“I got one question. How you gonna get down that hill?” the hero Paul Newman asked Richard Boone, the classic villain, in the film adaptation of the 1967 film Hombre, based on the Western by Elmore Leonard. The story is of John Russell, played by Newman, a white man raised by Apaches and forced by circumstances to be responsible for the lives of a group of people who despise him.
I was stopped yesterday by the news of the death of Leonard, one of my favorite writers, sometimes referred to as “The Dickens of Detroit.” As we all know by now, he started his career years ago back in the 1950s writing Westerns and then moved on to urban crime novels. Leonard, of course, created some of the most memorable tales featuring gangsters and con men beyond compare.
As a wannabe writer, I have tried to follow Leonard’s advice and kept my ear attuned to the language. Recently, I’ve also been reading William Zinsser’s guide to writing nonfiction, On Writing Well, first published in 1976 and now out in its “revised and expanded” thirtieth anniversary edition. He’s just turned 90 and is blind but coaches writers by the sound of their words. One word that summarizes his work is “economy.” No sloppy thoughts and no sloppy expression. It’s a book of omission, calling attention to the words we can exclude from what we’re trying to say. Keep it short and keep it to the point. I like to think Leonard had a dog-eared copy on his book shelf.
And like Leonard, Zinsser was emphatic about hooking the reader with beginnings that grabbed you and never let you go. But what good is a story that holds your attention from the beginning and through the middle and then lets you fall flat at the end? As important as the beginning is, the ending is what stays with the reader so you better have a good one up your sleeve to complete your work. A friend of mine recently told me about how his daughter whispered in the ear of a man making a nuisance of himself during their beach vacation. “Don’t get daddy upset,” she said, “he really doesn’t mind going back to prison.” Pure Leonard following the instructions of Mr Zinsser.
To keep you attention, Leonard writes: “I don’t want the reader ever to be aware of me writing.” His characters do the work for him. One of the best examples is Chilly Palmer in Get Shorty. He has “the stare” and gets the attention of others when he says “Look at me.” It’s all you need.
Leonard wrote his own 10 Rules of Writing.
“1. Never open a book with weather.”
— Stick with the character’s reaction to it rather than try to create atmosphere.
“2. Avoid prologues.”
— They’re generally annoying and little more than a backstory at best.
“3. Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.”
— The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is sticking its nose in.
“4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’…he admonished gravely.”
— To use an adverb (in almost any way) is a mortal sin.
“5. Keep your exclamation points under control.”
— You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
“6. Never use the words ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell broke loose.’”
— Writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation marks.
“7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.”
— Once you start, you can’t stop.
“8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.”
— Rely on tone of voice, with not one adverb in sight.
“9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.”
— Don’t bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
“10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
— Don’t perpetrate ‘hooptedoodle,’ taking another shot at the weather or going into the character’s head.
“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.)”
So when I sit down to write, I try to keep these men and their principles in mind. My guidelines include:
— Good openings and good endings are basic.
— A “voice” of one’s own is right up there at the top of the proverbial flagpole. Don’t sound like a travel brochure or the equivalent of elevator music. Your reader should know it’s you when you tell them the house is on fire.
— Keep it simple, avoid the clutter of putting too much information in one sentence, and
— Write, write, write.
And when in doubt, remember to ask yourself: WWED…what would Elmore do?
When I was a far younger man, I chanced upon A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, about the famous Scribners literary editor who was the man behind the scene in getting many of the novels of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Wolfe published. I still have my 1978 copy. From what I know of Leonard, Zinsser, and Perkins, all were known for their courtesy and thoughtfulness. Most importantly, all had an infallible sense of structure.
To read the advice of Leonard, Zinsser, and Perkins is to be well informed. What any of us do with it remains a constant effort. We’re all works in progress.
As Zinsser quoted Woody Allen in the mid-1960’s when the comic and film director was just becoming established as America’s resident neurotic:
“If people come away relating to me as a person rather than just enjoying my jokes; if they come away wanting to hear me again, no matter what I might talk about, then I’m succeeding.”
At least from my sense of loss today, I know that Mister Elmore Leonard more than succeeded and that I will miss hearing from him again. I will now go back to reread and savor what I have read before. And I will always remember to ask myself before crawling up that dusty incline, “How you gonna get down that hill?”