Five years before he died, Elmore Leonard published his Ten Rules of Writing.
I agree with them all, but happily break most of them on the grounds that there is no ‘ Writing Cop’.
But of his ten rules the one I like best is Rule №11:
When you find writing that sounds like writing, cut it.
It’s great advice, especially for student writers, but the problem is, it is clearly a paradox and not immediately obvious what it means.
What exactly is ‘writing that sounds like writing’?
Let us start with a prime example: that moment when the dying rays of the sun glint on the handle of the knife still sticking out of the postman’s eye. The murdered man lies in a pool of blood and the protagonist, weary from all that killing and troubled at heart, walks across the room and out on to the veranda. He looks up at the sky over the lake and ‘Noticed how blue and still the night was, how impossibly blue and still.’
(Note: all the examples here are slightly disguised and taken from genuine student assignments. I just hope they are not reading.)
OK, there’s nothing specifically wrong with that passage, and if I had only ever encountered it once, it would be unremarkable. But I seem to have witnessed countless gruesome murders which end with the Perp’ making some irrelevant and tendentious observation about the ‘somethingness’ of the natural world. After you’ve seen five, you know you are in the realm of WTSLW.
A cat named after a composer is a good sign.
As is sententiousness and studied vagueness, such as:
Bartolomeo smiled. For a fragment of time, split off from the grain of sand that falls through the figure-of-eight, he sank beneath the burden of time’s unredeeming and cold indifference; and, gazing at the photo, felt the pang of a moment remembered and unremembered like the flash of a fishtail in a dark pond.
The problem with that sentence is not so much the faux philosophical reflection but the vagueness; we are never told what the ‘moment remembered’ was, nor given a clue to help us guess.
Does the author know?
I usually sense in such situations that the author doesn’t know and is invoking a generic ‘painful memory’, like an ornament for the literary mantelpiece.
Written with the assurance that if called upon the author could invent something suitable. I think that approach is fine in the first draft but not subsequent ones and definitely not the finished one.
The trouble is, the reader has an amazing ability to sniff out the bits the writer doesn’t know.
Hemingway referred to it as the iceberg. The berg above the waterline is that which you make explicit. But underpinning and informing it is all the knowledge of the story that you have but do not explicitly write down.
The cousin of studied vagueness is complexity. Writing that ordinarily might be deemed baffling but is so well-written that we must describe it instead as ‘difficult’.
How vain and bereft of that recondite homeless articulacy we are when, as nascent proto-men, forming like the pulse in the albumen, we commune as peers unwounded by the later awareness prefigured in the yet unsullied the waters of self: problems.
That word ‘problems’ glued on to the end with a colon is a dead giveaway. Long before we reach it we know we have entered the realm of King Portentous, but that word at the end is like the customs post where you get your passport stamped.
This is writing borne on the belief that, if you put something in a sufficiently decorative box, we will assume the contents must be fancy.
Hemingway once said ‘All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’
For a long time I was never quite sure what he meant by that. But with the above in mind, I think I do. When you stray into the choppy waters of WTSLW your heart very often will give you a little warning sign: a nagging feeling that the content of your sentence is a bit phoney, a bit of posturing.
In this context people are likely to bring up the oft-quoted phrase, ‘murder your darlings’. The phrase was coined by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in Cambridge in 1916. It is usually extracted from a longer sentence and as a piece of writing advice it is helpful to see the whole sentence:
‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’
Oh, and remember to call your cat something sensible, like Mr Tibbles.