Following Mr. Leonard to the Starting Line

I have fun writing. I don’t make it a chore. I don’t have to struggle with it.

I haven’t been writing much lately.  It’s not a block, so much as a pervasive lassitude verging on WIP-triggered narcolepsy.

I’ve managed a paragraph here, an edited description there, but even my awareness of my own mortality hasn’t been enough to achieve escape velocity.

But the other day, a book appeared on the New Shelves at my library: Charlie Martz and Other Stories: The Unpublished Stories by Elmore Leonard.

Leonard UnpublishedThere’s something comforting about reading the early work of one of your favorite authors, especially the stuff  that didn’t quite make the grade.

Mostly because it exists.

For some of us, it’s a revelation to remember that Mr. Leonard, for all his talent and genius, didn’t follow his Ten Rules* from the beginning. In his early stories, he may have forced a description or two. He used a variety of dialogue tags. He got in his own way with clever bits. He (gasp) adverbed.

In other words, he didn’t write pure gold from the get-go.

But he did eventually become the kind of revered writer whose early stories are collected and published and studied as comfort and encouragement to the rest of us.

So, how did he go from a writer of not-quite-right-for-prime-time stories to the Elmore Leonard we know?  Part of the answer is offered by his son, Peter Leonard, in the introduction of this collection.

His kids remember him writing all the time when he was at home.  Writing came in a close second to his family and he’d sit in the living room working away with pen and paper, while the kids watched TV or played, grabbing every spare minute he could.  He got up at five every morning and wrote at least two pages, before leaving for his full-time advertising job.  He didn’t even make coffee until the end of the first page, which sounded like powerful motivation to me.

And as I read along, fascinated, it occurred to me that all this sounded oddly familiar—or could, anyway, if I wanted it enough.

I used to write on my laptop in the dining room, where I was within eye- and earshot of the family.  There were interruptions, but these were infrequent and generally involve hugs or the occasional squabble over the remote—they could see I was typing away at something important.  These days, I write in the back bedroom . . . if by writing, one means playing time management games and reading and browsing through the spectrum of buzzfeed channels . . . while the family frequently checks on me to make sure I’m still alive and hangs around asking if they can watch videos with me—for some reason, they don’t believe me when I tell them I’m working.

And I get up at five every morning, too, ostensibly to write . . .  but lately, my routine has devolved into immediate coffee, e-mail, reading other people’s work, and carefully ignoring my project files until I have to wake the kids.

This is all far less productive than I’d originally intended.

So this morning, I tried something different.  I still got up at five and fired up the coffeemaker, but I ignored my phone and laptop in favor of a legal pad and a working pen.  I sat down at the kitchen table and wrote a page before pouring my first cup of caffeine.  Then I continued writing, until I noticed the time, and reluctantly finished a sentence.  Okay—a paragraph. Or two.  I was on a roll.

Felt pretty good.

I didn’t pass the two page mark by much and there were a lot of scribbled out words that narrowed the margin, but now I can legitimately call my WIP a WIP again.

Maybe I’ll take my pen and pad to the couch after dinner tonight and see if I can get the wordflow going around my kids’ favorite shows.  If that doesn’t work the way I hoped, I can always jot down some notes and go back to the  computer after bedtime.

Either way, I’ll find some comfort in knowing that even Elmore Leonard didn’t start out knowing exactly what worked for him.

But he knew how to find out—and he did.

I don’t believe in writer’s block or waiting for inspiration. If you’re a writer, you sit down and write.

Worth a try, wouldn’t you say?

*I think he makes it clear that his rules were created by him for him and not as the One True Way.  As he said, “Everyone has his own sound.  I’m not going to presume to tell anybody how to write.”


Random Thursday: Words, werds (,) and wurds

Random Thursday (ˈrandəm ˈTHərzdā): the day on which Sarah plunks down all the odd bits and pieces she’s been sent by friends or has otherwise stumbled upon this week in an effort to avoid writing a real post, the assembly of which usually ends up taking twice as much time as sitting down and creating actual content.

‘Cause we all wanna write right ‘n tight.



Typoison Pen


“The Tall-Tailed Hart” went through three editors before languishing in the pipeline at Playboy.



