ELMORE LEONARD’S TIPS FOR WRITERS

Elmore Leonard, the great novelist, died on Tuesday at 87. Too often pigeon-holed as a crime genre specialist, Leonard was a brilliant stylist and a peerless entertainer. Todayt the critic Janet Maslin noted that while Leonard ‘s novels were frequently adapted for the screen, none of the movies were better than the original novel. I would say that is mostly true, except for Out of Sight and possibly Hombre. In 2001, he published his his Ten Rules for Writing in The New York Times. Writers, ignore them at your peril.

These are 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. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

1. Never open a book with weather.

If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’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 to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, 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 nonfiction. 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 O.K. 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. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

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 to get 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 flavor 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, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

What Steinbeck did in ”Sweet Thursday” was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. ”Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, ”Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled ”Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter ”Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: ”Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

”Sweet Thursday” came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.

“THESE ARE UNIQUE TIMES”

So said Yankee GM Brian Cashman, a careful man so practiced in studied speech that this must rank as a wild exclamation. The Yankees, Major League Baseball, and the team’s one-time superstar multimillionaire third baseman Alex Rodriquez have found themselves embroiled in a controversy so complex that it is difficult to find someone to root for.

To begin, Rodriguez has been one of the greatest players of his generation, a prodigious hitter and splendid fielder who has been a All Star twelve times and won three Most Valuable Player awards. He is, however, 38 years old, has suffered debilitating hip injuries, and after this season will still have four years left on a contract which will earn him about $100 million. This is a paltry sum for abig boppin’ All-Star, but it’s a crippling waste of money for a guy on the DL.

A-Rod, moreover, is a cheater. In February 2009, surrounded by supportive Yankee teammates, A-Rod admitted that he used steroids in 2001 and 2003, while a member of the Texas Rangers. This always had the odor of untruth about it, it being one of those `But it was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead’ admissions where the crime that is being acknowledged happened so long ago and so far away and on top of that, so far outside the sanctity of the Yankee uniform, that we should all forget about it. And most of us—especially when he slugged his way through the 2009 post-season—did just that.

But then there were stories about Alex going to Berlin to get treatment for his hip. And then visiting a clinic that’s located in a strip mall in Florida. So when baseball investigated and hit A-Rod with a 211 game suspension last month, most people thought that he must have done something to deserve it—even though Rodriguez never failed a test, which happen to yield false positives anyway.

The Yankees were probably happy. A-Rod has been a pain-in-the-ass lightning rod during his entire tenure, and a 211 game suspension saves the Yankees maybe $36 million for a guy who wasn’t having an off year, who wasn’t over the hill, but who was contributing nothing.

But A-Rod doesn’t think he deserves a 211 game suspension; he says he deserves no suspension at all, and has appealed MLB’s decision. And indeed, MLB’s decision does seem awfully arbitrary. Other players who’ve been suspended for using PEDs have been hit with far shorter suspensions, even ones who, like A-Rod, have been accused of trying to undermine or elude MLB’s investigations. Even before the suspension was announced, baseball could be observed mulling the length of sentence, as though they were trying to triangulate a number that was strict, fair, and has good PR spin. To no one’s surprise, A-Rod has appealed the verdict.

And why not? The number seems arbitrary. The proof has not been disclosed. The penalty will cost him millions, and might, moreover, be an effective lifetime ban, since there is no telling how well he might perform when he comes back in 2014, just short of 40 years old. His goals of reaching of reaching 700 homers (he now has 649), 2000 RBIs (1956) and 3000 hits (2917), which once seemed automatic, not seem very distant, and fading.

A-Rod has not only appealed; he’s come out punching, accusing the Yankee organization of mistreating his injuries and colluding with MLB to ban him so that the Yanks can save money. These allegations fall between “Unlikely’’ and “Who knows?’’, but the real promise is that during the course of such a lawsuit, so much dirty linen will be aired that no one will emerge clean. All the more reason for the arbitrator, whenever he finally hears the case, to issue a Solomonic ruling that still punishes Rodriguez, but shortens his stretch enough that he concludes that his best interests lie in just doing the time. Eighty games? A hundred?

