Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Sometimes you gotta write a manifesto

Well, I wasted half the day yesterday, putting together a six-page manifesto about common beginners' errors in fiction writing, when I was supposed to be writing fiction of my own. For some reason I'm getting a lot of repetitive mistakes from my students this semester (and a repetitive stress injury from scribbling them out), so I figured the only reasonable solution was a gargantuan handout. Here it is.

Rhian and I had a big argument about Lists of Things You Shouldn't Do. She thinks they send the wrong message. I think they're kind of fun, and made to be contradicted. Anyway, this isn't quite that--more like a collection of current pet peeves of mine, with suggested (and hopefully amusing) remedies. The nine, exhaustively elaborated on the handout, are:

1. Misuse of hyphens and em-dashes
2. Nested dependent clauses
3. Misadventures in dialogue tagging
4. Gerund phrases that incorrectly imply simultaneity
5. Modifiers and pronouns with ambiguous antecedents
6. Missing commas before names, in spoken address
7. Spaces between paragraphs
8. Re-describing a person or object using a new noun
9. Overwriting

Some of them are grammatical, some creative, some technical (like #7, which only Microsoft can be blamed for). Don't know if they'll be of much use to all you smartypantses, but have at it!

Photo from


Sasha said...

Ah, manifestos. Skittish to make one myself, so I'll gladly use yours and nail it to the wall. Maybe just add my name to "these are the things that are bothering me, J. Robert Lennon." :)

I'm thinking I should also scribble in, "Use Sylfaen, font size 11, 1.5 spacing" and "For goodness' sake, stop writing about people drinking beer/smoking cigarettes/looking at the moon/a deadly combination of the three."

Many thanks!

Anonymous said...

Ha! I'm a Garamond 12 guy myself, and you're more than welcome to be annoyed by me...

rmellis said...

Yeah, I have no beefs with grammar rules... though some aren't really valid. But "rules" that are just stylistic decisions, or rules about content, I think unnecessarily cramp a young person trying to find her voice.

And rules that aim to make someone's writing more like all the other writing are downright destructive.

The process of learning to write is discovering what to keep from your predecessors, and what to throw out. And I do think it's discovery, and can't be imposed.

Gary said...

1. The em dash is not the same as the en dash. For the use you are describing, I’d use the en dash, and not closed up the way you have it. But that might be a British publishing point.

2. Nested dependent clauses in this breathless manner are pretty unreadable, but nested dependent clauses punctuated properly are not, necessarily. I suppose one’s definition of dependent clause is important – if you just mean subordinate clauses, then some writers can fill a page with a single sentence and make it quite comprehensible. What about this very representative, not overlong, sentence from Melville?

‘In some general talk which followed, relative to organized modes of doing good, the gentleman expressed his regrets that so many benevolent societies as there were, here and there isolated in the land, should not act in concert by coming together, in the way that already in each society the individuals composing it had done, which would result, he thought, in like advantages upon a larger scale.’

3. Agree, but I love ‘laughed the cat’! The indispensable lolcat line. You find this particular locution all the time in 19th c fiction.

4. I hadn’t ever considered this one but that’s interesting. However for actions that are truly simultaneous I don’t see a problem, and so wouldn’t avoid it entirely.

5 Good one.

6 Isn’t the context in both of these cases likely to be so clear that it doesn’t matter about the missing comma? And doesn’t the comma add an element of fussiness that these sentences might do without?

7 Interesting. I don’t have this problem.

8 yes, excellent. I would add – don’t add new information about description some time after the character has been introduced, even if they haven’t been described the first time. Eg

‘A girl sat down opposite and opened a book. She spent some time leafing through it while I watched her out of the corner of my eye. I went back to what I was doing. About ten minutes later she stood. The fresh scar on her forehead glistened evilly.’

9 nicely put.

Its much easier for me to criticize than to offer 9 new points of my own, so thanks for a thought-provoking post.

zoe said...

Interesting. Did you see the piece in The Guardian recently with various writers offering their own writing rules? Some were serious, some funny - but all useful in their way.

I agree with Rhian though. Some points need to be ironed out, but anything that cramps the writer's voice is worrying.

Anonymous said...

Zoe, I actually linked to that article in the post! I found it more interesting (as a little profile of each writer) than useful, but it's a nice piece. I'm kind of jealous of the people who got asked to contribute, I must admit.

Gary, thanks for the responses! I won't quibble with most of them, but I must stand my ground on "laughed the cat"...I've always hated it...after reading that damned book to my kids for all those years, I would love to take an editing pen to it. Instead I did this:

And I do think that that comma in #6 is absolutely, absolutely vital. When you rely on context for a meaning that a simple bit of punctuation can definitively establish, you've forced the reader out of the dream state and into the mechanics of the might just as well say that there's no point in spelling words correctly, because peopul will kno whut you meen so why bothere?

