Sunday, August 01, 2010

ABOUT ELMORE LEONARD





Who's your pick for the best living American novelist? Wait, just to be fair let me amend that to the best practicing living novelist. Don Delillo? Bret Easton Ellis? Tom Wolfe?  Let me weigh in with my own pick. So far as I'm able to tell, the best novels being written now are genre novels, and the best genre novelists are crime writers Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy. 

It's confusing because these guys write alike, look alike, and their names even sound alike.  Both believe in lean, dialogue driven prose with minimal third person narrative. 

I remember when books that were mostly dialogue began to make big sales. Everybody thought it was the end of civilization because we took it as a sign that  modern audiences were too dumb to appreciate good narrative. I used to think that too, but I've since changed my mind. The fact is that only a few writers of the 20th Century were ever any good at narrative. The ones that weren't plodded along in that vein, because they thought it was expected of them, and that produced some pretty bad books. Like Taylor Caldwell's, for example.  Try reading a couple of random lines from "Ceremony of the Innocent" (1976), reproduced below (click to enlarge)........



Do you see what I mean? Professional but boring is how I'd describe it (above). A real sleeping pill. Now sample (below) the leaner, more effective style used in Elmore Leonard's "Get Shorty" (1990).........



Nice, huh? Dialogue carries the scene, and it works beautifully. Leonard's a good practitioner of the new style. Shakespeare told his stories with dialogue, and so can we, provided the dialogue is good. 

My only criticism of this lean style is that in our time it's worked best in genre novels with flamboyant, over-the-top characters. Will it work for other types? Only time will tell. 

Leonard's a terrific stylist and amazingly he's willing to share how he does it.  Here, from the internet, is an abridged version of Leonard's top ten tips for writers. It starts with an admonition to avoid adverbs, then goes on to.........


1 Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a charac ter'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 than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his bookArctic Dreams, 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 non-fiction. 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 OK 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."
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 and go to 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 flavour 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.
9 Don't go into great detail describing places and things, unless you're Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.



BTW: I added something important to the Bette Davis post immediately below, to the part about Mankiewicz. Take a look!


27 comments:

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Chip: Hey Uncle Eddie,

Any chance for a video or still picture performance of you doing the Cal Arts acting style? I think I'd die laughing.

2:31 AM


Jenny said...
Oh brother.

Uncle Eddie says: I had to delete the silly post about me being sleepy, so I moved those comments to this post. 'Hope that's alright with Chip and Jenny.

Chip: Aaagh! I think I'll pass on that....well, wait a second a second....hmmm...let me think on that!

Severin said...

I've read the rules, and I must say... I'm determined to ignore most of them! (<--exclamation point #1)

I suppose I just take my own writing style very personally, even more than my drawings. This is my voice, after all, and the idea of constraining it to too many rules is head-ache inducing. Keeping up with grammatical and spelling conventions is tough enough as it is! (<--E.P. #2) When I write, it needs to flow naturally or it just won't come at all.

This may seem like a cheat... but my favorite contemporary writer is Ray Bradbury. He is a writer who shaped, as much as he was shaped by, America. The fact that he is still alive and writing is nothing short of a miracle.

Anonymous said...

Eddie, I seriously wanna see a performance of you acting out the Cal Arts acting style too, or whatever is most common in feature animation today. John K. on that Disney post the other day even mentioned that, and now he has me curious. Sounds like it will ensue in hilarity hopefully. Do it for real cartoonists everywhere, please?

I'm not really aware of modern writing trends, but I like how concise the writing is in Elmore Leonard's piece. He doesn't waste time filling up the page with redundant jargon like in that other page you posted, although that was actually well written in itself. Who am I kidding? I can barely write anything decent myself, let alone a coherent story if it is for a school project or something, but still, fascinating stuff.

Anonymous said...

Gary Larson used to begin a lot of his captions with "suddenly" but I think he was going for a comically bad genre writing style.

diego cumplido said...

A little correction Eddie, his name is Bret Easton Ellis, not Brad!

Alberto said...

Though this post is more on wording and more grammar related side of writing, I couldn't help but be reminded of this: http://boingboing.net/2007/04/14/vonneguts-rules-for-.html

Anonymous said...

Seconded on the Cal Arts video. I Think that people are confusing the sophistication of movement and illusion of weight etc. that Disney and some Cal arts student are capable of with great acting. To me it still looks as stylized and over the top as very early silent films.

I've read a few animation books by Disney animators and the sections on staging, composition and movement are fascinating and very advanced but then they have an 'acting'" section that is the stock Disney facial expressions sheet "'sad'' confused, happy, forlorn, etc. It is kind of like reading a '"how to cartoon" book that has good art advice but the how to write'" sections are jokes about bald eagles wearing toupees.

Quentin said...

Uncle Tarantino's Theory Corner?

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Roberto: Bradbury is great! His recent books are not his best work, but I still read them because the words are so beautiful.

