Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Rules for writing

In the midst of a run of disappointing contemporary novels, Michael Dahlie's The Best of Youth has popped up like a friend spotted across the room at an awkward party. I'm only halfway through, but after being left cold both by comic and more deliberately heartfelt novels recently, it's been a pleasure to find one that's funny, thoughtful, and--in its not wholly unsatirical way--convincing. (As an added bonus, it includes an Invisible Library book!)

Tonight I'll share my favorite moment thus far. The protagonist, Henry, a Brooklyn-based young millionaire (rich parents, crashed boat), after modest success with short stories, signs on to ghost-write a young adult novel for Kipling, a feckless British movie star. The star tells Henry his idea for the book: "[W]hat I'd like to write is a book about a young person, a twelve-year-old, say, who's friends with an old person." Henry tries to draw Kipling out, asking questions about the two characters or possible plot points, but all he gets is, "The story is the story of a friendship--a friendship between an old man and a young man. That's the heart of it all. It's almost all anyone needs to know." Which leads Henry to think "that if this was what Kipling thought an idea looked like, it would all be hard going."

Alas, Kipling does actually have more developed ideas than that. The problem is that he doesn't share them until Henry is nearly done with his first draft--and they're not about the book, but about writing itself. He e-mails Henry:
"Since you're polishing up the draft now," he wrote, "I thought I'd also send you a few rules of thumb that I live by and that are important for the final product." Kipling then proceeded (in a strangely formatted list with indentations and bullet points) to offer Henry a detailed explanation of what he thought was important to remember about a work of art, "especially a work of literature," although, in the spirit of modesty, he did preface this list with the statement, "I'm sure you know these things, but as a writer in my own right, I never think it hurts to revisit common conclusions about good writing."

Among the points Kipling made (and there were many) were:

  • If you use parentheses and semicolons, it's because you haven't thought through your work properly. Please make sure none are in the final product.
  • Please be careful with the overuse of prepositions, i.e., use "she awoke" instead of "she woke up."
  • Take plenty of breaks to sleep and to eat. Hemingway did. So should you.
  • If you run into trouble, remember that a writer's greatest asset is his imagination. A day of daydreaming is better than a month of research.
  • To which my only response is: There are more? Many more? Want!!!!

    Rules for writing are rarely useful, even when not written by fictional dabbling idiots. Even Elmore Leonard's much-celebrated rules are really only of interest as an expression of a sensibility, while Strunk and White's are better honored in the breach. But after laughing at Dahlie's contribution, I do feel that I should explicitly note my two unbreakable rules for writers--neither of which, let's be clear, Dahlie appears to have taken to heart in writing his novel. Herewith:
    1 When a character has a hangover, that hangover should be described in soul-shivering detail. Slather it on, sir, and make us feel as if we've earned it.

    2 When it is possible to use Sydney Greenstreet as the basis of a simile, one must use Sydney Greenstreet as the basis of a simile.
    Mr. Dahlie, your transgressions are forgiven. This time. Another infraction, I'm afraid, is likely to see you hit with thirty days without the option.

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