Thursday, August 22, 2013

What's the Best Writing Advice You Ever Received?

Mystery Writer Elmore Leonard died this week at an elderly age. Many readers loved his work; others thought he was too caustic and blunt. But critics praised his work for being spare and to the point.

His Ten Rules of Writing go down in literary history as among the very best advice.

I received a paper copy of these rules years ago when I'd entered a manuscript into an RWA contest. One judge gave me high marks, and said, "I think you're ready to publish, with only a little more polish. She said, read these ten rules of writing by Elmore Leonard and pay particular attention to Numbers 3, 4, 5, and 6. She had highlighted them for me.

These rules were:
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" and "all hell broke loose."

These were so easy to remember, I felt my life change. In the first place, #3 eliminated the agonizing thought process to find some other flowery or exciting phrase. I thought using "said" only was too mundane and boring.

Eliminating #4 also  lifted quite a burden off my shoulders. I had a difficult time finding enough proper adverbs to use with "said."

#5-Exclamation points? I loved those! But then I learned I shouldn't use them! How else could I denote excitement?!!!

Rule #6 broke my heart, but I do understand. The phrase "all hell broke loose" should be used in an exciting western shoot-out; should I ever write an exciting western shoot-out.
The habit of using "suddenly" was difficult to break, but now I calmly write, "He jumped from the wagon," instead of  "Suddenly, he jumped from the wagon."

I give all due praise to Mr. Leonard, but the very best advice on writing came from Strunk and White-The Elements of Style.
The rule is: Use an Active Voice--Not Passive.

We all learned the difference in Active Writing vs. Passive Writing in high school (or Action Verbs and Passive Verbs). The concept is easy enough to learn, but to put it into practice is another task. My very first editor taught me the difference, and thankfully, I naturally wrote in a more Active Voice. Still, much room for improvement faced me every time I sat down to write.

These rules teach the technicalities of writing a sentence, a paragraph, a full manuscript.
Other rules are more philosophical.

The very best I've ever heard or read is: Write What You Know. Not just one person said this--I've heard it and read it numerous times, enough to realize just how important it is.

It does not mean a writer living in a major city cannot write about living in a small town, because a write can find limitless sources of information. Still, firsthand knowledge does help immensely.
The diligent author might take the time and trouble to visit such a place to soak up the local flavor.

What is the best advice you received about the art of writing? Who gave you this advice, or where did you read it? 

Thank you for reading my blog. 


  1. Great post, Celia. The advice I received which I feel helped me the most in the beginning was: "Just write the story and leave the editing for later." My sister was the one who told me this after watching me agonize over every sentence and paragraph many years ago.
    I was a very SLOOOOW writer and never wanted to move on until each line was perfected. By that time I had killed my poor creative MUSE. Learning to let go and "write the story" without editing the first draft greatly improved the process and really was much more fun.

  2. Rebecca--I understand. When I first began writing, I wrote with abandon, barely looked back. Texas Blue was my first book and I finished it in 3 months. The plot, etc. just gushed out of my head.
    Now? I agonize more over words and sentences before I move on. This is because I now know too much! In the beginning, I was ignorant about writing fiction, POV, everything. As I learned and I hope became a better author, everything slowed to a crawl.
    I don't like being this way--I want to write with abandon again!
    Your sister gave you good advice.

  3. Good advice all around today. I'm glad I took time off to read this post. Best advice given me. Never have your narrator speak in a more educated voice than your characters. This from a college English teacher re my first short story. I was telling this good ole boy's story in my best "College educated" voice. Following his advice and starting over, the story (Winner Take All) won the Fiction Skills Scholardhip when submitted to Indiana U. Workshop.
    Second best advice. You don't have to experience everything you write about, but you have to hone in on what the characters are feeling about the experience.

  4. Linda--did you know I only recently heard your advice, that of not writing above the educational level of your characters? And that was from some obscure source. Now I learn you've known it all along. It makes perfect sense, of course.

    As to you second advice, I understand what you're saying. However, some people can write stories set in places they've never been and some can't. I don't seem to be able to do that--I have to stick with all Texas.
    In The Stars at Night, I do have Kate from NY, and she and Jesse do return there for a while. But I've been to NY enough to know the feel and the layout.
    Thank you for commenting. I need to take notes.

