Welcome to the first in a series of posts covering Elmore Leonard’s rules for writers. Leonard started his career writing westerns, then switched to hard-boiled crime, which became his specialty. His skill as an author was widely praised by both the literary community and the general public of readers. Many of his works were made into famous movies, and he received the National Book Award in 2012.
Leonard developed ten rules for writers (and a bonus eleventh rule that sums up the rest). I love his books, so when I learned these rules, I applied them to my own writing. I think they’ve made the single biggest positive change to the quality of my work.
So, in this series, I’m going to take you through all of them. Beginning with…
Never open a book with weather.
Many authors, amateurs and professionals alike, make this mistake. I see it frequently in submissions to the literary magazine on which I serve as an editorial assistant. The first paragraph of a piece will be a long passage about the rain, sleet, or snow. It’s often well-written, with lots of flowery language and literary artistry.
But here are some major problems with starting a story that way:
- It’s not interesting.
Especially in today’s hyper-competitive bookselling marketplaces like Amazon, you want to grab your readers from the very first line.
Drop them into some interesting situation and make them ask questions about what’s going on. Weather will not cut it. It may build atmosphere, but creating tension and conflict in a compelling opening scene is much more effective.
That’s what turns browsers of your book into buyers of your book.
- It’s throat clearing.
Maybe you’ve heard that term before. It means that the author doesn’t have a sense of their story yet, so they delay by talking about the weather for a while. They write the best descriptions of rain they can, because that feels more comfortable than actually starting their book.
Don’t clear your throat. You’re a writer, so jump in and write! You can do it!
- Readers want to connect with characters, not get a weather report.
This ties in with #1. The reader doesn’t want to hear how much snow is falling. They want to meet the people you’ve created.
Start your book with a character doing something intriguing. Make the reader ask questions like: Who is this person? What are they doing? Why are they doing it? If your readers have questions, they’ll keep reading to find answers.
So, unless your character is a meteorologist, don’t open your book or short story with weather. Instead, begin with an interesting person doing an equally interesting thing.
That’s my advice to you, based on Elmore Leonard’s first rule of writing. Get the reader invested from the very start. You’ll hook them, and they won’t be able to put your novel back on the bookstore shelf. Or pass it by on Amazon.