Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules for Writing

New broke this morning of Elmore Leonard's passing, at age 87, after a few weeks recovering from a stroke. I have to admit as someone who's new to the world of crime fiction, I've never read any of his work. I am almost ashamed to admit it, reading all the great stuff people are saying this morning. But I've long known his name, since my dad has been an avid crime reader since long before I was born. Elmore Leonard

And his 10 Rules for Writing sound quite similar to Stephen King's basic guidelines. So much so, I'm thinking he drew a lot of inspiration from them when crafting his own.

I'll pick up some Leonard very soon. In the meantime, I'm enjoying these pithy reminders. (The first one, I'm definitely guilty!)

  1.  Never open a book with weather.
  2.  Avoid prologues.
  3.  Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
  4.  Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
  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."
  7.  Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8.  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9.  Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
  10.  Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

 

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

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

* Excerpted from the New York Times article, “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle”

The Year.

The reality of a twenty-something with a specialized degree, or, how I found wisdom on a sandwich shop wall Vitals: Name: Jessica Edens Age: 25 Education: BA in History, Master’s in Heritage Preservation Occupation: Marketing Administrator for a tech start-up selling business intelligence tools to software vendors

I’m approaching a significant anniversary. Last year, I woke up on August 1 unemployed and with no imminent plans for anything in my life, for the first time ever.  It was not by choice. It was terrifying.

The position I’d been in up to then was contingent upon being a student and, as I’d graduated a few months earlier, I was no longer qualified. Since it was also a federal institution, it was under a strict hiring freeze, and still is today.

experienceI would tell myself, and others would reiterate the thought, that this would be a rare moment of peace in my life. Here I was given this unclear amount of time, days or perhaps weeks, stretching into months, to just do less. I was not bound by a job or a degree program to show up anywhere, and any time.  My response to myself and others when presented with this lovely idea of endless freedom was that it would be a lot easier to enjoy a two-month sabbatical if I, in fact, knew that there was an end-point already comfortably situated out there in The Future. That there would eventually be some kind of plan, and equally important, a source of income.

I had already spent the first half of 2012 submitting my resume and applications to about sixty jobs, scattered in cities and towns across the country, each selected because I fell into the category of “qualified” or “almost qualified, a.k.a. I’ll-give-it-a-shot.” From these six months of work, I got only rejections, or no response at all. Then in July, I finally got one phone interview with a non-profit oral history initiative that would still be my top choice today—dream job kind of territory. (Oral history is one of the best things about my entire field of study.) And I didn’t get that.

Of course, the market is bad, it’s a bad era for non-profits, and the museum and archival field is facing significant budget cuts. They even threatened to shut down the Georgia State Archives entirely, but enough people reminded the legislature that history, um, kind of matters. So one might easily write all this off to bad timing. This was the reason I decided to go straight to graduate school in 2010, as I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history facing the worst job market in a generation. I often question this decision. I do not regret it, but I question whether I really made the best call on that one.

But more than a failure of the job market, it felt like my failure. Here I was, always finishing projects and papers early, leading group presentations, working two jobs, and getting excellent feedback from professors and colleagues in the real world about my work, skills, and potential. I never imagined myself unemployable.

And the fact was, I didn’t have the option anyway. My parents ensured, by selling their home and making plans to work abroad in their retirement, that we would be truly independent young adults. We would not be leaping back into our parents’ home after college, waiting for dream jobs or even kinda-good jobs—the far more realistic ones, as every generation learns—to lay themselves at the doorstep, all the while eating free food and paying no rent.

Life would not stop just because I hadn’t gotten a job, and now it was August 1, and no one had expressed any interest in hiring me.

Oh, except for the slew of insurance sales companies lurking all over Monster.com, waiting for job-hunters with liberal arts degrees. There’s no shortage of openings with them.

But in such a moment of quiet panic, I took a look at my skills. I have always sewed for pleasure, though most bags and garments and home decor projects only seem like a lot of work and at the end, it’s obvious I’m wearing a home-made skirt. Quilting is what I truly love, a flat canvas where you make art with fabric rather than paint. My friend at the neighborhood quilt shop was doing some freelance work for another local quilter and blogger, and I inquired in case she needed some extra help. I completed the binding on at least six of her quilts, all of which are featured in her second book, out this September. I spent some time at my home, with my cats, hand-sewing the binding onto these lovely, inspiring quilts, thankful that my circumstances led me to the pleasant work. It was a crucial bit of income, and I would never have even thought of asking, or of using that part of me, had I not been faced with this blank time. (Plus, now quilts I helped finish are being published in a book, in which I'm listed as a resource - pretty cool.)

In the same time, the months of August and September, I also conducted research for a National Register nomination being completed through Kennesaw State University, and archived and digitized an Atlanta society woman’s collection of personal mementos and photographs from her high school and college careers.

Even with these odd jobs, though, the epoch of NO PLAN was extending far longer than I had even imagined when I woke up August 1. People were telling me to check out job fairs in September and October, and in my head I was saying, “Yeah right, if I don’t have a job by October, I’ll be on the street anyway…”

I went to a job fair in mid-September, which lead to a staffing company, which lead to two contract-based, temporary positions that got me through the next series of months.

