Saturday, April 14, 2012

Elmore Leonard's Eleventh Rule by Earl Staggs

Mystery author Earl Staggs has seen many of his short stories published in magazines and anthologies. His novel MEMORY OF A MURDER earned a long list of Five Star reviews. He served as Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Magazine and as President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. He is also a contributing blog member of Murderous Musings and Make Mine Mystery and a frequent speaker at conferences and writers groups. He recently received his second Derringer Award for Best Short Story of the year. Email: Website:

Elmore Leonard’s Eleventh Rule

by Earl Staggs      

Most everyone who writes knows about Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing. They’ve been picked at and kicked around for years. They’re fun to read and talk about, but to my knowledge, no one thinks of them as rock solid “laws” writers must not break.

For instance, the first one is: Never open a book with weather. That doesn’t mean you can’t mention the weather in your first paragraph. If weather is an important factor in the opening scene of your story, readers need to know about it. Suppose your heroine is stranded out in an open field, she’s naked, it’s only twenty degrees, and she’s being pelted by a freezing rain. In a situation like that, you should give that information to your readers. I think what Mr. Leonard meant was you shouldn’t waste a paragraph or two describing the weather before you begin your story. Get the story going, then work in the relevant weather details.

Actually, I believe Mr. Leonard had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek and a tight grin on his face when he set down his “Rules.” Perhaps he should have suggested keeping a salt shaker handy when you read them so you could sprinkle grains where needed.

What he said after he laid out his famous ten rules, however, has stuck with me. I call it his eleventh rule. He said:

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

There are certain words some writers use which I don’t. It’s a personal thing, I admit, but I believe all storytelling should be written like normal conversation. Even if written in third person, I believe the narrative should read and sound as if two people are sitting at the same table and one of them is telling a story.

Okay, time for some examples to illustrate what I’m babbling about.

Take the word “muse.” When’s the last time you heard someone use that word in conversation? Have you ever said, “I’ll muse on it and let you know.” I doubt it. You’d say, “I’ll think about it and let you know.” Yet, writers use that word often. Every time I see the word “muse,” I’m taken out of the story and I think “Uh oh. This sounds like writing.”

Then there’s the word “gaze,” which comes under the hard and fast rule about “disembodied body parts.” Parts of your body can’t unattach themselves, the rule states, and do things on their own. That’s why I’m not supposed to write, “Her eyes moved around the room and took it all in.” Under the same law, I can’t write, “His chin fell onto his chest” or “Her hands few into the air.”

Instead, I’m supposed to write, “Her gaze moved around the room.” Sorry, but that sounds like writing to me. I’ve never heard anyone talk like that. Nor have I heard anyone say, “You’re a sight for a sore gaze.” Or, “I couldn’t take my gaze off her.”

People don’t use “gaze” when they talk, but we see it in print all the time. Sure sounds like writing to me. If I use “eyes” instead of “gaze,” I think I should be forgiven because I’m writing the way people talk.

I don’t know who came up with that rule, but someone’s hands should have left their body and clamped themselves over that person’s mouth before the rule came out of it.

Next up: using what I call “ing words” to begin a sentence. Writers use them to achieve variation in sentence structure and get away from repeating the standard noun-verb construction over and over again.

As a result, we often see sentences like this one:

"Slipping into her work clothes, Mary drove downtown."

Poor Mary. In that construction, the two actions (slipping and driving) take place simultaneously. I envision Mary struggling into her clothes and driving at the same time. I hope she made it to work without a major accident.

To achieve variation in sentence construction and keep Mary safe, the author might have written:

"After slipping into her work clothes, Mary drove downtown."

There you have some examples of how I apply what I call Elmore Leonard’s “Eleventh Rule.” I’m not saying everyone should abide by it, so maybe we should call it “Earl’s Rule.” I may be stuck with it but you, of course, are not.

Thanks a Texas ton, Kaye, for allowing me to visit here on Meanderings and Muses, the best blog site on the planet. As always, big hugs and kisses to you. 



Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Hey, Earl Darlin', Welcome!!!!

I'm paying very close attention to this post, Earl. Very close attention.

Thank you for taking the time to do this - it is always a pleasure to have you here.

Hugs to you!

jenny milchman said...

You made laugh, picturing acrobatic Mary and the red light she ran. The 11th rule is a great one--maybe even one that does deserve to be called a Rule. Hemingway (I think) said writing should be a clear window through which you see the story. I like that. Good to see you, Earl!

Bobbie said...

What an excellent post, Earl. I am a reader, and being pulled out of a story with a writer trying to "show off" or use words not used in real life, drives me batty-and yes I use that term in my real life, smile. Also agree about that "ing" stuff, hate when they do that because my mind starts picturing weird accidents rather than the plot of the book. Yes, Mr Leonard sometimes does that tongue-in-cheek thing well, doesn't he. And your 11th rule, Earl's Rule is marvelous! How I do wish others knew it! Thanks for being here, it was a fun post, and very true! Thanks Kaye, for inviting Mr. Staggs.


Earl Staggs said...

I'm so happy to visit here, Kaye, but you'd best step back a few paces. Some writers will probably disagree with me. That's okay, but I don't want you to get hit if they throw stuff at me. :-)

Earl Staggs said...

Jenny! Always a pleasure to see you. I can't imagine you without s big smile on your face and that makes me smile. Let's start a movement to make the Eleventh Rule official. We'll change the world! Well, a teeny tiny part of it anyway.

Earl Staggs said...

Bobbie, the support of a reader means a lot. You're who we're writing for. Thanks for stopping by and for your comments.

When Jenny and I begin our campaign to make Earl's Rule official, we'll put your picture on our posters.

Lillian Stewart Carl said...

Well said, Earl. Thanks! Gazing further at the work in progress, Lillian rolled her eyes across the screen.

Anita Page said...

Having just read...whoops! Let me start again: I've been reading Short Stories of The Earl Staggs, so I can vouch for the fact that he follows his own writing advice. The stories are told from various points of view, but the prose is consistently conversational--part of what makes them so much fun.

jrlindermuth said...

I'm not going to dispute any of your points, Earl. They're all good ones. I've been arguing the gaze issue with one of my editors for years. He won't budge. I either live with it or find a different way for my character to see things. Not always easy.

bo parker said...

Beyond the gazing and musing is dialogue with complete sentences and every word clearly spoken. Another sign of things being perfectly "written."

Anonymous said...

Thank you Earl and Kaye - we all need these reminders a lot more than we admit!! Thelma Straw in Carnegie Hill NYC

Anonymous said...

Thank you Earl and Kaye - we all need these reminders a lot more than we admit!! Thelma Straw in Carnegie Hill NYC

Jan Christensen said...

You make an interesting point, Earl, as you usually do. "Gaze" is used so often by writers, though, that I don't even notice it anymore. Now that you've pointed this out, I will, however. Thanks a lot. (grinning) I think maybe we could expand the rule to include those words that writers often use because I'm sure the non-writer readers don't even notice. They've simply become used to seeing/reading them. Or, maybe not.

Earl Staggs said...

Kaye, you know how much I love visiting here. The pleasure is all mine.

Hi, Lillian! I love what you said and the way you said it. Made me LOL out loud (as Monk once said.) Best regards, homegirl.

Anita, I'm glad you're enjoying my short story collection. I'm a big fan of yours, you know, so your kind words mean a lot to me.

John, I'm so glad you agree with me. Let's combine our forces and change the world.

Bo, I think we agree stories should be "told" not "written." Writing can get in the way of a good story.

Thelma, you're so right. Reminders keep us on the right track.

Dear Ant Jan, you always nail things with a velvet hammer. Non-writers may not notice things we do. But we're readers, too. Why should we have to suffer? One more "gaze," "muse," or "waft" and I may take up worm farming.
(A private joke there, folks.)