Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules of Writing”

Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules of Writing”

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The late Elmore Leonard ( October 11, 1925 – August 20, 2013) once wrote a brief article where he laid out the ten commandments on writing, infused with his signature blend of humor, humility, and uncompromising discernment. It’s good, a little heavy in some areas. He hates adverbs with as much passion as Stephen King.

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. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2 Avoid prologues.

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

3 Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” …

…he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

5 Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6 Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

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. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants, what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

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

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

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

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

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

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

Advice from Stephen King

Advice from Stephen King

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Here’s a list of some advice from the master of horror himself Stephen King. He writes like a machine. Definitely, someone to listen to. It all comes down to one thing though, write, write and write some more. Practice makes perfect and I really need to practice harder.

If you don’t succeed, get a bigger nail.

This advice comes from the huge number of rejection letters that Stephen King got, the idea was he had so many pinned on a nail in his wall that eventually it fell loose. So he got a bigger nail and kept going. 

Write 6 pages a day.

In his autobiography, Stephen King says something similar he also says he will “permit” a starting writer to start with a mere 1000 words a day. I think this is worth trying but man I bet George R. R. Martin would have apoplexy if he got told this. 

Go where the story takes you. 

As a self-proclaimed pantser this is very Stephen King. He doesn’t believe in plotting everything. There’s no way to be sure which I should do, but I have found planning very hard. Perhaps I should just write.  

The good ideas will stick with you.

Seems like good advice. If you write 6 pages of content every day, there are sure to be good ideas that you can file away for later. 

First, you read and copy other writers, then little by little you develop your style

I’m trying this with good dialogue, literally copying out conversations that I loved. It’s also true that I can hear when the language becomes too much. Writing dialogue is really hard. 

Writing is self-hypnosis, you need to have a routine. 

Christ, I need a routine in everything. My life is a mess. I have no good sleep or waking pattern. I need a new flat, with at least doors. I need a space where I can write and be on my own occasionally. 

Start with short stories and let them develop into novels or screenplays.

Okay, good news. This I can do. Hell, this I want to do, I am more interested in finding out that there are no large websites for short story collaboration, etc. There is https://theshortstory.co.uk/ but it has more broken links and doesn’t seem to work

Learn to write for different mediums. 

I think I’ll start by getting good at just writing in the first place. 

Look for ideas that you would really enjoy writing for longer periods. 

This all comes back to me needing to write more and more and find what I enjoy. I wrote a lot of stuff that never gets put out there. 

Get immersed in your writing process until the outside world is gone. 

Easy to say, hard to do in a single room flat where I work, sleep, eat and cook.

Force Multipliers – Studying things that make a difference

Force Multipliers – Studying things that make a difference

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Right now, I’m busy studying to find out what to do with my life since losing my business. It’s been a tough year with losses in my family and a radical shift from the future I expected. Force multipliers are something I have been reading a lot about, and it’s interesting to read up on how focusing on key points has a dramatic effect on over just wide and shallow studying.

For example, reading every AWS digital course as I am right now has given me a wide shallow view of what AWS has to offer for customers, developers, and businesses in the cloud; that’s not a bad thing, mind you. It’s a good idea to have a high altitude view of the area before focusing on anything in particular. If you have no idea what’s available, how can you find what’s important?

So what force multipliers exist or are suggested, well there are a few I’m come across that make some sense to me and I’ll share them below.

Touch Typing

I’m pretty sure this is a universally useful skill for any person living in the western world today. The ability to type fast and smoothly on a computer is a ubiquitous force multiplier for any professional in the 21st century. As a programmer and someone who grew up with a keyboard, it shocks me how many people don’t practice this. I have recently started retraining my skills using the website: https://www.typingclub.com/

I was shocked at how slow I had become (40 wpm) and the number of mistakes I made while typing, so I started almost from scratch. The ability to type fast and accurately will help me with; creative writing, programming, writing emails, writing documentation, etc. The list is nearly endless. While speeding up your writing speed by just a few words per second seems on the surface trivial, we can multiply it by the number of seconds, minutes, and hours we save every week from that minor increase.

If I double my typing speed and have a 95% or more accuracy, I would be, theoretically, able to do double the writing, double the coding, or double the draft rewrites than before. This is what it means to be a force multiplier, a skill that impacts multiple fields and skills in your life in a single blow.

Grammar, punctuation, and tenses

Okay, so as an English teacher for 10 years you might assume that this is a given. I should have mastered every tense, comma and semi-colon while teaching. This is partially accurate. I have improved my tenses and writing skills no doubt. But there’s a big difference between teaching English to foreigners and using it well for native readers. The best way to construct a paragraph and how to express myself whether in technical writing or in creative writing, avoiding the passive voice or using the oxford comma are less important for somebody trying to decide between “I have saw” and “I have seen”.

