11 rules to keep you, the author, invisible to your readers

Most fiction writers want readers to get so captivated while reading a story that they forget someone wrote it.  If invisibility is the effect you want, you might want to read these eleven rules of Elmore Leonard–author of 45 novels–from 20 years ago.*

Rule 1:  Don’t open a passage with a weather report.  People read novels to learn about people, not the weather.

Rule 2:  No prologues. Prologues usually contain backstory which can be added later as the story unfolds.

Rule 3:  Use “said”—nothing else—when a character speaks.  “Said” is almost invisible, but any other word—asserted, warned—distracts the reader from the action to the author.

Rule 4:  Don’t use adverbs to describe “said.”  Adverbs distract from the story action and remind the reader that an author wrote this story.

Rule 5:  Limit exclamations marks to almost zero.

Rule 6:  Don’t use “suddenly.”  If you say, for example, “Suddenly, he fell,” the reader knows something is about to happen before the story’s character does.

Rule 7:  Rarely use regional dialect.  That requires apostrophes and weird spellings.  Once you start, it’s hard to stop.  And hard to read.

Rule 8:  Keep descriptions of characters brief.  Let their dialog conjure images in the reader’s mind.

Rule 9:  Keep descriptions of places and things brief.  Descriptions of anything slow down or even stop the forward action of a story.

Rule 10:  Skip long paragraphs without dialog.  Readers do.

Rule 11:  Don’t use proper diction if it sounds unnatural, or if it slows down the action.

*These rules are paraphrased from the July 16, 2001, edition of The New York Times, Section E, page 1.  I recommend you read Leonard’s original words.  They’re a hoot.

Add your voice to your college application essays

Students applying for college are required to write one or more essays.  This is so the colleges can “know” a student, that is, so the admissions committee can differentiate one student from the thousands of other students who apply.

So, most importantly, a good essay must make a student stand out.  How?

Not by good vocabulary or varied sentence structure or clear organization.  That is a given.  Not by expressing passion for a school or a major.  Most students can do that.  No, something else is required.

That something else is what writers call “voice.”  Voice means that when the admissions committee reads an essay, they can picture the real live person who wrote it, a person with a distinct personality which comes through loud and clear.

To write that kind of essay, students need to reveal themselves being vulnerable or using self-deprecating humor or showing a shortcoming as well as a strength.  Here are a few examples.

  • A student through no work of her own earns straight A’s in math. She listens and understands without studying.  She captains a competitive math team.  But she confesses that as easy as math is for her, reading is hard.  She reads some words backwards and guesses at long words.  She depends on other people to read aloud to her.  She writes this in her essay, not bragging about the math or apologizing about the reading.  What will the committee remember?  Her honesty.

 

  • Another student admits he is a skinny, muscle-challenged nerd. He recalls an instance when he felt put on the spot, needing to compete in an athletic contest against a real jock.  The jock went first, accomplishing the challenge easily.  The nerd followed, the eyes of every classmate on his scrawny body.  Slowly, painstakingly, he competed.  Breathless after a couple of minutes, he paused, hearing kids screaming.  “Go!  Go!  Go!”  For him!  He resumed, narrowly beating the jock and collapsing.  But for one brief, shining moment, he knew the thrill of victory, the thrill of girls cheering his name.  What will the committee remember?  His bravery.  His self-deprecating humor.

 

  • Still another student writes that she was asked to be a camp counselor for the summer. Hardly any salary, but swimming in a lake, hiking on mountain trails, and sitting around campfires cooking s’mores.  She yearned to say yes, but her mother needed her to babysit her siblings while school was out.  “One of the hardest things I ever did was to put the letter to the camp director in the mailbox,” she wrote.  What will the committee remember?  Her compassion.

Students, if you are reluctant to reveal yourself, your essay probably isn’t good enough.  You needn’t bare your soul, but you do need to get uncomfortable to let your voice shine through.

Writing a second grade essay

In elementary school, children need to compose four kinds of passages:

  • Short responses to questions (one or two sentences),
  • Long responses to questions (about five sentences or one paragraph),
  • Narratives (stories of varying lengths), and
  • Essays (single paragraphs to five paragraphs).

The other night I received a call from a father whose second-grade son needed to write an essay on his favorite animal.  The child didn’t know what to do.  I asked the boy on the phone what his favorite animal is.  “Dogs,” he said, not a surprising answer since the boy has grown up with pet dogs.  I asked him why, and he identified several reasons.  I told him he needed to explain his reasons.  He told me that without problem.

I told him that to write the essay he needed to

  • First, write a sentence saying that dogs are his favorite animal.
  • Second, tell why dogs are his favorite animal, one sentence for each reason. Then he needed to add other sentences explaining why.  The best detail is one that begins with “for example,” I told him.
  • Last, end the essay by repeating that dogs are his favorite animal and name the reasons without the details.

Do you understand? I asked.  The boy grumbled in the background, but his father told me that he understood.  We ended the phone conversation.

The next morning, the father texted me the essay below.

