Thursday, September 12, 2013

Life Without The Boring Bits And Other Myths About Writing

So I spent the last week or so at the Brisbane Writer's Festival doing a few readings, a few panels and conducting some writers workshops (whenever I use the word 'workshop' in a non carpentry related context I always think of that Kingsley Amis line from Jake's Thing "If there's one word that sums up everything that's gone wrong since the war, it's Workshop. After Youth, that is.") I met many other writers, talked to readers, potential authors etc. and I've got a few thoughts that I'd like to share with you about the nature of writing in this and maybe one other post. 
Many of the crime writers I talked to this week have absorbed the great Elmore Leonard's "10 rules of writing" and repeat these rules as if they are gospel. If you'll recall this is what Leonard says (you'll notice that there are actually 11 rules here): 

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”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. 
6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
11. My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Now Leonard was a sensible chap and a terrific writer and much of this is common sense; rules 3,4 and 5 are solid but, to me at least, the rest of these "rules" are utter bollocks. My old editor at Scribner told me that you'll "never lose a cent underestimating the intelligence or the patience of the reading public" and this is the unspoken master principle behind Leonard's rules and it's what many writers deeply believe. But what it amounts to is fear. You're afraid of being boring. You're afraid to make your reader work, you're afraid to make your reader sit through a scene of real life or a potentially tedious description of the real world. You're afraid of poetry. You're afraid of tangents. You're afraid, you're afraid, you're afraid. Yeah well, I say bugger that. Write the way you want to write and if people don't buy your books fuck 'em. Be brave. Tell your story your way. Follow your rules. Write the book for yourself, not for some imaginary lowest common denominator reader who doesn't know anything. Dan Brown is so afraid of his readers that he explains everything in his novels and talks to us as if we were five year old children. Do you really want to go down that road? Contra Leonard I say if it sounds like writing then well done you, you're probably taking trouble with your prose not just writing any old shite that moves the plot along. Dare to be purple or wordy or dull...I promise you that it won't kill you. I've just finished reading Red or Dead by David Peace and he breaks every single one of Leonard's rules. In spades. Red or Dead will annoy many (perhaps most) readers but Peace doesn't care because he's an artist who drags his literary plough over the stony ground. In Red or Dead Peace uses repetition and leitmotif to take British literature into terra nova and because of that he will still be read 100 years from now, long after the Dan Browns of this world have been consigned to the dustbin of history. 
Joseph Conrad said that "A work of art should justify itself in every line" and I think that's a far more useful principle than any of the above rules by the late great Elmore Leonard. (Except for that thing about the exclamation marks and adverbs - yes Ms Rowling I am looking at you.) So what am I saying here? I'm saying ignore the bloody "rules" and write for yourself and if no one else digs it but you, maybe your book is complete and utter rubbish but maybe, just maybe, you're onto something new.