elmore leonard and Mack’s rules


In 1954, three years after a youthful Elmore Leonard tentatively began his writing career, John Steinbeck published the novel Sweet Thursday. In its prologue, the literate layabout Mack sets out the criteria for what he considers to be an appropriate narrative style: “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. And another thing – I kind of like to figure out what the guy’s thinking by what he says”.

For Mack, this was mere casual criticism: descriptive passages (“what color a thing is, how it smells and maybe how it looks, and maybe how a guy feels about it”) were acceptable, as long as there was “not too much of that”. But for Leonard, Steinbeck had set out a philosophy that was to provide the guiding principles for his subsequent career. When Leonard came to put down his renowned ten rules for writing fiction, he ensured that they were Mack-compatible. The result was a literary manifesto that acted as a heartening overstatement of the need for understatement: “don’t go into great detail describing places and things”; “show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story”; “try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip”, and so on. “If it sounds like writing”, concluded Leonard, “I rewrite it.”

more from the TLS here.