Archive for April 20, 2011

Charles Bukowski

If I Taught Creative Writing

by Charles Bukowski

oOOo

now, if you were teaching creative

writing, he asked, what would you

tell them?

I’d tell them to have an unhappy love

affair, hemorrhoids, bad teeth

and to drink cheap wine,

to keep switching the head of their

bed from wall to wall

and then I’d tell them to have

another unhappy love affair

and never to use a silk typewriter

ribbon,

avoid family picnics

or being photographed in a rose

garden;

read Hemingway only once,

skip Faulkner

ignore Gogol

stare at photos of Gertrude Stein

and read Sherwood Anderson in bed

while eating Ritz crackers,

realize that people who keep

talking about sexual liberation

are more frightened than you are.

listen to E. Power Biggs work the

organ on your radio while you’re

rolling Bull Durham in the dark

in a strange town

with one day left on the rent

after having given up

friends, relatives and jobs.

never consider yourself superior and /

or fair

and never try to be.

have another unhappy love affair.

watch a fly on a summer curtain.

never try to succeed.

don’t shoot pool.

be righteously angry when you

find your car has a flat tire.

take vitamins but don’t lift weights or jog.

then after all this

reverse the procedure.

have a good love affair.

and the thing

you might learn

is that nobody knows anything–

not the State, nor the mice

the garden hose or the North Star.

and if you ever catch me

teaching a creative writing class

and you read this back to me

I’ll give you a straight A

right up the pickle

barrel.

Elmore Leonard

 

oOOo

Avid readers will probably have heard of Elmore Leonard. Get Shorty and Out of Sight are but a few examples of his writing. His writing is remarkable. The sentences are constructed with such flourish, plotting is tight, characterisations are well-drawn and the way he writes dialogue is a masterclass in how it propells the action. Here are his rules on writing:

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.