Monday, August 15, 2016

Elmore Leonard's Ten Writing Rules

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.  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.)

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Three Rules of Dialogue

I’m one of those writers who fills the page with dialogue rather than narrative because dialogue is my forte. Those of us with an ear for accents and speech patterns are fortunate to be able to transcribe them onto the page. But dialogue that doesn’t further the story or define characters will cause a manuscript to be rejected, no matter how well it’s written.

I remember reading Robyn Carr’s article years ago about the three rules of dialogue, which I copied onto 3 x 5 cards for future reference.

Rule #1: Dialogue should tell the reader something about the character’s personality or emotions, or at least reinforce something already established, like anger, timidity, cruelty, impatience or perfectionism. Instead of having a character greet someone by simply saying “hello,” have him say, “Where've you been?” or “Do you know what time it is?” while tapping his foot impatiently.

Rule #2: Dialogue needs to propel the plot forward while the reader gets to know the characters through the way they react to stimuli that directly affects their lives. Their conversations need to establish or reinforce their emotions, their relationships, and the roles they play in the plot to enhance conflict and tension. Even when writing comedy, the characters' reactions to one another are actually conflict in its truest sense.

Rule #3: Dialogue must individualize each character. No two characters should sound alike just as no two people use the same words or phrases. Each character needs to have his or her own expressions, dialects, euphemisms, speech styles and inflections. But that’s not all. They must also have their own value systems, motivations, personal habits and other traits that are expressed in dialogue.

For example, if you assigned each character a number instead of a name and gender, would they be distinguishable from one another?

Every line of dialogue has a job to do. When you’re editing and polishing a second draft, eliminate every word that doesn’t need to be there. People rarely speak in complete sentences so make sure your characters don’t sound as though they’re reciting an English lesson.

Creating a character sheet is a good way to establish who your characters really are. Describe each one physically and include his or her basic background information. Then consider pertinent information that will determine her dialogue. How well educated is she? Is her voice husky, squeaky, soft or loud? Does she have verbal ticks? Is he shy and does she stutter when she speaks? Does she use slang? Does he speak haltingly? Or is she articulate and chooses her words well?

How motivated is your protagonist? Is he aggressive, single-minded, abrasive, generous or power hungry? Any or all those traits should show up in his dialogue. Geographical differences also affect a character’s dialogue as does his education, or lack of schooling. If a character dropped out of school in the fifth grade, he won’t have an impressive vocabulary, unless he’s very motivated and schooled on his own. If that’s the case, make sure your reader knows it. One way is to have other characters talk about his education, or lack of schooling, when he’s not around, or praise him for it when he is.

According to Robin Carr, "Characters come alive when every bit of dialogue develops their personalities; when the action, tension and drama are heightened because of what they said, how they said it and when they chose to speak and when the characters’ complex individualism sets them apart from each other."

Thursday, July 7, 2016

"Mysteries Began with Vidocq"




by William Shepard

Mysteries have always appealed to me, from the Sherlock Holmes stories that I devoured as a teenager to the Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie books that expanded their audience through movie and television adaptations. As I began writing my own mysteries, the thought naturally arose to study the genre itself. Where did mystery stories begin? Who invented them, and what was the audience?


I was amazed to discover that a very odd Frenchman, Eugène François Vidocq, laid the basis for the modern detective story. He was a criminal, in fact a galley slave, who turned on his fellow criminals and became a police informant, then a police officer! He was so skilled that his work produced a descending crime rate in Paris, and he was responsible for many methods that criminologists today employ. Vidocq became the model for many authors, including Victor Hugo, whose “Les Miserables” used Vidocq as the model for BOTH Jean Valjean and his police nemesis, Inspector Javert!


The first detective story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” by Edgar Allan Poe, was modeled in part after Vidocq’s bestselling “Memoirs.” Meanwhile, Vidocq established the world’s first detective agency in Paris, and as an international celebrity had actually consulted on the formation of Scotland Yard.
It All Began with Vidocq!
From there, the detective story started to grow. Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle broadened the detective story with their immortal sleuths, and in the twentieth century the development of the “cozy” mystery by Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers reached new audiences. In America the competing “hardboiled” genre featured Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Gradually the detective story took new forms, including short mysteries for readers to solve on their own.


