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 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

March 13, 2013

Deadfalling, tiger-trapping, and exploring your attic: Ray Bradbury’s 8 rules for writers

Growing up, one of my favorite writers was Ray Bradbury. He was the primary influence on my teenage writing. He taught me the importance of a terrific first line, and an even stronger last line. He taught me the importance of writing clear, strong sentences that cut to the heart of the matter– no excess, no fat. During my years on my Indiana high school speech team, the story I competed and won with most frequently was “The October Game,” his chilling short tale about a husband, a wife, a daughter, and a deadly Halloween party.

His fiction spanned genres– horror, fantasy, science fiction, mystery. The book I love most is his collected short stories, but in Zen in the Art of Writing, he writes about writing. Because I’m often asked to share my own rules on writing, I thought this time I would share some inspiration from someone I find inspiring:

1. Write with gusto. “[If] you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping your eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is — excited.”

2. In quickness is truth. “The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling and tiger-trapping.” In other words, just get it down.

3. Write who you are. We’ve all heard “write what you know.” But this can be limiting. Ray Bradbury believed in writing what you know but also writing what you can imagine. “Do not, for the vanity of intellectual publications, turn away from what you are — the material within you that makes you individual, and therefore indispensable to others.”

4. Don’t write for money or fame. “If only we could remember that fame and money are gifts given us only after we have gifted the world with our best, our lonely, our individual truths.”

5. Feed the muse daily. “By living well, by observing as you live, by reading and observing as you read, you have fed your most original self. By training in writing, by repetitious exercise, imitation, good example, you have made a clean, well-lighted place to keep the Muse. You have given her, him, it, or whatever, room to turn around in. And through training, you have relaxed yourself enough not to stare discourteously when inspiration comes into the room.”

6. Don’t be afraid to explore the attic. It was Ray Bradbury’s belief that we each hide a “dark attic” in our minds– one we may be too frightened to face, but which harbors the most valuable, exciting material. According to him, we cannot, should not be afraid of it. “Alert the secret self, taste the darkness. Your own Thing stands waiting ‘way up there’ in the attic shadows. If you speak softly, and write any old word that wants to jump out of your nerves onto the page… Your Thing at the top of your stairs in your own private night… may well come down.”

7. Surprise yourself. In fiction, it’s important to have an idea where your story is headed, but you also need to be open to where it wants to go, and where it will lead you. “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact, not before.”

8. Do the work you were born to do — and no one else’s. Bradbury believed we all have a creative purpose. As my mother often tells me, only you can write the book you were meant to write. Give five people the same subject matter, and each will write a different and unique story. It’s important to be who you are and recognize that your voice is original. In his poem “What I Do Is Me, For That I Came,” Bradbury writes: “Be not another. Be the self I signed you in your blood… I leave you gifts of Fate most secret; find no other’s Fate, For if you do, no grave is deep enough for your despair, No country far enough to hide your loss.”

(Thanks to David McMillan for the inspiration.)

February 7, 2012

Behind the Book — Writing Advice from My Uncle Bill

My mother, Penelope Niven, and I are both writers, and because of this my family often participates in our author events, traveling with us on tour (when possible) and purchasing multiple copies of our books to give to everyone they know. When my grandmother Eleanor was alive, she would call up bookstores in the greater Charlotte, North Carolina, area and ask if they carried the latest books by Mom or me. If they didn’t, she would say, “Well you should!” and hang up.

While most of my family members, wonderful as they are, don’t understand the actual day-to-day process of writing a book, they are our greatest and most enthusiastic fans.

My mom’s brother, Bill, however, seems to get it. Bill isn’t a writer, but he is creative. He is brilliant, possessing a wonderful kind of downhome, folksy wisdom. He’s tall and rambling—and, at 65, is the same big-hearted country boy who, at least once a week, used to “find” stray animals in the bushes outside the house where he and my mother and their two sisters grew up. He has a North Carolina accent a mile wide.

Historically, Mom writes very long books. Her biography of Carl Sandburg, the definitive work on his life, is 843 pages and her biography of Edward Steichen, the definitive work on his life, runs 808. Her upcoming, hugely anticipated biography of Thornton Wilder, due out in October from HarperCollins, is 836 pages. (Voices and Silences, the book she wrote with James Earl Jones, is a mere 394 pages.)

As I am in the thick of edits/copy edits of my upcoming novel, Becoming Clementine (from Plume this fall!), and as I prepare to return to the researching and outlining of the novel that will follow it (title still to be determined), I keep Uncle Bill’s Advice on Writing nearby, along with a picture of his daddy, my granddaddy, who also had wise things to say about the writing process, namely: deadlines are really lifelines and, when editing, you can almost always lose the last sentence of every paragraph.