Finally, by word of mouth, by the strength of an old Kennesaw connection, I got the job I have now. Not in history or museums or nonprofits or anything remotely related, but as a marketer for a business intelligence software company.

An aside here: It is significant to me that in all my job applications, all the cover letters I’ve written, the jobs I have gotten were the ones I was not required to write anything for. [Read: word of mouth is stronger than any cover letter anyway.] This was true of my current position. It makes me rather sad to know that all the hard work I’ve done in two degrees and all former jobs, everything I list on my resume and say in a cover letter, really has no bearing on anyone; if someone will vouch for me, I’m hired.

Anyway, my work now is not anything I envisioned in any kind of “plan” or idea I may have had in mind. But I am tired. I am tired of the time-consuming act of proving myself again and again to no avail. I’m okay with rejection, believe me. And as a person who’s spent decades writing, I am unabashedly confortable with constructive criticism. It’s not these things that have worn on me. It’s the much larger, sadder thing that wears on me. It’s the adult reality of a regular, non-glamorous job that pays the bills but does not relate to what you studied. I am tired of that searching, so for now, I've mostly stopped doing it.

And I also remember that I’m still using relevant skills everyday. Not to mention, I’m now highly versed in all things ASP.NET and Microsoft, write about programming languages and business tips for software companies, and use Subversion and Notepad++ to edit multiple websites. My technical abilities prove essential every day, and I've learned an enormous number of extra computery skills I never dreamed I would know or care about. (I know all software people are so happy to hear me use the word "computery" to describe skills in their field.)

There’s a sign at the Jimmy John’s sandwich shop near my office that says, “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” Jimmy John’s, a place for more than just a sandwich; now also serving wisdom.

That’s what this year has been. Experience, stacked on uncertainly, smothered with a year’s worth of temporary jobs. Honestly, my favorite thing about my job now is that it doesn’t have an expiration date. I do good work, they keep me around. I’ve heard the line too many times before, at part-time jobs and internships and college positions: “Oh, we’d love to keep you, if we could!” This time, they can.

Last week I interviewed for a wonderful, meaningful position at a suburban, university-affiliated history museum in the area. While doing the intense preparation work for the interview, I couldn’t help but ponder the auspicious time of year, that I could potentially begin this position—if I were to get it—on the very day that I so badly needed a job one year before.

August 1.

It was almost as perfect timing as the oral history job from last year. It would make a tidy end for this story.

But I didn’t get it, and the story isn’t ending here. This wasn’t an anomaly in my life, a year of unexpected trials and many random jobs. It’s life. That is every day. And that is, really, every job, too. But this year, while interviewing for that job, I already had a job, one where my time isn’t up July 31, and so I was not walking into an abyss of uncertainty and disappointment.

And so the first year of this real life stretches into the second, and I march forward, picking up a little more experience with each step.

"For me, the plot is the least intriguing part of a book" - and other thoughts on the process of writing

The first draftWriters want to hear about how other writers do it. It's something a writer can't help but seek, especially if they are feeling like they've been writing utter crap and are having a moment of despair that the project will never be completed -- or worse, we'll get to the end but it's a terrible mess with no hope of becoming anything worth reading, ever. All writers have these moments, at least, I hope and think they do. I have been reading Gillian Flynn's book Gone Girl for my book club this month, and her beautiful character development and intriguing story have me internally weeping over their beauty, and despairing because I feel like what I'm writing is crap comparatively. Though I often remind myself (crucially) that I'm reading final drafts, published works, while what I'm working on is a first draft.

But I still found myself compelled to Google "Gillian Flynn writing technique," just to see if she's ever spilled any information on how she does this thing called writing. And she has. And she has reassured me gloriously with her answer.

Parenthetically, I love this statement below, as I also feel like the most compelling stories are about characters, people, who find themselves caught in circumstances that have gone entirely beyond their control, and how they do or don't get themselves out of it drives the rest of their story. This is true for books and films and television -- I'm a sucker for a good story told in any medium.

[quote cite="Gillian Flynn, How I write" url="http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/11/21/gillian-flynn-how-i-write.html"]

What scares you in a good book? It seems that it takes more to sustain thrills, in this age of film, Internet, and quick-cut editing.

I’m old-fashioned. The stuff I love isn’t about gotcha scares, and gore doesn’t frighten me much either. It’s that sense of dread, and the sense that characters have gotten swept up in a current they can’t control, leading them toward something awful and dark. It’s why I love Scott Smith’s books, and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, and Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby. That sense of inevitable doom.

[/quote]

Yes, yes, yes! This is why I love the flailing, seedy, faltering, despicable Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) in FargoHis descent into events out of his control, but which he triggered, is absolutely brilliant storytelling. Actually, the same can be said of Ed Crane's (Billy Bob Thorton) experience in The Man Who Wasn't There, and The Dude's (Jeff Bridges) inclusion into events beyond his control in The Big Lebowskiand the role every single character plays in the spiraling tale of tragedy and comedy that occurs in Burn After Reading -- a most brilliant tale about a bunch of terrible things that arise from an inconsequential event: John Malcovich's wife forgetting her bag at the gym. (Ok, obviously I have an admiration of the Coen brothers. But they have mastered this exploration of "man in circumstances beyond his control, flails, kills, runs, fights back, etc.)

