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Oh, Finding the Time

This morning I got an email from Netflix reminding me their series, House of Cards, would be starting its third season any day. Of course I’ll watch it, I thought. After all, didn’t I binge-watch the first two. And Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle?

But I’ve been trying to build a small career as a writer (so far four short stories and two essays published professionally) so if I’m spending so much time streaming—not to mention watching regular television programs such as Downton Abby and Marvel’s Agent Carter—when am I going to write?

I started this post with the idea of complaining about how easy it must be for a man to find time for writing since he often has someone nearby to prepare his meals and clean up after him. Yet, all those successful female novelists, memoirists, and journalists seem to argue against that kind of thinking. Surely all of them don’t have access to servants—as Jane Austin likely did. Some, of course live alone and let the dishes sit in the sink or make dinner when they’re good and ready, damn it. Still, many women writers must be the main cooks, laundresses, downstairs and upstairs maids, and nannies in their households. So, when do they write?

Every day, promptly at 5 pm, I get called from my study to make dinner, or at least the salad, which he hates making. He rarely offers to clean up—my fault probably for not insisting but then I do hate both conflict and a messy kitchen. I also do most of the other house chores and the grocery shopping. But really, it’s not that time consuming. I have no small children to care for and currently no job other than writing. So, again, why do I feel like time is so tight?

My best guess is that I suffer from something that plagues modern Western culture—too much choice when it comes to what most would call free time. Besides the usual things I might do outside the house—movies, sports, public events, time with friends, shopping—there are now so many things to do inside. Not only do I have regular television, movies I own and can play on my Blu-ray player (but almost never do), streaming from Netflix and Amazon Prime, books to read on my Kindle, books from the book store, my neglected guitar and keyboard, but also my neglected artwork. That doesn’t even count reading the New York Times or playing chess with my husband (actually, we haven’t done that in a long time).

It’s not that I don’t know I should be writing. It’s more that I find it so difficult to walk away from the smorgasbord of story time goodies or the pull of other projects yet undone. At this moment I’m writing at least three blog posts, four short stories, a novel, a novel revision, reading four non-fiction books and ten tempting works of fiction, watching new episodes of House of Cards, an audio book about a mysterious body found in a bog (lucky ’tis I can listen to that while folding clothes), crafting a photo album about my family, and…and… Well, you get it.

I’m not likely to be alone in this slog through a landscape of lovely choices. You know Springsteen’s song, “500 channels and nothing on.” Or, something like that. If only all the books and movies and drawing paper and music out there were really nothing, but they aren’t.

On a recent episode of Brain Games—yes, I’m into that one too—the host explained how we are more satisfied with three choices than we are with six. Supposedly, when offered six choices, we start to feel that no matter which one we pick, one of the others might have been better. So what to do about Netfix’s thousands of movies and TV shows or Kindle’s 10,000 or more books, or the millions available on the Internet?
Even if it’s human nature to get dissatisfied with more than five choices, if you’re like me, you went for the biggest possible box of crayons and when you opened the lid the first time and saw them, all pointy, clean, and perfect, you were truly happy.

So, I’ll keep my many choices, thank you. But if you have any ideas that would help me find my way to my writing table now and then, I’d love to hear them.

Flashing the Past

I’ve been trying out flash-fiction. Trying to get some published on Webzines, that is. One thing I noticed. There’re lots of sci fi and horror flash stories out there and a few literary mini-lits which usually deal in contemporary couple relationships and family problems. ‘Course, the Web’s a big place, but I haven’t found too much else. Yet.

So, I was thinking. Yeah, I love all the sci fi, fantasy, and horror stuff and don’t want any of it to go away, but why not try flashing another genre. My choice: Historical Fiction. Now, I know this type of fiction can – well, must – be complicated. The writer has to create the past somewhat realistically, maybe add a few real historical figures, and give us a sense of what it was like to live then.

