October 20, 2009

Clive Cussler - Rules don't mean anything!

Clive Cussler: Rules don’t mean anything!

Read any book on how to make your writing better, and I guarantee that somewhere in it they’ll tell you to study published work. “Learn from the experts! Watch the pros! Study their technique and see how they do it!” So I’m starting a blog series on techniques and styles that I observe and learn from the pros simply by reading their writing. It promises to be interesting, and I’ll do my best to make it fun!

During a recent go-round with the flu, I spotted one of Clive Cussler’s novels on the dining table; having heard Clive Cussler’s work praised as everything from “riveting” to “spell-binding”, and knowing that he has written several best-sellers, I picked it up.

An amazing amount of reading can be done when you lack the energy to do anything but lay on the sofa. In one day I read the first 150 or so pages. I’ve got to be honest: the action was creative, exciting, and non-stop. It’s a wonder that Sahara is the only movie to have been made out of a Clive Cussler book.

But as far as writing style and technique go, the only thing I have learned from Mr. Cussler so far is: “Rules don’t mean anything.” Here are some examples of what I mean.

Rule: “Don’t use adverbs ending with -ly unless they are absolutely necessary! It’s better to use vivid verbs to describe the action taking place!”

Clive Cussler says: “Trembling with fear, they tenderly carried him to a canoe and gently lowered him inside … Upon reaching the beach they quickly laid him on the sand and paddled furiously back to shore.”

Rule: “Do your research and know what you’re talking about, but don’t bore your readers with unnecessary and dry details.”

Clive Cussler says: “He led a lonely private life since his wife of twenty years died from a heart attack brought on by an iron overload disease known as hemochromatosis.”

Rule: “Study the human mind. Learn how people react to different situations and give your characters realistic reactions in your writing.”

Clive Cussler says: (Setup – the main character is standing in the open doorway of a helicopter piloted by his best friend. The chopper is one of two involved in a low-altitude, low-fuel dog fight over the Peruvian jungle. The main character has only one rifle containing only two bullets. The guys shooting at him from the other chopper have a grenade launcher and twelve rifles. A conveniently beautiful girl in the main character’s chopper ties a rope around his waist “to keep you from falling out!”) As the Peruvian mercenaries position themselves to launch another grenade, the main character smiles at the girl’s thoughtfulness and calmly replies “I don’t deserve you.”

Rule: “If it has moving parts, it’s a magazine, not a clip!”

Clive Cussler says: “The gun spat twice and went silent … Pitt jerked out the clip and saw that it was empty.”

And I haven’t even finished the book yet.

So, to all writers who find themselves crushed under the oppressive weight of thousands of writing “dos” and “don’ts” I say: Take heart! It would seem that the brutal, rigid “musts” and “must nots” we fear so much are actually more like “should considers” and “might wish to avoids”. I’m not saying you should throw the rules to the ducks and let your writing get sloppy – but relax! Loosen up! This is creative writing, not nuclear physics! One little mistake isn’t going to kill anybody.

Yeah – Mr. Cussler breaks a lot of rules. Possibly uses too many adverbs. Perhaps throws in a bit too much technical detail. Made a few errors in terminology. But I have read few stories that were as fast-paced, adventurous and fun as this one. Clive Cussler obviously loves what he does, and I think that the most important lesson we can draw from his writing is … have fun!

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