Considering I’m one of his biggest fans and believe he was one of the greatest writers of the last 100 years, I can’t specifically remember when I first picked up an Elmore Leonard novel. I can’t even remember which one it was. It could have been Freaky Deaky – which I vaguely recall reading on a camping trip to Cornwall in my late teens. (In my opinion, the opening sequence of that novel is one of the finest pieces of writing of modern times. It’s that good). Or possibly The Big Bounce, one of his earliest crime novels. Anyway, whenever it was, it had a profound effect on me as a man, and as a writer.
Why? Well mostly because of how alive his books made me feel. It’s a tiresome cliche to say that characters ‘leap off the page’ but in this case it’s true. Most of the reason for that is the dialogue. If you want to learn how best to write the way people talk, look no further than Leonard. And if you can’t take my word for it, Martin Amis agrees, saying Leonard’s prose ‘makes Raymond Chandler look clumsy.’ (That link is a terrific interview by the way – tons of fascinating titbits on the art of writing). His dialogue brings so much depth and humour to the prose, and is far more to-the-point than vast swathes of characterisation. Dialogue should tell the story and the characters’ ambitions and Leonard is a master at it.
Somewhere along the way he also noted the ’10 Rules of Good Writing’. I have the feeling that some of this was tongue-in-cheek but I genuinely find these 10 rules more helpful than anything else I’ve read on the craft.
Of particular use are numbers 3 and 4. I do try when writing to use ‘said’ as much as possible and I never use an adverb to modify the word. Reams and reams of fiction do it and I’ve never understood why. If you are writing good dialogue you should know how a character has spoken the words without having to quantify it with an adverb. Sadly this dislike of adverbs turned me off Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. A wonderful story but I just couldn’t deal with the adverbs. Of course in this matter I’m just an ordinary sinner like everyone else (I’ve used a fair few in this post), but I never use them in dialogue anymore (he said hopefully).
Rules 8 and 9 go against most of what you hear in writing classes and the like. Character description and setting description are the nuts and bolts of any novel really. But I know what Leonard means – the dialogue and actions of the characters should tell you what they are like without the need for tons of description. Similarly with descriptions of place, a flavour is all you probably want. Anything else gets in the way of the story.
Even in these 10 short rules you can see Leonard’s way with words. Rule 10: ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip’ sums it all up. And his final rule, ‘ If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,’ is just genius and goes to the heart of what writing is all about. So easy to say, so hard to do.
Leonard died last year aged 89. He was still writing books well into his 80s, and still running rings around writers more than half his age. His books brought me immense pleasure and on his death the knowledge that there would be no more from this great man was a source of real sorrow. If you haven’t read any of his stuff, I urge you to do so. There is a vast back catalogue out there and it will change your life, I’m sure of it. RIP Dutch.