What did I learn from him? I can’t do better than quote Leonard, whose 10 RULES FOR WRITING will be touted a lot this week.
1. Never open a book with weather.
He qualified this by adding something like, unless you’re very good at it. I’ve never done it, so I suppose I felt I had nothing original to say weather-wise.
2. Avoid prologues.
I have only one published book (CHOICES, a mainstream novel) with a Prologue, and I considered it necessary at the time and still do. I started a few other books with prologues but soon decided they were unnecessary and eliminated them.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
I think we’re allowed to use “asked” if appropriate, but I once read a book that used “opined” and nearly gagged. These days I hardly use “said,” preferring to indicate who’s speaking by putting action in the same paragraph.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
My writers’ group used to play a game called “Tom Swifties,” in which we tried to come up with the worst combinations, like Leonard’s “he admonished gravely.” Or, “‘I’ve struck oil,’ said Tom crudely.” Thanks to my computer’s Search feature, I can find and remove any unnecessary words ending in “ly.”
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
I admit I was guilty of using too many until Leonard advised no more than one per 100,000 words.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
I’ve seldom used the former and never the latter, and, thanks to Leonard, now I never will.
7. Use regional dialogue, patois, sparingly.
I guess I’ve always been too lazy to try to describe speech phonetically. Yet, I confess I’ve dropped a final “g” sometimes.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Leonard allows it if you’re really good. Trying to bring my characters to life without much description is still a goal I aim for and, I hope, getting better at. In one of my books, I wrote, “His face was plain except he had more than his share of nose.”
9. Don’t go into detail describing places and things.
Another rule you can avoid if you’re really good at that. I try to find a few “telling details.”
In my latest novel, THE ITALIAN JOB, I wrote: “I knew that old hotel. The windows were French doors and led to outside balconies...but the balcony was two stories above the street, too far for jumping, even if I were an Olympic athlete instead of someone whose only exercise is changing the sheets on her bed... However, the next balcony being merely a foot away, I decided to swing over to it, enter the next room by way of that French door and return to the hotel hallway... The next room seemed dark and empty, and I reasoned that even if someone were staying there, chances were slim it would be another man bent on hanky-panky.”
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
In my opinion, he means big blocks of description or narration. Readers prefer dialogue and, fortunately, people tell me I write good dialogue, so I use a lot of it.
Finally, Elmore Leonard is supposed to have said, “If it sounds ‘writerly,’ I rewrite it.”
I take that to mean things like purple prose, too much description and similes and metaphors that sound like the writer was trying too hard to impress someone.
Santa Barbara Writers Conference
CHOICES by Phyll Ashworth