"Roundheads and Ramblings"
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.
I first met the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) folks back in 2011, when I was struggling with plans to write a biographical novel about the Yankee missionaries who went to South Carolina during the Civil War to serve a huge population of abandoned slaves. I had too many stories, too many characters, too many crises, and not nearly enough satisfactory conclusions.
The NaNoWriMo instructions were clear: just sit down and write. Quit thinking and over-thinking. That comes later. Just write, as quickly and as much as you can. Take the month of November--30 days--and write at least 1667 words every day. At the end of the month you'll have written 50,000 words. That's almost enough for a novel. If you complete the task, NaNoWriMo will reward your win by printing your completed manuscript in paperback format so you can see your work in print. Then you'll know where to go from there.
I took them at their word and worked myself into exhaustion for a month. I did it and the result was a 176-page book called "Gideon's Ladies." IT WAS AWFUL! But I learned. When I looked at my raw writing in print I saw every flaw. But I could also see where I had gone wrong and what I needed to do to correct it. So with an awful example before me, i started over, asked myself the right questions, and eventually published "The Road to Frogmore," a much improved version. (And by the way, CreateSpace still keeps that original manuscript in their listing of my works, although it is not available for sale.)
As my writing methods changed, so did NaNoWriMo. They added smaller versions of their contests in April and July, These "Camp" experiences were more like writing retreats. Authors joined others in cabins, where they were more or less matched with others writing the same sorts of materials. The program kept tract of each author's progress but added the combined word counts for each cabin. Cabin-mates could chat with each other, talk about writing problems, or ask for help. Writers were also allowed to set their own word-count goals, which took some of the pressure off.
After my first experience, I had decided that a November writing month was not for me. I had too many distractions that month--travel plans, Thanksgiving, meeting commitments. April and July suited me much better. I wrote a major portion of "Damned Yankee" in April 2013 and a finalizing section of Yankee Reconstructed in July 2015. But each time, I then swore off ever doing another NaNoWriMo marathon. I didn't need that kind of motivation any more, I told myself.
Flash forward to November 2016. My African-American genealogist friend decided to try NaNoWriMo for herself. Me? I was ready to start my next ambitious project--all on my own. And the results? My brilliant friend finished early with a blazing total of 74,450 words. Me? Well, as of today, after 130 days of planning, thinking, dreaming, and scribbling, I have written 11,525 words.
I'll save you the trouble of doing the math. That's 77 words a day. At this rate, I'll be working on this #$%^& book for 1559 more days, with a completion date scheduled for sometime in May, 2021. Clearly, I need to stop hating NaNoWriMo and get back in that regimen.
Yes, I'm committed--again! Starting April 1--and the irony of April Fool's Day is not lost on me!--I'll be showing up for Sasquatch Camp 2017--where we will pursue the impossible and hope to find some bright ideas. I've even ordered the camp shirt.
Actually I'm facing several challenges this morning, the most difficult of which has proven to be the simple act of placing butt in chair and getting back to the gritty work of writing. I've taken more than a month off, for reading, dawdling, cruising the internet, chatting with friends, cooking--anything BUT the blood-letting occupation of book creation. And make no mistake. Things have gone to pot during that time. it's taken a couple of days to clear the desk of detritus--new nail polish, candy canes, several cat toys, several cats. I've had the on-going argument with Dundee, my big orange bully, who loves to sit between my screen and the keyboard, taking bloody swipes at the hand that dares to type instead of petting him.
But there's no putting it off much longer -- except, maybe, for writing a blog post about the new problems I'm facing. Many writers fall into one of two types. There are the Plotters, who plan every step of a new book before they begin to write. And there are the Pantzers, who prefer to start writing and let the plot wander in where it will, via the seat of their pants. I tend to fall somewhere in between, although I have yet to come up with a name for my writing style, which, come to think of it, may be part of the problem.
I like to know what my story is all about before I start to write. I want to know most of the characters, (although the door is open for newcomers,) to understand where the problems lie, to have a pretty clear understanding of the major crises, and to have a clear goal in mind. Then the Plotter in me starts writing and lets the Pantzer take over, listening to the characters, being willing to be surprised, and always ready to start off on a new direction. My writing has always moved linearly and chronologically, eventually getting from point A to point B.
