Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Elmore Leonard's Eleventh Law

Last week, I examined only the very surface of a long paragraph by Lucius Shepard and from it derived a few easy guidelines for gonnabe writers.  Easy on the adjectives, I said.  Get rid of those adverbs.  Easy on the freakin' italics.  And I might have pointed out (though I did not) how easily a great writer like Lucius gets along without exclamation points. 

Then I sent those of you who are seriously working toward breaking into print back to their own work to cut until it hurt.

Today, I'd like to say . . .  Or maybe not.

I have taught at all three Clarion Workshops (West, South, and Classic Coke) and if there's one thing the experience has taught me, it's that there's very little advice that applies to everybody.  That's because writing is not a single skill.  It's a family of related skills that produce a superficially similar end product.  There are writers who cannot begin a story unless they know how it's going to end, and writers who cannot continue a story once they discover that exact same thing.  There's no right type of writer or wrong type of writer.  And you cannot change the type of writer you are by an act of will.  Whatever type of writer you are, that's it.

To be trite (and triteness is one of those things we all advise you against; but sometimes it's necessary), it's like Kipling wrote:

There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And every single one of them is right!
Which is not to say you shouldn't be listening to the wisdom of those who have come before you.  But if you give it a try and it's really, really not right for you, then there's no need to feel guilty about it.  Because the iron law of art is that you can get away with anything you can get away with.

Elmore Leonard once wrote a set of ten rules for writing that proved so popular that he expanded his commentary and published them as a book.  A stunningly thin book, mind you.  You can easily find these rules on the Web, usually with his commentary removed.  They say things like:  Keep your exclamation points under control and Never use an adverb to modify the word "said."   All of them good advice and well worth considering seriously.

But if you read his commentary, you find that what he's telling you is how to write the way he does.  Now, Elmore Leonard's prose is beautiful and elegant and worthy of all the admiration that has been heaped at its feet.  But it's not the only way there is to write, and he not only knows it but actively wants not to discourage those other ways.  So when he tells you to never open a book with weather, he immediately points out that those who can write like Barry Lopez and  make the weather genuinely interesting are exempt from this rule.  Don't go into great detail describing places and things, he commands, followed immediately by the observation that people who can write like Margaret Atwood or Jim Harrison can violate this rule with impunity.

So, implicit in what Leonard wrote is an eleventh rule:  Don't follow rules if you can transcend them.

Because they're none of them really rules, after all.  They're just helpful advice from somebody who's been there and wants to make it easier for you to learn to write well.  As do I.  As does pretty much everybody else who's ever committed writing advice to ink or pixels. 



HANNAH'S DAD said...

I remember lots of fuss when those Elmore Leonard rules first appeared, from people who felt (wrongly) they were being prescribed to.

For my part I'm more than happy to read lists of writing rules, list of great books, lists of ten ice creams you must eat before you die, etc., as I'm naturally talented at ignoring advice.

And that is why my stories all start with someone murmuring their name to themselves, along with a potted autobiography, as they stand in front of a mirror, describing themselves and the day's weather.

Michael Swanwick said...

For THE DRAGONS OF BABEL, John Clute was kind enough to write down his definition of fantasy for me, so I could see how much of it I could do the exact opposite of.

Pat J said...

I've always felt that any writer's Rules of Writing -- Elmore Leonard's "Never open with the weather", Stephen King's "Never outline", Unca Mike's Writing Advice -- are less rules and more guidelines. Take what works, and transcend the rest.