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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

August 2012

Five Commandments from Elmore Leonard

While I’m mulling over my writing options, I’m taking a refresher course from some experts.  About six years ago, when I was just setting out as a writer, I came across Elmore Leonard’s  “Ten Rules for Writing.” The essay had appeared in The New York Times, in a series of articles called “Writers on Writing.”  The points he made have stuck with me ever since, although I re-read them periodically.  I thought you might enjoy them, too.
 
Being A Good Author Is A Disappearing Act.
By ELMORE LEONARD

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

1. Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues.
They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.
There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday,” but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . .
. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
.
 
We’ll look at the last five tomorrow.

Warm Up the Keyboard. Here We Go Again.


I’ve reached something of a milestone today.  My next book, The Road to Frogmore, has gone winging off to its production team to be formatted and given a sparkling layout.  Although much work lies ahead, in terms of proof-reading, promotion, and marketing, it is now really out of my hands. I’ve finished the manuscript.  The editing is done. It’s too late to think about major revisions or the story I didn’t tell. I’ve sent it out into the world to take its chances.
 
Am I relieved? relaxed? satisfied?  Nope, none of those.  Someone once told me that there’s a big difference between being an author and being a writer.  Sure, I thought -- writers are still involved in the process of creating a book; authors have finished.  But that’s not the real difference, because if you’re a writer, you’re never finished.
 
The real difference is this: an author looks backward at what she has produced and says, “Look what I did! I wrote a book and somebody published it!” A writer looks forward and says, “Where am I going next? What’s the next book going to look like?  What kind of research do I need to do?  How can I make the next book better? Warm up the keyboard. Here we go again”
 
That’s where I am at the moment.  First thing this morning, I looked back through my files and discovered several projects waiting to for attention.
 
  *There’s a writing contest  (sponsored by a men’s magazine, but not “that kind”) challenging writers to tell a whole story in just 79 words.   I have an entry sitting here, waiting for a final polish.  If I’m going to do it, it needs to be sent off by tomorrow.  So that’s first on my list today.  After chugging through a 122,000-word manuscript for the past months, this one should be a breeze – or will it? I’ll post the final product sometime, but not until the contest is over, so you’ll have to wonder.  Hint: the title is “Nimrod.”
 
   *Several years ago, I wrote a children’s story about the adventures of a lost teddy bear. Knowing me, you might guess that it was based on a true story.  I took photos to illustrate it, which are still here, waiting.  I even sent out some query letters, but since at the time I knew less than nothing about the art and business of publishing, the lack of response to my query was deafening and devastating.  Maybe now I’m better prepared to try again.  I at least want to think about it.
 
   *Another folder on my desktop holds the genealogical research I’ve done on my mother’s family.  She was the youngest of eight girls in a family not far-removed from pioneer status in the hills of western Pennsylvania.  Her father was six years old at the start of the Civil War and died at the beginning of the 20 century, leaving his German immigrant wife to manage the farm and family. Their mother floundered under the need to provide for those girls, and the sisters themselves chose eight very different paths to survival. Their stories are the stuff of novels but they are in danger of being lost through time.  With the exception of one male cousin, I am the last surviving member of a generation – the children of the sisters.  Moreover, I’m the only one who knew 5 of the 8 sisters and all of their children. If I don’t attempt to tell their stories, no one else will be able to do so.
 
So warm up the keyboard! Here we go again!
 
 

The Long-Term Effect of Paid Reviews

The graph above was posted by Galley Cat as an illustration of how readers should understand the star ratings on Amazon.

It makes a good point.  If there are almost as many 1-star ratings as there are 5-star ones, you need to beware of blindly believing the good reviews. 

On the other hand, once in a while, unknown readers do actually give 5-star ratings to books they really enjoy, so once again we have the problem of everyone being tarred by the same brush.

How do you feel?  Are you looking at reviews differently now?

4 Problems That Suggest It's Crisis Time for Indie Authors

I wish I could start this blog by promising to bring you new solutions to current problems, but unfortunately all I can manage is an identification of those problems.  The topsy-turvy world of publishing is facing a whole series of crises at the moment, and e-book authors are not immune.  In fact, we are at the very center of some of these problems. Here are some of the trends I’m noticing.  What are we to do about them?  I have no easy answers, but I suspect the first step comes with recognizing that there are problems.
 
1.     The big crisis of the week was the revelation that Todd Rutherford and others like him have been selling 5-star book reviews to anyone willing to pay for them.  You’ve likely heard the outcry! Once it becomes known that not all reviews are legitimate, all reviews become suspect. Those of us who work hard to earn the praise of strangers who read our books are tarred by the same brush as those who have laid out thousands of dollars to fill up their Amazon ratings. Because, after all, how can a prospective customer know if that great review came from a happy reader, or your doting Aunt Sally, or one of Rutherford’s lackeys who churn out reviews based on a picture of the cover?

If there’s any comfort in this, it comes from viewing our less-than-stellar reviews with a certain amount of gratitude.  In one location I have a 2-star write-up that goes on for some time about how boring my book it. Now I can say “Thanks” for demonstrating that at least I haven't purchased my reviews!

