Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Hearken to the Great One (Leonard's Rule's)

32,000 words (and climbing)

I couldn't think about what to write today, since my head's full of book. Better get out of it, too, since it's Valentine's today, and the Tiny Dynamo's getting her piano tuned, there are walks in the hills to be taken and picnics to go on, etc. She's tiny, but dynamic!

Anyway, I think we could all do worse than to heed Elmore Leonard's Rules of Writing. I've shamelessly lifted them from his blog. The full article is here.


Being a good author is a disappearing act.

By ELMORE LEONARD

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. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, 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 nonfiction. 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 O.K. 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. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

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 to get 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 flavor 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, 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.
Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But 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.
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. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. 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.

I ought to tattoo that last sentence on the back of my hand so it stares up at me while I type. I've got the needles and the ink, but it takes two hands to tattoo...

5 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

I will share one of my reading weirdities, which contradicts rule 10. (For me, at least.) I often skip dialogue. Real life conversations are often redundent and boring, and many writers are "too" accurate in their dialogue. Unless the dialogue zings and is given only a few lines at a time I leap right over it to the action. Nothing puts me off faster than a couple of pages of pure dialogue.

I also like description, although only if we're talking about unusual environments. I don't want detailed descriptions of a mall, or an office suite, or an automobile. But I like SF and fantasy and appreciate the world descriptions very much.

I think Leonard is right, though, in that most people skip the descriptions to get to the dialogue. In that way I'm different from the average reader. I do, however, quite often appreciate the invisible writer who gets on with the story and doesn't put himself or herself up front.

Kate S said...

Sigh... She suddenly discovered she's a perpetrator of hooptedoodle.

And yet... (my love affair with "suddenly" aside) whenever I've been brief with descriptions, used "generic" speech rather than regional dialect, or just used plain old "said" consistently - people complain there's no flavor or that it's not realistic.

Ok, whatever.

Steve said...

Hi Kate, don't feel bad. James Lee Burke is bloody fantastic, and his work's full of hooptedoodle, regional dialect and scenic descriptions. It's all in how he handles it.

Actually Charles, in SF/F I'm right there with you. Leonard writes crime, where the world is enough like our own that we all know what malls and office look like. SF/F is a ticket to wildly different world, and *that's* what's exciting there.

Steve said...

Just saw this on Dave Sim's blog, and it made me think of SF dialogue.

"That might explain my favourite Harrison Ford quote where he said that George Lucas should be tied to a chair and forced to read his own dialogue out loud."

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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