10 Rules for Writing (Elmore Leonard)

Elmore Leonard is the man. His style is direct, clipped, and efficient. After reading some of him, Hemingway seems more like Steinbeck.

That last sentence runs out the names of almost half the novelists I’m even somewhat familiar with, so maybe my opinion shouldn’t carry much weight. But Elmore Leonards’s absolutely should.

Here are his top ten writing rules:



Watching “Sr” (by the Roberts Downey)

The documentary “Sr” by Robert Downey Jr., illustrates the life and career of his father, film-maker Robert Downey Sr. The documentary follows Sr as he navigates his son’s attempt to make a documentary about his life.

The silent driver of this loving film is that Sr has been diagnosed with Parkinsons disease. His son Robert wants to capture a portrait of his father and his life and tell his dad’s story while he still can. Throughout the project, Sr participates actively, both as a willing partner who advises and informs his son, and also as an almost-competitor, shooting his own version of scenes or improvising shots and dialogue.

In a kind of stream-of-conscious style, the narrative flashes back to Sr’s past career highs and lows using footage from his film projects and family photographs, giving us glimpses into the highs and lows of the whole family and how aspects of Jr’s life and career have mirrored those of his father. It also shows how Robert Jr. and his own son take part n the project, mixing family visits to see Grandpa with little scenes which may be patched into an as-yet-to-be-seen movie scrapbook.

As the film unfurls you become aware that you’re watching something that’s being assembled in real-time, experiencing its construction almost as if from the inside.

The strongest element to me was the obviously loving bond between father and son, as the Roberts Downey work together on what becomes “their” film: they argue, they fuss, and they joke, drawing you into their individual perspectives as they wink and give personal reflections in casual little aside moments. You see up-close how a son and father connect, relate, and reconnect, often in heart-breakingly intimate close-ups.

Overall, it’s a wonderfully warm and intimate portrait of a family that’s lived and worked both in front of and behind the lens, steeped in film-making both as a profession and as a way to apprehend and process the world around them.


It’s high time I read a really good graphic novel. Persepolis.

I have “The Complete Persepolis” and after a heavy diet of superhero fiction in comic book and movie form, I think it’s time to dive deeper into something deeper and more personal.

Famous American underground comic book artist Robert Crumb describes the power of expressing one’s personal message via comic art, and how his message garnered derision and negative feedback, or were deemed less significant because of the history of his chosen medium.

Will Eisner and a multitude of other artists have proven the narrative efficacy of comics, telling personal and powerful stories in panel after panel.

Basically, this is how I’ll try to open up my ignorance about Iran, to hopefully get in touch with the life of someone who’s lived there and who understands the land and the people, and hopefully, to create a kind of thought-antidote to all the ignorance and vitriol that continues to come across Canada’s southern border.


Recent Films: Search for Connections

Nov. 9/19


This movie contains themes of poverty, mental illness, subjective reality and delusion, but the theme of betrayal and societal indifference must be the strongest one underlying this movie.

Arthur Fleck feels betrayed when his government cuts back mental health and social services to the point that he will lose his social worker and his medication. He’s betrayed by his city when young thugs beat him up and leave him bleeding in an alley. He’s betrayed by his employer who fires him from his clown job because Arthur carried a pistol to protect himself. He’s betrayed by his comedian hero (a TV talk-show host played by Robert DeNiro) who humiliates Arthur by mocking his stand-up routine on-air, and betrayed by multi-millionaire industrialist Thomas Wayne, whose hard-line politicking and denial of Arthur’s possible birthright may be responsible for Arthur’s poverty. Arthur is stuck between his need to protect his mother, and his resentment of the man who may be his real father, Thomas Wayne.

In Arthur’s life, the cards always seemed stacked against him. We see his desperation grow as the dillemas and pressures on him build, day by day. What little joy he has is temporary and illusory, and we watch his grasp on reality grow more tenuous as the pressure mounts around him. In those final moments when his releases his anger, at the end when his avenging persona is fully revealed, we feel Arthur’s bizarrely satisfying triumph.

This movie feels like a prequel to Heath Ledger’s Joker from Dark Knight. By the final act, we see Joker’s “agent of chaos” tendency emerge, and we watch him revel in the anarchy caused by rioting citizens who’ve all been pushed to the edge by desperation, corruption, and governmental negligence.

