Monday, August 14, 2017

Who the Hell is Elmore Leonard?



I vented to a friend last night, as I am wont to do.

“I’m intellectually constipated,” I said.

“What does that mean?”

“Every time I try to talk about a problem, instead of a flow of ideas or a sounding board, I get dismissed: That’s not a problem. The solution to that is easy! Why don’t you just… You’re making things more complicated than necessary. Here’s what Google has to say about it.”

“Writers, man, huh?”

I knew that she wasn’t the right person to talk to about this. She is a massive advocate of the rules, a screenwriting student who loves Hemingway and won’t read the Hunger Games because it can never match up. But she was interested in writing, and at least had opinions.

When it comes to advice, people tend to stick with the quippy and repetitive, telling me not to use said or adverbs, ignoring more important issues like what actually happened in the text. They miss the fact the gun disappeared mid-scene because they obsess over whether or not to say ‘lightly’ or ‘slightly.’ Even if you do oblige them, doing nothing that they normally criticize, they’ll spend your time together saying, “Oh, you don’t do that thing that I always look for! Let me tell you why it’s bad anyway.”

They’re a one-trick pony.

About a year ago I went to a writers conference in which a woman started out by handing me a plot formula. She had only read the first few pages, but decided that backstory absolutely couldn’t be in them—because the formula said so. She was the sort of person who thought science fiction began and ended with Star Wars, and incorrectly insisted that the movie didn’t have any backstory in the first act.

“Its backstory dump is actually pretty iconic,” I said.

For a reference, she was one of many, many people to read that work, and the only one to complain about discussing the character’s history. It was an intentional later addition too, proposed to help build the world. The story starts in a limited place, but by showing images of his past, I could quickly—and in the most successful way so far—tell the audience what kind of world it was without too much editorializing. After adding it in, complaints on confusion and world building slowed down massively. She wasn’t a good reader, asking questions that were answered more than once in the text, and over time I just had to accept that we just didn’t have the same writing philosophies.

She too was a big rule follower. Her small press book was most criticized (well, for the typos in the Hawaiian vocabulary, but we’ll ignore those) for her “juvenile” and simplistic style. The rules these days enforce minimalism. She spent a good portion of our fifteen minutes I’d paid for pointing out each and every adverb, saying which ones were okay, criticizing the one where she misinterpreted the subtext of the dialogue.

On her sparse blog, she has one post featuring Elmore Leonard’s writing rules, which summed her up all together.

Debbie, my dear—I wanted to say—I came to you to hear what Debbie has to say about my work. Not what a writer fifty years ago said about writing in general. Not what a Western writer has to say about the first three chapters of a science fiction book.

For that matter, who is Elmore Leonard? Why should we listen to him? Do I like his writing? Do YOU like his writing? These are important questions to consider.

I have to say that in my experience, people know Leonard best from his writing rules, not his actual fiction. Mentioning him, no one seems to recognize him, or if they do, his advice comes up.

So when I said to my friend that day I complained about my intellectual constipation, “Who the hell is Elmore Leonard?” it was no surprise when she replied. “Oh, my boyfriend and I were just talking about him! He has some pretty good advice!”

No, I said. He has some pretty generic advice.

The first time I looked him up, he seemed successful enough. He’s written quite a few novels, some made into movies, and while I haven’t personally heard of him or any of his works, I’m not really a Western girl.

“Well, it’s good advice for screenwriting,” she amended.

“Don’t use prologues or synonyms for said is good for screenwriting?”

What frustrates me most about the obsession with Leonard’s writing rules is two-fold. One is that I don’t particularly find his ten writing rules useful.

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Avoid prologues.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

7. Use regional dialect, patois sparingly.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

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

What’s wrong with them, you ask? Well, nothing. It’s not that I necessarily disagree. The foundation of the ideas can be pretty useful for quick sprucing up or an easy fix. It’s just that I consider them to be more or less irrelevant on a larger scale. Not when you’re really trying to improve yourself.

They gloss over the point. They don’t get to the foundation of the issue. They don’t help someone who’s starting for nothing understand what they’re trying to do. Teach a man to fish…

Don’t start with the weather? Well yeah, in that people don’t care too much about it. You’re not going to get someone emotionally invested by talking about the rain instead of people. But the important part isn’t the weather, it’s why the weather is boring.

