A review of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

Reviewed by Paul Kane

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing
By Elmore Leonard
Illustrated by Joe Ciardiello
William Morrow
December 2007, ISBN-13: 978-0061451461, 96pages

In a recent interview for this site, Donald Westlake says of Elmore Leonard that he is “the only currently working writer I will almost invariably read”; and no wonder, the man writes damn fine crime novels. This book is a distillation of Leonard’s writing method and it consists – as he writes – of “rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story” (page 3). He lists the ten rules, expands on them briefly and gives a rationale if one seems needed. They are not intended to be prescriptive, as say S.S. Van Dine’s “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” were, and anyway these rules relate to all kinds of fiction, and are not limited to any particular genre. They are probably best seen as tips or maybe as descriptions of Leonard’s own practice as a writer. Together, they make up quite an unusual primer on how to write popular fiction.

One attractive feature of the book is that Leonard provides exceptions or counterfactuals to many of his rules. So we are given Rule No.9 DON’T GO INTO GREAT DETAIL DESCRIBING PLACES AND THINGS, but then later told: “Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison” (page 55). Perhaps Leonard’s insouciance in this regard is his version of George Orwell’s sixth rule in the essay, “Politics and the English Language”; or maybe the real rule underlying the ten presented here should be: WRITE TO YOUR STRENGTHS. And one can think of exceptions to other rules as well, even where none is forthcoming. If, for example, Rule No.7 USE REGIONAL DIALECT, PATOIS, SPARINGLY was abided to religiously then neither Living by Henry Green nor One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding
by Robert Gover, two superb novels that depend greatly on dialect and idiom, would have been written.

After completing the book, it might occur to you to ask: does Leonard always abide by his own rules? Perhaps the easiest rule to test is Rule No.4 NEVER USE AN ADVERB TO MODIFY THE VERB “SAID” (when writing dialogue); this is “a mortal sin”, according to Leonard: “The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.” After much rummaging in a stack of Leonard novels, I could come up with only one example where this rule was breached. This is from Cat Chaserthe opening page of chapter 7:

Mary said, pleasantly enough, “How did it go?”

Even here, though, you might argue that the adverb occurs within a clause, and so doesn’t modify “said” directly. So maybe Leonard gets away with this one.

Perhaps the main virtue of the book is that it forces you to confront the question: what sort of writer are you? Or: what kind of writer do you want to be? Do you want to enchant like Robert Louis Stevenson or intrude like Laurence Sterne? As Leonard says, these rules enable him to “remain invisible”, but if (as he goes on to say, again on page 3) “invisibility is not what you are after … you can skip the rules. Still, you might want to look them over.” In POMO fiction, the fashion is to meddle. And invisibility was never Sterne’s strong suit; or Fielding’s, come to that.

Overall, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing is a smart, generous, thought-provoking piece of work and is chockful of all of this writer’s insouciant integrity – but don’t come to it expecting to be spoon-fed. One would have liked more, for at a mere 89 pages in all, the book is somewhat slight. It is beautifully produced, mind, with the pages being of a heavy white card. Finally, Joe Ciardiello’s illustrations have great charm and splendidly complement Leonard’s writing.

About the reviewer:Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com