Monday, December 10, 2018

Christmas Gifts for Listeners

By Karna Small Bodman 

One of my Rogue colleagues wrote a great blog about audio books the other day and it reminded me of the time I first learned about them.  It was back in the early 90's when I began serving some 11 years on the Board of Directors of a wonderful organization first named RECORDING FOR THE BLIND. Later we expanded it to Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic and recently, the name was shortened to Learning Ally.  This terrific enterprise was begun in 1948 by founder Anne T. MacDonald who wanted to help our servicemen who had been blinded in WWII so they could take advantage of the GI Bill. She encouraged members of the New York Library Women's Auxiliary to begin reading textbooks -- recording them on vinyl phonograph discs, (then books were available on tapes, CD's and now Mobile Apps).  She also recruited professionals to do the recordings, including Walter Cronkite.
Years later, I was asked to record chapters of my first thrillers in their Washington, DC studio when they expanded their offerings to include fiction.  Today all kinds of books are being recorded in studios across the country for students of all ages. In fact, if you would like to volunteer to read for their clientele, please check out the opportunities here

Over the years audio books have become so popular that their sales have doubled in the last five years, while print and e-book sales are flat.  Those statistics appeared in an article in Sunday's New York Times titled "Listening to a Book vs. Reading it."  Their Book Review section along with several other publications recently have suggested a ton of audio titles as Christmas gifts.  So I'd like to add a few of my own....as well as highlight my favorite narrators for your consideration.

First on my list is the multi-talented Scott Brick -- actor, screenwriter and narrator of over 600 titles!
Scott Brick
This man has "voiced" books by authors we thriller writers and readers always appreciate including Lee Child, Michael Crichton, David Baldacci, John Grisham, Nelson DeMille, Tom Clancy, as well as Any Rand's Atlas Shrugged and Ron Chernov's Hamilton.

In fact, he also is the narrator of the CD version of Grey Ghost by our own Rogue, Robin Burcell and Clive Cussler.


Another narrator I have enjoyed listening to is Tony Roberts who has been an actor in film, on Broadway and was twice a Tony Award nominee.  He stared in several shows including Barefoot in the Park, Xanadu, and Victoria, Victoria.

 Now he is the narrator of most all of NYT Bestselling author Stuart Woods' clever novels, the most recent is Desperate Measures -- featuring continuing hero, Stone Barrington -- former detective turned New York attorney who endeavors to protect a young attractive woman from the worst kinds of characters.

The book I am listening to right now and highly recommend is the new thriller by British author, Jeffrey Archer, Heads you Win.  This extremely well-written novel is about Russians who escape Soviet domination and go on to become involved in  an extraordinary double-twist. And...this is a book with an astonishing ending.

In this case, the narrator is another Brit -- Richard Armitage who is well known as an English TV and theater actor.

Tavia Gilbert

Not to be outdone by gentlemen in the business, there are many wonderful women narrators as well, of course.  In fact one who truly stands out is Tavia Gilbert.  She is the 2018 Booklist "Voice of Choice" and won the 2017 Audio Award as Best Female Narrator. Talk about talent -- this woman has voiced everything from Eleanor Roosevelt's autobiography to children's books such as Gingerbread Man & Other First Tales to The Wizard of Oz. 

 So as we look ahead to selecting gifts for friends and family who enjoy books, you just might want to check out some audio books. And if you already have some favorites you would like to recommend,  please leave a comment below and also on our Facebook page at the icon top left.  I'm sure all of us Rogues along with our visitors would enjoy your suggestions!  Now thanks for checking us out here on Rogue Women Writers -- and a very MERRY CHRISTMAS to all!

. . . Submitted by Karna Small Bodman  

Saturday, December 8, 2018

NANCY BILYEAU GOES ROGUE: Goodreads & BookBub herald her new historical spy thriller

Nancy in Metropolitan Museum of Art, Louis XV rooms


Gayle Lynds:  Some authors just have that historical espionage touch, and at the top of the list is the multi-talented Nancy Bilyeau.  It's an honor to welcome her here today.  

