Tag Archive for Elmore Leonard

Writing Tips #2: A Look at One Page from DOCTOR DE SOTO by William Steig (Scene & Summary)

I recently wrote a throwaway post on Facebook that got a surprising amount of attention. It was about soaking dishes. Yeah, wild, I know. I wrote a sentence that owed something, perhaps, to a specific moment in William Steig’s Doctor De Soto picture book. 

I say “perhaps” because it’s hard to pin down where influences end and ideas originate. It spins in a circle, consciously and unconsciously. Who knows. 

What I had written was: “I’m a pot and pan soaker. So was my father, and his father before him. It’s always been that way with my family.”

It made me remember De Soto and look up the scene:

Forgive the blur. The good doctor informs his wife, “Once I start a job, I finish it. My father was the same way.”

So, sure, he does it far more economically & elegantly than I managed to on social media. In my defense, he’s William Steig writing a book and I’m only James Preller blasting out a few thoughts on Facebook. 

Here’s the full text from the page in case the blur is too hard to read:

That night the De Sotos lay awake worrying. “Should we let him in tomorrow?” Mrs. De Soto wondered.

“Once I start a job,” said the dentist firmly, “I finish it. My father was the same way.”

“But we must do something to protect ourselves,” said his wife. They talked and talked until they formed a plan. “I think it will work,” said Doctor De Soto. A minute later he was snoring. 

One comment before the main thing:

I’m as opposed to adverbs as the next guy, probably more, but “firmly” sure does a lot of good work in that phrase, said the dentist firmly

A clear signal. There would be no debate. This strikes me as that rare thing: a good adverb.

Something interesting happens on this page, where “scene” meets “summary.”

We are in a scene from the beginning, of course, announced by those two words: That night. It’s a variation on the “one day” trope of so  many picture books: things are always so until . . . one day something happens. Story begins with scene.

We find ourselves with the De Sotos, flies on the lavender wallpaper, listening to them discuss the mortal danger of treating the fox’s toothache. Then comes that great sentence:

They talked and talked until they formed a plan.

The camera doesn’t move to a new perspective, it just pulls back and suddenly there’s a great distance. We are transported to the land of summary: They talked and talked until they formed a plan

I wonder how Steig arrived at this sentence. Did he try to write out that full conversation in early drafts? Did he wrestle with it for days, weeks? Did he worry about the length, the slowness, the slog? This was intended, after all, for a 32-page picture book. There wasn’t time to waste. It could be that Steig immediately went to summary, instinctively knowing that he had to keep the plot moving forward. 

So there’s this: Summary allows the writer to play with time

The writer can make time move quickly, cross decades in a single sentence, or can slow it down to a drip, drip . . . drip. Even slower than real time. 

In my current work-in-progress, a middle-grade novel tentatively titled Shaken (Macmillan, 2024), I decided to make a leap of four months from one chapter to the next. Those four months occur in the gap between those two chapters, the way that in a comic or graphic novel there’s a sliver of time in the spaces between each panel. This leap required a sentence or two of summary. Time passed. Winter turned to Spring. That kind of thing (but not those words). 

Aside: Do you ever notice, btw, how very young children are unable to summarize when they recount, say, a movie they just watched? it’s always: and then, and then, and then, and then, etc. The art of summary is really about prioritizing. Recognizing what’s significant and what isn’t. Elmore Leonard’s great rule for writing: “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”

Let me make up an example on the spot:

He spent the summer working on the cabin, rising early and laboring until dark, while the loneliness filled up inside him. One September day, there was a knock on the door . . . 

Summary –> Scene. The storyteller (and his listeners, one assumes) is not interested in all those dull empty days of summer. That part is boring. Let’s skip it. So the storyteller makes time fly by, an entire summer in a sentence.

Then there’s a knock at the door.

Time slows to a crawl.

He pauses, uncrosses his legs. Puts down the novel — Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men — spine up on the end table. He gazes out the window. The last light of evening had long ago died.  A faint drone of tree frogs pressed against the panes. Who could it be at this hour? Should he rise to answer it? He coughs, and waits.

Anyway, yeah, it’s cool how Steig pulls that off in the middle of a scene — a sentence of summary, omitting at least an hour of discussion — before he returns us right back to that same “moment” (without ever moving the camera; the focus just gets tighter). 

He ends the page with another great understated sentence. 

A minute later he was snoring. 