While most of Bill’s comments originated with my mother’s work, they are certainly relatable to my own, especially as I am faced with editing and cutting and trimming down the length of Becoming Clementine, and trying to think of alternate ways to say “like,” “said,” and “just,” all of which I tend to overuse.

Uncle Bill’s Advice on Writing

1. A book should not be so long and big and thick that it has to be hauled around in a wheelbarrow.

(Case in point, each first draft of each Velva Jean book has been cut down drastically, and my first draft for The Ice Master was 813 pages long. In the end, I cut 300 of those pages before it ever went to print.)

2. You have to remember that there were parts of Carl Sandburg’s life that were boring even to Carl Sandburg.

(Or Velva Jean’s life, or Ada Blackjack’s life, or ice master Robert Bartlett’s life, or my own life, goodness knows, as told in my high school memoir, The Aqua Net Diaries. In other words, you don’t need to relay everything that ever happened to your character/subject. Pick and choose the moments to write about.)

3. If you are bored writing something, people will most likely be bored reading it.

(I remember this every time I conduct research or write a new scene and find my attention wandering off in the middle of it, or, most recently, when I reread Becoming Clementine and feel the slightest bit restless.)

4. It must be easier to write short than to write long.

(Even as I’m stripping out words or lines or paragraphs or whole chapters of Clementine, I’m thinking to myself: Why didn’t I just leave these things out the first time around? The answer, for me at least, is that even when I remove sections of a manuscript, I know the material was once there. I think writing long to end up writing short helps the book seem deeper and more layered, even if you’re the only one who knows what’s missing.)

5. A lot of people seem to think that just because they can write the alphabet they can write books. From what I’ve seen of your work, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

(It is, truly, but it’s surprising how many people don’t realize it and how astute—I would even say profound—this observation is. I work all the time. ALL the time. Yet one of the things I hear most often from well meaning people is: “I’ve always thought I would be a writer if only I had the spare time,” as if we are talking about Canasta or kite flying or crossword puzzles. My mother hears this frequently too, and once, at a party, she heard it from a prominent brain surgeon. When he said, “I’ve always thought I would write a book if only I had the time,” she replied, “That is so funny. I’ve always thought I would practice brain surgery if only I had the time!”)

6. I remember the little girl who looked at one of your mom’s books and said, “Wow! I didn’t know anybody knew that many words.” And your mom said, “It’s not so many. I used a lot of them more than once.” Still it must be hard to keep track of them so you don’t repeat words too often and get on your reader’s nerves.

(It is hard to keep track of them, particularly when you write two nonfiction books about Arctic expeditions and have to describe ice again and again. This is one reason Mom and I love to read the dictionary because even when you use a lot of words, there are still so many to learn.)

January 16, 2012

Behind the Book — How to Quilt a Story

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , — jennifer @ 6:33 pm

A well meaning interviewer once said to me, “It must be wonderful to have endless, uninterrupted hours to just write and write.”

I replied, “It must be. I hope to experience it sometime.”

Today is one of those days that drives a writer (or any person) crazy. Every time I start on a task, something else comes along to take me out of it. Mondays are always busy days, even on holidays when so many folks aren’t at their desks (have I ever mentioned how much I love working on holidays when the phone and email are completely quiet?). I know on Mondays to expect at least a certain amount of distraction, and I know most of my Monday morning will be given over to the housekeeping of writing– the emails and phone calls and sorting through files or correspondence, things that need addressing or scheduling or paying, etc.

Every time I’ve turned back to the book today (the one I’m still trying to research and outline and figure out), after being pulled away from it, I have been immediately yanked away from it once again. At this stage in the book, this isn’t nearly as nerve-inducing (i.e. insanity-making) as it can be in, say, the heavy writing or editing phases. But it’s still frustrating. And exhausting. This kind of day is far more tiring than a day in which I write 30 or more pages.

Isaac Asimov once said, “Thinking is the activity I love best, and writing to me is simply thinking through my fingers. I can write up to 18 hours a day. Typing 90 words a minute, I’ve done better than 50 pages a day. Nothing interferes with my concentration. You could put an orgy in my office and I wouldn’t look up– well, maybe once.”

This is exactly the sort of writer I am– my literary agent has called me, in a fond and somewhat amused way, “obsessive” on more than one occasion– except that emails and phone calls, etc., can sometimes be more distracting than orgies (I can only assume).

My mother calls it the Patchwork Quilt method of writing: because life is busy and unpredictable, and because it’s not always (try almost never) possible to enjoy long, uninterrupted hours of writing, you have to grab moments when you can. You learn to write between things, during things, in spite of things. Not just in spite of or in between emails and phone calls, but often in spite of or in between health worries, divorce, moving, the loss of loved ones. You take the leftover scraps of time and you work on one square here, another square there, till eventually you have an entire book, woven together, piece by piece by piece.

So that is what I’m doing today: quilting. And hoping that tomorrow, or at least a portion of it, won’t be quite so interrupted.