Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Fistful of Trouble

This is one of the pearls of the internet. 1930s Pulp writer Lester Dent's strict guidelines for writing a 6000 word genre story. Screenwriters can use the guidelines like the Tao Te Ching. Meditate on rules like: 

"First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble" 


"Second 1500 words - Shovel more grief onto the hero"

I like the thought of Erick Zonca writing a 6000 word treatment for The Little Thief with these rules in front of him. Or Jean-Pol Fargeau and Claire Denis discussing the rules while writing their 6000 word treatment (neatly broken into 1500 word elements) for Beau Travail. James Gray is an adherent I'm sure. Jacques Audiard, too. Hell, probably Judd Apatow. Everyone should be.

Lester Dent came up in an extensive article published by the Guardian in which a group of writers were asked their ten rules for writing fiction. I've got an ascetic love for restrictions and rules, even as I refuse completely to adhere to any of them. So, here are some of my favourite rules.

Geoff Dyer. Rule #6

Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.

Will Self. Rule #10

Regard yourself as a small corporation of one. Take yourself off on team-building exercises (long walks). Hold a Christmas party every year at which you stand in the corner of your writing room, shouting very loudly to yourself while drinking a bottle of white wine. Then masturbate under the desk. The following day you will feel a deep and cohering sense of embarrassment.

Margaret Atwood. Rules #1-#3 and #7

Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can't sharpen it on the plane, because you can't take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.

If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.

Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.

You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there's no free lunch. Writing is work. It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you're on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine.

Zadie Smith. Rule #3 & #4

Don't romanticise your "vocation". You can either write good sentences or you can't. There is no "writer's lifestyle". All that matters is what you leave on the page.

Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can't do aren't worth doing. Don't mask self-doubt with contempt.

Elmore Leonard. Rule #1

Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

Colm Toibin. Rule #3, #4, #5 and #7

Stay in your mental pyjamas all day.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself.

No alcohol, sex or drugs while you are working.

 If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane.

Jeanette Winterson. Rule #1

Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.

Andrew Motion. Rule #4

Lock different characters/elements in a room and tell them to get on.

AL Kennedy. Rules #1, #7 & #9

Have humility. Older/more ­experienced/more convincing writers may offer rules and varieties of advice. ­Consider what they say. However, don't automatically give them charge of your brain, or anything else – they might be bitter, twisted, burned-out, manipulative, or just not very like you.

Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and ­irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them, so you won't need to take notes.

Remember writing doesn't love you. It doesn't care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.

Roddy Doyle. Rule #1-#3

Do not place a photograph of your ­favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.

Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph ­–

Until you get to Page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety – it's the job.

No comments: