Friday, November 19, 2010

Watching the Hooptedoodle

Illustration used on the Fair Use principle, as is the quoted material below.

I spent about an hour this morning editing my novel, "Considering How to Run," realising that indeed as perfect as I thought it was when I finished the first draft this summer, it's got enough holes in it to make it look like a slab of Swiss cheese And that's okay; re-reading it is helping me see the holes and giving me ideas on how to fill them in, as well as showing me the places where I need to add stuff, and the places where stuff needs to be edited out.

All the while as I worked this morning, however, the word "hooptedoodle" kept going through my mind.

Hooptedoodle comes from a prologue John Steinbeck wrote for his novel "Sweet Thursday." The prologue, barely a page in length, remains the best bit of writing advice I've ever come across. It reads:
One night Mack lay back on his bed in the Palace Flophouse and he said, "I ain't never been satisfied with that book Cannery Row. I would of went about it different.

And after a while he rolled over and raised his head on his hand and he said, "I guess I'm just a critic. But if I ever come across the guy that wrote that book I could tell him a few things."

"Like what?" said Whitey No. 1.

"Well," said Mack, "like this here. Suppose there's chapter one, chapter two, chapter three. That's all right as far as it goes, but I'd like to have a couple of words at the top so it tells me what the chapter's going to be about. Sometimes maybe I want to go back, and chapter five don't mean nothing to me. If there was just a couple of words I'd know that was the chapter I wanted to go back to."

"Go on," said Whitey No. 1.

"Well, I like a lot of talk in a book, and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. And another thing -- I kind of like to figure out what the guy's thinking by what he says. I like some description, too," he went on. "I like to know what color a thing is, how it smells and maybe how it looks, and maybe how a guy feels about it -- but not too much of that."

"You sure are a critic," said Whitey No. 2. "Mack, I never give you credit before. Is that all?"

"No," said Mack. "Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. The guy's writing it, give him a chance to do a little hooptedoodle. Spin up some pretty words maybe, or sing a little song with the language. That's nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don't have to read it. I don't want hooptedoodle to get mixed up in the story. So if the guy that's writing it wants hooptedoodle, he ought to put it right at first. Then I can skip it if I want to, or maybe go back to it after I know how the story came out."

Eddie said, "Mack, if the guy that wrote Cannery Row comes in, you going to tell him all that?"

Whitey No. 2 said, "Hell, Mack can tell anybody anything. Why Mack could tell a ghost how to haunt a house."

"You're damn right I could," said Mack, "and there wouldn't be no table-rapping or chains. There hasn't been no improvement in house-haunting in years. You're damn right I could, Whitey!" And he lay back and stared up at the canopy over his head.

"I can see it now," said Mack.

"Ghosts?" Eddie asked.

"Hell, no," said Mack, "chapters . . . "
Steinbeck's little lesson here gets repeated a lot in writing instructions offered by writers both famous and not-so-famous, notably as in Elmore Leonard's well-known advice to writers, seen here.

Steinbeck offers good advice, some of which I'm taking as I edit this book of my own. But hearing Mack and Eddie and the Whiteys talk about house-haunting, part of me wonders if Steinbeck at the same time he's offering writerly advice is poking fun at people who offer writers advice, especially since they seem willing to offer any kind of advice to anybody in any situation. After all, one of the main reasons writers learn the rules is so they can figure out how to break them.

Still, the chapter idea has merit. As I re-read my own work, I see that now, thought having only the barest of divisions at the time seemed to work. That certainly works for Terry Pratchett and other authors.

Steinbeck himself breaks his own rules -- notably with "Travels with Charly," in which he dons the hat of a journalist, rather than the hat of a hooptedoodle writer. Still, they're good rules to live by, until you're ready to break them.

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