Thursday, March 4, 2010

Rules for Writers, from Elmore Leonard and other greats

Later this month, Elmore Leonard's 10 RULES FOR WRITING will be released in the United Kingdom. Leonard is of course considered one of the modern-day doyens of the 'hardboiled' crime genre; the literary successor, so to speak, of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, with a particular knack for gritty realism and crackling dialogue.

The Strand magazine recently announced that it was this year bestowing its Lifetime Achievement Award on Leonard for his huge body of mystery and crime novels which have been translated into dozens of languages and are regulars on the New York Times best-seller lists. When given news of the award, Leonard was reported as saying, “It’s an honor to receive this award from The Strand. I’ve been given awards for books that I’ve written, but I’m pleased to be getting an award for all of my work.”

Leonard's book (which has previously been published in the USA), is based on a piece he wrote for the New York Times in 2001, as part of their Writers on Writing series. That piece was an adaptation of part of a keynote speech Leonard gave at the 31st World Mystery Convention in Denver, in September 2000. On the day of his speech he scribbled down his "10 Rules for Success and Happiness in Writing Fiction".

To celebrate the release of Leonard's book, the Guardian recently included an article collating writing rules from a number of well known writers from a diverse range of genres. The long list of contributors to the article includes: Leonard, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Neil Gaiman, PD James, Hilary Mantel, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, Philip Pullman, Ian Rankin, Zadie Smith, Colm Tóibín, Rose Tremain, Sarah Waters, and 15 others.

I thought I would share a selection of some of the rules, of some of the crime writers in the article, here with you. Leonard's rules you can view here.

In terms of things that can annoy me as a reviewer, I particularly appreciate Leonard's Rules 3 and 4, being:

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 and go to 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".

For me, anything that pulls the reader out of the story is bad, and this includes things that make the reader think about the writing, rather than the story. Good writers should be able to make it clear that the speaker is saying something in a particular way, via the dialogue or surrounding description circumstances, rather than relying on "exclaimed fervently" or "replied vociferously". It's really an extension of the old 'show don't tell'. Don't tell me through the dialogue attribution that the speaker is being fervent or vociferous - show me through good narrative, description, or dialogue.

Legendary British crime writer PD James's rules for writers are as follows:
  1. Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it.
  2. Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.
  3. Don't just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.
  4. Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.
  5. Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other ­people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.
I think these are also pretty good, though writers should be careful with taking the vocabulary one too far - it's great to have more literary weapons at your disposal, but some writers make the mistake of choosing a more unique (or 'bigger') word, believing that gives them style. It can, but sometimes a telling detail or vivid image can be better achieved with simple words, put together in the right way. In my opinion, you want the reader to focus on the story or image, not the words being used to convey it.
Groundbreaking Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin keeps things very short, with his rules being as follows:
  1. Read lots.
  2. Write lots.
  3. Learn to be self-critical.
  4. Learn what criticism to accept.
  5. Be persistent.
  6. Have a story worth telling.
  7. Don't give up.
  8. Know the market.
  9. Get lucky.
  10. Stay lucky
Pithy, but insightful. I particularly like the way he's included the last two, because that does play some part in the success of writers and their books - the publishing world is certainly in no way a pure meritocracy. However writers have certain things in their power, and therefore can work on those. As has been said, you make your own luck. And you won't get 'lucky', when an opportunity arises, unless you're prepared.
You can read all the other writers' rules on writing, here.


  1. Craig - Thanks for passing on these ideas. They are very, very useful rules to keep in mind as one writes...

  2. Rankin's 9 and 10 reminded me that when Napoleon was asked what quality he wanted in his generals 'good luck' was number one.

  3. Elmore Leonard certainly has a point. Still after having seen his rules around in the blogging community for days, I feel like adding my own:

    1. Never include the word never in a rule of writing ;)

    But perhaps that is just because I preferred Donna´s version where she broke all ten rules in one story (humour rules!)