Grammar Danger

Is vocabulary comprehension and communication of meaning
more important that correct spelling?

Discuss amongst yourselves.

Because that prominent vein in my forehead just burst.

(Thanks a lot, Vonnie . . . )



I know you’ve probably seen this already.

So what?  It’s Weird Al.

(Thanks, Cristina—you were right!)


Acceptable Misokkubg

Acceptable misokkubgIf somebody misses every single comma and apostrophe
in an otherwise thought-provoking comment about spelling mishaps
in a keyboard-driven society,
we snerk.

Big time.


Walken on Commas


Walken Comma

 Commas and apostrophes: the stalagmites and stalactites of the grammar cave ecosystem.

(Thanks, Cornelia!)


Use your words hook

And your bassoon.

(Thanks, Lisa!  This is awesome!)

A Few Confused Words about Word Count

There is, I’ve discovered, no math quite like word count math.

Everyone has their own ideas about how to figure out the number of words in a novel, most of which appear to be half guesstimation, half page-calculation, a quarter magical-thinking, and three-fourths chaos theory—and, yeah, I know that adds up to more than it should.

That’s sort of my point.

Some of the places I’ve checked (agent-sites among them) say that one is never supposed to use MSWord’s counting tool, because it doesn’t account for the length of the word— ‘a’ is the same as ‘acidophilus,’ which doesn’t help anyone figure out how many pages a the published book is likely to be.    Still others (agent-sites among them) say, go ahead and use Word, because the number is only supposed to give an agent a general idea of whether your novel is too long or too short for the genre.

Some guides advise to calculate by character count (with or without spaces) divided by X or Y; or by double-spaced page count (factoring in the half-pages and white spaces); or by rounding some unclear figure one way or another.   And some appear to go by the light of the gibbous moon, under which they consult the spirit of Einstein, who reassures them that it’s all relative (even the spaces).

Word says I have a 102,500-word Pigeon (give or take 35 words) on my hands—that seems like a pretty big bird, even if none of those words is ‘acidophilus.’*  According to the 250-word per page theory, though, it’s about 106,250.**  If I count the characters-plus-spaces and divide by six, it’s 94,317.

The moon is gibbous now, I think, but I’ve been too busy to gambol about, sorry—but if I calculate the characters without spaces and stipulate that each weighs as much as a single saffron thread, Pigeon weighs in at about six pounds, twelve and a half ounces.

I’m just saying.

As someone who was naively hoping that the math part of this writing business might be taken care of by agents, personal accountants, and possibly Swiss banking establishments—a woman can dream—I’ll admit I’m a bit . . . confused.

Of course, I’ll be checking submission guidelines very carefully when the time comes and I really shouldn’t be worrying about any of this, yet—if at all, supposing Einstein and the Pro-Word contingent are to be believed.  At this point, I haven’t truly started cutting any deadwood darlings, being more interested in untangling the timeline, making sure I nail down that one FBI agent who has a different name every time he’s mentioned, and jumping up and down on the structural integrity of the thing.

And it really isn’t necessary to know where the word-count stands before I pick up the axe, because what I’m supposed to do is take away all the things that aren’t part of the story and whatever length I have afterward is the right length for the book.***

It’s a theory, anyway.

There might be another theory that I’m trying to recalculate the word count in my favor so my beloved Chapter Four won’t fall victim to literary downsizing . . . but that’s just the gibbous moon talking.

What’s your favorite^ One True Way of calculating word count?  Does it involve goats and pixie dust?


*I did use ’a’  2473 times, though, in case you were wondering—I was, so I won’t judge you or anything.  However you feel about MSWord’s literal interpretation of word count, it also easily counts and highlights all the times I’ve used ‘just’, ‘which’, “—“ or any of my other charming, semantic tics—which is just darned useful at times.

**For those of you who just hissed through your teeth, I didn’t bother looking for white space—and y’all know by know how much I love long stretches of dialogue—so this is an inflated figure.   Again, sort of the point.

***At least until an agent or editor hands me a list of revisions.  I’m not that naive (just really, really hopeful)

^Not logical, just favorite.