A minute has passed in the distance from a period to the capital letter of the next sentence. A minute later. And lo, the good doctor is asleep! Resolved and at peace. Troubled no more. The plan has been set and he needs his rest. 

I’d turn the page, right?

Wouldn’t you?

What is the plan, anyway? 

Steig didn’t tell us. He withholds. That’s actually another technique worthy of discussion. The vital importance of being clear, and answering questions for the reader as soon as possible (to avoid confusion), but also to recognize the value of not answering every question.

How those unanswered questions can prod the reader to do the single best thing that any reader can ever do — turn the page. 

William Steig was a writer who knew what he was doing.

CLICK HERE for Writing Tip #1.

5 QUESTIONS with Paul Acampora, author of “Danny Constantino’s First (and Maybe Last?) Date”

We’re back with the 3rd installment of “5 Questions 2.0” — the new & improved interview format that invites some of the best folks in children’s literature to answer five — and only five! — questions. 

My guest today is Paul Acampora, a wonderful writer and all-around funny guy. We’ll be focusing on his pitch perfect rom.com for middle-grade readers, Danny Constantino’s First (and Maybe Last?) Date


1. Hey, Paul. I loved Danny. This entire novel seems like your attempt to write a perfect “rom-com” for younger readers. What are the basic story elements of a romantic comedy anyway?

Thanks, Jimmy! I’m really glad you enjoyed Danny Constantino. I’ve always loved romantic comedies. Probably because my real-life attempts at romance are generally comedic.  Either way, I had a lot of fun writing the book. As far as rom-com structure, I subscribe to the model described by screenwriter Billy Mernit in his excellent book, Writing the Romantic Comedy. For basic elements, the “meet cute” –- when the inevitable couple crosses paths in a generally clumsy and slightly adorable way –- is a classic requirement. 

Before that, however, there’s got to be a set-up that shows how a protagonist’s deepest internal desires (e.g. true love) might be at odds with their external goals (e.g. fame, money, success). From there, the meet-cute leads down a slippery slope of tests, successes, failures, and embarrassments because characters won’t choose one thing or the other until they are humiliated, beaten, broken, and generally wrecked. But it’s okay because it’s all for comedy. I mean love! 

In the end, there is a “joyful defeat,” which means that at least one character will have to give up something of real value (e.g. fame and fortune) in order to earn an even more valuable prize (e.g. true love!). Of course -– just like in “Frozen” or “My Best Friend’s Wedding” -– romance is not always a necessary or final outcome, which makes me think… NO ROM, JUST COM would be a great title!

2. If you can think back to Paul as a kid — say the 5th grade, 6th grade version of you — did you have a lot in common with Danny, the main character in your book?

You are asking about a time and a galaxy that’s long ago and far away. We’re talking about a pre-Star Wars era. I was already a huge sci-fi fan (I still am!), and I was obsessed with things like NASA and Starlog Magazine and missions to outer space (STILL AM!) In addition to my nerdy geek vibe, I played the piano several hours a day, read voraciously, enjoyed science and math, and loved hanging out with my grandparents. I remember that some of my classmates –- especially girls –- started to seem confident and knowledgeable and attractive. Like Danny, I did not think that I was any of those things. I could barely walk across a yard without tripping over myself. I did not feel like much of a catch. At the same time, I had several really great friends -– both boys and girls –- and we all just kind of accepted one other for whatever we were. In retrospect, we were kind of awesome. But, like Danny, we didn’t know it.

Oh, I loved that answer. Now this doesn’t technically count as a question, but: It must have been a good day when you decided the bus driver’s name was Shad.

Definitely yes! One of my daughter’s high school friends was a kid named Shad. His name went into my notebook the very first time I met him. I was just waiting for the right character to arrive so I could press Shad into service. Thanks, Shad!



3. You timed this book’s release just right the for world wide pandemic. Do you have any other marketing tips for us in the biz?

My biggest marketing success came with a novel I wrote a few years ago called I Kill the Mockingbird. It’s about a group of kids who sabotage their summer reading list. The story revolves around Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. Not long after my book came out, Harper Lee died. My sales rocketed up the charts. Her passing was a marketing coup. Please note that the marketing department at the publishing house had nothing to do with this effort.  

4. Ha, yes. Let’s keep a close eye on that scarily ambitious intern in publicity! You have so many gifts as a writer — humor, warmth, decency, pace, a sense of family &community — plus crackling, clever, unforced dialogue. There’s a lot of chatter in your books. It reminds me of that great writing tip by Elmore Leonard, “Avoid the parts that readers tend to skip.” What do you try to keep in mind when you are writing dialogue? I mean to ask, I guess: How do you do it?!

