Reading for Writing

I just finished reading AL Kennedy’s ‘On Writing’. It took me a lot longer than I thought it would and probably longer than it should have. It wasn’t that it was a bad book, she is interesting and politically I think we are fairly closely attuned, and I really like her iconoclastic view of writing advice and workshops/masterclasses. It’s just that it was originally written as a series of blog entries and when you do that there is a fair amount of repetition. The one thing that shone through from this repetition was how painful (physically in her case – bad back and prone to infections from travel) a lot of writing is. By half way through I wanted to shout – ‘Well stop doing it then!’ at the book. I persevered and it became shiningly clear why she doesn’t and why I shouldn’t and you shouldn’t, if you feel you must start in the first place. I’m glad I persevered and I must apologise to her (although she has no idea why I need to!) for thinking those unwarranted thoughts.

So now I must read some of her fiction, because I have to confess so far this has been a lacuna in my reading career (there are many but let’s not dwell on that). I am trying to widen my reading at present and there is always a sort of wariness in me about such a worthy ambition. But then, how do I know what I will like if I don’t give it a go? So I am trying to see if I can embrace a wider set of genres and authors than have hitherto crossed my literary horizon.

This isn’t going to be easy. For a start I am as poor as a church mouse and buying hundreds of new authors on spec is a non-starter (children need food apparently). And my local library has absolutely no money for things like books. There is no reference section worth the name – loads of computers so you can be misinformed by the large amount of idiocy on the web which passes for ‘fact’ in our current climate. There are books from the world of fiction (just like web based facts, but at least they are honest that the stories are made up) but not many.
Inspired by Elmore Leonard’s recent inclusion in an Observer/Guardian list of Americans who would have won the Booker prize had it been open to Colonial types previously, I thought I’d read ‘Rum Punch’. Not carried by Monmouthshire Libraries apparently. So a book that could/should have won one of the most prestigious literary prizes in modern English literature isn’t worth having one copy of in our County apparently. Interesting.

So I went back to an author I have struggled with in the past to see if I could fill out my resumè that way. Steinbeck was on the shelves and I went for East of Eden. Wow! I remembered it being a struggle before; pages of description of the geography of the Salinas Valley to start with sapped my enthusiasm before we got anywhere near the characters. And then we did and I wanted more geography. By page 150 with another 500 pages to go I had had enough. I wanted something horrible to happen to all of them. I couldn’t empathise with a single one. Two psychopaths and a flawed tragi-hero should have mileage but I’m afraid I quit.
There was a recent(ish) argument in a newspaper review section about whether you should persevere with a book you don’t get on with, or whether life is too short. I have read some real dross because I was brought up with the idea that you should give an author a fair crack of the whip. I have abandoned less than a handful of books unread as a result, but the relief with which I put down ‘East of Eden’ has changed my life. I know he’s a ‘Great Author’ but I would still be re-reading this in a year’s time and honestly…why? So thanks for freeing me from my compulsion but it’s on to wider pastures.
It did make me realise however, that those exhortations to think very hard about how you start a book were true. One tip – not like East of Eden.

Elmore Leonard’s List

A friend from the writer’s group I belong to sent us all a copy of the list of Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing. I guess it has become more widely disseminated in the light of the great man’s recent demise.

I hadn’t realised it was Elmore Leonard’s list until I read my friend’s email. It is a list that has been knocking around the writers’ blogs scene for a while now. Sometimes there are more, sometimes less but I had never heard the list directly attributed to Leonard until his death.

It has the usual dos and don’ts, mostly don’ts. No adverbs, don’t start with the weather (this was on a recent Sins of Literature programme, not attributed I think) and watch the exclamation marks. Fair enough in general. As my friend said in the accompanying email, ‘You don’t have to agree with him.’

I guess if Leonard adhered to this list it may have worked. Of course that assumes that Leonard’s writing would have been either a lot worse or sold a lot fewer copies if he had ignored some of them. We don’t know whether that is true. That’s the problem with listening to good advice from successful people; it assumes they are as good at being self aware regarding what works as they are at doing it instinctively. If this is not simply a generic list slopped out at feeding time for aspiring authors, and is a list that someone as successful as Leonard lived by we still can’t say that makes it something we should copy. We can guess that a book filled with all these forbidden habits is likely to be terrible. If you want to read some, read Dickens, he commits at least two of them in spades, detailed descriptions of characters and going into great detail describing places and things. I happen to agree in this case. There are pieces of Dickens I find so moving as to be almost impossible to read for their poignancy and insight. There are other pieces I can hardly get through because of their tedious attention to irrelevant detail.

Leonard’s tenth commandment is supposedly the most important and is: ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.’ (that in itself makes me wonder whether this is really Leonard –it sound very cautious for him.) I know Dickens was writing pot-boiling serials for magazines but wow! (sorry about the exclamation mark!) But this is good advice buddy.

So do I agree with Leonard? A bit I suppose (whether it is his list or not) but the  most important item that sometimes appears on the list (Elmore’s or not) is : Ignore all these if its right. I’m sure Leonard would agree.