Meanwhile, he continues to play, and productively. After 14 games, he is hitting .296, with 2 homers and 6 RBIs , a pace that would have given him 23 homers and 69 RBIs over a full season (which he will never again play.) His return to the line-up has been cheered by fans, and his presence, along with contributions from the returning Eduardo Nunez and Curtis Granderson and new arrivals like Alfonso Soriano, has brought the Yanks back into the playoff chase. Last Sunday, Red Sox pitcher Ryan Dempster deliberately hit Rodriguez with a pitch, his way of expressing his view that A-Rod shouldn’t be playing. Dempster was suspended five games and fined $2500; as one Boston Globe writer put it, it was MLB’s way of winking and shaking his hand. Yankee manager Joe Girardi was fines twice that sum for protesting.

Who knows? Dempster’s action seems to have invigorated the Yanks, who won the game behind an A-Rod performance where he homered and went 2 for 4, with 2 ribbies and 2 runs scored. Who knows? By the time this is over, A-Rod may lead a team he is suing all the way to a World Series title, and receive a World Series MVP award from a commissioner who has tried to end his career. After which time, he may begin a lengthy suspension. Unique times, indeed.

JOHN HOLLANDER, RIP

The poet John Hollander has died at 83. He wrote one of my favorite poems, Hobbes, 1651:

When I returned at last from Paris hoofbeats pounded
Over the harsh and relenting road;
It was cold, the snow high; I was old, and the winter
Sharp, and the dead mid-century sped by
In ominous, blurred streaks as, brutish, the wind moaned
Among black branches. I rode through a kind
Of graceless winter nature, bled of what looked like life.
My vexing horse threw me. If it was not safe
In England yet, or ever, that nowhere beneath the gray
Sky would be much safer seemed very plain.

Kind of wonderful to write a poem about one of founders of modern political philosophy. In 1651, Hobbes was returning to England from exile in Paris, and publishing his great work The Leviathan. So brilliant of Hollander to write about the act of returning, and the atmosphere of danger and portent which is at the hear of The Leviathan, rather than write about the work itself.

THE WORST PLATFORM EVER

When I worked at Playboy a few years ago, some of the fellows were fond of a saying: “Don’t mess with another man’s blow job.” Crude, blunt, and yet eloquent, the saying had a lot of applications. Don’t criticize another man’s girlfriend (boyfriend.) Don’t come on to another man’s girlfriend (boyfriend.) Don’t interfere with his gig. And most generally, mind your own business.

It is good, sound advice.

Astonishingly, Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican Lt. Governor of Virginia who is running for governor, has proposed, as part of his platform, to mess with the blow job of everyone in the state. Specifically, he has proposed outlawing oral and anal sex, even among consenting adults. He is doing this despite figures from the Centers for Disease Control that show that 82 percent of me and 80 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 44 admit to having had oral sex, and that the Kinsey Institute has studies showing that nearly everyone who practices vaginal intercourse also engages in oral sex. It is one of those things, it seems, that people like to do.. It is also one of those things, like marching on a picket line or voting one you turn 18, that the Supreme Court has actually said states can’t stop you from doing. Cuccinelli says he is proposig this, not because he is anti-sex, but because it is the only effective way to stop child molestation, even though Virginia has strong laws on the books against rape. Statutory rape, and child molestation. Cuccinelli has assured Virginians that once this law is passed, it will never be used against ordinary people engaged in sexual fun. He is a moron to think that anyone will believe him. He is a moron to think that this is any way good government. He should be chased from one end of the state to the other, followed by people chanting `Don’t mess with another man’s blow job.’’

It’s a crude, blunt phrase, but maybe that’s what’s necessary to get him to pay attention.

