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Oops – How I Broke Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

The Dean of Detroit Fiction Writers Lays Down the Law

Detroit author Elmore Leonard

Most serious fiction writers are familiar with Detroit author Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.  Here’s the nutshell version:

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”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
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.

When I recently went back and reviewed the list, I realized I’d followed some of the rules in the course of writing my Motor City thriller, Scream Cruise, but broke others. Here’s how I fared.

Rules of Writing I Did or Didn’t Break

1. Never open a book with weather.

Okay on that one. Only a few mentions of weather throughout the book. I did use a line – “Outside of the bar’s A/C, the humid night air wraps itself around them like warm, sticky cellophane” – that I rather like. I mean, it’s August in Detroit, right?

2. Avoid prologues.

Uh-oh. Broke that one. Added a prologue to the final revision. But you know what? I’m perfectly comfortable with it, because it isn’t just arbitrary. It sets up a bunch of questions and expectations, all of which are answered or fulfilled later. It also foreshadows some of the manic action that later ensues.

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

Broke that one a few times, using “shrieked,” “cried,” “answered,” etc. I think a little variation from “said” is okay. It just felt right at times. When you’ve only got two characters speaking, you can simply drop some of the speaker identifiers. When you’ve got three or more in the conversation, however, you need to keep specifying who the speaker is, and the continuously repeated “saids” gives the reading a monotonous feel. Hence the variations.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.

I was pretty good about not breaking that rule, overall. Lots of writing books are absolutely fanatical about avoiding adverbs completely. And perhaps just to be kind of contrarian, I included a fair number of them. In the cases where I did, however, I know that I looked at how it read with and without the adverb. If it read better and if what was being said didn’t communicate what the adverbial modifier did, it stayed.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

Hmm. When someone is in mortal danger, are they more likely to say “oh shit,” or “oh shit!” ? I used plenty of exclamation points (sometimes with all caps) in characters’ dialogue when they were in extreme situations (which occurred fairly often in the story). And also with the “sound effects” that depicted explosions. For sure there were zero exclamation points when I was writing in my omniscient narrator’s voice. It’s an element that Tom Wolfe uses that keeps me from being much of a Tom Wolfe fan.

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

Broke that rule once or twice with a “suddenly” or “all at once” this or that. I do remember being conscious of the rule when I broke it. Once again, I looked carefully at the passage with and without the word. In the instance or two when I used it, it made what was going on clearer and would’ve sounded flat and robotic without it.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Pretty much followed this one, I think. I tried to give McCoy a speech patterns that would reflect a contemporary, educated, Midwestern black man, but with a bit of southern rural black heritage. In other words, speech patterns he might have picked up from his parents – for instance, when he uses the terms “dad-blamed” and “what in tarnation.” I very definitely avoided trying to use ghetto slang and argot. You may have noticed that McCoy often drops opening pronouns, both when he speaks aloud and when he’s telling the Scream Cruise story. The truncation may bother some people, but that’s how I hear his speech in my head.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Followed this rule pretty well. There were a few instances where I wanted the reader to get a specific picture of some of the secondary characters, but for the most part I let them fill that in on their own.

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

Overall I think I did well on this one. I know that I have a tendency to over-describe physical details, but I did my best to keep it in check. When revising, I also did a fair amount of detail-cutting, so that the action and dialogue would continue flowing.

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

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what Mr. Leonard means by this. Long chunks of exposition, perhaps? If so, I certainly avoided that. The vast majority of the paragraphs in Scream Cruise are no more than three sentences. In several cases I broke down longer paragraph blocks into shorter ones.

The “If it sounds like writing’ Rule

Along with then ten rules, there’s another that’s is supposedly the most important and ostensibly sums up the other 10: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” He goes on to talk about what he calls “hooptedoodle” – writing that is self-consciously “writerly.”

For the most part, I quite consciously avoided writerly writing. It wouldn’t have fit the story and, besides, I’m not very good at that kind of thing. I probably didn’t use more than a half dozen similes (where something is like something else) and the only metaphors I can recall were used in some character’s speech – and were promptly made fun of by some other character. I did try to choose “power” words that evoked vivid images and that carried higher levels of emotional weight.

detroit author elmore leonard

Detroit author Elmore Leonard


So Is Elmore Leonard Going to Have Me Whacked?

I don’t think so. Even though I broke a few of the rules at times, I did so consciously. Without having the rules as a general set of guideposts, though, I might have gone overboard using his no-nos, which could have seriously subverted the story.So thanks, Mr. Leonard. You’re an inspiration to all Detroit authors – not to mention writers everywhere.And may you live to be 120…


Detroit author Jim DeLorey 

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Scream Cruise Now Available For Several eReaders

Just wanted to post a quick update to let folks know that – in addition to the Amazon versions shown on the right side of the web page – you can now get the ebook version of Scream Cruise on several e-reader platforms. You can now preview and buy the book through the Apple iBookstore and read it on your iPad, iPod or even your iPhone. Here’s a link to Scream Cruise at the Apple store:

You can also purchase Scream Cruise online at Barnes & Noble – either in the print or Nook ebook version. Just click on the logo graphic for the version you prefer.

