tony mcmanus

On writing, writers, books and publishing.

The best writing advice in the world has already been given. Written decades ago by Orwell and other masters of the English language, it’s worth its weight in gold. And it’s available to all on the internet. A few strokes on the keypad and it’s yours. It doesn’t need repeating. Yet so often a writer such as Joe Blow, Author, after selling a few books in Kindle and garnering a truckload of ***** reviews like: Awesome baby u did it agen: luv u, decides that he has enough standing and mileage under his belt to offer advice to his fellow writers on writing well and the pitfalls to avoid. And then, on his blog, lists that which we already know. It really pisses me off.

So it was refreshing to come across Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of good writing. Leonard needs no introduction. If you haven’t read his stuff and love thrillers you’re missing out, big time. For over sixty years he wrote superb novels; first westerns, then crime thrillers set in Miami and Detroit. Many of his books became notable films. And his list of rules is original and delivered with wry humour. Enjoy and remember them.

ELMORE LEONARD’S 10 RULES FOR GOOD WRITING

 

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

  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. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

  1. 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.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s ”Sweet Thursday,” but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: ”I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

  1. 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.

  1. 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.”

  1. Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.”

  1. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Which Steinbeck 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.

  1. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Unless you’re 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.

And finally:

  1. 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.”

”Sweet Thursday” 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.

Wasn’t that good advice, dear reader? Well worth noting and applying, I feel.

Ever picked up a novel, read it and come to the conclusion that it was not much of a deal, far too long, overblown and containing little meat? I’ve done it often, and no doubt will endure it again. I’ve read more than a few short stories that have been padded out and published as novellas or even full-house, novels. Maybe I possess what Hemingway called a “built-in shit detector” as I can sense this padding instinctively. It’s become a quirk that irritates me.

   I recently read, on Kindle, a novella in the crime-thriller genre. Though competently written, it was packed with unnecessary scenes, vivid scenery descriptions, subplots, dinner table dialog, and comments on the dishes being served. A good, serious, editor would have cut this excess baggage out and reduced it to the short story that it truly was.

   Is this inflation done by accident or design? I’d say both, but most often by accident. I’m sure many writers simply get carried away by their brilliance and feel they just have to put all this stuff in; they love it so why won’t the reader? I feel it in myself; the urge to write descriptive verbiage that reads great, but doesn’t advance the story one jot and even clogs things up. It’s a content editor’s job to bring us back down to earth. But what if we like it up there and don’t want to come down? In this time of digital self-publishing this is a problem, right? We can just go ahead and publish. I believe this is why padding is more prevalent today among indie writers than under the old regime.

   Many indie writers in this age of Kindle, reject editors seeing them as representing the bad old days of publishing house dictatorship, intruders intent on destroying the purity of their ideas and narrative flow. Why pay someone to criticize, cut your work to ribbons and make your story theirs? And wear a publishing house would exercise control over this foolishness and employ their in-house editors, today such writers are free to refuse all editorial restraint and publish.

   One of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Good Writing is: “Try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip.” A fine piece of advice I find. And with it in mind, I try to apply strict self-discipline. In the novel, I’m writing I had a description of how my protagonist, Mike met his Thai wife, Soraya, at the Ambassador’s Inauguration Ball in the US Embassy in Bangkok. A dramatic piece that read well, I polished it and made it better. Then, I remembered Leonard’s admonishment and reluctantly cut it out. It hurt, but as it didn’t advance the story, it was deleted. Who cares that Mike met Soraya dancing to Strauss?

   It’s important for writers to recognize who they are and what they are capable of. And a writer who knows his limitations holds a powerful asset. Few writers could seriously take on a War and Peace. It took a genius to produce David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol; but, like Tolstoy, Dickens was a genius. Such writers are thin on the ground.

   Apart from the ability to write well and tell a story, a fiction writer should have a good imagination. He should be able to weigh a story idea for what it’s worth. What might make a terrific short story may turn out a poor novel that requires padding to make the weight. But it won’t punch its weight.