Still, I believe historical color and character can be put into a 1000 word or less nutshell. As an experiment, I wrote a 750 word story about a Viking love triangle, “Cold Choices”, and submitted it to Flash Fiction Online. It wasn’t quite their thing, but I’m not giving up.

I mean, historical fiction in novels is one of the most popular genres out there. Why not give the hurried reader the same time-traveling treat we provide to the more laid back, got time to read a fat novel types.

So, here’s my challenge. If you too are interested in writing short short stories and submitting them to flash fiction sites, try writing and submitting historical fiction. See if they don’t learn to love it.

By the way, my flash piece – science fiction, of course – “Hullabaroo” got picked up by the Webzine Aphelion. I’ll keep submitting “Cold Choices” and try more tiny stories whose characters lived long ago.

Disjointed

A couple of years ago, a friend had knee replacement surgery. Prior to the surgery, she’d written a long novel and was in the process of reshaping and cutting it to a more reasonable length. Since the surgery, she admits to doing very little with her magnum opus. She explains it this way: the surgery drains not just your body but your will.

 

I’m accepting the truth of this and using it as an excuse for not posting recently and not writing anything substantial since my own knee surgery. This was in the second week of May and I’ve hardly had a decent writing idea since. It feels as if my creative energy has turned inward and needs to be redirected outward. So please forgive my ramblings below on other topics.

 

My left knee lost its joint cartilage and the bones were forced to meet in a way never intended. The result of this was a need to walk stiff legged and stooped. I had several friends who’d had knee replacement surgery and it was expected I’d join the queue.  While some people said it was the best thing they’d ever done—hard to imagine that—others did admit it was painful.

 

In the positive column, the surgery would correct my new funny way of walking and eventually enable me to perambulate almost normally. The negatives were glaring too. There’s the fact that you are at risk for an infection of the false joint for the rest of your life and must take massive doses of antibiotics whenever visiting the dentist. Considering how antibiotics are routinely over proscribed, and how their use by agri-business threatens to make them powerless and return us to the days when people died of tooth abscess, this was a scary thought.

 

Back to the pluses. These surgeries are done by the thousands daily. The hospital where mine was done inserts about 18 fake knees every day. This means your doctor has plenty of experience, not only with what works well but with what doesn’t. It’s likely the major reason that the surgery methods and results continue to improve. However, you can also feel a bit like you’re on a conveyor belt in an assembly line. One of the victims of knee arthritis told me she felt pressure to have the surgery because everyone’s doing it. Perhaps she wondered—what if everyone’s wrong?

 

Like all our decisions, we get advice, but end of making them on our own. Even if my creative pipes are temporarily stopped up, I’m not unhappy that I decided to get in line for this 21st Century miracle. That’s despite the pain and long recovery. Besides, my surgery was in the early morning and, as a sat in my hospital bed that afternoon, I realized there was no asking for my old, faulty joints to be put back in. I’d done it and I would now deal with the consequences and enjoy the rewards.

 

Soon, I hope my synapsis will start beeping ideas and the will to do something with them.

False Starts

Irish author Maeve Binchy died in July, 2012. I only found out when it was announced that some stories she’d worked on, then put aside, would be published and made available to her eager fans. This left me wondering. Why did Ms. Binchy not send these tales to the publisher herself?

 

We can’t know her reasons, of course. Perhaps she’d planned to have them published but was too ill to continue with the project. Maybe she was saving them for lean times. Or—and this is my own mean thought—maybe she didn’t like them. Did Ms. Binchy believe these stories weren’t ready for publication? Could she have decided they weren’t pieces she wanted her name attached to. There’s another possibility.

 

I started a novel some years ago about a girl who tries to help someone and winds up getting sent to a prison work farm for her efforts. She isn’t the type to question the world around her but at the work farm, she meets someone who is, and the two of them go in search of answers. I got 60,000 words into Spitting Storm before realizing the characters were wondering from place to place, meeting interesting people, but never getting closer to finding the answers they sought. Their adventure didn’t seem to have a conclusion.