Nancy is a historical fiction author (her first, THE CROWN, was an Oprah pick); she’s written articles for such heavyweights as Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly; and recently she was editor of ITW’s own The Big Thrill.

A while ago she quizzed me about whether it made sense for her to combine her hefty talents for historical tale telling with her fascination for spying, and I said, fill my cup with cyanide — I can’t wait to drink!  The result is THE BLUE, just out and already getting blue ribbons for riveting reading — it’s a top Goodreads pick and a BookBub Editor's Pick.

Nancy knows how to bring spies & the past to fire-breathing life!   Here’s the great story behind it all....  Thanks, Nancy, for Going Rogue!

Porcelain, the most seductive of commodities

Nancy Bilyeau:

I’ve been completely fascinated by stories of espionage for years, from devouring John le Carré to binge-watching The Americans, but I hesitated to write a thriller about spying. I’m a writer of historical suspense. Murders, yes. Conspiracy, sure. Duplicity, certainly. But I was a little scared to make the leap to attempting a novel about espionage.


Then the idea came to me....

I’m addicted to tours of historic houses, and while visiting my sister Amy in Alexandria, Virginia, several years ago, she suggested we visit Hillwood Estate and Garden in Washington D.C. The house was owned by Marjorie Merriweather Post, an heiress — she inherited General Foods!— who was for a time the richest woman in the United States. A socialite, she married four times and had three children, the most well known being actress Dina Merrill. She owned Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, as well as one of the most spectacular jewelry collections in the world, some of the pieces belonging to Marie Antoinette and Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise.

Marjorie was an avid collector with a large budget, and prominent in her standing collection shown at Hillwood is Sevres Porcelain, a French manufactory near Versailles. These pieces of porcelain were elaborate, ornate, luxurious — extreme Rococo. At a certain point on the tour, a guide said, “In the 18th century there was a lot of competition among the European workshops to produce the best porcelain. It was the Space Race of its time.”
Sèvres pot-pourri vase in the shape of a ship, 1764

That was the moment that my novel, The Blue, was born. I was ready to write about spies.

So I had my time period and my subject. Next I created a main character. For that, I dug into my own family background. I’m descended from Pierre Billiou, born in what was then French Flanders, near the modern-day border of France and Belgium. He left France because he was a Protestant in a Catholic country hostile to the religion: a Huguenot.

In 1661 he sailed on the St Jean de Baptiste for a city in the Americas called New Amsterdam. He built a stone house on an island, still standing, and rose to prominence as a colonist. However, when the British sailed into the port and took over, renaming the growing town New York City, Pierre was shifted down in the hierarchy. That was the last time our family was important in New York.

I decided to make my character, Genevieve Planché, an artist involved in porcelain and a Huguenot. Since the action needed to take place in Europe, I researched the Huguenot experience in France and then in England. As persecution of Protestants increased, the Huguenots fled in huge numbers in the 17th century, continuing into the 18th. They were such a large presence in London, taking over Spitalfields in the East End, that a word was coined to describe them: refugee.

Now what about the spying? To be honest, that was the toughest part of my research because there is not a great deal written about espionage between the time of Sir Francis Walsingham, the spymaster of Elizabeth I, and the intense spying that took place during the American Revolution. The TV series Turn does a great job of dramatizing it.

A bit daunted, I reached out to Gayle Lynds, co-founder of International Thriller Writers, whom I had met at ThrillerFest. Gayle, a leading writer of spy thrillers, encouraged me to keep at it. Later, when I wrote the book and found a publisher, she was one of my first readers of an advance copy. I’m extremely grateful for her support.
Nancy herself, photo credit: Joshua Kessler

And what did I eventually learn about spying during the mid-18th century? A world of fascinating facts and dramatic stories:
Secrets stolen from China.
A chemist imprisoned in Germany until he figured out how to make porcelain.
Formulas ferreted out from hidden places in France.
Ferocious competition in England.
Designs and colors imitated—and fortunes lost among the craze for porcelain: “white gold.”

This was industrial espionage indeed.  And in The Blue, I bring this lost world to life.

