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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 15, 2013

The steps of writing a book

My cousin’s twelve-year-old daughter loves to write (and is already a wonderful writer).  For the past three years, Elizabeth and my author mother have had their own long distance writers group.  My mom is one of the wisest people I know, and I’m lucky to have her as my mentor.  Here is a recent exchange between Mom and Elizabeth that I thought might be helpful to writers of all ages.

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Hi Aunt Penny,

I have been wanting to write lately, but I don’t know what to write about. I was wondering if you could tell me the steps you go through when you write a book.

Thanks, Elizabeth

 

Dear Elizabeth:  I’m so glad to hear from you, and I am happy that you have been wanting to write lately.  Sometimes the hardest part of writing is deciding what to write about.

The first step I go through when I write a book is choosing what to write about. I try to listen to my head and my heart.  I need to know what I THINK about a subject, and what I FEEL about it.  If I’m not excited about writing about my subject, chances are good that readers won’t be excited about reading about it.

When I am deciding what to write about, I think about these two things:
Writing about what I already know a lot about.
Writing about what I don’t know much about yet.

I believe you already know a lot about your family; your pets; dancing; snowy winters; writing, especially detective stories; other activities you enjoy; your feelings about having a brother and a sister; your feelings about different teachers you have had; your feelings about growing up– and lots more things.  I think readers your age and grown-up readers will be very interested in reading what you write about any of these things.

I’ve written five books about people.  I didn’t know much at all about Carl Sandburg or James Earl Jones or Edward Steichen or Thornton Wilder when I started writing about them– but I did lots of research and learned more and more.  It was an adventure to learn about them and then to write about them.  Is there a person or a place or an event or an invention or a discovery that you’d like to know more about?  If you are excited about something, you can be a detective and learn as much about that subject as you can, and write about it.

As you probably already know, you have to be excited about what you are writing if you are going to do your best writing.

Your cousin Jennifer is a writer, and she says she loves to write books that she would like to read.

I suggest that you make a list of things you’d like to write about or stories you’d like to tell.  Set a timer and see how many ideas you can put on your list in 5 minutes.  Take 10 minutes if you want to.  Maybe something will pop out on that list that gets you excited to write about it.

I enjoyed your detective/spy stories so very much.  Maybe you’ll use the same character, or invent a new character, and write another one of those.  Maybe you’ll try writing poems.

You are already a wonderful writer, Elizabeth, and you have lots to say and lots to tell.  You have a great imagination and an excellent vocabulary.  Most writers have times when they don’t know what to write.  Just listen to your mind and your imagination and your  heart, and you will find what you want to write.

Lots and lots of love– Aunt Penny

June 4, 2013

The book that nearly killed me (and my loyal literary cat Lulu)

TiredMe

On Saturday, I sent American Blonde off to New York and my editor.  From February till June 1, I conceptualized, outlined, researched, wrote, and edited 753 pages, which became the 525 pages I emailed on Saturday.  I’ve had to write most of the Velva Jean books quickly– Velva Jean Learns to Fly and Becoming Clementine each were completed in about nine months– but this is the fastest I’ve ever written a book.  (Even though most of the time I was working on it, I felt as if I’d been writing it my whole life and would always write it and that it would never end.  Ever.)

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  I handed in the original version of American Blonde last September.  But by the time I received my editor’s notes on the manuscript months later, I’d decided that the book needed to be rewritten from page 15 on.  Not just tweaked or edited, but COMPLETELY REWRITTEN, as in an entirely new plot, new characters, new everything.  This wasn’t something my editor requested, but I knew in my writerly bones what the story needed to be.  And it wasn’t.  So I wrote it.  Again.  Only in less time!

I went through more upheaval while working on this project than I did with any of the others.  To name just two of the upheavaliest… There were the recurrent eye problems from sitting at the computer every single day since February 1.  These last few weeks, I often had to type with my eyes closed because it hurt too much to keep them open.  Ahhh… And in March, my wondrous literary agent of fifteen years went missing, only to turn up in the hospital, where he died April 27 very unexpectedly.  I’d been with John Ware since the beginning, and suddenly, in the midst of the hardest work I’ve ever done, I found myself without my creative champion, mentor, and dear friend.  (During the roughest deadlines, John would call me just to tell me a joke or leave an old, scratchy blues tune on my voicemail.  “Onward, kid,” he would say.)

TiredLulu

So when I crossed that long-dreamed-of finish line this weekend, the only sad moment was realizing all over again that John isn’t here to read the book.

But my eyes have slowly but steadily started to clear a little, and my mind is beginning to relax a little (as much as it ever does), and I am damn happy with the state the manuscript is in. (Lulu, incidentally, is exhausted. She has been sleeping nearly non-stop since Saturday, and this is a cat who rarely ever ever sleeps.)

As my mother says, You write it anyway and in spite of and because you have to (on so many levels).  And as someone tells Velva Jean in American Blonde:  “You have to be willing to work.  Just when you think you’re giving your all, know that you can go past that and give more.  You can always give more.  Don’t give up.  Don’t just rely on what you know you can do.  Think of what you hope you can do and then do it.”

