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Arts and Culture

How to Write Fiction, by Actual Fiction Writers

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Posted on Mar 1, 2010
writing hand
Flickr / tnarik

Hey, aspiring fiction writers: Watch your adverbs closely and lay off the exclamation points! Those are just two how-to tips (or maybe how-not-to tips) from crime writer Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules of Writing,” which, as the title suggests, offers handy guidelines for would-be authors. The Guardian rounded up some other notable scribes and asked them to add to Leonard’s lineup with their own lists.  —KA

Elmore Leonard in The Guardian:

4 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”.

5 Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6 Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”. This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

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MarthaA's avatar

By MarthaA, March 3, 2010 at 2:35 pm Link to this comment

Republicans are really great at fiction, they have been writing political fiction for years.

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By gerard, March 3, 2010 at 1:52 pm Link to this comment

Wait a second!  Before you know it, you won’t even be “writing” fiction!  Take a look at “Publishing: The Revolutionary Future” by Jason Epstein in NY Review of Books current edition.

And before we get used to that revolution, the next one will be on its heels:  All you have to do to get worldwide distribution for any idea, good or bad, is just sit down in front of a sensitized screen and think your book into it. Automatic correction of errors whether textual or grammatical.  No editors.  No rejections—except maybe the machine will be programmed to reject libelous statements for the protection of the “writer.” 

All submissions will be automatically “archived"at the World University of Literature—fiction or nonfiction or “other.”  Any “user” wanting to “access” your work can punch in your name or a word from the desired title, and Bingo! Your work is located and our account is automatically dredited with compensation according to a prearranged scale based on quality and length of content.  A bank of computers called “Read-and-Rate” will be developed for this specific purpose, and ...  Wake me when it’s over!

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MarthaA's avatar

By MarthaA, March 3, 2010 at 12:40 pm Link to this comment

The really good political books are in academic libraries and the populace is not encouraged to read them.

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By Marika, March 3, 2010 at 8:42 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is why I don’t write fiction. There is already a plethora of badly written, over-hyped crap on the market-why should I add to the pile?

Gerard, I couldn’t agree more. So many authors put out one good book, and then follow up with absolute garbage.

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By Arthur, March 3, 2010 at 7:41 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Fiction writers are best suited in positions as politicians or psychologists, for both professions excel in fabrication and prevarication .

“Just making stuff up” may delight some readers ,however isn’t reality and truth more important ?

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MarthaA's avatar

By MarthaA, March 1, 2010 at 6:43 pm Link to this comment

It seems all the populace ever hear is fiction.

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By gerard, March 1, 2010 at 4:29 pm Link to this comment

What is really needed is 10 rules to get an editor to look at your work.  The first will be to have a Name already, which opens the door to getting an agent to consider helping you.  Then 2 to 8 will be: “List previous work published by major publishers, citing dates and credits, reviews of note, etc.”  Number 9 will be “List prizes, awards, grants, etc.”  And 10 will be “State what resources you have for helping to publicize your work, contacts in radio, TV, movies, etc.”

The truth is that there is so much creativity in human nature (and so many humans who try to write creative fiction) that publishers cannot begin to look at every possibility.  The result is that writers are limited to following a rigid protocol, and real creativity all too often cannot get through the barriers.

The more “popular” the subject matter, the easier to find a publisher and get “discovered.”  After that, it’s all downhill—literally, and you can find yourself writing in your introduction stuff like:  “Thank all my thousands of readers for buying my previous book.  My career is now assured, no matter what drivel I may cough up next time.”

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