And so my latest work, “The Master Detective Trio,” combines three Ebooks. First, “The Great Detectives: From Vidocq to Sam Spade,” traces the detective story from its origins. And there are some interesting byways – just where did the name Sherlock come from, anyway? And who did murder the Sternwood chauffeur in “The Big Sleep?”


Then, “Coffee Break Mysteries” is a collection of twenty short mysteries, for those days when the reader wants a short reading break. The settings are varied and interesting. We first have“The Plot to Poison George Washington.” The London of Dickens and Salem, Massachusetts during the witchcraft hysteria are both found here.


In “More Coffee Break Mysteries: The Sherlock Holmes Edition,” there are twenty new short mysteries to solve. If you are a Sherlock Holmes fan, like me, you’ll be pleased to find five brand new adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, all of which were approved by the literary estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
__________________

William Shepard felt that there was something missing in crime novels. And that was the world of diplomacy, a real world for all its glamour. He invites readers to "Come into that world and solve a crime or two, while you explore with me the Embassy life, its risks and rewards, and yes, its occasional murders! His novels include include Vintage Murder, Murder On The Danube, and Murder In Dordogne. Also, Diplomatic Tales, a memoir of life at American Embassies, is also available. For those who want to know more about enjoying fine wines, Shepard's Guide to Mastering French Wines is a reliable and entertaining guide to the regions and wines of France.

Sunday, June 26, 2016



by Marja McGraw

Jean asked me what inspired the personalities in the book, and this is the short version.

One of my favorite authors, Dorothy Bodoin, and I discussed that we’d both like to try our skills on a time travel book. Further inspired by two songs, Time in a Bottle by Jim Croce, and That Sunday, That Summer as sung by Natalie Cole, I took a step out in faith. I could do this, or at least I’d try my best to write a time travel story.

I thought about people I know and how they might react to life if they lived in another time period; specifically, 1909. Honestly, I have no idea what led me to choose that year. I remembered older people I’ve known throughout my life. They loved to share stories about growing up in an earlier era. Somehow it all came together.

The main character in Choosing One Moment is Carrie McFerrin. I had to give her a lot of thought and determined she must be a mystery writer whose skills someone wanted to put to use. There had to be a purpose for her time travel. Is she based on me? Not at all. Well, she is a bit clumsy, and that’s a trait we share.

She traveled to 1909 as the request of her great-aunt Genny, who’d traveled before her. I might add that Carrie didn’t travel willingly. Genny reminds me a bit of my own aunt.

My husband inspired more than one character because of the many sides to his personality (the good guys). Inspired is the key word. The world needs good men, and he was one of them.


The book includes an aged woman called Mother Possum. When I was a child there was a woman in her nineties who was called Mother Possum, and I’ve never forgotten her. The name alone made her fodder for a character. And, yes, her surname was actually Possum.

I could go through character by character, but that would be too time-consuming. In my other mysteries, the people are purely fictional, for the most part. I can’t explain it, but this time travel story felt more personal. It begged for personalities that I’m familiar with and people who have played a role in my life.

Yes, the characters are fictional, but they’re inspired by the best, and the worst (don’t forget the bad guys). And remember, there’s a killer on the loose in the fictional town of Little Creek.

One last thought, and that’s that an old crank phone hangs in my guest room. It was begging to be in a story. I couldn’t resist. It’s a link to the past.

Jean also asked about research for the story. As I mentioned, I grew up hearing stories related by elderly people. Those led me to read old newspaper articles, books about the time period, research (and images) of clothing in and around 1909, and anything else I could lay my hands on. The fact that people from that time period didn’t have the amenities we have today played a large part, too. Can you imagine what they might think if they saw today’s appliances, cell phones, cars or jetliners? What about a microwave oven or a dishwasher? A man on the moon? They’d probably laugh at at that idea.

Ah, the differences are too many to think about. If we traveled in time, imagine what it would be like to suddenly have things that we take for granted disappear from our lives.

Thank you, Jean, for allowing me to give a little background on Choosing One Moment – A Time Travel Mystery. It was an experience I enjoyed, and I think readers will, too.

About the story:

Mystery writer Carrie McFerrin has inherited an old family house and all of its contents from her Great Aunt Genny.

While taking inventory of the attic contents, she comes across an old wooden crank telephone. Thinking the old phone would look perfect in her vintage kitchen, she hangs it on the wall by the back door, and an old, yellowed piece of paper asking for help falls to the floor.

The impossible happens when the disconnected old phone rings – three rings, a pause, and three more rings.

