Advice from the Masters

Some of our America’s best writers, “masters of the craft,” have set down their fiction-writing pens to ruminate about writing itself—what makes it good, even great, and what to avoid like the dread passive tense. I just discovered a treasure chest of these literary gems assembled by Maria Popova in her brainpickings blog—“a free weekly interestingness digest.” The collection includes advice from authors as diverse as Fitzgerald, Didion, Sontag, Bradbury, and Orwell.

Some of these authors dispense pithy observations, such as Stephen King’s “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Some authors’ advice is more ecumenical. Elmore Leonard’s famous 10 Rules for Writing is not in this collection, though widely extracted and republished (without permission, I understand, as they are in a copyrighted book he’d prefer to sell). His book includes this revelation: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Leonard and Hemingway are masters of the spare style, but not everyone can write that way, not everyone wants to, and not every subject fits that style. Trish, in her comment on last week’s blog, reminded me about Leonard’s admonition to “never open a book with weather,” perhaps the dullest subject imaginable for hooking a reader. But if that rule were followed to the letter, by every author, we’d miss these opening paragraphs:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. . . .

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. . . .

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth.

This is, of course, the opening of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, which chronicles the impact of the dawdling obfuscations of the befogged panjandrums of Chancery Court (trusts, estates, land law, guardianships), who delay the proceedings of the cases that come before them until the parties are dead and the fortunes involved have disappeared into the hands of the lawyers. The beginning, in both its plodding tone and fog-bound, muck-mired description, freighted with symbolism, sets the reader up perfectly for the entire 1000-page novel. Much different than the writer who observes his fictional world no more acutely than to note the sun was shining.

Finally, and perhaps an observation that can apply to any fiction—from spare Hemingway to florid Dickens comes from Kurt Vonnegut. Hemingway might condense it to “Be interesting!” What Vonnegut proposes is that the style a book is written in says everything about the author:

The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not. Don’t you yourself like or dislike writers mainly for what they choose to show or make you think about? Did you ever admire an empty-headed writer for his or her mastery of the language? No.

Now, there’s a challenge worthy of the most ambitious writer. Maria Popova, with her interestingness blog would seem to be on the right track. Or, as Mr. Leonard says, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”