tricks of the trade

Elmore Leonard

Recently I got cranky about an article in the Times Literary Supplement on Elmore Leonard‘s ten rules for writers. The article ended with this bit of high-handed advice: “Our rule for the cultivation of good writing is much simpler: stay in, read, and don’t limit yourself to American crime fiction.”  

I’ll admit that I thought Elmore Leonard’s list was a bit vague (“10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. “) except where it was too specific (“3. Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialog.”)

So I’m going to list three of my rules and give other people a chance to bash at me. It’s only fair.

1. When in doubt, read the passage out loud (1) to yourself (2) to somebody else you like (3) to somebody else you don’t like. Take the average of all three reactions. If you still have absolutely no idea if the damn thing is any good, at least you will have succeeded in wasting another hour.

2. Hit a wall? Take a page-long scene with dialog you like from a novel you admire. Write it out longhand, but switch all the genders of the characters. This will either paralyze you for a week or give you good ideas.

3. Take a random page from your manuscript and highlight every occurence of ‘very’ in yellow. Now go through and highlight every adjective in blue and every remaining adverb or adjective (in case you’re not sure of the difference) in pink. If you’ve got rainbow-esque page in front of you when you are finished, delete all of the highlighted terms . Now put back only one out of ten. Choose carefully. (If you’ve got no pink, yellow or blue on the page, you’re in a minimalist sink-hole and you’ll need professional help to get out.)