Elmore Leonard, who died yesterday at 87, has 10 rules for writing. They don’t cover most of the important points of writing. They could really be called: Ten Rules for Writing That Isn’t So Bad, Even if You’re Not Much of Writer.
The rules have been turned into a book and given how great Elmore’s prose was they’re worth paying attention to. However, I often find they’re quoted with a little more than simple reverence by crime writers. Instead of being guidelines, they are holy writ with the capacity to define all violators as bad writers.
Some of the rules are pretty silly. No adverbs? Well, if you’re a crappy writer who dumps adverbs all over the place, then you ought to get rid of adverbs. But someone who writes well ought to be able to use all the tools of language. Would you tell a great composer not to write in B minor? Or never to hit a C sharp?
When I mentioned this on stage with a couple of other writers a few years ago (just after one of them had sounded the pro-Elmore’s-rules symphony) I registered a degree of hostility on the part of at least one of the others on the panel rather akin to my having told a bunch of Orthodox Jews that they ought to expand their palate to include pork.
When Elmore goes deeper into his rules, he usually says something that translates to “Don’t do X unless you’re Margaret Atwood [or some other terrific writer], who can do it without sounding like shit.” In other words, if you’re a good writer, Elmore’s rules for writing aren’t quite as important as people make out.
But what about breaking them all at once? The National Post had a competition two years ago in which it asked readers to write a single sentence that broke all Elmore’s rules. It’s a little tricky, because some of Elmore’s rules (eg. Avoid prologues) aren’t really sentence-specific. But here’s my attempt:
Rain threatened suddenly, as it had for days and would go on doing, over the art-deco red-brick main street with its hardware store, candy store, video store and tattoo parlor, no matter how much the delicately featured red-headed woman with the up-turned nose opined tartly that the weather “would turn out just ticketty-boo, bejasus!” while she was on a visit from Ireland to complete her studies in a subject irrelevant to the book or her role in it.
I think that also proves that Elmore’s rules aren’t rules for good writing. They’re just rules to avoid being totally crap. Which is certainly worthwhile…he said, hopefully.