Thanks! Dialogue is my favorite thing to write. A long time ago I wanted to be a playwright. I think I learned about dialogue from reading scripts and then hearing the words come to life in performance. And with actors, they really do come to life. The difference between Shakespeare on the page and Shakespeare on the stage is like the difference between sticking your hand into garbage versus pushing your fingers down a garbage disposal. 

Um, puke.

Okay, that might not be the best metaphor. There is garbage in Shakespeare (“What rubbish and what offal!” – Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 3; “Let it alone, thou fool. It is but trash!” – The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1), but his work is mostly painless. Mostly. 

My point is that the page is not always a friend to drama. Even if you’re Shakespeare. Which I am not. (In case anybody’s wondering.) But since novels rely on a cast that lives inside a reader’s head, I think a lot about how I can control the drama within every scene. For me, dialogue provides the best opportunity to do that. Rhythm and pacing and the sounds of words and sentences are just as important as whatever a character is talking about. I think there’s a lot to learn from pop songs (both words and music), stand-up comedy, and also the unbelievably tight writing that television (both comedy and drama) requires. 

As far as techniques and strategies, my first drafts are often nothing but dialogue. I try to write them really fast so that characters can just talk without thinking. That back and forth is where conflict and plot come from.

Oh, that’s actually a great tip.

After that, I revise about a million times so that the story can have things like settings and inhaling and clothes. (Pro tip for aspiring middle grade writers: Middle school teachers and librarians prefer characters who are clothed.) 

One day I’d love to write something like Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments in which dialogue pretty much carries the entire storytelling load –- action, conflict, characterization, pacing, plot, plus tons and tons of humor. Being Irish might be a requirement for pulling that off. See “Derry Girls” for confirmation.

An aside: Funny coincidence with the mother as a high-powered real estate agent. I gave that job to the Adrian’s mother in Better Off Undead. It’s the perfect profession for a distracted, not-always-there mom. And it struck me as funny for a kid to keep seeing photos of his absentee mother on lawn signs everywhere. Danny’s mother hands out coffee mugs with the slogan, “Everything I touch turns to SOLD!” 

But that’s not a question either, technically, so let’s move on. Forget I said anything.

My Uncle Joe was a very successful –- and very intense –- real estate agent. My soapbox derby car was a rolling billboard for his agency. I also promoted the firm by wearing a sandwich board while riding a pony in the annual Bristol Connecticut Mum Festival Parade. There is photographic evidence.

5) You’ve published 7 novels and still maintain a full-time job. Smart! What does the writing life mean to you, just in terms of being a person in this world? Why bother? Wouldn’t it be easier to, you know, not? What does it give you, do you think?

There is certainly a part of me that dreams about having “the writing life” as my primary career, but if I’m being honest I’ve always been a little afraid of walking away from the security and freedom that a regular paycheck provides. Plus, I’ve always had a good time at my different day jobs, which have been challenging and rewarding in their own unique ways. That said, a day job definitely takes great gobs of time and energy away from writing, and I am occasionally tired and cranky. 

In theory, life might be easier if I stopped writing, but life never follows my theories. I’m sure I’d fill the time with some other obsession. I already dabble in music, photography, podcasts, film making, hiking, cooking, gardening, board games, brew pubs, and, of course, tons and tons of reading. All of those exercises and activities give me a chance to look closely at the world in different ways. Writing gives me a reason to look closely at the world in all the ways. If I do it well enough, I get to share what I see and, even better, be in a conversation with other people who are curious about the world. Of course, staying committed to this one particular passion requires giving up on other things. So far, it’s been a worthwhile trade-off for me. 

In truth, every successful writer I know is in the middle of one long trade-off. Some might call it a “joyful defeat.” So basically, the writing life is a rom-com. I hope Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn will play me and my wife in a Wonderful World of Disney+ streaming version (Working title: 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT FONDUE). You’ll get Colin Firth and Charlize Theron on HBO Max when they do you (Working title: JIGSAW IN LOVE). I hope you’ll invite me to the premiere!


JAMES PRELLER is the author of many books for young readers, including Bystander and Blood Mountain, as well as the popular Jigsaw Jones mystery series, along with the “Scary Tales” and “Big Idea Gang” series. Look for his strange & mysterious middle-grade series, EXIT 13, on Scholastic Book Fairs and Book Clubs. It will be available in stores in February, 2023. 

