Elmore Leonard passed away last August. He’s been called the greatest crime writer of our time, but that’s not a genre I know. Soon after his death, I read a tribute to him in one book review or another. I decided that, if he was that good at his craft, I should read one of his novels. You may have heard of Get Shorty or Mr. Majestyk, but I settled on Pronto (itself a bestseller two decades ago) and ordered it from Amazon.
I haven’t had a lot of time to read books lately, which is why one of my New Year’s resolutions — yes, I made some this year — is to read in a book almost every day, in addition to my extensive reading on the Web. So I decided to finish Pronto next, having started it shortly after it arrived. I’ve been chipping away at it of an evening, ensconced in my unconscionably comfortable “reading chair.” Then the flu arrived this week, and I had time to finish the book.
You’ve already gathered that I didn’t find Pronto irresistible. However, I did enjoy it. For those who worry about such things, I note an abundance of language I wouldn’t use in Sunday school or even a barnyard, as well as some scenes I wouldn’t consent to watch portrayed as written in a movie. That said, I think I’ll keep the book for future reference; Leonard was a master at dialogue, and I’m also interested in his dialogue-centered character development.
What sealed the deal for me last fall, when I considered reading one of his books, was a New York Times piece Leonard wrote on writing. You never know whether the title or headline came from the author or the editor, but it was “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.”
He briefly offers ten rules for writers. I presume these are the same ten he presents at greater length in his short book, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, which I just ordered for my own collection.
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 own voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.
“Show, don’t tell” is one of the oldest cliches of writing, but there’s a reason for that, and Leonard’s instruction in the matter is welcome.
I enjoy lists of rules for writing, especially when they come from real writers instead of school teachers who aren’t real writers. George Orwell’s list in “Politics and the English Language” is a favorite. I’ve assigned the whole essay to my college writing students, when I’ve taught. It ends with this dictum: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.”
When I saw in Leonard’s article the same healthy sense of humility and the willingness to confess that rules are tools, not shackles, I was hooked. You don’t get that sense from your junior high or high school English teacher, unless she is extraordinary, and some college teachers aren’t that sensible, either. (David R. Williams, author of Sin Boldly!, which everyone who wants to write well should read, is my hero among those who are that sensible.)
I don’t want to squander all the suspense, so I won’t list all of Leonard’s rules. You can read them for yourself — and you should, because most of the delight is in his explanations, not the rules themselves. I mention only the following.
It’s hard to argue with the wisdom of Rule #10, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
He is sometimes absolute where I am less so: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” I wouldn’t say “never,” but I mostly agree.
I’ll leave it to you to discover why Leonard mentions one of his characters, who tells how she used to write historical romances which were “full of rape and adverbs.”
Finally, in case you’re wondering, I note that the word hooptedoodle appears in Leonard’s explanation of Rule #2, “Avoid prologues . . . especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword.” He attributes the odd word to John Steinbeck, who didn’t always avoid prologues. My fine New Oxford American Dictionary (3rd Edition) doesn’t know the word hooptedoodle, but I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that.
What’s next on my reading list? I’ll have to decide soon. The flu hasn’t left yet, and (very strangely) I haven’t read Tom Clancy’s Command Authority, which I bought on the day it was released. It’s a leading candidate. But Heidi and I also have tickets to the musical version of Les Miserables a few weeks hence, and I’ve been meaning to read the entire, unabridged Victor Hugo novel before seeing the musical. I got about 100 pages into it last year and loved it.
If I didn’t have these two fine choices, I have another hundred or so books waiting to be read. A guy could have worse problems.