Birthday gift card burning a hole in my pocket, I wandered into Barnes & Noble yesterday in search of . . . who knows what. Half the appeal is having no idea what you’re interested in and waiting for something to jump off the shelves. As usual, I checked out the remainder and bargain displays first before moving on to my old standbys: Business, Self-Help and, of course, Writing. There, the slimmest of volumes caught my eye: “Ten Rules of Writing” by Elmore Leonard.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a sucker for Top Ten lists. And I’m a bigger sucker for Leonard, one of my favorite go-to authors for many years. If you’re not familiar with him, he’s a master of realistic dialogue, quirky characters and sudden, unexpected violence. A Leonard character can be engaged in casual conversation one moment and dead the next. Much like real life.
Leonard started out writing Western novels back in the 50s, then branched out into mysteries. A number of his books have been adapted into successful movies, notably “Hud,” “Hombre,” “3:10 to Yuma” (twice), “Get Shorty,” “Out of Sight” (an under- appreciated flick starring George Clooney and J-Lo), and Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown.” At 86, he’s still prolific, serving as executive producer for “Justified,” a modern-day Western about a trigger-happy U.S. Marshal transferred to his hometown of Harlan, Kentucky, as punishment for his misdeeds. The third season starts this week on FX, and if you’re not a fan yet, I urge you to give it a try.
But back to the “Ten Rules.” The list price is $17.00, which probably breaks down to ten cents a word. If you judge it on length alone, you’ll pass it right by. But if you judge it on writing wisdom, you’ll run, not walk, to the checkout lane. After all, what is a lifetime of hard-won advice really worth?
Some of Leonard’s rules are unbelievably simple. Such as his admonition to never use the word “suddenly” or rely on exclamation points. Or use regional dialect sparingly. Or go easy on boring details like weather, scenery and character descriptions.
I especially like Rule #3: The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. Thus, ‘said’ is far less intrusive than ‘grumbled,’ ‘gasped,’ or ‘cautioned.’
Leonard is not a fan of “hooptedoodle,” a word coined by Steinbeck for pretty words that get between the reader and the story.
The remaining rules are more complex and require judgment and experience on the part of the writer. Things like “If proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go.” In other words, you have to know the rules to break the rules.
Rule #10 sums up a lot of what goes before. “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. Thick paragraphs of prose that have too many words. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.” Very Hemingway-esque.
In Leonard’s world, it (hard)boils down to a bonus eleventh rule. The writer must remain invisible. I agree with that. You want the story to seem like it’s telling itself.
Or, as Leonard says, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”