Several years ago, someone gave me a neat little book, “Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.”
In true Leonard fashion, it’s spare, unfluffy and packs a punch.
I’ve been a fan of Leonard for years, most recently of the TV show based on some of his work, “Justified.”
News of his death last week prompted me to dig that book out and take another look.
The introduction is classic Leonard: “These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible while I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might want to look them over.”
Few can say so much with so little. And you’ll never see a smiley face emoticon in a Leonard work. There’s a certain tone to an Elmore Leonard piece — even a TV show based on his work — that those without his special talent will never capture.
But aspiring writers can still benefit from his 10 rules:
1. Never open a book with weather. While Leonard says there are exceptions, “the reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.”
2. Avoid prologues. Leonard says, “They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword.”
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. This is one of my favorites, maybe because of my decades on a news desk. When I was a young reporter at the Haverhill Gazette, an older guy, when a subject of his stories said something excitedly, would write, “he ejaculated,” instead of said. I know that decades ago, this was an old-timey term for saying something excitedly, but by the time I was a 24-year-old reporter it meant something else entirely.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the word “said.” Leonard calls it a mortal sin.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. He makes an exception for Tom Wolfe. Understandably. The real masters can break the rules because they are masters and know how to make it work.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” He points out the rule doesn’t require an explanation, and he’s right. He also notes that writers who use suddenly also have trouble keeping their exclamation points under control.
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. He makes exceptions for Margaret Atwood and Jim Harrison. But again, who wouldn’t?
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
His elaboration on this, the longest in the book, I’ll let you discover for yourself. But my favorite part of it is “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
Leonard’s gone and the world’s a little less interesting because of it. Fortunately, his writing lives on. Writers who’d like theirs to live on, too, can take a lesson, or 10, from him.