  5. I've received and read so much writing advice over the years, I can't even remember it all. Elmore Leonard's list is fabulous, though. My favorite among his ten tips is #10: "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip." Even in his advice, Leonard had an inimitable voice. In explaining, #10, he wrote "Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he's writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character's head, and the reader either knows what the guy's thinking or doesn't care. I'll bet you don't skip dialogue."

    All of that has been boiled down by later writing gurus into "trust the reader" and "resist the urge to explain" -- both of which are great advice, but they lack the character of Leonard's admonishment. ;-)

  6. Kathleen--I loved Rule # 10 about the Hooptedoodle, and have written more than one blog about it. In his list when he describes this rule, at the end, he says, "Me? I read every word."
    Once, I was reading a friend's new ms--new writer--and when I discussed it with her, I said, "You might want to cut out some of this Hooptedoodle." Oops, my main goal is to not make anyone mad or unhappy. She had her feelings hurt, so I explained Elmore Leonard as much as I could. I suppose she got over it, because she asked for a copy of his Ten Rules of Writing. But her manuscripts are still filled with Hooptedoodle.
    Thanks for commenting.

  7. Such good advice from everyone, especially you, Celia. Some of the best advice I've ever received came from author Dee Pace. Some years ago she worked for Jean Price (Jody Thomas's sister) who was my agent back then. Dee was Jean's reader (I forget her exact title.) She read my manuscripts cover to cover. Her best advice was "the rule of three." Examples: never start more than three paragraphs on a page with the same word; when repeating a word for emphasis, repeat it twice for a total of three. There are other examples but I can't think of them right now.

    My personal advice: learn the rules first, then learn when it's okay to break them. This has to do with voice. We don't all speak or write alike.

  8. Never give up. Never stop writing. Don't listen to negativity, but separate that from constructive criticism. Try to write every day, but if you can't do SOMETHING-- outline, edit, etc. to keep moving forward. So much good advice out there! (But there's bad advice, too!)LOL Great post, Celia.

  9. Lyn--there you go. I just learned something new--the rule of three.
    Oh, and I love your take on rules--learn them first, and then break them. I think some of the best books I've read might have broken some important rules.

  10. Cheryl--well, I like your good advice best. I try very hard not to listen to negativity. But if there's not enough positive things, I might succumb to the negative.
    Listen, girl, I have been told so much negative stuff, I can't even remember it. So..all the better! Often, I just figure out things for myself.
    Thanks so much.

  11. The best advice I received was given to me by Kate Duffy, a great editor from Kensington who died too early; "Stay in the present." In other words, don't spend pages rambling about back story and explanations.

  12. Mona--Debbie MacComber, one of the most successful romance authors, spends pages on back story. She very rich from her books and movies, but still, her novels became tiresome because of the back story. Each book is connected in a series, so she does explain a lot.
    So, I agree with Kate Duffy.
    Good advice for us all.

  13. My favourite advice is, 'Write what you want to write, and don't let current 'trends' influence you.' It's true - zombies, vampires, steampunk, etc. etc. will come and go. I prefer to stay with contemporary romance, which is my 'natural' genre, and romance never goes out of fashion LOL

  14. Paula--you've touched on an important subject. I have always felt distanced from so many modern or current trends. Those you mention, lands, I cannot read them, let along write them.
    I think this is how you and I connect. We stick with real people who might have experienced our creation of a fictional place and time.

    I like to read and write about real people, whether in the Nineteenth Century of the Twentieth, or the Twenty-First...I can relate.
    Thanks so much for validating exactly what I believe.

  15. Love your post, Celia. I think Caroline Clemmons and Geri Foster have helped me the most in recent years. They catch me in several transgressions like exclammations, saids, and not using was. Plus Caroline keeping me straight when she tells me my Texan is showing. =) Elmore Leonard's rules keep us very up-to-date. Thanks for this today!

  16. This is a great post, Celia. The best advice (which I unfortunately don't adhere to) is something I read in Stephen King's book on writing (I think it's called "On Writing"). He said write the story quickly, over the span of a few months. This way you'll retain the excitement and energy. I keep striving for this but still find myself unable to work in nothing more than spurts at a time. But with each book I'm getting a little better. It boils down to ignoring your internal editor, at least in the first pass. I think this is something many writers struggle with.

  17. I have to watch out for passive voice and favorite words I repeat too much. A friend of mine told me to leave off dialogue tags as much as possible and another told me to always write from my heart. Writing from my heart was the best advice ever.
    I got some great tips on your blog today, Celia.