Elmore Leonard’s rules

682px-Elmore_LeonardThe late great crime writer Elmore Leonard had ten basic rules for writing fiction, which I think all writers should be aware of, whatever kind of fiction they write. Here are Leonard’s rules:

1. Never open a book with the 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.

I think if writers at least bear these in mind as they are working they will usually be doing themselves and their readers a favour.

They are a curious mixture on the face of it aren’t they? Some are pretty much standard advice – how often do we hear the tip to avoid adverbs where possible? Others strike you as quirky on first reading them. ‘Never open a book with the weather’ being a good example.

I think with this weather one Leonard is offering us two things. Firstly he is helping us avoid cliché. The all-time worst opening line of a book is often held to be ‘It was a dark and stormy night,’ the first line of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford. It is so often mocked that there is even a Bulwer-Lytton competition now for the worst opening line you can come up with.

So best avoided for that reason alone. But I think Leonard is also encouraging us to get to the point and, more importantly, to get to the people. Novels are so often more a success at describing emotions than they are at describing things. I’ve mentioned before how Yann Martel describes the shipwreck in Life of Pi in one line ‘The boat sank.’

I have a weather scene – a storm, near the start of Song of the Sea God. But it’s not right at the start. The opening belongs to the narrator Bes who is under the impression he is dead, but turns out to be mistaken. Somehow I thought it best to talk about people first and save the wind and rain for later.

The tip to avoid exclamation marks also seems a little quirky. But it’s advice I know well, because we were also given it as young newspaper reporters by wise old sub-editors. In newspapers, exclamation marks are often used in headlines (we had a rude name for them used in this way, referencing a dog’s anatomy, but I will not include that on this ‘safe for work’ blog). But they are much less often used in copy. Where, I remember an old hand on the subs’ desk telling me: “They simply serve to highlight the wide-eyed incredulity of the reporter.”

In fiction they simply serve to show the author thinks something is exciting or amusing, and that the reader ought to think so too. But the reader will make up her own mind – exclamation point or not!

Perhaps Leonard’s key rule is the last one – leave out the parts readers tend to skip. We would all like to do that wouldn’t we? Leonard’s feeling was they don’t tend to skip dialogue – and he was a genius at that. This point is advice about rewriting I suppose – cut out the bits which are not good, leave the bits which are.

So there they are, Elmore Leonard’s rules – food for thought for all of us I think.

ImageDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

 

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Let’s get personal

800px-QWERTZ_swissNow and again people will tell you that some of the best writing comes from personal experience – to which I would add, yes, and some of the worst as well.

People tend to overestimate how fascinating their own experiences are to the reader – if you are not careful you can lose the dispassionate quality you need to write well because you become too wrapped up in writing about yourself. It can be done of course – but fiction should be just that, it doesn’t have to be real.

Of course, the basic notion that, if you write what you know, you are less likely to make catastrophic and often comical errors of fact or tone has some basis in reality. But it ignores the fact that most decent writers are capable of doing the research required to fill the gaps in their knowledge which would allow them to write convincingly about a topic.

In the internet age everyone has a huge depth of knowledge a mouse click away and, unless that person is too lazy to live, they don’t need to worry too much about what they don’t know at the outset. That’s before they have even walked down the road to the library.

So you don’t need to be a train driver to write about driving a train. Which is very handy for crime authors in particular who don’t all have to commit mass murder in order to turn out their thrillers. That’s not to say that a deep and immersive experience of some aspect of life might not give you more understanding of it. But a writer’s trade is primarily writing – and research, getting inside a topic, is a crucial part of that.

The ‘write from experience’ advice is often given to kids in school when they are asked to tackle some rudimentary creative writing – I remember being given it as gospel myself. And, if you took it to heart, it would close down so much of your imagination. Fantasy writers would be particularly at a loss, few of them having had personal experience of interacting with orcs and dragons.

So take it with a sack of salt I would say kids.

But, while I’m arguing that personal experience isn’t that much of a big deal for a writer – I simultaneously believe it is very important indeed.

