Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Now that August is over ... some writing tips from Elmore Leonard –Dianne Hofmeyr

While most people have been enjoying what August is all about – a summer holiday – I’ve spent the entire August re-editing, re-editing re-editing. To be fair my summer holiday is at another time of the year. When it’s all bleak Feb here, I’m in a southern hemisphere.

But as everyone returns to their desks, a few reminders from Elmore Leonard might inspire. Of course as experienced writers you never do any of these things in any case! I happen to have just totalled my exclamation marks in the first 10 pages of my re-edited, re-edited novel and I have 45! But then my story starts with a storm! And referring to Rule 6, I’ve also discovered 14 mentions of ‘suddenly’ but I’m clever at disguising them. I put them in the middle of the sentence.

1. Never open a book with weather.

If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues.

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” …

…he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

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.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Have fun at your desks. Hope the holiday time has been good for everyone. Hopefully a plate of figs will still remind you of the sunshine. 
Twitter @dihofmeyr
Zeraffa Giraffa, by Dianne Hofmeyr, illustrated by Jane Ray, published by Frances Lincoln, is one of The Sunday Times Top 100 Classics for Children in the last 10 years.


Emma Barnes said...

I'm a big offender with "suddenly" - I am now motivated to go and do a word search and see how many are in the latest work-in-progress.

I wish his point about using "said" was more noticed in primary schools, where children are often convinced that any other word (preferably a long one) would be better.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

You're so right about schools re 'said'. I leave out 'saids' as I feel the dialogue explains itself. But that's hopeless if a book is made into an audio book as its hard for the listener to differentiate. Easier to see on a printed page.

Word searches are such disturbing things! I wonder if editors do them?

Saviour Pirotta said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Saviour Pirotta said...

Some very good tips here. I am especially guilty of the 'Suddenly' syndrome, sometimes even using 'All at once' too, although only in retellings. Glad I'm not the only one who worked through August.

Steve Gladwin said...

Thanks Dianne and Elmore. I've read a lot of him, but never come across these priceless tips. I've just been writing a first person book which relies a little too much on colloquial language. I may have to purge, (but not seriously, because that's an adverb).

Sue Purkiss said...

I use 'just' far too much. Not sure why...

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Me too Sue but at least we don't use 'and it was like' ...