APPALACHIAN SUMMER: HARPER’S FERRY, WVA, AUGUST 4th

100_0884Beautiful Harper’s Ferry, sitting at he confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers at the bottom of the steep trio of Loudon, Bolivar and Maryland Heights, once had one of only two federal arsenals in the United States, which is why John Brown decided to begin his slave uprising there. Less than two years later, his action spawned secession and the Civil War. Above, the Conjoined Potomac. Immediately below left, a marker designating where Brown made his stand; right, in Harper’s Ferry less than ten minutes, and already they’ve dedicated a marker to her!
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Immediately below: looking up into town; Far below: looking across to Maryland Heights.
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APPALACHIAN SUMMER: PERRYVILLE, KY, AUGUST 1st

100_0874Given the size of the armies engaged, the Battle of Perryville, fought on October 8, 1862, was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Generally thought of as a confederate tactical victory but a Federal strategic victory–what that means is that after a ferocious, day-long the rebels forced the Yanks to withdraw from the field, but the weakened rebs then had to withdraw from Kentucky–the battle needs to be seen as a multi-pronged Confederate offensive (Antietam, fought three weeks earlier, was part of the overall campaign) that failed to throw the north on the defensive or to get it to capitulate. The Union retained control of the critical border state of Kentucky for the remainder of the war. As much as anything, the Kentucky campaign reveals Braxton Bragg’s weaknesses as a commander.
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The gun at top was part of an Illinois battery commanded by a Captain Simonsen. The battery lost a quarter of its strength during the battle, and fired all of its ammunition, 795 shells, during the fighting. Above, monuments to the Union dead (left) and confederate (right). Note: The Malanowski Cannon Picture from Vacation Tradition continues!

APPALACHIAN SUMMER: LOUISVILLE, KY, JULY 31st

Ali_BX_downWe really enjoyed visiting the Muhammad Ali Center in downtown Louisville. I was impressed how the center handled all100_0864 aspects of Ali’s career–boxer, activist, humanitarian–in a straightforward, warts-and-all manner. You hear him calling white people `devils’; you also hear him say that a 60 year old man who thinks the same things that he did when he was thirty has wasted thirty years. I also liked how they presented many fights by projecting them onto the mat of a full-size boxing ring (above). Later, after lunch, we drove to Bardstown and toured the Jim Beam distillery. The 90 minute tour was about 30 minutes too long, but at least I now know a little bit about why bourbon is bourbon and not whiskey or mash.

APPALACHIAN SUMMER: MAMMOTH CAVE, KY, JULY 30th

100_0839100_0838Well, it was a cave, and it was mammoth. We took the short tour, and we were sated. Lots like this. The Park Ranger who guided the tour was very good. Later we visited Lincoln’s birthplace at Sinking Springs, most memorable for a majestic temple which contains a replica of the humble log cabin where Lincoln was born. Apparently, they have a humble cabin where some other bloke was born. Weird.

APPALACHIAN SUMMER: MATEWAN, WVA, JULY 29th

100_0824West Virginia, astonishingly vertical, rises like a wall nearly everywhere but right in front of you. The highways cut like ribbons through the hills, while below grade, little communities huddle in the hollers. We got off the highway and followed a thin road to Matewan (that’s MATE-wan), a coal and railroad town. Now kind of run down, it has a dramatic hertage of violence and tragedy: as the regional headquarters of Devil Anse Hatfield, of the Hatfied-McCoy feud (He does kind of resemble Kevin Costner!); as the site of100_0829 labor conflicts in 100_0827the 1920s, where cold-blooded shootings left unionists and goons dead in the street (I need to watch again the John Sayles movie); and after repeated100_0831 floodings of the benign-seeming Tug River, which flowed quietly during our visit, indolently separating us from Kentucky. The modest museum was highly informative. After lunch, we drove on, pausing at the site of the Battle of Middle River, KY, a January 1862 scrap in which the young James Garfield first distinguished himself, and put himself on the pathto the presidency. Not really much of a battle; 15 dead on both sides combined, which is about what you get at your average Bronx social club on a hot night Saturday night in August, but it helped keep Kentucky in the union. We spent the night a nice bed and breakfast in Glasgow, KY, where Abraham Lincoln once slept or had tea or something.