I saw a pin the other day that listed ten short writing tips and attributed it to a guy named Elmore Leonard. So I looked him up and his story checks out. In addition to selling tens of millions of copies of his novels and selling screenplays to a handful of successful Hollywood movies, he also wrote a book in 2007 called 10 Rules for Good Writing. I glanced over the list and agree. It’s made of up ten rules all aspiring writers should live by.
So with that said, here are…
Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Good Writing (and my thoughts about them)
Never open a book with weather.
We hear this one all the time. Also, never open with a dream, a flashback, a prologue, or a character looking into a mirror. And why do we hear these all the time? Because they’ve been do so many times. (Although, I’m not so sure about that mirror one. I can’t remember a book opening that way, but everyone else must since it’s always on these lists.) Anyhow, why is it bad to start your book this way? Because it is cliché. And as soon as something becomes cliché, it reminds the reader that they are reading a book. It may even cause your reader to sigh, roll her eyes, and put the book away. For good. So however you may feel about dark and stormy nights, it’s a good idea to keep those feelings to yourself.
I already mentioned prologues above, and even did a post on them a while back. But the popular consensus is still don’t use a prologue ever. And I do generally agree with this. Prologues can be boring, too telling, and may not directly relate to the main character or their story arc. Most of the information in a prologue can be scattered throughout the novel. And that’s how it should be. Let your reader discover your world as they read. It’s way more fun that way.
Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
I’ll agree with that most of the time. Using fancy active verbs in place of “said” will draw attention to the verb and take attention away from what is being said. Still you don’t want to fall into the Mulder said…Scully said…Skinner said, trap where your dialogue scenes become repetitious. I’d recommend sticking with said, but also leaving dialogue tags out all together, whenever possible and if clarification of who is speaking is not needed.
Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
I’m not sure if that “admonished gravely” thing is meant to be a joke or what, but I definitely agree with the first part of that rule. Never say things like “He said sadly” or “He said quietly.” I’m not a big fan of adverbs in general, but when used with the word “said” they can be ugly. Replace them when you can. Use “whispered” instead of “said quietly” for example.
Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
I’ll agree with that! Don’t shout at your reader! It can be very distracting! And not seem authentic! Explanation marks are fine in instant messaging and texts. But in fiction…no way.There have been a few submissions at Theme of Absence so full of explanation marks, that I just couldn’t finish reading. And I’m sure I’m not the only submissions editor who feels that way. So cut back on the excitement!
Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
I’ll admit, I’ve used “suddenly” probably more times than I’d care to count. I do, however, always feel guilty when the word “suddenly” happens to slip through onto a page. I view it as a sign of weakness in a way. If a writer can’t convey that sense of urgency without using that word, then the scene needs to be rewritten. As for “all hell broke loose,” I’m not sure why he’s warning against it. Maybe it’s generational thing. It’s something a character would say, and I don’t see a problem with that. If a narrator says it? I guess it depends on the narrator. In a first person narrative, it should be okay. In third person? Probably not.
Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
He’s right about doing this sparingly. Sometimes I’d even say avoid doing this at all. And for a couple of reasons. First, no matter what your intentions are, you run the risk of stereotyping an entire race or region when you do this. This is especially true if you’re not very familiar with the group you’re using and your only (reference) to them is through Hollywood. Second, if you overdo this, it’s distracting. You don’t want your readers to have to slow down and figure out just what exactly the character is saying. Honestly, I’d almost leave this stuff out all together and let the readers figure out what type of accent or regional dialect you intended.
Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
I would say it’s be to use very limited descriptions, and only what is relevant to their actions or the story around them. In most cases, hair color, eye color, even skin color, can be left up to the readers. Height and weight are a little more important since that can impact the way the characters move around throughout the story, but again, don’t overdo it.
Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Setting is important, yes. And vivid writing can also enhance a reader’s experience. But do not go overboard. If you take more than, say, a couple of paragraphs to describe something, your readers will began to glaze over. Any longer than that and you run the risk of boring your reader to death. And nobody should ever die from simply reading your book. So how should you handle describing placing and things that do need a long, detailed description? I’d say do it in parts through your characters’ eyes. Let the reader experience it with the characters, and avoid simply telling them about it. And keep simple. It’s okay to call a tree a tree.
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Think as a reader and not a writer here. What are the parts of the book that you tend to skip over. This could include dream sequences, flashbacks, soliloquies, historical things that fill pages in between chapters (think Stephen King’s It), journal entries, extended endings that seem to be nothing but page fillers after the conflict is resolved. If you find that you absolutely need to include any of those things, do it, but keep it short and keep it relevant. The last think you ever want is for a reader to feel frustrated with your writing and put it aside.
There’s a lot of info here and some of the items on this list could serve as not only a separate post, but as an entire book. For now, however, you should be able to get the points he was trying to make. And they are certainly good points. I’ve never read anything by Leonard since he’s mostly outside the genres I tend to read, but I’ll have to give it a try sometime.
What do you think about this list? Is there anything here you strongly agree or disagree with? Leave a comment and let us know!