Sunday, 27 July 2008


'With a tremendous bound Jack was free!'

When I started writing, I would sit down with an idea for a scene in my head, not knowing quite where to begin; so I used to start at a bit where I knew what to put, and go on from there. I quickly learned that I didn't need to go back and put in an establishing paragraph or two; that the place the action started was the place to begin. You don't need to show the couple walking into the tea shop, sitting down and ordering, when the important bit is what they say over tea.

Similarly, once the object of the scene is accomplished, cut it off right there. Holly Lisle offers good advice on this here.

Mary Renault, one of my favourite authors, discovered the technique for herself, and called it Bound. To quote from David Sweetman's flawed biography, 'she meant the use of the cinematic cut, the ability to jump ahead, to précis talk and action where necessary. [Before this] she had no one to explain such things to her and all she could do was plod on, watching the novel swell, unaware of how to remedy matters.'


  1. Lexi,

    You have pinpointed what is a persistent stumbling block for many a fledgling writer, the seeming inability to Leave Out The Boring Stuff. I have reams of Boring Stuff both in binders and word processor files and chances are there is too much of it in what passes for Final Product.

    I think it comes mostly from a lack of trust. Trust that Dear Reader doesn't need (or want) all the set-up/inside-the-head stuff that is intended to make sure DR gets it all straight, and trust that we as writers can present a story that will make sense without all the background and scene setting.


  2. Very true. And Mary Renault is of course wonderful!



  3. Of course, Alan, some readers are more to be trusted than others...I suppose I write for people like me - which is worrying as I'm engaged on a whodunit; I am a hopeless guesser and easily confused.

    Anne, one of my regrets is that I didn't write Mary Renault a fan letter before she died. I didn't want to bother her, but now I'm writing I realize it would have been welcome.

  4. Good advice, Lexi. What's included should be important - and important stuff doesn't have to be an exciting piece of action. What's there is there because it needs to be.


  5. Yes, not like life at all.

    I can see why Logan Pearsall Smith said, 'People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.'

  6. Elmore Leonard's Rule #10 is "Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip."

    Those are often "thick paragraphs of prose" with "too many words in them." He says, "I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue."

  7. Oh yes, nasty wodges of prose...

    As a child I always skipped descriptions, until I read Mary Renault. Hers are so brief and vivid, they are a model for any writer.

  8. Yes, well, maybe and sort of. But there are so many exceptions. I mean, look at Proust. Leave Out The Boring Stuff? Proust's big idea was to leave out the interesting stuff. Now I have to admit that my attempts to read him usually end in tears and lengthy counselling, but he is One Of The All-Time Greats, isn't he?

    Or try Sir Walter Scott. If I remember rightly, Ivanhoe begins with endless description of landscape, and yet it works if only you're prepared to slow down and read it for what it is. The problem is with us: the frenetic pace of our world teaches us impatience.

    Back to Proust. Never mind paragraphs, the old bugger has sentences that go on for hundreds and hundreds of words. Some people seem to like it.

    And the longest paragraph I know in all literature -- doubtless there are longer, but I'm not interested in "mine's bigger than yours" comments -- is Molly Bloom's soliloquy. I reckon Joyce only gets away with it because of all the sex. Dirty old devil . . .

    P.S. I really wanted to comment on Dogs, but I brought up the wrong Comments box.

  9. Proust, Scott, Joyce - all at the high water mark of unreadability, and the first two (having foolishly omitted all the sex) largely unread these days.

    I couldn't cope with Proust, even read on the radio. He just went on and on.

    (You can comment on Dogs as well, should you wish, you know).