Saturday, April 28, 2007

I Failed Elmore Leonard

Yesterday, my agent forwarded me a rejection letter for WHAT BURNS WITHIN. It was actually an amazing letter. It referenced my work as “fast-paced and well written” with a “compelling story” and my favourite line: “I can see why Ms. Ruttan has garnered such wonderful praise; she writes with incredible vividness and great attention to detail.” The editor even called me talented.

This is much better than form letter rejections or, worse, a “please fuck off and take your hack elsewhere.” I haven’t experienced that yet, but there’s always next week.

Now, the only reason I mention this is that it prompted a discussion between Evil Kev and I this morning, about writing. I was saying one of the risks with WHAT BURNS WITHIN, is that it starts with a lot of action. Evil Kev maintains that a year ago, I told him to never start a book with action.

I have concluded that any such statement on my part was limited to considerations for entering the Debut Dagger competition. I haven’t been eligible to enter for a few rounds now, but in assessing the previous winners and discussing them with those thinking about entering, I concluded the Dagger judges wanted introspection more than action. Something I would stand by now. There was a very specific style that seemed to win. Anything heavy on dialogue and pacey wasn’t likely to make the cut, based on what I saw.

However, writing for the Daggers and writing for publishers are different things. My friend Marsha spent years working in television and film before moving on to publishing. (Be well Marsha. Sending positive energy your way.) Marsha gave me some great writing advice:

Hit them on the nose.

She said in film you want to have the impact of walking up to the audience and smacking them on the nose. You want to get their attention. Hence my assertion to Evil Kev that stories should start with something happening. Not some long, lollygagging bit about tree bark. Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t start a book with thought. Or dialogue. What it means is, you need to make sure that whatever’s being addressed, it gets people’s attention.

As we were discussing this we started talking about memorable opening lines. I said the other day I’d pulled down LET IT BLEED, because I always remembered the opening line:

“A winter night, screaming out of Edinburgh.”

Kevin said Ian Rankin broke Elmore Leonard’s first rule of writing:

1. Never open with the weather.

Elmore says that weather is only to create atmosphere and readers will skip ahead looking for people if it goes on too long. Well, look at the Rankin line. For me, I’m right there. I read this back when I lived in BC. We had an apartment on the roof of a building, with a view to the Fraser River. There were only two apartments on the roof of the building – ours and my best friend’s. We only had one wall bordering them. The rest of our place had no buffer. And when the winter wind howled we damn well knew it.

Now, let’s look at the first two paragraphs from LET IT BLEED:

A winter night, screaming out of Edinburgh.

The front car was being chased by three others. In the chasing cars were police officers. Sleet was falling through the darkness, blowing horizontally. In the second of the police cars, Inspector John Rebus had his teeth bared. He gripped the doorhandle with one hand, and the front edge of his passenger seat with the other. In the driver’s seat, Chief Inspector Frank Lauderdale seemed to have shed about thirty years. He was a youth again, enjoying the feeling of power which came from driving fast, driving a wee bit crazy. He sat well forward, peering through the windscreen.

‘We’ll get them!’ he yelled for the umpteenth time. ‘We’ll get the bastards!’


See, I’m right there. Weather, people and action. The perfect balance of setting the scene. I mean, do you think the weather might impact the car chase? Could it cause an accident? I think this is brilliantly setting the stage.

My first paragraph from Suspicious Circumstances:

“Pulsing light shimmered on the rock face. Thunder rumbled, lightning flashed and, for a moment, the image of the woman was clear. She scrambled along the ledge, glanced back over her shoulder and pulled herself on to the crest of the hill. Her loose, white shirt and dark hair were buoyed by the wind. Then the light faded and the black of the moonless night engulfed her.”

Damn. Weather. (But there’s still a person and movement.)

WHAT BURNS WITHIN does not begin with weather.

Okay, rule #2. Avoid prologues.

Well, SC doesn’t have one. WBW doesn’t currently have one, but I can see a strong argument for moving a section and making it a prologue. It isn’t backstory in this case, and not all prologues are. So I’m launching an official protest of the assertion prologues are backstory and putting rule #2 in dispute. I actually hate it when people take what should be a prologue and rename it chapter 1 and it’s just a page long.

