me that "all one needs for a novel is an intelligent young person and a city" and vomited in my mouth a little at that. Plenty of my peers jotted it down in their notebooks--I assume for different reasons.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:22 PM on February 20, 2010 [9 favorites]


"all one needs for a novel is an intelligent young person and a city"

That's somewhere between glib and moronic. I should give on my novel about a middle-aged guy in the country?

That "tip" is terrible, whether you want to write like John Grisham or Anton Chekhov.

I wish there was a way we could get your graduate "instructor" fired for teaching that. I really wish someone in the class had asked him to explain EXACTLY what he meant -- how that's ALL one needs for a novel.

Here is #1 in my ten rules for teachers: no glib bullshit.
posted by grumblebee at 12:57 PM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Elmore Leonard's ten rules of writing fiction is as splendid an example of unhinged dipshitery as I've ever seen, and its longevity never ceases to depress me .... Our rule for the cultivation of good writing is much simpler: stay in, read, and don't limit yourself to American crime fiction.

If every writer of Serious fiction out there was a tenth as good as old Elmore, I'd be a damned happy man. If you seriously think he's just a crime writer who happens to be pretty good at it, then you are truly missing something. I think the opposite is much closer to the point: he's a generous soul and masterfully economical teller of stories (which necessarily includes a genius for the invention of compelling characters) who happens to write in and around the "genre" of crime (those who perpetrate it, those who are trying to stop it and those who just find themselves caught up in it) because he both knows these people, and he's fascinated by them.
posted by philip-random at 1:53 PM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Tip One: Don't write like Dan Brown. Ever.

It is now credited with being one of the most popular books of all time, with 81 million copies sold worldwide as of 2009.

His bank account disagrees. Strongly.
posted by madajb at 2:22 PM on February 20, 2010


I remember favouring the glib, bullshitting teachers, as a younger man. Those pesky Russian formalists suggested that there are really only two narratives available for retelling, so writerly advice, in this light, has to focus on technicalities / praxis. He affirmed hesitantly.
posted by tigrefacile at 2:54 PM on February 20, 2010


I think that writing is the release of ideas from the writer's imagination. And the greater the writer's imagination--and the writer has no choice in this--cannot develop it--the greater the writer--and the writing. Explanations of "how it's done or should be done" don't get to the root. And what I say about writers I think also applies to artists, composers, mathematicians, etc. What was Einstein's imagination like? Picasso's? Chopin's? Proust's?
posted by RichardS at 3:12 PM on February 20, 2010


Those pesky Russian formalists suggested that there are really only two narratives available for retelling, so writerly advice, in this light, has to focus on technicalities / praxis.

More really odd "wisdom." Only an academic would call "Gone With the Wind" and "Midsummer Night's Dream" the same narrative. (Or are those examples of the two different ones?) To do so is to look at things from such a high altitude that it's almost useless. But from that altitude you can belittle the people toiling below as being obsessed with technicalities. It's like if I said "there are only two main kinds of clothes, shirts and pants. Everything else in fashion design is a technicality."

You can play this game a million ways: there are only two real genres, tragedy and comedy. There are only two types of stories, fact and fiction. There are only two types of deeds, good deeds and bad deeds. There are only two types of foods, healthy foods and junk foods. Remember this game next time you want to sound like a wise man on sitting on top of a mountain.
posted by grumblebee at 3:13 PM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


RichardS, I do think that imagination is really important, and I agree that you can't teach someone how to have a better imagination (or at least I can't think of a way to do it), but it's not sufficient. There are people with great imaginations who are terrible writers and artists. It's sort of silly to site examples, because the person I think is terrible, someone else will love.

But the one that pops into my mind is Tim Burton. Give him a story like "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and his mind will immediately go to work. I imagine his story conferences involve the phrase "you know what would be cool?" a lot.

