Never Open A Book With The Weather: RIP Elmore Leonard

One of the greatest writers of our generation or any other passed away today. 

Image from Rob Kozloff/AP

Elmore Leonard died today. They called him the Dickens of Detroit, and I guess that's pretty apt. He feels like America's novelist as much as Dickens was England's. He certainly knew his way around poverty, and he knew how to craft a character. He wasn't a sentimental writer like Dickens, but he sure was prolific.

It's hard to lament the death of an 87-year-old man who's written 45 books, but Leonard always seemed like he had so many good ones left in him. He wrote his books out longhand on legal pads, and he went through thousands of them a year. His longtime researcher Greg Sutter said he was "very much into his 46th novel" when he had a stroke a couple of weeks ago. I guess it's never a good time for anyone, but I hate that he didn't finish that book. Of course he would have been in the middle of some book or other when he died. You don't write 45 books - 45 great books - by taking breaks in between them. 

Last night in bed I read a few chapters of Rum Punch before falling asleep, grinning in the dark when Ordell says to Louis, "You only think you're a good guy. You're just like me, only you turned out white." I'm writing about Jackie Brown this week, and I wanted to refresh myself on the book that Quentin Tarantino "fell in love with" before making his best movie.

It's possible you loved Elmore Leonard without ever having read him. He's written the books that made Out of SightGet Shorty3:10 to Yuma, Hombre and Be Cool possible. And of course he created that laconic lawman with the ever-present Stetson, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, now played by Timothy Olyphant in the terrific FX series Justified. Raylan's an all-time character, and he was even before Olyphant leaned his way onscreen. Leonard once said about him, "Tim Olyphant plays the character exactly the way I wrote him. I couldn’t believe it. He’s laid back and he’s quiet about everything but he says, if I have to pull my gun, then that’s a different story. And it works." 

Olyphant, Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson and George Clooney are probably the best actors to have pulled off an Elmore Leonard character, the key to which is nailing his dialogue. The man could write a riveting mystery or believable character, to be sure, but what he did better than anybody was craft a line you wanted to read aloud, in the silence of your room, just to hear how cool you sounded when you said it. He wrote the best dialogue I've ever read, the kind of dialogue that quickens in your mind, changing the rhythm of your thoughts for the duration of one of his books.

From Last Stand at Saber River:

Cable stood over Dancey with the Walker Colt in his hand. It was cocked and pointing directly at Dancey's head. Joe Bob and Royce said nothing.

Dancey said, 'You're not proving anything with that gun in your hand.'

'I don't have anything to prove.'

Royce said, 'You think we won't be back?'

Cable's gaze shifted. 'You'll ride into a double load of buckshot if you do.'

Royce seemed to grin. 'Man, you're made to order. Duane's going to have some fun with you.'

Dancey's eyes held on Cable. 'So one man's going to stand us off.'

'That's all it's taken so far.'

From Out of Sight:

She felt him moving, squirming around to get comfortable. 

'You sure have a lot of shit in here. What's all this stuff? Handcuffs, chains...What's this can?'

'For your breath,' Karen said. 'You could use it. Squirt some in your mouth.'

'You devil, it's Mace, huh? What've you got here, a billy? Use it on poor unfortunate offenders. [...] Tell me why in the world you ever became a federal marshal, Jesus. My experience with marshals, they're all beefy guys, like your big-city dicks.'

'The idea of going after guys like you,' Karen said, 'appealed to me.'

From Rum Punch:

Max watched her open a pack of cigarettes and light one before taking a sip of Scotch and glancing toward the cocktail piano. 

'He shouldn't be allowed to do 'Light My Fire'.'

'Not here,' Max said, 'in a tux.'

'Not anywhere.' She pushed the pack toward him.

Max shook his head. 'I quit three years ago.'

'You gain weight?'

'Ten pounds. I lose it and put it back on.'

'That's why I don't quit. One of the reasons. I was locked up yesterday with two cigarettes. And spent half the night getting advice from a cleaning woman named Ramona, who doesn't smoke.'

Not sounding too upset. 

'Ramona Williams,' Max said, 'she dips stuff. I've written her a few times. She has a tendency, she gets mad when she's drinking, to hit people with hammers, baseball bats...You get along okay?'

'She offered to clean my apartment for forty dollars and do the windows on the inside.'

From Raylan:

Raylan told the officers he didn’t expect Angel would resist, but you never knew for sure. He said, ‘You hear gunfire come runnin, all right?’

One of the troopers said, ‘You want, we’ll bust in the door for you.’

‘You’re dyin to,’ Raylan said. ‘I thought I’d stop by the desk and get a key.’

My dad once sent me Elmore Leonard's rules for writing, ten guidelines that make it sound so damn easy, the way he says it. I guess he did make it seem easy, didn't he? I guess that's the point.

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.