Elmore Leonard’s rules

682px-Elmore_LeonardThe late great crime writer Elmore Leonard had ten basic rules for writing fiction, which I think all writers should be aware of, whatever kind of fiction they write. Here are Leonard’s rules:

1. Never open a book with the weather.

2. Avoid prologues.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

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

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

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

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

I think if writers at least bear these in mind as they are working they will usually be doing themselves and their readers a favour.

They are a curious mixture on the face of it aren’t they? Some are pretty much standard advice – how often do we hear the tip to avoid adverbs where possible? Others strike you as quirky on first reading them. ‘Never open a book with the weather’ being a good example.

I think with this weather one Leonard is offering us two things. Firstly he is helping us avoid cliché. The all-time worst opening line of a book is often held to be ‘It was a dark and stormy night,’ the first line of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford. It is so often mocked that there is even a Bulwer-Lytton competition now for the worst opening line you can come up with.

So best avoided for that reason alone. But I think Leonard is also encouraging us to get to the point and, more importantly, to get to the people. Novels are so often more a success at describing emotions than they are at describing things. I’ve mentioned before how Yann Martel describes the shipwreck in Life of Pi in one line ‘The boat sank.’

I have a weather scene – a storm, near the start of Song of the Sea God. But it’s not right at the start. The opening belongs to the narrator Bes who is under the impression he is dead, but turns out to be mistaken. Somehow I thought it best to talk about people first and save the wind and rain for later.

The tip to avoid exclamation marks also seems a little quirky. But it’s advice I know well, because we were also given it as young newspaper reporters by wise old sub-editors. In newspapers, exclamation marks are often used in headlines (we had a rude name for them used in this way, referencing a dog’s anatomy, but I will not include that on this ‘safe for work’ blog). But they are much less often used in copy. Where, I remember an old hand on the subs’ desk telling me: “They simply serve to highlight the wide-eyed incredulity of the reporter.”

In fiction they simply serve to show the author thinks something is exciting or amusing, and that the reader ought to think so too. But the reader will make up her own mind – exclamation point or not!

Perhaps Leonard’s key rule is the last one – leave out the parts readers tend to skip. We would all like to do that wouldn’t we? Leonard’s feeling was they don’t tend to skip dialogue – and he was a genius at that. This point is advice about rewriting I suppose – cut out the bits which are not good, leave the bits which are.

So there they are, Elmore Leonard’s rules – food for thought for all of us I think.

ImageDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

 

Quick writing tips from top authors

I thought this week I’d share a few one line tips from top writers – just because I think they’re great and are the sort of thing which make us think about what we write. In the end I believe we all find our own best way to get words down on the page, but I also believe it’s a good idea to listen to good advice which comes from experts – so here is some.

Annie_Proulx_Frankfurt_Book_Fair_Conference_2009Write slowly and by hand only about subjects that interest you.

Annie Proulx

I’ve always written first drafts by hand in notebooks – I think it gets you in touch with the words and what they mean – also it ensures that when you come to type your work up on a computer later you are effectively doing a second draft. I think it also slows you down and that’s a good thing – there’s no point in writing faster  than you can think. As far as writing about what interests you goes – writing a novel is a marathon – if you are writing about something which doesn’t fully engage you then you are running uphill.

Kurt-Vonnegut-US-Army-portraitBe a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr

I always think a book should really be about something – that there should be issues and events in there which are worth the weight of all those words. I suppose that’s what Kurt Vonnegut is saying here in a way – that there‘s not much point having characters just drifting about unchallenged. The awful things of which he speaks can take many forms of course

479px-Zadie_Smith_NBCC_2011_ShankboneTry to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.

Zadie Smith

This touches on the power and importance of rewriting – which, for me, is a crucial part of writing. I think the ability to self-edit successfully is a hard-won but vital skill and it really does depend on the ability to come to your own work as if it belonged to someone else and view it with a critical eye.

800px-Elmore_LeonardDon’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Elmore Leonard

I wrote a blog a while ago about words being in some ways better at describing ideas and emotions than they are at describing things. I believe, as clearly Mr Leonard does, that a good way to bog your book down with detail which could bore and baffle the reader is to describe things in tortuous detail. Often less is more and an impressionistic approach can be more satisfying.

Do you have any favourite writing quotes? Share them with us in the comments!

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.