I think he's visually gifted, and I wish I had half of his imagination, but I also think he's a shoddy storyteller. Partly, it's due to his feverish imagination that he's so bad. He'll throw all sorts of gratuitous crap into his films, presumably because "it's cool."

madajb would probably tell me that Burton is laughing all the way to the bank.

In any case, I think Burton could be taught to tell good stories. I'm sure he has no interest in being taught, but my point is that imagination is not enough. When we're training writers, we need to take what imagination they have and teach them to put it through a laborious regimen. They need imagination plus toil plus mechanics.

That "it's all about imagination" viewpoint is very modern. The Greeks and Elizabethans would have said that it's all about how you express your imagination (which is where mechanics came in). For some reason, we've lost that value. We no longer teach rhetoric in school, which is too bad.

It's interesting to think about the key form of literary expression in those times: blank verse. When you read a play by Shakespeare or Johnson, what's the real core of it to you? The events that occur, they characters or the subtlety and cunning of the poet's relationship to the verse line? I don't think there's a right answer, except possibly "all of the above."

We now live in a time where the popular style is less "elevated" and more "natural." It's easy to read naturalistic prose and think, "It's not about the mechanics at all. It's about the writer's imagination!" I would argue that's an effect. Through extremely hard work and superb mechanical ability, the great modern writer "makes it look easy." He makes it LOOK like he's just pouring his imagination onto the page. In reality, it's hitting the page in a highly controlled manner.

I also think it's important to point out that a complex imagination need not be the same thing as a grand, bombastic, theatrical imagination. Raymond Carver had a rich imagination, but it contained portraits in miniature. He was also a superb craftsman.
posted by grumblebee at 3:33 PM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


We now live in a time where the popular style is less "elevated" and more "natural."

Haven't we been living in that time since Wordsworth (at least)?

When we say "in this day and age" how many years are we talking about?
posted by i'm being pummeled very heavily at 3:38 PM on February 20, 2010


And I keep getting this nagging feeling like lots of writers don't ever think about that, not the way film directors think about setting up their shots or composers align their various pieces. You don't have many writers talk at length about how they compose their sentences, or how they choose what sounds to evoke at what points of the story.

Sometimes you know how to do something, but you don't know how you do it. Many processes critical to good writing are done unconsciously and it's very hard to describe them. This is why so many of these lists are so redundant and you get into the problem of "those who know do not speak, those who speak do not know."
posted by Maias at 3:52 PM on February 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think that the two strains which narratology (or at least reductive formalist narratology) suggests all fictional narratives can ultimately be reduced to are:-

A man sets out on a quest

A stranger comes to town


Or something like that. Most things fit. I haven't read much Freud and I haven't read any Darwin but I'm inclined to agree that most of what we do, we do for sex. Just because a theory seems grand and overarching doesn't make it invalid, is what I suppose I mean. I don't know if it's the Christmas Tree that's important or the decorations you put on it.
posted by tigrefacile at 4:02 PM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I didn't say the theory is invalid. I just don't see how it's useful to story constructors. (I also don't see how it's terribly useful to readers or students, but I will admit that I haven't thought much about that).

I direct plays. When I'm trying to decide if Hamlet should stand on the left side of the stage or the right, it's not helpful for someone to say, "You know, what you really have to decide is whether or not this is a drama or a melodrama."

I also think it's pretty boring to talk about whether bird's-eye views are more important than views on the ground. Neither. Both. To me, the process of creation is about stepping way back to look at the whole thing and then stepping in really close to look at the tiniest of details. Neither step is more important than the other.
posted by grumblebee at 4:09 PM on February 20, 2010


We now live in a time where the popular style is less "elevated" and more "natural."

Haven't we been living in that time since Wordsworth (at least)?


Yes. And...?
posted by grumblebee at 4:09 PM on February 20, 2010


I would happily write like Dan Brown, daily, if it meant I could have his sales figures.

Now that's sad, not because he's making a lot of money (who cares), but because so many people are blind to his execrable prose.

