Thursday, January 31, 2019

Do as I Say, Damn It!

Have you ever written fan fiction? A pastiche? Tell us about that. If not, did you start out writing derivative fiction before finding your own voice? And you can tell us about that, too.

From Jim

I’ve never written fan fiction. Nor have I written any pastiches. But many years ago, as I was searching for a voice and style of my own, I did try to write in the style of other writers. It was a failure and very bad idea.

So, since I haven’t written fan fiction or pastiches, and since I do not today consciously imitate other writers, how can I contribute to this discussion? I thought of a way.

Recently, I’ve seen a couple of those “Mistakes Writers Shouldn’t Make” posts floating around the Internet. You know the kind: “Don’t use adverbs,” “Never open with weather,” “Avoid prologues,” “Only use ‘said’ as a dialogue tag,” “Don’t use that as a conjunction,” “Don’t have your characters purse their lips,” and so on. Many, but not all, of these posts lean heavily on Elmore Leonard’s famous advice to writers. I’m not sure how seriously Leonard intended those rules to be taken. I’ve heard some say he meant them as a joke. But whether he was offering straight advice or not, thousands have taken his list of rules to heart. And though I see a lot of merit in his advice, and the advice being offered so freely to writers everywhere, I object to the idea of people—critics, editors, and writers—telling others that there’s one correct way to write.

I appreciate Elmore Leonard’s talent. He was a master. But you know what? I don’t want to write like him. I want to develop my own style and voice. And if that means I accidentally use “shrugged his shoulders” instead of “shrugged,” then I’m a hack. Who is throwing books against the wall because a character in a book somewhere “blinked his eyes”?

Take, for example, the admonition against using any dialogue tag except “said.” This is so dogmatic and so random. We have dozens of powerful verbs that describe speech, so why not use them when appropriate?

“Go to hell,” he yelled/shouted/screamed.
“Oh, never mind,” he mumbled/grumbled.
“What about Tuesday?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” she answered/replied.
“I love you,” she whispered.
“You’re such a selfish so-and-so,” I hissed.
“My leg,” he moaned.
“But I don’t want to,” she whined.
“Good morning,” she sang.
“Get out!” he bellowed.
Some others: quipped, snapped, harrumphed, snorted, mused, offered, chirped...

Okay, you may not like some of these, but where exactly is it written that these are bad style? And who exactly decided that they were bad? What are the criteria being used? It’s not like math. It’s not two plus two. There’s not necessarily a “wrong” answer.

A writer once told me NEVER to use exclamation points in my books. And, while he was at it, he said NEVER EVER use the word “well” as an interjection. Well, I found this to be the least helpful advice I’d ever heard. Akin to telling Picasso which colors not to use.

Remember too that norms go in and out of style. Today’s rules will be tomorrow’s fodder for ridicule. Don’t believe me? Here is a rather silly yet widely accepted rule from the Detection Club back in the thirties:

Only one secret room or passage is allowed  per story.  

And don’t forget that the verb “ejaculate” used to be perfectly acceptable as a dialogue tag...

Look, many of the rules floating around out there are useful, and we should bear them in mind as we write. But let’s not kid ourselves. These are mostly just someone’s pet peeves. Things that offend that person for some subjective reason. And that’s okay. But people in in glass houses... I have my pet peeves, too, and they’re often quite different from those of the majority.

Here’s an example. I am very careful to differentiate between the verbs bring and take. Most speakers of English are not. Nor are most writers. One implies a motion away from (take) while the other implies a motion toward (bring). But I don’t feel the need to rap knuckles with a ruler when someone uses “bring” when “take” is the more accurate verb. And it certainly would never make me throw a book against the wall and laugh at the writer’s ignorance. Language changes, usage changes. Speech and writing reflect those differences and changes. Write and let write, I say.

So, on the subject of writing in the style of other authors, I believe writers should find their own way. Use adverbs if you like. Or don’t. Start your book with a prologue if you want. Or don’t. Thousands of great writers have done so. And even weather. Go ahead and write “It was a dark and stormy night” if that’s what you want. Make your book your own.


