Elmore Leonard and Writing Rules

I recently stumbled across a website that has oodles of good stuff about writing, called Brain Pickings.  I haven’t quite figured out how much I like it yet, or what all I might find there, but it looks like a good place to explore.

My first exploration came up with a good sample, an article by Maria Popova with Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.  I tend to share a lot of writing rules and tips from other people, and that’s because there are a lot of people out there who know what they’re doing, and you’ll be more likely to take their word for it than mine.  And you can never learn too much from the experts.

Elmore Leonard wrote a bazillion books and they were made into heaps and bushels of movies, from Westerns to crime fiction to suspense thrillers.  You may like his books or the movies, or you may not, but whether his stuff is up your alley or not, there’s just no doubt that he could sure spin a yarn.  I’m more than willing to see what he says about how he does it — here are his top 10 tips:

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

“If it sounds like writing … rewrite it.”

On July 16, 2001, Elmore Leonard (October 11, 1925–August 20, 2013) made his timeless contribution to the meta-literary canon in a short piece for The New York Times, outlining his ten rules of writing. The essay, which inspired the Guardian series that gave us similar lists of writing rules by Zadie SmithMargaret Atwood, and Neil Gaiman, was eventually adapted into Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing (public library) — a slim, beautifully typeset book, with illustrations by Joe Ciardiello accompanying Leonard’s timeless rules.

He prefaces the list with a short disclaimer of sorts:

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

Leonard then goes on to lay out the ten commandments, infused with his signature blend of humor, humility, and uncompromising discernment:

1. Never open a book with weather.

If it’s only to create 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 exceptions. 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.

2. 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 in anywhere you want.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the 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 that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from 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 to get mixed up with the story.”

3. 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, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

Read more…

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