 

The problem was that although I was the god of their world, I wasn’t omnipotent. I didn’t know the answer either and couldn’t think of anything clever that hadn’t been used in dozens of science fiction movies already. So, I dumped the novel. Or, I should say, set it aside. Will I return to Spitting Storm and try to fix it? Maybe, if there’s time enough and other projects don’t get in the way. Still, I didn’t throw the manuscript out. It’s sitting on a couple of flash drives in my desk, in the back of bottom drawer.

 

It seems to me that many writers have false starts. I own a book that purports to be the complete works of Mark Twain. Its publisher must be telling the truth. One science fiction story, for instance, about a ship caught in a giant whirlpool, stops dead after a couple of pages. I don’t think this is like Dicken’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, where the author died before finishing the work, thus leaving us only the mystery. It felt like Twain gave up on the story. Maybe he got bored with it, but couldn’t bring himself to chuck it so left the story in his desk (in the back of the bottom drawer, under the box with the fountain pens?).

 

After Michael Crichton died, an assistant apparently discovered Pirate Latitudes on his computer. I tried to read it, but didn’t think it was on a par with Crichton’s other books. Had he written it some time ago but didn’t submit it to a publisher for some reason? Like maybe he wasn’t satisfied with it?

 

While I understand that people can be desperate for something else from a beloved author who has passed on, I hope Ms. Binchy’s new Chestnut Street stories are as wonderful as her other works and not a false start.

 

Perhaps I will have to polish up Spitting Storm. I’d sure hate to become a famous writer, then die and have someone publish it the way it is now.

 

 

If ever I should become a well read author, I would hope no one decides to publish the novella, Spitting Storm, and put my name on it.

In all the busy, mind and body-consuming preparation for my upcoming total knee replacement, I haven’t made time to blog or done much of anything other than visit doctors, add unaccustomed, blood-building foods to my diet (far more beef than I’d ever eat by choice) and try to make certain the house is ready for someone who won’t walk well for a week or so.

 

It was refreshing, therefore, when my friend Nancy Petralia asked me join this blog tour. I’m a reluctant waver of my personal flag, so while this blog is about writing, I haven’t used many keystrokes on discussing my own. One purpose of the tour is to tell this blog’s readers about its writer. Another is to introduce a writer whose work I find exciting and whose blogs are worth visiting.

 

We blog tourists all answer FOUR questions which give us an opportunity to talk about our own work. Then I’ll also introduce Margaret Hawke whose wonderful book, Bellehaven, is one of my favorites.  

  

1) What am I working on?

 

I’ve completed—though I’m still tinkering with it—a young adult novel in the mixed genres of science fiction and romance. In Goodlands, a teenage girl finally gets a chance to meet the aliens who’ve settled on her planet when they send a delegation to the fortress where she lives. She’s heard they look human. Not only is that true, but one of them is a very cute boy. She decides to pay them a visit with surprising results for both Matty and the dreamboat alien boy, Brendan.

 

My second novel, Ned the Mage Knight, was written with middle-graders in mind. Ten-year-old Ned, the fourth and youngest son of Lord De Courtney, lives in Stoneheart Castle in a magical, medieval England. He dreams of becoming a knight like his older brother, but learns Father has other plans. Ned will be apprenticed to the local mage, an untried young man with magical burdens of his own. I’m currently reviewing Ned the Mage Knight with the goal of shortening the book (now 70,000 words) without losing its unique flavor.

 

When not working on my novels or trying to interest a literary agent in representing them, I write short stories. These are mostly science fiction or fantasy and often have a dollop of humor. Oh, and my western short story, The Last Memory of Bally, about conflict between a rancher and his teenage daughter over an aging cowhorse, will appear in Frontier Tales Webzine in the coming months.

