There is an article that was in the Guardian I read a few years ago and I find myself going back to now and then just to hold my hands over the creative spark and breathe a little air on it to fuel it into a raging flame of chapters, characters and plot.
The article (in two parts) has been mentioned on this blog before and it is a long list of tips from writers. Tips for beating writer’s block, for getting started, for avoiding distractions, for writing dialogue, etc, etc.
My favourite aspect of the article is that there is so much advice being offered you can pick and choose the ones that apply to you. One writer may suggest writing early in the morning and another might suggest writing late at night but I like to relax at night so I’ll agree with the early morning writer. One suggests intent, passionate description while another (in this case Elmore Leonard) advises simplicity. Well, personally description is not my strong suit so I champion Leonard’s wisdom.
Elmore Leonard died yesterday. I have read some of his work and thoroughly enjoyed it. I remember reading a critic write that Leonard doesn’t write a story so much as sidle up next to you in a bar and tell you it. I recently started watching Justified, a TV show based on a short story of his, and have been taken with the colourful dialogue and the lack of cliché when it comes to his characters. His criminals are not evil masterminds but instead idiots or opportunists and in the episodes I’ve watched the cops and criminals have been able to have funny, poignant dialogue exchanges that flow nicely without seeming forced.
The above-mentioned article begins with Elmore Leonard’s top tips for writing and it was only when Fi sent me them this morning (in a separate article) that I realised I had been trying to follow all ten of them without attempting to mix and match. When I first read the bigger article, back when writing was something I read and when people asked me what I wanted to be and I would mumble that I wanted to write a book while not doing anything about it, it must have been these rules that affected me the most and soon after reading it was when I kicked the writing stuff into high gear. After these tips I stopped trying to copy other writers by writing long-winded, pointless, terrible descriptions. I stopped writing redundant things like ‘Who are you?’ I inquired, confused at the identity of the newcomer. I stuck with said and so far, it hasn’t steered me wrong. Below I have copied out the rules that helped me so much in the hope that they help you as well. And go here and here and read some other rules just in case somehow these don’t give you the help you need.
Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writing
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. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
2 Avoid prologues: they can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”
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. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.
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. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.
5 Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
6 Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”. This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
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. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.
8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. 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.
9 Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.