Here’s a very tiny (and I mean seconds-tiny) movie that captures how it feels to have this book– for the time being– off my desk:

THIS JUST IN:  My editor has sent that manuscript back to me, asking me to trim 19,000 words before she reads.  And so, it seems, I spoke too soon…

May 2, 2013

Crime lab field trip

I love research that takes you places. Because there are some forensic elements to the next book, American Blonde, I’ve been studying up on all things crime-related.  Imagine how excited I was when I discovered LAVA and their monthly crime lab workshops held at L.A.’s impressive regional crime laboratory, on the campus of Cal State LA.

Professor Donald Johnson and investigator/author/educator Nick Guskos led the lectures and hands-on lab work (we worked with knives and blood!), and we got the lowdown on everything from reconstructing the crime to determining time of death to crime scene photographs to criminal profiling.  One woman fainted in her chair during the first lecture, but I found it fascinating.

Look how happy I am!

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April 20, 2013

Things I couldn’t write without

As many of you know, I’m currently doing a very fast, very intense, very daunting, and very complete rewrite of the fourth Velva Jean novel, American Blonde (due out next year).

In this last stretch of the Book from Hell, as I’ve taken to calling it– otherwise known as That Damn Book– I’m making a list of the things that are helping me get to the end of the Worst Deadline I’ve Ever Known.

(Not including my computer and my imagination, of course. And my loved ones, who, I hope, will still love me once the book is completed.)

Thank you to:

  • My readers, who write me the most wonderful notes and emails, reminding me why I’m doing this in the first place
  • Robeks, which gives my weary brain sustenance
  • Scrivener, the greatest software for writers ever
  • My early morning walk/workout/girltime in the park with my friend Lisa Brucker (please watch her show, Ex-Wives of Rock!)
  • John Green, Melvin Burgess, and Raymond Chandler
  • Google
  • My fab intern, Laura Burdine, who, at lightning speed, can research everything from wire tapping in the 1940s to the Los Angeles streetcar system circa 1946 to the U.S. postal system in postwar America (not to mention her ability to help one brainstorm love triangles and ways in which to solve a murder)
  • The CW, Switched at Birth, and Adam-12, for good, fluffy fun
  • Newspaperarchive.com
  • My literary cats (a special shout out to Miss Lulu for being at my side throughout each long work day)
  • My copy of MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot, which I’ve practically worn to dust
  • My team of experts– private investigator, medical examiner, and toxicologist– who are patiently answering my endless questions
  • Daryl Dixon, the most inspiring badass I know (or wish I knew), and my hero (as well as pretend boyfriend)
  • Lululemon, maker of the most comfortable writing clothes on the planet
  • Briana Harley, who not only helps me with Velva Jean’s music, but is the very best resource for Velva Jean idea bouncing–  after all, she knows Velva Jean almost as well as I do
  • My bosu ball and elliptical machine, which are productive places to have a good book think
  • Netflix, which, without complaining, delivers 1940s-era movies to my door or directly to my TV
  • The Los Angeles Public Library
  • And Ryan Bingham, who is Butch Dawkins

I couldn’t do it without them.

Speaking of Ryan Bingham, here’s a video that I use for inspiration. It really could be Velva Jean’s friend Butch sitting on her granddaddy’s porch.

October 13, 2012

Stick It

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , , — phoebe @ 12:00 pm

Reading, writing or researching, I am always sure to have sticky notes and a pen next to me. However I had never thought about how sticky notes came about. I found the research of such a seemingly simple object, to be quite fascinating.

First invented in 1968 by a chemist, they were unsuccessful because of their low adhesiveness. Years later in 1977 a colleague of his sold them under the name of ‘Press and Peel’. At this point they were still ineffective, however after a redesign, three years later they were launched as ‘Post it notes’. Yellow was accidentally used as the color, as the lab next to the Post it team had scraps of yellow paper. Today they are used in areas from art through to the virtual world.

Having progressed since the original yellow square, here are some unique sticky notes that can be found today.

 

September 12, 2012

iLiterature

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , — phoebe @ 12:50 am

In the midst of Apple’s reveal today here is a list of the best writing and reading apps for your iPhones and iPads.

1. 3D Classic Literature Collection –  World’s first 3D book flipping held in your hands.

2. Collected Works – Classic literary pieces, from Alice in Wonderland to War and Peace, available right from your iPhone

3. Evernote – Organise notes, and basically anything else. Available on and offline and syncs between all your devices. Great for college students!

4. British Library 19th Century Collection – 100 free available titles.

5. Red Laser Barcode Scanner – Scan a barcode of a book and find the closest library, purchase online, or near by store.

6. iBooks, Kindle and Nook App – For reading on the go!

