Elmore Leonard: I love him. Not just for Get Shorty and Maximum Bob and Cuba Libre (and it’s been years since I read anything of his, and I've just reminded myself to start again) but for his famous Ten Rules of Writing. Too long to list here, but you can see them on http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html. And they're wonderful, BUT...
I went through a phase of turning Elmore’s Ten into a form of religion. I blame this on the fact that I used to write only short stories (having assumed I’d never get a novel published, and that trying was far too much like hard work) (which it was, but by the time I’d written four I was enjoying myself so much I didn’t care. But I digress.) It wasn’t that the Woman’s Weekly or the People’s Friend were looking for much Elmore Leonard-style fiction; just that the principles were the same. Keep to the point, no excess verbiage, tell the story.
So when I started to write a fantasy novel, I applied all Elmore’s rules as ferociously as – well, as Maximum Bob. And having just discovered manuscript appraisal services, I tucked it up and sent it off to The Literary Consultancy, where a very nice man, tasked with critting this effort, told me that (on top of its many other faults) he had NO IDEA what my characters were thinking and not a clue what motivated them. Which was rather a handicap to the story.
I’ve always been fixated on the notion of Telling The Story, but what that experience finally knocked into my thick head was that you don’t have a story without characters to tell it. Which means getting inside their skins and their heads, and letting the reader see in there too. Which means that all writing rules – even Elmore’s, gulp – are there to be bent till they snap.
I was thinking about this recently because I just read and adored yet another Ruth Rendell book. I love Ruth Rendell even more than I love Elmore Leonard, but I could see this denouement (and the killers) coming a mile off. Did it matter? Not an atom. I stayed up till the small hours finishing the story, could-not-put-it-down, and all because of the characters. (I don’t get the whole plot-driven-versus-character-driven thing. Aren’t they completely and irretrievably entangled?)
Elmore’s Rules are still good ones. Just – like all the rest – not quite cast in platinum. After all, he did (allegedly) scribble them on the back of a napkin.