Arthur had little familial support in his life except for his relationship with his ailing and incapable mother. He had no financial stability, but ironically he was probably the son of the richest man in Gotham, trapped in the ugly ruts of poverty and mental illness. By the end of the movie, Arthur had found liberation through an insane justification and violent revenge.

Blade Runner 2049

I recently watched this 2017 movie on NetFlix. I found its visuals to be striking and epic, and its mood to be reminiscent of the original Blade Runner movie.

The big themes in this movie centred on what it means to be human, to have personal freedom, and to feel a connection to someone via romantic and platonic love, or as part of a family. In the world of Blade Runner, the spaciousness of the destroyed landscapes, the sparse, bleak soundscape, and the coldness of the acting tell us that this is an impersonal world without much love or warmth to be found.

The main character, Joe, is a Replicant (aka “skinjob”), a manufactured human with a limited lifespan. Joe works as a “Blade Runner”, a special police office who hunts down and destroys rogue Replicants who are seen as a threat to the government. Joe is cold and methodical in his work, and is treated like a second-class citizen by the humans around him. His only meaningful relationship is with Joi, an AI projection of a woman. Joi seems to genuinely care about him, and Joe seems to feel something for her, even while we wonder how genuine his feeling are. He could be just fulfilling a role that he thinks he is supposed to fill, like when he buys an anniversary gift for Joi. But it might also just be that Joe is playing-out an imitation of true feelings – we can’t really be sure. There are numerous Pinnochio references in this movie regarding Joe. He knows he isn’t a real human, but he wants to be human.

In the first Blade Runner, the main character, Deckerd, was a human in conflict with a world of Replicants who resented and rebelled against their artificially-limited and engineered lot in life. They railed against their creator slave master, Tyrell, the man who ran the Tyrell Corporation to create Replicants as cheap, disposable slave labout for off-world exploration.

Deckerd fell in love with Rachael, Tyrell’s daughter, and they escaped the city and sought a free life.

Rachael believed she was human, but Deckerd revealed the truth to her, painfully. Evan though she was a Replicant, was Rachael’s humanity any less valid because she was manufactured instead of born?

When we learn that Rachael became pregnant and bore a child, perhaps she became more human and symbolic of a new chance at shared life for Replicants and humans. Joe believes he is Rachael’s offspring, making him the son of Deckerd and a bridge between the two races.

This movie explores the idea of rediscovering real connections to another person. Joe discovers that he is not Rachael’s offspring but through Deckerd Joe has found a true connection to someone real. He is mortally wounded and facing his own death, but has found redemption and purpose, completing himself by reuniting Deckerd with the humanity that he had lost -Deckerd and Rachael’s rmissing daughter.


Christopher Columbus and the manufacture of identity

You can’t believe everything you’ve been taught.

“Story … continues to fulfill its ancient function of binding society by reinforcing a set of common values and strengthening the ties of common culture. Story enculturates the youth. It defines the people. It tells us what is laudable and what is contemptible. It subtly and constantly encourages us to be decent instead of decadent. Story is the grease and glue of society: by encouraging us to behave well, story reduces social friction while uniting people around common values. … Story—sacred and profane—is perhaps the main cohering force in human life. A society is composed of fractious people with different personalities, goals, and agendas. What connects us beyond our kinship ties? Story. As John Gardner puts it, fiction ‘is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy.’ Story is the counterforce to social disorder, the tendency of things to fall apart. Story is the center without which the rest cannot hold.”

The full articleChristopher Columbus and the manufacture of identity


The Old Man and The Sea

I’ve heard about this famous Hemingway book, but have never read it. Now I am reading it, and am pleasantly surprised by a few things:

  • It’s short, like a novella, but without chapter breaks. It’s really more like a very long short story.
  • The story format makes it immersive – you are deep in it, continuously, until the end. No chapter breaks, breathers or reminders of the format. You remain in the story, almost like it is one long sentence.
  • The writing style is very simple and direct. It feels like a short, straight line between the character and the reader, with the observational aspects almost all from the Old Man’s mouth and mind. The third-person is there, but minimized.
  • The themes of challenge and struggle, of man versus nature, and life versus death, are not framed heroically, but more personally, intimately. He is small compared to the ocean, he is battling his opponents (marlins, and later sharks), and he respects their power. This is very different from the matter-of-fact, somewhat detached rendition of bulls and bullfights in “Sun Also Rises”.
  • The Old Man respects the Marlin, and almost reveres it. There is religious imagery and santification in the act of fishing. He prays to God while fishing. Maybe for him, seeing the marlin come up out of the water could almost compare to seeing an angel fly down from heaven. Many descriptions of fins as wings, and swimming as flying, and flying fish.

