Posts Tagged ‘elmore leonard’

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules For Writing

March 4, 2013

elmore 2As an agent, I get a lot of fiction submissions. Usually I can tell if I don’t like them by the end of the first page. Sometimes by the end of the first paragraph. I’m a little embarrassed to make this admission. Some people might think that my method makes me a literary philistine. And sure, there are lots of examples of masterpieces that I probably would mistakenly throw out because I was bored on page one or even page 10. Most of the great novels of the nineteenth century might not pass muster. As an example, just look at Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. We all know the story, don’t we? Well, in the likely event that you loved the play or movie, as I did, you probably tried to read the book but gave up. The hero, Jean Valjean, doesn’t even show up until about page 50. And the stuff before his entrance is deadeningly, crushingly boring.

When I talk to inexperienced writers, I usually tell them to read Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for writing. And if you don’t treat the rules inflexibly, they are all very sensible. We’ll let Victor Hugo get by with a few peccadilloes. Well, actually Les Mis has about 800 pages of peccadilloes. So here is Leonard’s list with my modest annotations:

1. Never Open a book with a weather report. We all remember the most celebrated bad first line in literature: “It was a dark and stormy night.” from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford. The novel was considered a masterpiece when written. Now it has become a subject of ridicule and condescension by high culture snoots. There isn’t anything wrong with writing about the weather if you are building a scene. But for me this kind of beginning smacks of the equivalent of novelistic throat clearing, a sign that the author lacks the self-confidence to jump into the story.

2. Avoid prologues. Screenwriters love prologues. But then screenplays are usually about 20% as long as even the shortest novel. Movies have to get backstory information out quickly and concisely, and the prologue is an obvious vehicle for this. But novels are different. Again, prologues were ok in the nineteenth century. Probably the most influential artist of that time was Richard Wagner. His masterpiece, The Ring of the Niebelung, runs for 4 nights and is over 14 hours long. The entire 2 1/2 hour first opera, Das Rheingold, is a classic prologue written entirely to bring out the backstory of the epic myth. Wagner gets to break the rules; but you, gentle writer, do not. Editors in New York are pretty demanding about how authors should handle backstory. They expect it to be dribbled out on a “need to know basis”. Editors condescendingly refer to backstory prologues as “info dumps”. Another sign of an inexperienced author.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. Ok. This is a little extreme. I’m sure Elmore wouldn’t have a problem with “asked” or “thought”. But it’s probably a good idea to avoid most other tags. Plain vanilla tags like “said” are transparent to the reader and keep the reader’s attention on the dialogue and the story. More complex and descriptive tags like “he wondered” or “he mused” or “he regurgitated” [unless, of course, the subject is actually tossing his cookie] are distracting. An exercise in “telling” rather than “showing.”

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely. Same as rule #3 above. Adverbs tend to be clumsy and lazy. That said, I just finished rereading The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald loved adverbs. And who am I to criticize Fitzgerald? So, like Wagner, we’ll give him a literary “get out of jail free” card.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. YOU HEAR THAT RULE, BUB?! You try using those exclamation points with me, and you’re outta here!!!

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” What Elmore is really saying here is that you should avoid clichés like the plague (ha, ha. joke). Another sign of lazy writing. And you might also take the advice of Strunk and White and not use “weak” adjectives like “nice”, “beautiful”, or even “weak”.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Dad gummit! I agree with Elmore on this. It’s another example of how good style should be invisible. A novel should draw the reader into a kind of trance-like state. When the style distracts the reader from the story, she falls out of the story. I see a lot of stuff by inexperienced writers who are smitten by the need to flaunt their style. Excessive alliteration and misplaced similes, for example. There are lots of examples of great writing where style trumps substance, but in general this is a good rule.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. I’m not sure I would agree with this as a general rule. But what I think Elmore means is that characters are best described by their actions and their words in dialogue. Another admonition of “show, don’t tell.” But go ahead, you can break this rule if it works.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. I’d really like to make a snarky remark about Henry James right now, but I will forgo that temptation. As above, sometimes this rule is more honored in the breach than in the observance. Sure, if you are writing like Hemingway, Raymond Carver, or even Elmore Leonard, rule #9 is sound advice. But there is room for other styles in good writing. Certainly you should avoid unnecessary detail. Actually you should avoid unnecessary anything.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. This rule speaks for itself –uh– Henry James? Are you listening?


Writers on Writing – My Favorite Quotes

July 9, 2012

I’m going to share some of my favorite quotes about writing. I know  it’s a little presumptuous on my part. I’m not a writer, unless you count this blog as writing.  But as an agent, I find myself doing a lot of editing. Publishers don’t have time to imagine how to make an imperfect manuscript perfect. So part of my job is to make sure it’s  pretty perfect before  it lands on their desk. That means I have to edit. And in order to edit, I have to think about writing that’s  good and writing that’s bad.  Telling the difference is pretty easy. I can usually do that on the first page. But  understanding why good writing is good and bad writing is bad, I  think that could take a lifetime.

