Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Learning How to Write by Breaking Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules


Elmore Leonard died Tuesday, and most of the book bloggers I read are reeling from the news. The Rap Sheet has collected several links that give a good and diverse overview of what he meant to the reading and writing community. Nick Jones at Existential Ennui was right in the middle of a string of Leonard reviews the last few weeks, and he’s been giving me advice on where to start in tackling the pile of his books I have accumulated. I regret that I didn’t read more while he was around for me to appreciate.
Elmore Leonard's best advice. (Poster via Graeme Shimmin)

Satirical news outlet The Onion reported Leonard’s death with this headline: 

Elmore Leonard, Modern Prose Master, Noted For His Terse Prose Style And For Writing About Things Perfectly And Succinctly With A Remarkable Economy Of Words, Unfortunately And Sadly Expired This Gloomy Tuesday At The Age Of 87 Years Old

I was a little shocked at first, but I think the headline is a good tribute to Leonard in the only way a humor site could create one. The excessive prose illuminates just what was so great about his writing, by doing its opposite.

Leonard’s ten rules for writing appeared in The New York Times more than a decade ago, and they’re being highly circulated again. They’re worth a read for any writer, and as The Onion has figured out, they’re more a list of what not to do than what to do. (For more on what to do, read some of Elmore Leonard’s novels.)

I once used Leonard’s rules as a writing exercise, though I didn’t know I was doing it at the time. I thought I was just entering an offbeat contest (the type of which I am so fond). The contest, posted in a Canadian newspaper, asked for readers to submit a single sentence that broke as many of Leonard’s rules as possible. I never saw a list of finalists, so I don’t know if the contest ever resolved itself, but I entered, with this:

Prologue: “Rain shore is a-comin’ down,” the flaxen-haired and freckle-nosed outlaw cowgirl exhorted breathlessly, when suddenly her tempestuous eyes spotted the rain-soaked but square-jawed and handsome sheriff in well-fitting leather chaps riding his chestnut horse up the wet, grassy, rock-strewn hill with his brightly polished badge gleaming through the drizzle, and a soggy warrant in his calloused, manly hands!!!

That should be all ten rules, fudging a little on number ten, though I strongly believe no one would want to read any of what I wrote, so I think it counts. Here’s a broken down version, with Leonard’s rules spliced in:


Prologue: [2. Avoid prologues.] “Rain [1. Never open a book with weather.] shore is a-comin’ down,” [7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.] the flaxen-haired and freckle-nosed outlaw cowgirl exhorted [3. Never use a verb other than ''said'' to carry dialogue.] breathlessly [4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ''said'], when suddenly 6. Never use the words ''suddenly'' or ''all hell broke loose.''] her tempestuous eyes spotted the rain-soaked but square-jawed and handsome sheriff in well-fitting leather chaps [8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.] riding his chestnut horse up the wet, grassy, rock-strewn hill [9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.] with his brightly polished badge gleaming through the drizzle, and a soggy warrant in his calloused, manly hands!!! [5. Keep your exclamation points under control.]

[10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.]

I think it’s interesting to note that some of the phrases I came up with while trying to write poorly on purpose are similar to the style I’ve actually seen in some terrible romance novels. There’s a lot to be learned from intentionally breaking the rules and seeing what a mess the results are.

If you’re the type who likes writing exercises, try it yourself. Break Leonard’s rules. It’s the best way to learn just how right he was.

11 comments:

  1. He may have gotten more mileage out of his TEN RULES than anything else.

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    1. Judging by what's circulating the last few days, it sure seems that way. A blog can't re-post a whole book, though.

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  2. My favorite of the 10 Rules is yep #10.

    For me the sad thing about iconic writers like Leonard is I'll never be able to read all of them.

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    1. You could if you wanted to. It's a matter of choice, I guess. As Harold Bloom said once, we read against mortality. The older we get, the choosier we have to be. I have to face that there are some things I'll just never get to read.

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  3. I recently read a book that had both a prologue and an introduction, and I was tearing my hair out, "Ye gods, why, WHY?!" To my surprise, later on it was a decent book, but it was a hot mess goin' in.

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    1. It's one of those rules that can be broken, of course, if done well. All of his rules can be. I think I see prologues in more crappy books than good ones, though.

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  4. Never read a Leonard book. Not yet. Maybe someday. And maybe someday I'll write a book that starts with weather. I'm fond of weather, I don't care what Leonard says. Maybe someday I'll write a book.

    Lee
    A Faraway View

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    1. Maybe you could write a book about weather. You couldn't be faulted for starting with it, then.

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  5. I wonder what inspired Leonard to create his rules, other than Father Knox's and S.S. Van Dyne's rules for detective stories, to crystallize all that common sense into a list. He's almost always right, though he could have added an eleventh rule: If you do write a prologue, don't set it in italic type.

    That obit of Leonard, because it was so obvious, may be the only unfunny piece the Onion has ever published.
    ==========================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com

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    1. >That obit of Leonard, because it was so obvious, may be the only unfunny piece the Onion has ever published.

      It's so unfunny that that's why, on second thought, I decide someone meant it in tribute. In order for it to even BE in The Onion, it had to framed as a joke in some way.

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  6. Of course it was a tribute. The conception was funny, but the execution was not. It was not a piece of writing, it was a first sketch for a piece of writing.

    A neat trick would have been to violate Leonard's rules and still write something readable.

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