I’m going to share some of my favorite quotes about writing. I know it’s a little presumptuous on my part. I’m not a writer, unless you count this blog as writing. But as an agent, I find myself doing a lot of editing. Publishers don’t have time to imagine how to make an imperfect manuscript perfect. So part of my job is to make sure it’s pretty perfect before it lands on their desk. That means I have to edit. And in order to edit, I have to think about writing that’s good and writing that’s bad. Telling the difference is pretty easy. I can usually do that on the first page. But understanding why good writing is good and bad writing is bad, I think that could take a lifetime.
I have a philosophy about editing. I like to come to a manuscript with a “beginner’s mind.” That’s a concept in Zen Buddhism that means one should approach a subject with no preconceptions, techniques, or methods. In his book: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shuryu Suzuki describes it perfectly. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” So when I start to edit a manuscript, I try to put myself in the role of the simple reader who is, after all, the only person that really matters. Writers aren’t always in the best position to understand the reader. I’d like to believe that I can help them out.
Now on to my favorite quotes:
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
“I don’t understand anything about the ballet; all I know is that during the intervals the ballerinas stink like horses.”
“Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions.”
“One should not put a loaded rifle onto the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”
– above quotes by Anton Chekhov
“Show, don’t tell” has become a cliché. But it is also fundamental. Not quite a law of nature. Great writers can break the rules. I think these wise words by Chekhov say it better than all the articles you read on this subject in Writer’s Digest. Actually the quote about the ballet doesn’t really address this concept, but I liked it so much I decided to include it. And it’s only a little bit of a stretch to say that the stink of the ballerinas tells – no, excuse me – shows you a lot about their art.
- ” The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” –Stephen King
- “As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out.” –Mark Twain
- “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.” – Elmore Leonard
- “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’…he admonished gravely.” – Elmore Leonard
- “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.” –Elmore Leonard
When I was in New York last month for the book convention, I had dinner with Susan Sutliff Brown, freelance editor, Joyce scholar, and friend. At some point in the evening, Susan stated pontifically that good writers of literary fiction don’t use adjectives and adverbs. I was astonished. Of course, we all look down on Tom Swifties, those ungainly adverbial tags used by the novice writer. (“Let’s get to the rocket ship, Tom said swiftly.”) But banishing adverbs and adjectives altogether? Unimaginable, even in an alternative universe designed by Raymond Carver. Susan’s pronouncement ruined my reading for several weeks. Rather than getting lost in a good book, I poured over texts counting modifiers. But now I must admit that Susan was on the right track. Again, it’s all about “show, don’t tell.” Excessive use of adjectives and especially adverbs is a sign of lazy writing. Check it out yourself. (Now, I hope this hasn’t ruined your experience of reading for the next few weeks.)
- “Avoid prologues.” – Elmore Leonard
Editors believe how you handle or mishandle “backstory” is a marker for your ability as a writer. Back in the 19th century when people had more time, you could get away with spending the first 50 pages, say, setting setting up the story. If you don’t believe me, check out Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable. Jean Valjean doesn’t even come on stage until page 55. You can’t do that today. Backstory needs to be insinuated into the narrative, obliquely, as it unfolds. And it’s devilishly hard to do. Prologues are the lazy man’s way of getting all the crap out and onto the page, so that the you can proceed to roll out the plot without any messy explanatory back tracking. Book editors call this an “info dump”.
You see prologues a lot in movies. And it makes sense. Screenplays are much more compressed than novels. A typical screenplay has about 20,000 words. A very short novel will have 70,000. A movie doesn’t have time to allow a backstory to subtly unfold and bore an audience. But you can’t do that in fiction. Well, that’s not entirely true. Looking for graceless, awkward, lazy, and inelegant management of backstory? I recommend The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown.
But on the other hand –
- “Learn from cinema. Be economic with descriptions. Sort out the telling detail from the lifeless one. Write dialogue that people would actually speak.” – Rose Tremain
- “Pace is crucial. Fine writing isn’t enough. Writing students can be great at producing a single page of well-crafted prose; what they sometimes lack is the ability to take the reader on a journey, with all the changes of terrain, speed and mood that a long journey involves. Again, I find that looking at films can help. Most novels will want to move close, linger, move back, move on, in pretty cinematic ways.”
– Rose Tremain
Don’t laugh when I say that learning how to write is a lot like learning how to play golf. There is a very profitable industry out there of golf tip books, magazines, and videos by the super stars. Millions of words written on how to execute the perfect swing or how to make your drive fade. But mastering this information won’t make you Tiger Woods. Similarly with writing, the great novelists are a practical group, always willing to give and receive tips. Here’s some quotes I like:
- “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” – Elmore Leonard
- “The wastebasket is a writer’s best friend.” – Isaac Bashevis Singer
- “A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the other one.” – Baltasar Gracián
- “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” – Agatha Christie
- “ Try to be accurate about stuff. ” – Anne Enright
Ok. So the golf comparison is pretty sucky. And you might just perceive in these quotes a tone of post-modern self-reflective irony that one would not likely hear at the British Open. But there is something about these sentiments that make me feel pretty good, like these writers are experiencing the same struggles as we mortals. Compare this to:
- “If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.” – Anais Nin
- “To withdraw myself from myself has ever been my sole, my entire, my sincere motive in scribbling at all.” – Lord Byron
- “I am a man, and alive…. For this reason I am a novelist. And being a novelist, I consider myself superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet, who are all great masters of different bits of man alive, but never get the whole hog.” – D.H. Lawrence
No offense to the great Lord Byron and these other fine writers, but their characterizations of themselves as writers strike me as gaseous nonsense.
To be continued……
Tags: adverbs, andy ross, ask the agent, back story, beginner's mind, books, chekhov, elmore leonard, literary agent, literature, mark twain, novels, prologue, rose tremain, show don't tell, stephen king, susan sutliff brown, writing