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Breadcrumbs from the Void #31: The Elmore Leonard Theorem | Alex Schumacher | Column

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Valentine’s Day has come and gone and the Ides of March are approaching. Wedged in between these two notoriously bloody observances is your new dose of Bread Crumbs from the Void! The creeping acidic taste in the back of your throat threatening a bout of projectile vomiting is a possible side effect of this column. It is also more than likely one of the myriad symptoms influenced by the dumpster fire currently ablaze in the White House. I, for one, have been battling depression, boundless rage, and IBS. But I digress…

Elmore Leonard established a set of “rules for good writing” ( Too many rules for my blood, but he did assert one in particular which he claimed superseded all others and it is one on which I happen to concur: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Personally any time I see defined parameters in which I am expected to operate I want to take a sledgehammer and knock those god-damn walls down. Forcing yourself to become a contortionist, squeezing into whatever shit box the audience expects is the antithesis of expression. It is the antithesis of writing.

This is why you will never find even the slightest attempt to manipulate your ambitions or visions in this column. Positing guidelines and rules are for classrooms where grifters con students into believing they can be taught to write. I merely offer suggestions on how to conduct certain aspects of the writing process. From there I leave it to you to forge your own road. Your own disastrous, pothole filled, road-kill lined road of exploration.

On said road you will hopefully find that when you have crafted a significant piece it should feel conversation-adjacent. Tightly crafted, but absorbed and savored with the ease of an anecdote over a couple drinks. Depending on the character/narrator a truly immersive work of fiction or non-fiction should not be condescending or pedantic. Styles of exposition such as the unreliable narrator may offer a red herring or misdirect, but these devices are never implemented to make the reader feel stupid or isolated. The sleight of hand trickery found in slang or specific dialects are not meant to alienate or confound. All are simply meant to convey and serve the portrayal of reality.

Writing must first and foremost be authentic and there are several considerations to note whilst traveling toward this destination.

Watch Your @#%&!! Language

An expansive and ever-increasing vocabulary is a wondrous asset. Unless you are writing an academic or technical paper though, there is absolutely no need to infuse words such as parsimonious or sesquipedalian. These etymological dog and pony shows — or Tijuana donkey shows in some cases — do not make you appear more intelligent. Doing so will only ostracize a large portion of readers and give you an air of being a colossal fucking douche. When you are writing be sure to check pretension at the door.

That said, I am not suggesting you handicap your verbiage to a state of Bukowski-esque puerility. Novels, fiction in particular, are marketed and geared toward the lowest common denominator. Your writing should be comprehensible without your audience’s necessity for a decoder ring or translation app. I am certainly no stranger to fingering a thesaurus from time to time, but my rule of thumb is to choose only words already amassed in my lexicon.

If you do not fucking know it, do not fucking use it. Easy peasy.

Say it Aloud

One sure-fire practice I employ to ensure my lines do not veer off into gross loquaciousness is to recite them out loud. This goes quintuple for crafting dialogue, but the same necessity for flow (or at least a semblance of rhythm) in your exposition is an imperative as well. Print out your pages and adjourn to a secluded portion of the house for your performance. There, far from the scrutiny and disparaging eyes of the boorish simpletons who cannot comprehend the process, you may peacefully talk to yourself.

If you are lucky enough to have scored a significant other of inexhaustible tolerance and patience like myself you may even find a rapt audience offering insight. Though I will offer a cautionary caveat in that unless your better half is a brilliant editor like my wife, outside suggestions are to be vetted with the utmost prejudice. Monkeys flinging shit at one another never clean the cage. To better illustrate this point I turn to Neil Gaiman.

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Purple is the Color of Bruises

Purple can be a color to adorn many a splendor thing like eggplants, Prince, or your nipples after a fruitful and protracted night of BDSM. One realm where purple should forevermore be banished is writing. Overwrought descriptions teeming with innumerable flowery allusions and similes are masturbatory at best. Such prose is written by insecure creatures that did not receive enough attention as children and graduated from one accredited MFA program or another simply to prove to the world they were worthy of love (“Take that, daddy!”).

Whilst embroiled in said structured and constricting education they were unfortunately brainwashed into believing the only way to aptly describe a leaf was to anthropomorphize the motherfucker and take it for a walk on the sun-kissed beach. Any trace of individuality was given shock treatment. Unbridled creativity was whipped and beaten into a submissive whimper.

Structure, technique, and mundanity can be taught, children. Good writing cannot.

Character Flaws

For the love of fuck, exercise extreme prudence when constructing and presenting characters! You must find the balance between meticulous detail and organic affiliation. Be familiar with every singular wart and flaw of the inhabitants of your manuscript. This does not mean that an entire chapter should be devoted to a pimple on your main character’s ass. It does mean you should formulate every last intricacy before setting pen to paper. You will never have the ability to gauge how your character will react in any given situation if you are unaware of the ingrown toenail on their right foot or massive hemorrhoid quandary.

Regard the denizens of your sordid scripture as more than metaphysical constructs. Unless they were fucking deranged a virtual stranger would never introduce themselves by announcing that they contracted chlamydia. During the course of a prolonged friendship/relationship however, the topic just might be broached. The latter divulgence of information is far more probable given our species natural inclination toward secrecy and fascination with mystery.

Another fiasco to avoid is the introduction of an overabundance of personas. Literary harems require far too much exertion and, face it, neither you nor I have the libido to be intimate with one hundred manifestations of an author’s existence. Keep the guest list short or your party will rage out of hand quickly.

If you would like to hear me elaborate a bit more on my own process, you can find links to a couple of interviews conducted recently with me on my website at: Drop me a line from the contact page if you have any other questions, complaints, or declarations of lust.

Bread Crumbs from the Void will return in two weeks with another thrilling edition of hard-nosed reality for you big-talkers and wannabes. Until next time, keep scribbling you freaks.

About the Columnist:

Profile 4Alex Schumacher has toiled away in the relative obscurity of minimum-wage jobs and underground comics longer than he cares to admit. Currently he produces the weekly feature Decades of (in)Experience for Antix Press, Bread Crumbs from the Void and The Fucking Funnies for Five 2 One Magazine, and Mr. Butterchips for Drunk Monkeys.

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