Random Thursday: Write this down . . .

Random Thursday (ˈrandəm ˈTHərzdā):  the day on which Sarah plunks down all the odd bits and pieces she’s acquired during the week in an effort to avoid writing a real post, the assembly of which usually ends up taking twice as much time as actually sitting down and creating real content.


epic win photos - Font Graffiti WIN


Twenty Years is a long time to wait for one sentence . . .

. . . unless you’re John Irving.


So, You Want to FTF?

Zoë Sharp, who is one of my favorite author-people,  interviewed Timothy Hallinan—author, instructor, blogger, cool guy—the other day on Murderati,* one of my favorite author-people places.

It was mentioned that Mr. Halligan  teaches courses on how to start and finish novels and had gathered his thought on the subject in one place on his website.

So I clicked over to check them out.  I read one or two of his articles . . . then a few more. . . and then  . . .

I bookmarked the page, closed out and started writing.

They’re that good.

And they’re right here.


Nice One, Kid . . .

These are the earrings I picked up for myself at the Mall on Sunday while I was trying to ignore Janie.

“Those are perfect for you, Mom!” said Janie, as I was paying for everything.

“Why?” said Sunny, momentarily distracted from her new yellow flower purse.**

“Because they’re little pencils,” said Janie.  “And she’s a . . .”

“A Mommy?”

“No.  Well, yeah, but she writes stuff.  And writers need . .  .”



Garrison Keillor says I can write fanfiction about Pirate Ninja Nuns from Mars***

So there, nyah.


Social anxieties and spontaneous credit card combustion be damned—I registered for Bouchercon last night.

I also scored accommodations, though not quite what I’d wanted.  The convention center has already sold out of the reserved block—the only room available in the hotel, if the reservation person was to be believed, was a three-person suite for $339 a night, which was tempting . . . but no.

I booked a room a block away and will frugally, if not cheerfully, schlep myself and my stuff back and forth.

So the only things I’m missing are a signed vacation slip^ and transportation, since my beloved Rocinante is in no shape to make the trip and I’d rather not fly if I can help it.^^

So if anyone within reach of this post hails from my part of the Midwest and plans to go to Bouchercon—or has always hankered to explore scenic Cleveland, it’s not my place to judge^^^—I’ll pay my share of gas and parking if you want to carpool or guard your stuff if you want to train- or buspool.

And if any of my posse are interested in sharing expenses for a suite . . .


*While you’re there, check out the amazing Q&A by Gar Harwood and Brad Parks.  Two brilliant men riffing off each other—priceless.

**It should be noted that she was sitting on the counter through this exchange because she refused to be parted from her new favoritest thing ever long enough for the clerk to scan the tag.

***Because I miss the Biker Mice, that’s why.

^I have to wait for the quarterly forms to come out, but it shouldn’t be a problem.  If it is, I’ll either cancel or hold one heck of a poetry contest.

^^It’s not fear, it’s impatience,  disgust, and expense, pretty much in that order.

^^^Though I’ll do it anyway, since I was born and (more or less) raised in Cincinnati, which means judging Cleveland is a deeply ingrained tradition.  But I hear the river up there is gorgeous now that it’s no longer bursting into flame on a regular basis . . . and for Laura, I’ll keep quiet—if she promises not to bring up the Reds or the Bengals or Jerry Springer or Mapplethorpe . . . never mind.

Backstory: From Cardboard to Who Cares?

Of the many, many webcomics* I follow, Sheldon, by the talented and beyond-awesome Dave Kellett, is probably my favorite.  Janie loves it, too, and often requests that we read one of our many printed collections of the strip as her bedtime story.

It’s fun—we do the voices.

One of the reasons I love this comic is that the author is as big a geek as I am and riffs on all the cultural icons of geekdom, up to and including Star Wars, Star Trek, and, of course Lord of the Rings.**

Last night, we landed on this strip:

Click the image above and read through the arc—it’s six strips long, ending on this one:

Exaggeration aside, you know damn well that Tolkien knew the backstory of every single creature in LOTR, down to what each one had for breakfast—and second breakfast—the morning of the battle of Minas Tirith.  Even Tom Bombadil.

