tricks of the trade

Recently I got cranky about an article in the Times Literary Supplement on Elmore Leonard‘s ten rules for writers. The article ended with this bit of high-handed advice: “Our rule for the cultivation of good writing is much simpler: stay in, read, and don’t limit yourself to American crime fiction.”  

I’ll admit that I thought Elmore Leonard’s list was a bit vague (“10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. “) except where it was too specific (“3. Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialog.”)

So I’m going to list three of my rules and give other people a chance to bash at me. It’s only fair.

1. When in doubt, read the passage out loud (1) to yourself (2) to somebody else you like (3) to somebody else you don’t like. Take the average of all three reactions. If you still have absolutely no idea if the damn thing is any good, at least you will have succeeded in wasting another hour.

2. Hit a wall? Take a page-long scene with dialog you like from a novel you admire. Write it out longhand, but switch all the genders of the characters. This will either paralyze you for a week or give you good ideas.

3. Take a random page from your manuscript and highlight every occurence of ‘very’ in yellow. Now go through and highlight every adjective in blue and every remaining adverb or adjective (in case you’re not sure of the difference) in pink. If you’ve got rainbow-esque page in front of you when you are finished, delete all of the highlighted terms . Now put back only one out of ten. Choose carefully. (If you’ve got no pink, yellow or blue on the page, you’re in a minimalist sink-hole and you’ll need professional help to get out.)

the truth inside the lie


Storytelling is about being creative, or, to put it more bluntly, lying. A successful liar storyteller is somebody who a) has a really good memory; b) knows the value of detail; c) can make the listener want to believe what he or she has to say. Suspension of disbelief is what makes storytelling work.

Here’s a good exercise I use when teaching. Have people make three statements about themselves, one of which must be a huge whopper of a lie. For example, Louie writes down:

1. I once was questioned by the FBI because they thought I was connected to a cigarette highjacking gang.

2. When my mother was growing up, she lived across the street from a man who had no arms who had a wife who had no legs.

3. Last summer I got a cool job: I was a roadie for Garth Brooks.

Louie has had an interesting life, but one of these is a lie. To survive the game, he must be ready to answer questions. It’s not enough to say, yeah, it was cool, when asked about being a roadie. He’s got to have the details down, ala:

Well, my only job was to keep his hats in shape and ready to go. He’s got this whole setup in the bus, just for the hats. Brushes, spot cleaners, molds, the whole thing. And it was my job to have them ready for him, off stage, for when he soaked through a brim — you would not believe how that guy sweats. I almost got fired in Amarillo when a huge guy –must have been three hundred pounds, and he smelled like a dog kennel– barged back stage waving a toilet plunger and nabbed Garth’s favorite white suede ten gallon cowboy hat. I thought he was a janitor but it turns out he’s this nutcase who follows the band around Texas, just begging to Garth to let him play in the band. His name is Hewey Red Dog Cross, and he makes music with that plunger, you’ve got to hear it to believe it.

Take a shot, it’s fun. Make up a really outrageous claim and then back it up. Oh and here’s a hint: if Louie knows nothing about Garth Brooks or concert tours, then setting up a lie story like this will fail unless he’s willing to do a lot of research first. People who write historicals or alternate universe fiction have the most research to do; those who write what they know (and nothing else) have the least.