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Stop and Spell the Roses

– Jeffrey Thomas

I have respect for Elmore Leonard. Let me say that first. But man…I don’t have much respect for rules. (See Joe Nassise’s essay of February 15, dealing with Leonard’s ten rules of writing.)

The first rule of Write Club is: there are no rules.

How dismal the reading experience would be, if every voice were the same. Imagine every song sung by the same singer – even if it were a great singer. Every character played by the same actor. Even a Robert De Niro would become tedious, after a while. Rules are too much like conformity, to me. Limitation. I’m not suggesting that Leonard is advocating limitation! But I think inflexibility can sometimes become a byproduct, when must-do’s start to set in concrete. And I’m not saying people shouldn’t make a list of rules to apply when writing…but I feel they should apply to one’s own writing, and not be presented as a system that other writers need adhere to. Writing and reading are matters of personal taste. Of personal opinion. The rules Leonard extols – well, if they make his books effective, that’s swell! But maybe I’m writing a different kind of story. Not better. I’m not as well known as Leonard…ha! Not by a long shot. Never will be. Still, whatever greatness they might lead him to, his rules don’t necessarily work for me.

I like Merchant-Ivory type films. And I like PULP FICTION. But I would not want to see Quentin Tarantino direct THE REMAINS OF THE DAY in his customary funky style. I’d be fascinated to hear what rules Q.T. sets for himself, but I wouldn’t want every film maker to think that he or she should apply Quentin’s approach to their own vision. (Haven’t we groaned over the overabundance of Tarantino rip-offs? I know I still groan over the Stephen Kingisms that are as rife in horror stories now as they were in the 80’s.) Yes, read a Quentin Tarantino’s rules. Take what you can use. He’s brilliant. He’s experienced. But disregard what doesn’t work…for you.

I find that many times when absolute writing rules are given, it comes down to a kind of fear of the word. Okay, maybe a fear of every other word. As if the embrace of words is something a writer need be wary of. Huh? (Yeah, like a bird should apologize for having wings.) Of course, there has to be a careful application of words – yes! They must be laid down like bricks, to hold the story up. You should fear those bricks falling apart. But that’s not what I’m saying. In the no-frills philosophy, the fear seems to be that we have to get to where we’re going fast, fast, fast. We should gulp down our meals rather than savor. How much paring should I do to tell my story most concisely? Here’s OLIVER TWIST, streamlined: An orphan gets in with some thieves, but he ends up living with a rich dude. The end. Yeah, I’m being facetious. But hey…I’m exaggerating to make my point. And I haven’t even started yet. I’m taking the looong road. Sue me.

I particularly had a problem with Leonard’s rule #9, that places – hence, settings – should not be described in great detail. If you’re writing about L.A., okay, we have a good sense of it from movies and other fiction. You want to keep things snappy – sure, gloss over it. If it matches your tone, your style, no complaints here. But when China Mieville is taking me into New Crobuzon, as he did in his novel PERDIDO STREET STATION, I want to do a little exploring. I’ve never been there before. Let me see the sights, get the feel, soak up the atmosphere. The atmosphere in some books is half the story. New Crobuzon is the main character of PERDIDO STREET STATION. If you find Mieville’s heavy layering of detail exhausting, that’s cool; then it’s simply not the book for you. But personally, I eat up books set in rich, palpably exotic and unusual environments. Recent books of this stripe are Jeff VanderMeer’s CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN (his city of Ambergris) and VENISS UNDERGROUND (his city of Veniss), Michael Cisco’s THE DIVINITY STUDENT (San Veneficio), Kristen Bishop’s THE ETCHED CITY (Ashamoil), my brother Scott’s stories set in the world of WESTERMEAD. I feel like a tourist venturing to another country, when I crack the covers of books like these. Yes, the balance can be tipped, even for me. I loved the descriptive passages in Ian R. MacLeod’s THE LIGHT AGES, his sense of place was tremendous, but there were just too many of these passages even for my taste. Those are the words I stress again: for my taste.

A punchy, cut-to-the-quick style might get us through a jazzy detective novel, but if we’re in Lovecraft country, I want to see the cobwebs blowing. I want to see the moldering floorboards. You don’t have to tell me what Grandma is wearing in her scary portrait, but you can tell me that it’s hanging on the wall. AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS is a masterpiece of eerie setting. It will make you cold. It will fill you with cosmic wonder. But a snappy read it is not. One book is a loud carnival you fly through on a roller coaster. Another book is a quiet museum of fascinating oddities to be explored more slowly. I like to visit both kinds of places.

I have a very personal reason for my stance; much of my work involves the intimate relationship between people and place. I revisit my worlds of PUNKTOWN and LETTERS FROM HADES again and again, building further upon them, trying to make them textured and tangible. These settings affect the characters that move through them. In reading Thomas Hardy’s TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES, set in a beautifully evoked British countryside, I was struck by how Hardy used the changing of the seasons to reflect Tess’s emotional state. In the summer, Tess – a kind of pagan Earth Goddess in a patriarchal world – is happy, optimistic, in love. By winter time, she is rejected, alone, suffering. I’ve consciously worked to achieve similar effects in my stories. In a recent novella of mine called THE MASK PLAY OF HAHOE BYEOLSIN EXORCISM (from my collection THIRTEEN SPECIMENS), the protagonist doesn’t discover his true nature until he is displaced to a foreign country (Korea). I tried to give the city of Seoul real…soul. It isn’t a scary city, and I didn’t portray it as such. But as an American, this oriental city was disorienting to me when I visited it, and I tried to recreate that effect in my story, to set the character off- kilter, to make him feel alone, an outsider, a person in need of doing a little sight-seeing deeper inside himself.

