Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

elmoreleonard10rulesWith the recent passing of Elmore Leonard, the literary world lost one of the greats. His book. Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing is a simple, but valuable little guide for any writer.

While his book expands on each topic (slightly), here are the ten rules, along with my humble commentary:

 

1. Never open a book with weather.

This obviously cautions against the cliché of the “dark and stormy night,”and similar openings that describe the weather — wise advice indeed. Of course, weather can be used on occasion to set the mood, but it’s best if the author describes how the character feels about the weather or how the weather is impacting the plot.

Certainly if the opening involves a child lost in a snowdrift who feels like her face and hands are about to fall off; or a drunk driver who’s trying to see through a rain splattered windshield when he hits a homeless man; or an elderly man working at an amusement park who’s trying to wipe the stinging  sweat from his eyes as he witnesses what he thinks may be a murder — then at least the weather is relevant. But I think what Leonard is saying here is to be careful about using weather unless it’s vital to the plot or the character, as it’s been done so often and in so many ways.

 
2. Avoid prologues.

This should probably say “mostly avoid prologues.” Prologues can work quite well if they introduce a vital incident in the past that influences the present. Of course, this can also be done later via backstory, but sometimes it’s more effective as a prologue. What you don’t want to do is have a prologue that doesn’t relate to the main plot, just for the sake of “hooking” the reader.

For more on prologue DO’s and DON’Ts, see Kristen Lamb’s recent blog post on the Seven Deadly Sins of Prologues.

 
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

This is mostly good advice. Occasionally, “whispered” or “shouted” can help clarify volume, but even then, there are other ways to convey that. Sometimes, no verb is needed at all and the dialogue can stand alone or follow a sentence of narrative that implies volume.  For example:

She leaned in close to him. “Don’t forget what I told you.” 

“Never mind me, worry about yourself.”

“You’ll get yourself killed,” she said.

“Something tells me you’d love that.”

And so on.  Still, the general consensus from most experts is to stick with “said” or nothing at all, except for perhaps some narrative or action description.

 

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.

This is excellent advice. There’s rarely any need to modify the verb said. Instead, uses a narrative action sentence beforehand to convey how the character is feeling. For instance:

“I think we should go in there,” he said.

She crinkled her eyebrows. “Are you sure?” (this conveys slight apprehension better than saying “she said, apprehensively.”)

 

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

Absolutely!  (just kidding)  Exclamation points are best reserved for true exclamations, such as Good heavens!” or “Look out, there’s a rhino about to charge you!”   It just wouldn’t quite have the punch to say, “There’s a rhino about to charge you.”

Still, exclamation points tend to be overused, especially for surprises, and it’s a good practice to find other ways to convey surprise. A chapter full of exclamation points generally takes away from the impact.

For instance, if a kidnapper of a young child is about to be revealed as Jim, the protagonist’s dear uncle, think of the following example:

As she opened the drawer, she saw a name scribbled on the envelope. She prayed it wasn’t the name she suspected, that all her fears and suspicions were misguided — the silly paranoia of an overprotective mother. But as she examined the letters on the page and her eyes focused,  the answer was there in black and white, though she still didn’t want to believe it.   

It was Uncle Jim.

Never mind the leading paragraph, which needs some work to better convey feeling. But for the reveal itself, isn’t it more dramatic and chilling than if it said, “It was Uncle Jim!”   Indeed, sometimes less is more.

 

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

Or “Suddenly, all hell broke loose!”  These phrases are widely overused.  Substitutes for “suddenly” can be, “in an instant.” “just then.”  or even a leading sentence, such as: “As she turned around, she jumped with a start. Right behind her, staring her in the face was Mr Mxyzptlk.” And so on.

 

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Often, just a hint of a regional dialect can imply a heavy accent, without making the words difficult to comprehend.  A master of this is J.K. Rowling. especially with the Hagrid character, as shown in this line of dialogue:

“Never wondered how you got that mark on yer forehead? That was no ordinary cut. That’s what yeh get when a powerful, evil curse touches yeh — took care of yer mum an’ dad an’ yer house, even — but it didn’t work on you, an’ that’s why yer famous, Harry.”

 
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

OR detailed descriptions of anything for that matter. The problem is, unless the descriptions are told from the Point of View character’s perspective, with specific “opinions’ about what he or she is observing, descriptions tend to be the parts people skip over.

