Mark Terry

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Elmore Leonard's 10 Simple Rules of Writing - My Opinions

Last week legendary crime writer Elmore Leonard passed away. I was a big fan for a long time, although I hadn't read any of his books over the last few years. I was sorry to see him go. I always held him up as a shining example of sticking with it. He'd written something like 19 novels before he made a bestseller list. In today's publishing climate nobody would ever have heard of Elmore Leonard.

Anyway, much was made of his 10 simple rules of writing. So I thought I'd address them here with some comments and commentary of my own.

1. Never open a book with weather.
I know where he was going with this, but...

Since I'm reading George RR Martin's A Storm of Swords, I thought I'd pull out the first line for you:

The day was grey and bitter cold, and the dogs would not take the scent.

Yeah, right. Martin's not terribly successful or acclaimed at what he does. So I grabbed a couple other books off my shelf and it took me about 10 seconds to hit Robert B. Parker's Hush Money, which starts like this:

Outside my window a mixture of rain and snow was settling into slush on Berkeley Street.

And I know that at least one of Robert Crais' Elvis Cole novels begins with the weather. So I think it's worthwhile adding that what Leonard was getting at was, do it quickly to create atmosphere, provide a character's reaction to the weather, but for god sakes, don't run on for a paragraph or a page or two pages or three about the weather. Unless, you know, you can.

Well, that's my take on it. It depends, right? What if I put a character in the middle of a blizzard in Antarctica, lost, snowmobile broken down, miles from nowhere? Would it be important to describe the weather? Hell yeah, weather would be the antagonist in that book. 

2. Avoid prologues.
Ha. Except my first Derek Stillwater novel, The Devil's Pitchfork, starts with a prologue. So do millions of other books. I understand, sort of, why so many people have issues with prologues. Sometimes all it means is that the writer should have started their book somewhere else, that their book starts sort of boring and they pull something exciting from the ending or whatever to drag readers into the book. I think that's a reasonable argument. I also think that, as I did in Pitchfork, the action of that book takes place within about a 24-hour period—except the prologue, which takes place years before.

I can also pull out a lot of books, even books with a first-person narrative, like John Sandford's Kidd novels, that start with a third-person "prologue" although I believe he calls them Chapter 1, then switches over to the first-person narrative for the rest of the book.

So . . . whatever.

3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
Sigh. I like to think that what Leonard was saying was: don't use adverbs. You know, the so-called Tom Swifty's??? "Wow, would you look at that cathedral," he said archly.

It's almost always better to use a good verb rather than to modify a weak verb with an adverb. He didn't "run quickly," folks, he "sprinted." Okay?

But in dialogue, it's generally better to let the dialogue do the heavy lifting and not modify he/she said with quietly, loudly, sadly, happily, etc. 

On the other hand, I'm good with: He explained. She shouted. He snapped. She whispered. He roared. She wimpered. Got it? Good.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"...
See above.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
Good advice, overall, but he suggests no more than 2 or 3 per 100,000 words! No, wait! He said, no more than 2 or 3 per 100,000 words!!!!

In other words, only a couple per book.

Whatever would Stephen King say about that?

I definitely think they can be overused, but sometimes y'just wanna show that someone's excited!, he exclaimed excitedly.

6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
My bad. I do this. Too. Often. Particularly suddenly. All hell broke loose occasionally. But yeah, it's a crutch.

How about: Without warning?

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Unless you're really damned good at it. Which almost nobody is. And it's possible to do it in small ways without driving the reader nuts.

"Y'all been in Texas long?"
"That's, like, not what I wanted to do, like."
"I seen him out on the north road."
"Didja see 'im? Didja?"

A little bit can go a long ways.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Well, that's my style. I'm reading, as I mentioned earlier, George RR Martin, and he gives plenty of character descriptions. The key here, for me at least, is to try to approach things in one of two (better) ways.

The traditional way, and not the best is:
Mark Terry was a handsome brute, with broad shoulders, a graying goatee, and a shaved head.

Another, better way, is:
Mark Terry looked like a fire hydrant painted beige and pissed on by every dog that walked by.

Also, a better way, is to incorporate the description into action:
Mark Terry ran his calloused hand over his shaved scalp, scratched as his close-cropped gray goatee and said, "I feel like pissing on a fire hydrant."