Gayle:  Thank you, Nancy!  Folks can order The Blue in the U.S. and the U.K, and read the first chapter here.  Enjoy!

Dear Rogue Reader ... If you wanted to write a historical spy novel, in what century or period would you place it?  Please tell!

Friday, December 7, 2018

Stories in the Air: The Dorky Charm of Audiobooks by August Thomas


If you’re, say, Raisa Jordan or Emma Caldridge, your daily life might be packed with thrilling adventure.  But for the rest of us, the average day involves a certain percentage of less-than-fascinating chores and obligations.  Tidying up.  A long commute.  Sometimes, Ella Fitzgerald crooning in the background is enough to take the edge off the boredom.  But for the truly story-addicted, is there anything better than an audiobook?
(Most things are sweeter with a little Ella Fitzgerald!)

My own audiobook habit began as a child.  When, on occasion, I could no longer put off tidying my bedroom, a peculiar collection of audiocassettes kept me company: ancient Egyptian mythology, a Cabbage Patch Kids singing story tape that should be banned by the Geneva Convention, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.  Dozens of times, I listened to travel grouch Paul Theroux griping his way around the shores of the Mediterranean, teaching eleven-year-old me mysterious new vocabulary words like “priapic” and “Albania”.
At their best, audiobooks can almost simulate the experience of imagination itself, without the pesky hard work that making up your own story actually involves.  The words, the pictures, the story…they materialize fully formed, like magic, in your head, without the intrusion of page or screen.  And if you find yourself sitting rapt on the floor 45 minutes later, closet still un-organized…surely that is a small price to pay? 


Years later, after my grandmother died, my mother and I spent many weekends commuting three hours each way to clean up Grandma’s house and take care of all the endless paperwork and admin that goes along with a 21st-century death.  A laugh riot it was not.  But audiobooks saved the day.  The longer, the better!  We had over six hours of driving to fill.  We listened to Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, the ultimate nightmare tale of post-death legal wrangling.  We listened to Anthony Trollope.  I found myself finding excuses to stay in the car longer, to finish a chapter.  As many people have observed, 19th-century popular fiction is especially wonderful read aloud, because that’s how it was meant to be enjoyed. In World Literature Today, Tammy Ho Lai-Ming writes,

"Dickens habitually read his work to a domestic audience or friends. In his later years he also read to a broader public crowd, first for charity purposes, then as a second profession. Episodes of reading aloud also abound in Dickens’s own literary works. More importantly, he took into consideration the Victorian practice when composing his prose, so much so that his writing is meant to be heard, not only read on the page."

(The original “audiobook”?)

As a writer, I’ve come to appreciate audiobooks in a new light.  Listening to a book read aloud instantly clarifies what is essential and what is not.  When your eyes cannot skim, there is no hiding from description that should’ve been trimmed, or dialogue so canned it should be checked for botulism.  Does the plot hold up clearly, when you can’t easily flip a few pages back to check?   Listening to excerpts of the audiobook of my first novel, Liar’s Candle, was like an out-of-body experience.  It wasn’t an adaptation – the words were still all mine – and yet, in another voice, with the added inflection of the actress’s performance, they took on a life entirely apart from me.   

In times of stress, audiobooks can offer distraction and companionship, even if you’re too rattled to sit down and read.  Jonathan Cecil’s perfectly plummy readings of P.G. Wodehouse  make the ideal tonic for a bad day.  One my all-time favorite reading memories is of a rainy, cold February night in Amsterdam.  My mother was lying in our tiny hotel room with walloping pneumonia.  There was no TV.  We couldn't go anywhere.  She was too sick to read.  But I had Auntie Mame on my Kindle.  And as I read it aloud, we laughed and laughed.  

How do you feel about audiobooks?  Do you have a favorite?  Have you ever read a whole (grown-up length) book aloud? 

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

FREDDY MERCURY'S VOICE DEMYSTIFIED

Freddy Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara--graced us from September 5, 1946 to November 24, 1991


The incredible success of the Bohemian Rhapsody biopic showcases the legendary voice of Freddie Mercury. His FOUR-octave range places him among the most gifted vocalists of the twentieth century, including Pavarotti, Callas, Sinatra, Houston, and many others. But unlike those other leading lights, there has been a significant amount of debate among fans, musicians, academics, and scientists about WHY his voice was able to do the amazing things it could do. 