Stephen said...

Your "before" examples are priceless. Do you think there is a really good novel to be written entirely in bad prose? The way the last third of the film "Adaptation" was a carefully conceived monstrosity of cliched screenwriting, written as an illumination of the arrogance and unfounded confidence of the less talented brother?

You should know that the literary crimes you document are not committed only by student authors. As a screenwriter I read a lot of bad novels that are submitted to me for possible adaptation, including some by writers who have sold HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF BOOKS, and let me tell you...

jon said...

The only problem with 9 would be if they didn't write anything at all. I find most of my editing is concerned with 9, and on the first or even third draft it is really hard to know how much detail is necessary. Some of these rules depend on the narrator as well. Decription often tells you about the attitude of the narrator as much as the person being described. We know as much about Philip Marlowe through his descriptions of others as through his actions. The technical violations are what drive me nuts, wrong kind of hyphen, bad use of commas etc. The stylistic crimes however have everything to do with the power of the writer. I think David Foster Wallace violates every tenet of good prose I hold dear. It makes him unreadable to me. Ditto Pynchon. But others adore this in him. Style brings one into the world of taste, and stylistic crimes are often the graces of great writers. William Gaddis bores me to tears but Djuna Barnes makes my hair stand on end

Anonymous said...

You're right of course...tactical overwriting is often what makes a writer great. I happen to love Wallace for this very reason, and I often cite him as an excuse for breaking these "rules."

The thing is, they're not rules. (well--the grammatical stuff is, arguably.) They're more like...suggestions for areas to which attention should be paid. A lot of students never even think about this stuff until somebody tells them to. I was probably one of them.

Hope said...

I never, ever knew that about the space between paragraphs. (As a journalist, I always had someone else formatting my text for publication.) This must explain why my story hasn't yet been accepted for publication! Yeah, that's it!

5 Red Pandas said...

Have you seen these? Very funny.

Gary said...

I saw that cat text in your video lecture a while ago - it 's great!
That comma - well, I'll defer to you as the punctuation doctor. I'm going to call you Doctor. what's your number?

Anonymous said...


zoe said...

Sorry JRL. As usual I'm doing too many things at once...

James said...

JRL, you've made my day with your manifesto.

I was often asked to proofread copy at my previous, ghastly place of work. Often, sentences were just too long and could be saved by the insertion of a few full stops, but others used the most extraordinary and unnecessary words. I came to the conclusion that people think they are being impressive and clever by doing this. It's the 'you'/'yourselves' problem, which I hear people say a lot in London (as in, "Is there anything else I can do for yourselves?").

Seeing as we're on our soapboxes, have you noticed how many people are (mis)using 'literally' these days? It has infected the speech of almost every living person in the UK. Recent funny examples: "He literally wiped the floor with his opponent", and the actor Anthony Head on BBC radio: "I was sitting in a restaurant reading the script, literally splitting my sides with laughter." Messy.

A book you might be interested in if you haven't come across it before is a slim volume called 'English, Our English (And How To Sing It)' by the late journalist and novelist Keith Waterhouse. It's his equivalent of your manifesto, and as wittily done.

John Lingan said...

At the risk of trolling, I wanted to pass along the response I had to this post, available at a new group blog, the Constant Conversation:

Loving that Ward Six magic,


mccormick said...

Number 7! Each and every semester I delivery one of those angry mini-lectures that make you look like an a-hole about how WHITE SPACE MEANS SOMETHING. RESET YOUR DEFAULTS! Ooooh it makes me mad. So mad.

Anonymous said...

The white space really does drive me bananas. It isn't the students' really is a PITA to change if you're not computer-oriented.

I don't mean to make this a pet peeves thread! I'm really not a grammarian--I really like all kinds of creative destruction of English. And I am extremely against grammar policing on the internet, which is the primordial ooze of language experimentation. But a guy can only repeat himself so many times in class before he has to issue a big ol' pdf.

Mark C. said...

I completely agree with Rhian. While rules 1-8 may be valid, number 9 is not. Striving to "express yourself in the fewest words possible" does not good writing make. Why have a six page manifesto when you can get your point across in one or two pages? It's interesting that your latest book, "Castle," falls prey to a few of the same mistakes that you feel are generally reserved for only the most novice of writers. While you admit that there are exceptions to every rule, I think it is clear that many of your "pet peeves" are derived from little more than your own personal taste (which seems to stand in stark contrast the taste of many of today's most successful writers).

jon said...