Dan Brown didn't write the following sentence, but it's an example: "His eyes slid down the front of her dress."

It seems as though most people disregard bad writing, because either they don't care or they haven't been educated well enough to recognise it.
posted by bwg at 4:10 PM on February 20, 2010


It seems as though most people disregard bad writing

Three types of people:

1. People who have a tin ear for good prose.

2. People who can tolerate bad style and even enjoy a story that has it if the story is good in other ways (e.g. strong plotting).

3. People who can't enjoy a story with poor with shoddy prose.

Those of us who are threes (raises hand) should not confuse twos with ones. If someone likes Dan Brown, it may be because he's the sort of person who gets equal pleasure from "Gilligan's Island" and "The Tempest." Or he may genuinely feel that "The Tempest" is better but still get pleasure from "Gilligan's Island," just because "it's kind of fun and silly, you know?"

Most people will eat what you put in front of them, as long as there's something fun about it. That doesn't necessarily mean that they equate MacDonalds with a five-star restaurant.
posted by grumblebee at 4:36 PM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


unSane: As a screenwriter who has to read a heck of a lot of novels as potential adaptations for the screen (and has one under his bed) ...

You have a screen under your bed? Doesn't that make it difficult to view? What, do you lie on your stomach with your head hanging out over the edge of the mattress to look at it? When I do that and try to read a book I've laid out on the floor, I always fall asleep.
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:59 PM on February 20, 2010


"Rules" for writing. Stupid choice of words. "Guidelines" for writing makes more sense.

Elmore Leonard's advice is good advice for someone just starting out, because he nips the most common excesses of beginners. Once you get past that, his rules, or anyone's rules, can only strictly apply to their own work. Leonard is good writer, but not everybody is meant to write in his style.

Better advice is to know the guidelines, so that when you break, expand or modify them you know what you are doing. You are also allowed to not know what you are doing, as long as it is described as pure research, and you don't expect to get rich.
posted by ovvl at 5:05 PM on February 20, 2010


Dan Brown exists to remind us that there are more important things in the world than money.
posted by ovvl at 5:07 PM on February 20, 2010


Dan Brown didn't write the following sentence...

But he did write this one:

"Overhanging her precarious body was a jaundiced face whose skin resembled a sheet of parchment paper punctured by two emotionless eyes."


I once dated a girl with a precarious body. It was always falling off, and I was left holding her decapitated head. Once, we had a terrible fight and she tried to puncture me with her eyes.
posted by grumblebee at 5:07 PM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Dan Brown didn't write the following sentence, but it's an example...

Talk about shoddy. "Here's what's wrong with this guy's writing. PS, he didn't write this."

To dismiss Dan Brown's success as "cha-ching!" is facile. Lots of people read his work, and like it. Y'all can spend the day bickering over whether it can be accurately said that The Da Vinci Code "resonates" with people, or analyzing the specific "level" of attention or emotion that it appeals to—but while you're doing that, Dan Brown spent his day writing another couple pages that a few million people will read and enjoy.

Maybe you wouldn't trade your lot for his (in that respect). But it's lazy to brush off his success as purely commercial. The reason his bank account grew is because people read what he was writing, and liked it. That's not the ultimate goal for some writers (some do write and even publish purely for ego), but it is for most.

As for rules: The only ones cited above that I find particularly insightful are Heinlein's, noting that most self-professed "writers" don't actually write, finish, and publish. That's true of musicians, too. And I like that advice, "[S]tories are never finished, only abandoned—learn to abandon yours."
posted by cribcage at 6:23 PM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


What a pile of bollocks. I've had the dubious pleasure of being a professional 'writer' for several years (mercifully free now), and the way these plonkers (and some plonkers in thread...) think they not only know the rule book for writers, but also for readers, is funny and sad.

Rule 1: It's got nothing to do with ability. However shit you are, there's always writers more successful than you who are way, way shittier. And there are always better writers doing worse, too.

