Have you guys heard of Elmore Leonard? He wrote a couple of things, like Three-Ten to Yuma, Rum Punch, Get Shorty, and Be Cool. He’s also the guy who, when asked what kind of writing pays best, replied, “Ransom notes.”
So he knows what he’s talking about.
In 2001, he published a list of 10 rules he observes and explains,
These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’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.
So, not overbearing, but still quietly authoritative. I read them through, eagerly searching for nuggets of wisdom that I could apply to my own stuff, and of course discovered that I had broken a couple of his cardinal rules. Ah well. To be expected, really.
The first Elmore Leonard rule I broke: Rule # 2. Avoid prologues.
At least I was savvy enough to avoid breaking Rule #1, which is don’t start your novel with a description of the weather. Rather, I kicked it off with a prologue, and it’s a prologue I’m mighty fond of, that gives you insight into something that only pays off down the road towards the end of the book, that is, I hope, creepy and intriguing and well written.
But Elmore says no to prologues, AND I’ve read that one shouldn’t submit prologues as part of your sample to agents when soliciting their representation. So what’s up with that? Are prologues no longer ‘in’? Tons of writers write prologues, but most of them do so in genre writing. Is a prologue indicative of that, then? This rule definitely gave me pause, but after due consideration, I decided to respectfully but deliberately break it.
Rule #4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .
I scraped past Rule #3 (Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue) with the few exceptions where I used ‘asked’ or agreed’, but get slammed by Rule #4. Adverbs. Why were they invented if everybody hates them so much? They’re like the cockroaches of writing, creeping in everywhere, unwanted, unloved, and unwept when crushed. Everybody hates them, and I fear that my manuscript is riddled with them. Argh! I’ll have to roll up my sleeves and pick up my shears and go to work.
I have also broken Rule #6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.” A lot. Not the hell-broke-loose one, but after a quick check I discovered a plague of ‘suddenly”s all over my manuscript. Here a few choice examples:
- Suddenly chilled, Thomas hunched his shoulders and stepped up onto the curb…
- …and Thomas imagined a bloody hand suddenly smacking against the glass.
- …bathed everything in an immediate wash of stark, sterile white light, the dust suddenly visible and ubiquitous…
- The angle swung up, and suddenly Thomas was looking up at the third person’s ass as they climbed up quietly.
- The camera suddenly yawned, whipped around…
And that’s just Chapter 1. Eesh. I’m going to have to go through my manuscript and do some culling. I definitely agree with Elmore on this one.
The next rule of his that I broke was Rule #8: Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
I love description. I love adjectives. I love trying to paint as careful and precise a picture as I can with my words, to evoke precisely what I’m imagining on the page and share it with the reader. Very anti-Hemingway. Elmore observes:
In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.
Yes, yes, that’s a brilliant short story, staggeringly precise and terse yet powerful and evocative. I see what Elmore’s getting at, but I can’t help it. Here’s how I introduce Julia in Crude Sunlight, when Thomas first finds a photograph of her:
This one was very different from the first two. It showed a naked girl lying on a bed, a long white thigh in the foreground, the rest of her body extending away into the depths of the photograph, shadowed declivities, pale breasts and a laughing face almost drowned in gloom. Thomas stared, mildly shocked, taken aback at once by how attractive the girl was, and that his brother had been taking nude photographs. He suddenly felt like a prude, an old man; after all, Henry had been nineteen. Flipping the photograph, he read: Nov 12, 1.28am, Julia.
He next sees her in a video recording:
They all took out surgical masks and thick rubber gloves. More excited whispers, and then one of them turned to the camera, holding the light beneath her chin, illuminating her face from below as if she were around a campfire and about to tell a ghost story.
Julia, thought Thomas again, definitely. Her face was brilliantly lit, the base of her chin, the underside of her nose, the under swellings of her cheeks, all glowing a incandescent whitepink. The rest dimmed to darkness, but her lips were pulled into an ironic smile, and Thomas saw that she wasn’t beautiful, not exactly, but arresting, her hair cut boyishly short, her features sharp and betraying a certain harshness that was as fleeting as the smile she gave before turning back to the darkness.
Substantially more than what Hemingway settled for. I break Rule #8 everywhere, left right and center. This also segues into Rule #9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, which I break everywhere again. How does one evoke a sense of unease and creepiness without a good description? I understand where Elmore’s coming from, but still, I can’t resist. For example, here’s an extended excerpt that describes the abandoned Rectory as Thomas and Julia approach:
The ground floor was nearl obscured by an outgrowth of kudzu and bushes, wild and dark leaved, the kind of undergrowth that would catch and tear at clothing and skin if you tried to muscle your way through. The building itself rose three stories, as tall as it was wide, the third floor ensconced between between the sloping eaves of the roof. The windows were narrow and severe, and the brickwork, though even and neat, was cast over with a dark stain that had tinctured it past red into a dark, tobacco-stained brown.
They drove past it in silence, Julia subsiding back into her seat, and after traversing a block Thomas pulled his Mercedes over and parked. Something about the building had unnerved them both, and neither spoke; Thomas sitting still, hands on the steering wheel, Julia staring pensively out the windshield at nothing.
“What a horrible little building,” Julia said at last, her voice quiet. “I can understand why nobody wants to live there.”
“Yes,” agreed Thomas, “I know what you mean.” He straightened, released the wheel. “Come on. Let’s go take a look.”
Grabbing his black duffel bag from the trunk, they walked slowly along the road back towards the rectory, watching it warily as it loomed closer. It was because of the windows on the third floor, Thomas decided, that the house had its nasty look; they were parsimonious, tall and twinned like rat’s incisors. As if the builders had not wanted to allow light into the house, into the attic.
Elmore is very clear, however, about the author needing to observe his rules only if he wishes to be forgotten. As Flaubert said, “The author in his book must be like God in his universe, everywhere present and nowhere visible.” Right. You would think that I’d be smart enough to follow the advice of Leonard and Flaubert, as exemplified by Hemingway. But I guess I’m either too stubborn, or a bad writer, or both.
Or, as the bishop once said to the actress, “To each his own.”