The tension caused by believing these two contradictory things at once is what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. And no, I’m not a doctor, I looked it up on Google – works like magic doesn’t it!

The type of experience I think is crucial is life experience. Though we can deftly summon up a dragon or a murder through a combination of imagination and reading around the subject, do you think it would be possible to write convincingly about being in love if you never had been? Or to write about jealously, or rage, or joy?

432px-William_wordsworthEmotional authenticity in a book does not come from reading a Wikipedia page it comes through living and the process of getting it down on the page is perhaps what Wordsworth was talking about when he referred to ’emotion recollected in tranquillity.’

It’s not as though you often sit at a word processor thinking – ‘right – let’s describe sexual jealously for this bit’ but you might often have to know how a character feeling that emotion behaves, what they do, what they say or don’t say – and how their behaviour impacts on the world around them.

This emotional intelligence is what you can’t fake and can’t research as a writer I believe, it leaves a gap and that’s where your personal experience floods in.

ImageDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

 

It’s never too late!

Halfdan_Egedius_-_The_Dreamer__Portrait_of_the_Painter_Torleiv_Stadskleiv__-_Google_Art_ProjectIt is never too late to follow your literary dream – and as dreams go, that’s one thing I have always loved about it.

If you have lived through your twenties then you can pretty much give up on your dreams of playing professional football or winning an Olympic Gold. You are also unlikely to set the pop charts alight or fill Shea Stadium with rock fans waving their mobile phones at you. If your heart fluttered at the thought of being a fashion model then you can wave that goodbye as the years pass too.

But if you dream of literary stardom then yours is a dream with some degree of longevity.

There was once a guy who held down a dull job as an oil company marketing executive – he stuck it out well into his forties though he can’t have found it much fun as eventually he got canned for persistent drunkenness.

9780140108927So he took to writing detective fiction and selling his stories to magazines. He found it suited him but he was fifty years old by the time he managed to get his first full length book published. It was called The Big Sleep and after that everyone had heard of Raymond Chandler.

Annie Proulx, there’s another one. The famed author of The Shipping News had a productive career as a journalist and had a track record as a short-story writer but she was 57 before her first novel was published. There are many more examples.

491px-John_Keats_by_William_HiltonNow, of course, there are always some precocious young tykes around the literary landscape. John Keats had scribbled his last stanza and kicked the Grecian Urn before he was 25. But, on the whole, a few extra miles on the clock can benefit a writer. More years can equal more material, they can also equal more life experience – not only more to write about but more ways to write about it.

It’s true that publishers and agents may not see you as having rock star appeal if your hair is turning grey – they would much rather have someone young and pretty, with more productive years left in them.

But, in the end, what matters is what is on the page rather than how many candles there are on your birthday cake. And, I don’t know about you, but I rather like that.

It gives those of us who are nearer in age to Chandler than Keats a chance to bloom late but gloriously like Pulitzer Prize winning Annie. And for younger writers, it simply means they have time on their side.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

 

Six more things I’ve learned as a published author

Ok – here’s a second blog post about things I’ve learned since my book was published. I thought these posts worth doing because quite a lot of things have come as a big surprise to me! I didn’t really know what to expect, except the unexpected, and I haven’t been disappointed. You can read five things I’ve learned since my book was published here. Now here’s a few more.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe community of writers, and readers, is remarkably strong.

I’ve been delighted by this – I really didn’t expect the warmth and sense of community I’ve found since my book came out from people online and on social media. People are only happy to offer a kind word, advice or simply support when you are negotiating the sometimes baffling world of letting people know about your book. This is something which runs through Twitter, Facebook and through the comments you get on your blog. The community of writers and readers has become truly international too – I’m as likely to be chatting to book lovers in any part of the USA, in Europe, Australia, Africa, Asia – anywhere in the world in fact. And isn’t that an amazing thing?

Being published once doesn’t make finding a home for your next book any easier.

