Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Deconstructing the Elmore Leonard Rules, part one

Elmore Leonard died today, on what would have been HP Lovecraft's  123rd birthday.
He was a very successful writer and famously laid down a set of ten rules for writing.
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.
4] Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
5] Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
6] Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
7] Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
8] Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
9] Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

"My most important rule is one that sums up the 10:"

10] If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

I think they are useful guidelines, especially if you want to write like Elmore Leonard.
But the thing is, they are only guidelines. After all, there are two rule 4s in there.

Today, we'll be talking about the first of them.

1] Never open a book with the weather.

Nobody wants a weather report.
"It was a dark and stormy night." is arguably the most famous weather line in all writing.

or you get the extended forecast:
  My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. I was wearing my favorite shirt - sleeveless, white eyelet lace; I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. My carry-on item was a parka. 
  In the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington State, a small town named Forks exists under a near-constant cover of clouds. It rains on this inconsequential town more than any other place in the United States of America. It was from this town and its gloomy, omnipresent shade that my mother escaped with me when I was only a few months old. 

She lost me at rolling down the windows on the airport.  And the temperature says April or October, because Phoenix is a lot hotter than that between May and Sept.

On the other hand, George Orwell did it beautifully:
"It was a cold bright day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen."

My position, unless the weather is vitally necessary to the story, do not start in with it.
Even Ray Bradbury's "All Summer in a Day" where the Venusian rain is practically a character in its own right, doesn't start with the rain.

Also, when talking about weather, please don't tell us things we already know. "The rain fell wetly, saturating the ground." We know rain is wet. We know night is dark and the sun is hot. Telling your readers these things annoys them and makes them think that you think they're stupid.

2] Avoid Prologues.

I can't argue much with this. Most of the time, a prologue is something that should have gone into the body of the story as a flashback or a narrative within the story. It can often be safely skipped without losing the story. If you need the reader to have that information, it's better to either make it the first chapter and put a time stamp on it or include it at the proper point in the story.

3] Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
4] Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.

These two go hand in hand. So many people, doubtlessly prodded by English teachers, have a Fear of Said. So they use things like "Enunciated", "quipped" or "thin-smiled." Said is a perfectly good dialogue tag. But it is not and should not be your only one. If your characters are in a library, they can whisper. If one is snake-like, he should hiss (but only if there are sibilants in the word!).

Before you use a dialogue tag, make sure you know what it means and that is is the right one.

This can also apply to creating action to avoid tags. That's using a verb to carry dialogue, since only part of communication is spoken.

And watch your adverbs. You end up with Tom Swifties if you use them in dialogue.
"Here's your allowance for the next two weeks," Tom advanced.
"You have the right to remain silent," said Tom arrestingly.

Just don't. Use adverbs sparingly.

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

I agree with this, at least until the period. I don't like set number limits. There are times when people shout. Exclamation points probably should not appear in narration. You aren't shocked and they are the equivalent of shouting at your readers.

They should be rationed in dialogue. Unless you have characters who simply gush! And use italics and exclamation points at every turn. Because ZOMG, reasons! But those should be limited to very specific types of character. And those types quickly become annoying. The best use I've seen has been Maureen Birnbaum, Barbarian Swordsperson.

Also, exclamation points are solitary creatures. They don't like sharing a page, let alone the same sentence with others of their kind. And they don't herd with question marks.

Excuse please, the galley is calling.
To be continued

Friday, August 16, 2013

On Forbidden Words

This article from Chuck Palahniuk's blog, is making the rounds in writers' circles:

It reminds me of some of the publishing houses I've worked for. One said no colons or slashes or parentheses in the work. One hates dialogue tags. One isn't a fan of adverbs.

Personally, I think removing all of ANYTHING from a manuscript is a bad idea.
Adverbs, ellipses, exclamation points, dialogue tags, was, they all have their place. Everything has its time and place.  (Except interrobangs. That piece of punctuation needs to die in a fire, or at least be restricted by law to the diaries of those under 16)  These places are not every place.

Some of the things I see in manuscripts:

1) An overabundance of ellipses. Trailing off or hesitating happens. Especially in actual conversation. But to quote Larry Niven, "Everyone Talks First Draft." Finish the sentence. Show us the pause.

"I'm not sure...let me think...Yes, the night of the twenty-fourth."
This is fine, once or twice. Adding lots of hesitation or pregnant pauses into your dialogue ends up making your character sound like a bad William Shatner impersonation.
"I'm not sure..." He trailed off and looked out the window. "Stop badgering me and let me think!" A long silence while he studied the moonlight on the waves. "Yes, the night of the twenty-fourth."

1a) Dialogue Morse Code.
"Are you sure-" he began.
"Of course!" she snapped. "Well, maybe..."
"What the-" Their friend's protest was cut off by a great rumbling from behind them.

All dots and dashes and incomplete sentences. Realistic? yes. Annoying? Oh yes.  See the Niven quote. Finish the sentences.

