Friday, September 6, 2013

Leonard's List

“The code is more what you'd call 'guidelines' than actual rules.”
            -Captain Barbbosa, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Elmore Leonard wrote a lot of books. He started with Westerns, but eventually ended up writing crime and suspense novels, some of which he's won awards for—which I guess means somebody liked them, but not just ordinary groundlings. A whole heap of books, and I've never read a single one. Leonard died a few weeks ago. I think I'll have a look at his work.

The lurid covers have starkly printed titles: City Primeval . . . Tishomingo Blues . . . Stick. How could anyone say no to that level of raw pulp fiction? I mean, Pagan Babies for Christ sake. Even if that is bad it has to be good! But I don't really want to talk about genres I'm interested in right now, or the fact that everything is genre—so button your lip, literary snobs. That's right, I'm talking to you missy-sir “I read Literature, not genre fiction.” No, we'll do that another time. I want to share Leonard's 10 rules of writing. They show his pension for muscular prose.

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  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.

These rules are extracted from his essay on the subject. You can read more of what he has to say about each of them here, at a better blog than this one.

The question, of course, any developing writer will ask themselves now is, “Should I follow these rules?” The answer is yes, if you want to write like Elmore Leonard. Most of these are good advice, but none of the ten are carved in stone. Leonard says as much himself. If you can get away with any of it, by all means do. Some of my favorite authors are loose with their exclamation points, wield modifying adverbs with a sly flourish, and write on and on about appearances. I'm sure I've read whole pages of nothing but black cloaks and buckled shoes and velveted rooms. But under the right pen I would gladly read many more.  

Under the right pen.

So when Leonard says, “When it sounds like writing, I re-write it,” he is speaking for himself, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't listen. It's about where your skills lie. All of his rules, if followed, can help keep you out of some common writing pitfalls, many of which have to do with overwriting. Think of it as a treasure map, sections of which are labeled “tread lightly here.”

Here's the lesson. It's not enough to know Leonard's rules, you have to understand why he said them in the first place. You can charge blindly into your own writing and break your shins all over each and every one of the ten . . . or, the next time you settle down to read, you can pay close attention to when the writing is really working and the story is landing home, and when it isn't. Then reflect on Leonard's list. That is basically the key to this whole thing.

Here's to Elmore Leonard and bloody shins.

Happy hunting.

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