Elmore Leonard, crime-fiction writer, died on August 20th, aged 87. Someone asked if I was familiar with him. I didn’t think that I was.
But he intrigued me. So doing a little research, I discovered that I knew quite a bit about his work but had not yet had the pleasure of reading his books.
Sitting at a desk covered with unlined yellow legal pads. Words were scrawled all over the pads. A mild mannered, gentle man who released characters onto paper and into our imaginations that were not. He came to believe in sparse language. He believed in characters telling their story.
An Economist Obituary pointed out how he used to be wordier, when he was writing dime store westerns in the 1950’s for 2 cents a word. That was then – for the last 30+ years every book he had published had become a bestseller.
In all there had been 46 novels, 9 screenplays and a total of from 21 films including “Get Shorty”, “Out of Sight” and “Jackie Brown”. The others he was not particularly pleased with once calling them “A-grade crap.”
One day in 2000 he had scribbled his Ten Rules of Writing on a scrap of hotel paper. They became famous. “Authors should be invisible,” he said. “Show, don’t tell.”
“Unless you're Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you're good at it, you don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill,” he said.
Ten Rules of Writing:
1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues. 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.
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.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
It sounds like that there is a new friend to be made. A visit to the library is in order, with thanks for leaving us such a bountiful legacy.