Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Ten Rules for Writing by Elmore Leonard

I was just about to come on here and share Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules for writing when I saw this posted by a friend on Facebook: "Elmore Leonard, Master of Crime Fiction, Dies at 87."  He was a great writer, and will be missed.

Anyway, I read a book called Behind the Mystery: Top Mystery Writers interviewed by Stuart Kaminsky a while back and I came across some quotes and these ten rules for writing that I copied down into one of my notebooks.  The Ten Rules for Writing was found on pages 25-26 in the book.

Ten Rules for Writing
By Elmore Leonard

  1. Never open a book with weather.
If it’s only to create an atmosphere and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long.  The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.  There are expectations.  If you happen to be Barry Lopez who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

  1. Avoid prologues.
They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword.  But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction.  A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it anywhere you want.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s okay because a character in the book makes a point of what my rules are all about.  He says, ‘I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy who’s talking looks like.  I want to figure out what he looks like by the way he talks…figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says.  I like some description, but not too much of that…Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle…spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language.  That’s nice, but I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it.  I don’t want hooptedoodle mixed up with the story.’

  1. 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.  But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, and lied.  I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ‘she asserted’ and had to stop reading to get a dictionary.

  1. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”.
He admonished gravely.  To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.  The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.  I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write the historical romances “filled with rape and adverbs.”

  1. Keep exclamation points under control.
You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.  If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers like Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

  1. Never use “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
This rule doesn’t require an explanation.  I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

  1. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
One you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the pages with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.  Notice the way Anne Piroux captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

  1. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Which Steinbeck covered 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 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.

  1. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison.  But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

  1. Try to leave out parts that readers tend to skip.
A rule that comes to mind in 1983.  Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see too many words in them.  What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpretrating 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 10:

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go.  I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.  It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.  (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)  If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character—the one whose view best brings the scene to life—I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what’s going on and I’m nowhere in sight.

I found some of the rules to be rather comical, and I realized I'm guilty of breaking rule #2, and #6 already in my own novel.  That just means I have something to work on when I get to the editing stage.

I also like seeing how other authors deal with writer's block because everyone deals with it differently.  I took the following quote from page 61 of Behind the Mystery.  It is Faye Kellerman’s answer to a question about writer’s block:

“I have situations where writing comes easier and situations when it comes harder, but I force myself to write something.  The most important thing is not to freeze when it’s not perfect.  Nothing is ever perfect.  Don’t be a baby, and say ‘It’s not coming.’  Work on it.”

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