Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Elmore Leonard - a birthday celebration and a bit more

First there is this from The Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of novelist Elmore Leonard (books by this author ), born in New Orleans in 1925. Straight out of college he got a job at an advertising agency, so he would get up and write every morning at 5 a.m. before going into the office. He published some pulp Westerns, and then started writing crime fiction, and went on to write more than 40 books. Many of them have been turned into movies, including his novels Get Shorty (1990), Be Cool (1999), and Rum Punch (1992), which Quentin Tarantino made into the film Jackie Brown. He gave 10 rules on writing, things like "Never open a book with weather," "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue," "Avoid detailed descriptions of characters," and "Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip." He wrote: "Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he's writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character's head, and the reader either knows what the guy's thinking or doesn't care. I'll bet you don't skip dialogue. My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." To get inside the heads of the despicable people he writes about, Leonard said: "I [try] to put myself in [a criminal's] place. He doesn't think he's doing an evil thing. I try to see [him] at another time — when he sneezes, say. I see convicts sitting around talking about a baseball game. I see them as kids. All villains have mothers." When asked why he writes about criminals, instead of ordinary people, Leonard said, "I just feel more secure in a situation where I know a gun can go off at any time if things get boring."

And there is this personal postscript:

Please take notice of Leonard’s excellent advice to writers, and feel free to agree or disagree in your comments. 

Moreover, I have read only a few books by Leonard, and I remain partial to his westerns, but I hope to read more of his crime fiction books. Tell me about your favorites and recommendations?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. R.T.--if Leonard follows his own rules, then maybe that's why I don't read him. A mystery discussion group I belong to will discuss Leonard's La Brava next month. I will see if I can detect his rules and my own reaction to his work.

    What's wrong with opening with the weather? It may be a significant factor in the tale? What's wrong with detailed descriptions of characters or the environment? Just because Leonard doesn't like to read those elements, does that mean all readers are like Leonard?

    I wonder if (cynically he proposes) Leonard can't do a decent job of portraying those elements he opposes.

    If the best he can do is fire off a gun when his story gets boring, does that suggest a limited imagination?

    Obviously I have no favorites or recommendations.

    Leonard is a very popular writer, so there are those who enjoy his type of fiction. No doubt many of his readers would not enjoy my favorite types of fiction. So be it. Room for all of us, I think.

  3. Fred, yes, different readers value different elements in fiction. But I suspect readers’ values change with time, moods, circumstances, etc. In any case, I’m pressed for time now, so this response must be brief; however, look for a longer response later today.

  4. swimming upstream here, but i agree with Fred... i've tried a couple of his books but quit early: too gory or uninteresting... one of the interests in reading, for me, is elegant use of language, involving long winded descriptions of scenery, personalities, weather, or other natural phenomena... one reason why i like Victorian lit., Disraeli in particular... and i much admire witty/humorous quips and references... i don't find any of that in L... he may be popular, but, imo, he's not very perceptive...

    1. Mudpuddle, you raise an interesting point: popular v. not popular (literary?) fiction. Comparing and making judgments about the aesthetics of books v. tastes of readers can be a slithery can of worms that once opened can offend some folks. Hmmm.

    2. mental image of my hands full of worms, walking around wondering where to put them... hahaha

  5. RT,

    I'm a huge fan of Elmore Leonard, although I don't agree totally with his ten rules of writing. But his gritty, realistic and amusing novels, such as "Get Shorty," City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit," "Glitz," and "52 Pickup," are among my favorite crime novels.

    I like the way he has his quirky criminal and cop characters speak and reveal plot (which he said he was influenced by George V. Higgins' "The Friends of Eddie Coyle").

    I also like his Westerns. I recently reread some of his Western stories and read a couple of new ones (to me) in "The Complete Westerns Stories of Elmore Leonard." This is a good collection.