Roberto, Anon, Jenny: About acting out the Cal Arts style infront of a camera: er...maybe. I'm afraid it'll be misinterpreted.

Diego: Thanks for the correction! I made the change.

Alberto: Wow! The Vonnegut list was worth reading. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Eddie, I'm sure in your time teaching at Calarts you had some influence on Calarts 'acting styles' yourself.

Alberto said...

your welcome, I almost didn't post it b/c I was afraid you might of read it already.

Also, I too would like to see your 'Cal-Arts acting' impersonation.

RooniMan said...

Writers today could learn a thing or two from this guy, espcially that good-for-nothing Stephine Meyer.

Kirk said...

A paired and democratic approach, surely.

Reminds me of Paul Valery's Monsieur Teste, who moved without gesticulation, being that he had "killed his puppet."

Anonymous said...

Couldn't you say that by having everyone around her played over the top Bette Davis stood out by being underplayed?

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Rooni: I like Meyer's first film, though I don't feel a need to see the sequels.

Anon: No doubt that's what Mankiewicz intended, but I don't see the point in telling a star, "You know the thing you do that made you famous, and everybody likes? Well, don't do that."

Jennifer said...

Nice post, Uncle Eddie. Your comparison between Taylor Caldwell and Elmore Leonard is spot on. The excerpt from Caldwell lost me because of all the flowery, wordy descriptions. Lenard's excerpt tells the story without going through all the hullabaloo.

I'm wondering if the different writing styles have to do with the target audiences. It seems that Taylor Caldwell's books were targeted for female readers, while Elmore Leonard's books were targeted for male readers.

Anonymous said...

uncle eddie,

I'm having trouble reading you posts because the text runs under the pictures on the right. Just wanted to let you know! Alright?

-jimmy k.

Anonymous said...

"I like Meyer's first film, though I don't feel a need to see the sequels."

I was surprised by that statement you made. Twilight, to me, is simply a blatant rip-off of Dracula and a bunch of other classic stories, topped with sissy villain male leads trying to act tough, shallow characterizations from almost everybody in the cast (I admit. Kristin Stewart looked very pretty, IMO), and fancy schmancy special effects to hide all the flaws and kitsch that film contained. I saw it once back in 2008, and I didn't even think it was too good anyway. Explain why you liked the first one? Don't tell me you're becoming like one of those nutty girls obsessed with that certain series. They're everywhere in high school now.

Haha! I'm just messing with you, Eddie, but I seriously wanna know why. I love Ray Bradbury by the way, or at least what I've read in Fahrenheit 451. In fact, I read that book twice, and loved it each time. I'm hoping that my teachers will assign more of his stories for me to read.

Oisin O'Sullivan said...

Wow, informative!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Jennifer: Is that true? It never occurred to me til you mentioned it, but girls do seem to like immersive novels.

Jimmy: Thanks! I'm working on the problem.

Roberto: I understand why you don't like Twilight. It's not really my kind of film either. I just like the way the film managed to transform Pattinson into the new Rudolph Valentino, and the way the girl played her role in a way that a lot of young girls can relate to.

It's that rarity: a true chick flick. You and I are guys. It's not meant for us.

ComiCrazys said...

Eddie, I've read quite a few of Elmore Leonard and enjoyed them. But, I have to say for my money, I'd much prefer Jim Thompson over Leonard and most anyone else in the pulp crime genre. While I read a lot of Leonard, I read all of Thompson!!!

Kirk said...

Confounded homophony! I meant "pared", alas, not "paired"....

There is a problem with Leonard's attitude toward exclamation points. Leonard appears to share a rather expressionistic conception of punctuation. An exclamation is category of speech, not merely an emphatic. So if what one utters is exclamatory, then the proper punctuation respondeth, verily, no?

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

ComiCrazy: Thompson's great, but I was limiting myself to living, practicing writers. I didn't check, but I assume Ellroy and Leonard are still living.

Kirk: I use exclamation points all the time, but I get Leonard's point. In addition to formal constraints on their use, in the popular mind they indicate shouting, and people are made uncomfortable when that's done unnecessarily.

Nate said...

Eddie - Cormac McCarthy?

5 Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

CORMAC MCCARTHY!!!!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Nate: McCarthy's too fashionably depressing for my taste, too influenced by nihilism. He's not a nihilist, but you can see the influence. Also he doesn't write beautiful words. Most good literature is about the words.

ComiCrazys said...

"My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." Well said.

Zoran Taylor said...

I tend to view literature in an entirely different light than any other medium. For one thing, almost everything I believe about cartoons would spell disaster for the written word. To me there is no other medium in which the line between giving us what we want and condescending to us is finer or more dangerous. This summer I read "A Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" and initially almost threw the book out the window when I realized, at the end, how staggeringly nihilistic Twain actually was, far beyond the mere cynic he always seemed to have been. But then I wrote a bunch of half-formed prose on the subject and got it out of my system. Now, THAT's a book doing its job.