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Lessons in writing

Anthia Cumming

If writing were a month, it would be March. March in New England: mud-glutted, precarious, full of ice and sap, the awful, necessary mess before anything can bloom. This metaphor works across the craft: Publishers have their “slush pile” of manuscripts, journalists rake muck, and, as Franz Kafka famously said, “literature must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.”

I trudge through March every time I write this column. The experience is dependably painful, hardly news to any other writer. But this time I felt lighter, somehow, because the following writing guides had the wind at my back. They were invigorating — and humbling. Elmore Leonard, for instance, says you should never lead with the weather, and Ursula K. Le Guin blasts the lazy use of “somehow.” A “weasel word,” she calls it. Two rules broken in two paragraphs. Prize for me.

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If being a writer is so hard — “like Sisyphus with cash-flow problems,” per Anne Lamott — why bother? Partly because it “motivates you to look closely at life as it lurches by and tramps around,” she says in “Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life” (Anchor, 1995). The title comes from the time her dad, a writer, coached her brother, who was daunted at starting a report about bird life: “Bird by bird, buddy,” he said. “Just take it bird by bird.”

Lamott turns this advice into “a one-inch picture frame” in which you only bite off describing, say, your school lunch, rather than third grade. And she recommends you take “an imaginary Polaroid” of a character, then watch it develop, working from the telling props in the background, a hat, a couch, a vase. Lamott borrows plenty of insight from other writers too. I love Alice Adams’s short-story formula and this E. L. Doctorow quote: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

In Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules of Writing” (William Morrow, 2007), the author of “Get Shorty” gets short. This essay first ran in the New York Times, and is here tricked up with illustrations (by Joe Ciardiello) and pots of white space to achieve a Zen koan effect. We tersely learn that he hates adverbs (“a mortal sin” especially “suddenly”) and exclamation points (2 or 3 per every 100,000 words, tops). Authorial invisibility is the goal: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Let dialogue draw out character most, he says, and shun descriptive “hooptdedoodle,” as John Steinbeck wrote in “Sweet Thursday” (a book Leonard loves, even if it breaks his rules).

If being a writer is so hard — ‘like Sisyphus with cash-flow problems,’ per Anne Lamott — why bother? Partly because it ‘motivates you to look closely at life as it lurches by and tramps around,’ Lamott says.

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Lamott and Leonard help us for overview. But to get down in the mud, wrestle with Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussion on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew” (Eighth Mountain Press, 1998). It offers short, in-class and out-of-class exercises. Learn here how to wrangle verb tense (she’s snarky about present tense, calling it “McProse”), point of view, implicit narration, and much more.

I was pleasantly capsized a few times here. For instance, I work hard to comb out word repetition — I shop a lot at the thesaurus rack. But variety can backfire. Le Guin points out that prose isn’t as rhythmic as poetry, but prose repetition can approach the power of meter. Look at Le Guin’s masterful sci-fi classic “The Lathe of Heaven,” all awash in dreams and hypnosis. There is the jellyfish “tugged hugely by the whole might of the ocean,” borne and flung, borne and flung, borne and flung. It works . . . like a dream.

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“What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers” (Collins Reference, 2005), by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter, offers even more lessons (75 in all!) than Le Guin. The authors favor character driving plot, not the other way around, and spell out techniques for turning real events into fiction, and how to end things. I liked the stuff on choosing between using direct or summarized dialogue, for instance, and the “Three by Three” exercise to outline your story: “Cinderella can’t go. She goes anyway. Cinderella gets Prince.”

It seems that writing-guide authors either esteem or scorn writers’ groups. Francine Prose falls generously and amusingly in the middle. In “Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them” (HarperPerennial, 2006), she says that workshops and guides emphasize what not to do, which helps — but only to a point. She can just see “Kafka enduring the seminar in which his classmates inform him that, frankly, they just don’t believe the part about the guy waking up one morning to find he’s a giant bug.”

Great literature is a more affirming model, Prose says. She wants writers to see what’s been done, why it glows, and how it can inspire and better your own work. She does this through wonderfully chosen sentences and paragraphs, revealing technique from dialogue to gesture to the insertion of the telling detail. Not sure how to frame a story? Fall back on having your protagonist relay it to a stranger, like Tolstoy’s “The Kreuzer Sonata.” Prone to overwriting? Listen to Hemingway in “A Moveable Feast.” When he tried to write like “someone introducing or presenting something” it never worked, but if he “cut that scrollwork and ornament out” he could get something true on the page.

Or maybe your prose lacks daring. Then try typing out various glorious passages, getting the words right under your fingers — like one astonishing, 181-word-long sentence from Virginia Woolf, in which “we find ourselves amid a series of dependent clauses that break over us like waves.” Finally, read Prose’s Chapter 10, “Learning from Chekhov.” It is unbearably wise.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot,” writes Stephen King in “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” (Scribner, 2000). This book is an intriguing amalgam. It’s part autobiography (from his hardscrabble childhood to his 1999 car accident, which occurred during this project), part advice (never use the passive voice), part cheerleading (there’s a long list of King’s recent favorite books). King doesn’t want to be “a literary gasbag,” and he’s simpatico with Elmore Leonard in also hating adverbs, the “dandelions” of English. Both prefer simpler vocabulary. Using fancier words, King writes, is like “dressing up a household pet in evening clothes.”

As a young writer, I had the privilege of being edited by Richard Todd who, with Tracy Kidder, wrote “Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction” (Random House, 2013). They’ve had a singular, symbiotic writer-editor collaboration for decades now. And, in alternating passages, they pan out much hard-won gold about how to write narratives, essays, and memoir. Such as: Don’t mess with chronology unless you have a good reason. Revelation is what changes an event into a story. A minor character must not overshadow a major one; there’s a reason Shakespeare kills off Mercutio.

When I was starting out, most editors would hand back my copy, justifiably florid with red-pen corrections. But Todd believes that “revision by an editor never works as well as when the writer does the work.” The first time he ever returned a draft of mine, it featured, in the margins, several tiny, lightly-pencilled question marks. Something was wrong: I had to figure it out. It was the most terrifying edit I’ve ever had. But “you have to fall out of love” with your own work, says Kidder. All writing is rewriting. I marched forth.

Katharine Whittemore can be reached at Katharine.Whittemore@comcast.net

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