Playing in the gutters over at TEV, I came across this little gem, originally published in the Times Literary Supplement in 2001 and kindly reproduced by Mark in the comments to a recent discussion. I like Elmore Leonard novels but I hate rules for fiction, which so often read like instructions for making a polyester blend sweater: Follow them unswervingly and you will end up with something serviceable, yes, but a little slick and uniform and itchy.* So this was satisfying:
NB J.C. 27 July 2001 The fashionable crime writer Elmore Leonard has published his ten rules for writing fiction. Here they are: 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”. 5. Keep your exclamation marks under control. 6. Never use the word “suddenly”. 7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. 8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. 9. Ditto, places and things. 10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. The eleventh rule is: If you come across lists such as this, ignore them. The rules may sound sensible enough, but, with the exception of No 5, each could be replaced with its opposite, and still be reasonable advice. Leonard complains that, while reading a book by Mary McCarthy, he had to “stop and get the dictionary” – as if it were a form of pain (William Faulkner, who broke most of these rules whenever he wrote, complained of Hemingway that he “never used a word you had to look up in the dictionary”). And what is meant by “leave out the part that readers tend to skip”? If every writer tried to be as exciting as Leonard, there would be no Brothers Karamazov, no Anna Karenina (remember those exquisitely boring sections on agronomy?), and the shelf reserved for Dickens or Balzac would measure about a foot. Banish patois, and we lose a library of fiction stretching from Huckleberry Finn to Trainspotting. As for dialogue, if Leonard samples Henry James, he will find “remarked”, “answered”, “interposed”, “almost groaned”, “wonderingly asked”, “said simply”, “sagely risked” and many more colourful carriers (these from a page or two of Roderick Hudson). Should they all be ironed out into “said”?
As for the first rule, see the opening of Bleak House.
* As I prepare this post, a hyperbolic amount of ire keeps creeping in. I keep wanting to type things like “bane” and “vile” and “slavish devotion to mediocrity,” like there is a tiny English countess inside me who really has it in for writing rules. (Her glittering opus rejected, her resplendent accounts of the weather unhailed.) I blame too many workshops spent across the table from adherents to the rule that the active voice is always better than the passive voice. The countess says: Their heads would be better off.