Writer’s Desk: There is Always a Mystery

There are three kinds of readers: those who have no idea who Jim Thompson is or have never read him (that’s most people), those who think he’s just about the best crime writer America ever produced, and (this last being a group that overlaps with the second) writers who wish they could do what he did.

A master of mood, detail, tension, and stories that wore the characters down to their often quite nasty and perverse essentials, Thompson was an artist working in a very specific medium who nevertheless had forgotten more about the basics of writing than most of us ever get the hang of. To wit:

There are thirty-two ways to write a story, and I’ve used every one, but there is only one plot: Things are not as they seem.

This applies no matter what you are writing: mystery, steampunk romance, multi-generational historical saga, or even nonfiction. Things are not as they seem will get your narrative moving like almost nothing else.

Writers’ Room: Elmore Leonard on Writing Well

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Elmore Leonard died last week at the age of 87. He wrote dozens of books and innumerable short stories in a variety of genres, but was best remembered for his best-selling crime novels. He was a master of clean prose and a mechanic of plot; so much so that his justly famous “10 Rules of Writing Well” should be checked out by any writer, crime or not.

Here you go:

  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” . . .
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
  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.

Always, always follow the last one. Read the original piece here for his explanations of the various rules. (“You are allowed no more than two or three [exclamation marks] 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.”)