Tuesday, August 20, 2013

RIP Elmore Leonard

From The Detroit News:
Elmore Leonard, one of America’s greatest crime novelists and dubbed the “Dickens of Detroit” has died, his longtime researcher Gregg Sutter confirmed. He was 87.

Surrounded by family, Leonard died at 7:15 a.m. Tuesday at his Bloomfield Village home from complications of a stroke. He had been hospitalized since suffering the stroke in early August.

A worldly former advertising man, Leonard had a particular gift for the snappy, visceral dialogue of the street and of the cop shop. He started out writing Westerns in his spare time from his work as a Detroit ad man, but he lived long enough that his name became a byword for tightly written urban noirs shot through with mordant humor.
If you're a reader, pick up any book by Dutch Leonard and you will be richly rewarded.

If you're a writer, thumbtack this list over your keyboard and look at it every day:
Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle

Published: July 16, 2001

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.

And finally:

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 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.)

My (current) favorite Elmore Leonard short story is "Fire in the Hole", which blew my boots off back when my sister gave me When the Women Come Out to Dance for my birthday.


Tengrain said...

That's a nice list on writing.

Mr. White (Strunk and White) always admonished adverbs with find a better verb. Words to write by, that.



Anonymous said...

RIP Elmore.

Anonymous said...

DG -- I like that you put up a clip from Jackie Brown. It is actually my favorite Tarantino film, due in no small part to how engaging the story is.

-- Nonny Mouse

Michael Doane said...

Mr. Leonard failed to include:

Have a story worth telling.

Tell it well.

wagonjak said...

Best tribute I've read on Elmore Leonard...I've read most of his books, and he was really prolific. Thanks for sharing this tg.

Compound F said...

"I'm devilishly enchanted by your scumbaggery."

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

Now I want to write a story where all the monster of the Underworld come to the Earth to wreak havoc, so I can use the "...all hell broke loose" line without violating the rules.

But upon reflection, I recognize that Joss Whedon has used this maneuver at least three times.

Smut Clyde said...

Blish's "The Day After Judgement" also too.