Freddie’s thoughts on the matter were clearly explained in the recent film: "I was born with four additional incisors. More space in my mouth means more range.”  Even the most cursory examination of photos of Freddie reveal that he had a significant overbite.  He was self-conscious about how it looked, developing a habit of speaking with one hand raised to cover his mouth or turning his head to hide his teeth. Despite his extreme sensitivity about the issue, he never had his overbite corrected fearing it would change his voice.

The source of his unrivalled vocals has been debated for years--and finally a team of European scientists studied the issue closely to determine how those sounds were created, the results published in Logopedics Phoniatrics Vocology.  They left no stone unturned in their search, analyzing countless recordings and hours of interviews, speaking to vocalists and coaches who worked with him, and finally lowering a camera down the throat of a professional singer who had similar vocal characteristics to Freddie to film what was going on as he produced certain notes. Their findings were more astounding than the popular theories making the rounds.



Despite doing the vast majority of his performances as a tenor, Freddie was actually a natural baritone, moving easily through the ranges to sing as a soprano as well.  The researchers could not confirm he had a full four-octave range, but his proven vocal range extended from bass low F (F2) to soprano high F (F6) and could also get up to tenor high F (F5).  While there was evidence that the full four octaves were available to Freddie, the researchers did not think the recording quality was good enough to scientifically confirm that finding with confidence.  If all those terms don’t make things clear to you, they basically mean that Freddie Mercury’s range spanned from Leonard Cohen to Whitney Houston with ease.  But it wasn’t just his massive range and vocal discipline that made him so uniquely successful.

The scientists discovered that Freddie could move his vocal chords faster than almost anyone else in music, well beyond human norms.  While a typical vibrato will fall between 5.4 and 6.9 Hz, Freddie’s was analyzed at 7.04 Hz. For comparison, if Luciano Pavarotti’s vibrato is charted as a wave with a value of 1, Freddie’s charts have an average value of 0.57.  What does this mean? Freddie was moving his throat much faster in addition to moving more parts of his throat than what the opera legend could achieve!

Rami Malek doing a brilliant job of portraying Freddy during the epic LIVE AID concert

Further analysis proved that Freddie produced those low growls and unrivalled vibratos using more of his throat structures than any other singer in western culture. In addition to the notes he hit, he used subharmonics, a singing technique where the ventricular folds vibrate along with the vocal chords.  Most humans never speak or sing using their ventricular folds, and the only time the sound is usually heard is from specially trained Tuvan throat singers.  Freddie was effectively performing with an entire extra instrument--it was almost unfair.

While it wasn’t in fact his teeth that produced his trademark voice, there were concrete physical reasons that Freddie Mercury was the most talented rock vocalist of all time, and his voice compares favourably, and often outshone even the finest classically trained performers.  

Of course the proof is in the pudding…





Sunday, December 2, 2018

Three Days: Snow and No Power

S. Lee Manning: Tuesday: My husband was about to step into the shower when the power cut out. We get our water from a well that is powered by an electric pump. No electricity. No water. But Jim’d showered the night before – and we’d be back from Burlington by seven-thirty. Every Tuesday, we drive from our home in the country on the side of a mountain in Vermont to the city of Burlington, an hour and ten minutes away for shopping, guitar lessons, and a French conversation group. It had snowed, and it was still snowing, but no big deal. We’d lost power before for up to four hours. The power would certainly be on by when we got home. 


But in case it wasn’t - I’d had the foresight to fill one pot with water, Jim had filled a bucket for the bathroom, and we had three gallons of bottled water.

In Burlington, we relaxed. The snow diminished, the roads were slushy and wet, but not terrifying. We laughed about the weather with our friends, and the road home was – for Vermont – easy.

Ah, we were young and naive.

