Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules of Writing”

Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules of Writing”

The late Elmore Leonard ( October 11, 1925 – August 20, 2013) once wrote a brief article where he laid out the ten commandments on writing, infused with his signature blend of humor, humility, and uncompromising discernment. It’s good, a little heavy in some areas. He hates adverbs with as much passion as Stephen King.

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.

2 Avoid prologues.

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.”

3 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.

4 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.”

5 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.

6 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.

7 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.

8 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.

9 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.

Advice from Stephen King

Advice from Stephen King

Here’s a list of some advice from the master of horror himself Stephen King. He writes like a machine. Definitely, someone to listen to. It all comes down to one thing though, write, write and write some more. Practice makes perfect and I really need to practice harder.

If you don’t succeed, get a bigger nail.

This advice comes from the huge number of rejection letters that Stephen King got, the idea was he had so many pinned on a nail in his wall that eventually it fell loose. So he got a bigger nail and kept going. 

Write 6 pages a day.

In his autobiography, Stephen King says something similar he also says he will “permit” a starting writer to start with a mere 1000 words a day. I think this is worth trying but man I bet George R. R. Martin would have apoplexy if he got told this. 

Go where the story takes you. 

As a self-proclaimed pantser this is very Stephen King. He doesn’t believe in plotting everything. There’s no way to be sure which I should do, but I have found planning very hard. Perhaps I should just write.  

The good ideas will stick with you.

Seems like good advice. If you write 6 pages of content every day, there are sure to be good ideas that you can file away for later. 

First, you read and copy other writers, then little by little you develop your style

I’m trying this with good dialogue, literally copying out conversations that I loved. It’s also true that I can hear when the language becomes too much. Writing dialogue is really hard. 

Writing is self-hypnosis, you need to have a routine. 

Christ, I need a routine in everything. My life is a mess. I have no good sleep or waking pattern. I need a new flat, with at least doors. I need a space where I can write and be on my own occasionally. 

Start with short stories and let them develop into novels or screenplays.

Okay, good news. This I can do. Hell, this I want to do, I am more interested in finding out that there are no large websites for short story collaboration, etc. There is https://theshortstory.co.uk/ but it has more broken links and doesn’t seem to work

Learn to write for different mediums. 

I think I’ll start by getting good at just writing in the first place. 

Look for ideas that you would really enjoy writing for longer periods. 

This all comes back to me needing to write more and more and find what I enjoy. I wrote a lot of stuff that never gets put out there. 

Get immersed in your writing process until the outside world is gone. 

Easy to say, hard to do in a single room flat where I work, sleep, eat and cook.

SpaceX and StarLink and numbers, Oh my! (Part 1)

SpaceX and StarLink and numbers, Oh my! (Part 1)

I’ve been reading a lot on Twitter about StarLink the SpaceX project and a whole range of adverse reactions which tend to boil down to:

  1. LEO light pollution will affect astronomy
  2. It will be too expensive (not profitable)
  3. It is unnecessary

I freely admit I am no expert; I am pretty good with numbers and a rational human being. So I’m going to write a few articles, trying to address each point, then end up with some conclusions. Hopefully, I will cover the good, the bad, and perhaps the ugly sides of the Starlink project. Of course, I’ll list all my references for the interested. But before I get to that for the people clueless about what Starlink/SpaceX is doing, I’ll write a synopsis. For those who familiar, feel free to skip to the meat of the article.

What is Starlink, a beginners guide

StarLink is a massive constellation of satellites designed to bring broadband of up to 10Gb bandwidth1 to rural difficult-to-reach areas where traditional telecoms have been neglected. This is not necessarily designed to help reach households or B2C, as many usually interpret it. It’s also to offer whole communities, schools, businesses, farms, and logistics groups. According to a keynote speech in 2020, Musk stated

” it [the Starlink service] would be it would [target] be these three to four percent at the very at the very edge what is the customer experience

– Elon Musk 9 Mar 2020

So we’re talking the very fractional edges of the existing telecom market.

