Shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark

Helga’s Post # 36 — It’s a good thing that it has been raining buckets for the last week. Perfect weather to hunker down and delve into my fellow writers’ manuscripts. To read and to critique, that is the agenda for the month. The process is in full flight and I enjoy finally seeing the product of my writing partners’ hard work. An amazing collection of genres, styles and characters of all stripes. A kaleidoscope of action, emotion, and raw energy.

As I read my fellow writers’ manuscripts, I wonder how on earth five people who write such diverse stories in styles that couldn’t be more different, ever managed to launch a group. Not only launch, but work with undiminished enthusiasm to support each other by making sure we keep on doing what brought us together in the first place: to write some damn good fiction. And I hope that if any of us will start having doubts about staying the course, the group will close rank and bring the errant stray back to the fold.

Two years and counting. Probably a lot more to come, unless one or more of us get published and too busy to participate, like founding member Sean Slater (his pen name). The rest of us would understand.

So back to the different styles and stories. It struck me that regardless of the diversity, we all have come a long way since we embarked on writing fiction. Since we followed the  arduous, but in so many ways rewarding trail of the writer’s journey. Yes, all those workshops at conferences and writers’ tool-kit books did rub off. I can see it in the manuscripts at hand. We do follow certain patterns. We start our stories with action. We put lots of work into developing our characters to make sure they are anything but mainstream, so as to catch and hold our reader’s interest. We follow story arcs (sort of) and, without perhaps consciously doing so, adhere to the writing advice dispensed by the Masters.

Never forget the Masters. Their wisdom illuminates the dark trail we writers have to travel, helping us reach our destination – a story that will delight our readers. Their wisdom may be buried within our subconscious, but it’s there, ready to be called upon. And what I glean from our manuscripts, an amazing amount comes through in our collective writing. With that in mind, I found some morsels from authors in quite different genres, all offering counsel to make our writing better. Whether as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and Elmore Leonard, there are common threads that bind them.hemingway5

To start with intrepid Old Man of the Sea himself:

‘Remove unnecessary bullshit’.

His words exactly. He reportedly told F. Scott Fitzgerald: “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

‘When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.’

‘Don’t describe emotion – make it.’

Close observation of life is critical to good writing, he believed. The key is to not only watch and listen closely to life events, but to also listen to any emotion arising from them and identify what it was that caused the emotion. If you can identify it and present it accurately and fully rounded in your story, your readers should feel the same emotion.

‘Be brief.’

Hemingway was contemptuous of writers who, as he put it, “never learned how to say no to a typewriter.” In a 1945 letter to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, he wrote:

“It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.”

There is another story illustrating the point: Apparently, Hemingway was lunching with a number of writers and claimed that he could write a short story that was only six words long. Of course, the other writers balked. Hemingway told each of them to put ten dollars in the middle of the table; if he was wrong, he said, he’d match it. If he was right, he would keep the entire pot. He quickly wrote six words down on a napkin and passed it around; Papa won the bet. The words were “FOR SALE, BABY SHOES, NEVER WORN.” A beginning, a middle and an end.

I get a sense that all five of us are instinctively trying to follow these suggestions, and more. We don’t succeed entirely of course, but as I read our manuscripts, I can feel we are aware and trying. Hemingway is one of many icons dispensing writing wisdom, but there is a common theme. And I sense we have learned a great deal from the masters, and much of this is seeping into our writing.

For a different tack, let’s look at another author: (Try to guess whose. Don’t peek)

– The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.

– Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.

– You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

– You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up. (Emphasis mine)

– Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.

– I never have [suffered writer’s block], although I’ve had books that didn’t work out. I had to stop writing them. I just abandoned them. It was depressing, but it wasn’t the end of the world. When it really isn’t working, and you’ve been bashing yourself against the wall, it’s kind of a relief. I mean, sometimes you bash yourself against the wall and you get through it. But sometimes the wall is just a wall. There’s nothing to be done but go somewhere else.

– Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­isation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

Yes, it’s from none other than our homegrown Margaret Atwood, her advice as sharp-witted as her own stories. I think we follow her advice in some fashion intuitively and without knowing its source. We certainly know (I hope) not to show our draft to someone with whom we have a romantic relationship. That’s what our critique group is for.

And last but not least, words that speak louder than the picture:


                        Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

6 thoughts on “Shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark

  1. All very good advice, although I’ve always taken exception to Leonard’s #3. There are a few times when dialogue can use a more helpful tag. Sometimes, for example, “muttered” or “whispered” are clearer. But that’s just me. 🙂

  2. So true. It all depends. Looking at different authors, including the masters, not everyone adheres to Leonard’s rule #3. And it still works, whether they ‘said, muttered, or whispered’. As a general rule it may be useful, but it’s not ‘one size fits all’.

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