 
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

See above. Again, it’s the character’s feelings and observations about the person, place or thing that matter.

 
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Such as long descriptions without a character’s subjective opinion about it … or other long passages that don’t move the story forward. It’s often a good idea to get test readers to read your story with specific instructions to note any point in the book that they felt compelled to skim over. This is especially true in the opening chapters, and in the middle of the book.

 

Lastly, Elmore Leonard states that his most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

 

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

That’s not so say that colorful descriptions or snappy and clever dialogue are bad, only that the writing should feel authentic from the character’s viewpoint.  Older books, told from the narrator’s perspective, didn’t need to follow this rule, but today people want stories from either the first person POV (e.g. “I entered the room.”) or extreme subjective third person POV (third person, but told from “inside the head” of the POV character) – e.g. “He entered the room.”

So there it is, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.  What are your thoughts about these rules? Do you agree with them?

 

 

 

What Makes a Great Villain?

hannibal-lecterAt Comic Con in Chicago last weekend, I attended an intriguing workshop on the psychology of supervillains, conducted by a panel of writers and psychologists.

One of the discussions in the room was about who our favorite villains are and why.

It occurred to me that there are two general flavors of villains that seem to really stand out:

1) The Admirable Villain.  These are the ones that you either root for, feel sorry for, or admire in some way for their strength or cleverness. Memorable examples are:

  • Kahn in the new Star Trek Into Darkness movie (justified, clever, and formidable)
  • Hannibal Lector (clever, wittty, formidable, with a soft spot for Clarice and a desire for a room with a view)
  • Magneto, especially as portrayed by Michael Fassbender in X-Men First Class (justified and powerful)
  • Loki in The Avengers (witty and formidable)
  • Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds (deliciously evil, clever, formidable, and witty)
  • Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones (clever, witty, justified, though he’s more of an anti-hero – one of the most well rounded characters I’ve ever seen)
  • Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (clever, formidable)
  • Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars films (witty – and quite formidable)
  • General Zod in Man of Steel (justified in his own mind, passionate)
  • Norman Bates in Psycho (warm, vulnerable)

Why do these particular villains stand out? They have a justifiable cause (at least in their own minds). They have a passion about something. They’re charming in their own distorted way. They’re extremely clever. They’re formidable. And they’re often witty, sometimes dryly so. They often have the best lines.

Then there’s the second kind of villain, the kind you absolutely hate and can’t wait to see die. This takes us to:

2) The Despicable Villain. As the panel pointed out, these types of villains are selfish, lack empathy, are narcissistic, often sadistic, and frequently are psychopaths. They also tend to be an unpredictable force of chaos that disrupts everyone around them. Examples might be:

  • Goffrey in Game of Thrones
  • Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon’s character in X-Men First Class)
  • Commodus in Gladiator (played by Joaquin Phoenix)
  • Warden Norton in The Shawshank Redemption
  • The Joker in Batman
  • Voldemort in Harry Potter
  • Caligula in The Robe (or any other film Caligula is portrayed in)
  • Eleanor Iselin (Raymond Shaw’s mother in The Manchurian Candidate, played by Angela Lansbury)

Why do we hate these villains so much?  I’d venture to say that it’s because of the things they do to people we like. They are memorable to the extent of the damage they cause to people we like and the degree of selfishness they portray. That’s important, because otherwise they could come across as a flat, “mustache-twirler” who’s more a caricature than a memorable villain. It’s very hard to pull off a memorable, hate-worthy villain who’s pure evil, without the character being flat. The above are notable exceptions.

The bottom line is that, for either type of villain — the Admirable Villain or the Despicable Villain, they’ll be more memorable if they are extremely clever (or devious) and formidable, either due to a special skill or the chaos they inflict,

What are your thoughts? Who are your favorite villains and why? Which ones do you admire? Which ones do you hate?

 

Golden Advice on Writing from a Comic Book Legend

MicronautsAs some of you know, Ed and I had a table at Philly Comic Con a few weeks ago. All in all it was a great experience and a wonderful event, more like a community than a convention. Plus we got to meet some amazingly create artists, as well as talk to some of our readers.

It was a delight being able to answer readers’ questions about The Kronos Interference, plus offer some (hopefully) sound advice and encouragement to a handful of young aspiring writers as well.

