Category Archives: Love your language

Find tips on how to make your writing sparkle.

Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing

A couple weeks ago I wrote about the Guardian article on the Ten Rules for Writers, which featured Elmore Leonard’s writing advice.

Last night, The Culture Show on BBC2 reran an interview with Elmore Leonard from 2006, where he talked about writing. Here’s a link to the video on the BBC’s website, but you might not be able to view it outside the UK. I couldn’t find it on YouTube, unfortunately.

This interview is the closest I’ve ever gotten to smoking a cigarette. Beware: if you’re trying to quit, you might not want to watch it.


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“Said” is alive and well

My eighth-grade English teacher had us all chanting “Said is dead.”*

It’s a good thing that was at a Christian school, where I learned resurrection is possible.

I remember reading Stephen King’s On Writing yonks ago. The one piece of advice that stuck with me is that “said” is the best of dialog tags.

On Joanna Bourne’s blog today, she dissects ‘saidims’ – those sometimes annoying and often intrusive dialog tags that try to improve on a simple word. And usually fail. As you’d expect from her blog, it’s a very detailed and interesting look at the different reasons for using dialog tags, and how to get around using them at all.

Elmore Leonard’s third rule for writing fiction (as reported in yesterday’s Guardian) is this:

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

In case you’re as lazy as I am, here it is:

asseverate – to assert or declare emphatically or solemnly

*Sorry, Mrs Ellis. I’m sure it was just an exercise in vocab building.

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10 rules for writers

Since we’re on the subject, and since I seem to be doing anything to avoid housework, today’s Guardian’s Review section has a feature where writers give their 10 rules for writers. I don’t think any of them are radical, but the way they express them is a joy.

My favorite is from Elmore Leonard:

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.

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How to transcend a genre

Last night I came home from work, collapsed on the couch (it’s tough sitting at a computer all day long) and cracked open a book. Hubby came into the living room and asked, “Why do you write romance?”

So much for a Friday night of mindless vegging. Knowing my husband’s prejudices against romance novels, I was immediately a bit on the defense. “Why not romance? It’s what I spent my teenage years reading, and it’s the form stories take when they pop into my brain. If I’d grown up reading sci-fi, I’d probably write sci-fi. Ditto mysteries.”

He shook his head. “But why genre fiction when you could write literary fiction?”

A few points you need to know before we go further. 1) My husband’s a PhD candidate studying American literature (in London. I know, it doesn’t make much sense). 2) I got my BA in English lit, so when we first met we traded books by Margaret Atwood and WG Sebald. 3) I’d asked him to read the first four chapters of my work-in-progress this week, which he did yesterday.

I started to feel flattered that he thought I could write literary fiction. Then I realized we were back to that old conversation, one I have with most of my literature-loving friends, where genre fiction is a poor relation to literary fiction. And to top it off, he said he thought I was taking a decent idea and shoehorning it into a romance novel mold. An interesting point, and something I’ll certainly be on the look-out for as I continue to write and shape my story.

It got us talking about people like Jane Austen and Raymond Chandler who wrote in a particular genre and transcend it.

Here are my initial thoughts on how they do this. I’d love it if you added yours in the comments.

1. They focus on language.

We often hear about the importance of story and character. Craft is also a buzz word, but I think that focuses more on the techniques of putting a story together.

Language is the selection of words and images used to tell a story. A tightly honed sentence is a thing of beauty. A series of them, making up a passage, is worth getting out of bed for. My husband pointed out two of my sentences that really impressed him. In both cases, I was again hit by the sense of pride I first experienced when they wiggled their way out of my fingers and onto my keyboard. I’ll be going through my WIP with a tea-strainer to sift out more such nuggets.

2. They turn tropes on their heads.

Tropes are those well-worn paths plots tread in genre fiction. In detective fiction, it’s the guilty butler, or the shady yet vulnerable dame who walks into a private dick’s office.

Romance has so many of them, they could overflow the pools at the Playboy mansion. The virgin and the rake; the boss and his secretary; the inconvenient pregnancy that becomes oh so convenient; the billionaire and the financially insecure woman; the mistaken prostitute…

This is what my husband was referring to when he said I was trying to take a story and make it fit the genre. A couple of the decisions my characters made didn’t ring true to human behavior, and when he asked why I chose to include them in the plot, I didn’t have a good answer.

Writers who transcend the genre they’re writing in either avoid these tropes or use them in a way that’s fresh and unexpected. Fahrenheit 451 has destructive villains, but instead of torching nuclear plants or nursery schools, they burn books.

As I said, these are just initial thoughts. Anything to add?


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