In short, StarLink is going to reach those people who are having difficulty convincing their cable/telecom provider to expend the capital to wire them into hard-line broadband. It’s definitely not a humanitarian system to reach the poorest in the world. Even in Affluent countries such as France, the UK, and the USA, there are no signal areas where broadband is a dream for the schools, farms, and businesses stuck in one of these zones which currently have few options open to them2.

The primary purpose of this has been stated clearly from the start. SpaceX will need billions in capital to create a working Mars colony. Starlink will be a cash-cow people, and businesses are willing to pay for it because it solves a problem not currently being solved by existing telecom groups.

But launching all that metal into space will come with caveats and issues. So now onto those

Yes, LEO satellites will create light pollution

SpaceX Starlink Satellites create streaks of light-pollution across a long exposure
By NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory/CTIO/AURA/DELVE – https://nationalastro.org/news/starlink-satellites-imaged-from-ctio/, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Despite claims from many Muskites to the contrary, this is sadly an inevitable side effect. There is no positive light (Haha) one can spin on this element. Having 40k+ satellites in LEO is going to affect someone and particularly ground-based astronomy. To put it in context (at time of writing) that there’s around 5500 artificial satellites current orbiting earth3. SpaceX intends to multiply that number by nearly 8 times with their singular project. That’s a paradigm-changing shift in satellite numbers, but they are not alone; there are other proposed mega-constellations from OneWeb, Telesat, Kepler Communications, and even Amazon.

How bad is the light problem ?

There is a whole range of answers to this question, from raging rejection and calls to write petitions against constellation projects4 all the way to hand waving dismissal. It entirely depends on who you’re talking to. Obviously, the most concerned people are ground-based astronomers and astrophysicists who will have exposure shots ruined by satellites. It’s worth noting this isn’t a new problem; even Hubble, at an orbit of around 550 km, has fallen prey to passing satellites, as Alex Parker can attest:

In short, astronomers have legitimate concerns. To add to the confusion for the general public, the amount of reflection depends on a myriad of factors including, when they were launched, orbital position, satellite angle to the earth and sun, and even the latitude of the telescope being affected will all have some impact of the light pollution.

The Starlink satellites are considerably brighter immediately after launch and during the orbit-raising phase, which will take up to one week. The Starlink train (“strings of pearls”) has now been seen internationally, and while fascinating and even exciting to the public, it’s a troubling omen for those concerned about what is to come.

By Jud McCranieOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Starlink satellites have three phases of flight: (1) orbit raise, (2) parking orbit (380 km above Earth), and (3) on-station (550 km above Earth). During orbit raise, the satellites use their thrusters to raise altitude over the course of a few weeks. Some satellites go directly to station, while others pause in the parking orbit to allow the satellites to precess to a different orbital plane.

 Satellites spend a small fraction of their lives orbit raising or parking and spend most of their lives on-station. It’s important to note that only about 300 satellites will be orbit raising or parking at any given time. The rest of the satellites will be in the operational orbit on-station. ((https://web.archive.org/web/20200501025809/https://www.spacex.com/news/2020/04/28/starlink-update)) So the frequency of new launches will also be an element to think about. Currently, SpaceX is pursuing an aggressive launch schedule of nearly two launches each month of around 60 satellites.

If you’re trying to visualize why satellites reflect so much light, take a butter knife and hold it up at arm’s length with the blade at a right angle to your arm. If you hold the blade, so the edge is facing your eyes, you’ll barely perceive a line; the more you turn the knife-blade, however, the more and more of it you’ll see. At the worst angle, you’ll see the whole shape of the knife reflecting light into your eyes. Voila, you’ve just replicated the reflection issues at various stages of satellite planes.

What are the solutions?

Just as there are a lot of factors that cause problems, there is no single solution. As we’ll see in later articles, there may ultimately be no workable solution for what’s to come. Currently, there are a few methods used to mitigate light pollution for ground-based telescopes.

  1. Use software that removes the satellites from the image.
  2. Reduce the amount of light that hits or is reflected off the satellite.
  3. Change the orbital plane so that the (knife) edge is always facing down.
  4. Have fewer satellites in orbit, particularly LEO.

