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russell smith: on language

Right now, aspiring novelists around the world are sending each other links to last weekend's article in The Guardian, Ten Rules For Writing Fiction. Riffing on Elmore Leonard's notoriously slim book 10 Rules of Writing, the British newspaper simply asked a dozen famous authors - including Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen and Richard Ford - to submit a few lines of advice on how to make a novel. Leonard's own list is also included. The answers were largely predictable (cut off your Internet connection, easy on the similes, minimize your descriptions) and then partly contradictory (listen to your trusted readers, don't listen to anyone; write your way through a blank, take a break if you are blank), so they are unlikely to be of great practical use to the unpublished.

Their repeated compilation does point, however, to a paradox often noted in literary circles. The market for fiction shrinks every year, the attention paid to novels by the media diminishes monthly, booksellers demand ever-lower prices, everybody in the industry says it's the worst it's ever been. And yet more academic or private creative-writing programs are created every year, and the demand for advice on becoming a novelist remains furiously high. Indeed, the selling of advice on writing has become a self-supporting industry: I know young writers who are doing masters of fine arts in creative writing so that they can in turn become creative-writing teachers in similar programs. Any magazine article like this one generates Internet responses as lengthy as any novella. The discussion of creative writing seems more popular than creative writing itself.

You will notice this if you go to public readings at literary festivals: The question-and-answer sessions afterwards are dominated by inquiries not about the nature of the text you've just heard but about how it was accomplished. The questions are familiar and predictable: At what time of day do you write, do you do it every day, do you use a computer, do you use a thesaurus, how did you get published, do you have an agent, how do you get an agent, how do you find the time, where do you get your inspiration, what about having babies, how do you do it, how do I do it?

It's strange that a publisher is almost guaranteed to sell a few thousand more copies of a book about how to write fiction than it would an actual work of fiction. Books of anecdotes about the eccentricities of writers or compilations of rejection letters are always popular too. A recent very entertaining one of these is Canadian: It's called Page Fright: Foibles and Fetishes of Famous Writers, and it's by the veteran journalist Harry Bruce. It doesn't teach you anything coherent about the creative process except that everyone's is wildly different.

And yet the advice keeps coming, unvaried in its inconstancy, every year. It's interesting that The Guardian article on how to write was inspired by a book that came out in 2007, and that book was itself simply a reprinting of an earlier New York Times article. Which was itself in many ways similar to Stephen King's much earlier handbook On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. And there are a few dozen others with titles like Why I Write; it's almost mandatory for hugely successful writers to give up a few secrets toward the end of their careers.

Of the writers canvassed by The Guardian, Leonard is still the most practically helpful one. His list of suggestions is largely concrete and detail-oriented: He says not to open a book with weather, not to use many adverbs or verbs that explain lines of dialogue, not to spend much time on physical descriptions of characters, not to spell out regional dialect phonetically and he admits a violent dislike for the word "suddenly." (It's a dislike I share: "Suddenly" reveals an author wading into a scene with a helpful explanation of how it happens, like a playwright parting the curtains and striding onto his stage in mid-play. A sudden action in fiction should simply occur suddenly: There's no need for subtitles. I try to avoid "he realized" and "it occurred to her" for similar reasons.)

I also very much like David Hare's insight: "Jokes are like hands and feet for a painter. They may not be what you want to end up doing but you have to master them in the meanwhile."

But just as interesting as these technical tips is the fact that Helen Dunmore says to "join professional organizations" and Zadie Smith says, "avoid cliques, gangs, groups." Margaret Atwood recommends buying a thesaurus; Roddy Doyle says to keep your thesaurus in the shed at the back of the garden. The lack of consensus answers the questions constantly posed by the literary audience: It proves there is no method, no schedule, no trick. The only thing all these writers agree on is that to be a writer one has to write. It's amusing that we keep looking to their interviews for guidance, rather than to their work. It's also hard to figure out why so many people want to be novelists at a time when it seems so few novels are being read.

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