Writers on Writing: Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut & Elmore Leonard

STEPHEN KING
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Stephen King

Like your bedroom, your writing room should be private, a place where you go to dream. Your schedule — in at about the same time every day, out when your thousand words are on paper or disk — exists in order to habituate yourself, to make yourself ready to dream just as you make yourself ready to sleep by going to bed at roughly the same time each night and following the same ritual as you go.

In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives. And as your mind and body grow accustomed to a certain amount of sleep each night — six hours, seven, maybe the recommended eight — so can you train your waking mind to sleep creatively and work out the vividly imagined waking dreams which are successful works of fiction.

The adverb is not your friend.

Adverbs … are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. … With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. If one is writing for one’s own pleasure, that fear may be mild — timidity is the word I’ve used here. If, however, one is working under deadline — a school paper, a newspaper article, the SAT writing sample — that fear may be intense. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.

Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?

KURT VONNEGUT
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Kurt Vonnegut

Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

Start as close to the end as possible.

Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

ELMORE LEONARD RULES
  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.
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Elmore Leonard

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:

10. 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.

ESSENTIAL TIME TRAVEL NOVELS

Yesterday, over beer and burgers, I got in a discussion with Savannah-based author James Caskey about our favorite time travel stories which prompted me to put together a list of essential novels in the genre.  Any of these would be great beach reading. So, forgo the weekly James Patterson published novel and go with one of these classics instead. Listed in alphabetical order


THE ANUBIS GATES by Tim Powers (1985)

anubis-gates-time-powers-gollanczQuite brilliant. The colonization of Egypt by western European powers is the launch point for power plays and machinations. Steeping together in this time-warp stew are such characters as an unassuming Coleridge scholar, ancient gods, wizards, the Knights Templar, werewolves, and other quasi-mortals, all wrapped in the organizing fabric of Egyptian mythology. The reluctant heroes fight for survival against an evil that lurks beneath the surface of their everyday lives.

BRING THE JUBILEE by Ward Moore (1953) 

jubileeThis is one of the first (and the best) of the alternative history novels that ask: What if the South won the Civil War? Politically complex, astute and endlessly fascinating. The point of divergence occurs when the Confederate States of America wins the Battle of Gettysburg and subsequently declares victory in the “War of Southern Independence” on July 4, 1864 after the surrender of the United States of America. The novel takes place in the impoverished United States in the mid-20th century as war looms between the Confederacy and its rival, the German Union. History takes an unexpected turn when the protagonist Hodge Backmaker, a historian, decides to travel back in time and witness the moment when the South won the war.

A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT by Mark Twain (1889)

connecticut yankeeThis story is both a whimsical fantasy and a social satire chock-full of brilliant Twainisms. Hank Morgan, a 19th century American-a Connecticut Yankee-by a stroke of fate is sent back into time to 6th century England and ends up in Camelot and King Arthur’s Court. Although of average intelligence, he finds himself with knowledge beyond any ofthose in the 6th century and uses it to become the king’s right hand man, and to challenge Merlin as the court magician. Astounded at the way of life in Camelot, Hank does the only thing he can think of to do: change them. In his attempt to civilize medieval Camelot he experiences many challenges and misadventures.

THE DANCERS AT THE END OF TIME by Michael Moorcock (1974 onward)

Dancers_at_the_end_of_timeEnter a decaying far, far future society, a time when anything and everything is possible, where words like ‘conscience’ and ‘morality’ are meaningless, and where heartfelt love blossoms mysteriously between Mrs Amelia Underwood, an unwilling time traveller, and Jherek Carnelian, a bemused denizen of the End of Time. The Dancers at the End of Time is a brilliant homage to the 1890s. The series include the following novels: An Alien Heat, The Hollow Lands and The End of All Songs.

GLIMPSES by Lewis Shiner (1993)

glimpsesThe first rock n roll time-travel novel! In the song “American Pie” Don McLean asked the question: “Can music save your mortal soul?” Glimpses answers that question with a resounding “YES!” Ray Chackleford is an unstable, self-employed electronics repairman whose marriage is foundering and whose father has recently died. These unresolved relationships are complicated when Ray travels to the Mexican site of his father’s death and promptly falls in love with a woman even more unstable than he. In the midst of this emotional turmoil, Ray–a rock drummer during his youth in the late Sixties–begins to hear music in his head and manages to transfer to tape legendary unfinished recordings by Jim Morrison, Brian Wilson, and Jimi Hendrix. This music is accompanied by “journeys” into the troubled lives of these rock musicians. Shiner’s appealing main character and his gripping style overcome the less believable aspects of his story. If you love classic rock and roll, this is a must read!

THE GODS THEMSELVES by Issac Asimov (1972)

In the year 2100, mankind on Earth, settlers in a lunar colony and gods themselvesaliens from the para-universe, a strange universe parallel in time to our own, are faced with a race against time to prevent total destruction of the Earth. The invention of the Inter-Universe Electron Pump has threatened the rate of hydrogen fusion in the sun, leading, inevitably, to the possibility of a vast explosion — and the vapourization of the Earth exactly eight minutes later . . . Asimov, is always, accurate and brilliant. The science is plausible.