Stories Behind the Story: The Case of the Frog-Jumping Contest

There’s a little bit of Mark Twain in this book, mostly from two sources, his short story “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” and, of course, his Huckleberry Finn character.

The story begins with a standard thriller device, the ticking bomb. Throw a deadline into a standard mystery and you immediately ratchet up the tension. In this case, look at the book’s opening paragraphs:

“My frog is missing,” croaked Stringbean Noonan. “And I MUST have him back by this Sunday at noon.”

“Sunday at noon?!” Mila exclaimed. “That’s only twenty-four hours from now.”

Stringbean stuffed two dollars into my coin jar. “There’s more where that came from,” he sniffed. “Just find that frog.”

Adonis, the missing frog, was no ordinary frog. (Love that name, btw.) He was a champion jumper with hops to spare, and there was a big frog-jumping contest coming up — with a $20 cash prize for the longest leap.

So already we’ve added motive to the mystery.

“Twenty dollars,” I whistled. “That’s a lot of money.”

I borrowed the first Twain idea in Chapter Five, “Want to Bet?” Most famously, there’s a character in Twain’s “The Notorious Jumping Frog from Calaveras County,” a noted gambler named Jim Smiley, who loves to bet. On anything. And everything. Twain describes him thus in the story:

“If he even seen a straddle bug start to go anywheres, he would bet you how long it would take him to get to — to wherever he going to, and if you took him up, he would foller that straddle bug to Mexico but what he would find out where he was bound for and how long he was on the road.”

Anyway, I reread the story during the brainstorming stages of the book, when I was casting about for ideas, so I decided to give that character trait to a minor character, Jigsaw’s classmate, Eddie Becker, who I had established in previous books as being highly motivated by money.

Eddie loved to bet — and there wasn’t anything in the world he wouldn’t bet on. Two birds might be sitting on a telephone line. Eddie would bet which one would fly away first. He’d bet on a ball game or the color of the next car that drove down the street. The weirder the bet, the happier he was. Eddie was just one of those guys who needed to keep things interesting. Regular life wasn’t quite enough for him. Nah, there had to be something riding on it.

Jigsaw and Eddie enjoy a friendly bet. Later Eddie casually mentions a new suspect, Sasha Mink (another name I love). With Adonis now out of the way, Sasha stands to win the frog-jumping contest with her entry, Brooklyn. Eddie tells Jigsaw that she lives in the big house on the corner of Penny Lane and Abbey Road.

(These Jigsaw Jones books are loaded with pop culture references that likely float over the heads of 98% of readers. Just for fun — and for Mom or Dad who might be reading the story aloud.)

Jigsaw eventually decides he needs to learn more about frogs, so he enlists the aid of Slim Palmer, the best frog trainer in town. Here’s an illustration of Slim, as drawn by the book’s wonderful illustrator, Jamie Smith.

Look like anybody you know?

That’s Huckleberry Finn, folks. And the resemblance is intentional.

I had great fun writing the “frog whisperer” chapters, where Jigsaw meets 14-year-old Slim Palmer (and there’s a nod to Chili Palmer here, too, from the movie “Get Shorty,” based on the book by Elmore Leonard, just his casual cool). Another side note: that’s one of the advantages of writing detective stories. Each new mystery takes the detective out into the world — a bastion of moral integrity in a world gone sour: in this case, the second-grade version — where he meets new characters, good and bad. It keeps the series fresh for readers, and entertaining to write, too. Whenever the series felt boring or stale, I knew it was time for Jigsaw (and me) to encounter new faces and places.

“You’re going about this case all wrong,” Slim told me. “First thing you got to do is you got to start thinking like a frog.”

“Thinking like a frog?” I repeated.

“Exactamundo,” Slim said with a sharp nod.

“Ribbit,” I croaked.

“I’m not joking,” Slim protested. “Frogs are serious creatures. They don’t joke around.”

I researched on the internet how to catch frogs, learned some things about using a burlap bag and a flashlight, so wrote a scene where Slim urged Jigsaw to step (reluctantly) into a rather gross lake. Together they succeed in snagging a frog, and before he departs, Slim offers one final bit of advice:

“Oh, don’t you worry,” Slim said. “You’ll be fine. Just remember what I said. You have to be kind to that frog. Treat him nice, like he’s your little brother or something. A happy frog is a good jumping frog. You have to love him. A frog gets scared or nervous, he’ll jump sideways, backways, anyways. You’ll never win nothing with a jittery frog.”