Right now, I’m reading James Webb’s post Viet Nam War novel, LOST SOLDIERS. It captures that country in lush, minute detail. Is it overkill? If you stripped out the travelogue, you might lose a quarter of this book or more. Would that fact make it boring to another reader? I’m sure it would, for some. To me, I’m eating it up. The detail is vibrant. The country’s fractured, wounded state is a mirror of the fractured, wounded characters. Like I say, in something like Dan Simmon’s SONG OF KALI, the place is the story. What is extraneous to one reader is pertinent, indispensable, to another. What would Leonard make of the other novel I’m reading right now, Chinese author Han Shaogong’s A DICTIONARY OF MAQIAO, a mock dictionary of interrelated vignettes that challenges the very notions of narrative flow and what constitutes a novel? No zippy and simple point A to point Z here.

So…anyway…this is just an example of why I scorn rules. (I took exception to some of the others on Leonard’s list, too, but maybe that’s fodder for further essays.) The only rule I would urge writers to follow is: spell correctly. So that’s rule #2.

Okay, and rule #3. Read, read, read. Read Leonard. And read me.

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  1. David Niall Wilson
    February 24th, 2006 at 09:58 | #1

    I love this essay. I love, in particular, the opening quote: “The First rule of write club is…” (lol) PERFECT.

    Here’s what I think. When you start out writing, you are looking for a yellow brick road to follow, a way to become what those you respect and admire have become – a writer.

    When you have been writing a long time and start to feel the frustration of the world of publishing, you can look for similar roads, hoping to take your own and sort of implant it in the middle, so you read and learn and try to practice rules set down by others…

    The bottom line is, when you reach “yourself” in writing, you will find out one of two things. You are a writer, or you are a technician. A technician can make a good living writing, using the rules of others and emulating popular styles. A writer may never make a living, but his style is forged of what he took, stole, borrowed, made up, and was born with, and he will always feel the tug of something odd when he departs from this. With this “becoming” you are bequeathed two things. Confidence in your writing, and a self-conscious knowledge that you are now at that final four minute long porgram figure skating moment. You will be judged by the world on the merit of that “self” and that “style” and — since it’s what you do — you will never be happy doing something else.

    I love reading how other writers create, why they create, how they edit, what they believe, but I no longer make any concious effort to assimilate these things. It can happen – but if it does, it has to be natural.

    I also enjoyed the reference to James Webb. I met him when I was in the US Navy, and despite the fact he was the Secretary of the Navy and I was a Petty Officer Second Class of dubious background, he read a story of mine and wrote me a personal letter of encouragement. Great guy.

    Anway, this is just supposed to be a comment (lol) so I’ll stop.

    Never mention Write Club.


  2. Janet Berliner
    February 24th, 2006 at 12:39 | #2

    Anything I say will be redundant, so “Amen” will have to do.


  3. Mark Rainey
    February 24th, 2006 at 14:11 | #3

    Many nice thoughts there, Jeff. I’m particularly keen on settings that take on the role of character in a work, and your examples are good. Often, a well-rendered setting helps put the color in between the lines; one that is poorly — or worse, inaccurately — drawn can stop a book quicker than my brother’s face can make a shoggoth shudder. (My brother Phred and I are known as the Ugly Brothers; he’s ugly, I’m his brother.)

    Read, yes. Reading is good.


  4. Jeffrey Thomas
    February 24th, 2006 at 16:29 | #4

    Thanks, guys. And David…your comment is a wonderful essay in itself! (I read your comment on Joe’s essay about Leonard’s rules, too. I thought it might be stimulating to tackle those rules in another essay; thus, here we are.) I especially like your distinction between a writer and a technician. A story shouldn’t have to be put together like a gym set. And I use that analogy because I almost went mad the time I assembled a gym set for my son. A technician I am not. I like to think I’m a writer, big ugly warts and all.

    That’s so cool about James Webb! (I just a minute ago finished another chapter in LOST SOLDIERS). He does indeed sound like a nice guy. An unrelated note here; in the novel he decribes a beggar named Hai, badly injured from a land mine. I am SURE this is based on a real beggar in Sai Gon, and I am SURE I met the same guy on my first visit there! He describes the guy in such great detail. (Shh, don’t tell Elmore Leonard that! I hate to keep picking on the guy, but…sheesh.)

    One more note — this blog entry is dated the 23rd but I posted it after 3 AM on the 24th. I would hate for people to think I jumped the gun and stepped on another blogger’s toes before my day had come around.

  5. David Niall Wilson
    February 24th, 2006 at 16:43 | #5

    I think we’re pretty much in alignment on this subject, Jeff.

    On Mr. Webb, I remember most that he made our CO nervous, because the CO expected him to tell us the canned version of why we were floating around in the Indian Ocean, and instead he told us about his book and showed us the tattoo he got when he was in the Marines (lol).

    One day I hope to get to share a few minutes and a cup of coffee with him and remind him of the whole story.

    I can tell you it was fun watching the Chief’s face when he saw I got a letter from the Secretary of the Navy (lol).


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