A random stroll through the library or bookstore can turn my whole day around. I love the randomness of the books that catch my eye, and trying to figure out why that title or that book cover drew me in.
Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing recently caught my eye at the library because 1) we’re a list-loving society and 2) I’m a writer always trying to improve my craft.
The book is small, filled with few words and many illustrations, and can be read completely in 10 minutes. The advice is solid and witty. You may want to take another 10 minutes to read it again.
#3 Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
#4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…
These are ones I’ve heard many times but a reminder is always nice.
#9 Don’t go into great detail describing places and things — I can’t agree more. There are certain authors I love but at the same time, I despise their lengthy paragraphs of description. Get to the point or I’m going to skip a few pages and then be frustrated when I realize later on that I missed an actual plot point!
Which leads us to the tenth rule of writing that can not be argued with…
#10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Obvious, right? But what are those parts and how do we, as writers, know when we’re boring our readers? Check out the book during your next local library stroll to get Leonard’s take on this.
Interesting Fact: This book was originally published in the New York Times in July 2001 as “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle”.
Writing Prompt based on The Bath, a short story by Raymond Carver
Write a short story about a very emotional scene without describing the emotions or thoughts of the characters.
Be a minimalist writer. What does that mean?
- Keep descriptions to a bare minimum.
- Think action over description.
- Keep time moving.
- Short, to-the-point dialogue.
- Use generic terms like “mom”, “dad”, “birthday boy”, and “baker”.
- Only include names if necessary.
- Cut all unnecessary characters, setting details, background info.
The most insight we get into the character in The Bath is this: “She saw a car stop and a woman in a long coat get into it. She made believe she was that woman. She made believe she was driving away from here to someplace else.” Even though this communicates her thoughts, it still is describing an action–make believing–not a thought.
Writing Prompt based on Black Box by Jennifer Egan:
Write a story in Tweets.
Write a story in 140-character-or-less segments.
It will be jerky.
It will be minimalist.
It will challenge your way with words.
And, hopefully, it will be fun!
Jennifer Egan’s short story, Black Box, was originally published on the New Yorker’s Twitter account. Therefore, each segment was required to be 140 characters or less. It is best understood, and appreciated, by reading the story itself, so please do so.
Think of a character. Now write a paragraph describing them BUT… here’s the kicker…do not describe their looks, what they are wearing, or what they are thinking. Write in third person and use the description of their surroundings to tell us something about the character.
Here is an example from Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves”. Notice how the items she surrounds herself with tell us something about her character.
Aged and frail, Granny is three-quarters succumbed to the mortality the ache in her bones promises her and almost ready to give in entirely. A boy came out from the village to build up her hearth for the night an hour ago and the kitchen crackles with busy firelight. She has her Bible for company, she is a pious old woman. She is propped up on several pillows in the bed set into the wall peasant-fashion, wrapped up in the patchwork quilt she made before she was married, more years ago than she cares to remember. Two china spaniels with liver-colored blotches on their coats and black moses set on either side of the fireplace. There is a bright rug of woven rags on the pantiles. The grandfather clock ticks away her eroding time.
Looking for a character? Try one of these…
Its always a bit of a challenge to include all 5 senses in my writing. Personally, I am always heavy on sight and slacking in taste, scent, and sound. Even with that knowledge of myself, the senses still slip my mind when I’m writing.
All the Light We Cannot See has opened my ears in a way no other fiction has. One of the main characters is deaf, forcing the author, Anthony Doerr, to rely on the other senses for description. Instead of physical features to describe a character, Doerr describes the quality of their voice or their typical scent.
Read a few quotes from the book and then challenge yourself with the writing prompts below!
“Madame Ruelle, the baker’s wife–a pretty-voiced woman who smells mostly of yeast but also sometimes of face powder or the sweet perfume of sliced apples–…”
“They smell of stale bread, of stuffy living rooms crammed with dark titanic Breton furnishings.”
“The cross a seething thoroughfare, then go up an alley that smells like a muddy ditch.”
“Always there is the muted rattling of her father’s tools inside his rucksack and the distant and incessant honking of automobile horns.”
“From outside comes a light tinkling, fragments of glass, perhaps, falling into the streets. It sounds both beautiful and strange, as though gemstones were raining from the sky.”