Again, the ability to write clearly punctuated, well-formed sentences and paragraphs on the first try will help anyone reduce the time they spend on any work they do. Also, beyond the tenses and grammar, there is knowing what is appropriate for the audience and material at hand. The use of the passive voice in creative writing or one’s C.V. is a terrible idea. When writing a technical how-to document, it can be perfectly acceptable.

writer working on typewriter in office

“The use of the passive voice in creative writing or one’s C.V. is a terrible idea. When writing a technical how-to document, it can be perfectly acceptable.”

Mathematics and programming

As force multipliers and studying go, nothing is probably more powerful than Maths. This is painful because Mathematics and I would not be considered friends. But there is simply no doubt that having a good grounding in maths will help you in way too many domains to be ignored. To this end, much like with touch-typing, I am working on this using online resources mainly the incredible https://www.khanacademy.org/

Not much to explain here, it’s just something that I need to find a better approach to and master. Whatever field of programming or software I want to dive into Mathematics will be a force multiplier in that, my finances, my loans, everything.

Maths confused

Cross the X and Y carry the Z and add 人 now?!

Programming is something I have studied a lot but not in the depth and breadth I could have. I need to go back to fundamentals like maths and work my way back to a better level. I have time; I have the capacity I need to study the fundamentals again. Learning AWS, cloud services, SaaS, PaaS, IoT, and other projects will definitely put me back on track. Still, I think revisiting computer science theory such as OOP, and other skills is necessary.

Talking of science…

Once I’ve cleared the maths cobwebs from my brains, science is another keystone and force multiplier in all its glory, physics, chemistry, and biology. It depends on what I want to do with my life as to how much and what to study. I find space endlessly fascinating and space exploration, so Physics and Chemistry seem a no-brainer. One step at a time, I’m practicing writing 500 words a day and touch typing; I’ll start to do Mathematics once or twice a week and programming every day. I’ll need to get some clear goals in mind. I don’t need to master these things; just raising my awareness to pick a path to focus on.

The other big one of course is exercise and health, I’ll speak about that in another post. But being healthy, fit and being in a good condition is just as important.

116

Reading Time: 2 minutesWhat methods of teaching will be employed?

There are various themes in pedagogy that cater to different types of learner so classes should do their best to reflect these types in the classroom.

There should be a division between lectures and seminars/lab work, or theory and practice/debate. This means information is distributed en mass initally and the discussed in smaller groups for clarification.

As stated earlier (e8) students who are proficient in a topic, mitosis for example, should be able to help assist teaching those of a lower level covering that subject. By explaining a topic one comes to understand it better.

Each high level student will have a mentor he can refer or defer to in times of need and have dialogues with. A mentor must be at least a number of grades above the student.

E-learning will be progressively worked on as will videos created to explain all topics in the subject, complete with questions to assess comprehension and open questions that students might consider writing experiments for, contemplate on or engage in dialogue about.

New methodologies of teaching should constantly be assessed and debated. Also all new members should have some exposure to teaching seminars and lectures [not just participating].

[Note: In the years since I’ve written this the rise of MOOC’s and available resources for learning everything from code to languages has exploded across the internet, in this case these give the community nearly all the material required to created an extremely nuanced hierarchy of grades without lifting a finger. However, all free open projects should be given as much support as possible via the community to continually help and improve their services. I know these initial thoughts were written on buses and trains around town, each one of them could be the basis of whole books in themselves, however the good news is there is a huge wellspring of available resources now to help any community member learn an incredible amount even if they are the first in the community to express an interest in the field.]

 

112

Reading Time: 2 minutesWhat types of research will the community endorse?

As long as the research does not go against the ethical oath [e57] of the community it should be allowed. Initially there will be limitations of scale and time constraints, represented disciplines e.t.c. But personal research should be given as much autonomy as possible. When it comes to resource usage, available equipment or problems of costs, there must be a meeting with the head of the relevant departments to request a loan, grant or new equipment. A project requirements document is needed [e62]. Conversely while projects can be endorsed that tackle similar subjects there is a focus on collaboration, so having 3 people doing the same thing seems like a waste. There should be a clear database of projects that are currently in progress to avoid such problems (or at least a list of projects internal to the country not including others).

[note: Massive projects and subjects require hundreds of concurrent teams collaborating, projects can also be approached from a number of novel angles. We could take cancer cure research or A.I as two examples where there are a vast variety of methods being applied to try and discover the best way to solve the problem. Similarly pure research into subjects such as climate change have thousands of teams researching a whole host of elements, while two teams doing precisely the same thing is not useful (unless of course there are multiple teams working on replicating research for peer review) there are a number of reasons that multiple avenues of research may run in parallel.

The database of current projects though is a great idea, more than this a list of potential project or research ideas could be added to the list allowing people to browse research that is considered open for review or investigation.]