   My short story, Ray, created a minor sensation when I published it on a Thailand website. I got emails suggesting I expand it into a novel. I thought seriously about it. I could do it, but it wouldn’t be Ray anymore, and so I rejected the idea. Ray is a short story, and it’s going to stay that way.

   Some writers seem destined for short stories. Jack London, always a favorite author of mine, was one. Jack, whose own life story reads like a Norse Saga, was a great writer yet he never wrote a great novel. He did write a great novella: The Call of the Wild a literary triumph that’s never out of print and been filmed many times. However, it’s for his superb short stories, tales of the Yukon Gold Rush and the South Pacific Islands; that he is honored. His short piece: To Build a Fire has been voted the best short story of all time. But try to find his novels.

   The indie revolution that ended the injustices of the old publishing house dictatorship has no stronger champion than me. I’m grateful for the big break it gave me. But has not the pendulum swung over too far? For it too has a downside we should recognize and face up to; it’s totally undisciplined. Now anyone can publish anything. And they do.

   Meet Priscilla Anne Case, a sweet, gentle single girl, 22 years old, working on the Costco checkout line in Laramie, Wyoming. She left school at fifteen and has never traveled east of the Mississippi River. She loves the television soaps, Facebook chat, and her smartphone. She’s never written anything above an email. But she’s about to write a romantic, paranormal saga, replete with vampires and neo-Nazi white supremacists, in the form of a two thousand word, bodice ripping, trilogy. She’ll write it in six months and self-publish it, free of editorial interference, on Amazon. She may even publish each book as a four part boxed set. Go for it, girl, there’s nothing to stop you.

   An adage has it that if you take one hundred thousand chimpanzees, give each an easel, canvas and a pallet of paints, in a year you’ll get a Rembrandt. In the indie world it seems we’re still waiting for our literary Rembrandts. But wait, hold on. I’m convinced they’re there. Look hard and you’ll find them; beautiful, superbly written books in all genres, waiting like buried treasure, hidden beneath the surface of that sad sea of bloated mediocrity that is Amazon’s slush pile.

        Good authors too, who once knew better   words

                    Now only use four-letter words writing prose

                                       Anything goes

                                                          Cole Porter

 

“Buddy, that sex scene you’re planning for your suspense adventure thriller. The one where Mike, your hero, makes his move on that lovely Japanese lotus blossom, Kitty, and gets her up to his hotel room and……”

“You mean the one in chapter four, just after she……..”

“Yes that’s the one; the hot, steamy scene where you go to town, stun your readers, and really show your mettle as a writer.”

“What about it?”

“Do yourself a big favor and leave it out.”

“Why?”

“It’s not necessary. It doesn’t advance the plot or enhance the story.”

“But it’s the best….”

“Believe me. Just leave it out and forget about it.”

Good advice I believe, but often spurned by so many writers of fiction. Even well-known, highly rated and respected authors have fallen into the sex scene trap. In my opinion, unless you’re writing in the genres of erotica and romance, intimate sex scenes are better left out. Written poorly, as they usually are, vivid sex scenes can kill an otherwise excellent novel.

In works of erotica, highly descriptive sex scenes are de rigueur; the reader expects them. That’s what the genre is about. Writers of romance novels usually don’t go that far, are more restrained, sailing as close to the wind as good taste allows. But in both cases, the love scenes should be well written and most often they are not. Writing credible and exciting sex scenes is a specialized skill few writers have. But, unfortunately, the temptations to go into that quagmire, the graveyard of so much good writing, are many and for some authors irresistible.

For so long it was impossible. In Britain, The Obscene Publications Act saw to that and other countries, such as the USA had similar draconian laws. But, in London in November 1960, an Old Bailey jury found for the publisher, Penguin Books, the defendant in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial and the floodgates cracked open. Writers pushed the envelope against the bulwark of Puritans and “defenders of decency” and eventually prevailed. They could now write anything they wished, and publishers could publish it and purchasers buy and read it. And so it was. And so it is. Anything goes.

