Writers On Style

12 Nov


Pace is crucial. Fine writing isn’t enough. Writing students can be great at producing a single page of well-crafted prose; what they sometimes lack is the ability to take the reader on a journey, with all the changes of terrain, speed and mood that a long journey involves. Sarah Waters

Get into the scene late, get out of the scene early. – David Mamet

The thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start. P.G. WODEHOUSE

“The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. … Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say “and then?” If it is in a plot we ask “why?” — E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

‘The cat sat on the mat’ is not the beginning of a story, but ‘the cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is. – John le Carré

Any fiction should be a story. In any story there are three elements: persons, a situation, and the fact that in the end something has changed. If nothing has changed, it isn’t a story. ~ Malcolm Cowley

Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting, whereas one long chunk of type can discourage the reader from even starting to read. ~ William  Zinsser 

Once somebody’s aware of a plot, it’s like a bone sticking out. If it breaks through the skin, it’s very ugly. – Louis Auchincloss


Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie. ~ Stephen King

What I’m trying to achieve is a voice sitting by a fireplace telling you a story on a winter’s evening. – Truman Capote

Writing well means never having to say, “I guess you had to be there.” Jef Mallett


ON Dialogue

11 Nov

Dialogue Should Be Brief

Elizabeth Bowen

1. Dialogue should be brief.
2. It should add to the reader’s present knowledge.
3. It should eliminate the routine exchanges of ordinary conversation.
4. It should convey a sense of spontaneity but eliminate the repetitiveness of real talk.
5. It should keep the story moving forward.
6. It should be revelatory of the speaker’s character, both directly and indirectly.
7. It should show the relationships among people.


Read almost any newspaper interview, and you’ll conclude that the dialogue of real people is more stilted and implausible than the dialogue of invented characters. Trying to make real people sound real on the page is necessarily an exercise in impressionism. Nothing teaches one the subtleties of punctuation so well as an attempt to take a skein of actual speech and restore to it the pauses, ellipses, switches of tone and speed, that it had in life. ~ JONATHAN RABAN

Writers on Writing

7 Nov

Use Plain Simple Language
I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice. ~MARK TWAIN

Another Important Rule

1 Nov

“There are three rules for writing. Unfortunately, no one can agree what they are.” – Somerset Maugham

Elmore Leonard Rules

29 Oct

Elmore Leonard

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

 Still, you might look them over.

1. Never open a book with weather.

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

2. Avoid prologues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

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

6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke  loose.”

This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that  writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the  application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and  loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.  Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices  in her book of short stories ”Close Range.”

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like  White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him”  look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.”  That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice,  with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into  great detail describing places and things.

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with  language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But  even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring  the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip  reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too  many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing,  perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the  weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader  either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet  you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I  can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the  sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain  invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious  writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the  way of what you want to say.)

If I write in scenes and  always from the point of view of a particular character — the  one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to
concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they  are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on,  and I’m nowhere in sight.

What Steinbeck did in ”Sweet Thursday” was title his  chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover.  ”Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, ”Lousy  Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled ”Hooptedoodle  1” and the 38th chapter ”Hooptedoodle 2” as  warnings to the  reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: ”Here’s where you’ll see me  taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the  way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

”Sweet Thursday” came out in 1954, when I was just beginning  to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.

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George Orwell’s Six Rules:

29 Oct

George Orwell’s Six Rules:

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech  which you are used to seeing in print.

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a
jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Janet Fitch 10 Rules For Writing

29 Oct

Janet Fitch : 10 Rules For Writing

1. Write the sentence,not just the story

Long ago I got a rejection from the editor of the Santa Monica Review, Jim Krusoe. It said:  “Good enough story, but what’s unique about your sentences?”  That was the best advice I ever got. Learn to look at your sentences,  play with them, make sure there’s music, lots of edges and corners  to the sounds. Read your work aloud. Read poetry aloud and try to  heighten in every way your sensitivity to the sound and rhythm and  shape of sentences. The music of words. I like Dylan Thomas best for  this–the Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait. I also like Sexton, Eliot,  and Brodsky for the poets and Durrell and Les Plesko for prose. A  terrific exercise is to take a paragraph of someone’s writing who  has a really strong style, and using their structure, substitute your  own words for theirs, and see how they achieved their effects.

2. Pick a better verb

Most people use twenty verbs to describe everything from a run in their stocking to the explosion  of an atomic bomb. You know the ones: Was, did, had, made, went,  looked… One-size-fits-all looks like crap on anyone. Sew yourself a  custom made suit. Pick a better verb. Challenge all those verbs to  really lift some weight for you.

3. Kill the cliché.

When you’re writing, anything you’ve ever  heard or read before is a cliché. They can be combinations of  words: Cold sweat. Fire-engine red, or phrases: on the  same page, level playing field, or metaphors: big as a  house. So quiet you could hear a pin drop. Sometimes  things themselves are cliches: fuzzy dice, pink flamingo lawn  ornaments, long blonde hair. Just keep asking yourself,  “Honestly, have I ever seen this before?” Even if Shakespeare  wrote it, or Virginia Woolf, it’s a cliché. You’re a writer and  you have to invent it from scratch, all by yourself. That’s why  writing is a lot of work, and demands unflinching honesty.

4. Variety is the key.

Most people write the same sentence over and over  again. The same number of words–say, 8-10, or 10-12. The same  sentence structure. Try to become stretchy–if you generally write 8  words, throw a 20 word sentence in there, and a few three-word  shorties. If you’re generally a 20 word writer, make sure you throw  in some threes, fivers and sevens, just to keep the reader from going  crosseyed.

5. Explore sentences using dependent clauses.

A dependent clause (a sentence fragment set off by  commas, dontcha know) helps you explore your story by moving you  deeper into the sentence. It allows you to stop and think harder  about what you’ve already written. Often the story you’re looking  for is inside the sentence. The dependent clause helps you  uncover it.

6. Use the landscape.

Always tell us where we are. And don’t just tell us  where something is, make it pay off. Use description of  landscape to help you  stablish the emotional tone of the scene. Keep  notes of how other authors establish mood and foreshadow events by  describing the world around the character. Look at the openings of  Fitzgerald stories, and Graham Greene, they’re great at this.

7. Smarten up your protagonist.

Your protagonist is your reader’s portal into the  story. The more observant he or she can be, the more vivid will be  the world you’re creating. They don’t have to be super-educated,  they just have to be mentally active. Keep them looking, thinking,  wondering,  emembering.

8. Learn to write dialogue.

This involves more than I can discuss here, but do  it. Read the writers of great prose dialogue–people like Robert  Stone and Joan Didion. Compression, saying as little as possible,  making everything carry much more than is actually said. Conflict.  Dialogue as part of an ongoing world, not just voices in a dark room.  Never say the obvious. Skip the meet and greet.

9. Write in scenes.

What is a scene? a) A scene starts and ends in one  place at one time (the Aristotelian unities of time and place–this  stuff goes waaaayyyy back). b) A scene starts in one place  emotionally and ends in another place emotionally. Starts angry, ends  embarrassed. Starts lovestruck, ends disgusted. c) Something happens  in a scene, whereby the character cannot go back to the way things  were before. Make sure to finish a scene before you go on to the  next. Make something happen.

10. Torture your protagonist.

The writer is both a sadist and a masochist. We  create people we love, and then we torture them. The more we love  them, and the more cleverly we torture them along the lines of their  greatest vulnerability and fear, the better the story. Sometimes we  try to protect them from getting booboos that are too big. Don’t.  This is your protagonist, not your kid.

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