Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Elmore Leonard and Anthony Neil Smith and Adverbs

by Sean Chercover

On July 16, 2001, the New York Times ran an essay on writing, penned by the master, Elmore Leonard. The essay was called “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points, and Especially Hooptedoodle.” In it, Leonard presented his 10 Rules of Writing, perhaps the most oft-quoted of which is:

#10 - Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

It was a brilliant essay, and caused quite a sensation among crime writers. Leonard’s 10 Rules ended up posted all over the Internet, usually as bullet points without the accompanying commentary. Which was a shame, really, because it was Leonard’s commentary (including his exceptions to some of the rules) that really brought the thing to life.

But a couple years ago, the now-legendary essay was published in book form, titled (appropriately enough), Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.

Of course I bought a copy.

An aside: If you write fiction, and have never read Leonard's fiction, you are in danger of becoming (as FizzWater would say) a dumbass. Reading any Elmore Leonard novel will teach you more about good writing than a dozen “How To Write” books. And besides, they’re terrific fun to read. Go read him.

Where was I? Oh, right. So a couple weeks ago, I ran across a blog post by Anthony Neil Smith (another great crime writer you shouldn’t neglect), over at First Offenders. The post is called Smith’s Rules, and it is both a hoot and a holler.

I may not be in complete agreement with all of Neil’s rules, but certainly most of them. And I was happy to see him echoing Elmore Leonard’s disdain for the liberal use of adverbs.

Smith’s Rule #4 – Would you get rid of the adverbs, already?

Leonard’s Rule #4 – Never use an adverb to modify the verb ’said’ . . .

And in the commentary, Leonard continues, “To use an adverb in this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.”

So these guys are no friends of adverbs. Nor am I.

Another aside:
Why do bad writers use “hungrily” in a sex scene, and then “lustily” when a character scarfs down a slice of pizza?

Granted, there are a few great writers who make adverbs sing. But in almost every case, you will improve a sentence by cutting the adverb and finding a better verb to replace the weak one that you were trying to prop up. More often than not, when you see a lot of adverbs on the page, you are in the presence of lazy writing.

Okay, so here’s your assignment: Go read Smith’s Rules, then come back and post one pithy rule of your own. I will send my copy of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing to the person who comes up with the best new (to me) rule.


Mack said...

Interesting post Sean. Thanks. It also pointed me to two more blogs to follow.

Working in an academic library I was able to get the Elmore Leonard article from the NY Times. Smith's rules are much earthier but I like the way he thinks.

Scout said...

Here's a writing -ism that I've noticed recently and that I wish would be put in front of the firing line before it catches on: adjectives that use the adjective-looking construction, instead of just being adjective. Such as: dark-looking eyes. Couldn't they just be...dark eyes? I'm not sure it's a rule, but the next time I see it in a published book, I'm throwing the book into the trash.

abbourgoin said...

For god sakes, if you are writing crime fiction, tear your reader's hearts out. If you are a reader of crime fiction, you should expect heartbreak, violence and turmoil. I have read too many books where the turbulence is not there. It should be. (I would just like to caveat this by saying that of all the novelists in this blog that I have read, which is most, none of them hold back. I love that.) Great post Sean!

John McFetridge said...

Okay, here's my rule: start at the beginning of the interesting stuff, not before.

There's no need to, "set it up," and give us readers the background. We're smart people, we can figure it out as we go.

Dana King said...

For the rule, writers must remember different genres call for different levels of suspension of disbelief. Science fiction and fantasy (and, sometimes, erotica) can expect the reader to believe anything, so long as it is properly prepared. Mysteries--crie fiction in general--implies a certain realism, unless using zombies and/or vampires, which are excepted because they're just so damn cool.

So, that being said, a writer cannot use a cat, dog, fish, hamster, gerbil, snake, ferret, potbellied pig, mouse, fruit bat, armadillo, wombat, penguin, or any other animal to solve a mystery, unless the non-sapient character happens to drag a human bone past the detective.

Good point with "looking." Reminds me of a true story. I was riding a jitney from the St. Lucia airport to our hotel with my ex-wife, which involves crossing pretty much the entire island. At one point she pointed and asked me, "What are those goat-like creatures?" (Her actual words, swear to God.)