It feels like I'm being pedantic, but I passionately believe that specific 'don'ts' cause more problems for new writers than they solve. For one thing, people tend to either reject advice or take it too seriously in the early stages, and good advice will tactfully encourage someone who doesn't like being told what to do to listen while giving permission for those who tend to play it safe to experiment. Most people, adults especially, need to go back to their inspiration and envision the world, not nitpick over punctuation. Not in the early stages. All writers must be brave and take risks. Those risks, and mistakes, are what they'll learn most from.

You’re not going to write an excellent book by following these rules. For one thing there’s thousands of other ways to screw it up. In fact, you can make the exact same mistake the advice really means by following it to the letter. This is like training to be a doctor and someone continuously harping on not leaving a quarter inside your patient. True, but aren’t there a few other things a student needs to know to perform surgery well? There are more important factors at hand. If your dialogue sucks, it's not because you used 'exclaimed' and simply using 'said' isn't going to make you shine. Bad dialogue does not come from exclamation points or full-sentences; it comes from bad characterization and meta-motivation. If you understand the characters' moods, history, and priorities, the way that they think, if you truly see it before you and feel what they feel, see what they see, you're naturally going to improve your punctuation to convey that. In fact, thinking too hard about the writing is going to draw you further from your imagination, which is going to make you more stilted and mechanical.

When someone's struggling with making good decisions, telling them merely what not to do just causes them to seize up when really they need to relax. Most times writing is boring because it's perfunctory and impersonal - giving goals instead of restrictions helps them find their true voice. Helping them focus on what they do want instead of what they don't want cuts away some of the overwhelming options in mass, organically, while merely making a few specific decisions for them only cut away those specific decisions. And not always to the success of the piece - you have to be clear if you and the writer actually are trying to write the same vision. Some people don't like Elmore Leonard's way of storytelling and will be less satisfied when adopting his voice.

On that same note, over years and years of writing, I’ve slowly begun to realize that my glossing over of visual details is my biggest hold-up. People need to know if it’s night or day pretty early on, and weather adds ambiance. As a science fiction and fantasy writer, my worlds would be more fascinating if I didn't skim over the descriptions, but went into detail about what the culture looks like. What the person is trying to write matters a lot when deciding how they should go about it, and, surprisingly, many critics don't consider that not everyone likes the same books. These rules are not universal or self-explanatory enough to be used as a 101 strategy, rather learned advice that needs to be discussed at length instead of just insisted upon without comment. They are not only “breakable” as people recommended, but a lot of them are more about balance. While some people need to do more, advisers tend to assume that you’re already overdoing it and could stand to cut back, despite never seeing what it actually is you've done.

Personally, I’ve seen these sorts of opinions to be counterproductive, providing writers with a weird ideology of quality and a false sense of security. They get this belief about how writing should be, supported by these quippy clichés, and they think they’re golden.

If the worst thing about your dialogue is the tags, you’re doing pretty well. I argue that focusing on the meta-mechanics, like whether to use said or not, is actually distracting from the real issue. I have seen people painfully overuse the word, and there are times in which synonyms are far more effective and less invasive than other means to convey mood.

“Learn the rules to learn to break them,” they say.

“Learn the rules by breaking them,” I say.

Or rather, it’s important to experiment. It seems so many people who make orders to follow the rules have yet to understand when or why it’s okay to “break them.”

"Why say 'he blinked rapidly' when you can just say 'twice'?"

Misinformed about what an adverb is, the speaker is insisting that the horrible ramifications of using an adverb will be fixed by... using another adverb.

The best teachers know exactly what will happen when not doing what they suggest because they've made the mistakes for themselves. Many people who insist on not using adverbs aren't willing to discuss it at length because they don't really know what the problems it causes are, never having tested or thought critically about the results of disobeying. And in my opinion, the rules aren’t actually defaults. They’re very successful tools to fix already existing problems, not prevent you from making bad writing in the first place. So if your sentence isn't great, try taking out the adverb, but don't write the first draft being super conscientious, always asking, "Is this okay?" It takes you out of the scene.