 

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

 

My science fiction short stories are often funny. Although that wasn’t the plan when I finished the novels and decided to try my hand at writing shorter pieces. In one story, Well Suited, a fashionista lives on a space station and deals with the problem of having to wear a spacesuit without losing her fashion glam. I recall enjoying the satire and humor of science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, which I read in far younger days. Lately, I’m not finding much amusing in science fiction novels and stories, perhaps a comment on our time’s tendency to both embrace and distrust science.

 

My novels, with the exception of the incomplete Spitting Storm, don’t trend dystrophic. They’re the kinds of adventure and romance I enjoyed reading as a kid. Sure, bad things happen and the protagonists must be strong, but they often get a little help and life isn’t all rain, mud, and torment.

 

3) Why do I write what I do?

 

Most of us write what appeals to us, or we couldn’t write. That doesn’t mean all our characters have to be good guys or, if we write about serial killers, that we have a sick fascination. While it’s smart to be aware of what the market is currently demanding, we often end up writing what we enjoy reading. For me that’s action, adventure, fantasy, and romance. That doesn’t mean my characters lack depth. Their journeys are both physical and emotional, filled with discovery, learning, sometimes doubt and hopelessness, always a gain of self-knowledge and a wider sense of the world.

 

4) How does my writing process work?

 

As I write, it often feels as if someone inside my head is telling me the story and I’m just putting it down. Later, I’m expected to straighten a few plot wrinkles and polish things up but the plot is there, its bones shining through the rough outer skin.

 

The only outlining I did for Goodlands was a day chart where I listed what the two main characters were doing each day while separated so the chronology of events stayed intact when they were reunited. This wasn’t necessary for Ned the Mage Knight. Ned tells his own story and doesn’t know about things happening when he isn’t there until someone tells him or there’re some repercussion.

 

I have another—this time adult (maybe)—novel in mind. It will require research and a bit more pre-plotting, which I probably won’t stick to. I don’t think either my semi-stream of consciousness style of writing or intense pre-planning should be de rigueur for every every writer or even every novel. I’ve been telling stories in my head forever and writing them down while telling them works for me.

 

I would like to say I write every day, but I don’t. At times, I go a few days without writing a thing. Then I read or hear something that sounds like a story, sit down, and let it all pour out. I’m not sure if my days off count as writer’s block or just “I’ll do it when I feel like it.” So far, I’m not particularly worried about writing only when I want to. I always want to.

 

Now for the next blog tourist: Margaret Hawke, http://www.emeraldstonepress.com.

 

 

Margaret Hawke writes novels, memoir pieces and flirts with poetry. Her recently published novel, Bellehaven, has been selected as part of the St. Lucie County Library readers group kit collection, available to more than 40 area book groups. She is presently working on the first in a mystery series featuring a traveling nurse. She divides her time between islands in New Jersey and Florida.

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

ImageLast Friday, almost a week after the season finale of Downton Abbey, I found myself again reaching for the “set recording” button on my cable remote. Yes, I’m addicted. And Downton Abbey wasn’t my first such addiction. Some years ago, before the time of DVR’s, I would cancel other plans or simply not make any when PBS broadcast Upstairs, Downstairs.

 

While the two programs are rather different—city versus country life and a bit more sympathy for the upstairs crowd on Downton, for instance—there’re far more alike. It’s not surprising I feel like a fly heading for the same sugar cube. 

 

Here’s the story formula. Both shows created the wonderful need to know what happens next and know it quickly. No one character was on scene too long, nor was one plot device dragged on and on. At the same time, both shows provided a sense of satisfaction in knowing the best in human nature could be expected to triumph over its worst. And in both we experienced the contrast of working class and upper class lives.

 

It occured to me that Downton Abbey is more than a gift to old fans of Upstairs, Downstairs. It has collected a host of newer, younger viewers as well. I wondered if the same satisfying reboot could be applied to certain types of writing.

