There's something really absurd about writing a book about writing a book. Every mind is so different, and what works for one, will not work for another; so inevitably these books (Oates' The Faith of a Writer
, Lamott's Bird by Bird
- which I only recently learned isn't about bird-counting, who knew right?, the many, many "On Writing
"-esque pretensions) are not about "how to write" but are an entirely egotistical account of "how I
That is the obvious shortcoming of this book. But it is somewhat saved by the the grace of Joyce's literary slant. She analyzes not just the process of writing well, but analyzes examples of what is well-written. She attempts to bridge the gap between her personal methodology and the universal standard of writing. Despite her anecdotal histories, her idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies in her writing practice, her goals are constant, her idols are set firmly upon the tabernacle of creation.
The real value of this book is not in the "how to write" bollocks, but rather in her attached and unaffected reverence for literature, her humility and her elegance, reminiscent of Woolf. She tells us:
One is born not to suffer but to negotiate with suffering, to choose or invent forms to accommodate it.
And for her, writing (and running) is a way to negotiate that suffering and pain, with the beauty of potential, of fiction. Fiction is not what is, but what might have been, could have been, or maybe could never have been. Fiction is a lie which deceives only to enlighten (cruel only to be kind
) - a lie which mediates what is with something that is not: something inexplicable and out of control with a fictive world shackled and led only by the writer's imagination. Why do we suffer? why do others hurt us and why do we hurt? why can't we have what we want? In the real world these answers must inevitably escape being fastened down, but in fiction we can reconcile those questions with answers which follow strictly the logic of the world we create.FOR THOSE LOOKING FOR GENERAL RULES OF WRITING, IN LIST FORM:
From Mark Twain:
1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
2. The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it.
3. The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.
4. The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.
5. When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.
6. When the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.
7. When a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a Negro minstrel at the end of it.
8. Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader by either the author or the people in the tale.
9. The personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausably set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.
10. The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.
11. The characters in tale be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.
An author should:
what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
14. Eschew surplusage.
15. Not omit necessary details.
16. Avoid slovenliness of form.
17. Use good grammar.
18. Employ a simple, straightforward style.
From Elmore Leonard:
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.
From Kurt Vonnegut:
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 hell 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.
From George Orwell:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
But honestly, do whatever the hell you want! In writing the only rule is to break the rules! Curmudgeon-y dead white guys be damned