Tuesday, May 2, 2017

WRITING RULE ONE: NOBODY KNOWS FOR SURE by Chris Knopf

I hate so-called rules of writing, even though I gobble them up like hot hors d’oeuvres off a silver platter. Hemingway’s, Vonnegut’s, Elmore Leonard’s, Stephen King’s, E.B. White’s, Anne Lamott’s – I’ve read them all. If I had to recommend one, Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird is a joy. I never found myself quibbling with her advice, which is not only compelling in substance, but loaded with charm and wise humor. I feel Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is also essential, though I just can’t abide the prohibition against starting a sentence with “however." Nevertheless, they provide wise counsel, delivered both in form and content.  


Everyone raves about Stephen King’s On Writing, but it’s really just a memoir masquerading as an instruction manual. I can offer an abridged version: Be Born With Hypergraphia by Stephen King.  

Marty Shepard and I share a deep regard for Elmore Leonard, but his rule against starting a book with weather is ridiculous. I set one of my novels in the beach town of Southampton during the winter. How long should I wait to tell the reader that it’s snowing outside Jackie Swaitkowski’s window? I also think the word “suddenly” is very useful if used sparingly. As with “all hell breaks loose." After Leonard condemned this expression, you hardly ever read it. So go ahead, if called for. The competition has been suppressed.

Vonnegut heaped derision on the semicolon, saying “they are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.” On the other hand, Dr. Lewis Thomas, a brilliant essayist sadly overlooked these days, wrote “with a semicolon you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; to read on; it will get clearer.”

Most of what Hemingway reportedly wrote about writing was written by someone else. So much so that a book just came out titled, Hemingway Didn’t Say That. I still think his imitators are worth paying attention to, since the misattributions are useful (check out my prior Cockeyed Pessimist blog post.)

I’ve listened to hours of writing instruction over decades, leading me to believe most of it is a double-edged sword. It can help you avoid doing dumb things, but if you slavishly adhere to the prescriptions, you’re likely to choke off your creativity, your own special take on the pursuit. However, being a frequent imitator myself, I naturally made up my own ten rules of writing. Though I prefer to call them guidelines. Mostly to be ignored, since at the end of the day, the only rule is there are no rules.  

1. Never write drunk. Like a conversation in a bar, it all seems so brilliant at the time. You’ll regret it in the morning  
2. Write when you feel like hell. You’d be amazed at what you can create with a fuzzy head. You can always throw it out the next day (see above).
3. Ignore advice. It’s worthless.  
4. Listen to good advice. It’s priceless.  
5. Know the difference.
6. Get a comfortable chair. You’ll be spending a lot of time in it.  
7. Be filled with uncertainty, free-floating anxiety and existential fear. If you don’t know what this means, ask a successful writer.
8. Kill your beloveds. Cut when you have to, no matter how painful. Better you than some whip-smart editor half your age.  
9. Write for yourself.  If you care what other people think, you’ll write what nobody cares about.
10. Read. You’re not the first person to do this. You can learn from the ones who figured it out, even if they had no idea what they were doing at the time.  

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This is the third bi-monthly blog Chris has been posting, sharing his thoughts about the art of writing with other writers—be they published or unpublished—that might be helpful. He’s had a successful career as a wordsmith, starting with a career in advertising and moving on to write a string of highly successful mysteries. His 15th, Tango Down, comes out in November. Chris has won innumerable awards and has had dozens of rights sales around the world, including audio sales to Blackstone Audiobooks. Do pass this on to others you know, post comments on the Cockeyed Pessimist website, and feel free to share your thoughts with Chris via View my Blog The Cockeyed Pessimist, or email Chris directly ChrisK@mintz-hoke.com or Martin Shepard at shepard@thepermanentpress.com

4 comments:

  1. I like your rules, I like semicolons, and I read voraciously; I like your books too.

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  2. I'm really enjoying these posts, Chris.Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

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  3. Hemingway's best advice, which I'm pretty sure he really said, is "every writer needs a built-in, shock-proof, foolproof shit detector."

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