Sunday, September 15, 2013

Lessons on writing - from Sager, Koppelman & Leonard

In the tradition of my ruminating on and linking to pieces on the subject of writing, there's a few great pieces to note here that contained lessons around writing well. Authors of the pieces were Esquire writer Mike Sager, screenwriter Brian Koppelman and novelist Elmore Leonard and each list of writing rules had some excellent things to keep in mind.

Posted to the media website The First Bound on September 9 was Sager's "53 Ways To Improve Your Reporting" and those that stood out to me the most were the following and seemed to all fall under the idea of being thorough and detailed in the information gathering portion of writing something:

#17 - It’s not about you (until the typing starts). 
#19 - Suspend disbelief during an interview. Reserve judgment for the keyboard. 
#20 - Tape interviews with a microcassette or digital recorder. Take pad and pen notes on specific and sensual details. Transcribe everything, time permitting. 
#30 - Don’t write your lede before you get there. 
#34 - Be present. Be in the moment. For the duration of the interview, it should feel like the universe consists only of you and your source.

The second piece of writing rules to note here came from the often-excellent website of Brandon Sneed as he earlier this month published "Brian Koppelman (writer of Rounders, Ocean's 13, The Illusionist, Runner Runner) gave some great screenwriting lessons on Twitter". It was solid advice that Koppelman provided via 13 extremely short video segments he tweeted out and then Sneed pulled together into a blog post. If the writing advice from Sager could be generalized to be about the importance of the up-front work, the stuff from Koppelman that struck me the most seemed to be about the idea of just putting pen to page consistently:

4. In what I thought was the beginning of a serious heartfelt convo, I told my dad I wanted to be a writer. He looked at me and said, "You want write? Write." 
5. Calculate less. Don't try to game the market. Write what you want to write. And drink plenty of coffee. 
6. Of the many supposedly bullshit rules of screenwriting, the only one that's legit is "write every day." 
8. The moment your screenplay leaves your hands, it becomes a commodity. So while it's with you, treat it like a piece of art. 
9. Instead of reading screenwriting books, read about your subject, the subject that fascinates, compels, and interests you.

The last piece to mention here with excellent writing advice was by Elmore Leonard for the New York Times in 2001 and then was tweeted out by many after Leonard's death last month. "WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle" featured 10 points from Leonard and the advice of his that resonated the most with me seemed related to the points from Sager I noted above. Sager wrote (among other things, of course) about up-front research and in the points from Leonard below, he covered putting details on the page without unnecessary flourishes or description:

3. Never use a verb other than ''said'' to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. 
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ''said'' . . . . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.'' 
 6. Never use the words ''suddenly'' or ''all hell broke loose.'' This rule doesn't require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ''suddenly'' tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

Related to Koppelman's point #9 above, someone interested in writing shouldn't spend time on writing lessons if that at the expense of time researching, reporting or producing actual writing, but that said, there were some really solid lessons from the three writers.