Tips for the Well-Mannered Writer

by James Scott Bell

I love Project Gutenberg. This site has an ongoing project of digitizing works from the past that have fallen into public domain. The works are then made available—for free download—in Kindle, Epub, or text format. You can also read the books online. There are many classics of world literature available, but it’s the small, quirky, period books I find most interesting. If you write historical fiction, Project Gutenberg offers a treasure trove of research material from the 1700s on.

Via Feedly, I get an alert on their latest digitized titles. Many of them don’t interest me, i.e., titles like The Fern Lover’s Companion: A Guide for the Northeastern States and Canada and A Treatise on the Origin, Progress, Prevention, and Cure of Dry Rot in Timber.

But every now and then a title catches my eye and I go in for a peek at the text. The other day it was The Woman and the Car, published in 1909, and described as “A chatty little handbook for all women who motor or who want to motor.”

Having written about that period, I gave the book a peruse. It has a chapter on proper dress, filled with details that could be used to great effect in a novel.

In another chapter, it gives specific instructions on how to start a car:

In front of the car you will notice a handle. Push it inwards until you feel it fit into a notch, then pull it up sharply, releasing your hold of the handle the moment you feel you have pulled it over the resisting (compression) point. Unless starting a car fitted with magneto ignition, on no account press down the handle—always pull it upwards, smartly and sharply. If it is pressed down the possibility of a backfire is greater—and a broken arm may result. 

Then there’s a chapter on “Motor Manners.” Some of the rules of courteous driving behavior are worthy of note: 

  • If the road is wet, give pedestrians and cyclists a wide berth so as not to splash them with mud.

  • Avoid the bad and perilous habit of trying to squeeze through doubtful openings in traffic.

  • Remember, however, that it is necessary to sound the hooter when coming up behind and intending to pass a pedestrian or a vehicle…A hooter is meant to give warning, not to startle people.

It occurred to me that we writers owe our readers some common courtesy, too:

  1. Pull the handle sharply and smartly to start your story

If you don’t hear the motor, check that your handle is fit into the notch (that is, connected to a character) and that you have pulled vigorously enough to cause combustion (a scene with something disturbance).

  1. Do not splash the reader with mud

Gratuitous profanity is mud, in the opinion of this driver.

  1. Do not bore the reader by trying to squeeze too much information into a doubtful opening

It’s almost always best to withhold as much exposition as you can for as long as you can. It creates a sense of mystery, giving readers an invisible prompt to keep turning pages. I just finished re-reading The Maltese Falcon and noted that the background information about the black bird does not come until the middle of the novel.

  1. Don’t annoy potential readers with your, um, horn 

While the occasional tooting of your own horn is acceptable on social media, too much of that kind of noise is a turn off.

What other tips you can think of for the well-mannered writer?


And in honor of Father’s Day, spend a couple of minutes with the legendary Groucho Marx as he sings a famous ditty for dads.

29 thoughts on “Tips for the Well-Mannered Writer

  1. I know this has been discussed before on KZB, but since JSB mentions it, I’ll chime in on the profanity issue.

    We can put marks on the page that show our characters doing all kinds of mean, nasty, cruel, vicious things. No one (nearly no one, anyway) objects. Why can’t we put marks on the page that show our characters doing something not nearly so mean, nasty, cruel, or vicious, viz, using socially inappropriate language?

    That seems a weird kind of “word magic” superstition–especially since it’s OK to write “d**n” and “f**k” or to refer to “the F-word.” Everyone knows what that means, so why is it any more ethical or moral or socially appropriate than actually writing the word?

    To use a philosophical distinction: There’s a big difference between using a word (The dress was red) and mentioning a word (“Red” is the name of a color). If I write a sentence in which Jones swears, I’m not swearing–I’m not using the swear word. The make-believe character is make-believe using it. The same if I read a sentence showing the make-believe character swearing.

    So why is it problematic to show someone doing something socially inappropriate (swearing) but not problematic to show them doing all kinds of illegal and immoral things?

    (The same analysis would seem to apply to mentioning, not using for groups or individuals.)

    • Having written out the argument, I climbed into the shower–a great place for thinking when one’s not singing–and may have come up with my own answer:

      While the author may be in possession of this philosophical insight, many, many readers will not be. And, certainly for commercial fiction, they’re the ultimate arbiters.

    • I don’t mind appropriate-to-the-character profanity. Heck, I watched Dexter.
      I also know that my books won’t appeal to everyone for a multitude of reasons, and occasionally, I get the “too much profanity” in a review. (I went back and looked. The F-bomb appeared 3 times, and never uttered aloud by the character.) I also get “too much sex” in reviews, as well as “not enough sex.”
      One of the first things I do when fleshing out a character is to decide on terms of endearment and go-to swear words. I had a nice chat with one editor who didn’t like the word “crap” but that was HER issue, not mine. I believe “scumwad” bothered another editor. Or maybe it was “asswipe”. I don’t make changes for editorial personal preferences.
      Then again, if it’s a commercial reason–I think Mr. Gilstrap pointed out Costco doesn’t sell books with F-bombs–then I can understand not including them. As an indie author, I’m not going to break into the Costco market.

      • Readers are indeed the ultimate arbiters, and my anecdotal evidence meter tells me that a significant swath of the reading public is turned off by gratuitous (I did say gratuitous) swearing, esp. the F bomb. For me, the cost in lost readership outweighs any benefit.

        As I mentioned, I recently re-read The Maltese Falcon. Strict rules about swearing back then. I laughed and appreciated Hammett’s creativity on the issue. At one point the gunsel, Wilmer, F bombs Spade. Hammett wrote it like this:

        The boy spoke two words, the first a short guttural verb, the second “you.”

