Monday, April 29, 2013

A Brutal Test for Your Fiction


I went to a book sale the other day and nabbed a copy of How to Write by Stephen Leacock.  Leacock was, in the early Twentieth Century, the best-known humorist in the English language.  Which fact should give all humorists pause.

I more or less know how to write, but I'm always ready to learn something new.  So I went trawling through the book.  Mostly, it's plodding and sincere.  Out of insecurity, Leacock didn't get serious about writing until he was 40 and he regretted that.  So he's on the side of the gonnabe writer and explains things very carefully.

However, right in the middle of the book somewhere, he suggests the single most brutal test for a story or novel I've ever encountered.  Here it is, in my paraphrase:

Remove a page from the middle of your work.  Set it aside.  Then read the page before it and the page after.  Can you reconstruct what happened in that page?  Then your work is mediocre at best.   

This is not an exercise I'd recommend for not-yet-published authors.  But it sets the standard, dunnit?



HWW said...


excuse me, don’t you mean trawling through the book or have you descended into the depths, never to return?

Your friend,


Michael Swanwick said...

Correction made, and thanks. Though I did have some pretty trollish things to say about much of the book. You'd think that Leacock's advice on humor would be better than it was.

Eileen Gunn said...

Leacock is funnier if you're 10 years old, I think. Also, if you're told he's funny, so you'd better laugh.

That said, nobody's advice on humor is funny. That's why I stopped being on humor panels at cons: they are simply not funny. Sometimes, after a humor panel, I wasn't able to be funny for hours.

Gene Stewart said...


Does this mean you should, if you're writing very well, NOT be able to bridge the gap?

Problematic, then, because I've had scads of stories rejected by editors who basically wanted their hands held through the fiction, escorted carefully across all cross-walks, and otherwise coddled by continual context.

Is this standard, then, to be continually surprising and unpredictable? That is a standard, but not necessarily the standard, one would think.

--Gene Stewart, confused and over-thinking as always.

HWW said...

Now that the proof reading matters have been addressed, may I remark that this is the best high stakes game for writers I have ever seen, Michael.
Who would still be in the game after the third round (dead authors only, since this is a dry run): Wm. Burroughs, J.L. Borges, C. Dickens, V. Nabokov, M. Edgeworth, J. Austen, E. Hemingway?