 Scream Cruise Print Version 

 Scream Cruise Nook eBook Version

If you have a Kobo ebook reader, you can get the book at the Kobo bookstore, at:

The book is also available at Smashwords.com in multiple electronic formats. Here’s a link to Scream Cruise on Smashwords:

It can be downloaded as an .html, .epub, .mobi or .PDF file. With .html, you can read it right in your browser. The .epub can be read on a number of different readers. .mobi files can be read on your Kindle (although if you are planning on reading it on a Kindle, I’d recommend getting it from Amazon over Smashwords). .PDF files can be read by the Adobe Reader program.

So there it is, folks: Scream Cruise in whatever format you prefer. Enjoy!

Scream Cruise eBook 99 Cent Sale

scream cruise - amazon sales page graphicScream Cruise eBook On Sale – Note: Sale Is Over!

Update: the 99 cent sale is over and the ebook price of Scream Cruise is back to $2.99. (Still a bargain in my opinion – just not an insane bargain!)

Thanks to everyone who’s bought a copy, at whatever price you paid. And if you enjoyed the book and want to support Detroit writers, please post a review on whatever store you bought from. Thanks!


For a limited time, I’ve made the ebook version of Scream Cruise available for just 99 cents. You can get it at this special price for Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s iPad or iPod, Sony’s eReader or on Smashwords in multiple formats. The easiest way to find it is to just Google on “scream cruise” and add the name of the bookseller you prefer.

Did You Know Your PC is a Kindle Reader?

I’m discovering that an awful lot of folks are unaware that Amazon gives away a free Kindle application that allows you to read any Kindle ebook on your computer, whether it’s an Apple or IBM-compatible PC.

Since there’s no printing cost associated with ebooks, most of the time they’re more inexpensive than print book. There are a ton of excellent books available for only $2.99 (my normal price for Scream Cruise) or even 99 cents, when authors like myself are trying to build readership for their books.

Did You Know You Can Preview eBooks?

I’ve also found out from talking to people that very often they don’t know you can preview eBooks before buying them. All the big ebook sellers allow you to read at least the opening pages of the ebook, so you can get a feel for whether it’s for you.  So go ahead and check out the previews for Scream Cruise.


Scream Cruise Print Book Published on Amazon

Scream Cruise - A Motor City Thriller

Am happy to say I’ve reached another milestone in the publication process. The print version of Scream Cruise is now available on Amazon.

The process has been challenging, to say the least. I’ve made hundreds of small changes, corrections and improvements since “finishing” the original Kindle ebook.

I’ve got 20 copies on order from CreateSpace. These will be used primarily for marketing purposes. My intention is to provide local reviewers with copies, and also to show them to a couple of local retail outlets where I think they’ll be interested in the title, due to it being a Detroit-centered fiction.


Scream Cruise eBook Published on Amazon

scream cruise - amazon sales page graphicUpdate: Scream Cruise now available on all major ebook stores.

Thanks to Mark Coker’s excellent Smashwords.com site, Scream Cruise – A Motor City Thriller is now available for download to your Nook, iPad or iPod, or Sony e-reader as well as to your Amazon Kindle (or PC with the Kindle app installed).

 Milestone: Scream Cruise Published on Amazon.

Yesterday was something of a landmark day for me. I finally published my first fiction ebook on Amazon. I have to admit it feels great!

I wrote the initial draft of my Detroit thriller, Scream Cruise in about 3 months in 2011. I could tell there many good elements in the book. But there were also several problems with it, and at the time I just didn’t know how to go about fixing them.

After I retired last November, I decided to devote myself to writing fiction full-time. But instead of just diving in and trying to wing it and learn as I went, I also decided to start seeing myself as an apprentice at the craft of writing popular fiction. I started reading a LOT of bestsellers. I read in a lot of different genres – young adult fantasy, action thrillers, romantic thrillers, mystery and more.  But I didn’t just read the books and put them aside. I’d read them once just for the story, and then I’d go back through them, scene-by-scene and chapter-by-chapter, and analyze what the author had done to make the scene work the way it did.

Anyways, I know I learned a lot from that process.  Because when I took a look again at Scream Cruise back in June of 2012, I realized I now knew what I had to do to make the story work well for readers.

So for the past two months I’ve worked diligently to finish the book. Cutting, adding, shifting things around, and just generally using every technique I’d learned to make Scream Cruise as entertaining a book as possible.

One thing I also did was heighten the amount of local Detroit content. I realized I was taking a certain risk there, since people who aren’t from or familiar with the area might be kind of put off by the place references.  But my desire to produce something that people from Greater Detroit would get a kick out of won out in the end.  In a weird way, Scream Cruise is kind of an affectionate love letter to my home town, the Motor City.

In any case, getting the ebook of Scream Cruise up on Amazon is just the beginning. I’m already working on getting a paperback version prepared to release and also to get the book out in other electronic formats besides Kindle.

No rest for the wicked!

P.S. In case you’re wondering what authors I’ve been studying, they include James Patterson, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Elmore Leonard, Stephen King, Lisa Gardner, Dean Koontz, Harlan Coben, Alex Kava, J. A. Konrath, Blake Crouch, Tess Gerritsen, Thomas Harris, William Peter Blatty, Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, Stieg Larsson, Carl Hiassen, Janet Evanovitch – and more besides.