Elmore Leonard, the recently deceased author of 45 novels, including Get Shorty, Hombre, Swag,Raylan, and Glitz (he died at work on his 46th), was reluctant to write about his own writing. But back in 2001 the New York Times convinced him to make a list of his 10 writing rules:
1. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”
Leonard writes that this rule doesn’t even require an explanation.
2. Use regional dialect, patois sparingly.
“Once you start,” writes Leonard, “you won’t be able to stop.”
3. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Leonard cites a Hemingway short story in which the only physical description of a couple introduced as the ”American and the girl with him” is: ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” Enough said.
My main issue with this type of rule list is that it ignores what your audience’s values are, i.e. what they want out of your writing. I’m assuming he’s aiming at the bestseller audience and this list, which is better with a bit of leanness and spareness (fine values). This is a pretty good tool to help authors writing for that audience fine tune their work (that’s another thing - lists like this should be” tools” not rules - these are troubleshooting guides for when what you’ve written comes out reading wrong). If you are trying to write for a mass adult readership, and you just wrote “she retorted soporifically,” this might help.
But this list is kind of bad for literary fiction, where rules could restrict play with language. He namechecks Steinbeck and Hemingway, but what about Faulkner, Mellville, and Joyce who would poop on half these rules each. My top 3 books (Moby Dick, Infinite Jest, and the Sound and the Fury) would be impossible if these were followed.
Do you think JK Rowling could logically follow the adverb or description rules? Not when writing for 12 year olds, she can’t. And prologues have a definite place in fantasy and SF. But the no “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose” rule is always true.
also: I don’t know what he means by use patois sparingly, though. I find quite a bit of that in his writing.
"Suddenly" and "all hell broke loose" have a specific use too, though. They bring a certain cheesiness to your writing, yes - but cheese is often precisely what one is looking for.
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