There’s a blog-meme going around about Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing. The Leonard Rules are pithy and fun, but I’ve found the meme oddly boring.
Why? Because everyone’s commentary about writing rules is pretty much the same: “Yes, that’s true, except when it’s not.” Or more detailed (and even more boring): “Following this rule would prevent beginning writers from making common mistakes, but many fine writers have eaten this rule for breakfast and shat gold before lunch.”
(Pardon my French on that last bit, but I spent last week in New Orleans. Mmmm . . . gumbo.)
So I thought I’d move beyond these generic comments and look specifically at how I break the Leonard Rules in my books. With examples!
Let’s start with Leonard’s opening caveat:
These are rules Iâ€™ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when Iâ€™m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell whatâ€™s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.
Of course, most writers who set down rules start with something like, “These may work for you or not.” Well, duh.
But Leonard is saying something much more interesting, that every set of rules has an agenda. That’s the whole point of rules, actually: to ingrain some sort of aesthetic into the style of your prose. Leonard’s rules are designed to allow him to “remain invisible.” That is, he doesn’t want you thinking about the writing or the sound of his voice, just the characters and their situation. This makes sense, given that he’s writing hard-boiled crime fiction, where flights of literary fancy clog up the works.
So one of things I’ll be looking at below is how much I want to remain invisible as a writer. Short answer: I’m not writing tough-talking gumshoe fiction, so I don’t want to be as invisible as Elmore Leonard. But I don’t want to be slathered across every page, either.
Another nice feature of Leonard’s rules is their explanatory notes. These tend to get left out (sort of like that “well ordered militia” bit in the Second Amendment), so I’ve included his clarifications where I think they’re important.
Okay, here we go. Note that bold is Elmore Leonard, italics are quotations from my books, and normal text is me jabbering.
Rule 1. Never open a book with weather.
Hmm . . .
The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit. —Uglies
Yeah, baby! I not only start with the weather; I start quarter-million-word trilogies with the weather. That’s how I roll.
But at least it’s weird weather: cat-vomit clouds! So you can already tell something funny is going on . . . probably in the point-of-view. Or as Elmore goes on to say in a well-armed-militia moment:
If itâ€™s only to create atmosphere, and not a characterâ€™s reaction to the weather, you donâ€™t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.
Aha. And as Uglies continues in paragraph two:
Of course, Tally thought, you’d have to feed your cat only salmon-flavored cat food for a while, to get the pinks right. The scudding clouds did look a bit fishy, rippled into scales by a high-altitude wind. As the light faded, deep blue gaps of night peered through like an upside-down ocean, bottomless and cold.
Any other summer, a sunset like this would have been beautiful. But nothing had been beautiful since Peris turned pretty. Losing your best friend sucks, even if it’s only for three months and two days.
See? I’m not even breaking Rule 1. This cat-vomit sky is in someone’s head; the sky is actually quite beautiful, but Tally’s depression turns it ugly (so to speak).
And to return to Leonard’s overall agenda, starting with this glimpse of the weather through Tally’s eyes is probably more invisible that saying, “Tally was so depressed that the sky looked like cat-spew.”
Although that would have been funny too.
Rule 2. Avoid prologues. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.
Yep, that’s me. I never start my YA books with prologues. I generally start with a big action scene of some kind (crashing a party, fighting a vampire, having time freeze) and then drop back to explain what’s going on during a lull in the action.
Of course, I don’t mind info-dumps, as we call them in science fiction. In fact, the even-numbered chapters in Peeps are all info-dumps. And unless fanmail lies, readers totally love that stuff.
As Leonard goes on to quote John Steinbeck, “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. Thatâ€™s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I donâ€™t have to read it. I donâ€™t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.â€
Aha. That’s pretty much what Peeps does: it has special chapters where the parasite-related hooptedoodle lives. You can skip ahead and read all the parasite-hooptedoodle first, as some readers have told me they did, or skip past the parasite-hooptedoodle and sweep through the story first, as others prefered to do.
But here’s an interesting factoid: When I first turned in Peeps to my editors, the parasite-hooptedoodle chapters and story chapters were reversed from how they are now. That is, the first chapter (and all subsequent odd-numbered chapters) were hooptedoodle-icious. Which meant that the book started with that long description of a snail-eating parasite’s life-cycle: pure hooptedoodle prologue!
Without refrence to Elmore, my wise editors suggested that I swap them around, so that the book started with Cal fighting Sarah, his vampire-afflicted ex-girlfriend. And thus Rule 2 was followed.
It is with these small (but huge) changes that books are made better.
Okay, I’ve gone on a while here, and I’ve certainly typed the word “hooptedoddle” more times than I’d ever hoped to. So I’ll stop for today.
Next time, I’ll do Elmore’s Rules 3 and 4, those old stalwarts: Never use a verb other than â€œsaidâ€ to carry dialogue and Never use an adverb to modify the verb â€œsaid.â€
“Oh, crap,” Scott asseverated wolfishly. “I’m in big trouble now . . . ”
But look over there! It’s the freaky yet colorful eye-stalk of a parasitized snail!
See you next week.