Rule 2: (corollary to Phoebe) There's people who want be called "writers", and people who actually write. The former are more likely to be insufferable whenever the conversation turns to reading or writing. People who derive a full-time respectable salary from writing are sometimes exceptions to this rule.

Rule 3: Everyone thinks the way they write is the only way to do it, preferably with the same stories.

Rule 4: No one else may ever read it, and no one will ever read it as closely as you do. If you aren't enjoying it, you're depriving the person who will always be your number one (possibly only) fan.

Rule 5: Most people would be shocked by how acceptable plagiarism, mimicry, fabrication, and lies are. Be aware of this if you're thinking about going serious. You may find the pressure hard to resist, and also difficult to reconcile with your exalted notions of the profession.

Rule 6: "Good" is something that transcends, genre, style, and especially rules. Also "okay" is acceptable in just as many places as good.
posted by smoke at 6:25 PM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


So many of the people I meet are whiny, regardless of their professions.

True, and I'll admit to being one of them.

And I like Dan Brown books.
posted by morganannie at 7:54 PM on February 20, 2010



We no longer teach rhetoric in school, which is too bad.


Maybe. But it depends on what you mean by rhetoric. If rhetoric is the ability to identify available means of persuasion, then I think schools do still teach that. For example, when a law professor teaches a law student that s/he can't introduce evidence that has been obtained illegally, this is teaching rhetoric and when a teacher teaches a student not to overuse Wikipedia as a source, this is also the teaching of rhetoric.
posted by i'm being pummeled very heavily at 7:56 PM on February 20, 2010


But it depends on what you mean by rhetoric.


Rhetoric is the skill or art of using language effectively.

posted by grumblebee at 8:00 PM on February 20, 2010


I think schools do still teach that. For example, when a law professor teaches a law student that s/he can't introduce evidence that has been obtained illegally this is teaching rhetoric...

I was thinking of elementary schools and high schools. It's a bit late to wait until "kids" get to law school. When I was a kid studying composition, I don't remember anyone teaching me how to persuade with words. I mean, I was told to back up my claims with evidence, but I wasn't taught how word choices and phrase choices could be used to spark emotions and ideas in the reader.

Whether or not one introduces evidence isn't a good example of classical rhetoric, which is what I'm talking about. (I should have been more specific). Rather, I'd say that an example is the WAY one introduces evidence.

Classical rhetoricians cataloged figures of speech such as Antimetabole, which means repeating a clause with the words transposed, e.g. "all for one and one for all." And Aposiopesis, which means not finishing your
posted by grumblebee at 8:22 PM on February 20, 2010


Rhetoric is the skill or art of using language effectively.

Schools don't teach this?

I agree that schools don't teach that much classical rhetoric but they do try to teach students to use language effectively. The majority of instruction could fit under the heading of rhetoric if you define it as broadly as you/googledictionary just has.
posted by i'm being pummeled very heavily at 8:24 PM on February 20, 2010


Should have previewed.
posted by i'm being pummeled very heavily at 8:26 PM on February 20, 2010


Michael Moorcock's #9: "Carrot and stick – have protagonists pursued (by an obsession or a villain) and pursuing (idea, object, person, mystery)."

That's the most adeptly-stated summation of Michael Mann's entire approach to film I've ever seen.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 8:35 PM on February 20, 2010


To dismiss Dan Brown's success as "cha-ching!" is facile. Lots of people read his work, and like it. Y'all can spend the day bickering over whether it can be accurately said that The Da Vinci Code "resonates" with people, or analyzing the specific "level" of attention or emotion that it appeals to—but while you're doing that, Dan Brown spent his day writing another couple pages that a few million people will read and enjoy.

Fred likes a good yarn, meaning that he likes an exciting plot peopled with characters that he cares about.

Mary likes the same thing, but she can't enjoy the plot and characters unless the language that describes them is accurate and artful.