I suppose this is an extension to the indifferent world point I made in my last round-up. I’ve found that having a little bit of a track record doesn’t count for very much. Just because you have a book out, doesn’t mean publishers suddenly see you as a great prospect – you are still just another manuscript on their massive pile – and another rejection slip to send out. I suspect, and hope, this might change a few more books further down the line – success usually breeds success after all.

There really is no money in it.

US_Dollar_banknotesNo really – none at all. Especially if, like me, you write literary fiction which is hardly a mass market proposition. If you want to chase money as an author I think you would probably have to make that your main and central aim – write purely what you thought would be most commercial and work hard on the selling side. Even then I suspect all but a few authors make very little compared to what they would if they put the same amount of time and effort into a regular job. So it’s a good job we don’t do it for the money then isn’t it?

There are people out there who really get it!

It’s a fantastic thing to hear about people who have read your book and really enjoy it. That’s the payoff for an author I think – reaching readers in that way. It’s a huge pleasure for me to read a review of my book from someone who has really engaged with it, or a discussion on a blog or website about the themes in the book. A big surprise for me was to find that there are people out in the big wide world talking about my work, often quite unbeknown to me. I’ve quoted Dr Johnson before on this blog saying: ‘A writer only begins a book, a reader finishes it.’ And that quote has been brought to life for me by the articles that have appeared on my book like the ones:
Here
And here
And here

You will have to market your book

Chris Hill, Waterstones signingI suspect a lot of soon to be authors will think what I thought – once you have a publisher they will handle the marketing of your book and you can get on with the writing. Unfortunately that’s not true. Publishers, large and small, have a lot of books coming out and not much time to promote them.

A publisher will only accept your book if they love it, and of course they will do everything they can to promote it but the truth is, unless you want your baby to disappear without trace you have to take responsibility for letting the world know about it. This means putting a lot of time, work and effort doing things like building up your presence on social media (in my case I had to build it up from absolute zero). It might also mean writing a blog like this one, taking part in interviews both on and offline, writing guest articles for other people’s websites, appearing pretty much anywhere they will have you. And so on. Which brings me to my final point.

You will be really busy!

You have all the writing to do that you had before of course, and all the querying of agents and publishers. But now you also have a blog to write, Facebook and Twitter accounts to update, readers to interact with and so on. Of course – that’s what you signed up for – so let’s not grumble about it! After all, the alternative is that you didn’t get published – and then you’d still be trying to make it happen.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Q and A – What do you read?

Today a question from L.R. Ryan, scriptwriter and author from Florida, who was kind enough to favourably review Song of the Sea God recently. You can take a look at Mr Ryan’s website and find out about his work here. If you have a question for me on writing, my book or anything else then please let me know in the comments below and I will do my best to answer in a future post.

I would like to know where your reading interests lie, when you are not busy writing such a good book as Song of the Sea God?

L.R Ryan, Florida.

780px-Carlo_Dolci_-_St_Catherine_Reading_a_Book_-_WGA06372Thanks L.R – great question. I think reading is a tremendously important thing for any writer – in fact I would go so far as to say that you should never trust a writer who doesn’t read!

I’ve always loved literature, it’s been a passion of mine since I was old enough to read. Since then I’ve read constantly – mostly novels and short stories with a little poetry too. I tend to go for literary fiction rather than genre fiction, it’s just my personal preference.

I also read non-fiction, often I switch to this more or less unconsciously once I’m working on a book – perhaps so the fiction I’m reading doesn’t too much influence the style of what I’m writing. During these periods I’ll read history, biography, philosophy, popular science books of different kinds – all sorts of things. Some just for personal interest, others because they are research for what I’m writing.

infiniteCurrently I’m in a fiction reading period and I’m tackling Infinite Jest by the late lamented American author David Foster Wallace. I seem to have been reading it for an infinite amount of time. It’s a mammoth tome, a thousand pages of tiny type before you get to the notes. The end is in sight I’m happy to report! It’s regarded as a modern classic and I am enjoying it – I’d describe it as brilliant in parts – there are sections which take your breath away, but it’s a long road.