Next time I’ll detail how all those will work and even if they will work well enough.

Until then, I hope you and your loved one’s are safe during this terrible time.

  1. []
  2. to see a Map of France’s networks https://www.monreseaumobile.fr/ []
  3. https://www.esa.int/Safety_Security/Space_Debris/Space_debris_by_the_numbers []
  4. https://www.astro.princeton.edu/~gbakos/satellites/index.html []
Force Multipliers – Studying things that make a difference

Force Multipliers – Studying things that make a difference

Right now, I’m busy studying to find out what to do with my life since losing my business. It’s been a tough year with losses in my family and a radical shift from the future I expected. Force multipliers are something I have been reading a lot about, and it’s interesting to read up on how focusing on key points has a dramatic effect on over just wide and shallow studying.

For example, reading every AWS digital course as I am right now has given me a wide shallow view of what AWS has to offer for customers, developers, and businesses in the cloud; that’s not a bad thing, mind you. It’s a good idea to have a high altitude view of the area before focusing on anything in particular. If you have no idea what’s available, how can you find what’s important?

So what force multipliers exist or are suggested, well there are a few I’m come across that make some sense to me and I’ll share them below.

Touch Typing

I’m pretty sure this is a universally useful skill for any person living in the western world today. The ability to type fast and smoothly on a computer is a ubiquitous force multiplier for any professional in the 21st century. As a programmer and someone who grew up with a keyboard, it shocks me how many people don’t practice this. I have recently started retraining my skills using the website: https://www.typingclub.com/

I was shocked at how slow I had become (40 wpm) and the number of mistakes I made while typing, so I started almost from scratch. The ability to type fast and accurately will help me with; creative writing, programming, writing emails, writing documentation, etc. The list is nearly endless. While speeding up your writing speed by just a few words per second seems on the surface trivial, we can multiply it by the number of seconds, minutes, and hours we save every week from that minor increase.

If I double my typing speed and have a 95% or more accuracy, I would be, theoretically, able to do double the writing, double the coding, or double the draft rewrites than before. This is what it means to be a force multiplier, a skill that impacts multiple fields and skills in your life in a single blow.

Grammar, punctuation, and tenses

Okay, so as an English teacher for 10 years you might assume that this is a given. I should have mastered every tense, comma and semi-colon while teaching. This is partially accurate. I have improved my tenses and writing skills no doubt. But there’s a big difference between teaching English to foreigners and using it well for native readers. The best way to construct a paragraph and how to express myself whether in technical writing or in creative writing, avoiding the passive voice or using the oxford comma are less important for somebody trying to decide between “I have saw” and “I have seen”.

Again, the ability to write clearly punctuated, well-formed sentences and paragraphs on the first try will help anyone reduce the time they spend on any work they do. Also, beyond the tenses and grammar, there is knowing what is appropriate for the audience and material at hand. The use of the passive voice in creative writing or one’s C.V. is a terrible idea. When writing a technical how-to document, it can be perfectly acceptable.

writer working on typewriter in office

“The use of the passive voice in creative writing or one’s C.V. is a terrible idea. When writing a technical how-to document, it can be perfectly acceptable.”

Mathematics and programming

As force multipliers and studying go, nothing is probably more powerful than Maths. This is painful because Mathematics and I would not be considered friends. But there is simply no doubt that having a good grounding in maths will help you in way too many domains to be ignored. To this end, much like with touch-typing, I am working on this using online resources mainly the incredible https://www.khanacademy.org/

Not much to explain here, it’s just something that I need to find a better approach to and master. Whatever field of programming or software I want to dive into Mathematics will be a force multiplier in that, my finances, my loans, everything.

Maths confused

Cross the X and Y carry the Z and add 人 now?!

Programming is something I have studied a lot but not in the depth and breadth I could have. I need to go back to fundamentals like maths and work my way back to a better level. I have time; I have the capacity I need to study the fundamentals again. Learning AWS, cloud services, SaaS, PaaS, IoT, and other projects will definitely put me back on track. Still, I think revisiting computer science theory such as OOP, and other skills is necessary.