But are we any better off really? Despite the strict censorship that constrained them, writers such as Hemingway, Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Somerset Maugham, and so many others produced beautiful books. Would their works have been improved by explicit sex scenes? Would The Great Gatsby be a better novel if Fitzgerald had included a hot scene with Jay Gatsby screwing Daisy Buchanan? Would A Farewell to Arms be a better work if Hemingway had added an intimate scene with Frederic Henry making love to Catherine Barkley? It takes a lot more than the freedom to write pages full of “F..k you, you motherf…er” or descriptions of sexual intimacy that would embarrass the mamasan of a Mumbai whorehouse, to produce an outstanding novel.

But sex sells, I hear you say. It sure does. And isn’t having sex what people do? Yes, there’s no doubt about it. And I think it’s fair to say that there’s nothing wrong with having your protagonist make out with a beautiful woman once in a while. Some suspense thrillers do have intense sexual passion at their core. It was this that drove such classics as James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. But knowing how much to describe and how much leave up to the reader’s imagination is where the difficulty lies.

That accomplished writer and cool dude, Elmore Leonard handled sex skillfully in his novels, never intruding too far and as often leaving it out. And, given the zeitgeist of his time, Ian Fleming also handled it well. We know that James Bond made out with Vesper Lynd, Tatiana Romanova, Kissy Suzuki, Tiffany Case, Pussy Galore and others, but it happened in the reader’s imagination. Only once, in the case of Vesper Lynd, did Fleming take us into the bedroom, but he did so with reason; it advanced the story as Vesper was a KGB operative, a double agent.

Sex, the most intimate of human acts, usually takes place in the privacy of a bedroom with no witnesses. Writers should show their respect and keep it that way. But if an author feels impelled, he’ll find it much easier to handle if he’s writing in the first person because the narrator is also an actor in the scenes. Writing in the third person, however, is problematic. Following the lovers through the bedroom door the narrator intrudes, becomes a voyeur, a peeping tom observing the action on the bed and taking notes. I believe it’s better to take the lovers to the bedroom door, have them kiss and embrace and then walk away and leave it all up to the reader.

So do I practice what I preach? Of course. I’ll go so far and no further, mainly out of respect for the reader. Watching a movie is a passive activity. Reading a novel is an active pursuit. The reader’s imagination is involved, and I believe he should be encouraged to use it and that way he enjoys the reading experience more. If the writer does it for him by describing a love scene in detail, the reader may not like the way it unfolds. By letting the reader imagine the scene as he or she wants it is a far smarter move.

Here’s my take on it. In a time of total license, with no restraining hand, a writer becomes his own censor. He has to judge how far to go. Provided it’s not gratuitous, a well written, appropriate love scene can enhance a story. An inappropriate, highly descriptive, one will do the opposite. But why take chances? If it isn’t essential to the storyline, a writer should err on the side of caution and skip it. The last thing a writer wants is to make a fool of himself and become a contender for the Bad Sex Award.

Once a year, the British magazine, Literary Review hands out its annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award. And some of the prose that earns this dubious honor is hilarious. Ben Okri was the 2014 winner. Okri won the Booker Prize in 1991 and has received, among other prizes, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction; awards I’m sure he’s proud of. But he didn’t have the guts to take his medicine and attend the Literary Review ceremony and accept his Bad Sex award. Instead, the insufferable diva issued a short and less than ecstatic statement: “A writer writes what they write, and that’s all there is to it.” But here for your edification and enjoyment is his winning piece:

“When his hand brushed her nipple, it tripped a switch and she came alight. He touched her belly, and his hand seemed to burn through her. He lavished on her body indirect touches, and bitter-sweet sensations flooded her brain. She became aware of places in her that could only have been concealed there by a god with a sense of humour.

“Adrift on warm currents, no longer of this world, she became aware of him gliding into her. He loved her with gentleness and strength, stroking her neck, praising her face with his hands, until she was broken up and began a low rhythmic wail … The universe was in her and with each movement, it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night, a stray rocket went off.”