Carrie picks up the receiver, wondering what’s going on, and her life suddenly changes – forever.

Nothing will ever be the same.

Author Bio:

My friend Marja McGraw was born and raised in Southern California. She worked in both civil and criminal law, state transportation, and a city building department.  She has lived and worked in California, Nevada, Oregon, Alaska and Arizona.

She wrote a weekly column for a small town newspaper in Northern Nevada, and conducted a Writers’ Support Group in Northern Arizona. A past member of Sisters in Crime (SinC), she was also the Editor for the SinC-Internet Newsletter for a year and a half.

Marja writes two mystery series: The Sandi Webster Mysteries and The Bogey Man Mysteries, which are light reading with a touch of humor. She also occasionally writes stories that aren’t part of a series.

Marja says that each of her mysteries contains a little humor, a little romance and A Little Murder!

She now lives in Washington, where life is good.






Saturday, April 30, 2016

My Interview with C. J. Box



Blue Heaven, C.J. Box's first stand-alone novel, won an Edgar Award for Best Novel of 2008 and has been optioned for film. Three Weeks to Say Goodbye was published in January 2009 and debuted on the NY Times extended bestseller list. His ninth Joe Pickett novel, Below Zero, became his biggest bestseller to date.


Chuck, how do you manage to write two novels a year? What’s your writing schedule like?

Two books a year is kind of a temporary predicament that came about because I've got two publishers: Putnam for the Joe Pickett series and St. Martins Press for the stand-alone novels. Each wants a book a year. It's worked out because the first stand-alone Blue Heaven was already written so, for me, it's been more like nine months between writing the books which is just about right for me.

I work every day with my best work in the mornings. I edit and do other things in the afternoons.When I'm at my cabin or an isolated place, I work in one or two more writing sessions and sometimes go deep into the night. My goal is always 1,000 good words a day, but sometimes I exceed that. And sometimes I fall short.

I know that you’re an avid hunter-fisherman. Were you in the Wyoming outback when you conceived your series characters, game warden Joe Pickett?

I was working as a newspaper reporter in Saratoga, Wyoming, when I first started working on the novel which would later become Open Season, the first Joe Pickett novel. I spent (and spend) a lot of time outdoors and while I was coming up with the premise I was doing ride-alongs with the local game warden for newspaper stories.As I learned more about the duties and responsibilities (and home life) of a game warden, I thought a game warden would be a great protagonist.I'm glad I chose correctly.

Would you rather be hunting or fishing than writing?

I'd rather be combining the three, to be honest. Do a productive session at the computer, grab my fly rod, and come back later to write a little more. That, for me, is the perfect day.

How does it feel to not only win an Edgar Award but to make the New York Times bestseller list?

It feels fantastic, because the Edgar is an honor bestowed on my fellow novelists for quality and being on the NYT list means readers are buying the books.I think all Edgar winners want to be best-selling authors, and all best-selling crime novelists want to win an Edgar.So I'm a lucky guy.

How did your novel, Below Zero, evolve?

I'd heard about carbon offset companies over the years and was both fascinated and repulsed by the concept of, in effect, buying out ones guilt for producing a carbon footprint by paying money to one of the organizations.I researched the concept and built it into one of the primary storylines of the novel.In it, a dying mobster finds out the only way he can reconcile with his extreme environmentalist son is to try and bring his massive carbon footprint to "below zero" by the time he passes.Because he only has a few weeks to live, he has to commit large-scale crimes to make his balance drop.

At the same time, Joe Pickett's daughters start receiving text messages from a foster sister who they thought had died six years before.Investigation reveals the texts have originated from locations where major crimes have occurred.As Joe pursues this, the two storylines merge.

Which of your novels was the most difficult to write and do you have a favorite among them?

Blue Heaven was the most difficult because of the structure.The novel is told from six points of view within 60 hours in real time.Only the reader knows completely what's going on.Multiple points-of-view can get really, really tricky.If the reader doesn't think of the structure or difficulty, that means it worked.But getting there is tough.

I like all my novels for different reasons the way a parent likes his or her children.But if someone held a gun to my head and made me choose, I'd say Blue Heaven, Free Fire, Winterkill, and Open Season are my favorites.

What’s the best way to promote your books? Personal appearances or the Internet?

