Writers on Writing

One of the neat things I have come across in this writing business is a series that the  NY Times did in their Monday Arts Section a decade or so ago: Writers on Writing.
There are essays from Andre’ Aciman and from Hilma Wolitzer. (A to Z: well, almost.) In between, fortunately, we find William Saroyan, Joyce Carol Oats, Elmore Leonard, Barbara Kingsolver, and Annie Proulx. And a full measure of other folks, writers all.

The topics cover everything from alter egos to zina. Elmore Leonard discusses the
use  of adverbs. Barbara Kingsolver confesses that sex scenes need to be more than just a space-break, fade to black. Andre’ Aciman ( Out of Egypt, Eight White Nights ) talks about a place, a setting, and it’s importance to the whole of a work of fiction. Hilma Wolitzer ( The Doctor’s Daughter, Hearts ) raises the question: Can creative writing be taught?

One of my favorites is the Thomas Fleming piece from January 2000, in which he discusses plot and character inspiration. From where does it comes? In one case,  Loyalties, his dream is peopled by a young German woman, who, in her own dream/nightmare she sees her husband’s U-Boat sinking into the Atlantic Ocean.  … Officer’s Wives came from a song that would not leave his head:

The officers’ wives
The officers’ wives
That’s what we’ll be
For the rest of our lives.

At the time he was doing a history of West Point. Ten years later those four lines developed into three women characters and a plot.

My own completed work, A Confluence of Rivers, came the lines: Wiley Jennings flagged down the milk truck at the end of the lane, caught a ride into town. Why those words came to me is lost in the fog of war, as they say. Anyway, at that point I had to know why Wiley needed to get to town, what happened after he got there.  … Hampton Roads ’44, my work in progress, grew out of a Christmas morning run in Newport News, VA. some number of years ago. The pre-WWII neighborhoods adjacent to the James River and the shipyards. There are a million stories in these old houses, I told myself. It turns out that
there are.

Annie Proulx and I share a passion for road trips on two lane roads (paved or gravel ) in the west. Listening to old country music: Don Walser and Ray Price. There is  research to be done in every crossroad diner and feed & seed store. Her essay from May 1999 points out the random and endless possibilities for inspiration.

I have said before, when I forget how to write I just pull out some Elmore Leonard from the ’70s and early ’80s: Glitz, Hombre, Swag, the western short stories. He, Leonard, is the best exception of the genre writer who is widely respected in literary circles. His ten rules  (July 2001) for writing should, in my opinion, be the first thing students of creative writing ever take a look at.

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
  4. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two    or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  5. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  6. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  7. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  8. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  9. 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.

Leonard said, somewhere else: Readers like a lot of white on the page. Meaning more dialogue,  less narrative, which he called  hooptedoodle. …  When you write, he said,
leave a lot of white on the page.
I tend to write that way.

Put this on your favorites icon button: http://www.nytimes.com/books/specials/writers.html?_r=1
… Or just Google Writers on Writing.

If you are a writer, you will go there from time and again.


About Tom Honea

the south mississippi i grew up in did not yet have paved roads or telephones or televisions. it did have great story tellers, on front porches in the summer or around the fire place in the winter. we were poverty stricken, financially but not culturally. we didn't know it. everybody up and down the road was in the same boat. . after forty years of day jobs i am approaching my "fishing years." i plan to spend them writing. i have a finished and edited deep south novel in the "marketing" stages. currently i'm deep into a WW II home front piece set in the Hampton Roads, VA area. notes and character sketches are already underway for "From Hiroshima to Elvis" ( the ten years after the war ) on the coastal areas of South Carolina. . visit asheville ... come and see me.
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2 Responses to Writers on Writing

  1. amarkonmywall says:

    Oh, God! #4 will be the end of me! (that and parentheses) and also, I do tend to go on and on with run-on sentences because, well, most of what I am writing is my own stream of consciousness and you know how that sort of thing tends to just take on a life of it’s own with never a complete stop but rather a drifting away into vagueness that ends best with… Ellipsis! Did I mention my difficulty avoiding ellipsis? There are days when it threatens to be a total ellipsis of the sun around here and I do like me some BIG weather, although I never open with that. Perhaps I need a writing class!? Thanks for the links and suggestions, Tom…

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