“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.” —Elmore Leonard
Elmore Leonard was an American novelist, short story writer, and screenwriter. He was known for his crime fiction, and nothing makes a reader of this genre more frustrated than a poorly written book. I am one of those readers, and I don’t get past page 5 if the writing is amateurish. What makes me close the book? Implausible dialogue … unnecessary adverbs … unrealistic premise … poor character development … illogical clues … and the narrator’s hidden thoughts in italics.
There are many techniques for writing good crime fiction. The first one, in my opinion, is hook the reader immediately, and don’t let go. If I’m not hooked, I won’t keep reading. I won’t care about the crime or the characters or the clues. I will figure the mystery out for myself, or I will be incredulous at the ending. In other words, great crime fiction is an art form.
Having said all that, I must add that I write nonfiction, which I also believe to be an art form. It is just as difficult to hold the reader’s attention in this form, if not more so. I have a shelf full of biographies and memoirs—some I’ve read all the way through, others I haven’t gotten through the first chapter. A biography is about someone else’s life; an autobiography is about yours; a memoir is a focused snapshot of a part of your life, a particular time or event. The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr is considered to be a one of the best; A Million Little Pieces, one of the worst, mostly because it wasn’t true.
David McCullough won a Pulitzer Prize for Truman. Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of Steve jobs not only didn’t win any prizes, it bored me to tears. My favorite memoirs are written by journalists. They are well written, interesting, personal, and candid. I love them because I relate to the authors and their stories. While they appear to have just poured out onto the page effortlessly, I knew they have probably been edited and rewritten many times.
There is no such thing as a final first draft, no matter how long you have been writing or how good you are. The best nonfiction of any kind, but especially memoir, is a conversation between the author and the reader. The minute the reader hits a jarring note—a sentence written to impress, for example—the conversation is interrupted. What has happened is that the sentence (or worse, the paragraph) “sounds like writing.” That is a sentence Elmore Leonard would have rewritten. I hope I would have done the same.