Tag Archives: rules

Danielle Steel Loves the Weather and Elmore Leonard Hates Exclamation Points: Literature by the Numbers

Source: Danielle Steel Loves the Weather and Elmore Leonard Hates Exclamation Points: Literature by the Numbers

by Ben Blatt

The first literary mystery to be solved by numbers was a 150-year-old whodunit finally put to rest in 1963. Two statistics professors learned of the long-running debate over a dozen contested essays from The Federalist Papers, and they saw that they might succeed where historians had failed. Both Alexander Hamilton and James Madison claimed to have written the same 12 essays, but who was right?

The answer lay in how each writer used hundreds of small words like but and what, which altogether formed a kind of literary fingerprint. The statisticians painstakingly cut up each essay and counted the words by hand—a process during which “a deep breath created a storm of confetti and a permanent enemy.” And by comparing hundreds of word frequencies, they came up with a clear answer after so many years of speculation: the contested essays were distinctly the work of James Madison.

Since 1963, similar methods have continued to yield major findings. Take, for instance, last year’s revelation that Shakespeare collaborated with Christopher Marlowe. And in the meantime, the technology involved has leapt from scissors and paper to computer and code, giving rise to a whole new field of study—the digital humanities.

In my new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, I use simple data to whiz through hundreds of classics, bestsellers, and fan fiction novels to explore anew our favorite authors and how they write. I uncover everything from literary fingerprints and favorite words and tics, to the changing reading level of NYT bestsellers and how men and women write characters differently.

If you have a body of literature, stats can now serve as an x-ray. Here are a few fascinating examples from Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve:

Writing Advice

There is a lot of writing advice out there. But it’s hard to test, and it’s often best to judge someone not by what they say but what they do. Novelists may tell their adoring fans to do one thing, but do they actually follow their own advice? With data, we can find out—looking at everything from the overuse of adverbs to Strunk and White’s advice against qualifiers like “very” or “pretty.”

One of my favorite examples comes from Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, where Leonard offers the following rule about exclamation points: “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” A writing rule in the form of a ratio is a blessing for a statistician, so I ran with it. Does Leonard practice what he preaches?

From a strict numerical view, no. Leonard wrote over 40 novels which totaled 3.4 million words. If he were to follow his own advice he should have been allowed only 102 exclamation points his entire career. In practice, he used 1,651—which is 16 times as many as he recommends.

But looking deeper, we find that Leonard did follow the spirit of his own rule. Below are 50 novelists, representing a range of classic authors and bestselling authors. Elmore Leonard beats out everyone.

And the picture gets even more interesting when we look at how Leonard’s use changes over time. The chart below shows the number of exclamation points that Leonard used in each one of his novels from the start of the career. He loved the exclamation point as a novice, but he slowly weaned off of it over time.

Interestingly, after he delivered his exclamation point rule in 10 Rules for Writing, his use decreased even further (the one exception was Leonard’s sole children’s novel). He may have been a zealot: no one I looked at uses exclamation points at a rate lower than two or three per 100,000. But Leonard practiced what he preached: he got closer to his magic ratio than any other writer, especially in his final stretch of novels.

He was also on to something. I parsed through thousands of amateur fan-fiction stories online and found they were not only enthusiastic about their story universes, but for exclamation points as well. The average published author relies on about 1/4th as many exclamation points as the average amateur writer.

How Cliché

The book world loves a good list: bestsellers, award winners, “best of the year” lists. But what other superlative lists are there to uncover out there in the literary world? In Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, I decided to ask: who uses the shortest sentences, the most adverbs, writes at the lowest grade level or relies on the most clichés?

I took all expressions mentioned in the 2013 book by Christine Ammer titled The Dictionary of Clichés. These are phrases like “fish out of water,” “dressed to kill,” and “not one’s cup of tea”—4,000 phrases in total. To my knowledge, Ammer’s book is the largest collection of English language clichés. I then scanned through the complete bibliographies of the same 50 authors mentioned above to see who used the most clichés.

The answer: James Patterson.