My reply: Goats. (My actual word, swear to God.)

This may have something to do with tne necessity for me to include the prefix "ex" when discussing her now.

steve z. said...

This is one that I've learned the hard way, as I've made the mistake myself: A good character description is not a laundry list of physical traits. Example of a bad one: He was five feet ten inches tall, with brown hair and brown eyes, a straight nose, thin lips, narrow shoulders, etc.

That sort of thing stops me dead in my tracks when I'm reading, even if the writer has an interesting story to tell and writes good dialogue.

A good character description, at least to me, will use physical characteristics more judiciously, and use them to hint at something more in the character.

Here's part of the description of a sophisticated con man named Fitzroy Guilderpost, from Donald Westlake's very funny novel Bad News:
He'd given up his mustache some years ago, when it turned gray, because it made him look like a child molester, which he certainly was not; however, he did look like a man who used to have a mustache, with some indefinable nakedness between the bottom of his fleshy nose and the top of his fleshy lip. He brushed this area from time to time with the side of his forefinger, exactly as though the mustache were still there.

Bill said...

Play fair with the reader: Worse than leaving out information (clues, who the murderer really is, motives, etc.) is waiting till the end of the story to find it out.

Scout said...

Dana- great story. That's exactly what I'm talking about. I just read a book this weekend (non-mystery, supposed breakout literary novel by someone in Chicago---so, no names, sorry---and that construction was used at least 50 times. Three times in one page, and I almost stopped reading.

Bill- play fair is a good rule. Have you read The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl? Matthew Pearl is a first-person point of view CHEATER.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Excellent. And I enjoyed Smith's Rules as well. I think he's kidding when, in his two calls to avoid using adverbs, he uses "perfectly" once and "already" twice, but it underscores that the problem with adverbs isn't so much the adverbs themselves, but that people tend to use them without even thinking about it, often without even realizing they're doing it or why. The best way to trim your first and last drafts is to go on an adverb hunt. I wouldn't suggest you have to eliminate every single one, but you should make every adverb beg for its life before keeping it. And as Elmore says, never after "said," however eloquently he says it.

Mark Combes said...

Go easy on the eating scenes. Sure, they can show something about the character, but as the great Jimmy Buffett cautions, "moderation is the key."

I once read a book by an author that I quite like in other regards but in this book his main character spent more time in coffee shops than on the case.

Booze and bars don't count - throw as much of that in as you want.

abbourgoin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
abbourgoin said...

When choosing a title, caution should be used when choosing something generic such as "The Assassin". There are, of course, exceptions to this rule-Richard Price's THE WANDERERS comes to mind.

The problem I have with titles like this is they pretty much leave nothing to the imagination and will fail to grab a lot of readers' attention.

Unfortunately, society does judge books by their covers and will often pass by books that don't intrigue them based on the title.

In my mind titles should encourage people to pick it up and at least see what it's about. If I see a book titled THE ASSASSIN, I already know what the protagonist is going to do, and therefore, don't really have any interest in reading more.

If you are going to use an easy title, you better make damn sure the writing is solid.

Ted Chambers said...

Here's my rule:

Never listen to anyone who posts their rules about writing unless they've actually accomplished something with the craft.

Sean Chercover said...

For the record, I do use adverbs, but I use them sparingly and purposefully (and with a few more adverbial modifications to the verb "use"). I think Kevin nailed it when he said, "you should make every adverb beg for its life before keeping it."And never to modify the verb "said". Not on a Sunday, or any other day. Never.

One of Leonard's other rules is: "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue." Although I agree with the gist of this rule, I disagree with the "never" part. I think there are times where it does some good to have a character mumble or whisper or ask or insist. Maybe 5 or 6 speech tags out of 100. And never with any exotic verbs.

Dana - that goat story was classic. Thanks for that.

Great feedback so far, folks! Keep the rules coming.

Scout said...

Best rule I can think of for a writer: Read.

You can be a good reader without being a writer, but the opposite is just not possible.

abbourgoin said...

Well said Scout.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Congratulations on the Dagger short-listing.

And now I'll see if I can meet this challenge.
Detectives Beyond Borders
“Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”