Look at that writing: Elmore Leonard

Sometimes a piece of writing just hits me the right way, and I sit back, amazed. It makes me want to hold up the book and exclaim, “Look! Look at this right here. Now this is writing!”

I usually don’t literally do that, but I did this week.

I’m reading Get Shorty for, I dunno, maybe the tenth time. That puts it up there amongst my most-read books. It’s the first and only Elmore Leonard book I’ve read, a mistake I’ve been meaning to correct for something like fifteen years. My reward for finishing this post is checking out Rum Punch from the library.

I’ll be honest: I picked up the book because I adore the movie and the character Chili Palmer. I apologize to book purists in advance, but there are are some parts of the movie I prefer. However, there’s one thing it didn’t capture.

That Elmore Leonard frickin’ dialogue, man.

John Travolta is nice and smooth in the movie, Chil you might say, but his portrayal has that Hollywood polish. Chili Palmer in the book is tougher, rough around the edges. He thinks and talks like a person, which is to say, not like a written character obeying the rules of writing and language. He also doesn’t think much of the things people say.

Despite having read this book several times, it always takes me a few pages to regain my comfort with Leonard’s natural, if unusual style. I say that with all possible affection. As much as I appreciate grammar and the mechanics of writing, there are times when you break all the rules, and he is a master.

I’m coming to the end of the book and this passage knocks me out:

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Difficult Story Choices #2

I knew it was coming.

I didn’t want to admit it. I figured if I kept these parts in the book, eventually I’d find a way to make the passages work.

But the writer knows. You know when it’s not going to work long before you concede the reality.

And then about a week ago, I wrote this note which sealed their fate: “Repurposing these words to the Elf would move the Dragon to Samor Book 2; at which point all the other Dragon stuff could be moved out. I’ve been struggling with their purpose for a while.”

Even then, it took a few more days before I started yanking stuff from the manuscript. I once again followed the advice of Stephen King, who was borrowing from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch:

Murder your darlings
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Hey writer: What’s more important?

I wrote this just over a year ago, when many of us were still underestimating the impact of the pandemic upon our worlds. “Oh, my sweet summer child,” to borrow George R. R. Martin’s commentary on naiveite. I found the post waiting in my drafts folder, one of a number of writing projects that got shelved due to other priorities. I share it now because it touches on an important matter for writers. Please don’t mind the dust.

A friend (Trusted Reader #12), sent me this message:

So, I have a “what’s important about writing question” for you when you have a moment.

YES! There are two surefire ways to get my attention: 1) talk about Star Wars (my wife does this) and 2) ask a question about writing.

As you can imagine, I dropped what I was doing and emphatically replied. My brain raced. Was this philosophical? Perhaps this was related to me having a writing degree in the business world. Oooh, could it pertain to the importance of reading?

What’s more important, story or character?

Uh oh.

It’s a great question, and I’m glad he asked. I had an answer, of course, but part of me wondered if I was walking into something.

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Writing Exercise: Morning Routine

I have a new routine to start my work day. It’s a chance to center my mind, while doing a little mental stretching to prepare it. Sometimes, the exercise relates to the office job; others, my personal writing. On Monday, it was the latter.

It a last bit of preface, I’ll segue to a common question writers get: “Where do you get your ideas?” Usually, I haven’t a clue, but I know exactly where this piece originated. I looked at the window and the word “a’sliver” came to mind as a creative synonym for “ajar”. Mundane origin? Perhaps. Occasionally, the magic in writing is simply a curtained alcove in Emerald City with an old man hiding there*.

*Even then, when you look carefully, you might see the trailing remnants of real magic as they flee from prying eyes

Anyway, I challenged myself to work it into a little something, and as I sat in my office listening to the sounds of morning and watching the world through a window, the following flowed out. Less stream-of-consciousness writing….and more of a leak. (how’s that for a sales pitch?)

