Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Making and Breaking Rules

The great crime fiction writer Elmore Leonard passed away yesterday at age 87.

I’m acquainted with a few Leonard titles, although wasn’t as huge a devotee as some. I remember reading several of his books long ago, well before I was old enough to appreciate either the writing or the genre, although I did enjoy them.

Later on one of his books, one with a card game-related title, 52 Pick-Up (1974), did provide some inspiration for my Same Difference both with its subject matter and ’70s setting. I suppose also Leonard’s famously “lean” style was something I tried to demonstrate in my novel, too, although I had other authors like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Charles Willeford, and Jim Thompson more consciously in mind as models.

Noticed a lot of people passing around Leonard’s 10 rules for writers yesterday, which contains a few good reminders not just for fiction writers but those attempting other kinds of writing, too.

Raymond Chandler was another favorite who I tried to ape, a writer whose style is decidedly not-so-lean when compared to these others. One of Leonard’s rules is “Never open a book with weather” and another is to “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.” Chandler breaks both rules in the opening paragraph of The Big Sleep, and to great effect, too.

Of the nine rules in Leonard’s list, four start with the word “never,” two with “avoid,” one with “don’t,” and the other two warn about keeping one practice “under control” while indulging in another “sparingly.”

I’m reminded of George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language” which also includes a lot of advice about trimming unwanted fat from one’s prose, including a similar catalogue of do’s and dont’s. Orwell ends his list with a final rule to “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous,” and I think it’s clear Leonard also at least indirectly qualifies all of his advice with the unstated disclaimer that rules can be broken in special circumstances.

In poker we often encounter strategy writers doing their best not to put forth rules that suggest one should “always” or “never” do this or that. But in truth, it is sometimes helpful -- in writing and in poker -- to start with an absolute as a kind of guide or default strategy, then permit yourself to do otherwise although with full awareness that you are breaking a rule.

So I might indulge in a detailed description of a character every now and then, just like I might occasionally call a raise from out of position. But I’ll do so consciously, knowing just like Philip Marlowe knows when he walks into General Sternwood’s place in the second paragraph of The Big Sleep that trouble might await.

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