Everything Books
Writing and reading and books, books, books (and anything that might relate)

August 21, 2013

Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writing

The great Elmore Leonard, author of forty-five novels and master of the crime thriller, died yesterday morning at home.  He was eighty-seven.  He leaves behind legions of fans and some very wise and brilliant and useful words about writing.  I especially like numbers 3, 4, 5, and 10, although I agree with all of them.  These rules are excerpted from his more detailed 2001 New York Times article.

Writers on Writing:  Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle

By ELMORE LEONARD
Published: July 16, 2001

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Avoid prologues.

3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”

I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison.

And finally:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

 

August 7, 2013

Literary snacking — the food that helps me write

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When you spend hundreds of hours at your desk each week (or so it seems), you need the inevitable snack to keep you company.  By the time lunchtime rolls around, I’m usually so deep in the writing flow or smack in the middle of wrestling the creative alligators (as Hemingway called it) that the last thing I want to think about is how to feed myself.  And you have to feed your brain because you cannot write hungry.  At least, I can’t.  I mean technically I can, but it’s not the kind of writing that makes sense.

For some reason, walking three blocks to Robeks is easier than stopping to make a salad– there’s just something so nice about taking a short stroll in the California sunshine and having someone else do the preparing.  But most days of late I can be found with a little army of sustenance lined up by my computer so that I don’t even have to move if I don’t want to.  Raw almonds, Trader Joe’s Just Mango Slices, my 32 oz. purple water bottle, some lemon ginger Yogi tea, and raw carrots.  I know– yuck.  I’d prefer popcorn, my favorite snack ever, but that’s more of an end-of-the-hard-hard-writing-day reward, and besides, it doesn’t give me the brain energy I need to write.

I’m not alone in literary snacking.  My brilliant and beautiful writer mother has a weakness for chocolate malted milk balls– especially the ones that come from here— so much so that she won’t let herself keep them in the house except on very special occasions.  (Stocking the pantry with foods you love is VERY dangerous when you work at home!)

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The New York Times wrote a fun piece on “Snacks of the Great Scribblers,” that reveals Lord Byron drank vinegar (which had the added effect of keeping his weight down), Truman Capote favored mint tea and martinis, and Emily Dickinson snacked on her own homemade baked bread.

The trouble happens when you plow through your regular snacks and find yourself rummaging through the refrigerator and cabinets for ANYTHING– the last few stale Triscuits at the bottom of the box, the apple sauce you bought last Christmas which is probably still good, the half eaten energy bar floating in the bottom of your purse.  This is when you need to go to the store and stock up again, except, of course, that there isn’t any time for that.

What keeps you going at your desk?

June 2, 2013

The Ghosts of Wrangel Island

On May 17, I wrote an article for National Geographic’s website about my 2005 journey to Wrangel Island, the setting of my first two books.  Here are a few more pictures from and of the island (and the trip by Russian icebreaker), which I’ll be traveling back to in August of 2014.

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(Polar bears and musk oxen pics courtesy of James Wilson)

 

 

February 28, 2013

I talk books

In 2000, I did my first ever interview as a published author (for The Ice Master) with Connie Martinson, whose television show, Connie Martinson Talks Books, has been on the air since 1979.

She has interviewed Barack Obama, Gore Vidal, Maya Angelou, Ray Bradbury, Rosa Parks, Studs Terkel, Al Gore, and Joyce Carol Oates, among many, many others.

And last October, I spoke with her about Becoming Clementine. Enjoy!

(In case you’re wondering what on earth I’m looking at off-camera, she asked me to direct my replies to her questions at her purse, which sat over her right shoulder. Watch me as I try not to laugh!)

(And please “like” the video!)

February 25, 2013

The strangest (coolest) thing I ever found on eBay

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the Canadian Arctic Expedition, the doomed ship Karluk, and the men, woman, and children who found themselves stranded in the Arctic in 1913, here is one of my favorite stories about writing The Ice Master.

It is January 21, 1914. After the ship goes down, the inhabitants of the Karluk are forced to live on the ice while they struggle to reach even some small scrap of land. On this day, Captain Bartlett sends an advance party toward Wrangel Island. There are four men in the party, led by twenty-one-year-old First Mate, Alexander “Sandy” Anderson, from Scotland.