Window sits a’sliver just enough
For filtered birdcalls to enter the room
But perhaps not the heat

A whispered wind whistles in
Squeezing through a narrowed crack
It cannot force wider open

Sun chases behind them
Sending shadowed wings to dance upon my wall
Wafted air disturbing doldrum days

Trees glow in verdant hues
Awash with shadow and light
Dancing brightly fro and to

Asphalt rhythms drone in time
Rubbered wheels, frictioned warm
Click-kicking out stones

The staccato bark of greeting dogs
Heedless of rhyme or melody
A mixed meter only they measure

Stylistically, it’s a bit of a mess.

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Editing Exercise – Help that stumbling sentence

My various lives (personal, work, writing) have been busy for the last couple months, so blogging took a back seat for a bit. However, while doing some writing over lunch, I was struck by an idea that led to this post.

Many writers will tell you not to stop for proofreading or editing while you’re writing. I generally agree. It interrupts the momentum, and in many cases, drives that wonderful idea right out of your head. Anyways, a little separation from the act of writing and the act of editing is a good thing, especially when you’re looking to be more objective.

But sometimes, a clumsy sentence keeps stumbling through your brain until you put it out of its misery fix it. Today, I wrote such an example.

Samor smirked, but he was unable to extricate himself as the jostling of people propelled them forward at greater speed to the dining hall.

If that sentence were a person, it would be trying to keep its balance while blundering down a hill. Let’s take a closer look. “Forward” is redundant since in the greater context of the passage it’s clear they were going to the dining hall.

Samor smirked, but he was unable to extricate himself as the jostling of people propelled them at greater speed to the dining hall.

“Propel” indicates a force to the motion, so “at greater speed” is unnecessary.

Samor smirked, but he was unable to extricate himself as the jostling of people propelled them to the dining hall.

“Of” is unnecessary in this context. It reads the same without it, though changing “people” to “crowd” is more evocative.

Samor smirked, but he was unable to extricate himself as the jostling crowd propelled them to the dining hall.

Much smoother. I only eliminated 5 words, but I believe my sentence-person is now surefooted in their descent of the hill. Are there other ways to tighten up that sentence? Of course! Spending a few more minutes, I could probably rework it completely. There’s also a case to be made for the addition of words to add flourish or pizzazz! Either way, that’s what the editing process is for: get the idea out now; refine it later.

For now, I’m happy with the change and I’ll let it simmer. You can do the same. With a few simple cuts, a tortured sentence is no longer a tongue-tangled torment for your Readers. Good luck with your writing!

Mike


Enjoy what you just read? Leave a comment or like the post and we’ll ensure that you see more like this!

© Michael Wallevand, June 2021

Project Three Begins

Waitaminute, buster. Didn’t you just tell us you were starting Project Two a year ago? Didn’t your first book take four years to write?! Is this one of those flighty writer things, where you get distracted by a new project?

There’s more to it than that, which I’ll get to in a moment. Project Two has continued to move over the course of the last year, though 2020 was rather disruptive to my writing schedule and I haven’t made the progress I wanted. I’m still discovering the characters and I’m not as invested in them as I need to be, especially when compared to Tildy and co., with whom I spent four years. Admittedly, we’re still in early draft territory and there’s lots to uncover.

Here’s why I’m not worried that this will become an abandoned project that I’ll find in a dusty hard drive ten years from now. The Lost Royals series is a tale of two siblings. Project One is the completed Tildy Silverleaf and the Starfall Omen. Project Two follows her brother Samor on a similar but separate path a continent away. Project Three returns to Tildy.

That’s a lot of words to say, “Mike is writing two separate books series concurrently with a conjoined ending. It’s probably a stupidly ambitious endeavor fraught with complexity and peril.” Way to sell it, buddy!

Anyway….the intent is to allow Readers to choose how they want to experience the series. They could only read Tildy’s storyline, read Samor’s, or to go back and forth between them. As such, I don’t need to know everything that happens in Project Two before beginning number Three.

