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Category: fiction

Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of good fiction writing

The first rule of good writing is that there are no rules. If Elmore Leonard had written Ulysses, or Metamorphosis, or Remembrance of Things Past, or Death on the Installment Plan, or other of the modernist classics I don’t know if college freshmen would be studying them today.

They’d probably be pretty good reading though. Leonard knows how to stay out of his story’s way, and I think writers should at least be aware of his techniques before deciding on their own paths. In case you haven’t seen them before, here are his commandments:

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.

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

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Celine would have found no. 5 difficult. He would go for chapters with ellipses and exclamation points as his only punctuation. And where would Zola be without no. 8? And what about Perec or Robbe-Grillet and no. 9?

But that doesn’t make it bad advice, especially in today’s conservative marketplace.

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LINK: The official Elmore Leonard website.

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Style Trends in Fiction

statistical data on style trends in fiction

For the past couple of years amazon.com has been including a feature it calls “text stats” on many of its book pages. Among the statistics presented are “readability calculations” that estimate “how easy it is to read and understand the text of a book.” But there is also more raw data, including stats on the percentage of complex words (however that is measured), the number of syllables per word, and the number of words per sentence. For example, Alejo Carpentier’s The Harp and the Shadow (my translation, with Carol Christensen) scores in the 13th percentage for word complexity, a low 1.6 syllables per word (hard to believe), but a whopping 39.1 words per sentence, or one and a half times as much as Faulker, putting it in the top one percent of all books in the amazon sample.

I was curious to see if this feature could be used to identify any trends over time. My first thought was to compare best sellers across the years, but I quickly abandoned that idea as the list of books was simply too boring. Instead I chose Pulitzer Fiction Prize winners at five-year intervals, beginning with 1950 (the fiction prize was first given in 1948). Statistics were not available for all of these books, so I had to substitute by going a year forward or back in some instances. Here is the list of books I used in my test:

1950 The Way West by A. B. Guthrie, Jr.
1955 A Fable by William Faulkner
1961 To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
1965 The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau
1969 House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday
1976 Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow
1980 The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
1986 Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
1990 The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos
1995 The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
2000 Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
2005 Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

(For Faulkner’s Fable I had to substitute an edition called Novels 1942-1954.)

The results were interesting. One might assume that the style in fiction has been toward simpler language, but this is not what I found. For example, although the differences in word length aren’t great, it would appear from the results that words in fiction — at least, the fiction that wins Pulitzer Prizes — are clearly getting longer.

increasing length of words in fiction over the years

Similarly, there is a clear increase in the number of complex words.

increasing complexity of words in modern fiction

The trend in sentence length is unclear. There is a big spike with Faulker in 1955; otherwise, there may be a slow increase in this category as well.

increase length of sentences in modern fiction

Does this prove anything? Not really. My sample is very small, and a slightly difference choice of books might find something completely different. Moreover, the category of Pulitzer Prize winners is obviously a minute fraction of overall fiction, and Pulitzer judges might deliberately resist overall trends. More research would be welcome. At the same time, it is suggestive to find that in all three of the amazon statistical categories the trend in this sample of fiction has been to greater complexity and length over the past half century and not the opposite as one might have guessed. I would be interested to hear other opinions.

Joyce Carol Oates on creating characters in fiction

Ms. Oates, rambling a bit, reveals that during “the first six weeks” of a writing project she is quite miserable. This is somewhat surprising to me, because I find beginnings exhilarating but bog down in the middles. Maybe she is working out the difficulties earlier on, and that accounts for how prolific she manages to be.

Is It Serious?

muck monsterAlthough BoingBoing has already copied the entire article (under the heading “Ursula LeGuin rips into Slate Magazine”), this post “on serious literature,” which appears on the Ansible website, is marked “copyright Ursula K. Le Guin, 2007.” So I will quote just an excerpt. It pertains to the issue of whether genre fiction is serious writing, which is not merely an abstract concern. My friend Rod Clark, editor of Rosebud magazine, has lost some sources of funding because of his refusal to exclude genre fiction from his journal.

Something woke her in the night. Was it steps she heard, coming up the stairs? … As she heard the click of heel bones that had broken through rotting flesh, she knew what it was. But it was dead, dead! God damn that Chabon, dragging it out of the grave where she and the other serious writers had buried it to save serious literature from its polluting touch, the horror of its blank, pustular face, the lifeless, meaningless glare of its decaying eyes! What did the fool think he was doing? Had he paid no attention at all to the endless rituals of the serious writers and their serious critics — the formal expulsion ceremonies, the repeated anathemata, the stakes driven over and over through the heart, the vitriolic sneers, the endless, solemn dances on the grave? … Could it be that that Chabon, just because some mad fools gave him a Pulitzer, had forgotten the sacred value of the word mainstream? …

Read the full post.

Worlds of Words

Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate — and, therefore, improve — our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment….

From “Pay Attention to the World,” a posthumous essay by Susan Sontag, reprinted in the Guardian

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