Friday, February 3, 2012

Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules For Writing Fiction

I've posted about how I hate seeing "said bookisms," in fiction. I've posted about a lot of common mistakes new writers make, always trying to back it up with good links and facts.

Here's something I love. It's ten rules for writing fiction by Elmore Leonard. I hope readers take heed with this post, too. In fact, I think it's especially important for readers to know these things nowadays being that they are reading so many inferior novels and don't even know it. You are, as readers, going through the slush pile at times and you don't even realize it. And you can spot these mistakes now in most excerpts on retail web sites where e-books are sold. I see them all the time.

This way, as readers and paying customers, you'll know the basics of what defines bad fiction. And when you go over to goodreads to leave a review for an author and you say something was poorly written, you'll know what you're talking about this time.

Here's what I'm talking about now. You can get there from here.

Elmore Leonard started out writing westerns, then turned his talents to crime fiction. One of the most popular and prolific writers of our time, he’s written about two dozen novels, most of them bestsellers, such as Glitz, Get Shorty, Maximum Bob, and Rum Punch. Unlike most genre writers, however, Leonard is taken seriously by the literary crowd.

What’s Leonard’s secret to being both popular and respectable? Perhaps you’ll find some clues in his 10 tricks for good writing: *

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Avoid prologues.

3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. (Mr. Leonard said, "Never." He didn't grumble, "Never." He didn't mumble, "Never." He said, "Never.")

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.


Anonymous said...

Warning: Strong opinion ahead!

#1 Is utterly WRONG. Weather has been used effectively to open a book.

#2 Agree! Prologues = lazy writers.

#3 Is utterly WRONG. As someone with a degree in English, I would shoot myself if the only acceptable dialog tag was "said." You don't "say" a question, but you may need to tag a question to show who is speaking. You "answer" a question.

#4 agreed! But ok if used rarely.

#5 agreed! VAPID writers use exclamations. Your words should convey the exclamation. The same is true for dolts who use asterisks for "stage" direction in writing. *smiles*

#6 Or any cliche for that matter.

#7 Especially since doing so can come off as bigoted or demeaning.

#8 Um NO! Characters SHOULD be well described just not all in one paragraph. Sprinkle it around instead of chunking in all in one spot. NOT fleshing out characters is BAD WRITING.

#9 Um NO! Places and things are a part of the setting and SHOULD be well described just not all in one paragraph. NOT fleshing out the setting is BAD WRITING.

#10 Bingo

Matthew Darringer

ryan field said...

These things aren't written in stone. Many writers have very successful books in spite of all this. There's always been the age old argument about which is more important, the writing or the story. Some authors are great storytellers and don't write well. Some write well and can't tell a story.

I'm not even sure about the prologue part. I don't write them, but I wouldn't not read a book because of one.

I once read where it was wrong to begin a book with someone looking into a mirror. I didn't agree with it. I also once read it wasn't good to begin a book with dialogue. I've seen well known authors do this. Sometimes how it's done matters more than what's being done.

As for #3. I have a degree in English, too. I've read studies where readers consider "said" and "asked" invisible words. How true this is, I don't know. But I don't like reading things like "He grumbled, stumbled, moaned, or balked." As for questions, I'd like it neat and clean and tight, "He asked," instead of "He inquired, or insinuated, or quipped." Said bookisms tend to take the reader out of the story, where using "said," and "asked," keeps the story moving at an even pace. That's not to say writers shouldn't use said bookisms sometimes. It's just that when it's done too much, throught the entire book, it gets tired.