Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Elmore Leonard

The weather men

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Elmore Leonard

“Never open a book with the weather,” Elmore Leonard said, and he was absolutely right. Still, the fact that he felt compelled to put this admonition at the top of his ten rules of writing testifies to the fact that there’s something about weather—and, more generally, the description of the environment in which a story takes place—that novice authors find irresistible. The weather, as we all know, is a classic topic for small talk because it affects all of us equally, and we can all be expected to take at least a passing interest in what kind of day it looks to be. Much the same impulse applies to describing the weather in fiction: it comes easily to mind when we’re sketching the outlines of a scene, it allows us to ease into the day’s work without much effort, and it feels, based on our memories of the other stories we’ve read, like the sort of thing that belongs somewhere at the beginning. But while it’s fine to use the weather or the landscape as an entry point into the story when you’re working on a first draft, in the rewrite, nearly all of it can be cut, especially when it occurs in a story or chapter’s crucial opening lines.

A description of the weather is a bad choice for the opening of a story for the same reason it comes so easily: it’s fundamentally impersonal. Unless the story is explicitly about man versus nature—and even then, you’re usually better off starting with the man—most good narratives center on human problems, and particularly on the choices made by the protagonist to meet a series of objectives. There’s nothing in the weather that applies specifically to any one individual: the rain falls on the just and the unjust, so you’re wasting valuable space with lines that convey no information to the reader. There’s a place, obviously, for atmosphere and scenic description, but it generally fits best at a point where the conflict and personalities have already been established. Like a television show that returns from a commercial break on a tight closeup of the lead, reserving the wide shot until after the scene is in motion, a good scenic description sets the stage only once the players have been introduced. As the beginning, it’s the literary equivalent of small talk; it may be superficially painless, and it gets you safely to the other side of the first paragraph, but it’s hard to expect any reader to really care.

Gone With the Wind

Of course, there are times when the weather can be an active player in the narrative, and not just when the characters are set against it like King Lear in the storm. If you’re a writer, like Updike or Nabokov, given to what James Wood calls “propaganda on behalf of good noticing,” the weather can be just another subject on which you can exercise your gifts for description, although you’d better be sure before you begin that the result will reward this test on the reader’s patience. More subtly, the description of a character’s surroundings can be used to evoke an inner state or mood. Sometimes this skirts dangerously to the pathetic fallacy, or the urge to attribute human emotion to impersonal forces of nature, but when embedded within a conventional first-person or limited third-person viewpoint, it makes perfect sense. When we’re absorbed in what we’re doing, we may not notice the weather at all; when we’re worried, nervous, or depressed, we naturally pick out aspects of our surroundings that remind us of our own feelings. When every detail is channeled through one character’s point of view, the sky can be a mirror of the self—although, again, this assumes that we’ve already been given a particular pair of eyes though which to see.

Even in narratives that are written more objectively, there’s room for description that grounds characters in environments that are secretly expressions of personality. The fantasy author Steve Rasnic Tem calls this dream characterization:

A particular theory of gestalt dream interpretation suggests that every object in a dream is a piece of the dreamer. A chair, a table, a car, another human being—each would represent some aspect of the dreamer…We might say that all other objects in the story—the landscape, the other characters, the supernatural presence, even the individual events—represent some aspect of the protagonist…Each piece suggests or tells us something about our main character. Far more, I suspect, than a delineation of traits and opinions ever could.

And there’s no question that the environment of a scene can influence our impressions. There’s a famous story about David Selznick trying to decide what the weather should be in the final scene of Gone With the Wind, after Rhett delivers his last line to Scarlett. If Rhett had left on a pleasant evening, the audience might assume that he would return one day; or, if he walked off into the rain, that he would never come back. In the final version, he disappears into a dense fog, which neatly splits the difference. Even the weather, then, has its uses. But it needs to flow from character and situation, rather than being imposed from above, if the reader is going to give a damn.

