Easy Does It
For Hemingway, the secret to effective writing was to forget about the flowery prose of the literati and keep your writing simple, short, and clear. When he went to work for the Kansas City Star in 1917 he was given four rules for effective writing, and he stuck with them his whole life. Here they are:
1. Use short sentences. 2. Use short first paragraphs. 3. Use vigorous English. 4. Be positive, not negative.
If you add to these suggestion, the Elements of Style mantra, “cull the unnecessary words”, you are bound to write in a more effective, more gripping English.
Vigorous English is also what other writers mean when they say avoid passive sentences: have your subjects prominent and perform the actions rather than showing the objects enduring the actions by some obscured subject. Easy? Look for how many times you use construct that say ‘something was <acted upon> by <a poor weak subject> and you’ll see what weak is and reverse the phrase to show a strong acting subject.
Enter now Elmore Leonard. In his “Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing“
Leonard suggests that writers:
- Never open a book with the weather.
- Avoid prologues.
- Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
- Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
- Keep your exclamation points under control.
- Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
- Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
- Same for places and things.
- Leave out the parts readers tend to skip.
Rule 8 is something that comes natural to me. I only sketches my characters, sometimes giving a trait here or there but never fill a paragraph describing the look and dresses in detail. You’re writing a novel, not a fashion magazine article. And 9, same for place and things. Leave room for readers’ imagination, they will become part of the story that will grow and take life in their mind. Rule 10 is golden but difficult. Which are the parts that readers skim? the boring ones. Your editor will point them to you and tell “this scene doesn’t advance the story!” That is, either it is there, or not, the story is unchanged, and if too long you risk to loose your readers. I sometimes err into failing with Rule 10, but my editor saves my derriere with his demonic skills.
Another author you might have encountered is Kurt Vonnegut.
In the preface to his short story collection Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, he gives us eight basics of what he calls Creative Writing 101. They are:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. 8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Rule 5, remember he’s talking short stories On 6, I sometimes ask my characters where they do NOT want to go, for fear terrible things to happen to them, explore all the bad turns and twists, promising I’ll never force them there, then the next scene takes place in that horrid (for them) place. You’re god, but have no mercy. Rule 7., it can be your wife, as for Stephen King, or yourself seen as a reader. It matches the “write the story you’d like to read.” Of course, you can do that only if you’ve read a lot yourself before writing, otherwise there is little to invent or innovate there Number 8, I think Kurt is once again talking to shorts. I am on the fence there… as soon as possible? How soon is it, and can it be too soon? Tough call. For readers to have complete understanding so that they can skip the last pages? Uhmm, I’m not there (yet?) with you in that, Kurt.
And you, do you have your own rules, do these ones resonate with you? I avoid like the black plague the use of -ly words and other adverbs in anything that is not dialogue. To me they undermine the “Show, Do not Tell”. What does your experience tell you?
Thanks for reading.