“Marie-Laure hears the fsst of her father lighting another match.”
2) Write a few sentences including as many senses as possible. Sight. Sound. Smell. Touch. Taste.
With an ice cold glass of bitter lemonade freezing my hand, I close my eyes, sink into the cushioned lawn chair, and smell my neighbor’s freshly-washed bedsheets that look like ghosts unafraid of the sun.
I scrape the heels of my once-white tennis shoes along the pavement, sending echoes of clattering pebbles up and down the dark, rancid alley.
The musty closet smell that lingered around her like smoke didn’t help her olive-corduroy-and-faded-t-shirt look that alone made me want to gag on my first bite of grilled cheese.
As piano music drifted into the room from somewhere far, far away, he took in the shine of her lipgloss that tasted like cheery pie, the familiar scent of a perfume he would never know the name of, and ran his finger along the thin scar on her wrist.
2) Create a character description using NO visuals.
I kept my eyes focused on the book in my lap as I heard the whisper of swishing pant legs and the quiet crunch of shoes on gravel approaching. My bench gave a gentle jerk as the stranger sat on the bench back to back with mine. Deep, soft grunts accompanied the thud of a dropped bag on the ground and the sinking into the bench. The stench that followed sent a lump into my throat that I forced back down with a swallow. I held my breath until I was able to open my mouth again, refusing to breath through my nose. When I was in high school, my dad bought brussels sprouts in attempt to add variety to our diet; they sat in the back of the fridge for weeks until my friends and I decided to fill a pizza box with the most disgusting things we could find and leave it on a friends doorstep as we rang their bell and ran. The smell of the rotten brussels sprouts and the green face of my friend as she opened the pizza box has never left my mind. I have never smelled anything as horrid as those rotten brussels sprouts but the stranger who sat on the bench behind me came in a close second. As I continued to read my book, the smell became palpable; I began to breath through my nose again because the stench began settling on my tongue with a texture like honey. As the sun beat down on our shoulders, the stranger began to snore. Quick, growling snores that came irregularly and without warning. I slipped my book into my canvas bag and rose from the bench, trying and failing not to look over my shoulder as I walked away.
When the call wakes me and I see the name _____ glowing in the middle of the phone, I don’t want to answer. I’m still in that half-dream state, and I’ve got this sense that if I pick up it won’t be _____ on the other end of the line, but _____, which is impossible because ____________.
The above story trigger is the first two sentences of Phil Klay’s short story “Unless it’s a Sucking Chest Wound”. My attention was immediately captured and my curiosity instantly spiked by the lines, and I wanted to share them with all of you! “Unless it’s a Sucking Chest Wound” is one of many amazing stories that appears in Klay’s collection, Redeployment.
Check back soon for my full book review on this one-of-a-kind collection of modern war stories.
- Think of a situation.
- Write the situation with a clear main character.
- When finished, rewrite the same situation with a main character of the opposite sex as your first character. (If your first character was male, rewrite the scene with a female main character.)
- Compare. How did the different gender characters react to the same situation? If they handled it differently, why do you think they did so? If you’re characters have vastly different personalities, what do their gender roles have to do with it?
Although I’m female, I find the large majority of my main characters are male. It seems to me that my story ideas demand a male character in order to head in the direction I want them to. Also, I find it easier to have my characters hold in their emotions, and I stereotypically think men do that better/more often.
Hopefully this writing prompt will help me break out of my shell.
Do you find your writing leaning towards a certain gender? Do you just go with it or do you try to mix it up?
Friday Writing Prompt:
For an entire day, pay specific attention to your environments and write down as many observations as you can. When you take the time to notice the surroundings (even when its a place you spend time everyday like your house, work place, in your car) and put it in writing, I guarantee you will see something you’ve never seen before!
Either carry a notebook with you or open Notes on your phone. I recommend the notebook. 🙂
What’s the world look like?
Describe your setting, the weather, your mood. Describe the things you see every day, and things you’ve never noticed before. Look for connections. Look for opposing forces.
Be a creep
Watch the people around you; describe their body language, their looks, their clothes. Write down their conversations. How does their word-for-word conversation differ from what you actually write down and why?
Who are they with? How are they connected to that person? Or why are they alone? Why are they at this place in this specific moment in time?