Dan Goodman's prediction and politics journal.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

"There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." W. Somerset Maugham.

Elmore Leonard's rules on writing are being discussed in several people's LiveJournals. Here's what I have to say:

"Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle By ELMORE LEONARD"
"These are rules I've picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I'm writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what's taking place in the story."

If invisibility is what he's after, he's a failure. What Elmore Leonard chooses to show, and how he chooses to show it, make him visible to me. (Or make an authorial persona visible to me.) Not only is Leonard visible to me in his fiction; he's more visible than John D. McDonald is in the Travis McGee novels, with their detailed description.

"1. Never open a book with weather.

"If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people."

I would say "If it doesn't advance the story, leave it out -- wherever it is in the novel. If it advances the story, keep it in."

And: Sometimes the weather is the protagonist, as in George R. Stewart's _Storm_.

"2. Avoid prologues."

Agreed in most cases.

"3. Never use a verb other than ''said'' to carry dialogue."

Unless it's needed. Example: "We must all be very quiet," he screamed.

"4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb 'said'"

Exception "We're going to die slowly and painfully," he said happily.

"5. Keep your exclamation points under control."

"6. Never use the words 'suddenly' or 'all hell broke loose.'"

"7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

"Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won't be able to stop."

I would add other reasons: a) You don't know what your own dialect sounds like to the reader, or to a trained listener.

b) Unless you've been trained, you don't know what other dialects sound like. To begin with, they may include sounds which you literally can't hear; r-sounds where your dialect doesn't have them, for example. Or vowel distinctions; if "Aaron" and "Erin" sound the same to you, you'll have trouble hearing the difference in another dialect.

"8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters."

Unless it advances the story. Or it's in character for the narrator -- viewpoint character in first person, implied narrator in third person or second person. Or it's needed to show how a particular character sees that other person.

Oh -- or unless that's what the readers want.

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

See above.

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

Ah, but which parts are those? I happily read what some other people skip, and vice versa.

"...I'll bet you don't skip dialogue."

Logically, this leads to writing book-length fiction entirely in dialog. I've started such books; I haven't finished them: Virginia Woolf, _The Waves_. Leonard Wibberly's _One in Four_ may not count: it's one long speech; two characters play pingpong with different segments of the speech.

"My most important rule is one that sums up the 10."

"If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

Probably useful in most cases. But not if it's _supposed_ to sound like writing. Some viewpoint characters and implied narrators do sound that way. Others don't when they speak, but do when they write.

email Dan Goodman
All comments assumed to be for publication, unless I'm told otherwise.
Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?