They set out for Wrangel Island, but they only make it within five miles of its smaller, more desolate neighbor, Herald Island, before disappearing without a trace. Try as they might in the months to come, their shipmates never found a clue as to where
the men were, or what happened to them.

In 1924, another Arctic expedition made its way to Herald Island where they discovered the remains of a camp. A silver watch, a pocket compass, snow goggles, hunting knives, a nickel belt buckle. And then someone held up the jawbone of a man. It was smooth and shrunken, bleached by the snow and wind. From what they could tell by the pile of ashes on the ground, the men had probably lived on the island for quite a long time.

Afterward, their remains and the artifacts were sent to Canada for identification, and then they disappeared.

It’s now August of 1999 — 75 years later. Returning from a research trip, I came back to an email that read simply: “I found something that might be of interest to you.” It was from a friend in Wales, who had enclosed a link for an auction on eBay: “Arctic Expedition Remains from Stefansson’s ill-fated expedition.”

Somehow, they had surfaced, these artifacts from the Karluk. They had made their way from Herald Island in 1914 to my hands in 1999, just as I was reliving the history that Sandy Anderson and his comrades had endured. Now I could actually lay my hands on the past.

Even more amazing, they were purchased from a Chicago museum by a couple who run a cowboy memorabilia business in Colorado. They said they just happened to hear of the sale, that they had never purchased polar artifacts before, that the collection just sounded too incredible to pass up. Once the artifacts arrived in Colorado, however, they weren’t sure what to do with them. So they put them on eBay, the first time they’d ever used the auction site.

What are the odds of these treasures turning up again, just when I was working on The Ice Master? By now, through their diaries, letters and reports, and through my interviews, I knew these people intimately in mind and spirit.

But the day this old box arrived in Los Angeles, I connected physically with the men of the Karluk. I could hold in my hands the snow goggles, the silver watch, the nickel belt buckle, the old hunting knife, and the haunting human remains.

Through some dental detective work, I was able to conclude that the jawbone belonged to First Mate Sandy Anderson. In fall of 2000, I traveled to Scotland with the jawbone, and in Edinburgh met Peter Anderson, Sandy’s great-nephew.

Before he was able to return to his family and Scotland, Sandy died on a remote island that few people in the world had ever even heard of, much less ever seen. His descendants grew up hearing stories about his great adventure, but never knew exactly what happened to him, only that he was lost in the Arctic.

It was indescribably moving to take him home.

February 20, 2013

100th anniversary of the Karluk expedition

In The Ice Master, I recounted the true story of what was supposed to be the greatest and most elaborate Arctic expedition in history, and what instead turned out to be one of the most harrowing polar survival stories of all time.

In June 1913, the H.M.C.S. Karluk set sail from the Esquimalt Naval Yard in Victoria, British Columbia. Six weeks later, the Arctic winter had begun, the ship was imprisoned in ice, and those on board had been abandoned by their leader.

For five months, the Karluk remained frozen in a massive block of ice, drifting farther and farther off course, until the ice tore a hole in the vessel’s hull, and Captain Robert Bartlett, the ice master of the title and the man hired to command the Karluk, gave orders to abandon ship (to the strains of Chopin’s “Funeral March,” playing on the Victrola).

Which was how Captain Bartlett, twenty-one men, an Inuit woman and her two small daughters, twenty-nine dogs, and one pet cat found themselves shipwrecked in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, hundreds of miles from land…

Over the years, many tributes have been paid to Captain Bartlett (one of my biggest heroes) and his comrades, but this year is particularly special– it is the 100th anniversary of the Karluk expedition.

In honor of these 100 years, articles are being written and documentaries are being filmed. The Canadian Mint has released two commemorative collector’s items– a fine silver dollar and a 14 K gold coin. I’ve also been invited to return to the Arctic and Wrangel Island in August 2014 as part of the 100th anniversary of the rescue.

Each week, I’ll post something here relating to that expedition– a rare photograph, a letter or diary excerpt written by one of the scientists or crewmen who sailed aboard the Karluk, a clip of the rescue footage, a behind-the-scenes story about writing the book.

