It’s raining, she said sadly
Sad news for lovers of a good read this week as we lost the very fine writer Elmore Leonard. Even if you weren’t a reader, you probably saw Get Shorty (I hope you skipped Stay Cool) and you should have seen Out Of Sight. (Jennifer Lopez, Y U no make more good movies?)
After news of his passing, an essay he wrote for the NYTimes was widely circulated. It had a laundry list of rules for writing fiction. Between this list (which boils down to ‘don’t reveal yourself, don’t get between your characters and your readers) and being Scared Straightened out of EVER using adverbs by Stephen King, I admit I was feeling a little paralyzed. So many rules! Never, never tell your reader what your characters look like, that’s a biggie. And for God’s sake, never use anything but ‘said’ when referring to dialogue. And don’t open with the weather!
My takeaway is that you have to give your readers instructions on how to process your characters. Too elaborate of a roadmap and you become a loony heli-parent, the kind who cuts up their adult child’s steak and calls the kid’s boss to yell about cost of living increases. On the other hand, too little and your reader is left with English as a second language Ikea style directions which look exactly the same no matter how you turn them. I don’t want my book to be a chore! (Strike that – a chore. Not supposed to use exclamation points.)
I felt a bit better when I read Anne Rice’s reflection on this very essay. She said of course these are excellent rules for writers and she breaks them gleefully all the time.
I felt even better when after reading his rule about being careful not to describe places, I read the very first line of his 1970 novel Valdez Is Coming:
“Picture the ground rising on the east side of the pasture with scrub trees thick on the slope and pines higher up.”
I’ll keep his rules in mind, apply them when I can, and try to always abide by this one:
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
That’s good advice, she intoned wistfully.