George, a writer, could learn to write well enough to please Mary. If he does so, he'll also please Fred. Fred doesn't notice sharp, evocative prose. He reads for the car chases, mysteries and sexy girls. But well-crafted prose doesn't bother him. In fact, it might even heighten his enjoyment, though he'd be happy without it.

But if George writes only to please Fred, he'll lose Mary. Why just please Fred when, with a bit more work, you could please Fred and Mary.

Unless all you care about is the money. Then you SHOULD only work hard enough to please Fred. There aren't enough Marys to make pleasing them pay.
posted by grumblebee at 8:39 PM on February 20, 2010


But it's lazy to brush off his success as purely commercial. The reason his bank account grew is because people read what he was writing, and liked it.

It is purely commercial. The reason the DaVinci Code sold so well is because it was marketed really fucking well. There was controversy and there was angst. The Catholic Church criticised it because they saw it as sacrilegious. People thought these theories about Christ and his life were Dan Brown unearthing history. What he actually was doing was regurgitating long discussed theories and conspiracies. The way the Church reacted gave credence to his pulp detective novel. People read it because they were told they had to read it because it was undermining the Judeo-Christian foundations of the Western World! (Exaggerated for effect, but what a marketing strategy!)

And maybe they enjoyed it. Maybe it pinged their sense that history isn't quite what they thought it was. Maybe they thought it taught them actual history. Maybe they liked it because they've heard of Jesus and Leonardo DaVinci before and thought they made an awesome pair to read a story about. Maybe they wanted to squeeze the book in before Hollywood made the movie under the belief that the book is always better than the movie - and better get in before people sneered at them for going to see a Tom Hanks movie.

I'd say there were far more people who read the DaVinci Code because they felt like they had to, because everyone else in the world seemed to be doing it, rather than because they liked his writing.
posted by crossoverman at 8:40 PM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


they do try to teach students to use language effectively.

How?

In my school, their version of teaching how to use language effectively was to teach grammar and to push us to back up our claims with evidence. That's like teaching someone to cook by telling them to keep a well-stocked fridge and to wash their pots and pans.

Did you go to a public school? Did you get more rigorous training then that? If so, then I'm jealous. What did your teachers tell you?
posted by grumblebee at 8:43 PM on February 20, 2010


Aristotle defines the rhetorician as someone who is always able to see what is persuasive. Correspondingly, rhetoric is defined as the ability to see what is possibly persuasive in every given case.

The effectiveness of antimetabole is going to differ depending on the situation so it is not enough to know the figures. A rhetor needs to understand a situation well enough to understand if the transposition is going to make people roll their eyes or applaud or grin. Attention to the values of one's audience and to the rules of evidence introduction, even in classical times. The first teachers of rhetoric were training people in how to win lawsuits after all.
posted by i'm being pummeled very heavily at 8:45 PM on February 20, 2010


I guess I should mention that I believe people acquire rhetoric more than they learn it. By interacting with a community day in day out, year after year, I learn what works and what doesn't. The rhetorical moves that tend to work become a part of my reportoire and the ones that don't get ditched. I don't need to know the names of the moves in order to use them, just like a baseball player doesn't need to be able to read a box score in order to deliver an RBI. So I think the best way to get a student to become persuasive is to put her in interaction with a given community day after day year after year. In metafilter terms, "lurk" to learn the values, make some volleys to see what works, and so on.
posted by i'm being pummeled very heavily at 8:56 PM on February 20, 2010


The reason the DaVinci Code sold so well is because it was marketed really fucking well.

Lots of things are marketed "really fucking well" but still bomb. Even well-executed marketing isn't the magic spell that you're painting it to be. And while you might believe that people read The DaVinci Code "because they felt like they had to," that does not match my anecdotal experience: At the height of its popularity, I remember a lot of people reading it and just about all of them said, "I read it in a day; I just couldn't put it down!"

Why just please Fred when, with a bit more work, you could please Fred and Mary.

