Elmore Leonard’s List

A friend from the writer’s group I belong to sent us all a copy of the list of Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing. I guess it has become more widely disseminated in the light of the great man’s recent demise.

I hadn’t realised it was Elmore Leonard’s list until I read my friend’s email. It is a list that has been knocking around the writers’ blogs scene for a while now. Sometimes there are more, sometimes less but I had never heard the list directly attributed to Leonard until his death.

It has the usual dos and don’ts, mostly don’ts. No adverbs, don’t start with the weather (this was on a recent Sins of Literature programme, not attributed I think) and watch the exclamation marks. Fair enough in general. As my friend said in the accompanying email, ‘You don’t have to agree with him.’

I guess if Leonard adhered to this list it may have worked. Of course that assumes that Leonard’s writing would have been either a lot worse or sold a lot fewer copies if he had ignored some of them. We don’t know whether that is true. That’s the problem with listening to good advice from successful people; it assumes they are as good at being self aware regarding what works as they are at doing it instinctively. If this is not simply a generic list slopped out at feeding time for aspiring authors, and is a list that someone as successful as Leonard lived by we still can’t say that makes it something we should copy. We can guess that a book filled with all these forbidden habits is likely to be terrible. If you want to read some, read Dickens, he commits at least two of them in spades, detailed descriptions of characters and going into great detail describing places and things. I happen to agree in this case. There are pieces of Dickens I find so moving as to be almost impossible to read for their poignancy and insight. There are other pieces I can hardly get through because of their tedious attention to irrelevant detail.

Leonard’s tenth commandment is supposedly the most important and is: ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.’ (that in itself makes me wonder whether this is really Leonard –it sound very cautious for him.) I know Dickens was writing pot-boiling serials for magazines but wow! (sorry about the exclamation mark!) But this is good advice buddy.

So do I agree with Leonard? A bit I suppose (whether it is his list or not) but the  most important item that sometimes appears on the list (Elmore’s or not) is : Ignore all these if its right. I’m sure Leonard would agree.

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