I have a philosophy about editing. I like to come to  a manuscript with a “beginner’s mind.”  That’s a concept in Zen Buddhism that means  one should approach a subject with no preconceptions, techniques, or methods. In his book: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shuryu Suzuki describes it perfectly.  “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”  So when I start to edit a manuscript, I try to put myself in the role of  the simple reader who is, after all, the only person that really matters. Writers aren’t always in the best position to understand the reader. I’d like to believe that I can help them out.

Now on to my favorite quotes:

  • “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
  • “I don’t understand anything about the ballet; all I know is that during the intervals the ballerinas stink like horses.”
  •  “Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions.”
  • “One should not put a loaded rifle onto the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”

– above quotes by Anton Chekhov

“Show, don’t tell” has become a cliché.  But it is also fundamental. Not quite a law of nature. Great writers can break the rules. I think these wise words by Chekhov say it better than all the articles you read  on this subject in Writer’s Digest. Actually the quote about the ballet doesn’t really address this concept, but I liked it so much I decided to include it. And it’s only a little bit of a stretch to say that the stink of the ballerinas tells – no, excuse me – shows you a lot about their art.

  • ” The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” –Stephen King
  • “As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out.” –Mark Twain
  • “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.”  – Elmore Leonard
  • “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’…he admonished gravely.” – Elmore Leonard
  • “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.” –Elmore Leonard

When I was in New York last month for the book convention, I had dinner with Susan Sutliff Brown, freelance editor, Joyce scholar, and friend.  At some point in the evening, Susan stated pontifically that good writers of literary fiction don’t use adjectives and adverbs. I was astonished.  Of course, we all look down on  Tom Swifties, those ungainly adverbial tags used by the novice writer. (“Let’s get to the rocket ship, Tom said swiftly.”) But banishing adverbs and adjectives altogether? Unimaginable, even in an alternative  universe designed by Raymond Carver. Susan’s pronouncement ruined my reading for several weeks. Rather than getting lost in a good book, I poured over  texts counting modifiers.  But now I must admit that Susan was on the right track. Again, it’s all about “show, don’t tell.” Excessive use of adjectives and especially adverbs is a sign of lazy writing. Check it out yourself. (Now, I hope  this hasn’t ruined your experience of reading for the next few weeks.)

  • “Avoid prologues.” – Elmore Leonard

Editors believe  how you handle or mishandle “backstory” is a marker for your ability as a writer. Back in the 19th century when people had more time, you could get away with spending the first 50 pages, say, setting setting up the story. If you don’t believe me, check out Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable. Jean Valjean doesn’t even come on stage until page 55. You can’t do that today. Backstory needs to be insinuated into the narrative, obliquely,  as it unfolds. And it’s devilishly hard to do. Prologues are the lazy man’s way of getting all the crap out and onto the page, so that the you can proceed to roll out the plot without any messy explanatory back tracking. Book editors call this an “info dump”.

You see prologues a lot in movies. And it makes sense.  Screenplays are much more compressed than novels.  A typical screenplay has about 20,000 words. A very short novel will have 70,000. A movie doesn’t have time to allow a backstory to subtly unfold and bore an audience. But you can’t do  that in fiction. Well, that’s not entirely true.  Looking for graceless, awkward, lazy, and inelegant management of backstory? I recommend The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown.

But on the other hand –

  • “Learn from cinema. Be economic with descriptions. Sort out the telling detail from the lifeless one. Write dialogue that people would actually speak.” –  Rose Tremain
  •  “Pace is crucial. Fine writing isn’t enough. Writing students can be great at producing a single page of well-crafted prose; what they sometimes lack is the ability to take the reader on a journey, with all the changes of terrain, speed and mood that a long journey involves. Again, I find that looking at films can help. Most novels will want to move close, linger, move back, move on, in pretty cinematic ways.”

– Rose Tremain

Don’t laugh when I say that learning how to write  is a lot like learning how to play golf. There is a very profitable  industry out there of golf tip books, magazines,  and videos by the super stars. Millions of words written on how to execute the perfect swing or how to make your drive fade. But mastering this information won’t make you Tiger Woods. Similarly with writing, the great novelists are a practical group, always willing to give and receive tips. Here’s some quotes I like:

  • “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” – Elmore Leonard
  • “The wastebasket is a writer’s best friend.” – Isaac Bashevis Singer
  • “A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the other one.” –  Baltasar Gracián
  • “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” – Agatha Christie
  • Try to be accurate about stuff. ” – Anne Enright

Ok. So the golf comparison is pretty sucky. And you might just perceive in these quotes a tone of  post-modern self-reflective irony that one would not likely hear at the British Open. But there is something about these sentiments that make me feel pretty good, like these writers are  experiencing the same struggles as we mortals. Compare this to:

  • “If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.” –  Anais Nin
  • “To withdraw myself from myself has ever been my sole, my entire, my sincere motive in scribbling at all.”  – Lord Byron
  • “I am a man, and alive…. For this reason I am a novelist. And being a novelist, I consider myself superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet, who are all great masters of different bits of man alive, but never get the whole hog.” – D.H. Lawrence

No offense to the great Lord Byron and these other fine writers, but their characterizations of themselves as writers strike me as gaseous nonsense.

To be continued……