Sunday 21 February 2010

Saturday papers on Sunday

Dunk spotted this interesting piece in The Guardian yesterday, so we popped out late and found a copy, Ten Rules for Writing (which you can read online but I like to have the real thing scattered across the bed myself). Someone I had not heard of has just written a book with this title so the Guardian asked a load of writers what their 'rules' were, and what an interesting selection of ideas resulted.

Some took the project less seriously than others, but I think that it tells you just as much about them, and about the process of writing a book. Roddy Doyle's comments particularly appealed, from the silly, "Do not search for the book you haven't written yet" to the more helpful, "Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones." The other silly comments included "Don't have children" (Richard Ford), "Prayer might help" (Margaret Atwood) "The first twelve years are the worst" (Anne Enright) and "No going to London" (Colm Toibin). Many things were repeated by several people; the advice to read widely, edit ruthlessly, go for a walk if you get stuck, write what you love, be self-disciplied, avoid cliches and basically just stop dreaming and get on with writing. Oh yes, and avoid having access to an internet connection ... very, very distracting.

Other people took the whole thing much more seriously, and gave some very helpful insights. Michael Morpurgo tells us "Ted Hughes gave me this advice and it works: record moments, fleeting impressions, overheard dialogue, your own sadnesses and bewilderments and joys." Hilary Mantel's thoughts on description; "Description must work for its place. It can't be simply ornamental. It usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of the character definition and part of the action." Similarly Sarah Waters suggests "Don't overwrite. Avoid redundant phrases, the distracting adjectives, the unnecessary adverbs." In fact Elmore Leonard asserts that using adverbs is a "mortal sin", and that exclamation points are to be definitely avoided, also "I have noticed that writers who use 'suddenly' tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points." Basically, you can't add atmosphere with punctuation. Joyce Carol Oates continues in this vein, "Unless you are writing something very post-modernist - self-conscious, self-reflexive and 'provocative' - be alert for possibilities of using plain familiar words in place of polysyllabic 'big' words." I really liked Roddy Doyle's other sensible comment, "Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg 'horse', 'ran', 'said'."

Only someone like Andrew Motion is going to say stuff like "Honour the miraculousness of the ordinary" and Philip Pullman dismisses us with "My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work." The other things that made me smile "Learn poems by heart" (Helen Dunmore), "You see more sitting still than chasing after." (Jonathan Franzen) and "Proceed slowly and take care. To ensure that you proceed slowly, write by hand." (Annie Proulx) I could almost rush out (or is that stay in, I think) and write a book. Or maybe just a blog post.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading another blog post about this last night where another writer very wittily criticized one of the lists. But reading your summary here is a more delightful reading experience. We all know that there simply can't be any fixed rules for any art form, so it may not be so nice to use a sharp tongue to attack lists that may not have been designed to be taken so seriously anyway. But here, at least, I learned something and was even made to smile by some quotes actually worth reading. Excellent post :)


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