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.