On Writing: Style and Cadence

Ken Coffman, my guest blogger today, is the author of eight books, including a popular technical book called Real World FPGA Design with Verilog. He could easily make money writing additional technical books, but has more fun writing absurd novels like Steel Waters and Glen Wilson’s Bad Medicine, available from fine online bookstores everywhere. Ken writes:

Recently, my friend Lisa said this to me: “You tend to like more baroque-type authors, gravitate towards writers with that style, and write in that style.  Ironically, I really do like Hemingway, in that when I read him way back when, I immediately liked and related to the prose style . . . “

It’s true. We’re diverse, and different things float our metaphorical schooners. See, there I go. I could have simply said boat and your eye would have slid smoothly over the cliché. But, I didn’t want to.

Anyway, back to the point I’m laboring to make.

          Nick looked on at the moon, coming up over the hills.
          “It isn’t fun any more.”
          He was afraid to look at Marjorie. Then he looked at her. She sat there with her back toward him. He looked at her back. “It isn’t fun any more. Not any of it.”
          She didn’t say anything. He went on. “I feel as though everything was gone to hell inside of me. I don’t know, Marge. I don’t know what to say.”
          He looked on at her back.
          “Isn’t love any fun?” Marjorie said.
          “No,” Nick said. Marjorie stood up. Nick sat there, his head in his hands.
                — 
Ernest Hemingway, The End of Something

Of course, I can appreciate Hemingway’s sparse mastery. In feeble imitation, sometimes I report things in a flat tone to emphasize a point or work against the reader’s mental picture. But, generally, my ambitions lie elsewhere. I like prose that is more playful and convoluted.

Tom Robbins, who I like to call my neighbor, writes like this:

          A few months later, everyone of the bride’s relatives, including even distant cousins, decided that life was meaningless without that most talented, most delightful girl, not to mention her pious and generous family, and so the relatives, as well, set off for the hills and Fan Nan Nan. Their departure tore a hole in the fabric of the community; there was an abiding emptiness there.
               -
- Tom Robbins, Villa Incognito

The difference in style could hardly be more obvious. Tom’s zany prose dances.

          Then I looked at Dale, my sergeant, wringing out his shirt in a metal water drum. His back was brown, ridged with vertebrae, his ribs like sticks against his skin, the points of his black hair shiny with sweat. Then his lean Czechoslovakian face smiled at me, with more tenderness and affection in his eyes than I had yet seen in a woman’s.
          He was killed eight days later when a Huey tipped the treetops in an LZ and suddenly dipped sideways into the clearing.
                —  James Lee Burke, Heaven’s Prisoners

Burke has a huge vocabulary and is unafraid to take a risk. He sits on a limb and with careful, deliberate, thoughtful strokes, works his saw.

To my taste, the master of mixing the eloquent with the absurd is Nabokov.

          I thought I had crossed the frontier when a bare-headed Red Army soldier with a Mongol face who was picking whortleberries near the trail challenged me: “And whither,” he asked picking up his cap from a stump, “may you be rolling (kotishsya), little apple (yablochko)? Pokazyvay-ka dokumentiki (Let me see your papers).”
          I groped in my pockets, fished out what I needed, and shot him dead, as he lunged at me; then he fell on his face, as if sunstruck on the parade ground, at the feet of his king. None of the serried tree trunks looked his way, and I fled, still clutching Dagmara’s lovely little revolver. Only half an hour later, when I reached at last another part of the forest in a more or less conventional republic, only then did my calves cease to quake.
              — Vladimir Nabokov, Look at the Harlequins!

So, how am I doing? You judge.

          “I’m bored,” Nort said.
          “That’s because you’re not doing anything.”
          “And you can’t make me.”
          “Right,” Jake said. “Exactly.”
          “I’m not staying here. I’ll beg on the street.”
          Jake looked up.
          “It used to be that a man would rather die than be a beggar or take charity,” he said.
          “Things are different now.”
          “I can see that. Good luck out there.”
          “What’s wrong with you? You don’t care about me at all.”
          Jake licked the tip of his pencil.
          “When I was in Da Nang, I was stabbed in the gut with a sharp stick by a starving 11-year-old who wanted the three dollars in my wallet.” He lifted his shirt to show a twisted scar. “After I killed him with a brick, I realized either God either didn’t exist or was the biggest asshole of us all. I care about you, but out in the world you’ll die of AIDS or get stabbed in an alley by a cracked-out whore. It doesn’t pay to get emotionally attached to the doomed.”
               — Ken Coffman, Fairhaven 

You plant your butt in your chair and you face the demons that live in that blank screen. You spend hours and hours wringing words, situations, and plots from too-thin air.

Who are your influences? And, what are your ambitions?

Discussion of Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules For Writing Fiction

Elmore Leonard is hosting our discussion. He doesn’t know it, of course, but we had so much fun with Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules, I thought we’d use Leonard’s rules this time.)

Ten Rules of Writing by Elmore Leonard:

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

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 to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, 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 nonfiction. 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 O.K. 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. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

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 to get 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 flavor 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, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character-the one whose view best brings the scene to life-I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

What Steinbeck did in “Sweet Thursday” was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. “Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, “Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled “Hooptedoodle 1″ and the 38th chapter “Hooptedoodle 2″ as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: “Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

“Sweet Thursday” came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.

Do you agree with these rules? Which, if any do you follow? Which, if any, do you not follow? Which, if any of these rules, do you think are hooptedoodle?

The group No Whine, Just Champagne will exchange ideas about these rules during our live discussion on December 11, 2008 at 9:00pm ET. Feel free to join us, or to leave your comments here.

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