 

Not long ago, I wrote a novel that would definitely fit the Star Wars motif. Although my book had a bit more romance and my princess more work to do once she won back her crown, The Tale of Matty Tatters still seemed written for young adults of a more innocent time, say the 1970s. In fact, it would have been acceptable to an even earlier readership. Which is to say that, despite the fun I had writing it, despite its amusing side-kick characters, and finally, despite the mean villain Matty and Brendan had to beat, my novel wouldn’t interest a 21st Century publisher. It doesn’t fit the current, more hard-edged, dystopia-driven market for young adult books. So, I put Matty on the shelf and there it remains.  

 

I began writing this novel without thinking about the current young adult market. Instead, I wrote a story I would have enjoyed reading when I was a teen. If fact, my first query letter foolishly stated “As a teen, I loved to read a book where I could fall in love with the boy and want to be as brave as the girl…and I believe there’s still a place for a handsome, noble hero and a strong-willed heroine in a young girl’s heart.”

 

Yet, if Upstairs, Downstairs can be reborn as Downton Abbey, perhaps there’s hope for an old-fashioned space adventure where the teenage protagonists certainly face bad guys but don’t live in a sad, disturbing future. Perhaps readers would like them to find true happiness, not simply survive. With that in mind, I may dust off Matty Tatters and see if she still may someday fly.

Love Books?

Last Sunday, the New York Times Book Review asked several authors to tell a story about a book—a book that taught them about love, or led them astray. Authors mentioned The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Anna Karenina, Jane Austin novels, and, of course, Romeo and Juliet. My favorite comment, by far, came from Natasha Trethewey, poet laureate of the United States and professor of creative writing at Emory University.

 

Professor Trethewey picked up the book Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson, on a visit to her father and stepmother. Although the book is a love story, the true love story for the poet was the notes written in the margins. Her father and stepmother had written these notes to one another while they shared the reading of Housekeeping.  For Professor Trethewey the notes represented a thoughtful conversation with someone who shares a love of books, is eager to argue about them, and underlines special passages they want the other person to take note of. She says “I thought this was the most romantic thing I’d ever seen.” I might well agree with her, even without having seen the notes myself.

 

I thought it might be fun for me, and you, dear commenter, to think about a book that gave us shivers of romance or some sense of how far reaching love can be. Unfortunately, I grew up reading science fiction. The romances in these novels, especially the classics, were often secondary and not all that moving. In Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, for instance, young Alec only briefly mentions that he’s betrothed to Professor Lindenbrook’s ward and he’ll see her again when his adventure is over. I did read one novel my Mary Stewart, , after seeing the Disney movie made from it. There was romance, of course, but the thrust of the book was the young couple’s (our heroine and the British agent’s) exciting battles with villains in a lovely Greek setting.

 

The book that most made my heart soar wasn’t a book, but a screenplay for the movie Robin and Marion. This Robin Hood swansong is one of the most romantic movies ever made. James Goldman rearranged his play to read like a novel with only the dialog in play form. Posessing this movie as a novel, but one that kept the movie’s exact dialog, let me read, as well as hear, Maid Marion’s amazing words. Marion is now an older woman enticed away from the nunnery when her Robin returns from the crusades. Inevitably, he becomes entangled in local politics and, though past his prime, Robin ends up in hand to hand combat with the also aging Sheriff of Nottingham. The play is sympathetic to the sheriff as well as Robin Hood, so the fight scene was very painful. Afterward, the sheriff is dead and Robin mortally wounded—although he doesn’t at first realize this.

 

Marion takes him to the nunnery, where she gives him a numbing poison that will ease his way into death. And takes it herself. When Robin realizes she’s poisoned him, he cries “How could you do this if you love me?” Marion replies “Love you? More than all you know. I love you more than children, more than fields I’ve planted with my own hands. I love you more than morning prayers or peace or food to eat. I love you more than sunlight, more than flesh or joy or one more day. I love you more than God.”
When I watch the movie and hear Marion say this, still in her nun’s habit, sliding down the wall into her own death, I always cry. It’s even worse when Robin picks up his bow, shoots an arrow into the meadow, and tells Little John, “Where it falls, John; leave me with my lady. Put us close and leave us there.”

