ReBlog: Elmore Leonard: 10 Rules

I’m on board with all of these except the one about the prologue.

I do agree that if there is a prologue it should be short and not a necessary part of the story as many people skip over them. In my novel, An Untold Want, I have a prologue that introduces the tone of the book. The reader won’t be missing any facts if they skip it, but it’s a nice bit of prose, even if I do say so myself.

~ o ~

They say the day Goodie Lowrey’s husband died thousands of crows converged on Jacob’s Creek, blackening the noonday sky and drowning out her screams in a tumult of wings and incessant chatter. They say only the crows bore witness to the curse Goodie placed on Agnes MacAllister and that they’ve carried the secret for these two hundred years.

They say any man foolish enough to fall under the spell of a MacAllister woman deserves his fate.

Maggie MacAllister tries not to listen to what they say, to the whispers as she walks past, to the nuance of their words that turn a nicety into an accusation, but a walk through the family cemetery is all the proof she needs they might be right.

Indie Hero

Elmore Leonard: 10 Rules

Among all the lists of writing rules and advice, this one ranks high, in my opinion. Simple, yet so important.

  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.
  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.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

 * Excerpted from the New York Times article, “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle”


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Ask the Author: Where did you get the idea for your most recent book?

Goodreads goodreads_icon_100x100-86359711e159b24740d60683e79eec45recently added a feature called “Ask the Author”.  To get the author started, the Goodreads Team listed some typical questions. Prompts like “How do you deal with writer’s block?” and “How do you get inspired to write?”

I thought I’d start with an easy one. “Where did you get the idea for your most recent book?”

Everyday I see something or read something, and I think, that would be a great story. For awhile I kept a list of story ideas, but it got to the point it was frustrating to note down another idea and not do anything with it. I’ve sat in movies and halfway through thought, if this doesn’t end the way I think it’s going to end, then I’m going to write that story.

With Couillon, I was under pressure to write a short story for a literary fiction class I was taking. On the web I had recently seen an image of Jesus and Mary painted in DayGlo colors, and in my head, I immediately saw that painting hanging in a voodoo shop in New Orleans. I love all things mystical and spooky. That image of the voodoo shop gave me the theme and led me to write the first section [20 pages or less for the class], the scene where Janice purchases the voodoo doll. I later turned that short story into a novella.

An Untold Want had no such immediate inspiration, no ah ha moment. I had finished my literary fiction class and helped form a short-lived writing group with some of the members of said class. They were all working on A Novel, and I thought I should be working on a novel too. Again, I love anything arcane. But for me, a novel can’t just be about witches or spooky stuff. Yes, there are a lot of novels out there about witches and ghosts, but I don’t write urban fantasy. I’ve tried to write genre, because it sells better, but I just don’t think that way when I’m writing. Then I thought about Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic, and I decided to try my hand at a story like that. It ended up being nothing like Practical Magic, except it has witches, but that was the key factor in how An Untold Want started. I pulled the last name from one of my favorite songs, Ode to Billie Joe, but spelled MacAllister differently. I took the setting from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. You don’t get spookier than Savannah. And from those key factors, I built a small town and an unhappy woman who is a bit too much like me.

For my latest project [working title: Twin Story], I decided that I did not want to invent another small town. It’s a lot of work to create a world, from the street grid to the geography [Is it a swampy area? What are the trees/flowers like? What does it smell like? What are the buildings like?] to the town’s personality/attitude. I’ve lived in Seattle long enough that I thought I’d try my hand at writing a novel based in Seattle. But my novels have to have that bit of the esoteric, or they wouldn’t be mine. So I decided to incorporate Native American mythology into it.

But the key factor, what really started the project was an article I read in the Weird News on some newspaper website. I can’t tell you what the news story was because that would give away a large part of the story I’m working on. But those three things — Seattle, Native American mythology, and weird news — gave me the premise for my new novel. I’ve since read a lot about Native Americans, about the residential schools [which disturbs me greatly], about the different tribes, and about the myths especially those of Raven. I didn’t realize how different the Pacific Northwest tribes are, but I’ve grown to love the Native American mythology. I’m still not sure how I will pull it all together, but I’m working on it.

With that said, I should be writing the book instead of writing about it. I wish it were as easy as writing a blog post.

Book Blurbs are Hard

AUWJust recently, I queried Indies Unlimited about listing my book as one of their Featured Books. Everything about my book passed muster with flying colors [cover, reviews, author pages, preview], everything except the book blurb. Kat, who has been very helpful, said that my book blurb is confusing. And to be honest it is/was. Mostly because I know what the book is about, but condensing it down into 200 or so words is more difficult than I imagined.

The problem is that An Untold Want is a women’s literary novel, not a romance, nor is it a urban-fantasy, even though it has witches and ghosts. And a young suitor.

Maggie is the main character, and she has issues, with everything, especially her family heritage. She grew up in a world where gossip is truth, and image is everything. Witch is not the story. It’s a factor in the story. Same when it comes to romance.

So I don’t want to represent it as an urban-fantasy[or romance] novel. Yes, there are witches. Yes, there is a relationship, actually several of them in the book, but calling it an urban-fantasy or romance novel is missing the mark by a long shot, and misleading the reader. It’s about three women finding their self-worth. The romance and witches are elements used to make it a deeper, more well-rounded story.