Back to the original question about this shift in focus being a ‘flighty writer thing’, yeah, there’s a bit of that. A lot of us are distracted by shiny new projects, which results in piles of unfinished manuscripts. I have a few of those myself.

It means I’m hedging my bets a little. You see, despite being a fledgling author, I do understand that stupidly ambitious endeavors projects that break norms, such as alternating books from character to character, are rare and harder to sell to agents, publishers, and readers (e.g. if JK Rowling had decided to write a book about Harry, then Hermione, and back to Harry). Novelty in a novel can be good…to a point. It’s quite possible my series won’t find life in the order I’ve envisioned. So three years ago, I started the outline for Tildy’s second book, and I’ve been adding bits as I worked on the other projects.

Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN – LED ZEPPELIN

Today, rather than struggling through my few precious writing hours, I decided to tap into Tildy’s energy to see where it might take me. I’m pleased to share the first-draft opening to Tildy Silverleaf and the Dungeon of the Dreadwyrm.

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Year Five

December 10, 2020 marks the five-year anniversary of this writing project, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to recount a year in a writer’s life. There’s probably a joke to make about celebrating the “wood” anniversary for a book, but I don’t have much in the creative tank tonight.

For many of us, 2020 friggin’ sucked. We’re living through trauma, and so many things made us sad, stressed, or depressed. I write because I want to bring joy to other people, and it was damn hard to summon that joy to the page this year. My emotions ran the gamut, from grief to anger to fear to outrage.

  • We lost some key figures from my childhood (David Prowse, Eddie Van Halen, Alex Trebek, Sean Connery) and my adulthood (RBG, Chadwick Boseman, Ian Holm)
  • Pandemic….well, everything, including anti-maskers who I just don’t understand
  • I started working from home (for what will end up being more than a year)
  • Watched my city, Minneapolis, descend into chaos after the murder of George Floyd
  • We had my wife’s teaching role and my younger son’s special education turned upside down by the pandemic
  • We watched two people younger than us succumb to cancer
  • My wife was in a car accident that sent her to the ER and totaled our older son’s car
  • And for crying out loud, so many Presidential shenanigans

Some of these inspired writing (Whatcha writing during isolation?, Privilege in a time of chaos and injustice, Squeezing in writing time), which is good because I really struggled to work on my novels in the first half of the year. I can’t recall whether I’ve had this much trouble writing before.

But any day I can write one word is a good day, and there were plenty of days that exceeded that. I did make some good progress. During the research for this post, I discovered that I accomplished more than I suspected. Here’s a few highlights:

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Writing Is Weird

It’s a Friday afternoon, and I’ve had the day off from work. Ahem, a day off from the office job. It’s allowed me to put in some writing work. I knocked out just over 2,000 words today, interspersed with some family responsibilities. As satisfying as the day has been, that’s not my purpose for this post.

I’ll just say it aloud: Writing is weird. It really is. You sit, you think, you write out thoughts. Some day, not today, they make sense. Hopefully, to others besides yourself.

I planned to write something of a scene today, and as I consider the labyrinthine journey I took as I worked, I’m surprised – and pleased – with the results. For those of you interested in the writing process, I whipped up a quick post to shed some light on my own methods and madness. Be advised, Dear Reader, this will be a strange walk through one writer’s mind and his storytelling process. Consider yourself well-warned.

* * * * *

In my second novel, my protagonist has been raised without any knowledge of his past life. Like his sister Tildy in the first book, the world thinks Samor dead. But as the children of a Queen and King, their worlds are filled with paintings, books, people, and other references that provide insight into their family and their early lives. The children do not realize this, but assuming I do a proper job, the Reader will.

As I was getting ready for the day, I started debating what I might write about. My mind followed Samor’s book journey and decided I would have him discover the painting of his parents. Tildy does a similar thing in her book, and neither of them recognize the experience for what it is: the first time either of them have beheld their parents – or the infant images of themselves.