I’d say the first set of books I remember affecting my writing style and making me want to write like they did were the novels written by the generation of American novelists now recently departed. I was very influenced by authors like Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, John Updike and many more. These were writers with a powerful and distinctive voice, a great sense of humour and a willingness to tackle big issues with flair and gusto. I wanted to be like them. At the same time, as a short story writer I was swept away by the brutal honesty and deceptive simplicity of Raymond Carver. I still admire all of these writers. But they are just the tip of a rather large iceberg.

In terms of books which influenced Song of the Sea God, it’s quite a wide group of novels I would say. People often compare Sea God with either Lord of the Flies by William Golding or The Wicker Man, which most people remember more as a film than a book. But my own go-to comparison for Sea God is Shakespeare’s The Tempest. If I’m trying to impress posh interviewers I sometimes say I based Sea God on The Tempest. It has an island, magic, a Prospero, a Caliban.

439px-CarsonmccullersBeyond that though I know there are a whole raft of books which influenced me in various ways in writing the book. These would include The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers, Perfume by Patrick Suskind, The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, The Magus by John Fowles. There are key aspects in the plot, the characters or the telling of all these wonderful, luminous books which have made their way into Song of the Sea God.

Yet I don’t believe my book is too similar to any of these – I have taken something of their essence and tried to use it in my work. That’s the fantastic thing about reading – you are never alone when you write. You are part of a literary tradition. You produce an original book – but it depends on the wonderful work which has gone before it.

Hope that has gone some way towards answering your question LR – and thank you so much for asking it!

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

The funny thing about comic writing

What makes a book funny? That’s a tough question isn’t it.

Personally I think that if a novel describes itself as comic or funny, then it probably isn’t going to be. We all know the sinking feeling when we see the try-hard humour books – or humor if it’s an American one. The more they promise rib-tickling chuckles between their garish cartoon covers the more we are likely to fear the clammy hand of disappointment.

There’s just a whiff of desperation there isn’t there? You shouldn’t have to tell people ‘this is supposed to be funny’ any more than you should have to tell people ‘this is supposed to be sad.’ The reader either finds a book funny or they do not, and that is up to them.

I think part of the issue is that different people find different things funny. Broad slapstick, subtle wit, a million variations inbetween. What makes us laugh is quite a personal thing, perhaps more so than what makes us cry.

What I try to do, in this most difficult of literary balancing acts, is to be funny incidentally. Rather than try to make the whole book laugh out loud I attempt to slip in a few chuckles along the way. Often laughter emerges out of the scene you are in, so rather than being some kind of set up gag, the joke is organic. And very often it is the way something is written which makes it amusing – the point of view, the words you choose, the order, rhythm, the timing.

I also consider what I am using humour for. Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to be funny for it’s own sake – it’s a gift and something to treasure. But if your book is trying to deal with difficult issues, for example, then humour can be a wonderful way of making them palatable.

Here’s a few of the books which have made me laugh.

moneyMoney by Martin Amis

Here’s a book crammed with glittering phrases, many of them laugh out loud funny. Amis knows how to spin a wonderful anecdote, build up characters in order to knock them down. But for me it’s the turns of phrase which are gold dust. He’s one of those writers who you can’t imagine writing a bad sentence. It’s hard work being that polished, and one of the things he regularly achieves is to make the reader laugh.

slaughterhouse 5Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr

Quirky and delightful, taking science fiction of an obviously kidding sort in order to deal with tough issues of death, war and mortality. Often the humour comes from seeing the world in an entirely different, unexpected and unique way, seeing it his way, which is not like anyone else’s.

untitledCatch 22 by Joseph Heller

‘Laugher in the dark if ever I heard it’ said one reviewer and Heller, as well as being another masterful spinner of words and phrases, can make us laugh at things which on the face of it, simply are not funny. They are horrifying, devastating, still he makes us laugh. Often we are laughing at the absurd, and at things which might just as easily make us cry. There’s a bravery in this kind of humour, a resilience.

jeevesPretty much anything by PG Wodehouse

He was a master, I think, of humorous writing and so many of his laughs relied on pure language – the phrasing of a sentence, the deployment of an unusual word. His world was entirely his own invention, full of wise servants, fearsome aunts and simple upper-class drones. In Wodehouse’s hands comic writing is like music – not a note, not a phrase, out-of-place.

hitchikersThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Like Vonnegut before him he found a way to play science fiction for laughs and subvert an often slightly pompous genre. He finds humour in the gap between the high-flown expectations of space exploration and the majesty of the universe and the tawdry reality he paints. In his hands it is full of bathos, it has people in it, or aliens who behave like people: messy, stupid, rude, ungrateful, lazy.

