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Elmore Leonard on Writing

There’s a Facebook meme floating around containing writing advice from Elmore Leonard. Included are: Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue; Keep your exclamation points under control; and, my favorite: Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.

The meme is followed, as are all Facebook memes, by lots of comments. Some agree with his advice; others strenuously object. One writer claims that Leonard’s guidelines don’t apply to genre fiction. Reality check: Elmore Leonard wrote almost four dozen novels; many were bestselling genre fiction. His books include Get Shorty, Mr. Majestyk, 3:10 from Yuma, and Be Cool. The TV series Justified is based on one of his short stories. 

Another writer commented that she avoided the word “said” as much as possible, since it was boring. As someone who has made a living editing manuscripts for many years, I would argue that if you expect excitement in your book to come from dialogue tags, you’ve got a problem. 

Leonard’s advice is based on the fact that “said” and “asked” are transparent to readers; they identify who’s speaking without slowing the reader or getting in the way of the narrative flow. If you are a writer who dislikes “said,” then at least use a speech verb for dialogue tags.  One can shout, whisper, yell, or mutter words; one cannot smile, grimace, or smirk words.

Another commented that if all writers followed these rules, all books would be the same. My response? Of course, every book wouldn’t be the same: plots differ, characters differ, voice differs, language differs. 

I’m a great believer that it’s okay to occasionally break the rules, but every writer ought to know the guidelines (not really “rules”) first, why they exist, and when it’s okay to break them. Don’t fight them just because you’re too lazy to learn them, you’re “a lone wolf” or a misunderstood “creative,” or because you’re inclined to holler, “You’re not the boss of me.” You’ll be sabotaging your own work.

News for Writers & Readers

It's Official: I Have a Publisher

After almost six years of research and writing, I am thrilled to announce that University Press of Kentucky will be publishing my historical nonfiction book. The publisher has changed my working title and the book will be published as Liberty Brought Us Here: The True Story of American Slaves Who Migrated to Liberia.

Sixteen thousand black people—freeborn or freed from slavery—left the United States in the 1800s and sailed for Liberia, Africa. They were escaping America’s oppression and bigotry and seeking freedom, peace, and security in a new land. It was the largest out-migration in American history. The so-called colonization movement was highly controversial. Some black people supported it; others vehemently opposed it. Some white people, including slave owners, supported it; others opposed it. The land where these colonists settled was home to numerous indigenous groups, some of whom welcomed the newcomers and others who battled with them.

On the day after Independence Day 1836, two families from Kentucky, the Majors and Harlans, set sail aboard the Luna. They landed in Bassa Cove, Liberia, several weeks later. Though of African descent, they were not African and were ill-prepared for the disease, dangers, and disasters that awaited them. Their former owner had taught them to read and write, and for fifteen years, they maintained a correspondence with him. Their surviving letters form the heart of my book.

The book will be in the University Press of Kentucky spring 2020 catalog.