Written by nevalalee

June 10, 2014 at 9:46 am

Mr. Leonard and Mrs. Post

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Emily Post

When I was in my early twenties and fresh out of college, I bought a copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette and read through it cover to cover. I wasn’t just looking for tips on how to improve my own table manners, although I was interested in seeing if there was anything important I’d somehow missed, and I’ve never forgotten her advice on how to discreetly spit out an olive pit. What fascinated me more about the book, and which took me through more than seven hundred pages of advice on place settings, forms of address, and wedding seating arrangements, was the idea of etiquette itself. Etiquette begins as behavior, as millions of human beings collide in unpredictable ways, and over time, certain habits start to seem more elegant or desirable than others. At first, the process is collective and organic, learned by example, observation, and trial and error; later, someone writes it down, and we learn it by the book. It might seem stodgy or restrictive, but ideally, it’s a set of best practices, a guide to what has worked for people in similar situations in the past, all set down in one convenient place.

As unlikely as it might seem, I’ve been thinking about this a lot since the death of Elmore Leonard. Whenever a writer of his stature dies, it brings forth the usual tributes, and in Leonard’s case, nearly every obituary or discussion of his legacy mentions the ten rules of writing that he contributed years ago to the New York Times. There are hundreds of such lists out there—even I’m guilty of writing one—but Leonard’s collection of maxims has displayed unusual staying power, and I suspect that it’s familiar even to those who haven’t read a word of his fiction. The list resonates, first, because it’s full of excellent, pragmatic advice (“Keep your exclamation points under control,” “Never open a book with weather”) and because it embodies Leonard’s own virtues of humor, directness, and experience. Like the rules of etiquette, these are tools that have been discovered and refined over time, learned through practical use, and finally distilled into a set of guidelines to benefit others who are just starting out. And if you don’t like Leonard’s rules, there are plenty of other good lists to follow.

Elmore Leonard

The proliferation of books on writing, from the sublime Paris Review interviews to guides by the likes of Janet Evanovich, means that it’s possible to spend as much time reading other writers’ thoughts on craft as on creating your own work. That wasn’t always the case: when Jack Woodford’s book Trial and Error—the spiritual ancestor of many of the popular writing guides we see on shelves today—was first published in 1933, there wasn’t much out there like it. And although much of the advice in these books is very good, there’s a limit to how far it can take us. I went through a period where I devoured every book on writing I could find, searching for tricks or tips, but these days, I’m more likely to find new ideas by reading about other forms of craft, like theater, coding, or the visual arts. I’m a little burnt out on writing handbooks, not because they aren’t useful, but because such rules are less valuable as guidelines, imposed from the top down, than as a way of clarifying the discoveries that every author makes on his or her own. Almost everyone eventually learns not to open a book, or even a chapter, with the weather, but the reasoning behind it—that’s better just to get on with the story—is something you only learn with time.

The rules of writing are a lot like the rules of life: they only find meaning once you’ve intuited them yourself. Although it rarely hurts, reading philosophy doesn’t automatically make us good citizens, any more than reading Emily Post can transform you into a natural socialite. A philosophical insight, or a rule of good behavior, only attains its full meaning after you’ve deduced it from your own life and assimilated it into your experience. Part of this is just because of the way we think—we’re more likely to believe in something after we’ve lived through it firsthand rather than reading it in the pages of a book—and also because such rules rise or fall on their specific applications. “Love your enemies” is just a luminous phrase until we’ve been forced to apply it to a particular enemy with a face and name we’d prefer to hate, just as “show, don’t tell” only assumes its full power after we’ve relearned it in a thousand different situations. And like the best rules of ethics and life, once we’ve figured them out for ourselves, they become obvious, even invisible, until they only seem to remind us of what we already know.

Written by nevalalee

August 22, 2013 at 8:50 am

Writing the detailed outline, part 1

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Habit, as I’ve said before, is a writer’s best friend, and these days, I find myself having to fall back on my old work ethic more than ever. With the publication of The Icon Thief less than four weeks away, it’s easy to forget that I have another novel due in less than nine months. And while November 1, which is when I’m contracted to deliver The Scythian, may seem like a long way off, in order to produce a decent book, I need to start writing now. Over the past couple of weeks, then, I’ve been taking my rough synopsis for the novel and fleshing it out into a blueprint that I can use to write the first draft. In some ways, this is the most crucial step of the process, so it seems like a good time to talk here about what what an outline really means, at least to me, and how it differs from what most of us imagine when we envision the outlining stage. Because a detailed outline is the most useful writing tool I’ve ever found.