2.     The second crisis that disturbed me this week was triggered by a status that appeared on my Facebook page from someone I have never heard of.  How did this gentleman get there? I have no idea, which is in itself troubling.  However, what really worried me was his message. This was a writer who, based on the popularity of “50 Shades,” had determined that no one wants to read anything but sex today. So he had just issued a 12,000 word, 40+ page “book” that contained nothing but one prolonged sexual encounter – no plot, no setting, no names beyond “he” and ‘she” – just steamy scenes. He offered the “book” for free, with a link to a Smashwords page, where a prospective reader could download the first few pages to whet the appetite – or something!  I have no idea how many downloads he chalked up, but his approach to writing a “book” must cast a shadow over all our legitimate efforts.

3.     And in the midst of unscrupulous people out for a buck without caring about the overall effect of their actions, we’re getting word that the rules of social media are changing – faster and more quietly than we can keep up with.  I pointed out a couple of changes on Amazon last week, having to do with the way they count free downloads as “sales.” Now I’m wondering what they will do about some of their lists, like the ones that rely totally on customer reviews to provide the “top-ranked” books in each of their categories. If reviews are now suspect . . . . . . . .?

4.     Another place where the rules are changing is Google. They, too, are changing their algorithms that show the relative popularity of websites.  I can’t begin to explain what’s going on, except for pointing out that one Google mogul has been quoted as saying, “We’re changing it, and  you’re not going to like it!”  I’m seeing the effects of it (whatever it is) already.  The report that tells me how many hits my website gets  has been running even, or growing slowly, every day for the past 18 months.  How, then, did it plummet from an average of 450 hits per day to 47? I don’t think I said anything offensive enough to cause a total black-listing, but there it it. Rumor has it that they are no longer counting back links or connections that come from other sites such as Twitter or Facebook. If so, internet marketers will have some major adjustments to make.
 
Have you noticed any other changes coming? Do you have any suggestions as to how we meet the new challenges? Let’s start a conversation.

Reimaging Education NOW

One of my former students alerted me to this column, which every teacher needs to read:

Yup!

It's a presidential election season, which means we can all be sure of two things: conversations about education will take a backseat to more "pressing" issues like the economy and foreign policy, and Congress will once again do nothing to address our desperate need for a new federal education policy.

However, just because our elected officials can't get the job done doesn't mean the rest of us are powerless to be the change we wish to see in the world. In fact, local educators could do a lot to sidestep national policymakers by committing to do just three things this coming school year:

1. Be Visionary -- Almost every school in America has a mission statement to guide its short-term decisions. Almost no school in America has a vision statement to guide its long-term aspirations. Is it any wonder that educators feel overwhelmed by the day-to-day responsibilities of their work?

One of the defining characteristics of any transformational organization -- whether it's an elementary school or a Fortune 500 company -- is an ability to manage the creative tension between a distant vision and an up-close focus. As educators, that means it's essential we keep an eye on the daily progress of our students in subjects like reading and math. And it means articulating a long-range goal to which we aspire, and being mindful of which decisions will get us there -- and which will take us off course.

As an example, consider Science Leadership Academy, a public high school in Philadelphia with a mission of "providing a rigorous, college-preparatory curriculum with a focus on science, technology, mathematics and entrepreneurship." SLA's mission clarifies the curricular focus of the school, but it tells us little about what shapes its philosophy of learning. For that, you need to consider its vision: to consistently ask and answer three questions -- "How do we learn? What can we create? And what does it mean to lead?"

That extra layer of specificity is helpful not just to prospective parents, but also to SLA students, staff and administrators. And while educators are right to feel that the last ten years of federal education policy have narrowed their work to little more than basic-skills literacy and numeracy, there's nothing preventing schools from taking the time to dream bigger.

2. Be Specific -- Everyone agrees that in an ideal school, young people acquire the skills and habits to develop not just intellectually, but also socially and emotionally. According to our lawmakers, however, the mark of a successful school is still disproportionately based on reading and math scores. That's ridiculous -- but so are we if we refuse to take the time to explicitly identify which additional skills and habits we want students to practice and acquire.

This sort of work occurs informally in most schools, which hold generalized values for things like character, collaboration and empathy. Sometimes these words may appear on a wall; other times they may get discussed during an advisory class. But there's a big difference between implicitly valuing something in a person and explicitly committing to ensure that a person embodies those values.

The good news is that in a lot of schools, this sort of work has already begun. At the Project School in Indiana, educators work every day to nurture three sets of habits in their students: mind, heart and voice. And at the MC2 school in New Hampshire, students are assessed by their ability to master seventeen habits of lifelong learning -- habits with specific rubrics and sub-skills that build a clear map for personal growth and evaluation.

Imagine if every school took the time to decide which skills and habits were most important to them, and then went the extra step by deciding how to measure what matters most?

3. Be Comprehensive -- It is both necessary and insufficient to craft a shared vision or identify which skills are most important for a young person's overall learning and growth. What distinguishes transformational schools from the rest is their commitment to align everything they do -- from student assessment to teacher evaluation to parent inclusion -- around what they aspire to become.

This is not a code our elected lawmakers are likely to crack anytime soon. So let's stop waiting. Let's use the coming school year to take back our profession by raising it to a different standard of clarity and possibility. And let's start holding ourselves accountable to a vision that actually reflects what we know is required to leave no child behind.