I haven’t read any Coles Notes or Wikipedia on this story (yet), but to me, this story feels deeply personal, rooted in love, fear, faith, and belief.

Hemingway seems to be staring deeply at his reflection in the surface of the water, confronting his fears and his mortality. It’s very personal and very beautiful.


The Impotence of Reading Ernest

I’m starting a run through Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”. Boy, I’m really late to this particular party – reading Hemingway, that is. In fact, I’m probably more interested in the man than his art, but they’re intimately connected, so I think I won’t learn something about one without learning something about the other.

I’ll be first to admit that I’m an amateur, quibbling, scribbling hack as a writer. I’ve hardly written very much at all, and I’ve rarely had anything published by others (just some comic book reviews). I wrote some short stories that you can read here, and, back in 2009, self-pubbed a novella, mainly to see if I could do it – from the story to cover design to limited online marketing. Overall, creatively, I’ve enjoyed hiding inside of the familiar warmth of my main character and avatar, Jack Owen. I wonder if other fiction writers feel that way. I wouldn’t know, because i don’t know any.

Through my first major novel project, I brute forced my way into learning a new art form, but I think I still understand the medium in only the most superficial sense. I have no real underlying knowledge of literature, and I tend to write in a “workman-like” way, as Ian Fleming once described his own style. I tend to read the occasional fiction and, like my taste in music, I tend to stick with a small number of artists whose voices resonate with me the most. As a teen, Ian Fleming and John LeCarre introduced me to spy thrillers and cold war intrigue, and later Chandler and Hammett gave me a taste for setting, vernacular, and the cold lives of lonely gumshoes. In fact, movies triggered my interest in all of these authors.

But reading Steinbeck changed many things for me: in high school, his brief but beautiful “Of Mice and Men” struck me powerfully, and only five or six years ago, his epic “The Grapes of Wrath” floored me and reduced me to tears with its powerful, universal themes. But, like Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway never was one of the voices I bothered to seek out – until now.

A recent, brief email discussion with a friend made me realize how little I knew about Papa. My friend is well-read and well-educated in literature, and I am, decidedly, embarrassingly, not. So, for some internal reason that I still don’t understand, her brief and pointed descriptions of Hem’s background and influences struck me like a kind of personal challenge. I decided to start reading Hem and to study his background. Something in him started to scratch at the inside of my skull…

As a kid, I absorbed references to Hemingway in pop culture (an episode of M*A*S*H, with an overly-adventurous journalist who caused damage and drama while trying to recapture his past glory), and in the stories my father used to tell about himself, or which were sometimes told about him by others. So, it’s come to pass in my head that I may explore some tenuous mental associations: “Ernest” is my first name (after my maternal grandfather), and the persona of “Papa” resonates into some of the self-aggrandizing stories that my Dad used to tell about himself.

As my post title might imply, there may also be issues of “maleness”, sincerity, and the loss of power which I could explore through absorbing Hem’s fiction, and in comparing or relating it to the males who’ve been the biggest influences in my life, primarily my Dad. As a boy, I loved and feared my Dad, as a young adult, I loved and pitied him, and in my middle age, I truly began to resent and even despise him.

What an emotional pendulum, going back and forth from sunny idealism to cold realism! Perhaps it’s just a byproduct of the emotional divorce that’s part of truly saying goodbye and letting someone go.

Maybe digging in on Papa Hemingway will actually help me to remeet and redeem my old man…


Dear Dad

Happy Fathers Day, Dad.

Here we are again. It’s been a long time since I wrote you last. I wanted to say something like “I hope you’re okay”, but I figure you’ve got no worries. 🙂

Last time I wrote, I went on about physics a fair bit. It was something that we talked about once or twice before, maybe back when I was in Foundation at Emily Carr or some time. Physics, or something technical or scientific – these were things we could talk about a little, I guess. If there wasn’t a topic like that in play, you’d just end up telling me some colourful story from your past. One of those ones where something funny happened, or where you saved someone from something bad, or where you knew better than someone else.