Rule #3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

Bill shouted, “Shut the fuck up.”

I have absolutely no problem with that. In my opinion it’s preferable to:

Bill said with anger, “Shut the fuck up.”

And Rankin used ‘yelled’. Hmmm. Listen to Elmore, listen to God*, Elmore, God*…

Rule #4. Never use an adverb to modify the said…

Okay, see, that goes to my point above. In this case I tend to agree, but most authors do this, and sometimes effectively. Sometimes it’s appropriate.

Rule #5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

Elmore and I are of one mind on this one. Is there hope for us yet?

Rule #6. Never use the words ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell broke loose.’

Suddenly, all hell broke loose and I’m so busy laughing at his explanation under that rule that I can’t comment!!!!!

Rule #7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Oh, bless your socks Elmore. Thank you thank you thank you! See, there are the masters – such as Ken Bruen, and Ian Rankin - who know how to do this perfectly. And then there are those, who shall remain nameless, who think it goes to setting and such but baffle the reader and pull you out of the story.

Rule #8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

You know, I’m with Elmore here too. I was always getting slammed on not doing enough description to give a full visual, but I didn’t really want to.

Rule #9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

This is definitely a Goldilocks and The Three Bears topic. There is an amount that’s ‘just right’. And it may not always be the same for everything. I mean, damn, if you spend a page describing a woman’s legs it better be erotica or her legs better be the murder weapon. Otherwise you should probably indulge your inner dog moment somewhere else.

Rule #10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Okay, so I let Elmore down about the weather. And I have some niggling issues with dialogue tags, because I do prefer people be more precise over using adverbs, in general.

But I also think that Rankin proves the point that you can break a rule and do it effectively.

I also think the word to the wise is that breaking the rules effectively comes with experience. If you’re able to craft a story to the point where people completely lose themselves in it they won’t even notice the nitpicky points because you have done your job – sold them on your world and kept them there. It’s fair to say editors read a bit differently – the more submissions we get for Spinetingler the fussier I get – so when you get feedback from them you know it’s an astute assessment.

That said, remember editors rejected Harry Potter too. As Elmore Leonard’s rules prove, to at least me, there are some things that come down to taste and it’s possible to do almost anything and get away with it. The minute you make a long list of rules you will find someone coming up with a long list of exceptions to them.

If I were to have one rule, it’s this:
Tell a captivating story so smoothly the reader never notices the details. If you do that, nobody will notice adverbs, exclamation points or weather. Ultimately, I believe that’s what Elmore’s getting at when he says, Being a good author is a disappearing act.

* See, I never learn.

19 comments:

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

I used to have Elmore's Rules of Writing on the wall above my desk..sort of like those courthouses south of the Manson-Nixon line where you find the Ten Commandments engraved on the walls. But you have to break a few now and then.

I'm actually better at following Elmore's rules than I am the Ten Commandments (I routinely violate #1,2,3,4,5 and 10).

SAND STORM said...

It's been one of those weeks.

http://sandstormauthor.blogspot.com/2007/04/no-terrorist-thrillers-for-uk.html#links

Sandra Ruttan said...

Well, as for breaking The Ten Commandments, do you think it's a problem that I routinely call Ian Rankin God? I suppose some might consider that a spiritual issue, but I don't pray to a statue of him or anything.

I don't let my slaves work on the seventh day though, so I'm keeping part of that one...

And I routinely kill people. But I do it for a living, so doesn't that mean I have a good work ethic?

Hmmm. Maybe this proves I lost my religion.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Sand Storm, check out the book that won the Edgar for Best First Novel By An American and don't give up!

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

"do you think it's a problem that I routinely call Ian Rankin God?"

Don't ask me. I'm an atheist. I just happen to think the bits about not stealing, killing, cheating on your spouse or lying about people are reasonable rules.

Sandra Ruttan said...

So, following that logic, if there is no such thing as God and I call Ian Rankin God, does that mean he doesn't exist?

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Better call Rankin and ask. Make his day surreal.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Bet he's never been asked if he exists in an interview before.

See, there's always a question that hasn't been asked.

