In 2010 Elmore Leonard published a book called, Ten Rules for Writing. Since he had already earned accolades like, ‘the doyen of hardboiled fiction‘ for his novels, short stories and screen-writing, a lot of us took a look.
I’ve liked the list enough to still be recommending it to others. Reduced to a minimal form, as in the illustration on the left, it makes a useful discussion starter.
I assume that Leonard was nodding back to the Golden Age of crime writing. It was in 1928, that the American writer, S.S. Van Dine came up with “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories“. On this side of the Atlantic, in 1929, Ronald Knox compiled Ten Commandments for detective fiction writers. A year later his list became part of the oath sworn by members of the newly formed Detection Club.
Many of those rules were designed to encourage strong plotting, and reduce the use of trick endings. They required the fictional detective to be in a fair competition with the reader.
Later, Raymond Chandler produced his Ten Commandments for The Detective Novel. The words, ‘rules‘, and ‘commandments‘ hold out such promise. If writing is a formula, then all I need do is follow, or apply, the ten points and I’ll soon be writing successful fiction.
Back in 2010, when Leonard’s book was published, The Guardian newspaper decided to ask a collection of well-known writers for their rules. The points they came up with covered a range of styles and ideas that make an interesting supplement to Leonard’s, and they didn’t all produce ten. The are one hundred and thirteen to think about, though.
I’m sharing seven of my favourites – this week:
Roddy Doyle: 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”.
Ann Enright: Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.
Geoff Dyer: Do it every day. Make a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct. This is the most important rule of all and, naturally, I don’t follow it.
Richard Ford: Don’t drink and write at the same time.
Elmore Leonard: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
And to finish, two, from A. L Kennedy:
Remember you love writing. It wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t. If the love fades, do what you need to and get it back.
Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.