What was hard to talk about was feelings. We never talked about that stuff much. We’d just have to watch each other and try to figure out what was going on. I never was able to figure it out much. We were all taught to hold that stuff inside. That’s how you seemed to be, and that’s how me and Kim were raised, by example.

Anyway, I’ll put that aside here Dad. I like thinking about the stuff that got you enthused: the way you’d talk about the size of the Cyclotron at TRIUMF, or the speed of particles, and what mesons were. I was so gawddamned curious, and asked a lot of questions. You were always the smartest man in the room to me, and it was always good to see your enhusiastic side – to see you jazzed up about an iea. I also think you were, deep down, a creative thinker who had no outlet, and who hadn’t found anyone to really talk to. I think about that a lot.

Did you ever hear about the “many universes” theory of reality? It says (basically) that for every possible change of events in a timeline, a new timeline branch is created in which that decision was carried out. This leads to an infinite number of worlds in which an infinite number of James Evan Loves did an infnite number of things that they might otherwise not have done.

You never had much use for a creator God, nor their various agents. The many universes theory is as close as my athiest mind will come to accepting an afterlife. That theory, courtesy of physics, gave me a dream of infinite possibilities and infinite combinations, and that’s how I like to think of you (and of Mum too). Anyway, time is both infinitely long and short for you now. You have all the time in the world.

Happy Father’s Day Dad, wherever and whenever you may be. I love you. Maybe from time to time, I’ll send some words out to you and see if you have something to tell me.



On Joe Buck, the Midnight Cowboy.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been chipping away at “Midnight Cowboy” by James Leo Herlihy. This is the novel that the famous movie was based on, and although I cannot help but picture a young, cocky, blonde Jon Voight as Joe Buck, the Buck from the book beats the movie Joe handily – to a fictiony pulp, in fact.

This is not to say I don’t like the movie. I love the movie. The movie is beautiful to me. But although it was the novel that led to the film adaptation, in a weird inverted loop-around, it was the film that got me interested in the novel.

On the silver screen, Joe Buck is kind of surface-sincere-sweet and demonstratively himself, but in the novel, once you’ve read two dense pages of Joe’s internal deliberations on whether or not he’s being noticed in the Universe (or if he’s even worth noticing), the book version of Joe seems novel indeed, and the onscreen version seems as flat and fleeting as a film frame.

In his novel, Herlihy gives Joe Buck a depth of feeling and an existential sincerity that completely enobles him. Joe searches his blurry memories and his daily street life for answers to the question of who he is. The Cowboy is Joe’s conscously-adopted swaggering persona – the outward-facing role – that he, a lost and wayward son, has adopted in response to a hard, uncaring, and confusing world. Midnight is the dark confusion in which he sits, asking himself and the Universe his deepest, most difficult questions.

He’s lost so much in his young life: his innocence, his family, his security and identity, and his place in the world. The novel is about Joe’s world, his estrangement from it, his attempts to reconnect to it, and how he claws his way back into the light of hope by ditching the Cowboy in him. Texas and New York city are the gauntlets that Joe must run in order to pass through his trials.

Finding Rizzo gives Joe an unlikely ally, but even more, it gives Joe someone to take care of. As a wannabe hustler, Joe only really ever held alegiance to money and to the sexual power he could exercise to get it. However, throughout all his nasty adventures in dark movie theatres, hotel rooms, or up on rooftops, Joe always felt sympathy for those others who were suffering. He had compassion within him, perhaps waiting to be drawn out from under the embroidered shirt and suede jacket. So, the cowboy finally ended up trusting Rizzo, and became a friend and confidante to him. Joe Buck became a caregiver to somebody smaller and weaker than himself. He evolvd from a man-child to a parental figure, in his own way.

Herlihy uses plain language and essential phrases to weave together an elaborate world of internal confusion, torment, and compassion. Through Joe Buck, he questions the nature of love, the meaning of life, and the nature of family and friendship. In the movie version, Joe is a bit of a shallow but well-intentioned hayseed, and it is Voight’s personality that illustrates the sweet soul of Joe Buck onscreen. In the novel, we dive head-long into the emotional quagmire and philosophical dillemmas of a sensitive, yet illiterate young man who’s desperate to ask the big questions about his life without really having the tools to articulate them.