Isn’t that something? It took some effort to create that hilarious nonsense. I’m just glad I didn’t write it.

No less a writer than Norman Mailer earned his Bad Sex Award in 2007 for a silly sex scene in his novel: The Castle in the Forest. And John Updike, poor chap, was awarded a Bad Sex Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. It is without a doubt the most dreaded and undesirable award in English literature and any writer worth his salt should avoid it like a poisoned chalice.

GOING INDIE

I am a writer, a natural one I believe, at ease with the pen. Yet I’ve spent most of my time on earth doing other things. I was a freelance design draftsman in aerospace for many years. It paid very well and allowed great travel experience. I did other work in my more youthful days: a taxi driver in Manchester: a construction hand in the Zambian copper belt and the Rand goldfields of Southern Africa: a pipe fitter in Mandini, Zululand: a bar tender in Cape Town: a mercenary soldier in the Congo. And there were other jobs. But they all had one thing in common; my heart wasn’t in it. The writing life was the life I wanted. I wrote when I could: short fiction mostly and articles. I wrote stories for adults and children: some published, most rejected. I also discovered that a story rejected out of hand by one editor, might well be welcomed by another: very puzzling. In an ambitious move, I sent stories to the best magazines because they pay well and have wide readership, but I quickly learned that I was wasting my time: new writers had a snowball in hells chance of getting published in the likes of: Atlantic Monthly, New Yorker, Vanity Fair et al. They just won’t read unsolicited manuscripts. I accepted that, but found it much harder to accept some of the piffle and plot-less stories that did make it onto their pages.

Over the years I read countless books on writing and getting published. I learned about literary agents and their growing importance. The Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook became my bible. I read copiously about the great literary rejections of history (disquieting and often hilarious). I was told, and came to believe that rejection was an important part of a writer’s journey and, though disappointing, was good discipline. Rejection was a crucible in which a writer’s mettle and very essence is tested; it sorted the wheat from the chaff, the men from the boys: the good writers from the mediocre. But tell that to those writers who followed that path faithfully, only to face heartbreaking disappointment. I often wondered how many simply gave up, their dreams shattered, and stuck to their day jobs. I thought of John Kennedy Toole whose book A Confederacy of Dunces was constantly rejected for publication. He didn’t simply give up: he committed suicide. His book was finally published eleven years after his death, but only after the heroic hard work of his mother and a few friends who believed. A Confederacy of Dunces went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in1981, become a cult classic and was, and is, a commercial success. Then, I discovered self-publishing.

I was working on my novel The Iran Deception at the time. At first I dismissed self-publishing as another name for vanity publishing until I realized how many great and famous writers had done it. If I self published I’d be in the company of: Joyce, Burns, Byron, Dickens, D.H. Lawrence, Kipling, Mark Twain, Balzac and a host of others. I picked up Self publishing for Dummies: a great guide. I discussed this with the gentleman editing my book. He lives in New York. We never met, communicating by e-mail, and telephone. He recommended self-publishing wholeheartedly. “But Amazon KDP is the way to go,” he said. I had an Amazon account and had bought several books from them. I also knew of the Kindle, though I didn’t own one. That changed quickly. After a little research I bought a Kindle, downloaded a few books and was very quickly hooked.

I published my novel, The Iran Deception, this September.  And like many people today, I self-published it on Amazon. I also made a point of using their Print on Demand (POD) feature for anyone wishing to purchase a hard copy they can hold in hand. And I did as we’re supposed to do; I purchased a copy for myself and downloaded another one to my Kindle. Now I’m back at doing what I do best, writing. I’m building my marketing platform and working on my next novel: A Bangkok Interlude and a collection of short stories: Down and Out in the Big Mango.

I’m glad I went the indie route with KDP and wholly recomend it. If John Kennedy Toole had had KDP available, he’d be alive and well. I feel good about it and confident I can make a success of it. And I wish all indie authors success in their endeavors.

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