Elmore Leonard and everybody else’s rules for writing

Reading and writing about books and writing can be like picking apart an old sweater for the wool.. it’s painstaking and the threads sometimes veer off under the apparently smooth surface.  Thus, I was reading the New York Times Book Review this morning while Billy Joel played softly in the background, when I came across what appeared to be a book review of something called Rules of Order.  Pulling gently on the loose thread, I hit the Google machine and found out there is no such book (unless you want to run a meeting, and Robert has some rules for you).

Instead, The Guardian – a British newspaper – had published a review of Elmore Leonard‘s 10 Rules of Writing, which is being published in England. His first rule: Never open a book with the weather.  The reporter then followed up with another article, asking other authors for their own ten rules for writing.  These rules are an amusing mix of practical advice and tips.  Here are ten gleaned from the 100+ in the article.

  1. Take a pencil to write with on an airplane. (Margaret Atwood)
  2. Cut – only by having no inessential words can the essential words be made to count. (Diana Athill)
  3. Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg “horse”, “ran”, “said.”  (Roddy Doyle)
  4. A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk. (Helen Dunmore)
  5. Don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov.  (Geoff Dyer)
  6. Try to be accurate about stuff. (Anne Enright)
  7. Try to think of others’ good luck as encouragement to yourself. (Richard Ford)
  8. Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting. (Jonathan Franzen)
  9. Don’t wait for inspiration. Discipline is the key. (Esther Freud)
  10. Laugh at your own jokes. (Neil Gaiman)

I wondered if author’s rules for writing come from where they think other people mess up – as in “I don’t have to write every day, but you do.”   Or, do they come from what helps them as an author – as in “You should write in a room without windows because I get terribly distracted if a bird flies by.”  To decide, I will use a convenience sample of one and make up my own 10 rules:

  1. Re-read and edit what you wrote yesterday.  It’ll give you a good start on today.
  2. Just make it up.  Put those niggly question about things you aren’t sure of in the parking lot.  (Examples: how much does a 45 weigh?  is it really true that the Chicago PD spells the nickname for detectives “dic” instead of “dick?”)  Then go back and get all the answers to your questions and edit as needed.  This will keep you from Googling when you’re supposed to be writing.
  3. Drink coffee while writing.  Something carb-y with it helps while you think when you get stuck.
  4. Don’t write too early in the morning.  The brain needs to be warmed up.
  5. Save your work.  Back it up.  Don’t realize after your hard drive crashes that you have a choice of trying to rewrite that short story or waving it goodbye.
  6. Listen when you are hearing a critique of your pages.  Take notes.  Don’t speak unless the person you’re listening to asks a question.  Defensiveness keeps you from improving.
  7. If you really have to pee and you keep putting it off, things are going very, very well.
  8. Go ahead and enjoy your own writing.  If you like funny, make it funny.  It’s okay to laugh at your own stuff.
  9. A pug on each side of you makes the couch cozier.  If they snore, so much the better.
  10. Blogging about writing does not count.

Reviewing my ten, I think I’m safe in saying that author’s rules for writing are their own rules.  They’re insight, not science.  So peruse, pick and choose; ultimately, your success is up to you.

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