Top Ten Reasons To Ignore The Advice I Give You
Elmore Leonard died a few weeks ago. I am going to conjecture, then, that you, the reader, are not Elmore Leonard. Ah, but regardless, you probably want to be like Elmore Leonard, don’t you? A prodigious output of novels and short stories, being paid to put words next to other words, an audience? Don’t worry, it’s ok, I know you do. How do I know this?
Well, I’m fully aware of the intensely stratified and filtered experience of the current internet, but I couldn’t help but notice that, after Leonard’s passing, links to his “ten tips for writing” proliferated on the social media that I have curated for myself. And it made me wonder. Largely, about what use people have for other people’s personal style guides. Use, interest, whatever, proliferate they do, regarding dead and living authors alike, and, it appears, there is an audience that really does want, and finds a use for, “Elmore Leonard’s ten tips for good writing,” or, “Franz Kafka’s rules of thumb for a cracking bowel movement.” We’re well past art being magical, people don’t really give a fuck about the why. Things must have a use, we want to know how.
But why do you want to write like Elmore Leonard? Wouldn’t you rather write like yourself? I recognise fully that artists learn their craft by copying other artists, and indeed never really stop chopping and changing, borrowing and stealing, whatever pieces of other people’s work will work for their own. That’s fine. It makes sense. It’s how things have gone for a long while and how I imagine things will continue to go. Does this mean the cute lists of rules for writers are, contrary to my earlier point, useful? Yes, kind of. But they are only useful in so far as you are willing to use them as a framework with which to study the text of a certain author. To the kind of people who subscribe to the kind of social media that disseminate these lists (myself), this might come as a bit of a shock, but to get better at writing and reading, you have to… write. And read.
I am not innocent, and I suppose I am writing against the kind of cult, rarefied thinking that I myself have fallen prey too, and detest in my self.
An example. It is beyond common that, when browsing forums or communities centred around guitars, or musicianship in general, that there is a large amount of debate and conjecture surrounding the particular kind of gear and settings that particular guitarists use. Just exactly how did Billy Corgan get the guitar tone he did while playing the parts for Siamese Dream? What model of Big Muff did he use? From what year? Partly it’s a fun little game, taking apart a work that you enjoy and finding what little pieces do what, and how they fit together. That I understand. But. Buying the exact same model Big Muff that Billy Corgan used will not make you sound like Billy Corgan. It sure as shit won’t make you play like him.
So, will you write like Stephen King if you don’t use adverbs, or never use a verb to denote speech other than said?
The whole cult of the scribbler just doesn’t make sense because it pours over the idiosyncrasies and writing habits of “great” writers, and it was those idiosyncrasies and writing habits that made those writers write like they did at the time they were writing. Not you. And it was their idiosyncrasies that helped make them who they were. You know you are reading Hemingway because, as it was once said, he never used a word that would send a reader to a dictionary. You know you are reading Joyce because he uses dashes to separate speech from the main strand of narrative. You know you are reading McCarthy because he just uses the sound of the voice to denote speech, and no marks. You probably won’t get away with this. They did because they knew what they were doing with their own capabilities, their strengths, their weaknesses, and what their technique would let them do that the prose style other people told them to write in wouldn’t. Other people’s rules will constrain you, unless you know why they had those rules in place and what effects these constraints produced. There is nothing outside context.
Yes, there is a vicarious thrill in discovering the methods and working habits of a writer you admire, but there is a far greater thrill in discovering how you can bend your own idiosyncrasies to your own use. There is no such thing as original writing or an original writer, and trying to copy either will make your own work suffer, unless you are a gifted parodist, or indeed more suited to the tools and methods you are stealing than the person you are stealing from, in which case, you’re a stronger writer than them, do what the fuck you feel like, why did you even read this?
There are only two pieces of writing advice that are really worth a damn. The rest you can take with as many grains of salt as you want.
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” – Stephen King
“Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous” – George Orwell