Books are still sold one at a time by people to other people. It's a very basic, low-tech business and it's driven by word-of-mouth. Getting out and meeting readers and potential readers is the best way to build a career, I think.Of course, if the books aren't good it doesn't matter either way.

Advice to budding western mystery novelists?

Read!It always amazes me when fledgling novelists don't read widely or often.More can be learned from reading than classes or courses.And if you choose to use the west as your location, please be authentic and stay away from western "characters" and hokum.

What makes a novel successful?

The reader must empathize with a character or several characters. And the novel should be structured so the reader wants to keep turning pages.There are so many entertainment options out there an author must realize the reader has choices, and one of the easiest choices of all is to put the book down if it isn't compelling.


You can visit C.J. Box at his website: http://www.cjbox.net/




Thursday, March 31, 2016

by Leighton Gage

If you come to visit us in Brazil, you’ll occasionally see a stand where the offerings look like this:


Literatura de Cordel (lit. “cord literature”) derives its name from the way the wares are often displayed, i.e. hung by a cord, usually with the aid of clothespins.


Such stands are less common in the southern part of the country, but are a feature in many of the fairs and markets of the northeast, principally in the States of Pernambuco, Paraiba and Ceará.


These little booklets are the last survivors of a form of popular literature with which an inhabitant of eighteenth-century Madrid, or nineteenth-century England, would have been quite familiar, but that you’d be hard-put to find elsewhere in the modern world. They contain stories and ballads and are generally produced in black-and-white, illustrated with woodcuts.


Down through the years, the content has taken-on a distinctly Brazilian flavor.


Many of the books deal with the folklore, legends and history of the northeast, subjects like Lampião and his band.

I've previously written about him under the title The Bandit King. And, if you like, you can read that post by going here:


One of the classics of cord literature, The Arrival of Lampião in Hell, by José Pacheco, is much-prized by collectors.


And a satire on the Brazil’s former president, The Arrival of Lula in Hell has enjoyed a good deal of success.

As to the art, two of the more talented woodcutters are Adir Botelho and José Francisco Borges.

This is Botelho:


And this is a work from Borges, who has had expositions at both the Louvre and the Smithsonian:



Monday, February 29, 2016

Make Every Word Count


One of my early writing instructors stressed the need to make every word count. He said each word needs to pull its own weight and every unnecessary word should be culled from the plot. Good advice that I've followed over the years, although, coupled with my journalism training, I'm sometimes too brief, leaving out desirable descriptions.

I've found that writers need to engage readers, not simply enlighten and entertain them. Creating strong word images that readers can relate to is preferable to forcing them to fill in the blanks. For example, a military Hummer conveys a much stronger image than having a protagonist ride to the rescue in a Volkswagen bug. Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone was a notable exception..

Strong verbs are necessary to give one’s plot a dynamic, energetic tone. Words such as hurried, leaped and flew as opposed to passive words like walked fast, made his way or became airborne. And as we’ve all been told, stay away from the verb to be in all its forms because it’s the weakest of words. But I confess that I still use all forms of to be in dialogue. Some rules are made to be broken, often at your own risk.

Adverbs that end in –ly also weaken a writer's prose. Use them sparingly. On the other hand, strong specific verbs give writing vitality. I’m reminded of my interview with A.B. Guthrie, Jr. who said, “The adjective is the enemy of the noun and the adverb is the enemy of damn near everything else. Writers use too many descriptive words." As for adjectives, author Lois J. Peterson once said, “One well-chosen adjective can be more effective than two or more, which used together might weaken the idea or image.” I agree.

Do we really need adverbs? Not unless it's impossible to come up with strong verbs. Eliminate the adverbs in a second draft and replace them with muscular verbs. As for adjectives, the rundown house can be rewritten as a hovel or shack. A good reason for every writer to have access to a thesaurus, including an electronic one.

Word choices affect the plot’s pace. If every symphony movement maintained the same pace, the audience would fall asleep before the finale. So writers need to think of themselves as conductors, controlling the pace with word choices, syntax and variety. Long sentences and paragraphs slow the pace and seem introspective while short, choppy sentences are much more dramatic and conducive to action scenes. So, in order to keep someone reading, sentences and paragraphs should vary in length.

Sentence rhythm is important, so reading one's work aloud before committing it to a final draft can prevent clumsy sentence structure. Some word choices bring a sentence to an abrupt halt and should be rewritten or replaced, along with all unnecessary words. The musical analogy is a good one (not my own) because sentence flow is so important.