Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Elmore Leonard and the 10 Rules

I love Elmore Leonard’s books. I write characters who cross ethical lines, but no one has written more books with questionable characters than Mr. Leonard. In some, you can’t tell the good guys from the bad. Over twenty of his novels have been made into movies, and more people found his books through the TV show Justified. His 10 Rules of Writing is well known among writers. I decided to see how they applied to my own writing, remembering that since I’m self-published, I have no masters but my readers.

My rule is never to follow religiously anyone’s Never Rules. For that reason―and I say this fully aware that people will think I have a lot of nerve to question a master of crime fiction―I don’t agree with most of Mr. Leonard’s rules. Why? They don’t take into account the specifics of the story. Now I realize these are generalities, but Leonard writes them as if they’re the Ten Commandments. I’ll take them one by one.

1. Never open a book with weather.

Storms, hurricanes, blizzards, floods can be the antagonists in a story. They can set the conflict on the first page. Now, if a character wakes up―worse if he’s waking from a dream―and the rain is pouring down, we have a different situation.

2. Avoid prologues.

Most writers won’t use prologues because agents and editors have told them not to. Writers get around this by calling prologues Chapter One or heading them with a date. Time shifts are perfect reasons for prologues. If I need one, I wouldn’t hesitate to call it a prologue. Star writers use prologues all the time, but they have a different set of rules called ― No Rules.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

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

3 & 4 together: Said is a perfectly anonymous attribution, which is the point. BUT, though I hate said with an adverb, what’s wrong with someone whispering or muttering? Yelled? Whimpered? Interesting that Leonard’s example, “admonished gravely,” is one where the word gravely is superfluous. If he had used “he said,” it wouldn’t have the same impact as the words “he admonished.” So is he breaking his own rule?

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

I rarely use exclamation points: them because they’re distracting, but 3 or 4 in a 100K book? Hmm, okay.

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

I agree with Suddenly. There are other ways to say the same thing, and “All hell broke loose” is an obvious cliché. So I agree there too.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Setting the tone so that the reader hears the dialect, whether it’s written or not, is tricky. I’ve done it, but mostly I used grammar, if possible. I do have a stutterer in one book, and I did show the stutter in moderation. No one’s complained about it being a distraction. I also dropped the g in an ing ending for one character to …in’. The problem with this is once you do it, you’re required to do it throughout the book.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

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

I bet a lot of writers disagree with numbers 8 & 9. This is one place where the story dictates how much description we use. Many times, less is more. Other times, more is necessary. Readers want to “see” our characters, feel the setting. If either goes on too long, you’ve lost them. The trick again, moderation.
 
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

This one is my personal favorite. Applying it to numbers 8 & 9, you can see how a reader might skip pages of description. I’ve done it.

Leonard is all about dialogue, and in the hands of a good writer, dialogue is the key. Personally, I wish I knew which parts of my books readers skip — maybe a sex scene I feel is intrinsic to the story. One thing is sure: if I’m bored with a scene in my book, readers will be too. I might not want to acknowledge that boredom at first, but I’ll eventually go back and delete. Sometimes this falls under the “kill your darlings” column. You know, those passages you love but really need to go.

So, what do y’all think? (Notice my dialect.) How do you feel about rules when writing? Do you follow them or break them? Me? I think rules are meant to be broken, but since I’m self-published, with no masters but my readers, I can do what seems right to me.


Polly Iyer is the author of seven novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and three books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, and Backlash. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

26 comments :

  1. To break the rules effectively, you need to know the rules--and on some level, your reader needs to realize you know them. This transports that break from an error to an intentional element of the story. It adds character, personality, twist, etc., that individualizes your work and makes your book memorable. Who doesn't want that?

    As for Leonard's rules, I find them inhibiting to story development. If I need to get where I'm going by using the monkey bars, don't tie my hands behind my back. :-)

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    1. I couldn't agree more, Linda. Those are Leonard's rules, and he has every right to make them, for him. But, as I said, I also find them inhibiting. One writer's rules is another writer's downfall. My rules are dictated by the story.

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  2. I agree (in moderation) with all but 8 & 9. Description done well is icing on the story cake.

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    1. Totally agree. I did have one reviewer say that she loved that I didn't describe every detail, including my character's nail polish color. Description can be extensive or minimal, depending, but I as a reader like to have an idea of what my characters look like and how the scene is set. Too much is too much, and not enough leaves the reader wanting more. The trick is not to make them stop reading.

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  3. Polly, I agree with you and as you probably know I'm self-published, too, and happy about it. I try to write the best book I can, but I know I won't please everyone, but I am getting a following, albeit so far a small one, but having a following at all pleases me.

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  4. I think writing the best book we can says it all, no matter the rules. Thanks for stopping by, Gloria.

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  5. I love prologues - we could do an entire series refuting and why, couldn't we? Great post!

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    1. Thanks, Dani. I wish people wrote their books the way they're supposed to be written instead of listening to the dos and don'ts. Calling your prologue Chapter One doesn't fool anyone.

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  6. Whenever I'm giving a workshop on writing or editing, I always start with the disclaimer that what I'm going to present is what works for me. Take what you think might work for you, and ignore the rest. Just please don't snore while napping. :-)

    I think other writers, like Leonard, probably have that disclaimer in the back of their minds, they just don't put it on paper when they write their "rules" books. Much of what he suggests in these ten rules works for me. Describing settings and characters should not be done like making a grocery list: brown hair, blue eyes, wearing a red polo shirt.... You get the point. Too often a new writer will stop the story to give several paragraphs of description details, and that is not the best way.

    As far as dialect, that can be taken to extreme when fracturing English words to do southern or Hispanic or Asian. Dropping the 'g' from the ing words can be a challenge, so I opt for not doing it when my Texas characters speak. I try really hard to get the soft southern drawl rhythm in the speech, and sprinkle in a few idioms unique to Texas, and that is much easier to keep track of than whether I was consistent in dropping the "g".

    Of course, as my disclaimer says, that's what works for me, and my suggestions are not cast in stone.

    Good post, Polly, and it has certainly made us stop and think about how we use craft.

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    1. Thanks, Maryann. I think dialect is definitely tricky. My character wasn't the main character, and I suppose I could have skipped the in' gimmick and just gone with the bad grammar. It's in one of my first books, and I've learned a lot since then, though I did go with the stutter. That was a book I'd written a long time ago, and I did remove most of the repetition. See? I learned. Thanks for the important comment.

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  7. Leonard is one of my main dudes ... author-wise ... so, when Sir Elmore speaks (even posthumously), I listen ... however, I'd add an 11th rule: never follow another writer's rules verbatim ... even the man's.

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    1. Exactly, Christopher. He's one of my favorites too, and I said pretty much the same thing. We should make our own rules, just like he did.

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  8. Love Elmore Leonard. And I love your comment above that we should make our own rules. I agree with Maryanne--I think his "rules" were what worked for him, and his audience was more than likely newer writers. I've found that most writers who stick to the rules, whatever they are, aren't yet confident of their craft. Give 'em some time, though, and they'll be breakin' rules left and right :-)

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    1. I guess when you're Elmore Leonard, you can make any rules you want and break your own rules. I agree, Daphne, that the longer you write, the more "rules" you break. I remember when teachers marked you off for fragment sentences. Well, that certainly isn't the case now. Someone broke that rule first. Thanks for your comment.

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  9. I love these "rules" as much for their advice as for what they make you do ... think. What works, works, but it works for each individual, and each book. Although I do wish I knew what parts of my books readers skip. (And I'll bet it's not the same part for every reader.)

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    1. Exactly, Terry. I said the same thing about wanting to know which parts my readers skip. I do think. I think just before I break a rule that I love breaking rules.

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    2. I'm with Terry on this one. I read the original iteration of these rules, in a New York Times feature, where Leonard approached the whole matter kind of tongue in cheek. He thought about what he does, then made up the "rules" afterward, to reflect his style. Note the disclaimers to most of them. ("Unless you're [insert author here], who can do [insert talent].

      Terry mentions the key: they make you think. When I break one of his rules, I never do it out of ignorance; I had a reason. He also captures the golden rule all writers should understand: leave out the parts people tend to skip.

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    3. As long as people don't apply the rules as gospel, Dana. That comes when we're more secure in our own writing.

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  10. I agree with just about everything you've said, Polly. The number one rule is--no rules. I must give deference to those writing greats who have created their own categories and yet rules are meant to be broken. Writing should be foremost about good communication. Nothing drives me more nuts than having a character ask a question and not feeling as though you can write, "he asked." It is ridiculous. I have a hard time describing sound in writing. Writing visuals seems easier. I'm an auditory learner so I'm very attuned to sound. I used the word "snuffle" in a short story I wrote and just about every reviewer didn't like that word! I was miffed. It perfectly described the sound a character made. No one heard or appreciated it but me! I changed it, but I wanted to flog someone.

    Sorry I went off--Nice post, Polly. Gutsy taking on Elmore!

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    1. Elaine, I'd snuffle. In fact I've used it. Okay, it was a dog, but he snuffled. We do get insecure when people call attention to certain things we want to do and that they don't like. Sometimes it's hard to fight the wave and stick up for what we want. My "rule" is if more than 350 people don't like something, I'll take it out. Just kidding, but it depends how much you like whatever's questionable. It's your book. That's what I say and I'm sticking to it. Good observation about auditory as opposed to visual. I agree that sounds are given short shrift. Thanks for commenting.

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  11. Hi Polly - I did a similar post once, but I really really hate most of these rules and break most of them constantly. Except for trying to leave out the boring bits.

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    1. It's funny, Yves, how that last one is the one everybody loves. The others are from an author at the top of his game making rules only he wants to follow. Those who follow just because Leonard says so will learn. DV is right. They're probably new writers. Thanks for your comment.

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  12. Editors are always telling me to cut my descriptions of food, but I think what a person eats tells you so much about them--and whether or not they cook matters.
    My 2 seconds near greatness--I once talked to Leonard (know in the western writing world as Dutch) on the phone. Turned out he was getting married that day. Can't remember what the call was about. I probably know his western work better than his crime fiction.

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    1. Judy, that's so cool. I've read that was his nickname. There are YouTube videos of interviews with him. He's had many westerns made into movies, along with his crime fiction. Such a talent. What I loved is those ethical lines his characters crossed. Good guys or bad guys?

      As for food, I read that every book should have the description of a meal. I have two such scenes in Mind Games where I do go on about the dinners. Like everything else, if the scene demands it, why not?

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  13. Late to the party, as usual. I'm a believer in breaking the rules, except when they make good sense, as these do. Not saying I keep all the rules, just that I stick to a system when it makes sense to.

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  14. I'm assuming you mean my interpretation makes good sense. :-) Rules shouldn't be followed without thinking. So I agree.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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