THE LIGHT OF OTHER DAYS by Arthur C. Clark & Stephen Baxter (2000)

light of other daysTwo titans of hard SF–multiple award-winning British authors Clarke (Rendezvous with Rama) and Baxter (The Time Ships)–team up for a story of grand scientific and philosophical scope. Ruthless Hiram Patterson, the self-styled “Bill Gates of the twenty-first century,” brings about a communication revolution by using quantum wormholes to link distant points around Earth. Not content with his monopoly on the telecommunications industry, Patterson convinces his estranged son, David, a brilliant young physicist, to work for him. While humanity absorbs the depressing news that an enormous asteroid will hit Earth in 500 years, David develops the WormCam, which allows remote viewers to spy on anyone, anytime. The government steps in to direct WormCam use–but before long, privacy becomes a distant memory. Then David and his half-brother, Bobby, discover a way to use the WormCam to view the past, and the search for truth leads to disillusionment as well as knowledge. Only by growing beyond the mores of the present can humanity hope to survive and to deal with the threats of the future, including that asteroid. The exciting extrapolation flows with only a few missteps, and the large-scale implications addressed are impressive indeed.

THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF by David Gerrold (1973)

folded himselfDaniel Eakins inherits a time machine and soon realizes that he has enormous power to shape the course of history. He can foil terrorists, prevent assassinations, or just make some fast money at the racetrack. And if he doesn’t like the results of the change, he can simply go back in time and talk himself out of making it! But Dan soon finds that there are limits to his powers and forces beyond his control. A wild ride!

PASTWATCH: THE REDEMPTION OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS by Orson Scott Card (1996)

pastwatchTagiri and Hassan are members of Pastwatch, an academic organization that uses machines to see into the past and record it. Their project focuses on slavery and its dreadful effects, and gradually evolves into a study of Christopher Columbus. They eventually marry and their daughter Diko joins them in their quest to discover what drove Columbus west. Columbus, with whom readers become acquainted through both images in the Pastwatch machines and personal narrative, is portrayed as a religious man with both strengths and weaknesses, a charismatic leader who sometimes rose above but often fell beneath the mores of his times. An entertaining and thoughtful history lesson.

REPLAY by Ken Grimwood (1986)

replayWhat if you could live your life over and over, and over again? Jeff Winston, a failing 43-year-old radio journalist, dies and wakes up in his 18-year-old body in 1963 with his memories of the next 25 years intact. He views the future from the perspective of naive 1963: “null-eyed punks in leather and chains . . . death-beams in orbit around the polluted, choking earth . . . his world sounded like the most nightmarish of science fiction.” Grimwood transcended genre with this carefully observed, literate and original story. Jeff’s knowledge soon becomes as much a curse as a blessing. After recovering from the shock (is the future a dream, or is it real life?), he plays out missed choices. In one life, for example, he falls in love with Pamela, a housewife who died nine minutes after Jeff; they try to warn the world of the disasters it faces, coming in conflict with the government and history. A third replayer turns out to be a serial killer, murdering the same people over and over. Jeff and Pamela are still searching for some missing part of their lives when they notice they are returning closer and closer to the time of their deaths, and realize that the replays and their times together may be coming to an end. A brilliant book. An all-time classic.

SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)


slaughterhouse_five“Listen: Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.”
After he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, Pilgrim’s life unfolds in a display of plot-scrambling virtuosity, concentrating on his shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden. Okay, we’ve all read it.  If not … what are you doing reading this blog? ‘Nuff said.

TIME AND AGAIN by Jack Finny (1970)

Time-and-Again-Novel-CoverSimon Morley, an artist with a premium on imagination, is chosen as a possible subject by a group operating on the theory that time is charted by a myriad of details and if surrounded by what appear to be the artifacts and events of an era, they might be able to project themselves into the actual time slot. For weeks Simon is secluded in an apartment in New York’s famous landmark, the Dakota, where he dresses, eats, entertains himself and reads newspapers in tire style of the New York of 1894 and finally he walks out into the Central Park of that January. As Simon wanders and takes photos of the familiar-but-different New York landscape, he becomes involved in the lives of several of his 19th century acquaintances. And there is a mystery that Simon is determined to solve that has to do with a suicide and a cryptic letter that ends “the sending of this should cause the Destruction by Fire of the entire World.” 

TIMESCAPE by Gregory Benford (1980)

timescapeIt’s 1998 and a physicist in Cambridge, England, attempts to send a message backward in time. Earth is falling apart, and a government faction supports the project in hopes of diverting or avoiding the environmental disasters beginning to tear at the edges of civilization. It’s 1962, and a physicist in California struggles with his new life on the West Coast, office politics, and the irregularities of data that plague his experiments. Then he receives an unusual message … 

TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG by Connie Willis (1997)

To_Say_Nothing_of_the_DogIn 2057, Ned Henry, an Oxford expert in the 20th century, jumps back and forth from the 1940s to correct a loose screw in the works of the time continuum. A tongue-in-cheek raspberry to Victorian novels, the story unfolds with such madcap screwball intensity it makes the pages burn your fingers as you read. This a fun ride!

UP THE LINE by Robert Silverberg (1969) up the line

Being a Time Courier was one of the best jobs Judson Daniel Elliott III ever had. It was tricky, though, taking group after group of tourists back to the same historic event without meeting yourself coming or going. Trickier still was avoiding the temptation to become intimately involved with the past and interfere with events to come. The deterrents for any such actions were frighteningly effective. So Judson Daniel Elliott played by the book. Then he met a lusty Greek in Byzantium who showed him how rules were made to be broken…and set him on a family-history-go-round that would change his past and his future forever!