Two Book Reviews

All Clear by Connie Willis

 

I felt forced to read this overlong sequel to Black Out since I’d read Black Out to its cliffhanger ending. Willis has done fine work, but her WWII series isn’t it. Although her characters are all likeable, they’re also simple and not all that interesting. She keeps the readers reading by dragging out the resolutions to the various protags’ various problems. She throws hints about what happens next, only it never really seems to happen.

 

Characters are interrupted at every turn so no one hears what anyone else is saying. Consequently, no one finds out what they need to know. You want to yell at the protags “For God’s sake, tell that asshole to shut up and let you finish telling him that a bomb is going to hit the train station.”  Instead, Willis’ characters sputter “Oh dear, but you don’t understand…”  “But, sir…” Next thing, the asshole runs off to the train station and the bomb hits. If I hadn’t paid for the book, I’d have been far too frustrated to finish it.

 

As an aside, I knew All Clear would likely be frustrating because Black Out was. Only there, it was the fact the story took place in a future world where historians used time machines for research but, oddly, didn’t have mobile phones. They kept missing each other in the various research labs. One guy only got his message through when he found a standard telephone on some secretary’s desk.

 

Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh

This book sends a ray of daylight into the dark, dusty room where hordes of vampire and zombie books are piled. It’s the sort of book that’s been missing from the science Fiction aisle for a long time. It’s science fiction at its most amazing—science fiction that challenges our thinking and gives us a peak at what the future just might hold. Yet it’s also a horror story. And it’s a love story.

 

A young man in a socially connected America must leave a wealthy city neighborhood and return to the impoverished suburbs after a very public break up with his girlfriend. Driving angry and drunk, he runs over and kills a young woman. The man has to sell the body suit that connected him to the entire world, allowed him to see or follow anyone anywhere, to mask the unpleasant things in his environment and anything unattractive about himself. The woman wakes briefly from death, at least her mind does, in a cryogenic prison where beautiful women can be saved if rich men buy them.

 

Love Minus Eighty is about all this, but also about undying hopeless-seeming love and where the heart leads. All I can say is read it!

Begger’s Discription

You, the writer, know the most important part of revising your novel is making it leaner. Everyone says so. You follow this prescriptive because it’s the style of our age and meets the demands of readers who’ve been trained by current media to have a short attention span.

What might you eliminate in your attempt to never write a word that isn’t needed? It could be that scene where you tell your readers something you told them already, albeit in slightly different words. Or a boring step by step discussion of making dinner (unless that’s what the story’s about) or crocheting an afghan (unless, again, that’s the story).

Of course, you could do what most of us probably do when we’re trying to put our books on a diet. You eliminate some—or a lot—of description. Too much description, we’re told, just clutters up the story and slows things down. So you say “she was captured by Shawnee warriors and made to ride through the forest on a pony that walked behind theirs, her hands bound with leather thongs.” The rest of that particular moment in the captive’s life can be left to the imaginations of the readers. Don’t deny them the joy, ’tis said, of manufacturing mental pictures in their brain’s imagination factory.

Then again, you might decide to describe her surroundings after all, as James Alexander Thom does so wonderfully in his book, Follow River. “Under the horse she saw the pellucid creek water curling and seething over brown and mossy stone; ahead were the horses’ rumps and swishing tails and their burdens of loot, the flicking ears and bobbing mane of her own horse, the dusky, muscular backs of the warriors and the rocky, wooded slopes of the mountains that rose steep and gloomy on both sides of the creek.”
Though this might be a bit wordy by our standards, it manages to put us right there, with the captive. We also want to know her inner feelings, which Thom gives us as well, but his word pictures don’t kill a reader’s imagination. They fire it.

