Monday, February 22, 2010

Elmore Leonard tells you how to write

by Jim

I’d never seen Elmore Leonard’s list of ten writing rules before today. If it so happens that you haven’t either, I direct you to the Gotham Writers’ Workshop’s website. I came across the list via Mark Sarvas’s blog The Elegant Variation where he derides Leonard’s advice as “unhinged dipshitery.” I disagree. Now, of course we all know that rules are made to be broken, but there’s an awful lot of good sense here. And beyond that, Leonard’s a far better writer than Sarvas (in my opinion!). And #1: “Never open a book with weather?” That’s just great advice.

Leonard’s real point is that anything that can be cut should be cut. No one wants to see writing just for writing’s sake. So cut out the flibber-flabber and send us a novel that’s tight!

And, of course, take these things with a grain of salt. And look again to the advice of the other authors that Stacey pointed out on Friday. No one knows how you work, so there are no perfect answers, but it’s always good to take a look at the advice of others, especially those you respect, and sort out the good from the bad for yourself. But do take EVERY piece of Margaret Atwood’s advice because she’s delightful and would never lead you astray.


  1. Never open with weather?

    The first line from Wiliam Gibson's Neuromancer:
    The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel
    (1984) - and coincidentally, George Orwell's 1984: It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen"

    There are no absolute rules in writing.

  2. I was nodding my head in agreement with all of them, until I got to #6. One of my characters says "all hell broke loose". Which leads me to wonder if it is okay since my character said it, not the narration. Hmmm.

    I agree the most with #9, which for me often becomes #10. Anne Rice (especially "The Vampire Chronicles") is one of my all-time favorites. But when she begins to describe how the bougainvillea wraps itself around the wrought iron gates and up the exterior walls ... I know I can pretty much skim over the next page or two, until the character steps in the house and the action picks up again.

  3. Anonymous, I'd argue that the opening of Neuromancer is a great sentence but an eye-roller of an opening. 1984? I'll give you that one.

    As I said, "rules are made to be broken," but it's a rare writer who can make opening with the weather seem anything other than lazy and pedantic.


  4. "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

    Ok, I've been told by agents and editors that my writing is beautiful, but I haven't found representation yet. Are they trying to tell me I sound like I'm writing?

  5. See, if they had just handed out this list in 10th grade English, I'd already be swimming in a bathtub of my own published books. Brilliant summation; thanks for sharing!

  6. I have to admit, I agree with both of them.

    As you say problem with choosing sides on this kind of advice is that that writers do not all write the same way. Our weaknesses differ. Some writers are overly descriptive. Some of us tend to cut to the chase too fast. We all have our own cliches - such as "suddenly" or "then all hell broke loose."

    When I see this kind of advice, I read it all, and I value it all, but the point is to understand it, not to slavishly follow it.

  7. don't agree with Leonard's 'he said/ she said' rule. it has to be annoying over the course of a novel

  8. I revisit Leonard's list every two or three months. Every time I do, I go back over two or three months of work, and scrap about 90 percent of my adverbs, and change "guessed," "replied," and "chuckled" to "said." I consider it Cialis for my writing.

    I enjoy his work so much I'd be a fool not to listen.