The Death of Elmore Leonard: 10 Rules of Writing

DC: In honour of the passing of US crime writer Elmore Leonard, here is a reprint of his 10 rules for writing, first published in the New York Times. There is no better or more concise schedule of advice for writers, young and old. Over to Elmore:

WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle

By ELMORE LEONARD
Published: July 16, 2001 in The New York Times.

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.

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.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .

. . . 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 ”full of rape and adverbs.”

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 ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”

This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” 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 won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories ”Close Range.”

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’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. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

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, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’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 can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’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.)

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

What Steinbeck did in ”Sweet Thursday” was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. ”Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, ”Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled ”Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter ”Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: ”Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

”Sweet Thursday” came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.

The start of the Not Just Watching Football Season

The Never Ending Story: Monotonous or Life-affirming?

It’s that time of year again.

At this very second, men in ill-fitting polyester advert shirts are gathering around faux oak tables in dingy back rooms to accumulate another season’s worth of adipose tissue. And all for the pleasure of watching socially dysfunctional teenage athletes earn more cold hard cash in ninety minutes than their admirers could dream of earning in a month.

Yes, the football season is with us again, heralded by England’s defeat of Scotland on Wednesday night, thanks to a well-timed headed goal by 31-year-old debutant Rickie Lambert. Mr Lambert, exercising his imagination like never before, described the crowning achievement of his career as a ‘dream come true’.

I have a deeply humbling confession to make: I don’t play professional football. I never have. Rickie Lambert’s dream come true is about as relevant to my life as Emmental meteorites.

My relationship to football is exactly the same as a reader’s relationship to a book. I am not a player inside the world of football; I look on from the sidelines. I read about the world of football in exactly the same way that I read about the world of Miss Marple (but with less murder and significantly worse dialogue).

Millions of other people enjoy these same soccer stories and I could talk football with them until the Cowdenbeaths come home. But I will never myself take part or affect the world in which I am cognitively immersed. And I will probably never even meet someone who does. Just like I’ll never one day take the 4.50 from Paddington to St Mary Mead, nor meet Mrs Elspeth McGillicuddy.

Not the 4.50 from Paddington. No trains leave Paddington at that time. Do your research next time, Christie.

So what?

I suppose that what I’m trying to say is that football might as well be a fiction, a story, or combination and complex interaction of stories, told every day, all over the world. The football fan’s longing for the start of the new football season is no different to the crystal meth fan’s rabid anticipation of Season 5 of Breaking Bad. Football is the ultimate box set: a never-ending reel of intertwining plot lines, with a cast of thousands and story twists that no writer has even written.

The question we have to ask ourselves is:

Is this story interesting enough to justify a few hours of my life every week?

The answer, I suspect, is increasingly no. But I’m going to try to find out. Instead of just watching football this season, I’m going to start thinking more deeply about what it does for me, does to me – and does to and for us all.

So I hereby declare the official opening of the Not Just Watching Football Season (catchy, I know). Stay tuned for my football-based examinations of such topics as Tribalism, Slum Clearances, Sexual Assault and Consumer Capitalism. To be fair, it’ll almost certainly be a game of two halves, at the end of the day.

Tiny Tips for Writers: Emotional description

Rather than flatly describing sights, sounds and smells, provide contours by showing us the emotional responses of your characters as well.

From A Game for the Living by Patricia Highsmith:

The boy nodded and licked his thin lips. The sight of his tongue near the soft moustache was peculiarly disgusting to Theodore.

An entirely irrelevant detail of the boy has become a character trait for Theodore, and we can feel an unsteady current in the subtext.

Tiny Tips for Writing: Reality in Failure

[This is the first in a new mini-series of tiny tips for writers; those little insights into the things that make fiction believably real. Those forgettable details that make the fourth wall melt away, drawing the reader into the world of the book, as imagined by the author, but without feeling the author, without being clever.]

For every interaction, there is reality in failure, in minor conflict, in minor obstacles.

At a cafe advertising an all day breakfast.
‘Sorry, we’ve finished breakfast,’ the waitress says. ‘Today’s the day we change the oil.’

Not a huge problem, in the usual scheme of things, so the only possible explanation for this (otherwise redundant) piece of minor conflict is that it must be true. And if that was true, then the fiction around it must be as well.

For even greater reality, slip one tiny extraneous detail into the scene.

The cafe is called Tiffany’s.

Cute. You could have Breakfast at Tiffany’s – if not for the changing of the oil. And those two details make the fiction.

David Varela, Goldeous Kline and Me

Last week, David Varela took a vow of silence and spent one hundred hours writing stories. To prove it, he streamed all one hundred hours live on www.100hours.tv and created a live notepad so that the whole world could see his words appear on their screen as he typed them.