Thanks for the laugh, though!

I have Kurt Vonnegut's 8 tips for short story writers on my desk these days, courtesy of John McFetridge. I'm still getting over the fact that I can't make love to the world, though.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

"I can't make love to the world, though."

Some days it feels like the whole world's fucking me. I guess that's not the same thing, though.

Sandra Ruttan said...

See, and I maintain the philosophy that everyone needs a good fuck now and again.

But being fucked over, well, that's a different thing entirely. Having one of those days Patrick?

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Yep.

sean ferrell said...

Authoring as disappearing act is difficult. I have recently discovered that the first few pages of my current work in progress read as if written by someone else entirely. Not so much a disappearing act as a case of breaking and entering: "who the f@#$ broke into my house and wrote the first 10 pages of this book?! It certainly wasn't me."

Sandra Ruttan said...

Patrick, sorry to hear that. That sucks.

Sean, I think it's a real catch 22. I mean, we talk about an author's voice and all that jazz, and you see the blurbs about distinctive style, originality etc. How do you notice that if you don't notice the author? I guess I think of it more as the writing should be so smooth you shouldn't be paying attention to it at all...

But I know what you mean about the "who the f@#$ broke into my house and wrote this" - I was scrolling through something that had five short stories in it. One was mine. It had been a few months since I'd seen it and as I was scrolling through I started reading one part and thought, "who wrote that?"

Yeah, it was me. Quite a surreal experience.

angie said...

Wow, that was a bitchin' rejection letter. Not too damn shabby, Miss Ruttan! Now I can't wait to read the "yep, we want it" letter that's soon to come.

Actually, I agree with all of Elmore's rules. Yes, they can be broken, bent, twisted, etc., but he's mostly right on.

It didn't seem like Rankin was opening with the weather, just that he was saying that it was night and winter. Jeez..."screaming" is a definite attention grabber.

If you follow (mostly) Elmore's rules, then his last point follows naturally. Okay, ya gotta have voice, story, and interesting characters (duh), but the craft stuff is a big deal. I've stopped reading books for less - too many adverbs, too many metaphors, repeated info (over and over and over), too many named characters to keep straight, too many rep's of the same quirky mannerism, etc. Guess I'm just a picky bitch...

Sandra Ruttan said...

I suppose you could make an argument that Rankin didn't start with weather. I guess the seasonal reference and 'screaming' is what does it for me, but in a way that's the beauty of it - it conveys a hell of a lot with few words. It doesn't say it was a biting, cold night. It doesn't say the cold wind tore through the city. Yet that's the visual image I have.

And oddly enough, ask me to reference a first line from a Rankin book (book I say, not short story) this is the one that I can remember.

Weird, huh? Of course, paragraph 2 includes weather references, so maybe that's why it's all tied in in my mind, but it all works.

And in general, yeah, I agree with most of what Elmore Leonard says, but in all honesty, I think he could have been clearer about his weather point. What he's really saying is don't start with some long, boring scene-setting description that puts your readers to sleep.

In all honesty, I would have ranked POV mistakes way above that one. POV is one of those tricky things - you can break the rules and do it beautifully, but you can also cheat badly. That will kill stories for me.

angie said...

So...what exactly do you mean by POV mistakes? Like head-hopping? (That's my personal pet peeve.)

Also, it's funny that you took the Rankin first line to be about the weather. I thought he was talking about an action or event that came screaming out of Edinburgh (i.e. the car chase). Always cool to see how slightly different readings yield way different impressions. Either way, hell of an opening.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yep, head hopping is what I'm talking about. I particularly hate it when the deity steps in and tells us what's happening somewhere else that the narrator can't see/know. Unless it's written in the way that allows for that.

I think it's the word 'winter' that does it for me. I think that's the reason I associate it with weather. Which is buoyed up by the reference to sleet in the next paragraph... It just automatically puts a mental image of a winter night in my head.

But yes, great opening.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

In the end, just write the way you write best...don't stifle your "voice" and throw it in a neat little box!

Myself, personally...I love books that start with real action!

Sandra Ruttan said...

Me too Bonnie. You must be glad Sanjaya's gone! i saw the news and thought of you!