Slim also advised Jigsaw to keep his frog with a pan of water. It was important to keep them wet. As he explained, “You don’t want a dry frog. They don’t jump so good when they’re dead.”

POSTSCRIPT: I have to share this letter that I was handed last week on a visit to Tioga Hills Elementary. One student, Alyssa, apparently read a book a day in preparation for my arrival — and wrote a letter to me about each one. Amazing, amazing. I have more than a dozen letters from Alyssa. Here’s the one she wrote for The Case of the Frog-Jumping Contest. Thank you, Alyssa, you rock.


Rules for Writing

The Guardian recently ran a series of two articles titled, “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.” It was inspired by Elmore Leonard’s famous and fabulous list (which I wrote about back in Oct, 2008). The folks at The Guardian asked a long list of impressive writers for their personal do’s and don’ts. You can check out the original, lengthy articles here . . . and here.

As a public service, here are a few highlights:

Diana Athill: “Cut (perhaps that should be CUT): only by having no inessential words can every essential word be made to count.

Anne Enright: “The first 12 years are the worst.”

Anne Enright: “Only bad writers think that their work is really good.”

Anne Enright: “Try to be accurate about stuff.”

Richard Ford: “Don’t read your reviews.”

Jonathan Franzen: “You see more sitting still than chasing after.”

Neil Gaiman: “The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.”

David Hare: “Style is the art of getting yourself out of the way, not putting yourself in it.”

PD James: “Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.”

PD James: “Nothing that happens to a writer — however happy, however tragic — is ever wasted.”

AL Kennedy: “Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.”

Michael Morpurgo: “It is the gestation time which counts.”

Andrew Motion: “Work hard.”

Joyce Carol Oates: “Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worst.”

Helen Simpson: “The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-It on the wall in front of my desk saying “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as “Shut up and get on with it.”

Zadie Smith: “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.”

Rose Tremain: “Forget the boring old dictum “write about what you know.” Instead, seek out an unknown yet knowable area of experience that’s going to enhance your understanding of the world and write about that.”

Sarah Waters: “Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects.”

Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writing

As part of a series called “Writers on Writing,” published in The New York Times, Elmore Leonard penned a thought-provoking article that first saw print on July 16, 2001. Every once in a while I remember that it exists and go back to reread Leonard’s observations.

I’m sympathetic to Elmore Leonard’s basic vision. I mean to say, I think I could hang out with the guy. When he talks about writing, I tend to nod my head. Grateful, reaffirmed, inspired. He explains in the opening paragraph, “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.”

A long time ago I decided that ego was the enemy of good writing. Thing is, that’s a tough dragon to slay. These days, I most admire writers who get out of the way (another way of saying, “remain invisible”) — who strive to eliminate any trace of “look at me, I’m so darned clever!” from their writing. (That tends to be the exact opposite of what we are taught to appreciate in college English courses, so most of my adult writing life has been about trying to unlearn aspects of my college education.)

Regarding Leonard: I like his everyday guyness, his plainspeak, his pragmatism, his unpretentiousness. Unfortunately, and oddly, I’ve never really gotten into his books. Maybe I’ve tried the wrong ones, or not tried hard enough. The thing is, I want to like his books more than I actually do. It may be worth noting that so many of his books have been made into movies precisely because he is such a “show, don’t tell” styled writer. Or maybe it’s because he’s okay with sex and violence.

Though I encourage readers to go back to the full article (linked above), I’ll only post the ten rules along with an indispensable additional comment or two from Leonard (in the article, he provides more background on each rule). Enjoy. And remember, when it comes to writing, there are no rules. But guidelines can be instructive.

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Avoid prologues

3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.

Writes Leonard: “The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.”

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .

Says Leonard: “To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.” For what it’s worth, there are a ton of adverbs used exactly this way in the Harry Potter books.

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.

And here comes my personal favorite:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Leonard comments: “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.”

I love that phrase, “perpetrating hooptedoodle.”

NOTE: For more posts that touch on the writing process, click on the “writing process” icon on the right sidebar, beneath “CATEGORIES.” I’m trying to do more of this kind of thing on this blog, in the hopes that it might sell books, urm, be helpful to teachers, or to writers of any age!

ANOTHER NOTE: I lifted that sound, urm, from the legendary graphic novel, The Watchmen (soon to be a major motion picture). A character in there says it a lot, just a variation on “um,” but I like it.