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January 30, 2004

Comments

Sam

Why don't you give people a link to Leonard's advice, and let them judge for themselves? Don't you believe in a democracy of taste, you elitest you?

Leonard's advice isn't nasty -- it's superb.

Sarah

I think Dutch's advice works for some people and doesn't for others. Which is kind of like writing advice in general, I suppose.

Sam

You're right, Sarah. I just think it's a funny, well-written piece that makes you think a little bit. In contrast to the rest of that rather earnest and endless NYT series.

TEV

LOL ... I'm assaulted by friends this morning!!

C'mon - "leave out the parts nobody reads"? Which parts are those.

TLS NB summed up this piece quite nicely a few weeks after it ran. I'll see if I can find it. But you're right - I should have linked. I was being cranky.

TEV

OK, here's the TLS item:

NB J.C. 27 July 2001

The fashionable crime writer Elmore Leonard has published his ten rules for writing fiction. Here they are: 1. Never open a book with weather. 2. Avoid prologues. 3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. 4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said". 5. Keep your exclamation marks under control. 6. Never use the word "suddenly". 7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. 8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. 9. Ditto, places and things. 10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
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.

For what it's worth, Sarah, I always thought the last line was a bit of a cheap shot. But I kinda agree with the rest.

Sam

Damn -- I hate it when people use NB against me. He's right on everything but James, who needs a little tightening up.

AW

The opening description of Leonard as "fashionable" is also a shot. What an elitist - or, hey, maybe the writer is being ironic. I mean, the bit about the passage on agronomy. So, what, we agree it's painful and tedious, but it's good for us? Or something. Sort of literary cod liver oil...

The point is, Leonard was asked for his opinion. These are his own rules. He actually indicates that Steinbeck breaks many of those rules but that he (Leonard) finds him totally readable. So he's NOT being didactic.

Regarding the TLS comment. If you don't like American crime fiction... so what? How is one other person's idiosyncrasy relevant to an article in which one author is asked to give their opinion on how they do it?

Cheers

Andrew

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TEV DEFINED


  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."

SECOND LOOK

  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

    Bs

    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe

    Rider_4

    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."