And of course, any novelist needs to know the method of other successful authors, of whether they write with the end-point in mind, the plot in their head, or just from a situation, and then see how the characters act and react until, voila!, a novel is writ. Again, massive relief in her comments on the craft.

[quote cite="Gillian Flynn, How I write" url="http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/11/21/gillian-flynn-how-i-write.html"]

Do you like to map out your fiction plots ahead of time, or just let it flow?

I let it flow, although that makes it sound more jazzy and less despairing than the actual process often is for me. I wish I could plot more efficiently or stick to an outline, but I just can’t. Partly it’s because, for me, the plot is the least intriguing part of a book. I start writing because of certain characters or themes or events I want to explore, but I’m often not sure what form that will take. So I do float along a bit. I probably write two novels for every one I end up with—lots of deleted scenes as I try to figure out what it is I’m really interested in, what it is I’m actually writing.

[/quote]

And of course, the blessed reassurance that we all must plea with ourselves, like we're some unwieldy force that cannot ever simply sit, and write, without being coerced. As if this was something we were doing by force rather than by choice. Nope, even when I am so compelled to put words down on paper [word processor], I still need lots of self-control and personal incentives to actually do it, day after day. It is such, such an active process. There is absolutely nothing passive about writing a story.

[quote cite="Gillian Flynn, How I write" url="http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/11/21/gillian-flynn-how-i-write.html"]

Describe your morning routine.

Drink half a pot of coffee. Go downstairs to my basement writing lair. Sit myself in my chair and threaten myself like a recalcitrant child: you will sit in this chair and you will not move until you get this scene written, missy. Get the caffeine shakes. Regret drinking so much coffee. Finish writing the scene. Reward myself with a game or eight of Galaga.

[/quote]

Keep writing, keep writing. The first draft of anything is shit. It's ok. Just keep writing.

[quote cite="Gillian Flynn, How I write" url="http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/11/21/gillian-flynn-how-i-write.html"]

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Read all the time and keep writing. There are a million talented writers out there who are unpublished only because they stop writing when it gets hard. Don’t do that— keep writing.

[/quote]

Christoph Waltz explains his love, and mine, for Tarantino's dialogue

christophwaltz_big Christoph Waltz spoke to Terry Gross on Fresh Air on December 19, 2012, to talk about Tarantino's new movie, Django Unchained--which is the second of his films for Waltz. They talk about a lot of things, including Django, and how Tarantino finally found him, an actor who is fluent in English, French, and German, but also had the skills to deliver his signature dialogue. That delivery ability is what got him the part as the Jew Hunter in Inglourious Basterds, and it's what won him the Oscar for it, too, easily. If you haven't seen that movie, watch it for Waltz's performance alone. Seriously. And if you have seen it, go watch it again. And call me and I'll come watch with you.

In the meantime, read Waltz's answer to Terry's question, in which he perfectly explains Quentin Tarantino's insane ability to keep us totally enraptured by seemingly pointless moments in the lives of his characters. I could swim in his dialogue, and he clearly agrees.

TG: So when you had your audition for Inglorious Basterds, how well did you know Tarantino’s movies?

CW: I knew all of the movies.

TG: You’d already seen all--?

CW: I had seen all Tarantino movies as they came out, as they were released. Starting with Reservoir Dogs, and I even had seen Death Proof. So I knew them all.

TG: So you already had an ear for what he was doing [in terms of dialogue and delivery of Tarantino’s writing]?

CW: In a way, in a way. I had a fascination. You know, even in Death Proof, which is somewhat, you know, not as easily accessible, but somehow watching Death Proof, I understood something about the dialogue, because these girls were driving in a car and one had her legs out the window, and the other one was just bored and getting on with it somehow, and they were talking about nothing in particular, for a long time… and… I was mesmerized. And I always wondered, what is it that I’m so interested in? There’s nothing interesting. But why am I captured, why am I at the edge of my seat, even though nothing is happening other than two bored girls driving along?

Exactly! But we are. The first time I saw Pulp Fiction, it was only a portion of it, playing on cable television (which in retrospect seems a shockingly inadequate way to watch Pulp Fiction), and I kept watching out of pure intrigue, because I loved how the characters were talking. That was it. I wanted to listen to them talk to each other all day. It was the superfamous scene at Jackrabbit Slims, the retro restaurant Vince Vega takes his boss's (Mrs. Mia Wallace) wife to for dinner. I was in high school, maybe seventeen years old. I bought the dang DVD because I had to hear more, after I kept seeing only snippets when it aired on TV. Then over time, I devoured all his other movies. I even like Death Proof; yes, what is it about those girls that I'm so interested in, every time? But I cannot look away.

I would easily take Tarantino's dialogue over Shakespeare's any day. That is all.