It was a day for sharing and a day for learning. I attended an excellent storytelling workshop given by Michael Golden. For those unfamiliar with his work, Michael Golden has been a noted comic book artist and storyteller for over four decades. He co-created the Rogue character (from X-Men), and was noted for his work on the Micronauts series, Dr. Strange, The ‘Nam series, DC comics, and others.

During his Q&A session, here were some of the nuggets of advice he had to offer (I’m paraphrasing):

  • On cliffhangers: Always end your story, even if you allude to the fact that there’s more to come afterward. If you do have a cliffhanger, foreshadow it so they can see it coming and it won’t feel like it came from nowhere.
  • Exposition: While writers always try to avoid exposition, sometimes it’s unavoidable. But you do need to find creative ways to incorporate it. For instance, if you need to share something about an event in the past, consider having your character voicing in his head what he was thinking or feeling at the time — so it’s not just an information dump.
  • Moving a story forward: Always keep moving the story forward. This is best done visually and through action, behavior, and dialogue. You shouldn’t need a lot of explanation (there’s truth to the old axiom, “show, don’t tell”). Character interaction is the best way to cover the who, what, when, where, and how. In a visual medium, emphasize visuals more than anything.
  • Details Matter:  To add a greater sense of reality, include small details. There’s a fine line between providing small details for realism and having so much that you inhibit story movement. But overall, detail gives a story texture and life. Director Ridley Scott is noted for including detailed visuals that elevate the sense of realism. This is an art more than a science.
  • Context is Important: A lot or writers and artists make the mistake of assuming their readers understand everything that’s in the writer’s head. Don’t assume people know what you know. They’re not psychic.  Show an establishing shot to give a sense of where you’re at (or describe it if it’s a non-visual form). Don’t talk down to the reader but give them some context so they don’t get lost. Also, find a good objective editor and test reader and see if they can follow it. Getting an objective view is important.
  • Listen to Advice: There are people who love nothing better than to sharply criticize everything they read or see on the internet. As a creative professional, you need to read between the lines and understand what it is they’re really trying to say. Don’t take everything at face value, but don’t ignore it either.
  • Dealing with Complex Plots:  Don’t get overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. Have little stories that lead to the much bigger one. Think smaller. Move little chunks forward. Don’t think of the full epic at once. Find out what your building blocks are, and throw them at the reader piecemeal. Watch Pulp Fiction as a a good example of this. (I would add to also read or watch Game of Thrones!)
  • Reintroducing Characters in a Sequel: In most cases you can introduce them the exact same way as the previous book, but with a different variation or in a different context. (This made me think of  Q or M or Moneypenny in the James Bond films. You don’t need to see all the previous Bond films to get a sense of what their role is or what their personality is).
  • Developing Characters: Pay attention to everyone and everything around you. Quentin Tarantino has written essays on this subject alone. Conversations can really illuminate characters in colorful ways. Many times you can listen to real conversations and get ideas and magnify them. Moms can make great villains! Inspiration comes from everywhere. Songs, experiences, other stories, observing people talking,watching people. Observe how they behave, act, talk, etc.
  • Names and Titles Matter:  Character names and titles are important, and are part of the artistic statement you’re making. Simple and pronounceable is best; ideally something that will stick in the reader’s mind. But also try to make it unique and distinctive. Most importantly, it should be evocative and say something about the the story (or the character, in the case of character names).

I’m sure he could have gone on longer, but the session was only 45 minutes. If you make it to a Comic Con and Michael Golden is giving a workshop, I highly recommend it. In general, I think all writers and artists should attend workshops and read lots of books on the craft. When you think about it, no matter how much experience we have, we’re all lifelong apprentices.

Great Balls of . . . Fools Gold Found in Mexico

article-2318151-1995A25C000005DC-373_634x427Archaeologists from the Mexico National Institute of Archaeology and History recently discovered a 2000-year-old secret chamber buried under an ancient pyramid temple in Teotihuacan, Mexico.

And in that chamber, the archaeologists’ robot discovered hundreds of golden metallic spheres made out of pyrite, otherwise known as Fool’s Gold.  Luckily, a flying drone was there to capture the images.

No this isn’t the next Indiana Jones film. This is real, folks.

Interestingly, the name Teotihuacan means “the place where men become gods.”

