Elmore Leonard has a blog, and he’s posted his Ten Rules of Writing. Lawyers and law students take note. These are more relevant to you than you may think:
By ELMORE LEONARD
These are rules Iâ€™ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when Iâ€™m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell whatâ€™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.
1. Never open a book with weather. If itâ€™s only to create atmosphere, and not a characterâ€™s reaction to the weather, you donâ€™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 Steinbeckâ€™s â€œSweet Thursday,â€ but itâ€™s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: â€œI like a lot of talk in a book and I donâ€™t like to have nobody tell me what the guy thatâ€™s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guyâ€™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. Thatâ€™s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I donâ€™t have to read it. I donâ€™t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.â€
3. Never use a verb other than â€œsaidâ€ 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 â€œshe asseverated,â€ and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb â€œsaidâ€ . . .
. . . 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 historical romances â€œfull of rape and adverbs.â€
5. Keep your 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 the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
6. Never use the words â€œsuddenlyâ€ or â€œall hell broke loose.â€
This rule doesnâ€™t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use â€œsuddenlyâ€ tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you wonâ€™t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories â€œClose Range.â€
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingwayâ€™s â€œHills Like White Elephantsâ€ what do the â€œAmerican and the girl with himâ€ look like? â€œShe had taken off her hat and put it on the table.â€ Thatâ€™s the only reference to a 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.
9. Donâ€™t go into great detail describing places and things.
Unless youâ€™re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if youâ€™re good at it, you donâ€™t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, heâ€™s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the characterâ€™s head, and the reader either knows what the guyâ€™s thinking or doesnâ€™t care. Iâ€™ll bet you donâ€™t skip dialogue.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I canâ€™t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. Itâ€™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.)