As we drove down the darkened road towards our house, we realized that the neighbors’ lights were off. We pulled into our driveway. The light over the wood shed normally triggered by a motion detector to illuminate the sidewalk – didn’t. We found flashlights in the car and waded through the snow to a cold and dark house. We found candles, and I lit a fire in both of our wood stoves. 

It’d be okay, I thought. The power would come on overnight – and the stoves would keep us warm until then. 

I told myself it was romantic. Candlelight – firelight – no television or internet. Not enough light to read. I had a notebook with the outline of a book I'm working on, but I need to be able to read what I've written down. No signal for cellular – so our  iPhones were useless. The landline phone worked. I called the electric company. I was informed that the area was out and they had no estimate for time of restoration. I could hold on and talk to a representative. I did.  She was in Texas and had no information. I called my kids to complain – and then I was out of things to do. 

We sat in our leather chairs where we normally watch television near the wood stove in our basement family room –in flickering candlelight and stared at each other. I love Jim, and he loves me, but after 35 years – we know each other’s stories. Besides, we’d had the long drive to and from Burlington to talk politics, news, and family.

I damped the fire down in both wood stoves, and we went to bed at nine o’clock.

Throughout the night – our house alarm beeped to tell us that power was out, the alarm company called – twice – to tell us that the power was out – and a battery powered smoke detector chirped every thirty seconds or so – because the battery needed to be changed. With each phone call, I trudged downstairs to throw more wood in the wood stove in the living room, keeping the damper closed. 

Wednesday: The trilling of a non-stop alarm woke me at 5:45, and I stumbled downstairs. It took me a minute to realize that the alarm going off was the carbon monoxide alarm. Another thirty seconds of trying to turn it off – and it occurred to me – that maybe there was a problem.

Another clue – I had a headache – and I was nauseous. 

We pulled clothes on, opened the window in the living room, and opened the damper on the wood stove that I’d been feeding all night. Then we ran out. It was still snowing.

We drove to the nearby town, where we found breakfast at a diner. Locals were there, eating fresh baked donuts and gossiping.  I drank coffee, ate, and felt better.

On the way back to the house, we called the local volunteer fire department about checking the house. One of our neighbors was waiting when we arrived home.  He asked if we were okay, and I explained about feeling sick but feeling better after leaving. He called an ambulance. “Just to check you out,” he said.

It was still snowing.

We watched the ambulance slide by our driveway and continue down the hill. At the bottom of the hill, they called and suggested that my husband – who had four wheel drive and snow tires – drive me down because they couldn’t get back up the hill. A fire truck with carbon monoxide equipment and more neighbors pulled into our yard. Jim dropped me off and headed back up the hill.

The ENTs said I was fine, but that my pupils were unequal. I immediately thought of stroke or brain tumor. They tried to reassure me but suggested that maybe I give my doctor a call.

Jim drove back down to pick me up. He said that it was probably the damping down of the fire, and we should get the chimney and living room stove checked. I told him I needed to go to the doctor – and off we went. 

The doctor said no brain tumor, no stroke – and my pupils were perfectly symmetrical.

We ate lunch, bought more water, and headed back to the house. It was still snowing. Still no power. I called the electric company. The same recording. No estimated time for restoration. 

We carried loads of wood to the basement wood stove – the only one I felt comfortable using after our carbon monoxide scare - and shoveled the walk. We fed the stove and watched it get dark – by four-fifteen. We changed the battery in the smoke detector – and the beeping stopped. We lit an array of candles; I called my kids and the electric company. We tried to read by candlelight. We ate a dinner of whole wheat bread and peanut butter. I considered practicing guitar. But between the beeping of the alarms, and the calls, we’d both had less than four hours sleep. We went to bed at eight o’clock. 


Thursday: Uneventful night. No phone calls and no beeping alarms. Of course, the battery had run down in the carbon monoxide detector, but we were neither sick nor dead. 

It was still snowing.

I started up the wood stove in the basement. Jim flushed the toilet with the last of our bucket water. We looked out the basement window. A hundred feet away, in the woods behind our house, a brook gurgled merrily. I shoveled a path through snow to get to the edge of the woods, and then Jim and I forged through the remaining snow to fill up buckets from the stream to flush the toilet.

