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Elmore Leonard Rules! But Elmore Leonard’s Rules…?

12 March 2013

From author Steve Hockensmith:

I don’t like doling out writing advice. Oh, I do it from time to time. But it’s something I’d really rather avoid.

. . . .

I’m not a big believer in writing advice from anybody. As that noted literary thinker James T. Kirk once said, “We learn by doing.” Taking a class isn’t going to teach you how to write. Reading a book isn’t going to teach you how to write. Writing and writing and writing is going to teach you how to write.

. . . .

[Elmore]  Leonard’s list is misnamed. It’s not 10 Rules of Writing. It’s 10 Rules for Writing Like Elmore Leonard. If all you want to write are Get Shorty pastiches, well, this’ll give you a great head start. But if you have any interest in your own voice as a writer — indeed, having any sort of voice at all — keep in mind that Leonard’s commandments weren’t written in stone by the finger of God. They were banged out on a Smith Corona by a dude in Michigan. Big difference.

. . . .

I got to thinking about all this recently because I’ve been reading the most insanely entertaining book I’ve encountered in years — decades even — and it’s constantly making what some gurus would tell you is a rookie mistake. The point of view bounces from character to character with no particular rhyme or reason. One minute we’re in one guy’s head, the next we’re in another’s, a paragraph later we’re in yet another’s. The author doesn’t start a new chapter to indicate the switch and he doesn’t use section breaks, either. He just jumps to a new perspective whenever the heck he feels like it.

This is a no-no grande — a technique that would simply be labeled “incompetence” if you or I tried it. And it works beautifully.

. . . .

Oh, and that author who can’t keep his POVs straight? He’s Larry McMurtry, and the novel in question is a little something called Lonesome Dove.

Link to the rest at Steve Hockensmith

Writing Advice

11 Comments to “Elmore Leonard Rules! But Elmore Leonard’s Rules…?”

  1. “[Author’s] Rules for Writing Like [Author]”

    That is an excellent way for looking at ANY set of writing rules. Each individual writer should look at such lists with this in mind and decide for themselves whether any of those rules work well with their own style and goals.

  2. IIRC, Lonesome Dove is written in the omniscient viewpoint, with a distinct narrative voice, which is not the same as head-hopping. Omni was the dominant storytelling “voice”–and I think the most natural on–until fairly recently. Now, it’s been so scrubbed from the market folks don’t recognize it.

    And yes, writers are told it will ruin the reader’s experience. I disagree.

    (So says she who likes to write in omni. :))

  3. I agree overall but — Lonesome Dove uses omniscient. It kind of undercuts Hockingsmith’s argument that he doesn’t know the difference between head hopping and omniscient viewpoint. The “rules” are training wheels for new writers, and at some point most skilled writers should understand that. I went to leave a message there but didn’t want to have to sign in to any stinkin’ social media. Back to lurk mode.

  4. After years of reading Author X’s advice vs Author Y’s advice for writing, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is only one (1) actual rule for any creative work (and it might just be true for life, too). So, this is Stuart’s Rule:

    If it works, it works.

    You want to write in 2nd person, present tense, about a guy waking up and going through his morning routine? — well, if you can make it work (ie, if you can connect with readers) then the arguments against you are foolishness.

  5. I remember a teacher I had in high school you told me “If you want to be different, you’d better be good.”

    Sure, you CAN break the rules, but if you do so, you’d better be the best.

    The rules exist because they “generally” work. If you are a special snowflake, then maybe you don’t need the rules.

  6. Ha! I like the writing on this article. I like this:

    ‘So I bring to all writing advice a grain of salt about the size of a watermelon’

    Nice, snappy, colorful writing. 🙂

    As for writing rules, I agree – learn them until you’re good enough to break them and develop your own rules.

  7. Speaking of writing advice…

    E.L. James is helpfully releasing a book that will teach people how to write erotic fiction:


    Write your own porn by learning from the ‘Fifty Shades’ master: E.L. James to release DIY guide to creating erotic fiction.

    ‘Fifty Shades of Grey: Inner Goddess’ is out on May 1

    She is the undisputed queen of ‘mommy porn’ – her erotic tales of romance and bondage having both titillated and inspired millions of housewives across the world.

    I am quite certain this will find its place alongside Stephen King’s “On Writing” and Anne Lamott’s “Bird By Bird” and similar works…

  8. for what it’s worth I hated Lonesome Dove. Didn’t know enough to analyze why at the time. maybe it was the omniscient voice, which is another thing I hate.

  9. Thanks for all the great comments, guys! It’s gratifying to find that so many people agree with me about writing advice. I especially liked Sandra’s comment about rules being training wheels. Great, write like Elmore Leonard for a while. But eventually you should start writing like yourself.

    In response to Blair and Sandra on POV: There’s definitely a whole lotta head hopping in Lonesome Dove. Character X says something, and we’re told why. Then we’re told what his pal Character Y thinks of what Character X just said so we can understand his response. Then we see inside Character Z as he reflects on Character X and Character Y’s conversation. But Character Z chooses to remain silent because he’s still brooding about his lost love, Character A. Etc.

    I make it sound horrible, but McMurtry actually pulls it off. Or so I think. Obviously, Elizabeth wouldn’t agree!

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