Of course the big questions are: Were the mysterious spheres part of some kind of burial ritual? Was the placement of the spheres relevant? Is there some natural quality to the material that was valued, perhaps for its sound or its luminous quality?

Or maybe it was just a game played by ancient guardians of the tunnel to pass the time (Maybe they kept dropping the balls into the pit by mistake — “Oops, I’m not getting that one!”).

I guess it’s one more piece of the mystery behind an ancient civilization that disappeared suddenly in the year 700. For mere, here’s the full article.

Robocolypse Now: Man Charged with Shooting Police Robot

060419_gort_lgRemember Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still? Well, we’re getting closer to that. Nowadays, in special cases of dangerous shootouts or where a bomb is suspected, police send in robots to scope out the problem.

On February 23rd, Ohio police sent two robots into a home where a man was making threats and had fired a gun in his house. The man, who was as drunk as Rooster Cogburn on a bad day, shot at one of the robots. Allegedly, the injured robot was undeterred and the distraction allowed police to come storming in with a stun gun. The man was arrested at the scene. This is the first case I’ve heard where a man was charged with shooting a robot.

No word on the robot, but I assume he/she is in stable condition.

Now in case you’re thinking the police robots are indestructible behemoths like this…

Gen3_Police_Robot-md

 

Not quite. The police robots look more like Wall-E or that cute robot in Short Circuit. Definitely not a Transformer type. This is a typical police robot below …

bomb_robot061407

Makes you want to tremble in your shoes just looking at it, right? No? Well, at least it works, and it does save lives. In this case, police found two AK-47 rifles and lots of ammunition.  I wonder what the robots looked like to the drunk guy?

I”m still holding out for Gort. Klaatu Berada Nikto.  Here’s the full article from PopSci.

 

Objects in the Telescope Are Closer Than They Appear

Kepler-telescopeOr at least Earth-like planets are. NASA’s Kepler space telescope has revealed potentially billions of Earth-like planets within 13 light years of our sun.

Specifically, there are a huge number of sun-like red dwarf stars that have been identified in our galaxy (like 75 billion of them), many with planets orbiting around them. Astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics estimate that six percent of red dwarf stars in the galaxy could hold Earth-like planets. That’s almost 5 billion potential Earth-like planets.

Now that they know where to look, future NASA missions will be able to explore further and test for signs of life.

According to NASA, “Kepler is the first NASA mission capable of finding Earth-size planets in or near the habitable zone.”

Click here for the Huffington Post article on the topic. And here’s more about the Kepler Space Program.

Dr. Evil would have fun with this one. Cue Austin Powers dramatic space music…

 

Evolving as a Writer: When Great is Bad

08bucks-napkin-ready-blogSpanIt’s funny, from having written or co-authored 4 published nonfiction books, contributed to a number of others, served as an editor for a few bestselling books, and co-authored a Kirkus Best of 2012 novel, you’d think I’d know everything by now. But I don’t. Not even close.  And, to me, that’s a strength.

Kristen Lamb, whose blog on writing is one of the best out there, recently began posting a series called Enemies of the Art, which outlines the things that often get in the way of a writer’s success. The latest one, on Pride, touches on a point that’s often ignored but SO  important.

For years, I’ve gotten numerous requests from friends and strangers (all first time authors) asking me for my thoughts on their manuscript. A few seemed to have potential, and just needed some honing. The humble ones understood that, and took my advice to study up on various aspects of the craft (though I gave some starter tips).

But it’s the other ones that made me shake my head — the ones that were rambling, with no clear purpose or intended audience, or with no sense of structure or knowledge of the craft, and yet the authors wouldn’t budge. Those were the ones, more than likely, where the authors said they thought their book was GREAT, and they couldn’t imagine why they weren’t getting any bites from agents. When I offered some possible reasons, they had an answer for everything.

Even though I’d written a number of nonfiction books and had done some freelance editing, I’d always had an interest in fiction, and was an avid reader of books on the craft. When I finally set out to work on a novel, even after several drafts, I realized there was much more to learn. So did my co-author Ed. We pored through countless books on writing and story. We rewrote and rewrote. We got feedback from industry experts and select friends (only the ones we knew could offer an unbiased critical view — and they certainly did).  And we rewrote some more. It’s why the whole process for our first book took three years.

