“If it sounds like writing,” says Elmore Leonard, “I rewrite it.”
Leonard’s writing sounds the way people talk. It rings true. In novels like Get Shorty, Rum Punch and Out of Sight, Leonard has established himself as a master stylist, and while his characters may be lowlifes, his books are received and admired in the highest circles. In 1998 Martin Amis recalled visiting Saul Bellow and seeing Leonard’s books on the old man’s shelves. “Bellow and I agreed,” said Amis, “that for an absolutely reliable and unstinting infusion of narrative pleasure in a prose miraculously purged of all false qualities, there was no one quite like Elmore Leonard.”
In 2006 Leonard appeared on BBC Two’s The Culture Show to talk about the craft of writing and give some advice to aspiring authors. In the program, shown above, Leonard talks about his deep appreciation of Ernest Hemingway’s work in general, and about his particular debt to the 1970 crime novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle, by George V. Higgins. While explaining his approach, Leonard jots down three tips:
- “You have to listen to your characters.”
- “Don’t worry about what your mother thinks of your language.”
- “Try to get a rhythm.”
“I always refer to style as sound,” says Leonard. “The sound of the writing.” Some of Leonard’s suggestions appeared in a 2001 New York Times article that became the basis of his 2007 book, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. Here are those rules in outline form:
- Never open a book with the weather.
- Avoid prologues.
- Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
- Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
- Keep your exclamation points under control!
- Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
- Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
- Same for places and things.
- Leave out the parts readers tend to skip.