Every writer has a different approach to outlining. Some, like Elmore Leonard, don’t do it at all; others, like Lawrence Block, work best from brief notes on a couple of index cards; and a few create an outline that is basically a short novel in itself. I fall squarely in the latter camp. As I’ve noted before, I outline like it’s my second job. Part of this is due to the conventions of the kind of thriller I’ve found myself writing: much of the reader’s enjoyment, at least in theory, comes from the convergence of countless small plot threads and pieces of information, which need to be planned in advance. It’s also because of what I can only describe as a sort of paradoxical laziness. The physical act of writing a first draft is so taxing that the last thing I want is to worry about an unresolved plot problem when I’m just trying to put words on the page. As a result, I’ve found myself dividing the writing process in half: first, I produce a detailed outline, which takes care of the bare bones of story, and only then do I begin the actual writing. For whatever reason, this makes the whole process less painful.

In a way, it’s something like the relationship between a screenplay and a finished movie. When you read a screenplay, you get a lot of information: the order of scenes, all of the dialogue, and enough of a sense of the action to allow you to picture it in your head. All the same, even the greatest script isn’t meant to be a self-contained work of art: it’s a blueprint that is gradually elaborated at every step of the way. A detailed outline is like a script for the novel I hope to write: it contains each important story beat, a sense of dialogue and atmosphere, and a list of objectives, sometimes down to the individual sentence. The result is a document that can approach the length of the final draft itself. For The Scythian, for instance, I’ve already outlined eight chapters, which I expect will come to something substantially less than fifteen thousand words. The number of words in my “outline” so far? Twelve thousand.

Obviously, this approach isn’t for everyone, and even as I look back on what I’ve written here, it sounds somewhat insane. Yet I’ve found that it’s the only way I can produce the sort of fiction I enjoy writing, under what are often considerable time constraints. And far from inhibiting creativity, I find that it actually enhances it. Writing an outline is an elaborate and intellectually challenging sort of game: I don’t need to worry about writing well, but about constructing a series of clearly defined beats that tell the story I want to tell, even in the absence of good prose. Since I live with an outline for weeks, I find myself fussing over it at odd moments, tinkering with it, sometimes radically altering it. And when the time finally comes to write, I have a solid foundation of story on which I can always rely, even if the act of writing itself often takes me in surprising directions. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking more about how I approach the outlining process each day, and how I turn a mere synopsis into the blueprint for an actual story.

Written by nevalalee

February 9, 2012 at 11:09 am

Posted in Writing

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2,872,682,109 words

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No, that isn’t the word count for the Kung Fu Panda fanfic I mentioned a few days ago—it’s the number of words written by participants in this year’s National Novel Writing Month, which officially wrapped up this week.

How many of those words are actually worth reading? Given the nature of any first draft, it’s probably close to zero. But that doesn’t mean, as Brian Gresko recently argued in the Huffington Post, that National Novel Writing Month is “hooey.” The most useful qualities that any writer can possess, at least early on, are energy and productivity. And if you can write 2,000 grammatically correct words a day, every day, most other issues will eventually take care of themselves. (As Elmore Leonard reminds us, it may take a million words or more, but it will happen sooner or later.)

The main event, though, comes next March, which is National Novel Editing Month. I don’t know offhand how many participants from NaNoWriMo will stick around for NaNoEdMo, but if they’re serious about their writing, they’ll all make an effort to do so. Revision, it bears repeating, is the heart of creation. As John Gardner notes in On Writers and Writing, it’s what writers do:

Before Boccaccio’s time, as has been recently pointed out, writers used parchment. To make a Bible you had to kill three hundred cows. Books cost a lot, in money and cattle-blood….Then in Boccaccio’s time paper was introduced, so that suddenly it was possible for Boccaccio to write down a dirty joke he’d heard, fool around with it a little—change the farmer’s daughter into a nun, for instance, or introduce comically disparate high-class symbolism—and produce the Decameron. Chaucer did the same only better…For artists, writing has always meant, in effect, the art of endless revising.

So for all of you who finished your novel this month, congratulations. The real work, and the real fun, is just beginning…

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