Parallel scenes like this are one of the reasons I wanted to tell their stories in separate books. It also allows a fair amount of compare and contrast, which is a handy way to derive inspiration: Oh, Tildy handled the experience this way? How would her brother handle it differently? And what are their shared reactions?

OK, so I’ve set a goal, a destination, for my scene. How do I get there? (For spoiler-y reasons that I won’t explain here, the portraits have been hidden. The why isn’t important to the scene.) I now needed a beginning and a middle.

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Oh, You Just Sat Down and Wrote?

It’s 7:30 on a Sunday night. Beside me sits a glass of whisky and ice. I’ve poisoned it, some might say, with Coca-Cola. And that’s fine for this ending to a long day because I’m desirous of the effects, if not so much the taste.

Much of these first three paragraphs was written, and re-written in the car this evening, while listening to Neil Gaiman’s The View From The Cheap Seats (It’s one of three books I’m currently enjoying. The softcover Brimstone by Preston & Child sits beside the whisky glass and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone awaits my ears when I get to bed, whenever that might be.).

The Gaiman writing is good, as he usually is, but I think there’s more than that pleasure contained in this particular work. It also contains some unspoken encouragement for writers, and I wonder if other people realize that when they read it.

I’ve hardly been writing since the pandemic was declared in March. The Gaiman book, and another huge relief that occurred this week, have served to remove some of the weight that’s been crushing me. Today, some pent up energy was released.

I’ve already mentioned that I began writing this post ahead of time, and that’s much like the new story I sat down to type this morning. Similarly, it formed in my head before I knew I was going to do any writing. As I showered today, two distinct lines popped into my head, as though I had discovered a thing that existed or was remembering something whispered to me in my sleep.

The first was a title: The Time Travel Tinkerer.

The second was the opening: Putter was a tinkerer, a time traveler, and a bastard. At least, that’s how people would have viewed him, if they’d known what he’d done. Or would do, depending on their places in time.

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Squeezing in writing time

As I mentioned in Whatcha writing during isolation?, I hadn’t been doing much writing. Thinking, yes; time at the keyboard, no. I also stated that I was taking a break.

I think that means different things to writers than many other people. You see, much like the famous Ross and Rachel argument on Friends, whether I was on a break could be debated.

We. Were. On. A. Break!

Since it’s Fathers’ Day, and I’m writing, I think you know the winner in my particular debate.

I was putting a lot of thought into the future of the series, and I don’t mean whether I’d get published or whether I should shelve the project. I was contemplating the ongoing storyline and the eventual intersection of Tildy and her lost brother, Samor (for a little preliminary info on him, go here: the Prince).

Much needs to happen to create the dynamic between them when they meet. Without being too spoiler-y, they are both heirs to the throne. Due to the patriarchy of their society, many will favor him; however, as the first-born, Tildy will also have a legitimate claim, as far a many are concerned.

Before I digress too far, there are beats in the story that must be hit and I need to determine the best books for them to occur. When does Tildy realize this? Book 2. When does Samor achieve that? Book 3. And so on.

So, I’ve been taking notes. Lots of ’em.

Yesterday, I found myself with a little free time. I pulled up Evernote and started popping notes into the appropriate manuscripts. After an hour or two, I’d added maybe 30 total notes into nine manuscripts. You can verify that here: Progress Tracker.

That’s….an ambitious project.

Yeah, which is why I need to understand where the overall story is headed. Otherwise, the – let’s call it writing math – isn’t going to add up at the end.

Equally important, it was a telling thing because I wasn’t “in the writing mood” and the house was hardly free of distractions. The perfect writing environment isn’t sustainable for a married guy working through a pandemic as Summer arrives with two dogs and two kids. I’ve changed my approach to ensure I’m spending my time working, not waiting. Fortunately, I started that transformation years ago.

For me, writing has never been limited to words appearing on a page. Having a similar philosophy will help you spend more time working and less time waiting. Good luck!

–Mike


Enjoy what you just read? Leave a comment or like the post and we’ll ensure that you see more like this!

© Michael Wallevand, June 2020