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Guest Post for invited author Gary Guinn by author Daisy Mae
Leonard’s rules display both his unsparing belief in minimalist writing and his sense of humor. There will, of course, be readers who disagree with him because they like some of the very things he disparages—opening a book with weather, prologues, detailed descriptions, and so forth. As the old saying goes, “There is no arguing tastes.” Whether you like Leonard’s hard-boiled fiction or not, it’s clear that he is a stylistic purist. I’d love to spend time on each of his rules, but for the sake of brevity I’ll limit my responses to the I find most interesting.
First, my favorite: Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
This one is pure gold. Said and only said. I guess you might need an occasional yelled or whispered to cover the extremes. Some people insist on using the verb asked when attributing a question, but the verb asked seems redundant to me. The spoken passage ends with a question mark, doesn’t it? All the other verbs of attribution people try to conjure up (jabbered, moaned, squawked, squealed, huffed, etc.) make the character seem like an animal in a zoo. What those words attempt to communicate should be communicated by effective narrative context. They tend to appear most commonly in genre fiction, but well-written genre fiction avoids them in the same way literary fiction does.
Second, closely related and as important: Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
Another pure gold piece of advice. Using an adverb (especially any –ly adverb, such as fondly, soothingly, angrily, etc.) is simply cheating on the first rule given above, and, from a literal point of view, is usually either redundant or inaccurate. An example: “‘Baloney!’ he said emphatically.” The word emphatically is simply redundant and probably insults an intelligent reader. The emphasis in the statement is communicated by the exclamation point and should be communicated by the narrative context even more so.
Third, advice that seems counter-intuitive: Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. And the very similar rule that follows it: Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Frequently, the advice given to beginning writers goes something like this: Give the reader a clear visual image of the setting and characters when they are introduced. Few writers would argue with that advice. And these may be the most difficult of Leonard’s rules to apply. He is certainly not saying that readers don’t need a good image of your setting and characters. But as a minimalist and a purist, he believes that the images should come from brief descriptive elements that distinguish the character (e.g., size, movement, scar, goatee, and so forth) and the place (e.g., lighting, size, clean/dirty, and so forth) and that what a reader sees in a character or setting should come equally from what the character says and does and how he/she responds to the setting. I tend to look at these two rules as an essential part of Leonard’s style but not as defining elements of good or bad writing. All I need to do to prove my point is read Raymond Chandler, an author universally admired. In his classic noir novel The Big Sleep, Chandler copiously breaks these two rules, and does so beautifully, and a couple of the others as well.
And finally, the rule that makes me chuckle: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
If we all knew exactly what part that was, we’d all be great writers, wouldn’t we? Leonard refers generally to those long, dense paragraphs of information that don’t move the story forward. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of reading a novel, coming to one of those paragraphs, and skimming through it, our conscience whispering tut-tut as we do so.
These simple rules from Elmore Leonard can help any writer develop what Martin Amis calls “a prose miraculously purged of all false qualities.” Leonard himself, after offering his rules, says, “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Pretentious, artificial writing, prose that calls attention to the writer instead of the story, is anathema to Leonard. As it should be to us all.
You can find Leonard’s NY Times article about his rules here: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
Sacrificial Lam available at Amazon:
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copyright©GaryGuinn23rd November 2017