Remembering Elmore Leonard & his writing advice

Assuming that Elmore Leonard would be unimpressed with the imperatives of Search Engine Optimization, I will retitle this essay: “My Dinner with Elmore.”

I’ve read just enough Elmore Leonard to know that he was a brilliant writer with a distinctive American voice. Now that he has passed away, I plan to read more of him, so his words can teach me more about the craft.

Elmore Leonard

I believe it was in March of 2010 that I met the man. The occasion was the Tucson Festival of Books, one of the great literary weekends in America, and I was one of more than 300 authors invited to spread the gospel of reading and writing. An opening event at the University of Arizona brought together hundreds of authors, sponsors, community leaders and volunteers.

Picture me on one of the long buffet lines, hungry for the penne pasta. In front of me are two short men, one of whom looks vaguely familiar with a grey crew cut and owlish glasses. “Where do I know this guy from?” I thought, and then saw his name tag — Elmore Leonard.

“You’re Elmore Leonard,” I blurted, proving only that I could read. I introduced myself.  He said something in return that shocked me, “Oh, you’re the writing guy.” I knew right away that he was not familiar with my work but had noticed my book poster or my place in the program. Still, it was amazing to hear the author of “Get Shorty” say “you’re the writing guy.” If I had had my wits about me I would have responded: “I may be the writing guy, Mr. Leonard, but you are the writing MAN!”

He would have disapproved of my use of that exclamation point. I know this because we spent about 10 minutes on that buffet line in friendly disagreement over the permitted frequency of that mark of punctuation in the work of a serious writer. I knew one of his 10 writing rules prohibited overuse of the exclamation point.

“Keep your exclamation points under control,” he wrote.

What did he mean by “under control?” I wondered. Just as we reached our destination — Italian food — he offered this calculation: “You are allowed only three in every one hundred thousand words of prose.” Hmm. For me that would mean one exclamation in every other book. That would be like making love to your wife once every other year.

I wound up devoting a chapter of “The Glamour of Grammar” to use and abuse of the exclamation point: “After a brief revival during the New Journalism of the 1960s — during which punctuation often looked like an LSD hallucination — the exclamation point was eschewed by serious writers. That little phallic bat and ball exposed itself mostly in children’s literature and romance novels …The secret message broadcast by the likes of Leonard is that the exclamation point reveals a flighty or playful personality.”

To see an example of an author whose exclaimers were out of control, we need look no further than L. Ron Hubbard, science-fiction and adventure author, and founder of Scientology. I picked up a copy of one of his stories “Danger in the Dark” and opened it at random to find this passage of dialogue:

“You fools! Your island god doesn’t live! He never did live, and he never will! Give me this week and I’ll stop this plague! Obey my orders and it will take no more of your people! Tadamona! Damn such a rotten idea!”

OK, for the record that’s seven exclamation points — in one paragraph! There are three more on the page. And five more on the previous page. Why is everyone in this story shouting?

If L. Ron Hubbard had written “Get Shorty,” it would have been titled “Get Shorty!”

It must be said that Elmore Leonard was not preaching abstinence with the exclamation point, just artistic control. He acknowledges “If you have a knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.”

That’s my kind of writing advice: “Don’t overdo it …. unless you know how to overdo it.”

My “dinner with Elmore” ended at the buffet table. The pasta was delicious, by the way.  As was the conversation with a famous writer who cared so much for the craft that his process of writing and revision included his counting exclamation points.

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