9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
Unless you're writing SF, fantasy, or it's inherent to the type of work you're writing. Or if you're literary. Or if you're a travel writer. Or...

I tend to write sparingly, but since I just came out with CHINA FIRE, which takes place mostly in Beijing, I needed to give a fair amount of detail (in comparison to my other works) so people would get a stronger sense of place than they would in, say, Cleveland or Kansas City.

So, you know, it depends.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
I've always sort of liked this one. Leonard went on to add, "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

Since his books are written from a very tight POV of whatever character he was dealing with in a scene, and reflected that character's thoughts, etc., this makes a lot of sense. But...

What part do you skip? I might, for some readers, sort of slide over those weather descriptions, or, since I'm reading George RR Martin, the details of each minor character's sigils or, since we're on the subject of George RR Martin (and yeah, A Storm of Swords is 1,128 frickin' pages long!!!!), I have to tell you, when he gets going on the various family histories, which this character's uncles's father's mother's brother being married to this cousin's aunt's sister's bedmaid, I skim right over the top. I could live without all of that. But part of what Martin's doing is creating a richness that's hard to ignore, even if it can sometimes drive me crazy. (I'm on page 900. I really want to finish this book, okay?)

And some of it has to do with what the author is attempting to do, right?

I remember the first time I read JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. For the one person on the planet reading this who hasn't actually read the book, early on Harry goes to the Ministry of Magic for a hearing. The description, which is vivid and amusing, nonetheless goes on for a very long time and is very rich in detail. I thought more so than the other things in the book and at the time I was reading it, I thought it was overdone—until the climax of the book which takes part in the Ministry of Magic and all that scene-setting had already been done and Jo Rowling could concentrate on the action and not describe all the details.

Yeah, she knew what she was doing.

So although I have no particularly problem in a broad sense with any of Leonard's 10 Simple Rules of Writing—at some level they're all excellent advice—I'm also struck by a story I remember reading by someone who took a fiction writing class from Raymond Chandler. The students were nitpicking Chandler on when to put red herrings in, how much detail, all sorts of questions of that nature. 

Until Chandler finally picked up his notes, said, "Write your book any damned way you please," and walked out.


Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I think your evaluation of each of the rules is pretty accurate. For the most part, stated as rules, the list is pure B.S. and I doubt Leonard even stuck to them. I suspect he was just being provocative. Years ago I wrote a blog on this and came up with about half a dozen classics, new and old, that started with weather.

That business about only using "said" seems to be some sort of literary affectation. I once knew a guy who despised genre fiction and considered himself a literary writer (too good to be published naturally) who had a veritable fetish over this. Of course if he'd seen a mere genre hack like Leonard espousing it he might have changed his mind. Dialogue marked only by endless "saids" strikes me as tedious.

I like reading prologues myself. They are often intriguing. As for leaving out the parts that readers skip...well, what readers does he mean? Some of the books I enjoy I suspect most of Leonard's readers would skip every word!
(Oops, excuse my exclamation. Although that's not so bad a rule)

Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, however, is a rule I agree with entirely, as far as my own personal preferences go. I don't enjoy reading long character descriptions. I rarely can remember them and end up picturing the character based more on his or her actions. What I really like is your first better way -- nail the character with some colorful brief but memorable description.

4:51 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Yeah, I rarely remember physical description. I think it's much more useful to get something that tells you something useful. Something like: Rosemary was as delicate and brittle as waterford crystal.

5:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's important to remember what genre Leonard (R.I.P.) wrote, CRIME. Add to this the fact he was a minimalist and hence his rules. Fantasy and science fiction are much more tolerant genres for building atmosphere (literally and artistically) as well as detailed character descriptions. These things are pretty much expected there. I've read my fair share of Leonard as well as John D. MacDonald. Read a good Leonard novel then go read the best McGee novel and you'll see. The detailed description used in many McGee books are superfluous. Dialogue was the breath of life for Leonard's characters. He was damn good at it, too.

10:34 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Dear Anomalous,
It's not a criticism of Leonard. The rules make perfect sense in the context of his own books. I'm a fan. But they're not the only way to go. I think they're good rules in general - but I also think most of us break rules.

BTW, I'm a huge fan of MacDonald and the McGee novels. A lot of (possibly) superfluous info there, although it was McGee's POV. We were seeing MacDonald AND McGee's worldview. I think Randy Wayne White comes a lot closer to MacDonald's style.

10:43 AM  

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