Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Elmore Leonard

The Internet is awash with testimonials to the late Elmore Leonard, who died yesterday morning from complications of a stroke. I’m not going to try to compete with better writers who may have known him personally, and may well know his writing better than I do. Leonard was a master, possibly the master in his field. By all accounts, he was also a cool guy. He’ll be missed on multiple levels, and it’s great he had such a good, long run. I doubt he felt cheated when things grew dark for the last time.

For a long time I counted Elmore Leonard as among the three most prominent influences on my writing, along with Raymond Chandler and Ed McBain. Times change, styles evolve, writers (hopefully) grow. The influence of George V. Higgins is also important in my work now; James Ellroy gnaws at the back of my mind more all the time. I may even have come to take Leonard’s influence for granted, so ingrained has it become into my process, but he was—and remains—the writer most responsible for how I write today. (The good things. The not so good is the unadulterated product of my own suckiness.)

His Ten Rules of Writing are making the rounds. They’re all good, and best read with his explanatory comments. My favorite part comes after Number 4. Number 3 reads, “Never use a verb other than ''said'' to carry dialogue.” After a brief paragraph explaining why, he moves on to

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ''said'' . . .

. . . he admonished gravely.

That’s the money quote. Coupled with his most famous comment (If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it), that tongue-in-cheek admonition sums up the key takeaway from Leonard the writer: Do what works. Have some fun with 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. It's my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

He opens the essay with a disclaimer: these are his rules; feel free to ignore them.

If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

The ultimate irony of Elmore Leonard is, hard as he worked to make his authorial hand invisible to the reader, few writers had a more distinctive, easily identifiable style. The challenge when reading him was to keep from going too fast, the eyes scan so effortlessly over the page. Leonard isn’t read so much as listened to, the characters and their dialog so natural, the transference from eye to brain so fluid, it’s as though the medium of delivery has been eliminated, and you’re getting the story telepathically..

I’ve gone on too long, put the lie to the influence I claimed at the beginning. His rules, like everything else, were worth reading, but the essence of Elmore Leonard as a writer can be summed up in the words of Chili palmer:

I’m not gonna say any more than I have to, if that.

He never did.

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