You’d expect some recency bias in the dictionary of clichés (Jane Austen’s characters, unfortunately, weren’t ever described as “dressed to kill”). So I also looked at every single book that ranked on Publishers Weekly’s bestselling books of the year since 2000. James Patterson can’t blame his time period alone. Even compared to his contemporaries in genre and time, Patterson comes in with five of the 10 most clichéd books. He’s clearly making it work, though. Of those PW lists, Patterson has 16 books, more titles than any other writer.

Start with a Bang

In response to a question on Twitter about her favorite first sentence in literature, novelist Margaret Atwood answered: Call me Ishmael. “Three words. Power-packed. Why Ishmael? It’s not his real name. Who’s he speaking to? Eh?”

Atwood emphasized the brevity of the Moby-Dick opener, and she is similarly concise in her own work. I compared the median length of her opening sentence to that of the 50 authors in the exclamation point chart above. Only one author, Toni Morrison, beats her out.

Opening sentences are far from an exact science, but keeping them short and powerful by rule of thumb is a smart place to start. Drawing from a range of sources, I assembled a list of the consensus top 20 opening sentences in literature. And of that list, 60% of the openers are short when compared to the book’s average sentence length.

But when you look a much wider sample of literature, most authors in practice opt for long openers. In 69% of all of the books I looked at, the opening sentence is longer than the average sentence throughout the rest of the book. It might be that authors like Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood are on to something as they keep their openers “power-packed.”

Beach Weather

In one last example, let’s return to Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. His first rule (#1!) is “Never open a book with weather.” Apparently Leonard had strong feelings about this trope, but anyone who’s ever heard too many plays on the old saw, “it was a dark and stormy night,” will know where he’s coming from.

Leonard again lives up to his own advice. But there’s one author who completely flouts it, and it’s an example I love.

Danielle Steel, known for selling hundreds of millions of books, should also be known for talking about the weather. She started her first book off “It was a gloriously sunny day and the call from Carson Advertising came at nine-fifteen.” She’s never looked back.

Nearly half her of introductions involve weather—mostly benign, positive weather (“perfect deliciously warm Saturday afternoons,” “perfect balmy May evening”, “absolutely perfect June day,” or simply: “The weather was magnificent.”). But like Patterson she has made her rule-breaking choice work. It’s a distinctive style that’s all her own—and it’s a quirk that at least this reader would never have been able to pin down without having been able to run the numbers first.

 

 

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Writing tip Wednesday: “Breaking ‘rules'”

10 Writing “Rules” We Wish More Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors Would Break

by Charlie Jane Anders

Source: http://io9.gizmodo.com/5879434/10-writing-rules-we-wish-more-science-fiction-and-fantasy-authors-would-break

Science fiction and fantasy are genres where almost anything can happen — as long as the author can make it seem plausible, and as long as it’s part of a good story. But that doesn’t mean there are no rules. If anything, the fact that these genres are so wide open mean that there are tons of rules out there, some unspoken and some written in black and white.

And sometimes, breaking the rules is the only way to tell a really fascinating story. Here are 10 rules of SF and fantasy that more authors should consider breaking from time to time.

Note: We’re not saying you must break any of the rules below. You can craft a brilliant work of fiction while still following all of the rules below. And most of these rules exist for a reason — because if you break them without knowing what you’re doing, you can screw up horrendously. Some of the rules below represent things that may have been done to death in the past, so it’s best to make sure you have a fresh spin. But at the same time, too many rules can be a creativity-killer, and sometimes it’s good to bust out some illegal moves.

Getting to the heart of the matter.

Getting to the heart of the matter.

Third-person omniscient used to be the default mode for a lot of novelists — a lot of the classics of literary fiction as well as science fiction are written in third person omniscient. This means, in a nutshell, that the narrator can see what’s going through any character’s head, and can flit around as the story requires. But in recent years, fiction writers have opted for first person or limited third — in which only one person at a time gets to be a viewpoint character. The thing is, though, when you have tight third person with multiple viewpoint characters, it often feels like an omniscient narrator who’s choosing to play games.

