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Posts Tagged ‘lists’

21 AUGUST, 2013

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

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“If it sounds like writing … rewrite it.”

On July 16, 2001, Elmore Leonard (October 11, 1925–August 20, 2013) made his timeless contribution to the meta-literary canon in a short piece for The New York Times, outlining his ten rules of writing. The essay, which inspired the Guardian series that gave us similar lists of writing rules by Zadie Smith, Margaret Atwood, and Neil Gaiman, was eventually adapted into Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing (public library) — a slim, beautifully typeset book, with illustrations by Joe Ciardiello accompanying Leonard’s timeless rules.

He prefaces the list with a short disclaimer of sorts:

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

Leonard then goes on to lay out the ten commandments, infused with his signature blend of humor, humility, and uncompromising discernment:

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. 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 to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

  3. Avoid prologues.
  4. They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. 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 O.K. 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. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

  5. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  6. 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 to get the dictionary.

  7. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” …
  8. …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.”

  9. Keep your exclamation points under control.
  10. 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.

  11. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  12. 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.

  13. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  14. 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 flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

  15. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  16. 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, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

  17. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  18. Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

    And finally:

  19. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
  20. A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

    My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

    If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

    Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

    If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

    What Steinbeck did in Sweet Thursday was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. “Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, “Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled “Hooptedoodle 1″ and the 38th chapter “Hooptedoodle 2″ as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: “Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

    Sweet Thursday came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

    Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.

Complement Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing with the 10 best books on writing and the collected advice of other famous writers, including Walter Benjamin’s thirteen rules, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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30 JULY, 2013

David Ogilvy’s Timeless Principles of Creative Management

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“If you ever find a man who is better than you are — hire him. If necessary, pay him more than you pay yourself.”

Advertising legend David Ogilvy endures not only as the original Mad Man, but also as one of modern history’s most celebrated creative leaders in the communication arts. From The Unpublished David Ogilvy (public library) — the same compendium of his lectures, memos, and lists that also gave us Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips on writing, his endearing memo of praise to a veteran copywriter, and his list of the 10 qualities of creative leaders — comes a chapter titled “Principles of Management,” based on a 1968 paper Ogilvy wrote as a guide for Ogilvy & Mather managers worldwide.

In a section on morale, he admonishes that some companies “have been destroyed by internal politics” and offers seven ways to curtail them:

  1. Always be fair and honest in your own dealings; unfairness and dishonesty at the top can demoralize [a company].
  2. Never hire relatives or friends.
  3. Sack incurable politicians.
  4. Crusade against paper warfare*. Encourage your people to air their disagreements face-to-face.
  5. Discourage secrecy.
  6. Discourage poaching.
  7. Compose sibling rivalries.

* Though Ogilvy was writing decades before email, the same applies with equal urgency to today’s electronic warfare.

Echoing Dickens, who advised his son to “never be hard upon people who are in your power,” and presaging the modern science of autonomy, mastery, and purpose as the key to motivation at work, Ogilvy adds:

The best way to “install a generator” in a man is to give him the greatest possible responsibility. Treat your subordinates as grown-ups — and they will grow up. Help them when they are in difficulty. Be affectionate and human, not cold and impersonal.

Italo Calvino cautioned in his collected insights on writing that “one cannot say a priori that a writer just because he is a writer is more capable of handling ideas and of seeing what is essential than a journalist.” Similarly, Ogilvy notes the democratic nature of ideas and urges managers not to subscribe to siloed stereotypes:

Senior men and women have no monopoly on great ideas. Nor do Creative people. Some of the best ideas come from account executives, researchers, and others. Encourage this; you need all the ideas you can get.

Reflecting on mastering the pace of productivity, he argues:

I believe in the Scottish proverb: Hard work never killed a man. Men die of boredom, psychological conflict and disease. They do not die of hard work. The harder your people work, the happier and healthier they will be.

Writing shortly after Arthur Koestler’s famous treatise on the relationship between humor and creativity, Ogilvy affirms the importance of that link in cultivating a creative environment:

Kill grimness with laughter. Maintain an atmosphere of informality. Encourage exuberance. Get rid of sad dogs who spread gloom.

In a section on respect, he calls for creative integrity:

Our offices must always be headed by the kind of people who command respect. No phonies, zeros or bastards.

In a section on hiring, he offers the two essential criteria for recruiting talent:

The paramount problem you face is this: advertising is one of the most difficult functions in industry, and too few brilliant people want careers in advertising.

The challenge is to recruit people who are able to do the difficult work our clients require from us.

  1. Make a conscious effort to avoid recruiting dull, pedestrian hacks.
  2. Create an atmosphere of ferment, innovation and freedom. This will attract brilliant recruits.

If you ever find a man who is better than you are — hire him. If necessary, pay him more than you pay yourself.

He adds a note on equality in hiring (though, on the cusp of the second wave of feminism and shortly after the Equal Pay Act, he makes no mention of equal opportunity for women):

In recruitment and promotion we are fanatical in our hatred for all forms of prejudice. We have no prejudice for or against Roman Catholics, Protestants, Negroes, Aristocracy, Jews, Agnostics or foreigners.

In a section on partnership within the company, he offers four points of advice:

It is as difficult to sustain happy partnerships as to sustain happy marriages. The challenge can be met if those concerned practice these restraints:

  1. Have clear-cut division of responsibility.
  2. Don’t poach on the other fellow’s preserves.
  3. Live and let live; nobody is perfect.
  4. “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considers not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

In a section on comers, exploring the management of talent, he reiterates some his 10 criteria for creative leaders and advises:

The management of manpower resources is one of the most important duties of our office heads. It is particularly important for them to spot people of unusual promise early in their careers, and to move them up the ladder as fast as they can handle increased responsibility.

There are five characteristics which suggest to me that a person has the potential for rapid promotion:

  1. He is ambitious.
  2. He works harder than his peers — and enjoys it.
  3. He has a brilliant brain — inventive and unorthodox.
  4. He has an engaging personality.
  5. He demonstrates respect for the creative function.

If you fail to recognize, promote and reward young people of exceptional promise, they will leave you; the loss of an exceptional man can be as damaging as the loss of an account.

The rest of his principles go on to explore such intricacies as the perils of leadership, the art of cat-herding creative people, and how to know when to resign a client. It’s worth reiterating just how excellent and timeless The Unpublished David Ogilvy is in its entirety.

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19 JULY, 2013

10 Tips on Writing from Joyce Carol Oates

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“Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader — or any reader. He/she might exist — but is reading someone else.”

In a recent tweeting spree, the inimitable Joyce Carol Oates offered ten tips on writing — a fine addition to this master-list of famous authors’ wisdom on the craft.

  1. Write your heart out.
  2. The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written. FIRST DRAFTS ARE HELL. FINAL DRAFTS, PARADISE.
  3. You are writing for your contemporaries — not for Posterity. If you are lucky, your contemporaries will become Posterity.
  4. Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”
  5. When in doubt how to end a chapter, bring in a man with a gun. (This is Raymond Chandler’s advice, not mine. I would not try this.)
  6. Unless you are experimenting with form — gnarled, snarled & obscure — be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.
  7. Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!
  8. Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader — or any reader. He/she might exist — but is reading someone else.
  9. Read, observe, listen intensely! — as if your life depended upon it.
  10. Write your heart out.

This wonderful micro-documentary from the New Yorker offers a peek inside Oates’s life, work, and creative process:

Anything I’ve encountered in the world is never as interesting as a novel… What you find out there is never as exciting as your own creation.

For more wisdom on writing, see Walter Benjamin’s thirteen rules, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Portrait by Marion Ettlinger

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