August 21, 2013

Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing.

Reprinted on the occasion of his death. After all the rules, he has one more rule, which purportedly sums up all the rules: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." I love that.

Of the more specific rules, I'm strangely fond of #6:
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
You can tell he doesn't just mean don't use “suddenly” and “all hell broke loose.” He means don't use any of the typical words writers use to nudge us to get excited.

I like Rule #10 too:
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Here's the whole book, in case I skipped something.

25 comments:

John said...

I'd like to send #8, "avoid detailed descriptions of characters", to George R R Martin. Game of Thrones would be shorter by two books.

WestVirginiaRebel said...

I'd also add: Avoid exposition as much as possible.

Scott M said...

All of the writers circles I'm clinging to by the skin of my integrity mentioned that one too, AA (about removing something if it sounded like writing).

I'm still having problems wrapping my head around using "said" as the only dialog verb.

mccullough said...

I like rules 3 and 4: only use said and don't use an adverb to modify it. After reading Cormac McCarthy, I'd add that you can get rid of quotation marks for dialogue and use "said" even less often.

gadfly said...

Suddenly and "All hell broke loose" are disconnects that break up the flow of a good story. They are lazy shortcuts to avoid elaboration necessary to build a crescendo of emotion before the event climax. Damn it writers, it's your job!

Ex-prosecutor said...

He, also, was a master of opening paragraphs that could punch you like 8 inches of cold steel right in the gut.

Incidentally, the current tv show "Justified" is based upon a story of his about a deputy US marshal in Harlan County, Kentucky. As with the story which was the genesis of this show, he was the master of creating and developing memorable characters, after which, he then would move on and create more in this next work.

We've lost John D. MacDonald and now Elmore Leonard. Sad.

ErnieG said...

At the bottom of the page is a paragraph with links to similar lists:

Complement Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing with the 10 best books on writing and the collected advice of other famous writers, including Walter Benjamin’s thirteen rules, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

To this list I would add Mark Twain's 18 rules in Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses.

Carol said...

I agree..but it's amazing, in writing workshops, how they go apeshit over the writerly type writing. Unless you have actual material of course.

phx said...

~~Standin' on the gallows with my head in a noose
Any minute now I'm expecting all hell to break loose~~

DrMaturin said...

John Scalzi is an example of a writer who scrupulously follows Rule 3. Said, said, said, said, said. It can get quite irritating after a while.

Paddy O said...

The only one that matters: tell a good story.

Very successful authors, by which I mean people like reading them, often break all the rules in that list. And I love that list, I have tried to shape my own writing according to rules like that. But then I'm confronted by how many very successful writers don't seem to be bothered by such literary limitations.

Dan Brown, for instance, is the Fenimore Cooper of our era, breaking every single rule, often all of them within the first couple of pages. In fact, he establishes new rules of writing that one never imagined until they see him breaking them.

Is mere popularity a good enough goal? Maybe not. But it's something. Writers want to be read. Writers want to communicate. There has to be a story there, that's rule number one, and the rule most writers never quite get. I include myself among them.

That's also, likely, the one rule that's more gift than craft. You have a story or you don't.

Old RPM Daddy said...

A slight variation, based on annoying fiction I've read: Don't explain in the dialogue what should be explained in the exposition. I remember reading a "thriller" in which the husband and wife FBI team were about to get in a gunfight with the bad guys, and they had to pause to discuss some point of Canadian law that had somehow frustrated them in the past. It was a very jarring break in what was at best a mediocre book.

Ann Althouse said...

"But it's something. Writers want to be read. Writers want to communicate. There has to be a story there, that's rule number one, and the rule most writers never quite get."

I don't care about "stories." I want the sentences to be good. Most of the best sellers have stories and crappy sentence by sentence writing. I wouldn't read them if you paid me.

The Godfather said...

Mark Twain failed Leonard's Rule 7. I don't remember whether Fenimore Cooper did, too.

ErnieG said...

Mark Twain was a master in the use of dialect.

As to Fenimore Cooper, here he is on Cooper's use of dialect:

In the "Deerslayer" story, he lets Deerslayer talk the showiest kind of book-talk sometimes, and at other times the basest of base dialects. For instance, when some one asks him if he has a sweetheart, and if so, where she abides, this is his majestic answer:

She's in the forest -- hanging from the boughs of the trees, in a soft rain -- in the dew on the open grass -- the clouds that float about in the blue heavens -- the birds that sing in the woods -- the sweet springs where I slake my thirst -- and in all the other glorious gifts that come from God's Providence!"

And he preceded that, a little before, with this:

"It consarns me as all things that touches a friend consarns a friend."

rcocean said...

I'm surprised Leonard didn't add a rule about writers being more interested in language than in story or character.

Its amazing how many so-called great books in the last 30 years are boring people doing boring things or even worse - crazy, wacky, people doing crazy, wacky stuff. Of course, all this is done at great length, or in minimalist style.

There's only one real rule: Be interesting, be entertaining, and be as brief as you need to.

William Chadwick said...

I guess I'm old fashioned. I like a certain amount of description, as long as it doesn't go on too long. I also like elegant prose as long as it isn't trying too hard to call attention to itself. Not every thing has to be dialogue amnd short simple sentences. I read Leonard's book on writing, and it seems like it should have been called "How to Write Like Me," by Elmore Leonard.

William Chadwick said...

I'm probably old-fashioned, liking books that read like actual books and not like screenplay "treatments;" but I like a certain amount of description, as long as it doesn't go on too long and bore me. I also like a certain amount of elegant prose, as long as it isn't trying too hard to call attention to itself. Not everything has to be dialogue and short simple sentences. I read Leonard's how-to-write book, and it might have been called, "How to Write Like Me, by Elmore Leonard."

ken in sc said...

As a school kid, I had the reputation of being a fast reader. What I did not tell anyone was that I ignored adjectives and adverbs. I just wanted to know what happened, not all that other crap. I still do.

John said...

I am not that big a fan of the detective genre but there are 3 that I adore. All dead now, unfortunately.

Elmore Leonard was one.

His friend Donald Westlake was another. I like all of Donald Westlake's books including science fiction. I have read 5-6 of his Parker novels written as Richard Stark but found them repetitive and never pursued them much.

And George V Higgins. Absolutely unbeatable. Trivia: He was G. Gordon Liddy's lawyer in the Watergate breakin trials.

John Henry

Crunchy Frog said...

I would gladly trade ten Fitzgeralds for one Leonard. Give me story, and characters I care about. I couldn't give a rat's ass about curtains blowing in a breeze.

eddie willers said...

I don't care about "stories." I want the sentences to be good.

One we can agree on, Ann.

I will read a book about nothing...if it is written well.

I will give you my favorite of the last 15 years: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: A Novel by Susanna Clarke.

Long but you will relish each word (and gleefully read the footnotes that can go on for pages)

cassandra lite said...

Re "suddenly": He meant don't write, for ex, "Suddenly, the phone rang." All phones ring suddenly. "Suddenly, there was a knock on the door." No, there was a knock on the door, which may or may not have surprised you.

As for "all hell...", that refers to all cliches. Last night I was in a restaurant where some hell broke loose, though not all.

gadfly said...

Just in case you have not seen this celebration of the writings of Elmore Leonard - enjoy

Bill said...

Heinlein made do with five rules:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you start.
3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
4. You must put it on the market.
5. You must keep it on the market until sold.