Monthly Archives: May 2012

Top Ten Lists For Writers

David Letterman’s famous Top Ten lists are a staple of his Late Night Show. I came across a great Top Ten list in a Twitter feed from Writer’s Digest magazine. Brian Garfield wrote the list, Ten Rules for Suspense Fiction, in a 1973 Writer’s Digest article. The list reportedly paved the way for John Grisham to write his breakout novel, The Firm.

Here are Garfield’s top ten rules for suspense fiction:

  1. Start with action; explain it later.
  2. Make it tough for your protagonist.
  3. Plant it early; pay it off later.
  4. Give the protagonist the initiative.
  5. Give the protagonist a personal stake.
  6. Give the protagonist a tight time limit, then shorten it.
  7. Choose your character according to your own capacities, as well as his.
  8. Know your destination before you start out.
  9. Don’t rush in where angels fear to tread.
  10. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want to read.

Though Garfield geared his list toward suspense fiction, these rules apply well to any type of genre fiction. A common thread in these rules is for the writer to create challenges for the protagonist. This will move the story forward and keep the reader’s interest, whether the genre is romance or mystery.

Another great list is Elmore Leonard’s oft-quoted ten rules of writing:

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he  admonished gravely.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

While more oriented toward craft of writing than plot, a writer cannot go wrong following Leonard’s advice.

For more on Leonard’s ten rules, you can buy his book

I thought I’d take crack at coming up with ten rules. These are some of my bedrock beliefs about fiction writing. Here goes:

  1. All stories start with characters. Take the time to develop memorable characters.
  2. At the core, all stories are about relationships. Look for “relationship potential” when building your characters. It doesn’t have to be a relationship with karma and great vibes. Bad relationships make for good fiction.
  3. Build conflict into the story from the beginning. Conflict leads to tension, which is the fuel that moves the story along.
  4. Start with action, but make sure the action sets the stage for significant later events.
  5. Plot is over-rated. Think “story.” The plot consists of a series of major events in the story. Make sure these events flow organically from the consequences of what occurred before.
  6. Strive for clarity over florid prose. Nobody will be impressed with your vast vocabulary. The shortest word is often the best word.
  7. Know the essence of your story. Hone in on the essence and expand upon and polish it.
  8. Avoid author contrivances. Fantastic coincidences might be convenient for the author, but they are a big turnoff for the reader.
  9. Make your ending pay off. As more than one writing guru has said, your ending should be both unexpected and inevitable.
  10. In crafting scenes, strike the right balance between action, narrative, and dialogue.

What are the rules of writing for you?

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Doctor Print vs. Mister Kindle

When it comes to print books versus e-books, the reader in me is in a Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde tussle. As Billy Martin said in the “taste great/less filling” beer commercial, I feel very strongly both ways. The true test is when you’re traveling. What do you take with you: a book or your e-reader? On a recent business trip to Kansas City, I couldn’t decide so I took my Kindle–and two paperback books.

I was tempted to go solo with the Kindle, but there are those few minutes when the plane is taking off and the captain tells the passengers to power off all electronic devices. Besides, it’s nice to have a good paperback (or two) in the unlikely event that my Kindle dies or the battery runs low. And since I happened to be reading three books at the same time (my wife thinks I’m crazy for doing that) I brought them all.

In the terminal, I was enjoying the second novel in Kathryn Magendie’s trilogy, Secret Graces. I had my music in my ear buds. I was a happy camper. When I powered off on the plane, I switched to Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird. Since I was almost done, I also brought Bernard Malamud’s The Natural. I was just getting into one of Anne’s excellent craft essays when we hit 10,000 feet and it was back to the story of Virginia Kate Carey. Landing on the first leg of the flight in Baltimore, I had to abandon Virginia Kate in the middle of a dramatic scene and I nearly finished off Bird by Bird.

The longer leg of the flight to Kansas City took me back to Secret Graces and I made great progress, aided by Wilco in my ear buds. I completed Bird by Bird on the descent to Kansas City.

The next afternoon I returned home and cracked open The Natural, continuing to enjoy the exploits of Roy Hobbs as he smote the ball to lead the New York Knights out of the doldrums. At 10,000 feet it was back to Secret Graces for a long stretch. By the time I returned to The Natural, the Knights had risen to third place in the league.

The short flight from Baltimore to Hartford-Springfield had me juggling the two books. I was again forced to leave Virginia Kate during one of the most dramatic scenes in the book. Meanwhile, in The Natural, fans were celebrating Roy Hobbs Day at Knights Field. And then the plot took a sharp turn and that’s where I left off.

The fact is I still love the feel and the experience of e-books, but it’s nice to read about that hot New York Times bestseller and have it on your Kindle within seconds.

Do you prefer print books or e-books? Are you like me and enjoy both?

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