Bunking Off

I had never heard of Geoff Dyer before, but my buddy Jim Dahm sent me a link to this page where a bunch of writers list their best advice for writing. There’s lots of great stuff there, but this one perfectly crystallizes how I work:

Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It’s only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other. I ­always have to feel that I’m bunking off from something.

Great. Now I have to go find one of his books and read it. Like I don’t already have ten books going already. Thanks a lot, Dahm!



I’m not going to lie. The new X-Men movie is looking very very good. (Via Squidbag.) I just hope they don’t give us Cuban Missiles without the Pigs or the Mongoose.

Today I’m listening to: Ana Tijoux! (Help! Someone who speaks Spanish: WTF is she talking about? I need to know.)

Ten rules for writing fiction

Get an accountant, abstain from sex and similes, cut, rewrite, then cut and rewrite again – if all else fails, pray. Inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, we asked authors for their personal dos and don’ts

Read the second part of the article here

Tips for writers

Illustration: Andrzej Krauze

Elmore Leonard: Using adverbs is a mortal sin

1 Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2 Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”

3 Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.

5 Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6 Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”. This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7 Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, what do the “Ameri­can and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.

9 Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing is published next month by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Diana Athill

1 Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK (prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out – they can be got right only by ear).

2 Cut (perhaps that should be CUT): only by having no ­inessential words can every essential word be made to count.

3 You don’t always have to go so far as to murder your darlings – those turns of phrase or images of which you felt extra proud when they appeared on the page – but go back and look at them with a very beady eye. Almost always it turns out that they’d be better dead. (Not every little twinge of satisfaction is suspect – it’s the ones which amount to a sort of smug glee you must watch out for.)

Margaret Atwood

1 Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.

2 If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.

3 Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.

4 If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.

5 Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.

6 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.

7 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.

8 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.

9 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.

10 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.

Roddy Doyle

1 Do not place a photograph of your ­favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.

2 Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph ­–

3 Until you get to Page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety – it’s the job.

4 Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy.

5 Do restrict your browsing to a few websites a day. Don’t go near the online bookies – unless it’s research.

6 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”.

7 Do, occasionally, give in to temptation. Wash the kitchen floor, hang out the washing. It’s research.

8 Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones. I was working on a novel about a band called the Partitions. Then I decided to call them the Commitments.

9 Do not search amazon.co.uk for the book you haven’t written yet.

10 Do spend a few minutes a day working on the cover biog – “He divides his time between Kabul and Tierra del Fuego.” But then get back to work.

Helen Dunmore

1 Finish the day’s writing when you still want to continue.

2 Listen to what you have written. A dud rhythm in a passage of dialogue may show that you don’t yet understand the characters well enough to write in their voices.

3 Read Keats’s letters.

4 Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.

5 Learn poems by heart.

6 Join professional organisations which advance the collective rights of authors.

7 A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.

8 If you fear that taking care of your children and household will damage your writing, think of JG Ballard.

9 Don’t worry about posterity – as Larkin (no sentimentalist) observed “What will survive of us is love”.

Geoff Dyer

Bin Laden: Three Things

I came across three things today that I’d like to share in the wake of today’s big news. First, most of you know that I’m not a religious person. However, I was impressed by this column from Rev. Pamela Dolan in St. Louis:

As I’m watching Facebook light up with people’s reactions to the death of Osama bin Laden, what I’m noticing is that there seem to be two main camps, those who see this as an act of justice, and those who see it as an act of revenge. But more than anything, I’m proud of the number of people I know who do not want to get up on a rooftop to celebrate the death of another human being. They might think this was the right thing to do, they might well believe it to be justified, but they are not gleeful or gloating. And, like me, they are troubled by the pictures on TV that show jubilant, chanting crowds (as one friend put it, “Acting like Team America just won the Superbowl”) accompanied by the words, “America responds to the death of bin Laden.” Should this be the face we show to the rest of the world? Is this who we really are?

Many of my friends have posted the same passage of Scripture to share today: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice” (Proverbs 24:17).   This seems particularly apt, and I am grateful for it. I know there are lots of Psalms about smiting our enemies and dashing people’s heads against the stones, but if we’re going to pick and choose bits of scripture to justify our actions and emotions, can’t we pick those bits that challenge us to be better, more loving, more generous than what comes easily or naturally to most of us, rather than those that affirm our basest inclinations, especially the inclination toward revenge?

Two other quotes I came across just now. The first is from Eldridge Cleaver:

The price of hating other human beings is loving oneself less.

And the second is from Booker T. Washington:

I shall never permit myself to stoop so low as to hate any man.

Also: The news reports keep mentioning a woman who was killed during the raid, who was being used as a human shield. I’d really like to know more about her.

For the record, of course, I’m not judging any actions taken by US military personnel, or the raid itself. I’m just a bit troubled by some of the things that have accompanied it.

Update: This made me ROFL. Some readers of the Kansas City Star are apparently upset by the very large picture of Bin Laden on that newspaper’s front page.

“His admirers are going to cut that out and worship it,” said one caller. “It’s just going to glorify him, and that’s terrible.”

Yeah, all of his vast legions of admirers in Kansas City. Do these people think they’re reading the khabrain Urdu newspaper or something!? Get a grip, people.

Update: Tim Wise.

Taking a life, even when you have no choice, is no cause for joy. It is a grave and serious event; and it is utterly unnatural, such that militaries the world over have to dehumanize their enemies and work furiously to break down their soldiers’ natural human tendencies to not kill. The fact that violence may be necessary in certain cases, and even in the case of stopping bin Laden, cannot, in and of itself justify raucous celebrations of his death at the hands of the United States.

Quote of the Day: Obama on War

Obama, in 2007:

The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.

Long Live King

The nuclear catastrophe in Japan is so depressing I can barely stand to check on it. So I was very happy to see (via DLF, the most super lady in the history of awesomeness) this story about Stephen King.

In a rally last week in Sarasota, Fla., supporting education, unions and veterans, the horror author and outspoken Democrat compared Maine Gov. Paul LePage, Florida’s Rick Scott and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, all Republicans, to “Larry, Curly and Moe. That’s what we’ve got here.”

Mr. King, please write a book where they experience the same loving care that Paul Sheldon receives at the hands of his nurse Annie Wilkes.


DLF is such a super lady!

Today I’m listening to: Klashnikoff!

Quote of the Day: Lautenschlager

On last night’s stealthy closed-door Wisconsin Senate bill slam, former Wisconsin Attorney General Pat Lautenschlager said today:

Frankly I don’t know how either [the Dane County District Attorney's Office or the Attorney General's Office] would need a complaint to file an action in this. It’s clear that the conference committee’s meeting on its face violated Wisconsin’s open meetings law.

I sure hope she’s right.

UPDATE: I just learned that this comes on the eve of “Sunshine Week”. Good timing, Republicans! Stay classy.