Tuesday, July 04, 2006

THIS is the way you must write!

From reading your comments on Monday’s post, I got the feeling that many of you had no idea what I meant when I mentioned the restrictive rules of writing promulgated by my former writer’s group. It’s not that you’re stupid, although that could still be the case, it’s because I left out a lot of detail for the sake of brevity. I’m still leaving out a lot of detail (I could write an entire non-fiction tome on my experiences with them alone), but let me give you a quick example of what I faced. Following is part of the opening paragraph of Hearts in Atlantis, my favorite novel:

Bobby Garfield’s father had been one of those fellows who start losing their hair in their twenties and are completely bald by the age of forty-five or so. Randall Garfield was spared this extremity by dying of a heart attack at thirty-six. He was a real-estate agent, and breathed his last on the kitchen floor of someone else’s house. The potential buyer was in the living room, trying to call an ambulance on a disconnected phone, when Bobby’s dad passed away. At this time Bobby was three.

Okay, now let’s count how many things that amateur Stephen King did wrong.

Sentence 1:
Failed to start his story with the most likeable character, which you must always do. Randall Garfield seems like a good man, but he’s just a memory when the story begins.
Used a “to be” verb – twice. This was a rare rule in that it wasn’t an absolute “never do…” or “always do…”. They admitted “to be” verbs must sometimes be used, but rarely and only after all other options have been exhausted.
Used a word which ends with “ly”. Rather than learn the guideline that adverbs should be used sparingly (because that would require knowing why), they made an absolute rule that you should never use words ending with “ly”, like only or lonely. I’m not kidding or exaggerating.
Used a non-specific number. All numbers and times should be precise. In fact, all items should be specific brands instead of generic names (e.g. Winstons instead of cigarettes).

Sentence 2:
Another “to be” verb. Three in one paragraph is clearly unacceptable.

Sentence 3:
Another “to be” verb.
Didn’t specify who owned the house. Always be specific.

Sentence 4:
Another “to be” verb.
Didn’t name the potential buyer. See above rules on specificity.
Used a clichéd term – “passed away”. You must always create new descriptions when describing matters.

Sentence 5:
Another “to be” verb. This guy will never get published.
Didn’t specify when “at this time” was.

There are more (they had 124 rules in their book), but that’s all I remember since I tossed their rulebook and beer killed the brain cells containing that useless information. Now, to rewrite SK’s poor prose and present it the Right Way:

Pete had just aged three years by nineteen sixty (writer’s note – all numbers must be spelled) and does not participate in the first story presented here, but he exists as perhaps the most likeable character and so we start with him. Moving right along, Bobby Garfield’s father started losing his hair when he aged to precise-like (writer’s note – redneck speech can help avoid the dreaded “ly” words) twenty-four years, seven months, and three days; his hair will have entire-like vacated by the age of forty-five. Randall Garfield avoided this predicament by dying of a heart attack at thirty-six. He worked as a real-estate agent for Swaberpoo, Inc. (writer’s note – more specific), and expired (writer’s note – breathed his last is a possible cliché) on the kitchen floor of Bob Smelling’s house. Rudy Bubitipoo, the potential buyer, stood in the living room, trying to call a Castle Rock ambulance on a disconnected AT&T telephone, when Bobby’s dad croaked (writer’s note – avoid repeated words at all times). By this time, on Thursday at three forty-seven PM, Bobby had aged three years.

Now isn’t that better? (no)

If you’re wondering, I asked the group why no published author I read followed their rules (they did know a few obscure authors who obeyed the rules and said all other writers should do so). Their response was, “Oh, that’s because they’re rich and famous. They can do whatever they want.” Apparently, I was to follow the rules and the literary community would support me until I inexplicably became Rich & Famous (a buzz-phrase used often by wannabe artists), then I could relax and write however I wanted.

Call me an ignorant hack writer, but I don’t think that will work. If nothing else, I’ve noticed the literary community doesn’t do much to help the up and comers. It celebrates those who make money and / or are self-important literary blowhards, but most new writers are on their own, and that suits me fine. The downside is that I’ve seen several small magazines go tits-up due to a lack of support. Many editors have said they could have continued if only every person who submitted a story also bought a sample copy.

Writing tip of the day – never submit a story without buying and reading a copy of the magazine first. Submission guidelines will never tell you as much about what they want as reading what they print, and if you’re too cheap to shell out five bucks to support your fellow writers, I hope you die of paper cuts.


messiah said...

ok, you're an ignorant hack writer.

messiah said...

but i believe "tits-up" breaks the following rule:

you must always create new descriptions when describing matters.


ok... sorry. i just couldn't help myself.

rules are guidelines. you can break them successfully - but you have to understand them. that is something i was taught through my photography (amost a) bfa. i think the same applies - if you understand it, you can break the rule to make it extremely effective.

i'm surprised they didn't have the classic 'never start a sentence with but, or and'

Wendy C. said...

I love it!!!!
I have repeated to several writers that "form exists for you, not you for it" which was probably the best advice given to me by my college English professor...not that I aspire to be a great writer - I just love to tell stories and I prefer to do it as free of form as I want to in the moment. To me, that is the one main distinction between art and journalism.

Seven said...

The second attempt reads just like a police report. One written by a high school graduate in his first day of academy report writing.
You have missed your calling 13. Report to the local police academy on this exact date at precise-like 0400 hours, entering through the south entrance while walking on the four foot wide grey concrete path.

Liz said...

Yea, the dreaded 'be' verb. I recall having to write 6 page papers and you could only use it 5 times. How ridiculous.

You should have submitted a famous piece of work as your own to see what they would have said about it. “Oh yes, you guys are right. I will have to pass on your notes to Hemmingway. I’m sure he will appreciate them.”

Kira said...

Ok, as an English professor, I must say....

...that's retarded. And yes, I know that phrase has been used before.

Thank you.

SJ said...


But this post was good... tits-up, I hope you die of paper cuts, Castle Rock ambulance on a disconnected AT&T telephone, redneck speech you on a good-like form.

Grant said...

messiah #1 - thanks. :p

messiah #2 - I'm sure they had that rule as well in there somewhere. And I don't care.

wendy - experimental forms can be tiring, especially in longer works. I mostly stick with the main accepted forms, but the extremity of their rules makes it nearly impossible to write anything AND make it readable.

seven - roger, wilco. You're under arrest. :p

liz - I actually thought of doing that because a) they would have trashed it, then back-pedalled once they realized it was from a Rich & Famous author, and b) since they didn't read, they wouldn't have recognized the work anyway. I didn't because, as a writer, I'm especially sensitive to plagiarism. Instead I got the group to bring in excerpts from their favorite writers in order to subtly show that nobody worth reading was following their rules. It didn't work.

kira - you'll never win a Humanitus award with that language, young lady.

sj - writers who won't support their own existence should die. Just saying. =)

Enemy of the Republic said...

Good advice on buying the magazine before submitting. I actually subscribed to Story magazine, but it never got me published. But at least I got a sense of what they look for. And it wasn't me.

By the way, what didn't I get on your last post?

JohnB said...

"To be, or not to be..."

Damn! Even Shakespeare fails the test as well!

Leesa said...

So the point of this is to call you an ignorant hack writer? Right? I am not missing anything, am I?

Grant said...

enemy - don't start stalking me now. I wasn't specifically talking about you.

johnb - not to mention the bible. It should have been written "God said 'let's have a little light around here' and the sun appeared."

leesa - that, and to get you to post nude pics of Asian women.

patti_cake said...

Die of paper cuts... ooohhh nasty!

annush said...

quit wishing me papercuts!!

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