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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My Writing Freaked Out a Rock Star

Writing inspiration comes from everywhere. Looking out a window or considering how a person might react to a situation or watching your kids play. In this example, it came from the song “Iris” by Goo Goo Dolls.

“You bleed just to know you’re alive.”

When I wondered what might cause a man to literally, not metaphorically, do such a thing, the story erupted from me. It was the writing experience I’d always imagined, though rarely had. And it came from questions that followed one after the other, piling up until I couldn’t type quickly enough.

More than fifteen years later, I still recall the first scene. A man in a cheap apartment staring at himself in a grimy mirror and hating what he saw. He picked up the razor blade, as he had many times before, and cut his wrist. A single droplet of blood fell into a claw-footed bathtub. As he watched, his cut healed and he screamed in helpless rage. He slashed again and again, healing again and again…until he didn’t. He breathed a sigh of relief. Soon, it would finally be over.

While there’s a violence and hopelessness to the scene, I believed the book would be a beautiful take on the unrequited love story: A man who heals others and himself, and the nurse searching for the person performing miracles in the streets. He falls in love, but will never tell her, never end his self-imposed exile, because his body is too scarred, his psyche too damaged. He’s unworthy of redemption. To further quote the song, “I don’t want the world to see me ’cause I don’t think that they’d understand.”

A few months later, I had the draft of a 30,000-word novella.

Fast-forward to sometime in 2006. Goo Goo Dolls were promoting their latest album, Let Love In. I worked in the Best Buy Music department, and we were often a stop for such junkets. Artists would talk about the album, maybe spin some tracks or perform, and then we’d often get a chance for handshakes and pix. It was the coolest job perk I ever had.

It’s key to understand that “meet and greet” is a brief encounter. Obviously, no one’s making friends, but it is a chance to say a few kinds words or ask a question before quickly moving on. Sometimes, it’s idle chitchat; other times, you get to thank someone for a meaningful impact they had on your life.

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Word Casualties #6 – Despair & Hilarity

Another collection of typos for which I’ve invented humorous definitions. Today’s list is from a horror writer I was editing a couple years ago. Like other renowned works of horror, it’s filled with despair and hilarity, which are two great tastes that taste great together.

CASUALTIES

drakenss – male duck butts

damnotion – a new idea that a person has, but does not like

ensalved – a victim covered with a soothing ointment.

Santanic – 1) describing the rituals used to bring about the return of jolly ol’ St. Nick. 2) describing the rites used to conjure a Mexican-American guitar legend.

inferal – a wild, rabid conclusion

maleviolent – ferocious attacks by men

inquickity – doing evil things at a rapid pace

revolvting – used to describe something hideous and disgusting that slowly turns

sarrow – the sadness of pirates, me hearties

CORRECT SPELLINGS

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Power of Words: Also

Words have power. It’s a simple enough concept, though perhaps underappreciated or downplayed when compared to fists or guns. That said, each of us has emotional reactions to words, whether a Shakespearean play, a political speech, or the handwritten note in a birthday card. And therein lies the control they have over us.

Many of us have heard as children, or said as adults, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It’s a comforting lie that both parties believe because it makes the problem go away. At least for a little while.

If you’ve ever been the victim of slurs, whether racial, sexual, or gender-based, you already know the power of a single word. For those of us who haven’t, we can appreciate the impact of a good F-bomb, though that doesn’t tend have the same power as the examples of above.

Additionally, as I recall important events of my lifetime, there is considerable power in certain words, such as “marriage”, “Black”, “abortion”, “conservative”, and “liberal”. Just post a social media update that includes one of these to remind yourself of that.

I’m of the belief, however, that there is power in any single word – important or not – depending on the context. Which is why I’ve chosen “also” as my topic for today.

The aforementioned subjects are of great consequence to our world, and I am not suggesting that a linguistic discussion about a common adverb is of equal concern. Rather, I hope to demonstrate how something insignificant can change the tone and intent of any conversation.

I mean, come on, we probably give it no extra thought in writing, reading, or speech. In many cases, we could rewrite it out of a sentence and the reader wouldn’t know the difference.

  • We should get groceries and also pick up vacuum bags.
  • We should buy groceries and vacuum bags.

But that’s a minor application compared to its role in the following examples.

I would also like the right to vote.

I am his parent, so I also need custody of my child.

I would like my culture’s history also studied

I would like my child’s gender identity to also be respected

I would also like to practice my religion

In those examples, “also” plays a more powerful part. It leaves no doubt that a person is requesting an addition to an established practice or point of view. It speaks to inclusion and acceptance. Said another way, it suggests that we have room to grow: Here is where we are today, and this is where I’d like to go so we can be equal or have a mutual understanding.

And it has power not just for the person saying those things. When it comes to arguments against these concepts, “also” seems to have been mistaken as an outrageous synonym for “instead of”.

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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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Write that down now!

This post is approximately 400 words.

Lonely stop sign

Writers: A quick plea to capture those amazing ideas immediately as they come to you lest they disappear with nary a trace. Often this has happened to me, and I have worn my soles thin from kicking myself.

I often like to let an idea run around in my head for a bit as I try to form it into something more tangible. If I can keep thinking about it as the day goes on – maybe water it, fertilize it – it starts to develop and grow. Suddenly, a day or a week later, I find myself typing away, turning thought into word and idea into story.

But that idea is very much like a cloud riding the head of a storm, and if I turn my focus away, sometimes for even a moment, those skyborne wisps will be something else by the time I look back, leaving nothing but gray thunderheads in their wake. The storm itself arrives days later when my mind gives a little poke and says, “Hey, you had a great idea last Wednesday, but it’s soooo gone now. Just thought you’d like to know.”

So, stop whatever you are doing because that interesting idea…

The creature kept coming, inexorably, despite its ruined leg. It dragged the damaged limb along, giving no heed to the pain inflicted by my axe. Vengeance burned from its eyes, striking me like a physical blow yet holding me fast. The look I read on the pages of its face told me the creature meant to take more than my leg as recompense. And it needed no axe to collect.

…will be reduced to…

The angry creature stomped vengefully toward me.

….when you try to write it down later. That is, if you’re able to write down anything at all.

And this is why, having just written this article, I am now, at four in the morning, starting a second one. Good luck wrestling your own inspiration!

–Mike

PS: I hope you abandoned this post before getting this far, because that means you went to write something amazing of your own. If not, well, say hello to your brain next week when it reminds you that you lost a brilliant idea today.


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

© Michael Wallevand, June 2021

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

Word Casualties #5

A fun bit of self-deprecation based on typos I’ve found in my manuscript. Rather than immediately correct them, I’ve collected them for your enjoyment and added humorous definitions. If you can’t guess the intended word (ahem, not surprising sometimes), further down you’ll find the correct spellings. If you enjoy the list, more can be found here.

CASUALITIES

  • Enchancement – a possible improvement; a magic spell that might work.
  • Consiren – the klaxons at a prison
  • Unstanding – describes one who is sitting down
  • Diffanta – difruity soda I disometimes drink
  • Definity – the assuredness of knowing something will last forever
  • Writh – a ghost missing its front teeth (this word must have lost its E to the next entry)
  • sarcasme – the fancy British spelling of ‘sarcasm’
  • Vommunication – drenching another person with the gagging vehemence of your words
  • Catapostrophic – exceptionally poor use of apostrophes
  • Legilimate – mind reading done to determine a person’s authenticity

CORRECT SPELLINGS

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