One man I once had a disagreement with insisted that good dialogue was all about being “realistic.” When I pointed out examples of successful dialogue that wasn’t remotely like we speak, he, of course, immediately said that because those authors were great, their techniques didn’t apply to the newbies. Aspiring authors have to try and be normal first. (Not his actual words). My point was, I said, is that realistic dialogue does NOT equal good dialogue, and no, I don’t agree that when you’re first developing your style you need to write in one specific way.

You want to write like Shakespeare, it doesn’t make sense to restrict yourself to only writing like Hemingway. It’s better to play around with both styles, but if you had to pick one… obviously you should be practicing with whatever voice you ultimately want to have.

You don’t learn the rules by obeying them. You don’t wait until you’ve applied them successfully to know when to ignore them. You learn them by screwing around. You try to write the way that you want to, analyze if it was successful, and then play around with it some more.

No one believes that writing rules are going to make masterpieces. It seems, at times, it’s for the amateurs and the amateurs alone, to keep them in their place. But really, I find, is that people enjoy giving and getting quick and easily applied tips rather than getting to the nitty-gritty of it all. It's easier to say, "Only use said," and honestly see some decent results than it is to apply, "What does your character think of the person he's talking to?"

My real issue is that rules like Leonard’s discourage play and gloss over intention. If I could give one piece of advice to a writer, none of these would be on my top twenty. I find them ineffective, especially taken too literally. Just because you don’t have a prologue doesn’t mean your beginning works; there’s a lot more important factors to make that happen.

As for the other reason Leonard’s repeated writing rules bother me, it’s about the question of results.

Leonard is known for immersive and hooking writing, which is great. Looking at it from that perspective—to get a book going from the start, avoid things like the weather and prologues—it makes it more specific, enabling the listener to piece out what those things have in common and therefore how they should start a book. But his followers don’t listen to that advice.

Do. Without context. Just do.

Once I sent a pitch to my Hemingway-loving friend. I had rewritten it until my eyes bled and I was pretty sure it didn’t make a lick of sense anymore. I asked her her opinion: Is this confusing?

“Yes, it kind of is,” she admitted.

“Okay,” I said.

“Why don’t you just write like Hemingway?” she asked.

The insult was multi-layered. She knew damn well I am not among the fanatic lovers of Hemingway like those in her college classes. Hemingway is a manly man of few, simple words and subtle meaning in seemingly mundane situations. Am I impressed by his ability? Certainly. I recognize it’s hard. But I don’t like his style. It’s noticeable, non-immersive, even, I’ll admit, cringeworthy at times. His view on women makes sense for his time, but I find them uninteresting or even obnoxious. His obsession with masculinity doesn’t tie in with my world view. His experiences are hard for me to relate to, and his priorities aren’t mine. I recognize he’s a good writer, but that doesn’t mean he works for me.

But more to the point, and this ties us back into who the hell is Elmore Leonard, her request; did not make sense for what I was trying to do. I was writing an encompassing one-sentence summary of a sci-fi novel’s plot. Hemingway writes deep, subtextual meaning into seemingly insignificant, contemporary objects during mundane events. The goals, and therefore strategies, are different.

Who is Elmore Leonard? I don’t write Westerns. I don’t know of a Elmore Leonard. I do know my friend, I do know the writer I paid for feedback. Neither of these people admit to reading his work, and yet they push first and foremost his ideology onto me instead of questioning what will be most useful in my situation.

You’re not going to push writers’ abilities further with “don’t use anything but said.” You’re not going to get them to write excellent dialogue, make them think, force them to dig deep. You’re not going to challenge them, or teach them “how to fish.” You’re going to give them an easy way to cover up the real problem.

The issue isn’t really about who Elmore Leonard is. It’s about recognizing that people have different tastes, different goals, and especially different weaknesses or strengths. It’s important whenever giving advice to reflect on who you’re speaking to, and consider the source of your advice. Use examples that mean something to them and help them write in the way they personally like. Name dropping may give your opinions some credibility, but if you really want to be helpful, speak from the heart at hand, don’t just repeat something that sounds good. If Elmore Leonard’s advice can help me, spend some time talking about the effect it will achieve, not just telling me to be like someone else.



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