7 Criminal Minds said...

Some good advice here on navigating the perceived rules of writing. An interesting post, Jim.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Well said, James. I agree, you've just got to bend a few rules and find your own style. Whatever works.

RJ Harlick said...

Ah yes, I remember all those do's and don't's I received when I first started writing. Didn't follow a single one of them. I think we are all in agreement this week. Do your own thing and you'll get along just nicely. Good post, Jim.

Susan C Shea said...

Catriona and I were chatting on Facebook the other day about subjective tense. I still write "If she were to agree..." but Catriona (a professional linguist) says that kind of subjunctive form is fast disappearing as language evolves. An other rule biting the dust?

James W. Ziskin said...

I took a course in grad school called pragmatic linguistics. For my final paper, I wrote about contrary-to-fact-if clauses in American sportscasters. My thesis was that the pluperfect subjunctive was disappearing in favor of the present tense within that tiny community, but spreading through television and radio exposure to sports fans in general. I believe it is ubiquitous today among American football fans.

Here’s an example:

A receiver is wide open with an unobstructed path to the end zone. The quarterback passes him the ball. It’s a perfect pass, but the receiver drops it. Then the announcer says—after the play—“If he catches that, it’s a touchdown.”

Not, “If he had caught that, it would have been a touchdown” as prescriptivist grammarians would demand.

You hear this construction ALL THE TIME today on televised sports in this country.

I wrote my paper in 1988.

Kathy Reel said...

I'm a fan of using "said" synonyms. Only using said is like describing all colors as brown or green or blue. No poetry in that.

Jim Thomsen said...

Good points made here. I think of these “rules” not as law, but as things worth thinking about.

That said ....

“Who is throwing books against the wall because a character in a book somewhere “blinked his eyes”?”

I am.

Hallie Ephron said...

"It was a dark and stormy night..." Is the opening of A Wrinkle in Time.
Bad writing is like porn: you know it when you see it.
She averred.

Susan C Shea said...

Jim, Pair your linguistics study with the realization that writers have to appeal to younger readers and I see that the pluperfect subjunctive is a dead mouse.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes in re averred, asserted, and the like. I used to use attributions like that. Then I turned 17.

Yes, language changes. No, that obvious truth is not license for linguistic anarchy. Adverbs were in favor in American hard-boiled crime writing of the 1930s and 1940s, but very much less so today. Acknowledging that fashions come and go in writing, as in other things, does not mean that one ought to have free rein with adverbs now.

And I was the first, as far as I know, to predict that the conditional mood will disappear from American English within fifty years. That comes from seeing how many reporters in recent years have produced sentences along the lines of "A Senate committee yesterday approved a bill that WILL raise taxes on income above the first $50 million." Anyone who produces a sentence like that is ignorant of the conditional, of the American legislative process, or both. In forty years, someone will sneer at people who insist on using the conditional, maybe even posting cartoons that compare the pro-conditionalists to old men yelling at clouds. I recognize that language changes, but neither I nor anyone else is under any obligation to accept such changes.

James W. Ziskin said...

But, Peter, I use the conditional mood. And I support it. But if a writer—a fiction writer—eschews it, well... there may be a reason for it. The old man yelling at the cloud is for fun. And I’m more on your side than you know.

Jack Getze said...

I'm with Peter on this, he declared with unabashed enthusiasm.

Dialogue tags other than said are describing what the quote should have done. When you follow the dialogue with a name, then "said.," readers don't even read the "said, they read it like a screenplay. Writers and authors can do whatever they want, of course. When we sell books in the numbers of Cormac McCarthy, you can even skip punctuation. Doesn't mean it's a good idea to make your words harder to read. Elmore's "rules" -- which he states are not rules for everyone -- are for fiction writers who subscribe to the "fly on the wall" (leave the author out of the story) method.