In his novel, Sacred Treason, James Forrester provides another reason why scene description can be golden. His protagonist must escape through the streets of Elizabethan London at night. Fearing it might give away his location, he is unable to carry a torch or lantern. Instead, he must feel his way through the dark streets. He must find his way but touch alone. Most of us would have difficulty imagining a city so utterly dark at night. Had the author merely said, “it was quite dark in the narrow streets” we’d would get no sense of what terror the protagonist felt. When he writes about his character feeling his way along the wall, not being able to recognize landmarks easily, or stumbling over hidden objects, we not only empathize with the character’s plight, but we really see what to us is a truly alien world.

So, writer, when it comes to trimming the fat, look twice at the description passage under your blade. Refine it, take out a few extra words, but don’t cut too much away. Give us readers a tour guide to the world we are seeking to enter.

Elmore’s Rules

The recent death of crime writer Elmore Leonard sparked numerous and mostly appreciative eulogies on the internet. Also, the usual list of do’s and don’t’s for writers. See www.writingclasses.com/InformationPages/index.php/PageID/304 While I’m not a fan of Mr. Leonard’s work, I’ve never questioned his prolific skill or the quality of his books and the writing in them.

 

I’ve also never believed a truly powerful talent can be quantified in a few, simple rules. Writing rules bother me and they’re also a great big puzzle. Artists who work in paint, ink, and pencil stopped following rules long ago. So why do artists of the written word feel so compelled to make lists of rules and live by them?

 

Of course you say—and quite rightly—one must be understood. You can’t produce gibberish and expect to find an adoring readership. Well, maybe there’s the rub. Writer’s still want their work read and a number of modern artists called it ‘art for art’s sake’ and who gives a damn what they think about it.

 

So, let’s look at EL’s rules:

 

One: Never open a book with weather. No, I haven’t seen a novel since Snoppy’s open with “It was a dark and stormy night.” Still, I wouldn’t necessarily be put off by that. It seems to me a brief comment on weather can help set a scene, create a mood.

 

Two: Avoid prologues? Some agents suggest this too, but many of the best books I’ve read start with one. My own novel, Matty and the Pilot, has with a prologue where someone hides a book of spells. Matty is a small child when this happens. As a teen, she learns how important that book might be to her future, and she and Brendan, the pilot, spend time searching for it or searching for a way to solve their problems without it. If I hadn’t bothered with the prologue, readers would slog through back story that pulled them out of the scene and away from the main characters and their struggle. Besides, when I’m reading a novel, I often like knowing something the protag doesn’t and rooting for him or her to find the answer.

 

Three: Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. My feeling is that might work well in crime fiction but what about literary fiction? You don’t want to overdo it, but what’s wrong with “asked” or “snorted”? Those little verbs give us the character’s tone of voice, not just what they said. And yes, I’ve been told don’t use snorted; have the person say all the words he needs to say to tell the reader he’s derisive. Trouble is, people don’t always–hardly ever–talk that way.

 

Four: Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.” Okay, I’ll give him that one but I do have a problem with starting the rule with “never.” No nevers, please. I like a little variety in my dialog. Why not start the rule with “Mostly” or at least “Try to avoid.”

 

Five: Keep your exclamation points under control. Hey, great rule. Than he messes up by saying you’re only allowed three for every 100,000 words. Well, slap my hand if I reach into the chip bag again!

 

Six: Never use “suddenly.” Here we go with the nevers again. I can tell you I’ve meet quite a few very nice suddenly’s in my years as a reader.

 

Seven: Use regional dialect sparingly. Yep, I’m with you there, pal. Even if you did use an adverb.

 

Eight: Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. Once again, crime novel lingo. Wouldn’t want to weaken our picture of Scrooge, would we. Also, sometimes a writer needs to get a particular trait or aspect of appearance out there.

 

Nine: Don’t go into great detail describing places or things. Good for the most part but it might be necessary in some kinds of writing. Like books about mountain climbing.

 

Ten: Try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip: Good advice. What he really means is know thy reader.

 

I suspect Mr. Leonard was a bit bemused by the rules himself and well aware that they don’t always apply. I say read them, consider them, and like all the other lists of rules, put them in a drawer somewhere and start writing.