That's a very simplistic portrait and full of holes. I take your point, but I don't think that's really how the world works. Also, you're ignoring the larger point that apart from the money, writing a book that millions of people like is a success. It really is. If Dan Brown can't say that his readers experience some enduring life change (and maybe he can; I don't know), he can say, "For the day or two when they were reading my book, I had them hooked." That's a rare effect, let alone on the scale he accomplished it.

PS—For more antimetabole/aposiopesis fun, see Silva Rhetoricae.
posted by cribcage at 9:52 PM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Grumblebee, I can't wait to read your no doubt many books, because you seem very certain about what makes for successful writing for everybody, how it should be taught, and what kind of books people should read.
posted by smoke at 10:17 PM on February 20, 2010


Talk about shoddy. "Here's what's wrong with this guy's writing. PS, he didn't write this."

When I wrote: Dan Brown didn't write the following sentence, but it's an example ..., the understood meaning was: ... of how jarring his sentences can be.

Then again, I dashed off the comment on the way out the door, so perhaps it didn't come off as I'd intended, seeing as how you missed the point.
posted by bwg at 10:20 PM on February 20, 2010


Here's my advice for beginning writers:

1. Forget

2. Doubt

3. Procrastinate

4. Abandon

5. Hate

If you can follow these rules and still manage to write something, it might actually have value. If not, no big loss.
posted by effwerd at 11:47 PM on February 20, 2010


grumblebee, I whish you wouldn't hog threads like this.
posted by joost de vries at 1:32 AM on February 21, 2010


"all one needs for a novel is an intelligent young person and a city"

Rastignac and Paris will bear this out.
posted by Wolof at 4:24 AM on February 21, 2010


I suppose my favorite piece of advice comes from P.D. James:

"Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious."

I can think of a few non-writerly variants:

"You are what you eat."

"Garbage in, garbage out."
posted by Chasuk at 5:49 AM on February 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


grumblebee, I whish you wouldn't hog threads like this.

Fair enough. I will bow out, after responding to smoke. I am sorry I hogged the thread. This is, to me, the most interesting and important topic in the world.

Grumblebee, I can't wait to read your no doubt many books, because you seem very certain about what makes for successful writing for everybody, how it should be taught, and what kind of books people should read.

My books ate terrible. (Yet they sell okay, which is why I have no respect for Dan Brown, just because he's sold a lot of books. So what?) It's so hard to write well. I know that I try, and that I try fucking hard, and that I'll keep trying until I die, but the results are always sub-par.

But smoke, if you read my rules, above, you'll see that they start with this: The following rules assume that you're writing for a reader whose main interested is getting lost in your story.

Above that I wrote So Leonard's rule is a good rule IF he's writing to entertain readers like me. There are, of course, other kinds of readers.

So I absolutely don't know what makes successful writing for everyone. I only know what makes successful writing for people like me. Sorry if I didn't make that clear.

And I would never, never NEVER dictate what people should read. I don't even have an opinion about what people should read. People should read whatever they want to read. The reason I talk about readers like me instead of readers in general, is that I don't believe there are universally good books and bad books. I don't believe in universal aesthetics. I do believe there are groups of people that share similar aesthetics, but I don't believe there's a human-race aesthetic. So it's silly to say that one book is better than another, unless you're talking about the tastes of a specific group of readers (or just yourself).

I don't understand how I lead you to believe that I think there are certain books people should read. But I obviously did, and I apologize for my lack of clarity. The idea of dictating what people should read is, to me, deeply wrong and offensive. I don't even believe in required reading in school.

I find it odd that you think someone can't write truthful criticism unless they are able to produce good versions of what they critique. There are brilliant art critics who spend decades studying painting or sculpture or whatever. They have fascinating things to say, but they can't paint or sculpt. Often the people who CAN do those things don't have anything interesting to say about what they do. It's too different skills.

