Wednesday, August 21, 2013


The legendary Elmore Leonard passed away yesterday, and I am not the only person, or even author, who will write about it. My two cents is that I’d read several of his books before I actually met him at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference in 1991. He signed a copy of his novel GET SHORTY for me, and it lives in a special place in a cabinet, not on the bookshelves in my living room, bedroom, guest room, office and kitchen. (I keep lots of books.)

What did I learn from him? I can’t do better than quote Leonard, whose 10 RULES FOR WRITING will be touted a lot this week.

1. Never open a book with weather.
He qualified this by adding something like, unless you’re very good at it. I’ve never done it, so I suppose I felt I had nothing original to say weather-wise.

2. Avoid prologues.
I have only one published book (CHOICES, a mainstream novel) with a Prologue, and I considered it necessary at the time and still do. I started a few other books with prologues but soon decided they were unnecessary and eliminated them.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
I think we’re allowed to use “asked” if appropriate, but I once read a book that used “opined” and nearly gagged. These days I hardly use “said,” preferring to indicate who’s speaking by putting action in the same paragraph.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
My writers’ group used to play a game called “Tom Swifties,” in which we tried to come up with the worst combinations, like Leonard’s “he admonished gravely.” Or, “‘I’ve struck oil,’ said Tom crudely.” Thanks to my computer’s Search feature, I can find and remove any unnecessary words ending in “ly.”

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
I admit I was guilty of using too many until Leonard advised no more than one per 100,000 words.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
I’ve seldom used the former and never the latter, and, thanks to Leonard, now I never will.

7. Use regional dialogue, patois, sparingly.
I guess I’ve always been too lazy to try to describe speech phonetically. Yet, I confess I’ve dropped a final “g” sometimes.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Leonard allows it if you’re really good. Trying to bring my characters to life without much description is still a goal I aim for and, I hope, getting better at. In one of my books, I wrote, “His face was plain except he had more than his share of nose.”

9. Don’t go into detail describing places and things.
Another rule you can avoid if you’re really good at that. I try to find a few “telling details.”
In my latest novel, THE ITALIAN JOB, I wrote: “I knew that old hotel. The windows were French doors and led to outside balconies...but the balcony was two stories above the street, too far for jumping, even if I were an Olympic athlete instead of someone whose only exercise is changing the sheets on her bed... However, the next balcony being merely a foot away, I decided to swing over to it, enter the next room by way of that French door and return to the hotel hallway... The next room seemed dark and empty, and I reasoned that even if someone were staying there, chances were slim it would be another man bent on hanky-panky.”

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
In my opinion, he means big blocks of description or narration. Readers prefer dialogue and, fortunately, people tell me I write good dialogue, so I use a lot of it.

Finally, Elmore Leonard is supposed to have said, “If it sounds ‘writerly,’ I rewrite it.”
I take that to mean things like purple prose, too much description and similes and metaphors that sound like the writer was trying too hard to impress someone.

Elmore Leonard
Santa Barbara Writers Conference
CHOICES by Phyll Ashworth


  1. I remember the movie 'Get Shorty'. These rules will be saved for future review. Thanks for posting them.

    1. Mary:
      It was one of his best books and I enjoyed the movie too. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Thanks Phyllis,

    I read them here first.
    I especially like not writing writerly....


    1. Bob:
      Thanks for the comment. I think Leonard was ahead of his time. GET SHORTY was published in 1990 and his Ten Rules shortly thereafter. Now everyone is telling us to write "tight," avoid long descriptions and find the right "voice."


  3. Thanks for Elmore Leonard's list. Over the years, most have slipped into my writing style without my realizing the source. I couldn't agree more about opening a book with weather and keeping the narration to a minimum, but like you, I like dialogue too.

    1. Barbara:
      Yes, as movies and TV influence us and reduce attention spans, dialogue is replacing the long descriptions that once defined good writing. Works for me. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Sorry, forgot to leave my name on that last one.

    Barbara Barrett

  5. Keeping it simple. Love that. Thanks Phyllis! Sylvia Mendoza

    1. Sylvia:
      I'm so glad you liked it. Thanks for your comment.


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