Monday 5 August 2013

Back to the drawing board

Thou Shalt Not Bore

I listened to The Sins of Literature on radio 4  this morning. The episode was entitled Thou Shalt not Bore. 
Forgive me father for I commit multiple literary sins. I’m not a real writer so I think I can get away with it.

Here are some rules that thou shalt not:

  1. Never open a book with the weather.” (If I wrote books I might well open with the weather. It’s just stopped pouring with rain at the moment, since you ask. That’s one of my favourite weather scenarios. Oh no, it’s started again)
  2. Avoid prologues. Bad writing is writing which is showy, which is there for effect, which is playing with words. I mean we all know which sort of writing we mean. God there’s a lot of it about.” (Mine. Mine and Mine.) “It was bitterly cold, stiflingly hot - we don’t do that.
 3.    Never use a word other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. Never use an adverb to qualify the word   ‘said’, he admonished, gravely.”  Ha ha, that was very funny; but I do like to make use of that  Enid Blytonesque device whenever I can.

Will Self says something about the metaphor. I thought this programme was called Thou Shalt Not Bore.
4.   “Keep your exclamation points under control.” (Come back!!) “You’re allowed no more than two  or  three per hundred thousand words of prose.”
5. “Never use the words ‘suddenly’ or  ‘All Hell broke loose’.”     
   How can you never use the word ‘suddenly’?   I know, use another similar word; say, ‘abruptly’.

Will Self says some more about metaphor. 

6.  Use regional dialect / patois sparingly.
“Never begin a paragraph with the same word as its predecessor. Elegant variation is a ghastly and scurvy habit that Fowler is hilarious about that in his ‘English Usage’.
Use a different word but you mean the same thing, and it’s not in another application, it’s the same application, and then you wonder why there’s a difference and then you realise it’s just a genteel thing that the writer was told when he was twelve by a baad (note extremely sparing use of dialect) English teacher, don’t repeat a word. Yes, repeat a word, and use it three times to show you know what you’re doing.” says Martin Amis, confusingly. Well, he confused me, and now I’m not sure if I can or cannot use ‘suddenly’ once, twice or not at all.

7.  “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.” Bugger. I do like detailed descriptions of characters,    specially Ann Leslie.

8.  “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.” Okay then. 

9.  “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip The most important rule is one that sums up the ten. If it sounds like writing... I re-write it.”

Bloody Hell.


  1. Darn it. I'd just begun writing a post about tonight's 'Panorama' with the words, "T'weather's terrible up 'ere int' north t'day!!!..."

    I'd better scrap it then.

  2. These are Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing.

    but they go back some way, about 10 years at least as far as I can remember. I don't remember the programme mentioning leonard, but hey, he isn't a Literary Author.


  3. I should add: I heard the program, and heard the rules. Will Self's point about metaphors works though; both metaphors should be used sparingly. Another of Leonards Rules, not mentioned, is "Avoid Hooptedoodle" (I am working from memory here). It is essentially, if you can't write fancy, then don't. Leonard made his money in advertising in the 50s, and is an exceptionally good pulp writer. He writes stories.


  4. Damn: "both metaphors should be used sparingly" should read "both metaphors and similes should be used sparingly"


  5. Been lurking here for a few months now, excellent blog. I like the takes both of you have on the BBC etc... but now I started posting, I cannot stop. Here goes:

    1. “Never open a book with the weather.”
    Generally a good idea, but rules are there for proving wrong. William Gibson's opening to Neuromancer is evocatiive: "The sky was the color of a tv set tuned to a dead channel." The only other thing I can think of Billy Crystle in Throw Momma From The Train, and his beginning: "The night was moist."
    2. "Avoid prologues"
    Depends on the thing you are writing. Game of Thrones has a very good prolgue.
    3. "Never use a word other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue."
    This is generally true. "Said", only becomes irritating to the writer, because he types it so much. "Said is generally invisible to the reader. Exceptions: hissed, when sibilating something under ones breath, or whispering maybe?
    4. “Keep your exclamation points under control.”
    Absolutely! Always!
    5. “Never use the words ‘suddenly’ or ‘All Hell broke loose’.”
    Remember: this is fiction they are talking about. Whenever something "suddenly" happens, it is the author interposing himself into the story. Not good form. (In other words, the writer don't know how to get from A to B, and He insists on putting a bomb to shake things up in the direction he wants to take the story.)
    6. "Use regional dialect / patois sparingly."
    Absofuckinlutely. I am northern type too, t'appen. An by eck is been pissin down wi rain and stuff. As a reader I want to be communicated to; if you, the writer, fail to communicate with me, it is not my fault. It is because of this that I have never read Trainspotting. Why should I work? It is the writer's job to make effort, not the reader.
    7. “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.”
    You've obviously never read any Jack Vance.
    8. “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.”
    Tolkein and Stephen Donaldson, take a slap.
    9. “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip The most important rule is one that sums up the ten. If it sounds like writing... I re-write it.”
    This is the best point. writing should sound like conversation. If it doesnt sound like the way you speak, then you have failed.

    aye, ftumch

  6. I am fond of Wee MacGreegor by J.J. Bell, published in the 30s, and I’m delighted to say it breaks most of those rules.
    It has an introduction, which I probably skipped when I first read it, and a publisher’s note. Nearly all the ‘saids’ have an adverb, it’s crammed with exclamation points, there’s a ‘suddenly' on p27 and ALL the dialogue is in dialect.
    Here’s an excerpt from A VISIT TO THE ZOO:

    “Come awa’ an’ see this extraornar’ beast, Macgreegor,” said Lizzie. “The book says it’s ca’ed a tapir.”

    “Whit wey is’t ca’ed a tapir, Maw?”

    “Gi’e ‘t a bit biscuit,” returned his mother evasively.

    “Puir beastie, it’s lukin’ gey doon i’ the mooth, is’t no’ John?”

    “It’s a’ that. But I wud be doon i’ the mooth, masel’, Lizzie, wi’ a neb like that on me. See an’ no’ let it nip yer fingers Macgreeegor.”

    “Whit wey is it’s neb sae shoogly, Paw?”

    “Dod Macgreegor, I’m thinkin’ it kens ye. It’s wagglin’ its neb at ye fur anither bit biscuit.”

    “John” said his wife, “I’ll tak’ wee Jeannie an’ ha’e a sate fur a wee.”

    “Are ye wearit? Wud ye no’ like a dish o’ tea?”

    “Och, I’m no’ needin’ tea, John.”

    “Plenty folk tak’ tea when they’re no’ needin’ it. Come on Lizzie!”

    Lizzie shook her head and muttered something about “gentry’ and “wastry.”

    “I - I got a rise in ma pey the day, Lizzie,” said her husband suddenly.

    “Did ye that, John?”

    “Ay! Hauf-a-croon.”

    “Deed, I wis thinkin’ it was mair nor naethin’ that wis makin’ ye sae jokey-like,” said Lizzie with a laugh.

    “Come on, then, Lizzie. Here, Macgreegor!”

    “Paw, whit wey --”

    “Aw, ye’ll see the beasts again in a wee while. Cud ye eat a pie?”

    Macgreegor drew a long breath. “Cud I no’?” he exclaimed, beaming.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.