By Eric Olsen
Elmore Leonard died yesterday. Age 87, stroke. For some reason, this one caught me by surprise. I knew Leonard was a bit on in years, but there was something about him or about his writing, I guess, that I just didn’t think he would or could get old, or have a stroke, or die.
He’s one of my favorite writers. I keep a bunch of my favorite mystery novels on a shelf near where I write, for easy reference. These include Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park and Red Square, James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, Richard Condon’s Prizzi’s Honor, and three of Leonard’s novels: Get Shorty, 52 Pickup, and Bandits.
Get Shorty is unquestionably one of the favorites of all my favorites. I reread the book every now and then, and in between those re-reads, I read the odd passage just for inspiration, to kick-start my own words, always hoping some of Leonard’s crisp prose will rub off on my own, always thinking, gee, why can’t I write like that. I do the best I can, and while his prose doesn’t exactly rub off, as a sort of homage to Leonard, I start whacking adverbs, and excess words, and any writing that sounds like writing, and substituting “he said” for fancifications such as “he exclaimed” or “she elaborated.”
One of Leonard’s books not among my faves, one I don’t own and haven’t read, is Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing (William Morrow, 2007). I tend to avoid rules of writing offered by writers, I suppose because I came of age in Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement—Down with the man! and all that—and I’ve had a sort of reflexive aversion to rules of any sort ever since, though I have to admit I’m pretty much a rule-abiding kind of guy; I just grouse to myself and grumble as I abide, merely a wannabe rule-breaking tough guy, maybe one from a Leonard novel. But I never bought this book.
The book developed out of an article he wrote for The New York Times in 2001. It was part of a regular series of “writers on writing” that over several months published essays about writing by more than 60 writers, from Andre Aciman to Hilma Wolitzer, including the likes of Jane Smiley, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Ed McBain, David Mamet, Saul Bellow, and E.L. Doctorow along the way. And Leonard, of course. For the complete list go here.
This morning in an obit in The New York Times, the writer mentions that book of rules, which reminded me that I had the original article tucked away in a file somewhere in my basement, a file filled with articles about “the rules of writing” I try to ignore.
I mention this list of rules because maybe genre isn’t your thing, or maybe Leonard isn’t, but if you’re a writer then no doubt you’re like me, always looking for an edge. I have to say that Leonard’s rules aren’t bad as rules go, though I don’t get his thing about adverbs. Why does the English language have them if we’re not supposed to use them?
Here’s Leonard’s original article, lifted from the July 16, 2001 edition of The New York Times:
WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle
By ELMORE LEONARD
These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when 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 look them over.
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. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
2. Avoid prologues. They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.
There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s O.K. 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. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”
3. 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 to get the dictionary.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said,” he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”
5. 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.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
7. 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 flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.
8. 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, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. 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.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading in a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)
If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character—the one whose view best brings the scene to life—I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.
What Steinbeck did in Sweet Thursday was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. “Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, “Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled “Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter “Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: “Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”
Sweet Thursday came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.
Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.