And you know what? We’re STILL learning, and will be for the foreseeable future. Like Kristen Lamb says in her blog, even perennial NY Times bestselling authors continuously study the craft.

The rub is, even once you’ve immersed yourself in the craft and have done your due diligence, there will still be readers who don’t like your book. Maybe they don’t like a decision you made with the plot, or the style you chose. And that’s their right. Truth is, though most people (including professional reviewers – they’re people too) fortunately liked the books I’ve written or co-authored, I’ve learned a lot from the handful of negative reviews. Of course, sometimes they just didn’t get the intent, or it was just personal preference, but more often than not, there was an element of truth in what they said.

Even with that, you could have a great book that most people love, and still have trouble landing a publisher for a while. After all, as they say, writing is an art, but publishing is a business.

So, here’s my advice if you feel you have a book in your future. Learn the craft. Write a lot. Get feedback. Learn some more. Try out the new skills and write more. Whatever you do, don’t submit your manuscript to anyone until you feel you’ve at least reached a basic understanding of things like plot, structure, dialogue, pacing, POV, character arcs, suspense, conflict, and so on. Then get feedback from critical test readers (not your friends and family). Also learn about the query and publishing process.

Meanwhile, here’s a list of the books on writing that I’ve found immensely helpful. Ed has also read many of these, so when we collaborate, we can almost talk in shorthand because we’ve read the same books. And I’d venture to say that most of the biggest selling authors have probably read many of the same books, even if they’re already extremely successful. They didn’t get successful on their own or learn the craft through osmosis, that’s for sure.

The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (Kindle) – by John Truby

Writing the Blockbuster Novel - by Al Zuckerman

The Writer’s Journey:Mythic Structure for Writers – by Chris Vogler

Writing the Breakout Novel - by Donald Maass (also his associated workbook)

Screenwriting Tricks for Authors (Kindle) - by Alexandra Sokoloff

Save the Cat – by Blake Snyder (also Save the Cat Strikes Back and Save the Cat Goes to the Movies)

Elements of Fiction Writing: Conflict and Suspense – James Scott Bell

Plot and Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish  – James Scott Bell

Dynamic Characters: How to Create Personalities that Keep Readers Captivated – by Nancy Kress

Writing Dialogue #1-5: A Collection of Articles for Fiction Writers (Kindle)- by Paula Berinstein

On Writing – by Stephen King

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing – Elmore Leonard

How I Write – by Janet Evanovich

Elements of Fiction Writing: Character and Viewpoint – by Orson Scott Card

Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting – by Robert McKeee

The Savvy Author’s Guide to Book Publicity – by Lissa Warren

We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media - by Kristen Lamb

Happy reading — and writing!!

Where Was That Photo Taken? U.S. Spy Agencies Want to Know

Osama_bin_Laden_compound2

Bin Laden’s Compound (and Image Stash) Sajjad Ali Qureshi via Wikimedia

For anyone who saw Zero Dark Thirty, I’m sure you’d agree it was fascinating how they were able to draw inferences from  observing aerial images of the building they hoped Osama Bin Laden was hiding out in.

But what about all the photographic evidence they found in the computers retrieved from the building?

According to a report in PopSci, IARPA (the US Intelligence advanced research agency) recently launched a program called the Finder Program, which will enable a human analyst to use software to determine where any photo was taken, based on supporting evidence. It would then produce the GPS coordinates.

This would certainly be useful in assessing terrorist, propaganda, organized crime, and other intelligence photos.

If you have expertise in this area, they’d love to hear from you.

Just think; with software like that, you could win all those magazine contests that ask: Where was this photo taken?

If You See a Flying Humvee, You’re Not Drunk

Flying HUMVEECue the Flight of the Valkyries music from Apocalypse Now. Here come the flying Humvees. At least if DARPA (the U.S. Defense  research organization) gets its wish.

Designs for the so-called Transformer (TX) Program have already entered the prototype phase, with ground and flight demonstrations slated for 2015.

Not only will this baby be a roadworthy aircraft, it’ll need to be able to stop on a time for vertical takeoff and landing; be light enough to fly but strong enough for heavy road duty (and resistance to small arms fire); and be as easy to drive and pilot as a car.  Now we’re talkin’

Hey, if it doesn’t work out, they can always use the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang design. I’m sure Dick Van Dyke wouldn’t mind.

chitty-chitty-bang-bang