I guess this thread is done, but I have one thought to add. I don't think #9 should be dismissed. Writing involves a considerable amount of struggle, and the problem with new writers is that they are struggling with absolutely everything EXCEPT their assumptions. A huge part of over-writing comes from the way we, or I anyway, imagine narrative, versus how I finally get it on the page. I think many writers imagine narrative in film terms, and film is photography and editing, and relentless in visual detail. The audience can become absorbed in the intimate details of an action. There is no noun in film without TONS of adjectives, there is no general object, only a specific objects. But fiction narrative is much more like the other arts. An illustrator can draw a cat with a few lines. The temptation is to write concretely to the point where what's on the page is like a movie. But readers don't need a movie. Maybe even movies don't need to be as insanely concretized as they are.

Anonymous said...

Like I'm saying in rule 9, sometimes the fewest words possible is a lot of words. If the style of your writing bears a lot of its meaning, then a particular kind of wordiness might actually be necessary to get your meaning across.

But this document was intended for my students, who are still developing their style, and it's important for them to be able to express themselves efficiently and clearly. Their writing is bloated in ways they don't even notice, because nobody's pointed it out to them before. They need to tear it down, see what it really is, then build it back up again, into whatever it's going to end up being.

It goes without saying that this is all subject to taste, and I must reiterate that these are not "rules." I am not going to get all up in anyone's grill for "breaking" them. They're merely an effort to get students to notice stuff that took me years to collect from my own teachers, or to figure out on my own.

Anonymous said...

I mean, if #9 bugs you, write your own manifesto and give it to your own class! Disagreement is good. I have a favorite student who asked me to read a story of hers, and when I told her what I thought, she said, "Ernesto [Quinonez, a colleague] said the exact opposite!"

Precisely! That's the point of taking creative writing classes, I think--to filter your work through different lenses, to see it in different ways. Do a version of your story they way Raymond Carver might, then do it again like James Joyce. See where it gets you.

Sung said...

I hate that whitespace thing, too. Although the blame must be placed on Word 2007, it's just reflective of what's happening on the Internet in general (like these very comments on Blogger!).

I don't disagree with anything in your manifesto -- it's all good, common sense stuff. You should make it a "sticky" or something along those lines on the site...

rmellis said...

In defense of #9: I don't see how, given a certain amount of meaning, using more words is ever preferable; it would mean using vaguer, weaker words.

That doesn't mean everything can be edited to haiku-length, though. I think JR's example -- "The phone rang. It was Bob," isn't necessarily ideal. It might leave interesting stuff out. Was the phone ringing a surprise? How did Bob introduce himself? Might not matter... but it might.

Anonymous said...

Sung, it's true, indenting paragraphs on Blogger is a PITA, and the technological weakness of the medium has resulted in different style rules...I don't even think twice about the spaces anymore. But I wouldn't want to have to work within these limitations while trying to write fiction!

Yeah, Rhian's right, my "It was Bob" example was mostly meant to be funny, and isn't really a good one. I can certainly imagine, say, a David Foster Wallace story in which the trip to the phone takes twenty pages, of quite elegant and indispensible prose.

Nancy said...

I loved reading this entry and all the comments.

I'm part of a writing group with some brilliant writers,
I mean- brilliant ! Some of us are pretty bad. But it's the mix that counts. Hearing people's mistakes is just wonderful and we make huge strides masticating the good and the bad. Some of us can't sleep very well for a day we're so excited by the debates and so forth.
After about 6 years of this I can finally expose whatever shit I write with complete openness. I believe that's when you start to make some traction. Your students will be trying to impress you like mad, I suspect. Is there any way to get them quicker to the unabashed point where something real in them starts to speak ? ( Just some random thoughts from an old lady ) xo Nancy

Anonymous said...

Hey Nancy...yeah, you're right, it's hard to get them to that point...and lists like this may actually make it more difficult. No offense to my excellent advanced-class undergrads, but the intermediate classes are always my get the really good writers right before they have started to inhibit themselves.

I do wish there were time to get to know all my students really well. Aside from a few repeat offenders, god bless 'em, that kind of intellectual intimacy is hard to come by.

Anastasia said...

We do all love our rules for writers as fodder for argument, don't we? I assume you've seen the Guardian's much discussed roundup of various authors' rules?

aaron hamburger said...

I liked this manifesto too, but I disagree with 9b a little. Rather than "excessive" or "sufficient," I would distinguish between purposeful and purposeless description, or active and static descriptions, particularly of setting.

Perhaps one reason Leonard, for all is virtues, is Elmore Leonard and not Elmore Nabokov or Elmore Woolf is because he fails to recognize setting has an equal part to play with its sexier cousins, plot and character. Setting IS plot and character, in fact. The Wizard of Oz would be a much different story if Dorothy came from New York City. A Confederacy of Dunces doesn't work in Detroit.

The challenge is to write a description, of setting or character or anything else in a story, in such a way as to make the reader want to read it.