David was raising money for the Arvon Foundation (they run residential creative writing weeks for schools and community groups – I went on one of their paid courses in October: outstanding) and for every person who donated, he would write a story.

I found out about this spectacular project through my friend and neighbour, Naya. She recorded an interview with David Varela for Trans Limits Storytelling, and you can watch a snippet here:

You can help the other David reach his well-deserved £3,000 by donating here (although he won’t write you a story any more!).

One of the glorious features of David’s project is that all his writing is freely licensed under the Creative Commons copyright. That means I can (and you can) share the story he wrote for me! So here it is, along with a little comment by David before he started writing:

###

DAVID CHARLES: Goldeous Kline and the Borrowful Glaxons

4 hours to go…

At this point in proceedings, 95 hours in, I really do start to doubt my sanity. If I’m writing slower it’s mainly because I’m double-checking that everything is real. David Charles has made that deliberately difficult.

He’s asked me to write the story of Goldeous Kline and the Borrowful Glaxons.

Not being sure what exists and what does not, I Googled this phrase and was ‘shown results for Golden Kline and the Sorrowful Klaxons’ because clearly I’d made some kind of typo. So I know that these are not pre-existing entities. One David has come up with their names, and another David will come up with their story….

I’m excited. Are you excited?

Having destroyed the Amaloid horde and saved the galaxy once again, Goldeous Kline fired up the thrusters and headed back to base. She could expect a heroine’s welcome – indeed, she did expect it, as she had a shower of Finusian champagne at least every couple of weeks, the galaxy being as dangerous as it was.

Once out of Amalon’s orbit, she engaged hyperdrive and was back in Sector Omega-6 within milliseconds. She opened the comms channel.
“This is Goldeous Kline, requesting permission to dock. Repeat, Goldeous Kline. Yes, it really is me.”
She awaited a response.

And she awaited some more.

“Switching to secondary wavelength… This is Goldeous Kline. Acknowledge.”
More silence.
Maybe this was a prank. The boys in the comms shack did enjoy a good joke – but not normally on duty.
“This is Goldeous -“
“Hi Goldeous. Just hang on a sec. We’ve had a -“

There channel went silent again. Were they under attack? Was there a fire in Command?
“Sorry, Goldeous, we’re – no, let me – let go of that -“
“Command? Everything all right?”

The channel buzzed into life for a second and she heard what she thought was somebody being slapped across the face.
“Bzzzk… Eh oh? Eh oh.”
“Hello?”
“Greeting, pilot. All your base are belong to us.”
“Excuse me?”
“No excuse. All your base are belong to us. Also your ship.”

There was the sound of wrestling at the other end of the line again. Goldeous wondered who this invader could be. Their dialect was unusual, but the larynx must be humanoid. The Provaricons? Shepsy? Yes, she’d never trusted Shepsy.

“Kline, are you there?”
“Yes! Status.”
“This is Commander Sheppard…”
“Commander – good to hear your voice.”
“Yeah… bit of an issue back here. Admin cock-up really. Problem with the bank.”
“Who are the ‘Bank’? A new enemy alliance?”
“Could say that, yes. Thing is, they rather have the Galactic Council on their side on this one.”
“A conspiracy!”
“I’m not really making myself clear, am I? Goldeous, fact is, we’ve got ourselves up to our ears in hock. Acquisitions went wild with the credit card last year and now the lenders are foreclosing on us. Seems we were borrowing against our bases, but what with all the conflict recently, property prices have gone through the lunar crust.”
“I… don’t understand.”
“They’re repossessing everything. The bases, the ships… even Deckard. Apparently galactic law still regards him as a thing not a person.”
“But this is absurd! Sir – permission to launch a counter-offensive!”
“No, Goldeous… do you have any idea how much those photon torpedos are worth? Save your ammo and bring your ship back here. That’s a direct order from your Commander.”

She wrestled with the concept in her mind. Surrender? It felt… so wrong.
“Sir. Yes, sir. Requesting permission to dock.”
“Granted. Bay Three.”
“But Sir… I don’t understand how we could have spent so much money so fast.”
“Finusian champagne isn’t cheap, Goldeous. Glaxon Command out.”

—-

I’m going to end it there – because I’d have to stop at that point or follow through and finish a whole sci-fi parody novel, and I’ve only got three-and-a-bit hours left. Thank you, David, for the inspiration!

###

And thank you, other David, for the story! It was perfect, especially given my current reading of Debt by David Graeber (The Davids are taking over!).