Though called a hero in his lifetime, Captain Bartlett would most likely be surprised by such tributes all these years later. As he once observed, “The truth was I could not stop myself in pursuit of adventure. I was committed to the Arctic. I’d got the poison in my veins.”

September 25, 2012

Happy Birthday, Becoming Clementine!

Becoming Clementine is out today, and it’s a strange feeling. Truman Capote once said, “Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.” As horrific as that image is, I understand what he means. For months and months, I’ve researched and outlined and written and edited. I’ve lived and breathed and slept this book. And now it’s out there, beyond my reach, making its way around the world into the hands of strangers.

The first time I ever saw one of my books on a bookstore shelf– The Ice Master at Brentano’s in Century City, California– I wanted to scoop up every copy and race back home. As I was standing there, thinking this, a man walked over and picked up the book, read the inside flap, thumbed through the pages, and then set it down again. Suddenly, I stopped wanting to run away with the books. Instead I wanted to grab that man and drag him back over and make him buy it. How dare he put it down!

Five books later, the experience really doesn’t get any easier.

So: deep breath.

Welcome, little book.

Be safe.

Be well.

Be still my nerves.

Please order and like and spread the word!

March 19, 2012

When Nonfiction is Fiction

As I’m researching Velva Jean’s Hollywood story, I am reading through book after book written by or about movie stars and movie moguls from the 1940s. I’m reading about the studio system, the star machine, the inner workings of the movie musical, every bit of Hollywood and Los Angeles history, and the studios themselves. In all these many, varied books one thing stands out– very few are well researched, well resourced, and well documented, and the majority of them take great liberties in reporting fact.

The one I’m reading now, for instance, is a book about Clark Gable and all his women (written by a woman who never knew Gable or the women in question). The author quotes pages of dialogue supposedly spoken between Clark Gable and his various wives and mistresses, yet she doesn’t list any notes or sources. Perhaps she was there for every single one of these private, often intimate, conversations, hiding behind a curtain or underneath a bed or lurking in the shadows while Gable and Carole Lombard or Gable and Joan Crawford or Gable and his first wife, Josephine Dillon, were deep in discussion, but somehow I don’t think so. This woman has written other books on Hollywood stars of yesteryear, just as sloppily reported and shoddily researched, but she isn’t the only one. She is just one of– unfortunately– many nonfiction “writers” who bend and fluff and spice up the truth to suit the story. She is just one of many authors who rely on hearsay, rumor, legend, and unreliable secondhand resources– magazines, newspapers, other books– and then fails to document where she got most of her information. I have approximately 133 books on my Hollywood shelf, and I would estimate that only 15 of these have the right to be called nonfiction.

Hollywood-related books are not the only ones guilty of this. There are plenty of other books on plenty of other subjects– from literary biography to World War II to Appalachia to Anne Boleyn– that are filled with conjecture and theory, without actually calling it conjecture and theory, but instead putting it out there as hard fact. Which is especially unfortunate when the subject or subjects being written about are no longer here and able to speak up for themselves.

I look at writing nonfiction as a privilege, one that needs to be respected. As a writer of nonfiction, you are, after all, dealing with real people and real lives and real events. Even in my historical fiction, I try to keep the nonfiction mindset of researching my subject thoroughly and staying as historically accurate as possible, shaping my character to fit history as much as I can, rather than shaping history to fit my character. I write both fiction and nonfiction, and one reason I do so is because fiction is where I can make things up. Nonfiction is where I do my best to retell a story. It is also where I provide pages and pages of endnotes to back up my telling of that story, one of my least favorite aspects of writing. But also a very necessary one.

Because I’m such a meticulous, unrelenting, passionate stickler for fact (my mother, who almost strictly writes nonfiction, is the same), I hate it when writers repeat or pass off as truth unsubstantiated “facts” or “blur” the edges for dramatic effect. I also hate it when people ask me, “So your first two books are nonfiction– how much of what you wrote in there is true?” The answer: all of it.

If I didn’t know something, I left it out. If it didn’t happen, I didn’t pretend it did. After all, truth is stranger and more dramatic than fiction. Why embellish?

