tricks of the trade

Elmore Leonard

Recently I got cranky about an article in the Times Literary Supplement on Elmore Leonard‘s ten rules for writers. The article ended with this bit of high-handed advice: “Our rule for the cultivation of good writing is much simpler: stay in, read, and don’t limit yourself to American crime fiction.”  

I’ll admit that I thought Elmore Leonard’s list was a bit vague (“10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. “) except where it was too specific (“3. Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialog.”)

So I’m going to list three of my rules and give other people a chance to bash at me. It’s only fair.

1. When in doubt, read the passage out loud (1) to yourself (2) to somebody else you like (3) to somebody else you don’t like. Take the average of all three reactions. If you still have absolutely no idea if the damn thing is any good, at least you will have succeeded in wasting another hour.

2. Hit a wall? Take a page-long scene with dialog you like from a novel you admire. Write it out longhand, but switch all the genders of the characters. This will either paralyze you for a week or give you good ideas.

3. Take a random page from your manuscript and highlight every occurence of ‘very’ in yellow. Now go through and highlight every adjective in blue and every remaining adverb or adjective (in case you’re not sure of the difference) in pink. If you’ve got rainbow-esque page in front of you when you are finished, delete all of the highlighted terms . Now put back only one out of ten. Choose carefully. (If you’ve got no pink, yellow or blue on the page, you’re in a minimalist sink-hole and you’ll need professional help to get out.)

war of the words

plot-heartremember me being bitchy about Harold Bloom being bitchy about Stephen King? This was back in November when King got the lifetime award from the National Book Foundation. The whole debate (popular fiction vs. so-called ‘literary’ fiction or, to get right to the heart of the matter: commercial vs. critical success) flaired up again when The Washington Post ran a story about that night in November when Stephen King said some Sharp Things to the literary elite and Shirley Hazzard (a card carrying member of that crowd) responded in kind. Then of course lots of other writers, editors and literary types jumped back into the pool to dunk each other one more time, notable among them Terry Teachout whose blog is called (auspiciously) ArtsJournal.com: the daily digest of arts, culture & ideas.

I like Terry’s blog; he’s interesting and funny, and mostly I just change the channel when I start to get irritated. Which I had to do this time. The only reason I’m bringing it up here is that there is one interesting observation to point out, and I’m quoting:

But it’s just as worthy of note that theWashington Post is now behaving as though litblogs have become a recognized part of the world of literary journalism.

I should leave it at this, but I can’t. Bookslut has also weighed in on the King-Hazzard controversy, again quoting:

It seems a matter of common sense. I think anyone who reads King’s comment that the new Peter Straub book lost boy lost girl deserves the National Book Award knows it is ridiculous. Unfortunately for King, the National Book Awards are not run like the Oscars where big and dumb rules, giving The Titanic the award over L.A. Confidential. (Yes, I’m still fuming.) And not that Straub is big and dumb, but it is a matter of storytelling vs. writing.

I didn’t realize that storytelling and writing were at war. In fact, pardon my populism, but it seems to me that the best novels combine good storytelling with good writing. (But then I’m an unapologetic member of the I like Plot club.) Peter Straub aside, it strikes me as an odd (and rather bellicose) to equate dumb with storytelling. Although I do agree with her about Titanic.