7. ElectricLit – A quarterly release of some of the best writers and their short stories.

8. Wattpad – The Youtube for readers and writers. Share and discover stories.

 

March 14, 2012

Telling a Book Goodbye

There’s a very strange something that happens when you finish a book. Call it Writer’s Postpartum, but it is a kind of mourning/grieving/losing-your-best-friend/wandering-about-the-house-without-a-purpose feeling. It’s the feeling that something is missing, that something is not quite right, as if you’ve suddenly woken up to find yourself very far from home. When I’m done with a book, I always feel a bit like Miss Havisham– lost and sad and rambling about in the ruins of her mansion.

Because there are so many stages of a book, the postpartum can come at many different times, the worst of it being just after you turn a book in. For months, you’ve been rushing, rushing, rushing, and pushing yourself beyond all mental/emotional/physical limits to finish it, and then– just like that– it’s gone and on your editor’s desk, and it doesn’t matter if you have another book lined up right afterward, waiting to be researched, outlined, written. You still have that overwhelming feeling of loss.

On Friday, I Fedexed the first pass loose galleys of Becoming Clementine to my editor at Penguin which, in English, means that I’m essentially done making changes to the book. I will see the manuscript one more time– for what is called the second pass– but that will basically be to proof for typos. All major changes are now completed. Now, on the one hand I’m thrilled not to have to read the book again with the kind of intensity you have to give it when making edits, large and small. And there is another book to be written before September, after all, so I do need to be concentrating on that. But those postpartum feelings still crop up.

I’m not the only writer to experience them. Some of my favorite quotes on the subject:

“The book dies a real death for me when I write the last word. I have a little sorrow and then go on to a new book which is alive. The rows of my books on the shelf are to me like very well embalmed corpses. They are neither alive nor mine. I have no sorrow for them because I have forgotten them, forgotten in its truest sense.” — John Steinbeck

“I usually have a sense of clinical fatigue after finishing a book.” — John Cheever

“Writing a book is like a purge; at the end of it one is empty… like a dry shell on the beach, waiting for the tide to come in again.” — Daphne du Maurier

“When a book is done, he has his own life and you forget about him. He goes and lives alone; he takes an apartment.” — Oriana Fallaci

“I scarcely look with full satisfaction upon any (of my books); for they do not seem what they might have been. I often wish that I could have twenty years more, to take them down from the shelf one by one, and write them over.” — Washington Irving

January 19, 2012

Behind the Book — What it (Sometimes) Looks Like to Write a Book

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , , — jennifer @ 3:10 pm

To be honest, if I’m going for pure historical accuracy, most days I’m working like twelve dogs pulling the Iditarod, racing against the clock to get everything done. But, even so, there are those other days– the darker ones– when the ideas don’t seem to come no matter how long you sit at your desk. Let’s just say that some writing days are better than others…

What it (Sometimes) Looks Like to Write a Book from Jennifer Niven on Vimeo.

January 17, 2012

Behind the Book — Tangents

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , , — jennifer @ 7:37 pm

I have always wanted to be a private detective, ever since the days I collected Charlie’s Angels cards and pretended to be Kelly Garrett on the playground of Westview Elementary School. Once, a few years ago, I even looked into some part-time detecting work, in an attempt to realize that long-ago dream.

In my work as a writer, I do a lot of research. Actually, I get to do a lot of research. This is one of the things I most love about writing. It’s like being Kelly Garrett under cover on a case– on numerous cases– every single day. Set me down in front of the internet or in a library or archive surrounded by books and other materials, and I will lose myself for hours or, depending on the subject I’m dealing with, days.

The only problem is that I will almost always wander off on tangents. This is one of the amazing things about research. There’s so much to learn! Not just about the thing you’re specifically researching but about everything!

Today was a research day. Unlike yesterday, which was creatively frustrating, today was one of those days when I completely lost track of time and all sense of place and just disappeared into my story. For a while I stayed admirably on point and then, inevitably, I diverged. It’s much like going on a road trip and stopping at all the interesting and unexpected places along the route (which, incidentally, is the way I like to go road tripping).

The tangents always start the same way: “I’ll just check on this one thing, and then I’ll go right back to what I was doing…” And that one thing leads to another thing, which leads to another and another, until, before I know it, I’m about fifty or sixty miles (or more) off course.

Some of these tangents can lead to dead ends– they’re just ways to satisfy my curiosity on a random subject I’ve stumbled across. While others actually lead me to information I didn’t expect and didn’t know, but which I end up weaving into my books. These kinds of discoveries can influence and shape the plot and the story, but I just have to know when to get back on the road, back on track, and keep going.

Today I went on a small tangent which led to a a big discovery– an exciting plot addition! A huge plot addition! I always know when I’ve struck gold (as opposed to reaching that dead end) when I don’t want to stop reading about whatever it is or watching some sort of video footage of it or digging deeper and deeper till I uncover every last thing there is to know about it. When I’m this into an idea, it’s amazing how much I can learn about it in such a short time.

I’m dying to share my finds, but that would only spoil the story for you, so instead I’ll share a handful of great resources for the Charlie’s Angel in every writer:

NewspaperARCHIVE.com
National Geographic Map Machine
The Library of Congress
FBI Records
Info Please
Life Magazine
Real Military Videos
The Margaret Herrick Library
The Crime Library