So what's the problem this time? Well, my new book is once again set in South Carolina at the beginning of the Civil War. (No surprises there!) But it's a bit of a thriller, with a "bad boy" figure who may be a hero or a villain. There's a fair amount of law-breaking, international spying, and violence, along with an on-going mystery. And the key to that mystery lies in a coded diary written 25 years earlier. The diary is THE PROBLEM of the moment. Its secrets will come out gradually, as someone breaks the code, but for those revelations to take place throughout the story, the diary itself must first exist, and its details must first be clear in my own writer's mind.
And that means -- GAH! I have to write it first! I am, in effect, starting in what I thought was the middle of the story. There's one plot line batting around in my brain while I try to develop an entirely different story with the same characters on my Scrivener page. The whole process reminds me of my first attempt at driving a stick-shift. The challenge of teaching my hands and feet to work separately nearly drove my father to drink. My music teacher suffered the same fate when she tried to switch me from a piano to an organ. I have a new-found respect for both of them.
I haven't posted much here lately because I've been slogging away, trying to finish my current work-in-progress. There comes a point in every book, I think, where you can't really stop. You have to keep writing to get to the end because it is now in sight. So here I've been, in air-conditioning, thank goodness, pounding the keys, and enjoying a perfectly legitimate excuse for not going out into the WTF heat.
My only breaks have been to wage another battle with a great big green worm who is determined to eat the last vestiges of my only tomato plant, just as it was showing signs of recovery and survival. I keep reminding myself that he's going to spin himself into a large cocoon one of these days and then emerge as a beautiful creature to brighten my world. Sometimes, though, the temptation to smash him into green slime is almost overwhelming.
To compensate, I've been trying to come up with an apt simile--the caterpillar and the book draft that is done--but by no means done. Both have had a tendency to consume enormous amounts. The caterpillar eats its weight in leaves and the book demands never-ending research from the leaves of several books. I've had to stop writing to go in search of all sorts of odd facts--the symptoms of diphtheria, consumption, and pandemic influenza; the inner workings of torpedos and model-T Fords; the nature of trench warfare; the exact terms of Prohibition; the causes of runs on banks, the nature of earthquakes. You name it; and I'll have looked it up somewhere.
Soon the caterpillar is going to spin his strange-looking gray shell and hang himself from a stick. The book is settling into a period of enforced inactivity. It demands that I compile all of its 46 individual files into one unified manuscript. Then I will need to put it aside and step away, letting the story settle into itself before I start the long editing process. Does the worm/book analogy hold? Well, at this stage, the book looks to me like a giant hair ball on a stick--all sorts of threads that I'm not sure are wrapped up correctly. So may they rest for a while--the cocoon and the literary hairball--and leave me free to live my life again.
But of course, the real mystery will be what emerges from that cocoon and that hairball. I know little or nothing about caterpillars, and perhaps even less about the nature of books. Will the result be the beautiful stained-glass monarch butterfly and a story that will immediately draw attention to itself? Will the caterpillar turn into the hugely elegant pale green luna moth and the book into an esoteric book that many praise and few actually read. Or will we end up with one of those dusty brown months destined to beat itself to death against a light bulb and a book that disappears into the vast underbelly of Amazon algorithms, never to be heard from again?
(Thanks to http://clancytucker.blogspot.com for sending a cartoon perfectly describing my day.)
Last week at the Military Writers Conference, a fellow author asked me when my next book was coming out. "Not until January 3rd," I responded, feeling relaxed.
"Oh, congratulations!" she said. "Why that's just around the corner. How exciting!"
And I found myself in full-blown panic mode. I'd been thinking of the release date as "Next Year." Now I realized it was "Less than 90 days."
So I'm spending my day on minutiae. Reports from Beta readers have been coming in -- good overall but with a few bloopers pointed out. And formatted e-book files have arrived, which means I must get the pre-order manuscripts submitted immediately. And so it begins.