I’m frustrated with myself, with how difficult it is to put all that into 200 or so words, to get the tone just right so that the potential reader will want to purchase it and be happy with their purchase. You see, I bought into the whole idea of cross-genre books that people like Donald Maass are pitching, because it sounds like the best of all worlds, but in general the reader population hasn’t really bought into it.  They see witches and think urban fantasy.  Same when it comes to romance.

So how do I write a book blurb that expresses all of that without putting off the reader, without it coming across as boring or condescending? I can’t write: This is a book about witches and love, but it’s not about witches and love.

Today, I contacted Lisa, my editor and friend. We reviewed the advice Kat gave me, which Lisa backed wholeheartedly, and we worked on re-writing my book blurb. I’m on about my tenth re-write, with Lisa, as she says, adjusting my direction.

This is what I’m going to submit to Kat:

Being born into a family of witches in a small Georgia town is more than enough to brand Maggie MacAllister a social pariah. In the fifteen years since she came home from college with a PhD, baby Liz, and no husband, she has withdrawn from life, from a world where gossip is truth and image is all that matters.

Maggie just wants a normal life, maybe even a husband, but everyone knows that any man who falls for a MacAllister woman dies in the prime of life. So, even though Maggie sees herself as a rational, science-minded person, her family and its history weighs on her, colors her life in deep shades of loneliness and self-doubt.

When a medical emergency befalls her daughter, Maggie is forced to examine the choices she has made. Forced to let others into her rigid, cloistered lifestyle. Forced to recognize a potential, and younger, suitor. But will she be able to overcome her fear of what others think of her and accept her heritage? And if she does, will she be able to protect the people important to her from the small town dogma and drama and still find happiness?

If,  for whatever reasons, you’re having the same problems:

Lisa is now taking new clients if you’re looking for someone to help you polish your book [or book blurb], and the Indies Unlimited reference on writing book blurbs,  The Blurb Doctor is In, is an excellent starting place.

Book.Review: The Goldfinch


I picked up The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt because it sounded intriguing.  I’m trying to remember if it had already been designated a Pulitizer prize winner when I purchased it. What I do remember is that I very much enjoyed Ms. Tartt’s novel The Secret History and thought that this should be a good book too.

But this book, this book really tried my patience.  The story is good, some of the prose beautiful, but as so many of the Amazon reviewers stated, Ms. Tartt needed an honest editor. The Goldfinch should have been about 450 pages, not 750 pages. The (asides) started driving me crazy about two chapters in, and there are lots of them. So many that I started skipping over whole Kindle pages of text nested inside parentheses. Most added little to the story line. And finally after dragging myself though Potter’s –Theo Decker’s– miserable self loathing, what with his ability to take one minute of action and introspect it into thirty pages of mental gymnastics, I got near the end and Ms. Tartt apparently decided that parentheses weren’t enough.  At about the 98% mark on the Kindle, I ran into this artificial construct:

[As for Pippa: ………  three pages more ] new paragraph [You can have either… another page] pages of regular text [That little guy… a BUNCH more pages] and so on.

BTW, there are parentheses’d asides inside this ridiculous formatting choice. I say ridiculous, because I still can not figure out what the brackets are supposed to indicate.

I almost quit reading. At 98% finished, I almost quit reading.

If you knew me better, you’d realize that it takes a lot for me to leave a book unfinished. You’d realize that I love long complicated sentences. I love f’ed up, unlikable characters.  That I write long complicated sentences about unlikable characters, sentences which often get dinged, by readers and teacher, for being too long, too complicated, or too introspective.  In my books, I don’t use asides contained within parentheses. Yes, I frequently do so in my blog, but my blog posts are short, and the asides do not stop the flow of the story, which Ms. Tartt does frequently with these unnecessary aside. I don’t even like it when Stephen King does (asides), and he owns my heart.

So even though I, too, write these long, complicated sentences about unlikable characters, quite a few times I considered just tossing The Goldfinch. In 750 pages, the only interesting character is Boris, and in many places she has made him quite two-dimensional. All the other characters are predictable, except for maybe Welty. Sadly, Welty played a very small part in the book.

So what I’m asking myself is how this book won a Pulitzer. It’s a formatting nightmare. The plot is interesting, but the characters are stereotypical at best. The protagonist is detestable, often boring in his continual mental-flagellation. And with fifteen pages left to read, I don’t believe that he’s changed.  Ms. Tartt even pulled a deus ex machina when she has Boris sweep in and save the day, apparently so that Theo doesn’t have to change.  With fifteen pages to go, I still feel like Theo — Theo, whose name translates into god in Greek — is rationalizing his mistakes. A god he is not. Not even Dionysus. Dionysus isn’t that whiny. I think I would have preferred an ending where Boris didn’t show up to save the day.

I’m still considering whether I want to bother and read those last fifteen pages. I probably will, but only to see if anything gets any better. I’m not holding my breath.

This book had so much potential, from it being written by a brilliant author to the brilliant plot. But it appears that Ms. Tartt’s ego is bigger than her common sense or her editor’s persuasion ability.  I’m giving The Goldfinch 3-stars, because of my rating system, and because I’m trying to be generous. Of the nine thousand plus reviews on Amazon, nearly a nine hundred of them are one-star reviews, and over a thousand are two-star reviews. So I am being more generous than many.

As a reader, I doubt I will invest the time in another of Ms. Tartt’s novels. As a writer, I’m perplexed that something like this could win a Pulitzer. As a new author, I know that if I had written this novel, I wouldn’t have gotten an agent or publisher to look twice at it.

If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your opinion and why you hold that opinion.