BAD WRITING

After writing my manuscript in November 2013 [earlier blog], I looked at books on writing by authors. I pulled them from the public library. None of the books are gospel. Many mention issues to keep in mind to weigh and balance, but are not important while writing the first draft. The issues become important while fooling with drafts 2, 3 and 4.

There are five books:

James Thurber, Collecting Himself, Harper & Row, NY, 1989 Michael Rosen, Ed., The text mostly gives impressions of working, sometimes as a writer. The best article in the book goes back to Thurber’s days in Paris during the Twenties: “How To Tell a Fine Old Wine.” To get good from this book the reader must believe The New Yorker magazine is sophisticated, or at least clever. It may also be helpful to consider David Letterman is funny without the drum punctuating the end of “the funny line” and the once present Paul Schaffer cackle.

John O’Hara, An Artist Is His Own Fault, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbonville, 1977, Ed. Matthews Bruccolli. More than half this book is derived from lectures and speeches, none of which have been adapted to the written word. Having just read the second volume of Mark Twain’s Autobiography, vol 2, UC Press, 2013, these are by comparison poor speeches and mediocre lectures.

In his writing O’Hara displays prominent, fatal faults: “His first draft is usually is last.” He also reads little or not at all. He says the first duty of a novelist is “creation of character.” He complains that women authors are treated more gently by critics than male authors.(101) [Sour grapes.]

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones, Shombhala, Boston, 1986, Somewhat of a how-to-book which eventually turns to Zen (author is an adherent).

Page 8 is excellent advice for new writers. Generally it should not be ignored:

1.”Keep your hand moving. (Don’t pause to reread the line you have just written)….2. Don’t cross out. (That is editing while you write…)[Perhaps] 3. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don’t…worry about staying within the lines and margins.) 4. Lose control.[This probably means get lost in the story so the words are coming from your imagination.] 5. Don’t think. Don’t get logical. 6. Go for the jugular. (If something comes [into] the writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)”

Page 35: There is bad advice about metaphors and similes, even if the author can only close the page or turn the book. Page 36-37 more advice “Writing is not a McDonald’s hamburger” That may be true, but I know the following is also true: A writer wants his writing read by everyone who eats McDonald’s hamburgers.

There are good and valuable considerations: Writers should keep physically active; they should be able to hear and listen while writing. Of interest are chapters on writing sex, being a writer, syntax and detail in stories.

Sol Stein, Stein on Writing, St. Martins, NY, 1995, tries to relabel and redefine terms of writing, and suggests the primary way to advance the story is a strong character. Character is a laborious means to write and to tell a story.

From his own books Stein presents an incomplete example: 

In my novel The Resort, the leading characters are an “ordinary middle-aged couple. Henry and Margaret Brown, who                                                             find themselves in horrific circumstances at the end of chapter one…I made the Browns just different enough to interest                         the reader, but it was important that they not seem “special.” Therefore, when calamity hits the Browns, readers from any                      walk of life can identify with their plight, which is crucial for the story. Stephen King usually has quite ordinary-seeming                      characters get involved in extraordinary circumstances.”

What Stein does not want to tell the readers, in order to give his flawed analysis, is his characters [The Browns] at the end of Chapter One are in a new setting – dangerous, uncertain, terrifying.

Character, story, setting, which is most important. It is easy to judge. A writer can easily correct flaws in character and story with details. Flaws are impossible to correct in setting without rewriting extensively or writing anew. AN EXAMPLE.

A. Buy an engagement ring from a jeweler in the suburbs. OR

B. Buy an engagement ring from a store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

Man may not want fiancee with him when he buys in the suburbs, a transaction which might include barter, bargaining or under the counter payments.  Man who buys on Rodeo Drive likely will have fiancee with him.

Add another fact: Man is rich enough to buy on Rodeo Drive but buys in the burbs. Fiancee’s reaction justly asks, “What the hell is this?” “What’s going on?”

It is setting not character nor story that determines what will happen and why. Indeed, part of the story or the whole part may rely on  where the ring was bought.

There are questionable references to excellent books of history: Bertram D. Wolfe did not write “the best book in its field in any language.” Stein’s references and suggestions in non-fiction are not helpful and should be ignored, except those to Garrett Mattingly.  

Stein makes the following audacious assessment: “George Orwell’s non-fiction is far superior to his fiction.” It is likely Stein has not read all of Orwell, who is careful to communicate exactly what he thinks throughout his entire opera. Perhaps Stein considers 1984 and Animal Farm as non-fiction, but he certainly overlooks Orwell’s pre-World War II novels like Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a story with subtle environmental strains: “I don’t mind development so long as it doesn’t look like gravy on a table cloth.”

There are good passages in Stein on Writing. Unlike John O’Hara, above, Stein quotes Ernest Hemingway, “First drafts are shit.” About Thesaurus Stein accurately observes the effect on a writer using one “…surprises me with a word that I would not have thought of on my own and that gets me thinking in a different direction.” From John Gardener: “Detail is the lifeblood of fiction.” Stein gives a reference for love scenes, Helen Fisher’s Anatomy of Love. On page 118 is excellent advice about dialects.

Stephen King, On Writing, Schribner, NY, 2000, is better than I remembered it being. The library is ordering new copies, although it appears to have a sufficient supply. So is there a new edition with improvements?

Without mentioning Stein On Writing, King responds, 

I want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch                      them try to work themselves free…The situation comes first. The characters – always flat and unfettered, to begin with –                     come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be,                       but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things                        their way.(164)

When King says, “The situation comes first,” he refers to the setting, jewelry store or hazardous waste pit. King raises an excellent point. Fixate on character, and the author may insist the character do things his way, not the character’s way. King explains later,

…what happens to characters as a story progresses depends solely on what I discover about them as I go along –                                how they grow…Sometimes they grow a little. If they grow a lot, they begin to influence the course of the story.(190) 

There are many excellent chapters and passages in King’s book: He is wholly correct and should be followed about knowing the fundamentals of writing this language: Use Elements of Style for knowledge and information. He’s entirely correct about symbolism. He mentions Edgar Wallace Plot Wheel with the hope everyone will stay far from it. He recommends potential and all writers read, unlike John O’Hara.

There are clunky things: Unlike King I would not recommend reading Harry Potter. And James Michener did not write many of his later books; he edited them. Hemingway’s defense of alcohol would never reach 70 words; he would not use more words than Faulkner did. King cites an unHemingway defense of alcohol.

 

 

 

 

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