What follows I culled from an article published in the New York Times long ago, before the dawn of civilization, on July 16, 2001. It was written by Elmore John Leonard, a prolific American novelist and screenwriter who, from 1953 to present, has published 44 novels. Some of his better known works include the La Brava (which won the Edgar Award for best novel in 1984), Get Shorty, Be Cool, Killshot, and the short story, Three-Ten to Yuma.
Leonard lists 10 rules that he uses to remain invisible as an author when writing a book. To show rather than tell. Even today, these commandments remain relevant.
- Never open a book with weather. Open with people. If you want to use weather to create atmosphere, talk about a character's reaction to the weather. Otherwise, the reader will likely flip through the pages looking for your characters.
- Avoid prologues. And for the love of God, don't open with an introduction, followed by a foreword, followed by a prologue, followed by chapter one. Prologues are usually back story. Drop them in your novel somewhere more appropriate.
- Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The dialogue belongs to your characters. Verbs like grumbled, gasped, cautioned, and lied all steal the dialogue from your characters. Remember, you want to remain invisible.
- "Never use an adverb to modify the verb 'said'," he admonished gravely. To use an adverb in this way--or in any way, for that matter--is a mortal sin. Leonard mentions a character from one of his books that explains how she wrote historical romances "full of rape and adverbs" as if the two were equals on the atrocity scale.
- Keep your exclamation points under control. Use no more than three per 100,000 words of prose.
- Never use the word "suddenly" or the phrase "all hell broke loose." Coincidentally, writers who do tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
- Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Used in moderation, it can add spice to your story. But if you start loading up on phonetic accents and pouring on the apostrophes, you’re going to overload your reader's taste buds.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. In Hills Like White Elephants, the only description Ernest Hemingway gives for the "American and the girl with him" is this: "She had taken off her hat and put it on the table." That's it. That's the only physical description in the entire story. He lets his readers come up with their own images of the characters, guiding them by tone of voice, not written description and unsightly adverbs.
- Don't go into great detail describing places and things. Needless and excessive descriptions are like a large pool of stagnant water in the otherwise rapidly flowing river that is your story.
- Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. Think thick paragraphs of prose. Think going into the character's head when the reader either already knows what the guy's thinking or doesn't care. Think weather.
There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday (yeah, yeah--avoid prologues, I hear you) where one of the characters sums all of this up quite nicely. He says, "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks ... figure out what the guy's thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that ... Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle ... Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That's nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don't have to read it. I don't want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story."
If your writing sounds like writing, rewrite it until it flows like thought or speech. If the rules guidelines of grammar get in the way, out they go. Don't let what you learned in English class disrupt the rhythm of narration. Remain invisible. Don't distract the reader in order to make complete sentences with all the syntax correct and commas placed just so.
Let your characters do the narrating for you. Let them bring the scene to life. Let them tell the reader who they are and what they see and how they feel about it. In the meantime, you, the author, are standing in the shadows, watching all of this unfold. Invisible.
Find more tips on writing and advice on how to get your novel published on my Writer's Corner blog.