I thought about working on my new book, but I was too occupied with the necessities of life.

Late morning, we headed to a town forty minutes away for lunch and to buy more candles, more water, a battery powered carbon monoxide detector, and a portable radio.

We agreed that if we didn’t have power by Friday we’d pay for a day at a local gym – so we could shower. Jim said that after four days with no shower, he was going to burn the bed sheets. I thought hot water and soap would be sufficient.

By the time we got home, it was close to four o’clock. No power. We drove to a nearby town for dinner. On our drive home, we were cheered by the sight of lit windows as we approached our neighborhood. Then we turned onto our street. Darkness. The electric company’s recording was sounding a bit testy. Yes, they were working hard to restore power. But we no longer believed it.

My daughter urged us to go to a hotel – or back to New Jersey. But the basement wood stove was keeping our pipes from freezing. We glumly lit candles, turned on the radio, fed the wood stove, and settled in for another long, dark night, worried that this could continue for weeks. I'd hoped to go from outline to writing this weekend - but I couldn't focus.

At 8:30 – the lights flashed on. We cheered at the sudden and wondrous brightness - tore into the shower, settled into our chairs with our computers, and turned on the television. Life was normal again.

Friday: I threw out all of the food in the refrigerator, cleaned the house and washed clothes and sheets. I finished my outline. Plan is to start the writing over the weekend.

Saturday: I’m writing my post for Rogue Women Writers. I now a have a deeper appreciation of things I take for granted.  I never fully understood just how much time and energy is required just to survive without electricity, running water, or central heat, and we at least had our house, a wood stove and a nearby stream. Some people in Puerto Rico went nine months without electricity. People in Florida lost everything in the hurricane. People are living in tents in California after losing their homes in the recent fires. I had a house and food and heat, even though it was a little inconvenient. Going without electricity for a few days reminded me of just how lucky I am – and reminded me of those who are not so fortunate. For those of you, who like me, are among the lucky, reach out this holiday season. For some guidance to giving, try Charity Navigator. https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=5456

Postscript: There may be an ice storm tonight – which could mean more power outages. This time, I’m filling up all the pots in the house. And I'm thinking about a generator.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

DO YOU HAVE A SECRET NO ONE KNOWS?

by Gayle Lynds
File boxes on Gayle's shelves contain research & a few secrets

Most people can’t bear to keep a secret long enough to die with it untold.  On the other hand, professionals in our intelligence agencies are not “most people.”  They’re committed and do keep the secrets.  Imagine their relief when they can get together and talk about what is known only to them. 

I got to thinking about all of this because I recently had the wonderful experience of being interviewed by journalist extraordinaire Susan Spencer on CBS Sunday Morning for a segment called "What's REALLY behind conspiracy theories?"

This is how the segment started....

Spy novelist Gayle Lynds has made an entire career out of dreaming up conspiracies, hundreds of them. Her office, at home near Portland, Maine, is a breeding ground for conspiracies, filled to bursting with evil secrets and nefarious plots involving military technology, special ops, and war tactics.

"The C.I.A. is overflowing, as you can see," Lynds said of her bookshelves.

Her espionage novels have sold millions of copies, and they all start with one unbreakable rule: the conspiracy has to be believable. That's not hard, given that genuine conspiracies have existed, from Watergate to Iran/Contra.

"They're wonderful to write about," Lynds said.


Susan accused me of being a spy.  Of course I denied it.  Secrets, anyone?

So confession time ... here are three of my favorite secrets from my personal past that only a few others ever knew....

1.  I learned to drive (illegally) when I was 12 years old on an elderly Chevy with running boards, a stick shift, and a manual choke.  My cousin, Linda, was only 14 and taught me.  Taking turns, we used the Chevy to herd my Uncle Red's dairy cows along the country roads of eastern Colorado where they could graze on the free grasses on either side.  It was a warm, idyllic summer in which my cousin and I devoured paperback books lying on the old car's seats.  She and I still devour books but now we drive automatics. 

Writerly lesson: The important things of life don’t change all that much — books, summers, and the right companion.

