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”

"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]

10 books everyone should read

(in my opinion)

I was excited to get a request from my friend Andres, for a list of my "10 books everyone should read," because it forced me (non-reluctantly) back to my bookshelf to see which books have had the biggest impact on the way I view the world. That is my criteria. Because while there are many books that interest based on my own personal taste and penchants (this includes South Asian politics and history, linguistics, Georgia history, travelogues), I recognize that this is not the material that needs to be on a list "for everyone to read." Spots on this short-list must be reserved for those books whose stories and message endure beyond their particular topic or subject at hand, and instead resonate with the human spirit, our universal soul.

These are the 10 books that have changed the way I see the world, and which continue to resonate deeply with me. Their subjects dive deep into universal love, pain, suffering, faith, healing, goodness, and evil. Humanity.

Fiction:

The Kite Runner, written by Khaled Hosseini (2004) - You will never see Afghanistan the same way. Possibly the most affecting book I have ever read. I wept for a nation.

Things Fall Apart, written by Chinua Achebe (1994) - I was supposed to read this book for World Lit in college, and couldn't devote enough time to it to learn the African names; I ended up with Sparknotes to pass the test. But it was assigned to me again in a West African History course the following year, and this time, I was absorbed in the story, blown away by the way its historical point echoes significantly on the state of modern Africa and post-colonial strife on that continent. The title comes from a famous poem ("things fall apart / the center cannot hold..."), and we witness how things do fall tragically and magically apart within one African tribe, when Christian missionaries arrive. It is a tale of the very good and the very bad to come of missionary work in Africa. Achebe forces you to examine both essential parts.

Brave New World, written by Aldous Huxley (1931) - If you've ever had a conversation with me about literature, chances are I've professed my love for this short-list classic dystopian thriller. I read it in high school and again in college, and its comments on the modern world ring truer today than when he wrote it more than 80 years ago. The other famous dystpoian tale, George Orwell's 1984, is based on a society where the Big Brother government is so controlling we have no freedom. Huxley's tale is set in a society where they have so much pleasure--in the form of free sex, pornography ("the feelies"--just your regular cinema experience that often ends in an orgy), and soma drugs to stay happy and carefree--that there is no need to keep us under control-- our addiction to pleasures does that for us. Imagine a world where we are so seduced by comforts that no one needs to be controlled by a repressive state. Far scarier, and far more accurate a depiction of what a dystopic future might look like (in my humble opinion). Gripping story.

American Born Chinese, written by Gene Luen Yang (2006) - If you don't feel like mulling over the failures of humanity (as a few of these others might), then start with this, an illustrated tale of life as a Chinese-American kid. It was my first foray into the world of the graphic novel, and I was blown away by how much emotion can be expressed in an illustrated little boy's face. (But then again, I should know already how emotional cartoons can be, after 18 years of watching Pixar movies.) A tale of cultural overlapping combines with the Chinese folk tale of the Monkey King, to make for a lighthearted, humorous commentary on growing up as a hyphenated American; in his case, Chinese-American.

Candide: Or Optimism, written by Voltaire (1759) -  This is another book that I basically ignored the first time it was put in front of me, and which became a stunning revelation when it was assigned to me a second time. I guess my high school perspective missed the massive amounts of humor in this classic work of satire. Voltaire's commentary on the relentless optimism of man--even in the face of never-ending bad news and disaster--is still a touchstone today. Read it (duh).

 

Non-fiction: 

What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures, written by Malcolm Gladwell (2009) - I swear to you, Malcolm Gladwell's brain does not operate like the rest of ours. He sees the world in a fascinating way, and asks the questions many of us would never think to ask. Why are there numerous kinds and flavors of mustard, but only one kind of Ketchup? Is plagiarism really even a thing? (And does it matter all that much?) Are smart people overrated? This is a collection of the best articles Gladwell has written for the New Yorker in the last decade or so. And they will blow your little, intelligent mind. My favorite in the whole book: "John Rock's Error: What the Inventor of the Birth Control Pill Didn't Know About Women's Health." Among many other "why-didn't-I-think-of-this-before?" questions. And blessedly, he has some answers.

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, written by Randy Shilts (1987) - Shilts wrote The Book on the early HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the successes and failures of activists, politicians, doctors, scientists, and everyday people faced with the disease of a century. You can read my Amazon.com review if you don't believe me: this book is one of most important books I have ever read. It also confirms another truth: journalists are fantastic history writers. Shilts weaves a tale of human drama, and it reads like fiction. How else would I commit to 600 pages on this subject?

Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion, written by Edward J. Larson (1998) - I'll give you a clue--the famous Tennessee trial on teaching evolution in public schools was nothing like you think it was. It was purposely challenged, and Scopes, a still-green young teacher, was the volunteer offender, who would be used to launch a legal war over the still-touchy subject of science and religion in schools. If you read one history book, read this one. Highly relevant today.

 

On Georgia and the South (Everyone should understand the South a little better, whether you live here or not!)

Beach Musica novel, written by Pat Conroy (1995) - The writing is extraordinary, and the drama compares to nothing else. This is a sweeping tale of a South Carolina family across several generations, spanning a century and tackling racial prejudice, a changing South, the Holocaust, multiple wars, and the battle wounds inflicted on a generation in Vietnam. Add a lot of family drama and coming-of-age tales of love (and loss), and you've got Beach Music. Perfect for the approaching long, hot Georgia summer.

Praying for Sheetrock: A work of nonfiction, written by Melissa Fay Greene (1991) - Greene lives in Atlanta now (and has written a wide variety of other works), but she was living near the places and events this book recounts in the 1970s and 1980s, when McIntosh County -- on the Georgia coast -- was still lagging far behind the rest of the state in grappling with desegregation and racial prejudices and injustices. The events really happened, though it reads like fiction. An important piece of history for anyone who lives in the South, or feels they want to understand it a bit better (or maybe this will only add to your complicated image of it--rightly so).

 

A note: I own all these books. I am willing to lend them out.