1) No third-person omniscient

An actual third-person omniscient can be fantastic — you need look no further than Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which freely lets you know what Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect and assorted other characters are thinking at any given moment. Or countless classic SF writers, for that matter. But I also want to put in a plea: anyone who’s serious about writing genre fiction should read Henry Fielding, who makes third-person omniscient into an art form. In novels like Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, Fielding draws these brilliant tableaux where he pauses to show what everyone’s thinking, and how much at cross-purposes everyone is. It helps him be a keen observer of people, and also creates these beautifully funny set pieces.

2) No prologues

This is one I’ve been hearing for years — some agents and editors say they stop reading immediately if they see that a book has a prologue. But prologues have their uses, especially if you want to set a mood or establish some crucial backstory before you start introducing your main characters. Like most of the other things on this list, prologues can be done well, or they can be done horrendously. Luckily, we don’t have to reach far to think of an example of prologues done well — George R.R. Martin starts every one of the Song of Ice and Fire books with one, and it’s clear why these prologues are there. They help set up the conflicts of each book, via the experiences of a throw-away character. (Literally, in fact.)

3) Avoid infodumps

Like its cousin, “show don’t tell,” this injunction can be a great idea but can also get you into trouble. Sometimes an infodump can be a horrendous load of backstory or technical schematics, rammed down your poor reader’s throat. But at other times, authors can go to huge, insane lengths to avoid having to come out and explain something. Like having contrived conversations, or weird “teachable moments” to convey a basic bit of worldbuilding to the reader, with the effect that the story grinds to a halt. We posted a collection of 20 well-done infodumps a while back, just to prove it can be done well. Perdido Street Station art by Les Daniels.

And you may have noticed that whenever literary writers tackle science fiction or fantasy, they include tons of infodumps? Maybe this is one of those instances where they’re not as familiar with the genre conventions, and thus fall into habits that many “real” SF and fantasy authors would avoid — but in this instance, they may just be right. Sometimes you just have to explain something, as painlessly as you can.

4) Fantasy novels have to be series instead of standalones

We love a good epic trilogy (or decalogy) as much as the next fantasy addict. But sometimes a nice done-in-one story is also exceedingly welcome. And this is one area where science fiction seems to have a slight advantage over fantasy — both genres have tons of sprawling series, but science fiction at least sometimes spawns one-off novels. And there’s something to be said for getting a satisfying story in one volume, without a cliffhanger or any loose ends afterwards. And sometimes, characters can actually be developed more fully if the author doesn’t have to hold anything back for future books. A character who gets a full arc in one book can be a richer character.

5) No portal fantasy

The “portal fantasy” is a mainstay in both science fiction and fantasy, even though it’s mostly used in the latter. (You could argue that Hitchhiker’s Guide is a “portal fantasy.”) In this type of book, someone from our world discovers a pathway to another world, where he or she is our relatable everyhuman explorer, and we discover this new world through his or her eyes. It’s a tried and true notion, and Lev Grossman gets a lot of mileage out of it in The Magicians — both Brakebills and Fillory, in different ways, are strange worlds that Quentin visits from the “real” world, and there’s a lot of portaling. But we’ve heard many people say that “portal fantasy” is over, and so is the neophyte who learns about the magical world over the course of a book. Now, everybody wants stories where the main character is already steeped in the magical (or science-fictional) world as the story begins.

But as we argued a while back, there’s still a lot of awesomeness lurking in the concept of an ordinary person traveling to a strange world. There are so many ways to tell that story, and so many metaphors buried in the notion of someone being thrust into a weird new world. Isn’t that what we all do when we start exploring genre fiction? I think to some extent, this is something that die-hard genre fans have seen too much of, but these sorts of stories could still have a lot of appeal to mainstream and newbie readers.

6) No FTL

Yes, our current understanding of physics tends to frown upon faster-than-light space travel — no matter what a few weird neutrinos may or may not have done. And there’s definitely a place for totally rigid, scientifically plausible fiction in which the very real difficulties of exploring our own solar system are explored. But then again, there’s something undeniably awesome about being able to jump to hyperspace, or warp speed, or whatever. And maybe a little bit less realism is needed sometimes, to amp up the excitement of space travel. Most of us grew up on big, bold space operas in which interstellar travel was unrealistically, thrillingly fast — and that’s still the portrayal of space that resonates with many people. Plus, FTL makes all sorts of other stuff possible, including space warfare and lots more first contact.