I am far from brilliant, but I've spent decades of my life devoted to this subject. It's in my thoughts every day, often for hours. And I've read widely about it. Which is why I have the hubris to spout.
posted by grumblebee at 6:06 AM on February 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Grumble, for what it's worth, I'm a Mary.

I don't consider that you have hogged the thread, but merely prolifically contributed to it. Further, I've enjoyed -- and largely agreed with -- your contributions.

Would you mind sharing what books you have written?
posted by Chasuk at 6:21 AM on February 21, 2010


crossoverman - when people come into my library asking for Dan Brown books they don't seem to me like they are just asking because they feel they have to. They say things like, "I read his last book and couldn't put it down". When The Last Templar came out, we had over a thousand people waiting for their copy to come in. It's not homework for these people, they really enjoy his books.
posted by morganannie at 7:49 AM on February 21, 2010


bwg: "Now that's sad, not because he's making a lot of money (who cares)..."

Me! There's no shame in wanting to be paid for your work.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:24 AM on February 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


when people come into my library asking for Dan Brown books

If I had a library, I hope I'd at least make the effort to deflect people in the general direction of Robert Anton Wilson's THE EARTH WILL SHAKE:

They have been with us all through history: The "Invisible College" of wisdom, and their adversaries---the destroyers---who rise from the flames to burn again. The history of the world is their story: a conspiracy as vast and all-encompassing as the riddle of time itself.

And it's funny.
posted by philip-random at 11:18 AM on February 21, 2010


My books ate terrible. (Yet they sell okay, which is why I have no respect for Dan Brown, just because he's sold a lot of books. So what?)

First: That's a rather spiteful comment to make about another human being. Dan Brown is a guy who has achieved great success without hurting anybody. Somebody on AskMe once said, "There are many paths to happiness in this life. Try to find one that doesn't hurt anyone else." Dan Brown appears to have done that, to the benefit and appreciation of millions of people. If you can't find anything worthwhile in that—if you have "no respect" for the guy, despite it—then that says something about you.

Second: It's also an incredibly ballsy comment. You just held yourself out as a 'close-enough' comparison to Dan Brown, commercially. ("My books sell well enough that I feel comfortable making proclamations about him.") Given that assertion, I do think it's appropriate (and entirely non-snarky) to ask: Where can we find your published works?

I am far from brilliant, but I've spent decades of my life devoted to this subject. It's in my thoughts every day, often for hours. And I've read widely about it. Which is why I have the hubris to spout.

Hubris is earned through accomplishment. What you're describing are not accomplishments. It's great that you have "read widely" about this subject and spent hours thinking about it. That definitely qualifies you to participate in an Internet conversation about it—and you've done so constructively, here. But I'm not sure it entitles you to any kind of hubris.

I realize you said you would bow out of the thread. If that's the case, then so be it. I'm honestly not trying to goad you into posting again. (I've seen your posts before on MeFi, and you seem like a good guy.) I find the conversation interesting—and as I said, I think it's incredibly gutsy to compare yourself, commercially, to Dan Brown. Given that comment, I don't think it's inappropriate to ask for a follow-up.
posted by cribcage at 1:17 PM on February 21, 2010


cribcage: So, if I get you correctly, making fun of Jar-Jar Binks is incredibly ballsy?
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 2:29 PM on February 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hubris is earned through accomplishment.

Hubris means "insolence towards the Gods". It can't be earned. Violations are referred to the Dept. of Nemesis, where retribution is invariably final.
posted by Wolof at 2:44 PM on February 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Dan Brown is a guy who has achieved great success without hurting anybody.

I read the first page of THE DAVINCI CODE and it still hurts whenever I blink.
posted by philip-random at 3:03 PM on February 21, 2010


I wonder what Dan Brown's 10 rules would be?

As a reader who's never even attempted to write anything fictional, yet wasted too much time reading badly written books because I liked the idea behind them, I thought the rules in the article were pretty damn good. There's plenty of people out there pouring their heart and soul into the pages of a novel they're writing, and without basic editing skills their book is going to be a punishment to their readers. Passionate writers are a dime a dozen; skilled writers are rare. If passion was all that's required, then Timecube guy would have a best-seller on his hands.