Although I certainly formed opinions about the people I was writing about in The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack— especially controversial expedition leader Vilhjalmur Stefansson– I worked hard not to color the prose with my opinions. Who cares what I think? That’s what author interviews are for. Besides, I wasn’t on those expeditions. Even if I feel justified in expressing an opinion about Stefansson or his methods or this person or that one, the simple fact is: I wasn’t there. Instead, I let the men and women of the expeditions speak for themselves, through the material found in letters and diaries and other firsthand materials from the time.

(Speaking of speaking for themselves, in The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack, as well as in my memoir, The Aqua Net Diaries, the only dialogue that appears is quoted from actual resources. While I would have loved to add additional exciting pages of dialogue to the book, I would have had to call it a novel.)

To me, the saddest thing about that question I’m often asked is this: if a book purports to be nonfiction, why do we, as readers, naturally assume part of it must be untrue? Perhaps because so many– too many– writers take liberty with fact. And the danger there is that by doing so, the real story, the true story of the men and women and children involved, becomes lost.

As a writer, isn’t it my responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen?

January 24, 2012

Behind the Book — Naming a Book

Book titles are tricky. Sometimes they come to you naturally and easily and sometimes (most of the time) they’re more evasive. John Steinbeck said, “I have never been a title man. I don’t give a damn what it is called.” But I do. I think titles are important.

Tennessee Williams said, “The title comes last.” This has, for the most part, been my experience. I spent two years researching and writing The Ice Master before choosing the title, which was suggested by my mother. After my editor and I settled on The Ice Master, we came up with a subtitle: “The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk and the Miraculous Rescue of Her Survivors,” which became simply “The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk” because my editor felt the former was too wordy and gave too much away.

I went through at least fifty titles for my memoir about high school (including the uninspired High School and the more inspired Riding in Trans-Ams with Boys) before my editor– during our brainstorm of 1980’s-related words and phenomena– came up with The Aqua Net Diaries.

In the case of my first novel, Penguin originally wanted to change the name Velva Jean Learns to Drive so that it wouldn’t be confused with a children’s book or a young adult book, but I stood firm and convinced them otherwise. When it came time to choose a title for Velva Jean Learns to Fly, Penguin wanted to change the name to something that could stand alone and didn’t mention Velva Jean (the sales and marketing teams have very good and convincing reasons for this). But I wanted Velva Jean Learns to Fly, and I fought for it.

With this third novel in the Velva Jean series, sales and marketing have again stated their case– more emphatically this time– about leaving Velva Jean out of the title. After all, they argue, she’ll be mentioned in the jacket copy and also on the front cover (which will say: “Author of Velva Jean Learns to Drive“). The few readers I’ve mentioned this to have reacted almost violently– they want Velva Jean’s name in there! I understand this because part of me does to. I like the symmetry of Velva Jean Learns to… But this third time around, I’m ready for a change.

Maybe it’s because I don’t want potential readers to pick up the book and think, “Oh, it’s some series about some girl named Velva Jean, and I haven’t read the first two so I can’t start with this one,” or maybe it’s because I’m, every now and again, feeling the itch to move beyond Velva Jean into new characters and new settings, or maybe it’s because of the nature of this third book– it’s a darker, broader, more epic tale, full of adventure, danger, intrigue, and action (and a grown-up love story!). Or maybe it’s because sales and marketing make a really good case. Whatever the reason, I feel ready for a new title.

The challenge about revealing said title is that, until you read the book, it’s going to be hard to really get its meaning and impact. But then, aren’t so many good titles like that?

E.L. Doctorow said, “You’ll find a title and it’ll have a certain excitement for you; it will evoke the book, it will push you along. Eventually, you will use it up and you will have to choose another title. When you find the one that doesn’t get used up, that’s the title you go with.”

That’s how I feel about this new one. I had a couple of other titles for it at first, but I wore those out. Then my editor suggested one– what ultimately became the final one– and I wasn’t sure at first. I mulled it over, I tried to think of others, I tried living with this one or that one for a day or two. But I kept coming back to the one she suggested. And now I like it. I really do.

So what is the final title for Velva Jean #3? You’ll have to tune in here tomorrow for the reveal…