Tag Archive for James Preller on the Writing Process

NO NEW IDEAS: Writing Within the Tradition

I was speaking to a large audience of students, at one point explaining my writing process for an upcoming SCARY TALES book, titledĀ The One-Eyed Doll.

The first image that came to me was the discovery of a door, or a hatch, in a bedroom floor. An old rug had been pulled away and there it was. Strangely, the door was padlocked.

That image got me thinking. Why the lock? Over time, I played around with the idea, moving the hidden door to a basement and, later, to the woods, obscured below the leaves. It evolved into a locked box buried behind an abandoned house and discovered by three children.

By the way, I love the idea of characters believing they found something — that they acted upon an object — when the truth is the exact reverse: the object had acted upon them.

So: What was inside the box?

A crummy old doll.

Why was it locked inside a box, nailed shut, padlocked, and buried?

Well, there must have been something strange about that doll. Right? We all know that. Every kid knows it, too. This isn’t our first rodeo.

Now as the writer of this story, I had not yet figured out the issues surrounding this doll. The whys and wherefores. I had not yet answered the essential question a writer must answer for every character, in every story: What does this doll want?

At that point in my presentation, an excited boy raised his hand and said, “Like Chuckie!”

Well, yes, I guess. Like Chuckie. There are not many original ideas left. So, sure, absolutely, the evil doll is like Chuckie, though I’ve never watched those movies. Chuckie, of course, is not the original evil doll. Twilight Zone had several, the old Bat-Man comics — often a ventriloquist figures into these things — and so on. It’s a familiar conceit, a cousin to the Gingerbread Man and even Pinocchio. This is not depressing to me, as a writer. It’s inspiring.

Likewise, the secret door has been done a million times, most notably in Lewis Carroll’sĀ Through the Looking Glass, C.S. Lewis’s “Narnia” books, and just about every time-travel novel ever written. Stephen King used a storage closet for his “secret door” in the terrific novel, 11/22/63. The door is just a device that gets you to the other world — or get the reader (and writer) to the story. Just push on through and don’t worry too much about how that door got there in the first place.

On and on it goes. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

Now it is fair to ask: If you can’t come up with your own ideas, why bother?

And I’m here to say that is exactly the wrong way of looking at it.

Because I am talking today about tradition, ladies and gentlemen, specifically about writing within a tradition — an awareness, conscious or not, that we’ve inherited a rich past. All those stories mining the same turf. Every storyteller throughout history with a pick axe and calloused hands.

The Japanese artisan Kaneshige Michiaki said it well: “Tradition is always changing. Tradition consists of creating something new with what one has inherited.”

It’s not copying. It’s creating a new thing using familiar elements. In that respect, it’s a lot like cooking. Here’s a chicken, here’s an oven, here’s some herbs and spices and all the vegetables ever invented. And, sure, if you are like my mother, here’s a frying pan and a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup.

The challenge is to cook up something new.

Something satisfying and delicious.

I experienced this same thing when writing the Jigsaw Jones mystery series. That same sense of jumping into a river, pushed on by the current. And then, treading water, I start to move my arms, kick my feet for fear of drowning. The water of tradition — Chandler and Hamitt, Connelly and Sandford, Sobel and Christie — whomever! — carrying me along (so long as I kept swimming).

Did I ultimately make something new? I can’t be the one to say, but I’ve sure enjoyed getting wet.

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.