Thursday, 4 June 2009

And then all hell broke loose: Gillian Philip

Elmore Leonard: I love him. Not just for Get Shorty and Maximum Bob and Cuba Libre (and it’s been years since I read anything of his, and I've just reminded myself to start again) but for his famous Ten Rules of Writing. Too long to list here, but you can see them on http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html. And they're wonderful, BUT...
I went through a phase of turning Elmore’s Ten into a form of religion. I blame this on the fact that I used to write only short stories (having assumed I’d never get a novel published, and that trying was far too much like hard work) (which it was, but by the time I’d written four I was enjoying myself so much I didn’t care. But I digress.) It wasn’t that the Woman’s Weekly or the People’s Friend were looking for much Elmore Leonard-style fiction; just that the principles were the same. Keep to the point, no excess verbiage, tell the story.

So when I started to write a fantasy novel, I applied all Elmore’s rules as ferociously as – well, as Maximum Bob. And having just discovered manuscript appraisal services, I tucked it up and sent it off to The Literary Consultancy, where a very nice man, tasked with critting this effort, told me that (on top of its many other faults) he had NO IDEA what my characters were thinking and not a clue what motivated them. Which was rather a handicap to the story.
I’ve always been fixated on the notion of Telling The Story, but what that experience finally knocked into my thick head was that you don’t have a story without characters to tell it. Which means getting inside their skins and their heads, and letting the reader see in there too. Which means that all writing rules – even Elmore’s, gulp – are there to be bent till they snap.
I was thinking about this recently because I just read and adored yet another Ruth Rendell book. I love Ruth Rendell even more than I love Elmore Leonard, but I could see this denouement (and the killers) coming a mile off. Did it matter? Not an atom. I stayed up till the small hours finishing the story, could-not-put-it-down, and all because of the characters. (I don’t get the whole plot-driven-versus-character-driven thing. Aren’t they completely and irretrievably entangled?)

Elmore’s Rules are still good ones. Just – like all the rest – not quite cast in platinum. After all, he did (allegedly) scribble them on the back of a napkin.

25 comments:

Nicola Morgan said...

Oh yay, a Ruth Rendell fan!! (I'm guessing the psychological ones, not the Wexfords etc? I love her work but haven't read any for ages.

And you are absolutely right with this post. When kids ask me what books I like to read, I say they have to have action and emotion. And the emotion isn't there if you can't feel the characters.

I am now going to have a little indulgent look at my Ruth Rendells again ...

Nick Green said...

A rule of writing I made up (at least I think I did) is: 'Fiction is memory'.

By which I mean, fiction should try to imitate memory, rather than reality. You could never hope to describe every detail of a real place or scene; all you can hope to do is include those elements that a person (i.e. a character) might remember. Memory is very selective, and what a person chooses to remember speaks volumes about them. The same should be true of fiction, I think.

This is the perfect way to avoid excessive verbiage and 'hooptedoodle', as you then know that everything you see on the page must be relevant, because otherwise, it would have been forgotten.

Fiction isn't faked reality; it's faked memory.

Bill Kirton said...

Put me down as another Ruth Rendell fan. But what prompts my comment is the whole 'rules' business. I, too, am a fan of EL's rules and constantly quote them to other writers, but I go apoplectic when I read comments from people who've obviously 'done' creative writing and seem to read books simply to check whether there's consistency in the POV. They decry what they call 'head-hopping' and frequently seem not to have read or understood the text at all. Remember, Somerset Maugham's comment 'There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are'.

Nicola Morgan said...

Bill, I totally agree. It's like people who remember from school that you're not supposed to start a sentence with "And" or that "every sentence needs a finite verb." Rules are there to be perfectly understood, and then used or broken with creative precision and intent.

We do need to know those rules in order to know when to break them properly and pointfully.

(Good to see you here, by the way!)

Mary Hoffman said...

Me too on Ruth Rendell (Wexfords and psychological) and even more when she is Barbara Vine.

She is hopelessly outdated and her editor lets TERRIBLE mistakes through - big continuity errors - but she is SO readable.

And as for EL, I've never read his or anyone else's rules for writing. Is it too late? Would it just confuse me now?

Bill Kirton said...

Not at all, Mary. They're clear, eminently sensible and even fun to read.

Anonymous said...

Gillian

I am there too...in the Ruth Rendell fan club. Psychological/ Wexford series/Barbara Vine. She is un-put-down-able, even with the editing lapses the other comment mentions. Many's a time I have been compelled to finish a book of hers into the wee sma hours...and gone bleary-eyed into the day.

I've never heard of the '10 Rules' either.But agree...you always have to know rules before you can break them successfully. I write mainly poetry...and it's the same there. You have to know punctuation before you can decide what to leave out.

Total agreement with your take on the plot versus character debate. A gripping story needs both.

Sheila

Gillian Philip said...

Nick, I like 'everything you see on the page must be relevant, because otherwise it would have been forgotten.' That sums up a lot about voice, I'll remember it.