Writers are told to create a backstory for our characters, too—even if the character is a minor one.  Alison Janssen wrote a gorgeous post illustrating why:

Think about your character like this: He is a very small ocean when he’s young and inexperienced. As he moves through time and experiences life, the coasts surrounding him widen, and the sea floor drops. His ocean gets bigger as his character grows, containing more saltwater.

Now think about the formative events of his life — the stuff that happened to him before the story you’re telling in your manuscript. The kinds of things that led to the quirks and traits he possesses in the story you’re telling . . .   Imagine each of those events as a drop of colored liquid in the character ocean. The larger the impact of the event, the larger the drop, and the more viscous the liquid . . .

And it’s not just the immediate, most recently dropped pool of liquid that will inform your character’s actions, behaviours, and perceptions. Every drop of liquid, even when dispersed, will have changed the overall makeup of the character ocean. Wave patterns, currents, the flora and fauna — everything’s related.

This is heady stuff for writers!  Whether you make it up on the spot or your characters tell you more about themselves as you go, characterizations are nothing but fun.  And we’ve all become wary of cardboard characters and flat characterizations.  There needs to be something behind those baby blues, right?

BUT . . .

While Tolkien wrote in almost every possible historical, genealogical, and personal detail for his characters—including Tom Bombadil—it was the early 1950s. And he was Tolkien.

Currently, we aren’t supposedto use a character’s entire backstory—unless that’s what the story is about—because an infodump slows  the pace to a crawl while the reader tries to process everything,  like a kid trying to eat a sundae through brain freeze.  It can be done, but it’s not as enjoyable as usual.  And most backstory isn’t important to anyone but the characters and their anxious parent author.  It’s natural for us to want our babies to show off for the nice people, but that’s not the point.

Naturally, it depends on the audience—ten-year olds like Sheldon up there have a low boredom threshold, while professors of 19th Century Delphinapterus literature seem to have quite a high tolerance—as well as the needs of the story.   And I’m not discounting talent and skill; some authors seem to effortlessly balance any amount of backstory—or none at all.

J.K. Rowling works a couple of tons of personal backstory into Harry Potter, especially the last volume, but it doesn’t slow anything down at all—she  keeps up the pace because the details are relevant and immediately useful  to the plot.

In The Key, Averil Dean weaves the relationship between Elizabeth and her late father into the first several chapters, but these memories and details aren’t infodumpy or extraneous—they establish the character’s loneliness and explains how and why Elizabeth views the world the way she does, which also influences her actions when strange things start happening.  The details are relevant.

Nero Wolfe, Rex Stout’s premiere detective, raises orchids.  It’s one of  his signature character traits—his entire schedule revolves around his greenhouse.  I’ve read all of his adventures, but I don’t believe there’s any mention of why he loves these flowers so. Stout supplies a lot of Wolfe’s backstory,  but I’ve yet to find an outright explanation for this.^  Yet the orchids aren’t just a surface gimmick:  orchids are as fussy, particular, and agoraphobic as Wolfe himself, and serve as a reflection of himself, even to his preference for bright yellow.  Wolfe without his orchids would be Wolfe lessened.

BUT . . .

While I may find it fascinating that my MC likes flavored coffees because her first sensei used to brew hazelnut-mocha coffee  in the back of the dojo and the scent has become a sign of safety and comfort,***  interrupting the story to mention this isn’t going to help things along.

Her coffee preference is a good personal detail (at least in my opinion), but while  the reason might matter to the character—if she would even remember it it doesn’t matter to the story, and wedging it in there wouldn’t work.  She’s not the kind of person to share this kind of personal information, or naturally ponder it so the readers will catch on.  In the end, the why doesn’t matter.

It’s enough that after tough days, she always makes a pot of hazelnut-mocha,  and breathes in the steam before relaxing.  And doesn’t give a damn if her co-workers wrinkle their noses.


*Or  my “four-paneled” soap operas, as I call ‘em.

**But not, to my relief, sparkly vampires.   Bless you, Dave Kellett!

***I just made that up, but why not?

^If there is one, please let me know—and cite the story, please!