Friday, 12 March 2010

Elmore Leonard's Top Ten Writing Tips (more or less)

I'm not exactly bereft when it comes to 'How-to-Write' books - but what's this I read in Time Out? Best-selling crime-writer Elmore Leonard's giving out writing tips on TV!

It's a BBC programme called 'Culture', so forget helpful countdown numbers, as in 'The 20 Best Spats from Corrie''. Instead, close ups of the author's gaunt face wreathed in cigarette smoke, intercut with clips of John Travolta and Danny DeVito talking about writing in the 1995 film, 'Get Shorty'

As I'm also eating a pizza, and it's more an edited version of the writer's thoughts than 'tips' I note down only nine. Maybe there were more.

1 Get up at 5am and only allow yourself to drink coffee when you're well into the scene. Ooh, that's good - I'm an early riser, too. Maybe the 'scene' he mentions is the 'zone' I've heard about, or maybe he really did say 'zone'. English writers could substitute tea, but *n.b see below for contradictory info. on the start time.

2 Characters are more important than plot, and names make a difference. I like the way Leonard 'auditions' his characters and told how changing the name of one character from Frank McTeeth (?) to Frank Delaney made him a talkative extravert.

3. Don't describe the characters appearance, but let them emerge from the way they talk. Just as bad, in my opinion, is when characters describe their own mirror reflections.

4. Don't worry about what your mother might think.

5. Readers won't skip dialogue. He advocates building a 'rythym, a beat that goes like jazz', which relates more to the Southern US where most of his stories are set. The same idea in different format, though, can be seem in John Le Carre's distinctive 'Smiley' speech

6 Develop a style or sound. Never use a verb other than 'said' in dialogue and don't use adverbs to modify verbs. Elroy mentions Hemingway as an influence and quotes Conrad on adverbs.

7. Writing is re-writing. He writes in longhand, four pages of writing for every one he ends up with. He writes from 10am to 6pm and has peanuts for lunch. This seems to contradict the early start rule first mentioned.

8. Write because it makes you happy. Leonard says he sometimes looks at the clock at around 3pm and thinks 'Oh, good, I've still got three hours left.How many jobs are there where you say that?'

9. The rest is up to you.

There's nothing here I haven't read before in one or another of my 'How-to' books. If it were down to reading books, or doing courses, for that matter, I'd be a millionaire best seller too.


  1. I was reading these myself after hearing them being discussed on Radio 4 the other week. I am like you Sheila, I have done a hundred and one courses, read the books, the articles, the stories. I can critique and evaluate and I can help others with their writing but my own seems to be moribund. The thing is I know what I have to do and it is simple. Sit down and actually do it! Ignore the censorious voices that stop me. Get lost in it and enjoy it. I have so many stories running around in my head....

  2. Yes, apply bum to seat in front of computer is good advice Now I'm no longer teaching I can write most days from 9.30am until 2pm. I know writing mainly improves by doing it so that keeps me at it. I wish I had started earlier, but there was a lot of writing, too, in my courses and in the job so I think that was helpful.