Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Writing tips from a master

As you've probably read, Elmore Leonard died yesterday at age 87. Prolific and successful, he often lectured and here are his now famous (slightly condensed) tips for good writing from an article in the NYTimes from 2001. Thought all of us might enjoy seeing them again. They certainly make sense to this old writer.

(My favorite story of his was GET SHORTY. Hilarious and pithy and so are his writing tips:)


Published: July 16, 2001

These are rules I've picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I'm writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what's taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.
1. Never open a book with weather.
If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. 
2. Avoid prologues.
They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.
3. Never use a verb other than ''said'' to carry dialogue.
The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. 
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ''said'' . . .
. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.
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.''
This rule doesn't require an explanation.
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won't be able to stop. 
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
In Ernest Hemingway's ''Hills Like White Elephants'' what do the ''American and the girl with him'' look like? ''She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.'' That's the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.
9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
Even if you're good at it, you don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
And finally:
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
This is a rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. I'll bet you don't skip dialogue.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10:
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Kit Sloane
The Margot & Max Mysteries


Julie Luek said...

Very good points. But it's funny how one man's rules, are another's made to be broken rules. Pat Conroy, a prolific writer,finds Hemingway stark and loves adjectives and descriptions. John Irving in A Prayer for Owen Meany, sticks his author's nose in the page and laments the impatience with description. All excellent writers.

Kit Sloane said...

absolutely, spot on. of course, he didn't expect everyone to follow his tips--then everyone would sound the same--but I do think some of his tips are universal, particularly the caution on adverbs. It's wonderful to think we can learn from all these authors!


Beryl Reichenberg said...

We all can learn from these tips, even if we decide to ignore them. Beryl

Eileen Obser said...

I am a great fan of Elmore Leonard's writing, Kit, even though I've never written a mystery. I'm a memoirist, mainly. My first book, Only You, a memoir, will be published by OTP in January. The 10 Writing Tips is a handout I use in my writing workshops. The Guardian (UK) did a great article with other writers 10tips that you can find online. Get Shorty and Maximum Bob are at the top of my favorites of E. Leonard.