rules of thumb

more on first person narratives

some interesting suggested reading came up (thanks, Sillybean) in the comments to yesterday’s post, and I began to think more about first person narrative. So I went and looked on my bookshelves and found a few first person novels that are (in my estimation) well written and good enough to re-read (which is my ultimate test).

Here they are: To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee),
Sophie’s Choice (William Styron),
Ethan Frome (Edith Wharton),
Animal Dreams (Barbara Kingsolver), Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier).

John Mullen wrote a thoughtful essay on first person narration for the Guardian as part of a larger analysis of Donna Tartt’s Secret History. That novel didn’t make it onto my list, because I have no urge to ever re-read it.

“The choice of a first-person narrator must have seemed natural for a novel whose central character helps commit a murder. From Moll Flanders to Lolita, the first-person narrative, where the voice of the novel belongs to one of its leading characters, has been the means of drawing a reader into disturbing sympathy with that character’s misdeeds. Confession has long been a form in which fiction is cast.”

This is interesting, but it doesn’t quite work for me. The classicly extreme unreliable narrator (which really is what Mullen is talking about here) has never held much attraction for me, though I admire the skill that can pull something like this off. It’s just that I don’t come across it very often.

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.)

give your readers some credit

I like to think of this as a basic commandment: never underestimate your readers; treat them with respect, and they’ll hang with you.

That means, in part, that you don’t shove things in their faces. Let them watch the characters act and interact, and if you’ve done your job right, they will figure the important stuff out for themselves.

Maria Capstone was 87 but she was still sharp as a tack.

Boring, and a cliche, too. Try this:

In the ten seconds the Maguires spent wondering if they should offer to help the dignified old lady with her groceries, Mrs. Capstone had already hatched a plan to separate the newlyweds from their savings.


She liked to gamble.

Maria Capstone could get a craps game going in a nunnery.

As you may well have figured out by now, this is the same old “show don’t tell” thing you’ll hear every writing teacher spout. Because like most cliches, it’s true. So you give it a try with this boring, empty sentence.

Mr. Mahoney was very rich.

Empty words, wasted words. Let the reader see Mahoney being his priviledged, clueless self. Try it here: