Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules for Writing

New broke this morning of Elmore Leonard's passing, at age 87, after a few weeks recovering from a stroke. I have to admit as someone who's new to the world of crime fiction, I've never read any of his work. I am almost ashamed to admit it, reading all the great stuff people are saying this morning. But I've long known his name, since my dad has been an avid crime reader since long before I was born. Elmore Leonard

And his 10 Rules for Writing sound quite similar to Stephen King's basic guidelines. So much so, I'm thinking he drew a lot of inspiration from them when crafting his own.

I'll pick up some Leonard very soon. In the meantime, I'm enjoying these pithy reminders. (The first one, I'm definitely guilty!)

  1.  Never open a book with weather.
  2.  Avoid prologues.
  3.  Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
  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.

* Excerpted from the New York Times article, “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle”

"For me, the plot is the least intriguing part of a book" - and other thoughts on the process of writing

The first draftWriters want to hear about how other writers do it. It's something a writer can't help but seek, especially if they are feeling like they've been writing utter crap and are having a moment of despair that the project will never be completed -- or worse, we'll get to the end but it's a terrible mess with no hope of becoming anything worth reading, ever. All writers have these moments, at least, I hope and think they do. I have been reading Gillian Flynn's book Gone Girl for my book club this month, and her beautiful character development and intriguing story have me internally weeping over their beauty, and despairing because I feel like what I'm writing is crap comparatively. Though I often remind myself (crucially) that I'm reading final drafts, published works, while what I'm working on is a first draft.

But I still found myself compelled to Google "Gillian Flynn writing technique," just to see if she's ever spilled any information on how she does this thing called writing. And she has. And she has reassured me gloriously with her answer.

Parenthetically, I love this statement below, as I also feel like the most compelling stories are about characters, people, who find themselves caught in circumstances that have gone entirely beyond their control, and how they do or don't get themselves out of it drives the rest of their story. This is true for books and films and television -- I'm a sucker for a good story told in any medium.

[quote cite="Gillian Flynn, How I write" url="http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/11/21/gillian-flynn-how-i-write.html"]

What scares you in a good book? It seems that it takes more to sustain thrills, in this age of film, Internet, and quick-cut editing.

I’m old-fashioned. The stuff I love isn’t about gotcha scares, and gore doesn’t frighten me much either. It’s that sense of dread, and the sense that characters have gotten swept up in a current they can’t control, leading them toward something awful and dark. It’s why I love Scott Smith’s books, and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, and Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby. That sense of inevitable doom.


Yes, yes, yes! This is why I love the flailing, seedy, faltering, despicable Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) in FargoHis descent into events out of his control, but which he triggered, is absolutely brilliant storytelling. Actually, the same can be said of Ed Crane's (Billy Bob Thorton) experience in The Man Who Wasn't There, and The Dude's (Jeff Bridges) inclusion into events beyond his control in The Big Lebowskiand the role every single character plays in the spiraling tale of tragedy and comedy that occurs in Burn After Reading -- a most brilliant tale about a bunch of terrible things that arise from an inconsequential event: John Malcovich's wife forgetting her bag at the gym. (Ok, obviously I have an admiration of the Coen brothers. But they have mastered this exploration of "man in circumstances beyond his control, flails, kills, runs, fights back, etc.)

And of course, any novelist needs to know the method of other successful authors, of whether they write with the end-point in mind, the plot in their head, or just from a situation, and then see how the characters act and react until, voila!, a novel is writ. Again, massive relief in her comments on the craft.

[quote cite="Gillian Flynn, How I write" url="http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/11/21/gillian-flynn-how-i-write.html"]

Do you like to map out your fiction plots ahead of time, or just let it flow?

I let it flow, although that makes it sound more jazzy and less despairing than the actual process often is for me. I wish I could plot more efficiently or stick to an outline, but I just can’t. Partly it’s because, for me, the plot is the least intriguing part of a book. I start writing because of certain characters or themes or events I want to explore, but I’m often not sure what form that will take. So I do float along a bit. I probably write two novels for every one I end up with—lots of deleted scenes as I try to figure out what it is I’m really interested in, what it is I’m actually writing.


And of course, the blessed reassurance that we all must plea with ourselves, like we're some unwieldy force that cannot ever simply sit, and write, without being coerced. As if this was something we were doing by force rather than by choice. Nope, even when I am so compelled to put words down on paper [word processor], I still need lots of self-control and personal incentives to actually do it, day after day. It is such, such an active process. There is absolutely nothing passive about writing a story.

[quote cite="Gillian Flynn, How I write" url="http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/11/21/gillian-flynn-how-i-write.html"]

Describe your morning routine.

Drink half a pot of coffee. Go downstairs to my basement writing lair. Sit myself in my chair and threaten myself like a recalcitrant child: you will sit in this chair and you will not move until you get this scene written, missy. Get the caffeine shakes. Regret drinking so much coffee. Finish writing the scene. Reward myself with a game or eight of Galaga.


Keep writing, keep writing. The first draft of anything is shit. It's ok. Just keep writing.

[quote cite="Gillian Flynn, How I write" url="http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/11/21/gillian-flynn-how-i-write.html"]

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Read all the time and keep writing. There are a million talented writers out there who are unpublished only because they stop writing when it gets hard. Don’t do that— keep writing.


"If I was noticing, then I was working." I am working.

This describes so perfectly how I approach this time in my life. One writer to others, young: [quote cite="George Saunders" url="http://writeliving.wordpress.com/2012/12/02/writeliving-interview-george-saunders/"]

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?
Although it can be really hard to be a young writer, I’d advise trying not to think in terms of “overcoming adversity” but, rather, trying to use those experiences to train oneself in learning to think like a writer.  So, I can remember times when I found myself in a strange or difficult or even somewhat degrading work situation, and writing was miles away – but I always felt (or tried to feel) like if I was noticing, then I was working.   That is, the young writer can do a little mental switch, and think: “Ah, so this too is part of America,” or “So this too is part of life – these feelings that I’m having and all of these physical details I’m seeing around me, and the reactions of the other people in this situation – are all interesting.”  Not easy to think that way, but if you can nurture that tendency in yourself, it becomes a sort of armor.


From the blog Writeliving.

Stephen King and Tina Fey both also talk about jobs in their early adulthood and the impact it's had on their perspective as a writer.

I am using all of these experiences, storing it in my brain, making meaning. It'll come out in my words someday.