As 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?