Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Road to Hell is Paved With Adverbs

Reece Hirsch

I’m not a fan of reference books, particularly when it comes to writing fiction. In my experience, there just aren’t that many good ones.

On the other hand, when I was a young attorney in L.A. trying my hand at screenwriting, treatises like Syd Field’s “The Foundations of Screenwriting” and Robert McKee’s “Story: substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting” seemed indispensable. That belief was misplaced, but I wasn’t alone in it. I recently watched the film “Adaptation” again, wincing and laughing at the scene in which Robert McKee (played by the mighty Brian Cox) blustered about the principles of screenwriting to an auditorium of cowed acolytes. Because structure is so essential to screenwriting, treatises just seem more relevant and useful to that form of writing.

When it comes to books about writing fiction, Stephen King’s “On Fiction” is refreshingly candid and to the point. It’s partly the journal of a young writer, partly a meditation on recovery from a horrible auto accident, but mostly “On Writing” is a grab bag of writing advice on everything from grammar to making a living writing to the best format for manuscript submission. Here are a few wise words from Mr. King:

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”

“Give me just enough information so that I can lie convincingly.”

That last quote is one that I live by when it comes to research. My research library left over from my first book is not huge. It consists primarily of a few books on the Russian mafiya, such as “Comrade Criminal: Russia’s New Mafiya,” by Stephen Handelman, “The Russian Mafia” by Federico Varese, and “Red Mafiya: How the Russian Mob Has Invaded America” by Robert I. Friedman.

One of the best and most useful things I found in my research was the glossary of Russian mob terminology in Handelman’s book, which made many of my lies more convincing than they would have been otherwise. In parting, I offer you a few of my favorite gems from the Russian mobster’s vocabulary:

Gastrolyor – A guest criminal from another city, literally translated as “guest artist.”

Chainik – A prison bully, literally translated as “cheap teapot,” like the ones used in prison.

Sportsmeny – Literally, “sportsmen,” young former athletes or boxers who act as enforcers and bodyguards, who are identified by the Western tracksuits they usually wear.

And, finally, my favorite:

Vorovskoi Mir – The Thieves World.

5 comments:

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Love the Russian mafia slang! I could read dictionaries, and especially slang dictionaries, all day.

In fact, maybe I'll go look one up now....

Thanks for a terrific post, Reece!

Dorte H said...

“Give me just enough information so that I can lie convincingly.”

What a fine governing principle for the research that goes into fiction.

Hilary Davidson said...

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

That may be my favorite quote ever about writing fiction. Great post, Reece!

Michael Wiley said...

Thanks for offering -- and reminding us of -- such good advice. I like the favorites cited by everyone else, plus: "If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."

Reece said...

Becky -- I know what you mean; I think slang dictionaries are endlessly fascinating. The way people from a particular subculture turn a phrase tells you so much about how they think.

Hilary, Michael and Dorte -- I'm glad you like those King quotes as much I do. That book is just full of great, down-to-earth advice.

Thanks, everyone!