Talking of science…

Once I’ve cleared the maths cobwebs from my brains, science is another keystone and force multiplier in all its glory, physics, chemistry, and biology. It depends on what I want to do with my life as to how much and what to study. I find space endlessly fascinating and space exploration, so Physics and Chemistry seem a no-brainer. One step at a time, I’m practicing writing 500 words a day and touch typing; I’ll start to do Mathematics once or twice a week and programming every day. I’ll need to get some clear goals in mind. I don’t need to master these things; just raising my awareness to pick a path to focus on.

The other big one of course is exercise and health, I’ll speak about that in another post. But being healthy, fit and being in a good condition is just as important.

Finding my Theme, again. Part 4 – Upsetting tradition

Finding my Theme, again. Part 4 – Upsetting tradition

  1. For as long as I can remember I’ve felt that something is exciting at the intersection of _______ and _______
  2. I sincerely believe that the world needs _______
  3. Never in history has there been a better time for _______
  4. My whole life I’ve been fascinated by what happens when you mix _______ and _______

So I did this once before, it’s an exercise from the book “Entrepreneur Revolution” by Daniel Priestley. The idea is that you can use the four questions to try and find what your theme or passion is in your life.

Last year my business was crushed under by the global pandemic of COVID, leaving me with nothing but debts and angry creditors who once were friends. In contrast, I am lucky enough to have some work. I am taking this time to find out where I want to be before starting again.

So here is the final part, trying to answer the questions above and maybe from there, I’ll move onto a plan and finally a business venture.

My whole life I’ve been fascinated by what happens when you mix a traditional domain with something unexpected

The status quo, the traditional, the institutionalized, the norm. These things are often there not because they are good, efficient, or effective but because they are familiar, tried, and tested. Some of the institutions we work with and struggle with are dinosaurs, and their traditions are now holding back entire industries. Some of these are more obvious to see, school curriculums based on old textbooks training students for work that may not even exist when they enter the market. Language teachers training language teachers about intelligence types, when even the person who coined the term later said it wasn’t accurate.

Fair to say I’m not a big fan of things that have calcified and now hold us back. This isn’t usually any particular person’s fault; it’s the nature of the beast; the larger the institution, the more calcified and rigid it becomes. Governments and the systems of administration are obvious culprits. They tend to be huge established institutions where the people in charge have spent 40 years in that institution mastering its various systems. Why would they want to change or disrupt it? Those who arrive fresh-faced with ideas tend to be ignored, and so the cycle continues.

Also, the larger the beast, the slower and more difficult it is to make any changes. To change you need key players to get on board, you need to produce documents and arguments as to why the idea will help the institution. These organizations suffer not from a lack of intelligence or willingness from participants. Usually, it’s the massive gears of bureaucracy that grind the change-makers under. That’s also why you tend to find huge changes in an industry coming from the outside. Not necessarily someone ignorant of the domain but someone who independently pushes a solution. Something that would have been impossible from within.

woman in red long sleeve writing on chalk board

“The entire education system is a beast of tradition

Take Khan Academy1, creating a whole new MOOC approach for people to learn at home. It wasn’t that training videos like this hadn’t been suggested before YouTube had existed for ages. Teachers suggested it as a means to teach maths over traditional drilling. But the entire education system is a beast of tradition. Trying to suggest this to the government would warrant meetings and hearings, budget reviews, and of course, the training required. Technology is a key part of this disruption. Of course, tech is getting cheaper and cheaper, smarter and smarter, and it’s going to appear in some unexpected places in the upcoming years.

But it’s not just in the world of politics and institutions that I find this interesting. I love it when people take a well-known concept or industry and turn it on its head by doing something unexpected. The traditional fantasy genre tropes that were with us since Lord Of The Rings got torn up with the movie Bright on Netflix. Of course, people hated or loved it. It took what they were familiar with and upended it. In my youth, the tales of Drizzt, a noble Dark Elf who was the antithesis of his race. Essentially, and I think this is something I need to write more about, any institution or domain that has remained entrenched in its ways for more than 50 years is probably an area that should be looked at from an entrepreneurial standpoint.

  1. https://khanacademy.org []