ELMORE LEONARD’S 10 RULES OF WRITING
I’ve taken this ruthless but fair summary, and drawing, from the fine blog Northern Light by Seán Dodson, but Leonard’s rules themselves were published in his book 10 Rules of Writing, published in 2010 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (in the UK). Sensible rules, but ones that great books, and successful books, have often ignored.
Rule 1: Charles Dickens’ Bleak House famously opens with an inspired description of London’s “implacable November weather". The first chapter of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is itself implacably about the weather, serving notice that it will be a main character in the novel.
Rule 2: William Boyd’s no.1 bestseller (and James Tait Black Memorial Prize winner) Brazzaville Beach has a Prologue. So does Sarah Gruen’s Water For Elephants, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler's Wife and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.
Rules 3 & 4: These are so sensible as to be ignored at your peril. To bring in a whole barrage of verbs like “remarked", “opined" and “elucidated" suggests brainless falsity. But there’s nothing wrong with a sparing use of “asked", “whispered", “shouted" and so on: it can be helpful. And naturally any number of successful, popular novelists go their own way in the matter. I’ve been reading John Wyndham’s The Day Of The Triffids (1951), for the first time since 1967. It’s very good - and fascinatingly of-its-time but not datedly stiff - yet within a typical dialogue-spiced page we have speech without any narrative add-on, some uses of “he said", but also “he admitted", “he smiled", “agreed Umberto", “observed", “explained", “suggested" (twice) and “remarked". I didn’t find this intrusive or awkward. And then there’s the novel with which Hilary Mantel finally won a Booker Prize, the magnificent Wolf Hall - which doesn’t tell you who speaks any line of dialogue. You have to work it out for yourself. There isn’t even the hand-holding of a “said Thomas". No “said" anybody. No “said".
Rule 5: Indisputable truth. It applies too for every written sentence of non-fiction, of a letter, an e-mail, a tweet or a text message. It can only justify itself at the end of a one-word message - say, “No!" - for a more seemly form of emphasis than capital letters. In my opinion.
Rule 6: If he means as in “Suddenly, a man burst into the room and shot everyone", fair enough. When asked to serve a less clunky purpose, it can work. With “All hell broke loose", he’s wrong. As Bob Dylan, for one, has been repeatedly skilled in showing, cliché can be used in many witty, sly and beguiling ways.
Rule 7: Er... Mark Twain, D.H.Lawrence, Arnold Bennett, Thomas Hardy, Mary Webb (ie in her Precious Bane, now a Virago Modern Classic) and any number of Southern US novelists, old and new (including Kathryn Stockett in her flawed but fine book The Help).
Rules 8-10: So pleasantly unmeasurable as to be hardly rules at all.
Good list, though: as long as you don’t take it any more seriously than Elmore Leonard did.