What all of these writers have in common I think, apart from the fact that they are very funny, is a love of the language. Perhaps a facility with language and being able to do comedy well go hand in hand? It’s quite a technical skill writing in an amusing way – it depends very much on the right thing said in precisely the right way at the right time. Good comic writers have the rhythm of poets.

Who are your favourite funny writers and why?

Song of the Sea God visualSee if my book is among those which will make you laugh – take a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Q and A – show me the money

Here’s the latest in my series of Q and A sessions, with a question from Rani who recently read Song of the Sea God – she posted her review of the book on Amazon to see it click here. And many thanks to her for the kind review and for the question! If you have anything to ask me about my book, writing generally, publishing, or indeed anything else I might be able to help with then please ask in the comments below or let me know on Facebook or Twitter.

At the end of Song of the Sea God, what happened to the piles of money in Bes’s van?

Rani from London.

It’s funny, when you write a book – sometimes there are loose ends, and I suppose this is one. Money’s important isn’t it? Many of us base our lives on it – and this is a question about what happens to a lot of money in my book.

I think this question is a great example of the point at which a writer’s work ends and the reader’s begins.

Dr Johnson said “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.”

And that’s a sentiment which rings true to me both as a writer and a reader.

I believe any book you read will leave unanswered questions – some within the text, some beyond the end of the book, some before it even began. Good books should do this I think. They should respect and nurture the imagination of the reader.

So I would honestly say that Rani’s answer to this question, or the answer of any reader who has read the book, would be as valid as mine. Still, since I have been asked the question I will do my best to answer it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor those who’ve not read Song of the Sea God I’d better quickly explain the background. John Love, the main character who’s a charismatic shaman, or con-man or cult-leader or whatever the reader wants to think about him, sells cures and miracles to the people of the island where the story is set. His disciple, Bes, the narrator of the book, collects up the money and keeps it in his static caravan (Trailer, American friends) where the pair live for the duration of the book.

Who knows how much money there is by the end of the story? A lot. It is described as lying around, piled in drifts, being crammed into cupboards. I think I got the image for all the money lying around from the years I spent as a newspaper crime reporter. Often drug-dealers were described in this way – police busts discovered them surrounded by piles of cash. It was almost as though the money had overwhelmed them, or that it no-longer mattered to them.

I think I chose the image because I believed two things. One was that John Love could be compared to a drug dealer. He was pedalling something people really wanted, and could easily become addicted to.

The second thing I believed was that neither John Love, nor Bes really cared about money. Like the drug dealers they left it lying around in piles, like so much rubbish, because they didn’t honestly know what to do with it.

US_Dollar_banknotesBes never had a use for money. The descriptions in Sea God of how the character subsists involve low-level wheeling and dealing – getting by and feeding the vice of buying books.

John Love certainly doesn’t care about money. He has one aim – pure and clear and simple – he wants to be a god. Money is for mortals.

So, while many books, most thrillers for example, make the acquisition of money their main and central point, in Sea God it is an irrelevance, some scraps of paper left lying around a modest home. Perhaps that’s why I forgot to tidy up the loose end of what happens to the cash when the book ends.

There are much bigger loose ends too of course – like what happens to the legend, the gospel, the message of John Love? Does his star rise – does he get to become a god?

Here’s what I hope happened to the money. I hope it made Bes happy. By which I mean, more comfortable and able to create a decent life. Bes is a character I have great affection for – albeit a character who is flawed, fooled, and pulled into making some awful decisions. I hope Bes found a use for the money.

And I hope that answered the question Rani!

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.