I was slapped down at a writers' group once for calling The Old Man And The Sea character-driven. Some Uppity Bloke said 'ALL Hemingway is plot driven, ACTUALLY.' That's when I first started snarling and mumbling to myself about the two being compatible.

Yes, I love all Ruth Rendells - Wexfords and non-Wexfords and Barbara Vines - and I'm also in a constant state of jealous awe at her output. The one I was talking about, by the way, was 'Not In The Flesh' and it has a plot strand to make every writer WAIL with sympathy!

Elmore's Rules are well worth reading, Mary - they're very acute but also funny.

Nick Green said...

I'm not sure EL's rules are to be taken that seriously, really. They're more like him analysing his own personal style. You can't lay down a law that says you can't use the word 'suddenly'. Or adverbs. Of course you can use adverbs. Use them if it's necessary. And often it is.

I do like a nice sparse, trimmed prose, but then I like Mervyn Peake too, who is 100% hooptedoodle from beginning to end (while managing to weave page-turning plots too). What we must avoid at all costs is a bland homogenisation of literature, in which all books are mild Cheddar and all the Stilton and Brie is deemed unhealthy. Sorry for the cheesy metaphor.

Gillian Philip said...

I certainly think (now) they're to be taken with a pinch of chilli, but on the other hand they can be mighty useful for explaining in writing classes why 'he exclaimed' 'she declared' 'he replied' 'she gasped' is so not good.

And I do love that 'full of rape and adverbs'. I've read those books. Actually I think I wrote some, but they were never published, thank God.

adele gferas said...

Ruth Rendell is absolutely my top favourite author. In any guise but most as Barbara Vine. I have an acid test for this: if I find a new book of hers and get it home, I STOP READING WHATEVER I WAS IN THE MIDDLE OF AND START ON HERS!! She's amazing.

I love those rules too but break them all the time, which is what rules are for!

The Somerset Maugham quote puts it very well, I think.

adele geras said...

PS...I'm not Adele Gferas but it looks rather good, doesn't it? Sorry!

Penny said...

I think most writing rules - of the EL's rule kind - are absolutely useful in highlighting aspects of writing and readability that you (ie. me!) have been forgetting, but that you still need to find your own way. Have just read both the Steig Larsson books (Girl with Dragon Tattoo" & Girl Who Played with Fire" and am sure that lots of the time he is telling not showing, but the main characters intrigue so totally. It's the "voice" and the emotion that give as much strength to the book as the plot. She said. (Interesting post, Gillian.)

Michael Malone said...

Gillian, yurrastar! Great blog. And I'm now off to read EL's Rules What Are Meant To Be Broken.

bookwitch said...

Nick - I refuse mild Cheddar as often as possible. I insist on smelly Brie that runs away. One can always have small pieces of it. Or try to.

Have yet to tackle either Rendell or Elmore, so will run away quickly before any of you fans attack. Like a Brie, in other words.

Linda Strachan said...

Elmore's Rules - I hadn't heard of them either but I looked them up.
They made me smile, especially the ones about suddenly and exclamation marks!!
I agree, though, that rules are there to know and understand ... and then have the pleasure of breaking them.

oooh Brie..... yummmmm and Blue Brie...even better.

Anne Rooney said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anne Rooney said...

I hadn't seen EL's rules before, Gillian, so thank you :-) I particularly like

'If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.'

Oh yes., that's good :-)

Lucy Coats said...

If you like EL you'll probably like Damon Runyon too--a lost gem in a different sort of detective vein. No one seems to read him now. I'm a Rendell fan too--she grabs you and runs away with you in a mad gallop through the pages to find out whodunnit. Simisola is my favourite. I shall now print out EL's rules and ponder them. I agree with Anne, though, in liking 'If it sounds like writing....'.

Lucy at http://www.scribblecitycentral.blogspot.com

Lee said...

Leonard's rules work for Leonard. Otherwise, forget 'em

Gillian Philip said...

Which is almost what we're saying, Lee. Still, since they work so exceptionally well for Elmore, I don't think it's wise to dismiss them totally - especially when so many writers make the blunders he points up.

Lee said...

They're only blunders when done badly - like all things.

And it all depends what you're after: I certainly hope that what I write sounds like writing, for example. I want readers to slow down, to pay attention, to savour what I write.

Paul Lamb said...

I don't object so much to EL's rules, especially when I really doubt that he intended them to be taken seriously. What I hate, however, is when some automatically and emphatically espouse them without critical analysis. I've seen too many hack writers find a set of rules (S.S. Van Dine's rules for mysteries, for example, or Strunk & White, R.I.P.) and then insist they are gospel and profound. Balderdash!

Gillian Philip said...

Hm, I wonder if you missed the point of my original post, Paul?

Paul Lamb said...

Gillian, no, I saw your point. And thank you for it. I just see too many bloggers and commentors who don't see your point and think they have "the answer."