Wednesday, October 07, 2015

October 7, 2015--Rules of Writing

Somehow I never got around to reading anything by Elmore Leonard.

I enjoy Raymond Chandler so I can't quite say I dislike detective novels, though they are not among my favorites.

But Leonard has escaped me except for a few movies such as Get Shorty that are based on his novels. And I haven't been that impressed by them.

But when less than a month ago The New York Review of Books published a major piece about him--"The Elmore Leonard Story"--I ordered and read Out of Sight. Not bad, but still not for me Raymond Chandler.

Though I liked what Joan Acocella in the NYR had to say--
Elmore Leonard, who died two summers ago, aged eighty-seven, became famous as a crime novelist, but didn't like being grouped with most of the big names in that genre, people such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett or, indeed, any of the noir writers. He disapproved of their melodrama, their pessimism, their psychos and nymphs and fancy writing. He saw in crime no glamor or sexiness but, on the contrary, long hours and sore feet. His criminals didn't become what they were out of any fondness for vice. They just needed the work, and that's what was available.
I confess, the things Leonard dislikes about Chandler are among the very reasons I like him!

There is, though, one brilliant scene in Out of Sight.

When Jack Foley, who has just broken out of prison encounters a beautiful deputy U.S. marshall, Karen Sisco, who, by chance is parking outside the gates when the breakout occurs, though there for other business, Foley takes her captive, puts her in the getaway car's trunk, and joins her there, not for hanky-panky but, for among other things, to talk about movies. Especially ones in which Faye Dunaway stars!

That alone is worth the price of the book.

In his lifetime Leonard wrote more than 30 novels and because of the sparseness of his prose and vivid dialogue became a sort of writers-writer. So much so, and obviously relishing it, he took to issuing rules of writing, including these ten--

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."

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000  words.

6. Never use the word "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."

7. Use regional dialect, patois sparingly.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don't go into detail describing places and things.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

He added, "My most important rule is one that sums up the 10."

And, my favorite, "If it sounds like rewriting, rewrite it."

As much as I like most of these, and would add, "Show, don't tell," I need dispensation to use more exclamation points. In this piece alone I've used up more than my lifetime supply!

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