2.  I was the most notorious employee at the think tank where I worked after college because I often forgot my security badge.  The guards at the security kiosk eventually gave up trying to improve my ADHD and instead made a hand-written badge for me that they kept behind the desk.  I expected it to say "idiot."  But no, it just said "She forgot her badge again."

Writerly lesson: Security has gotten draconian since then, but the guards personally are often sweethearts.

3.  In Santa Barbara where I lived for many years, I usually left my front door open.  One day I was passing it on my way to the kitchen when a teenage skunk strolled in.  How do you say "get out!" to a skunk?  I backed up.  The skunk sauntered past me and into the kitchen and went straight to the cat's water dish.  It drank a good draught then cleaned out the dish of kitty kibbles, swished its tail, and walked back out of the house.  Obviously it had visited before.  I closed the door.  And locked it.

Writerly lesson: Close the barn door so the horse can’t leave, but close the front door so the skunk can’t get inside.

Dear Rogue Readers ... We’d love to hear what you learned from one of your secrets.  Please tell!

Sunday, November 25, 2018

RULES FOR WRITING: A RECIPE FOR DISASTER

by Chris Goff


Lisa Black's post last Sunday, Do You Cook Like You Write?, and Robin Burcell's post on Wednesday, RECIPE FOR SUCCESS: 5 Basic Rules for Fiction Novelists, got me to thinking—are there actually rules for writing the next bestseller?

Those of us who attend conferences have heard any number of writers offer up their “rules for writing.” There is clearly no shortage of advice. I distinctly remember one workshop where I was sitting in the back beside none-other-than Lee Child. As the speaker presented the first of her Top 10 Rules for Writing, I felt an elbow in my ribs. Then, Lee whispered in my ear, “Chris, do you do that?” When I shook my head "no," he said, “Me neither.” By Rule #3, my ribs were getting sore. At Rule #4, we slipped out the back door and headed to the bar.

Rules are designed to help. However, more often they paralyze the beginning writer, sweeping them up in an eddy of self-doubt. Did I drop a body in the first fifty pages? Is there a scene goal? A character goal? What is my story arc? Is there enough conflict? Need I go on?

Still, that doesn’t mean there aren't some rules worth learning. If I've learned one thing during the last twenty-plus years, it's to breathe in the wisdom, and then exhale, retaining only those things which resonate. 

On July 16, 2001, Elmore Leonard (author of Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Justified) offered up his 10 RULES OF WRITING in an essay published by The New York Times, prefacing his list with the following disclaimer:

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still you might look them over.

Elmore Leonard’s 10 RULES OF WRITING:

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.

Chris: Think, “It was a dark and stormy night…,” which inspired The Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest that challenges men, women and children to write the most atrocious opening sentence to a hypothetical bad novel ever written.

2.   Avoid prologues.

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.

Chris: Hissed, spat, snorted and chortled. Once you run across one of these tags in a book, you notice them all. 

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.

Chris: Am I the only one who missed the word “said?” Still, among the myriad of writers’ rules, using adverbs is highly eschewed.

5.   Keep your exclamation points under control.

Chris: Most definitely!!!

6.   Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” 

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.

Chris: This example from Huckleberry Finn (1884) sort of says it all.

Oh, Huck, I bust out a-cryin’ en grab her up in my arms, en say, ‘Oh, de po’ little thing! De Lord God Amighty fogive po’ ole Jim, kaze he never gwyne to fogive hisself as long’s he live!’ Oh, she was plumb deef en dumb, Huck, plumb deef en dumb—en I’d ben atreat’n her so!

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.

Leonard's rules were eventually adapted into an 89-page book (published by William Morrow in 2007), while the original essay inspired a series of essays: rules from other writers. A little more digging turned up a plethora of sage advice offered up over the years by well-known writers. Here are a few of my favorites:

Neil Gaiman: Remember, when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. 

Margaret Atwood: Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B. 

Kurt Vonnegut: Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

John Steinbeck: Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

To revert to the cooking analogies, it's sage advice indeed!

Writers, do you have a favorite “rule for writing?” Readers, what rules do you wish writers would follow?