"Are you sure it's this way?" He hoisted his torch and looked dubiously down the passage.
"Of course!" she snapped as she consulted the map. "Well, maybe not."
"What the-" Their friend's protest was cut off by a great rumbling from behind them.

2) Was. Being verbs have their place.
"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." The opening line of William Gibson's Neuromancer is one of the all time greats. As is 1984's "It was a cold bright day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen." (more great SF openings here.)
But "was" is a weak verb to hang a whole sentence on, much of the time. Using vibrant verbs helps color the writing.  I suggest checking to see how often you use "was" in your writing and see if some can be transposed out for something more exciting.

Also "was verbing."  Learn the difference between progressive verbs and passive voice.  If you can add the words "By zombies" after the verb, you have passive voice.

"Mistakes were made (by zombies)" is the classic example of passive voice.
"He was going to the store when he saw the alien," is a progressive verb. He is taking one action when something alters it.

 "The rain was falling." is a state of being. This should be altered to a more active verb. "The rain dribbled down in intermittent spurts that always landed just as he had to get out the car." is better. "The steady gray rain obscured the view more than ten feet in any direction." is good, too.

3) Adverb abuse. Adverbs have their place. It's simply not every place. Consider them as pepper and sprinkle in with a light hand.
3a) Adjective abuse. This is most commonly done by piling on two or three descriptors before the word, and then adding a couple afterward. More than two is probably pushing it.  "They pushed through the rank, unwholesome weeds toward the leaning decayed spire of the decrepit church which thrust against the sky like a finger broken and reset badly which now clawed at the leering, orange, gibbous moon."

4) Exclamation Point Herding. Exclamation points are tricky things. Too many make the reader feel shouted out. But you need them when someone is shouting. Here at Inkstained, we suggest no more than two per page, and limit them to dialogue. This is a flexible guideline.

5) Dialogue tags. These are the bane of my existence. Please, please, PLEASE know what your dialogue tag means and don't just yank it out of the thesaurus. Remember Stephen King: "Any word you have to find in a Thesaurus is the wrong word. No exceptions." Quip has its place. But unless you are Quentin Crisp, Oscar Wilde or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you should approach this word as though it is nitroglycerin. Do not try to hiss a sentence with no sibilants. It's a matter of using the right word for the job.

"Let's go!" he shouted, fending off the swarm. is all right.  "Let's go!" He raised his shield between himself and the swarm while their wizard mumbled the last words of the fireball. is better.

6) Creative punctuation.  Dialogue is punctuated like this:
"Let's go," he said.
Not like this:
"Let's go." He said.
"Let's go", he said
"Let's go". He said.
This is the only non-negotiable rule. Punctuate the thing properly!
Periods, quotation marks and commas should be the most common items. Question marks and exclamation points should stay in the dialogue bits. Approach em-dashes, parentheses, ellipses, colons, and semi-colons with care.

7) Present tense or second person (or both). Don't do it. Really, just don't. It sounds like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. This is the only thing on the list that will get an automatic reject.

I'm not saying don't use the things I've talked about above, barring the last two. We have no forbidden words here. No forbidden punctuation.

I'm saying use the most effective word for the job.
Sometimes that word is "was" or "believed" or "knew."
Sometimes a colon or slash is the right punctuation.
Sometimes it isn't.
Know the difference.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Deadlines Flying By

Ah, ducklings, I have to admit to you, I adore deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go flying by.

It's been an interesting road getting anthologies off the ground. We just don't have enough people throwing stories our way. We need more people to submit, even though we've had some amazing submissions so far.

In this vein, I'd like to leak a few new deadlines and some exciting up-and-coming tidbits of novels.

Firstly, Monstrously Ever After is getting its deadline extended. I'd let you see a peek of the gorgeous submissions we've gotten, but I'm not keen on the Captain keelhauling me to the airship. Let me tell you, we're wanting to gather up a few more, and you can see for yourselves. Deadline is now September 1st, come one come all.

Secondly, we've got a new novel coming out called Fated Bonds. My squidlings, this is amazing. Memphis' own HC Playa, while already published with a short story, has graced us all with her very first novel and it'll be a bash. It's shiny! New up on the site is her bio and contact information, so friend now and save some time. We'll be getting an interview with her soon enough, and you can tune into the Lost Lab for that! I always adore sending that congratulations letter.

Lastly, little monsters, there has been a time of renewal this summer. Jimmy Gillentine has been rewriting his famous series and it should be coming back out, better than ever. Those fans should faint like Elvis' girls when they see how shiny the new one is. Also, Angelia Sparrow is working on rewriting some of her signature Nikolai verse work. Yours truly has been asked to come in on the project, so we'll see where the wind takes us. A little genderqueer never hurt anyone, right?

So keep your ears to the ground and noses to the grindstone. Deadlines are evil, terrible things that are necessary! Catch a ride on one and find your next masterpiece in the pages of antiquity.

I'll be in tow!

Gabriel Belthir
Mad Scientist and First Mate