        • Another great old-time comedian (can’t remember his name) said, “I have two words for you. The first is a verb, the second is a pronoun.”

            • My Irish great-uncle had perfected the art of polite swearing. If he really hated a man, he called him “a daisy.” “Nuts” was another vivid expletive from that era, and famously used by a US general. And then there was my grandmother’s favorite swear word, “Oh, sugar!”

    • Swear words are like exclamation points. They should only be used occasionally to punctuate dialogue. Otherwise, they lose their value, and the reader ceases to pay attention to their value or becomes annoyed at them.

    • Damn! I never knew that we weren’t supposed to write that word. Thanks for letting me know. (I already knew about the eff word.)

  2. How ’bout not changing lanes erratically? As in don’t “head hop” – consistent POV – or a tleast make sure you put your blinkers on.

    And be mindful of speed bumps – avoid them at all costs. Editing, detail coordination, continuity (as they call it the movies), and several of those other bullet points in Thursday’s posting by Ms. Viet’s…

    (And I just “finished” much anticipated novel on my must-read list after two chapters because of rule 2 – a real disappointment. I’m not a prude, but it did seem excessively muddy…)

  3. Thanks for the video clip. My father loved Groucho. And I’m going to show it to my husband as soon as he finishes sleeping in.

  4. I’m not a fan of profanity. These days when it seems a baby’s first word starts with F I find it tedious and unimaginative.

    The only place I didn’t mind it was in The Martian (I watched the movie again yesterday). The scene was a young tech reading Matt Damon’s character’s messages aloud to his boss when Matt discovers that his crew doesn’t know he’s alive.

    “Um…he said the F word, then the F word in German, then ‘what the F word’ again.”

    That made me laugh.

  5. Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” Groucho Marx

    • Ah, there are so many! I had the honor of meeting Groucho a couple of times, and sitting right in front of him at the re-release of Animal Crackers at a theater in Westwood.

  6. Always stop at red lights and yield to yellow. If we rush through the action, we lessen the suspense. Rather, tease the reader, allowing them to hear, smell, see, feel, and taste the suspense as it builds.

    Happy Father’s Day, Jim!!!

    • And if you find yourself in a turn lane when the light goes green, take the turn for at least a block or two… ?

    • I LOVE your yellow light analogy, Sue. Throughout the first half of The Maltese Falcon, Hammett keeps up the mystery and tension by sprinkling in odd clues and motives…Spade has to “slow down” to figure things out, yet he never stops moving.

      I can see the occasional “running a red light” when a faster pace is called for. The drive should never be trouble free and smooth.

  7. I think the key word in this discussion is ‘gratuitous’. Personally, I only use f__k inside quotation marks to illuminate the nature and/or emotion of a character.
    If the story is about a group of people who routinely use profanity (The Wire come to mind) I think it would be a distortion to clean it up to suit particular readers. Although the gratuitous sex scenes in the first couple of seasons did seem gratuitous. I think it was sex, its been while.
    Don’t get me wrong, I agree that profanity for it’s own sake is boring (the #1 sin for writers) but it does have its uses

  8. I’m very careful about cursing in my books, but true to situations where it’s the only thing that makes sense. One of my (few) claims to fame is getting a single F-bomb through at a publisher notorious for never, ever allowing it. It wasn’t even intentional, I had to write the character (villain) the way he was, but I always went back and took anything out that they wouldn’t allow. Somehow I missed this one.
    So did my agent. So did the content editor. So did the line editor. So did the copy editor. To me, that was a sign that it was supposed to be there, that anything less wouldn’t have fit the character.

  9. In Romeo’s Way I have a young, tatted-up woman who curses blue streaks, but I filtered them all through Romeo’s POV, as in:

    She began a tirade then, peppered with words with a hard K sound. She was a symphony of K. It was so constant and crazy, it hit my brain like woodpecker woodpecker peck peck woodpecker.

  10. I’ve found so many good books from Project Gutenberg; I’ve got my tablet full of old poetry, classical literature, and favourites from childhood. It’s a treasure trove for bookworms.

    Here’s another one: keep to the speed limit. It’s there for a reason. Go too fast, and the reader will miss something important. Go too slow, and you’re going to bore them.

    And to throw in my two cents about gratuitous-ness in novels. Gratuitous swearing was my personal forte when I was in my teens and twenties, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that a well-placed cuss word says so much more than a string of expletives ever could. Personally, I don’t mind a lot. I tend to skip over it (a bit like dialogue tags).

    Gratuitous sex? Well, I’m a romance writer, so yeah, obviously it’s going to be in there. More than once. Probably more than three or four times. As long as it’s there for a reason. I’ve read books (mysteries, crimes, thrillers, sci-fi/fantasy) where it’s thrown in as a filler or a subplot- something the characters do to fill in the time until something big happens. It adds nothing to the story other than an interlude.

    Gratuitous violence is something I don’t think I get tired of, though. At some point, it ceases to be serious and becomes hysterically funny and OTT. Of course, I’m just a hair under 40, and have watched FPS gaming evolve for a while now. :o)

    • Interesting perspective, Mollie. I do think there’s a generational aspect to all this. In another ten years I may actually be in “generation coot.”

  11. Pingback: Tips for the Well-Mannered Writer | Loleta Abi Author & Book Blogger

  12. I appreciate this post as I had forgotten about Project Gutenberg. I will go there for some needed research for my historical mystery. I love the car analogy. It relates well. Happy Father’s Day! I hope it was a super day for all dads. 🙂

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