I'm betting that Leonard and every other published author out there have read too many crap first drafts sent to them by aspiring artists who have no idea about the skills required to do a good job. They're giving the advice that's needed, even if those passionate writers don't want to hear it.
posted by harriet vane at 2:40 AM on February 22, 2010


A great novel is the intimation of a metaphysical event you can never know, no matter how long you live, no matter how many people you love: the experience of the world through a consciousness other than your own. And I don't care if that consciousness chooses to spend its time in drawing rooms or in internet networks; I don't care if it uses a corner of a Dorito as its hero, or the charming eldest daughter of a bourgeois family; I don't care if it refuses to use the letter e or crosses five continents and two thousand pages. What unites great novels is the individual manner in which they articulate experience and force us to be attentive, waking us from the sleepwalk of our lives. And the great joy of fiction is the variety of this process: Austen's prose will make you attentive in a different way and to different things than Wharton's; the dream Philip Roth wishes to wake us from still counts as sleep if Pynchon is the dream-catcher.

A great piece of fiction can demand that you acknowledge the reality of its wildest proposition, no matter how alien it may be to you. It can also force you to concede the radical otherness lurking within things that appear most familiar. This is why the talented reader understands George Saunders to be as much a realist as Tolstoy, Henry James as much an experimentalist as George Perec. Great styles represent the interface of "world" and "I", and the very notion of such an interface being different in kind and quality from your own is where the power of fiction resides. Writers fail us when that interface is tailored to our needs, when it panders to the generalities of its day, when it offers us a world it knows we will accept having already seen it on the television. Bad writing does nothing, changes nothing, educates no emotions, rewires no inner circuitry - we close its covers with the same metaphysical confidence in the universality of our own interface as we did when we opened it. But great writing - great writing forces you to submit to its vision. You spend the morning reading Chekhov and in the afternoon, walking through your neighbourhood, the world has turned Chekhovian; the waitress in the cafe offers a non- sequitur, a dog dances in the street.

Zadie Smith
posted by xod at 11:22 AM on February 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


And this, also from Z. Smith's essay, "Fail Better", as a corrective and rejoinder to some of the more insistent comments above:

Readers fail writers just as often as writers fail readers. Readers fail when they allow themselves to believe the old mantra that fiction is the thing you relate to and writers the amenable people you seek out when you want to have your own version of the world confirmed and reinforced.
posted by xod at 11:30 AM on February 23, 2010


The Guardian piece inspired Laura Miller of Salon to lay down some advice of her own. "A Reader's Advice To Writers" then led to a string of replies similar to this thread.
posted by Uncle Chaos at 9:17 AM on February 26, 2010


Snarky, pointless, bitter replies?
posted by Artw at 9:25 AM on February 26, 2010


(Checks article comments)

Yup.

If anything even dumber and more resolutely dedicated to point-missing!
posted by Artw at 9:28 AM on February 26, 2010


(Checks article comments)

The point for me is that most writers can't help but "write about what they know", either explicitly or implicitly. The problem then with way too many serious writers is they spend way too much time hanging out with other serious writers (and the other sort of serious people who hang out with serious writers); the result being that you get all this serious writing (some of it maybe quite brilliant) that most readers just cannot relate to.

Interesting that the tipping point for many is page 51 (ie: "if it hasn't grabbed me by then, then f*** it"). I'm personally way less lenient than this. If I don't "get" a solid sense of story (and that assumes character) by say page 20, I'm picking something else up. There's just way too much potentially great literature out there tempting me to stick with yet another meander through someone or others deep "impressions" of this, that, other things.
posted by philip-random at 10:12 AM on February 26, 2010


The Devil in the details

The rhetoric of action
posted by Artw at 1:17 PM on March 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


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