I don't like doling out writing advice. Oh, I do it from time to time. But it's something I'd really rather avoid. Partially, that's out of modesty. As many of you no doubt know already, I am the most wonderfully humble man in the entire world. BOW DOWN, MORTALS, AND WORSHIP MY AWESOME HUMILITY!!!
Also -- and I probably shouldn't admit this -- I'm not a big believer in writing advice from anybody. As that noted literary thinker James T. Kirk once said, "We learn by doing." Taking a class isn't going to teach you how to write. Reading a book isn't going to teach you how to write. Writing and writing and writing is going to teach you how to write. (This is something I shouldn't admit because it might come back to haunt me if I ever try to get a gig teaching writing. Note to future self: Delete this blog post before sending your resume to that community college.)
I didn't become the writer I am today -- the nearly broke but, I like to think, rather skilled one -- because of a subscription to Writer's Digest, just as Tiger Woods didn't master golf by reading 101 Ways to Hit a Little White Ball Into a Hole by Jack Nicklaus (as told to a rather skilled but nearly broke writer). No. Tiger Woods got where he is today through practice practice practice. Or he sold his soul to Satan. Either way, it wasn't because someone said, "Try hitting the ball a little...I don't know...harder maybe. It might go farther that way."
So I bring to all writing advice a grain of salt about the size of a watermelon, even when the writer doing the advising is one I respect as much as Elmore Leonard. I see Leonard's "10 Rules of Writing" cited a lot, and there's some real wisdom in it. Of course there would be. When it comes to modern crime fiction, Elmore Leonard is The Man.
But here's the thing: Leonard's list is misnamed. It's not 10 Rules of Writing. It's 10 Rules for Writing Like Elmore Leonard. If all you want to write are Get Shorty pastiches, well, this'll give you a great head start. But if you have any interest in your own voice as a writer -- indeed, having any sort of voice at all -- keep in mind that Leonard's commandments weren't written in stone by the finger of God. They were banged out on a Smith Corona by a dude in Michigan. Big difference.
I got to thinking about all this recently because I've been reading the most insanely entertaining book I've encountered in years -- decades even -- and it's constantly making what some gurus would tell you is a rookie mistake. The point of view bounces from character to character with no particular rhyme or reason. One minute we're in one guy's head, the next we're in another's, a paragraph later we're in yet another's. The author doesn't start a new chapter to indicate the switch and he doesn't use section breaks, either. He just jumps to a new perspective whenever the heck he feels like it.
This is a no-no grande -- a technique that would simply be labeled "incompetence" if you or I tried it. And it works beautifully. The book also breaks some of Elmore Leonard's Rules for Writing Like Elmore Leonard and is none the worse for it. The only rules the author followed were My Rules for Writing Like Me.
Those are the rules I follow, too. I figured out what they were by breaking them, a lot, and realizing that what I'd produced wasn't good. I won't bother mentioning what my rules are, because they're my rules. I need Steve Hockensmith's Rules for Writing Like Steve Hockensmith, but nobody else does. If you want to be a good writer, you need Your Rules for You.
Oh, and that author who can't keep his POVs straight? He's Larry McMurtry, and the novel in question is a little something called Lonesome Dove. It won a Pulitzer Prize. It also breaks one of my biggest rules when it comes to books: For god's sake, don't be over 500 pages long. Lonesome Dove is more than 1,000 pages -- and I'm enjoying each and every one.
Sometimes it pays to break your own rules, too.