Additional rules are:

7) Women can’t write “hard” science fiction.

8) Magic has to be just a minor part of a fantasy world

9) No present tense

10) No “unsympathetic” characters

Details at: http://io9.gizmodo.com/5879434/10-writing-rules-we-wish-more-science-fiction-and-fantasy-authors-would-break

***

Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, coming in January from Tor Books.

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Writing tip Wednesday: “Supermentors One-Day Class”

Industry Landmines — And How to Avoid Them

One-day class: Sunday, June 7th
10:00 AM – 5:00 PM (Pacific time)
1:00 PM – 8:00 PM (Eastern time)

Learn what pitfalls to avoid.

Learn what pitfalls to avoid.

Hollywood is full of rules – only nobody tells you what they are!

Award-winning writer-producer-directors Elaine and Marc Zicree have written hundreds of hours of produced TV shows and movies for most of the major studios and networks – and now have their own studio! Let them share what they know with you!

In this eye-opening day-long class, Hollywood Insiders Marc and Elaine Zicree guide you through the soul-crushing, career destroying mistakes that many beginners and even long-term pros often make – and which YOU can now avoid:

Some of the many career disasters covered (and super-solutions given) include:

Representation:

  • How to waste time seeking it out – and make sure they’re lacking a pulse.
  • How to provide inadequate evidence and be sure to fail.
  • How to hand over power to folks who don’t give a damn.
  • How to mangle a potentially good relationship.
  • How to confuse the roles of agents, managers and attorneys.

The Script:

  • Sure-fire ways to make the script you write fail!
  • Great ways to find bad scripts by writers who will give you grief.
  • How actors can create characters ranging from invisible to actively annoying.

Cold Calls, Meetings, Pitches and Auditions:

  • How to come off like an amateur.
  • How to bore and confuse.
  • How to blow a meeting – or, better still, trample one that’s going well.
  • How to be under-prepared
  • How to bring in the wrong allies
  • How to alienate potential, long-term connections
  • Stuff you can do wrong in a pitch.
  • Auditioning so you lose you the role and any possibility of ever being invited back.
  • Failing to sell a series using great material.
  • Having no clue how the system works.

Teams:

  • How to be sure you mismatch your director to your script.
  • Creating a budget that assures your project will never sell – or is never finished.
  • How to cast to assure the above.
  • How to staff up with terrible people.
  • How to staff up with wonderful people – and then alienate every one of them.
  • How to write up agreements that you will regret to your grave.
  • Presenting yourself & your project in ways that send alliances running for the hills.

Money:

  • How to solicit funds in ways that will get you into really big trouble.
  • How to do a crowd funding campaign – that will sink!
  • How to be so grasping about credits and points you have nothing to deal with.
  • How to be so generous about the above you end up with zip.
  • Ways to rationalize not thinking about complex stuff like in-kind, trade agreements, incentives, banks and pre-sales (or other methods that may otherwise save your project).

The Sale:

  • How to fail at festivals.
  • How to never find a distributor.
  • How to find a distributor who will rob you blind and bury your project.
  • How to sign a contract that will allow you no recourse for the above.
  • How to burn through resources to not only deny promotional materials, but the deliverables which would allow the sale.
  • How to convince yourself the benefit of avoiding alternate platforms which may result in more money, larger audiences and an actual career.

Strategy:

  • How to embrace the defeatist and the negative.
  • Being sure your mentors have failed at what you’re attempting.
  • How to suck all the energy out of a room.
  • How to stand around waiting to be picked until you die.

Class is JUST $25 and SEATING IS LIMITED – but you can also listen to the entire class via live streaming and downloadable content!

To sign up, log onto www.paypal.com and indicate you want to pay marc@zicree.com

Feel free to email us at Send me an email marczicree@gmail.com or call (323) 363-1259 with any questions.

Don’t wait to be picked — it can all happen NOW.

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Filed under 2015, Writing Tip Wednesday, writing tips