Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Elmore Leonard's Rules for Good Writing

I found this wonderful advice in an article in the Guardian (read the whole piece here:http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/20/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-part-one). I found the article via a link from my favorite time-wasting website, www.aldaily.com. Favorite next to Facebook, that is.

Here are Elmore Leonard's ten rules of writing. They are great rules, I think, and the rules, like all of Mr. Leonard's fiction, are so well written. Of course, I was raised to break rules, but it's good to know them before you do!

1 Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a charac?ter's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look?ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2 Avoid prologues: they can be ?annoying, especially a prologue ?following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, but it's OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks."

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. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

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. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs".

5 Keep your exclamation points ?under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6 Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose". This rule doesn't require an explanation. 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 apos?trophes, you won't be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants", what do the "Ameri?can and the girl with him" look like? "She had taken off her hat and put it on the table." That's the only reference to a physical description in the story.

9 Don't go into great detail describing places and things, unless you're ?Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

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.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

(Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing will be published this month by Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Friday, June 25, 2010

Super Short Fiction

I wrote this piece a few months ago for an NPR contest. The piece had to be short enough to be read in three minutes or less, and it had to start with the first sentence you see below. I think my longer fiction is more plot driven, but my short stories - super short or regular short - tend to be more atmospheric and quiet. Or maybe my characters are more messed up. I think I need to learn how to jazz them up without losing the feeling of negative space I like to create.
Thanks for reading. I hope it goes without saying, but comments and criticisms are very welcome!


The nurse left work at five o’clock. As he had every day for the last five, Henry Middleton watched her walk down the school steps and across the parking lot to her car, an old, banana yellow Toyota Celica. Henry was the new principal at Red Rock Middle School. Celine had been the nurse at Red Rock for the past ten years. On his tour the first day, his assistant principal, Veronica White, told him Celine was trouble and that the parents didn’t like her. She didn’t mind her own business and she overstepped her boundaries, they said. But Henry liked what he saw of Celine as they passed the nurse’s office that first day:

“There, there, Jesse,” she cooed as she mopped the blood running down his shin.
“I want my mommy,” the boy wailed.
“Your mommy’s working sweetie. She’ll be there when you get home, but now, you have to be a little man and take one for the team.”
“What team?” Jesse was still crying, so his words came out in a wet, breathy stutter.
“The team you and your mother and your little sister make. A family is like a team. One little skinned knee isn’t enough to make your mother take time off work. You’ll be fine. I’ll be your temporary mommy until you feel better.”
Jesse sniffed and let Celine tend to his cut.

Every school Henry had ever worked at was divided between those who sided with the principal and those who didn’t. Henry hoped he could make an ally of Celine, without causing trouble with Veronica, who he was realizing he didn’t like very much. He actually hoped for a lot more, but he didn’t dare focus on that. Not now anyway, he had to get home. Friday night bridge was sacred, and Henry’s role as chauffer and general chap in waiting to his aging mother was the main reason he moved to Phoenix.

So Henry slipped the file he was reading into his briefcase and snapped it shut. Then he put his forehead briefly on the smooth black leather to gather strength from its coolness. The air conditioning hadn’t worked right since he got here. He lifted his head and then his body out of the chair with what felt like the biggest effort of his life. He wanted to stay there until Monday morning when Celine came to work at 8 o’clock. Instead, and it seemed lately that every thing he did felt like it was instead of something he really wanted to do, he grabbed his jacket from the back of the door and headed to his car.

Stepping into the bleaching sunlight, Henry could see that Celine was squatting next to her front passenger tire. He walked over.
“It’s flat,” she said as he approached.
“I see that. May I call someone for you?”
“Who, a magic fairy?”
“No, um well, AAA or a towtruck?”
“Mr. Principal, I can manage just fine. I have a jack and a spare tire and a strong back. Thank you for stopping, though.”
Celine went to her truck and popped it open. Henry stood there, irritated, embarrassed and excited all at once. He’d been dismissed, but he was actually talking to her and he was not going to give up.
“Mind if I watch, then? I could use a refresher course on changing a tire.” He smiled and sat on his briefcase.
“Celine lowered the trunk and looked at Henry. “Mr. Principal..”
“Call me Henry.”
“Henry,” she paused, “I think this year will be fun.”

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Collage has always been my medium of choice if I have to create a piece of visual art. Mostly because I cannot draw worth a lick.
A few months ago, when I was having trouble getting my head around my main character in my novel, I decided to make her a collage. I used bits and pieces from the covers of old New Yorker magazines. It really helped, and here is the result:

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Writing Advice

A few days ago, I ran into a supposed quotation from Franz Kafka: "If you introduce a shark in the first chapter, it has to eat someone by the end of the book." After a wonderful time-wasting search of the web, I could find no evidence Kafka said that. I don't really see him talking about sharks anyway. Cockroaches, yes. Sharks, no. But apparently Anton Checkov gave a piece of writing advice that was similar: "One must not put a loaded rifle on stage if no one is thinking of firing it."

Since I am in the editing stage of my manuscript, it is a nice adage to keep in mind in my effort to pare down the excesses that naturally flow in the first draft, at least for me.

Speaking of guns, I wrote a short story two years ago that introduces a gun on the first page. It's called "Fallout Shelter." Here are the first few paragraphs:

If I were taller, it might have worked. I knew the head and the heart were the only acceptable targets, but my arms just weren’t long enough to point the barrel squarely at either one and still be able to reach the trigger. I thought about sawing off the barrel, but not for long. I’m not even sure we have a saw. I guess I could have tried harder to jury-rig a set up. My one effort was to sit on the floor and put my right big toe on the trigger, aiming and steadying the barrel with my knees and hands. It was a disaster. The barrel was pointing at my left shoulder. I tried to nudge it closer to my chest which made the gun slip out of my awkward embrace. As we toppled, it or I knocked the lamp and the thrash can over and ripped off part of my toenail. Our fat tabby cat screeched and ran for her life from the noise.
I don’t care what people say, suicide is not the easy way out. Even attempted suicide is damn hard. If it wasn’t going to be easy, I wasn’t going to do it. That realization made me laugh, since refusing to take the easy path is what got me here. But I gave up on the idea of suicide anyway.
I put the gun down lengthwise on the desk. It served nicely as a giant paperweight, even though it teetered a little. My desk was cluttered with files and papers that came home with me when I was fired last week. The mounded white pile looked like frosting, and transforming my walnut desk into a chocolate cupcake. The bay window was open letting in a breeze that stirred the leaves of the ficus and would have made hay with the papers but for the gun. I pondered the photos along the back edge of my desk. They were the same as those that graced offices everywhere, except now in duplicate. Two photos of me and Mary, Mary and the kids, and each child separately.
“I’m sorry, Mary,” I said, scanning all the images of her before settling on the driftwood framed photo of us on the beach in Maine. It was taken five years ago, I think. That was the last time we took a vacation together. Not for lack of money or time, but rather lack of desire. Neither of us seemed to want a break from the safe routine of life, until now. “But I did what I had to do.”
Mary and I bought this gun soon after we moved into our first house a whole lifetime ago.