Every writer has a toolbox full of devices, techniques, and stylistic craft elements to help their work stand out. Below you’ll find information on writer’s conferences, tips from successful authors, and posts designed to help improve your craft as a writer. Open your toolbox and write!

WRITE BETTER NOW!

As you strive to improve your writing, it is sometimes helpful to incorporate the tools that have helped other authors become successful. Write Better Now! features writing tips that noted authors use to construct compelling stories. In this edition, the spotlighted author is Elmore Leonard, author of more than 50 novels, written over six decades. He is best known for his gritty, true-to-life dialogue. For a more detailed, and often humorous, explanation of each of these rules, see his book ELMORE LEONARD’S 10 RULES OF WRITING. As with everything related to writing, there are no hard and fast rules—as long as you can make it work AND you have a great story. Here’s Elmore’s advice:

TOOLS

Rule #1

Never open a book with weather

The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.

Rule #2

Avoid Prologues

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a forward.

Rule #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. “Said” is far less intrusive than other verbs.

Rule #4

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

To use an adverb this way is a mortal sin. It is distracting and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.

Rule #5

Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are not allowed more than two or three per 100,000 words.

Rule #6

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

Writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

Rule #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.

Rule #8

Avoid detailed description of characters.

In Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants, what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

Rule #9

Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

Rule #10

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

What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetuating 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 the dialogue.

How Do You Do It?

The two questions Matthew is most often asked are, “Where do you get the ideas for the
stories you write?” and “What is your writing process?” As the saying goes, “Art imitates life.”
Many of the topics he writes about are based on real events, or some variation of those events.
His background gives him a unique perspective, one he attempts to translate to the page in a
way readers can connect with. Other times, he simply has a crazy idea that he thinks would
make a nice story.


When Matthew sits down to begin a new novel, he generally knows the beginning and the end of the story. He outlines some major plot points to get from the beginning to the end. This brings up the age-old question among writers. Is he a plotter or a pantser? Actually, he’s a hybrid. He plots parts of the story but is more of a seat-of-the-pants writer who lets the story lead him. That comes as a huge shock to those who know him best because he’s a very organized person who plans extensively. He has several friends who plot their entire novel before they put a single word on the page, and that style works for them. Matthew finds that when he has a basic idea of the story and just writes, often the story will take an unexpected turn and his characters find themselves in situations he never saw coming.


Matthew is a huge believer in getting words on the page, no matter how bad they might be and then making multiple passes during the dreaded revision phase. He believes in the old saying, “Write the first draft for yourself and every other draft for your reader.” Some writers, when they are working on a story full-time, revise as they go. Each day, they review what they wrote the day before and revise and polish that text before putting any new words on the page. There’s nothing wrong with that method, it’s just not how Matthew does it. He prefers to keep the momentum flowing and get as many words in per day as possible, because the real work
and crafting of the story is in the revision.


During his revision process, he keys on certain elements. It takes more passes to finish doing it that way, but for him it works better. For instance, he does one pass where he looks at every time in the manuscript where the word “that” appears. He does the same thing for “which.” Another pass looks only at adverbs. One pass is for no other purpose than to cut the word count. He looks for anything that doesn’t either advance the plot or develop one of the characters. Generally, he makes between five and eight revision passes before he’s comfortable with  someone else seeing the manuscript.


One thing is certain. Every writer must do what works for them. There is no absolute correct way to do it, but that’s Matthew's process.

Never

Stop

One of Matthew’s best friends in the writing community is a romance writer he’s known for years. She has won multiple RITA awards and is in the Romance Writers Hall of Fame. On the day she was inducted into the Hall of Fame, she stopped at the conference bookstore at the annual RWA Conference and spent over $300 on books. What kind of books? Books on the craft of writing. Why? Because she felt like there was so much more she needed to learn. Even as a Hall of Fame writer! Never stop writing. Never stop learning.

 

Since 2014 Matthew has served on the instructional staff of the West Texas Writers’ Academy as either a core instructor or a story consultant. Each year during the month of June, West Texas A&M University hosts a week-long event for writers. In a quaint setting, writers can stay in dorm rooms on campus while attending the academy. Writers select a core instructional topic and spend the entire week with the same instructor for an intense week of learning. Attend WTWA for a life-altering, career-changing experience and join a tribe who believes in your ability to succeed!

High Concept or Pornography?

February 1, 2014

 

High concept. Agents seek it. Publishers demand it. Movie studios thrive on it. Authors? They just want to know what the heck it is. The problem is that if you were to ask three professionals from the publishing industry to define high concept, you would likely get four different answers.

As it turns out, defining high concept is not as easy as one might think. Perhaps the best definition is found in the language used by Justice Potter Stewart to describe pornography when he wrote the majority opinion for the United States Supreme Court in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964). Justice Stewart wrote:

 

“I shall not today attempt to further define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ['hard-core pornography’]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it. "

 

Was Justice Stewart talking about pornography or high concept?

 

There are many definitions of the high concept novel:

  • It can be pitched in one sentence.

  • It has a unique premise.

  • It has  mass public appeal.

  • It can be pitched as “what if.”

  • It can be pitched as a crossing of two well-known works “XX meets YY.”

Using the above formula, the next blockbuster New York Times bestseller could be, “What if a milquetoast man traveling the world seeking affirmation was really a CIA assassin (Jason Bourne meets Walter Middy).” No? As it turns out, defining high-concept is a bit of a slippery slope. However, there are some constants to the elusive  definition.

It is safe to assume that of the definitions listed above, two are absolute musts if you want your manuscript to be noticed when you query. First, the premise must be unique. It has been said that every story has already been told. If that is true, how is that readers continue to buy some books at a rate that lands them on bestseller lists? Because the author found a way to make the premise of the story unique. The concept of the story may be familiar, but there is a unique twist that sets the work apart from all others. Second, the manuscript needs to have mass appeal. Publishers are in business to make money. Likewise, self-publishers would like their books to sell well enough so they can ditch the dreaded daytime job. Either way, mass appeal is the key to mass sales.

While unique premise and mass public appeal are certainly requirements of high concept novels, a work that contains both of those elements AND can be pitched in a single sentence is much more likely to be noticed by agents during the query process. Agents receive hundreds of queries per week. Simple mathematics and common sense dictate that in addition to representing the clients they already have, agents don’t have time to read every word of every query from every potential new client. If you want to be the exception to that rule, grab them with your one sentence logline and make sure both the unique premise and mass-market appeal are obvious.

Agents, publishers, and movie producers might not be able to tell you exactly what they are looking for when it comes to high concept, but trust me, write a good enough manuscript and just like Justice Potter Stewart, they will know it when they see it.

 

© 2020 by Matthew Sherley.

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