A few spare tips from Elmore Leonard…

THERE is no shortage of advice for writers or for those having a go. The crime writer Elmore Leonard is a man whose wisdom is often sought.

His tips are good ones. But they are hints for writing like Elmore Leonard. And the person you need to write like is yourself. Having said that, it is always worth listening to Leonard.

His rules were explained in a New York Times article of 2001, headlined: “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.”

I had to look that last word up. It suggests nonsense writing. Leonard didn’t go in for nonsense writing. His writing was spare and he was known sometimes as an “anti-adverb activist”.

Here are his ten rules, followed by another which is far more important…

Never open a book with weather.

Avoid prologues.

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

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.

Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

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

Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

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

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

And once you have absorbed all that, or if those rules seem too much, Leonard has a final piece of advice: “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

That last suggestion is easily the most helpful; and, paradoxically, the most unhelpful. It is helpful because it is true and it works; and unhelpful because it involves crossing out treasured turns of phrase and so on.

Journalists who try their hand at fiction are prone to over-writing. This comes perhaps from years of sitting in an office and reading out favourite attention-grabbing sentences, or from having kindly colleagues admire a sharply placed word. How nice to have your ego polished in this manner; and how obstructive to good writing.

Not everyone wants to write like Elmore Leonard. Literature would be a dull place if all writers followed his rules to the letter. But that one sentence is worth its simple weight: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

That advice has been in my head as I give another edit to a thriller I have been writing for 18 months or so.

I have no deal at present and therefore no deadline. This is a shame on two counts: a new publishing deal would be lovely; and a deadline introduces the necessary impetus to finish (that’s one lesson being a journalist does teach you).

I don’t wish to say anything about the story, other than that it partly concerns a man who escapes a life on benefits by becoming a hit-man. I have been re-reading the book and giving it a careful edit – or crossing stuff out, if you prefer. And it’s noticeable how a paragraph or a whole chapter can read better once you have removed the ‘writing’.

I checked my emails earlier. A link to a blog by Rebecca Bradley had just popped in. Rebecca is a former police officer turned crime writer. In her blog, she writes about writing and interviews other crime writers. Today she asks the Hull writer Nick Quantrill about his revision process.

I read this because I know Nick and because it is always interesting to see how other people edit.

Asked how he approaches this task, Nick says: “Other than whisper a silent prayer and pour a strong coffee? Print it out. I find the act of reading it through, on paper with pen in hand, changes the way it reads to me.”

Good and practical advice. I hate those paper-chewing printers, so usually pay someone to print a basic bound proof. Nick is right: seeing a book on paper does help, even if most of my tinkering is done on the laptop.

Sadly, I spotted a typo in Rebecca’s blog: she refers to “Nick’s first daft Q&A” which I guess is not what she intended.

Then again, I shouldn’t have pointed that out as now there is bound to be one in here somewhere.

With luck, I have crossed out all the writing from this blog. Although some may have sneaked through when I wasn’t paying attention.

One comment

  1. Great blog, Julian. Elmore Leonard’s always worth listening to on writing. I, too, particularly like his eleventh rule. Better go and delete everything I’ve written this week…

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