 

I don’t know how much direction the classroom teacher gave this boy.  It seemed like this was one of the first times the student was required to write an essay.  Did the teacher take the students through the organizational process?  Did she show organizational boxes for the student to fill in?  Did she model writing an essay or two or three in class?  Did she explain what information belonged in the first sentence or in the middle sentences or in the conclusion?  I suspect she didn’t since the boy—an A+ student—had no idea when I talked to him.  Yet after a five-minute phone call, he wrote a classic essay (for a second grader).

To be fair, I don’t know the circumstances surrounding this assignment.  Was the teacher a substitute?  Was there a fire drill taking up the time that the teacher wanted to use to preview this assignment?  Was the boy pulled out of class when the teacher  explained the assignment to the class?

I am left to wonder what training this boy’s teacher received to teach writing.  Perhaps, like all too many teachers, not enough.

 

Brainwriting:  a different kind of brainstorming

We all know brainstorming:  a verbal way of generating ideas in which no criticism is allowed even if the ideas are wild; in which the focus is on quantity of ideas generated no matter how inane or wonderful each is; and in which better ideas can come from combining ideas.  Participants shout out ideas one at a time and someone keeps a running list.

But do you know brainwriting?  With brainwriting, a problem or opportunity is identified to a group.  Each person in the group writes his or her thoughts on card or paper simultaneously.  After a certain amount of time passes (say five minutes), everyone passes his or her writing to someone else in the group.  That person reads the thoughts and adds his or her own.  Then everyone shares papers again, and everyone adds to the paper he or she receives.  After four or five rounds of this writing and passing, all the papers are collected and posted.

Brainwriting has advantages, say people who use it.  With anxiety reduced by participants not needing to speak, the number of ideas increases.  Irrelevant talk is eliminated.  Time is saved.

When is brainwriting more useful than brainstorming?

  • If your group—say a class of 30—is too large for brainstorming, ideas from everyone can be generated within a short amount of time.
  • If quiet people in the group won’t participate in brainstorming, they might in brainwriting.
  • If loud people in the group dominate in brainstorming, their responses “speak” no louder than the responses of reserved people.
  • If wild ideas are not well tolerated by the moderator or by some participants, they will not be censored.
  • If personalities get in the way during brainstorming, they can be eliminated during brainwriting.
  • If time is limited yet the moderator must get input, many responses can be garnered in a few minutes.
  • If the moderator can’t keep control of the brainstorming session, he or she can keep writers on task.

When is brainwriting contra-indicated?

  • If the issue to be commented on is complex, small group discussions might be more appropriate.
  • If the group or institution is particularly traditional, something sounding weird, like brainwriting, might seem too edgy.
  • If brainwriting is new to most participants and discussing the process will use up valuable time, some preparation might be necessary.

 

Four shapes of stories, according to Kurt Vonnegut

Have you seen the video of Kurt Vonnegut explaining the shape of stories?  It’s short and funny, and I recommend you watch it.  Here is the gist of what he says.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.The most popular story type starts with a happy person.  Think the three little pigs building their homes.  Then the person gets into trouble.  The wolf huffs and puffs and blows two houses down.  At the end of the story, the person gets out of trouble—the big bad wolf dies—and the person is a bit happier than when the story began.  The three pigs live together in a brick house.  The shape of this story is a U with the right side of the U a bit higher than the left side.  (The example is mine.)

Another popular story type starts on an ordinary day.  Something happens to make the person think, wow, this is my lucky day.  Think boy meets girl.  But then something else happens to take the luck away.  Girl rebuffs boy.  The person is unhappier than at the beginning of the story until—serendipity—the person gets luck back.  Girl realizes her mistake and returns to the boy.  The shape of this story is an N.  (The example is mine.)

Still another story starts out with an unhappy person.  Think Cinderella.  But then something happens to make the person gloriously happy—going to the ball, dancing with the prince—until, abruptly, the cause of happiness is taken away—the clocks strikes midnight—and the person’s spirits plummet.  The person stays sad for a while, but then amazingly, something happens—the glass slipper fits—to make the person off-the-charts happy.  The shape of this story is something like an N but with an extended horizontal line leading up to the beginning of the N and another extended horizontal line connecting the downward slope to the final upward slope of the N.  (The example is Vonnegut’s.)

Notice that all three of these popular shapes for stories end with a line moving upward toward happiness.

An unpopular shape for a story is a straight horizontal line.  Think Hamlet, suggests Vonnegut.  A person starts out sad.  Events happen.  The person remains sad.  The person dies.  Not many stories show this pattern, says Vonnegut, because most readers want happy endings and most writers give them what they want—or because writers, like everyone else, don’t recognize true happiness. 

We pretend to know good news, but we cannot be sure, says Vonnegut.  Maybe this is because true happiness is mundane, like sitting under an apple tree with a friend on a sunny day.

It’s a thought-provoking video in the guise of a humorous monolog.  Key words like “Vonnegut” and  “shapes of stories video”, will show you numerous versions of the video, some with translations.