Friday, August 23, 2013

Elmore Leonard: "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip"


"It’s terribly sad when the world loses someone fantastically gifted who also, through some cosmic fluke, is not a dick. Elmore Leonard was not a dick. He was nice. He wrote something like a book a year, and even the crap ones were better than most of what passes for decent fiction these days. And he was one cool motherfucker."

The writer Elmore Leonard died August 20 at the age of 87.  One of the more astute observations of Leonard's work, including the above appreciation, is currently at The Paris Review online along with a 2010 interview by Jonathan Segura. 

The Guardian UK  published an article with the advice of 28 authors, including Leonard on how to write. Surprisingly little was self-serving or snotty -- most contributors seemed genuine in their desire to advise other writers on the ephemeral qualities of what it is they do.

Suggestions ranged from the elaborate to zen-like (the advice of Helen Simpson: The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying "Faire et se taire" (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as "Shut up and get on with it"). Many of the replies, of course, describe the nuts-and-bolts of writing; the rules, such as they are, are as individual as the writers themselves.

Here are the ten suggestions of Elmore Leonard, which seem well-thought, and well intentioned; they are excerpted from Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing (William Morrow, 2007). He begins, as many good writers do, by breaking his own rule of ten with an un-numbered admonition: Using adverbs is a mortal sin.

1 Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. ...

Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword ... There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, but it's OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks."

Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" . . . he admonished gravely. ...I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs".

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.

Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose". This rule doesn't require an explanation.

Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won't be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants", what do the "Ameri­can and the girl with him" look like? "She had taken off her hat and put it on the table." That's the only reference to a physical description in the story.

9 Don't go into great detail describing places and things, unless you're ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

(photo of Elmore Leonard by Laurie Roberts.)

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