I have this pinned above my desk. I gleaned these tips from a 2001 piece by Elmore Leonard in the New York Times. Nothing to disagree with when it comes to fiction – and I’m sticking to these rules for Project T. However, I suspect memoir and non-fiction are given more latitude. I confess, I have committed 3, 4 and 9. In addition, four exclamation marks have been added to my text – the editor insists they go in. I’m still battling to get them removed.
1. Never open a book with weather.
If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.
2. Avoid prologues.
They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.
3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.
The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .
. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.
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.
Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue. My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
Photo by me from a street stall in Dakar.