Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A crime brief

As a writer and a journalist, there's one artist I have always admired: Elmore Leonard.

A journalism teacher once told me to study his knack for brevity and punch. He was right. Leonard delivered tension and snap with every line. No word was wasted. Every noun and verb made a point. Adverbs? For suckers.

A writing instructor once told me to study his dialogue. He was right too. Leonard's characters hit all the right notes. They sounded different. They sounded natural. Their dialects added color without washing it out with caricature.

Famously, he wrote:
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”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
His work made me a better writer (although I routinely violate No. 9), and I never met the guy. I never will, either: he died Tuesday at age 87. But he was prolific, even well into his ninth decade, and that's something to be happy about. Although he chose his words carefully, he ended up leaving quite a few behind to enjoy.