Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"I did it my way"

I Did It My Way: On Following "Rules"

If Hal Holbrook is to be believed, on the occasion of his seventieth birthday celebration, Mark Twain is supposed to have advised, "I got to seventy by strictly adhering to a style of living that would kill anybody else . . . . If you can't get to seventy in the way most comfortable to you, my advice is don't go."

Something like that applies to advice on writing. Actually, I have only one ironclad rule for new writers:

If any writing rule rubs you the wrong way, ignore it. Including this one.

Because people are individuals, you see. When I advise, "Outline your work," that is because outlining has worked for me and many other writers.

It doesn't work for everyone. Some free spirits just . . . write, without knowing what's going to happen or who the characters are. I could not do that, but if it works for others, fine. Raymond Chandler notoriously never planned anything. When asked about plotting, he said, "When things get slow, I just have a guy with a gun come through the door and see what will happen."

When William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett were adapting Chandler's novel The Big Sleep for the movies, as a Hollywood story has it, the two hit a snag. They read the book cover to cover but could not solve their problem. So Faulkner supposedly called Chandler.

Faulkner asked, "Mr. Chandler we need to know who killed Owen Taylor, the chauffeur."

Chandler gave him a name, but Faulkner said, "No, sir, he was clear across town at the time and couldn't have done it." Chandler said he'd get the book and call back.

When he did, Chandler said, "I don't know who in the hell killed him. I thought I did, but I don't."

So in the movie, as in the novel, Taylor's murder is never cleared up. That does not make the novel or movie bad, but it does indicate that one can simply fly free of any planning or outlining and write a good stick.

So, if any advice I happen to give doesn't resonate with you, ignore it. You won't hurt my feelings.

And you just might write a good story.

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