10 Rules of Writing from Elmore

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A new book on my editing desk promises to be a lot of fun. Small-time crooks without much common sense play big parts in this novel. It’s the kind of world made popular by Elmore Leonard. He wrote well into his 80s, including novels that he adapted from the TV series Justified that a producer concocted from Elmore’s own short story. When you’re adapting your own work from an adaptation, you know your way around telling a story.

The first season of Justified is full of moments like that, where small-time crooks haven’t thought things through. Think Darwin Award winners. That series (seven seasons!) was based on a single short story of Elmore’s. The series writers would collaborate and ask about their episode beats, “What would Elmore do?”

After his first career as a writer of westerns, Elmore shifted to crime novels with dialogue in them that’s at the pinnacle of the craft. Not highfalutin’ at all. He’s got a famous mantra, too. “Those parts of a book that people skim? I tend to leave those parts out.”

Here are Elmore’s rules. Try to use them for your next book, or the novel you’re working on right now.

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said,” he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

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

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