"Roundheads and Ramblings"
I'm taking a couple of days' break from NaNoWriMo while I wait for my new wrist brace to arrive in tomorrow's mail. Apparently the last few days of writing 3000 words a day have set off a reaction in my carpal tunnel -- or maybe it's just a warning from the ever-lurking old-age-related arthritis. Whatever the case, I'm trying to limit my keyboard use. So why am I writing a blog? Guess I'm an IT addict.
I thought I'd use this break to remind you of one of my favorite websites.The picture above is the official trademark of The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. If you like it, you can order it printed on all sorts of objects (tee shirts, coffee mugs, even men's boxers!)
Here's their motto:
"No good Southern fiction is complete without a dead mule."
--Val MacEwan, 1996
The website has been active since 1996, but the idea can be traced back as far as 1930 and the two dead mules in William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.
I discovered their site back when i was writing The Road to Frogmore. I immediately found a spot where I could add the required scene: a disgruntled Confederate veteran shooting an ex-slave's mules and leaving them to die in the middle of the road.
And just as quickly one of my readers responded with fury. She wrote that she was opposed to all animal cruelty, and if I killed an animal in my book, she would never read my writing again. Undeterred, I left the scene stand. Maybe she never bought another book. I don't know.
But I remembered this issue when a similar question arose over at the NaNoWriMo Camp about killing off one's characters. And yes, I was the one who sparked it by killing off one of my characters. Then I noticed something interesting about the reactions. I'll talk about them in detail tomorrow. But in the meantime, how do you feel about books in which main characters die? i'd really like to know. Send private comments here.
business is tougher than it looks! For
most of my working life, I was an academic. I wrote scholarly stuff to prove to
other scholars that I was doing my
homework. An academic book requires the author to include such deadly material
as detailed, endless footnotes, copious illustrations, diagrams and authentic
photographs, frequent references to other scholars in the field, a complete
recitation of the current status of scholarship in the field, and at least one theoretical framework. It was sometimes boring, but I was pretty good at it, and I had
publications with major university presses.
Then I retired
and turned to a new field of study—one that had always interested me but in
which I had little formal instruction. I wanted to write about a small battle
of the Civil War, basing the narrative on a letter collection written by my
great uncle who founght there. I wrote the kind of book I knew how to
write—full of illustrations, professionally drawn maps, lengthy bibliography,
and tons of footnotes. I sent the manuscript off to the university presses I
knew, and they said “No, thank you. Not enough theroetical positioning, not
enough discussion of the current scholarship in the field, no review of
literature, yada, yada, yada.”
So I re-grouped,
faced the fact that my audience was no longer filled with fellow academics, decided
there was another audience out there, and sent it off to some smaller
publishers who specialized in Civil War books. One accepted it almost
immediately and I sent it off unchanged from the original. They published it, in all its academic
gobbledegook, and offered it to re-enactors and battlefield visitors. it fell
flat. Only my friends bought it, and they did so only to be nice.
publisher remaindered it, I took back my publishing rights, did a major
overhaul, and created the kind of book the Civil War buffs seemed to be looking
for. I took out the footnotes, rewriting to put any vital citations into the
text. I took out all the illustrations and put them up on Pinterest for anyone
who was really interested. And then I tightened the storyline, hired a cover designer
to come up with a more appealing picture, and put much more emphasis on the
human interest angles. It was still my book. I was still writing what I knew
and what I cared about, but this time I kept the reader in mind. And I sold
over 700 books in the first two weeks of Kindle publication.
That’s what I
call “giving the readers what they are looking for.” KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE!
I still have to
remind myself of that from time to time. Almost all of my books are set in and
around Charleston, South Carolina. Recently I published a novel set in western Pennsylvania, and my
South Carolina readers hate it. It’s not what they expect. I’ve gotten the
message. The next one returns to Charleston.
I had a
NaNoCabinmate a couple of years ago who tried to talk me into writing medieval
fantasy. I could do that and It would probably be fun (I love Harry Potter!).
But I won’t do it. My readers know I’m a historian as well as a writer. They
comment on how much they learn from my books. They trust me to give them the nitty-gritty,
even when it’s not convenient or pleasant. I can’t betray that trust by turning
to fantasy and telling them that dragons are real or giving Henry VIII a
horrible example set by someone else. A highly selective book award contest
recently asked me to review a new book just coming out. It was a war story, but
it flashed back and forth between the story of brave and single-minded soldiers
in wartime, and the blatantly sexual antics
their wives were up to back home. The audience the writer had in mind
was quite obvious. (Note: On Amazon, he had one review from a fellow who
admitted he read a lot of “erotica” and gave it five stars.)
He was writing
for a certain male audience who would enjoy wallowing in their own pornographic
fantasies. That was his choice, and he was free to make it. I think he
understood that audience. But the poor fellow made the mistake of thinking that
everyone would like the kind of book he had written. So he entered a serious
book contest designed for military writers.
And instead of someone who likes erotica, he got a reviewer-judge who
happened to be an elderly military wife. And she was not amused.
Bottom line: You
are free to pick your audience. Decide who you want to read your book, and then
figure out what they want to read. Then write for them.
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, Cont'.
By ELMORE LEONARD
6. Never use the
words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
This rule doesn’t
require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to
exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
7. Use regional
dialect, patois, sparingly.
Once you start
spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes,
you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of
Wyoming voices in her book of short stories “Close Range.”
8. Avoid detailed
descriptions of characters.
covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” what do the
“American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put
it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the
story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with
not one adverb in sight.
9. Don’t go into
great detail describing places and things.
Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the
style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want
descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
10. Try to leave
out the part that readers tend to skip.
A rule that came to
mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose
you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s
writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather,
or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the
guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.
My most important
rule is one that sums up the 10.
If it sounds like
writing, I rewrite it.
Or, if proper usage
gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English
composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt
to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious
writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what
you want to say.)
If I write in
scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character—the one
whose view best brings the scene to life—I’m able to concentrate on the voices
of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they
see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.
What Steinbeck did
in “Sweet Thursday” was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of
what they cover. “Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, “Lousy Wednesday”
another. The third chapter is titled “Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter
“Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: “Here’s
where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get
in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”
came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never
forgotten that prologue.
Did I read the
hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.
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.
As I started thinking about story arcs, I ran across this set of guidelines. It was put together by someone who does a lot of reviewing,
and as a reviewer myself, i can clearly imagine the kind of book that spurred
him to compose it. It appeared as part
of a longer article, which you might find at: www.writermarkstevens.com
, but even
without the rest of the article, his point is clear: “Think about your reader,
not yourself. The important question is not what you want to write, but what
your reader wants to read.”
You don’t have to follow these rules – unless, of
course, you hope to sell your book!
Hope I can keep them firmly in mind for the next thirty days.
• Keep it simple.
• Give me one character with a strong point of view.
• Show me that character’s attitude about one thing.
• Don’t give me blah.
• Or ordinary.
• Give me edge; risk.
• Convince me that the story starts on this day.
• Rivet me with a colorful detail. Or two.
• Decide why I want to spend a few hundred pages with your main character and give me one reason to engage in the first few pages.
• Help me see, taste, smell, touch. Make it sensory.
• Avoid using dialogue that is only designed to fill readers in on the background lives of the characters. (Just don’t!) This is dialogue as “info dump.” It’s deadly.
• But, mostly, keep it simple.
• Really simple.
• No, really.