Gifted writer dies doing what he loves
by Mary Verdier
I imagine many blogs have provided information about Elmore Leonard’s sad death on August 20, 2013. But I felt if I didn’t put something about him on our blog, my comments would just end up in my journal, so why not pass my feelings on to you? When any gifted writer passes on, especially someone as beloved and talented as Elmore Leonard, I want to honor his contributions to life and to writers.
You don’t need me to tell you about his book list, his biography, his funeral, and the touching stories his children said about him there. It is all on the Internet, including his awards, the great movies that sprung from his books – from his very imagination. So I’ll just tell you how I feel.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m writing too late. I am not a “young writer” so when I hear of any writer passing away, I worry I won’t live long enough to write all the books and stories I want to. But at 87, Leonard was writing his 46th novel. Isn’t it wonderful that someone could write so much, touch so many readers, and still be doing what he loved in his late eighties? I consider that a life well lived. He was practically born a writer, spinning stories for dime novels (comics, pulp fiction, call them what you want) for 2 or 3 cents a word.
When an author writes 45 novels and 40 or 50 short stories as Elmore Leonard did, he knows his craft. You writers already know your craft, but I want to share with you a few things Leonard said about the art of writing that touched me. Personally, I need to be reminded about dialogue, story arcs, character development, “show, don’t tell,” and all those other writing rules we’ve heard dozens of times. The only other way to become a good writer, Leonard said, is to keep writing and reading until the art and skill of good writing becomes part of your DNA.
DIALOGUE AND DESCRIPTION: Leonard’s agent once suggested to him that he read The Friends of Eddie Coyle, by George G. Higgens, a book that became a 1973 crime film starring Robert Mitchum, because of its realistic dialogue. He followed his agent’s advice, and anyone who has read Leonard’s novels knows that he doesn’t actually describe his characters; he just lets them talk. The reader doesn’t have to see the person because she becomes part of the story, actually feels as if she is there. The writer has disappeared. That is how the reader gets to know the characters, and in Leonard’s own stated opinion, that is often how he got to know them as well. He often emphasized that the writer needs to get out of the way. Easier said than done, right?
CHARACTERS: Leonard said the name of the character often makes him or her come alive. Sometimes, if he used the wrong name, the character just wouldn’t come to life on the page. He couldn’t get him to talk. Then he changed the name, and the person wouldn’t shut up. When writing his characters, he had them “audition” for the first hundred pages or so. He believed you should begin your novel or story with dialogue. He had his characters “audition,” because sometimes characters don’t act the right age or don’t speak like they would in real life (or in the reader’s mind). Characters have attitudes, style, mannerisms, and quirks. If you are immersed in one of Leonard’s novels, you almost know what a character is going to say or do because they are so authentic. The reader is now in the character’s head. You are now living a life, not just reading a book.
All of this talk about characters leads to only one conclusion, and this you know – character is more important than plot. Once you start writing, your plot usually goes to hell anyway, but the novel probably comes out better than you thought it would if you’d stuck to your originally planned plot. Leonard said the writing doesn’t get easier; it gets harder. Ugh, that is discouraging, isn’t it? I wish I could ask him what he meant.
PROCESS: Elmore got up every day at 5 a.m. and never even made his coffee until he had gotten into a scene and his work had begun. I know I can barely walk without my first cup, let alone think or write. He wrote eight hours a day, every day. I write six hours a day. Guess I’d better start getting up earlier. But I’ll need the coffee before going to my Mac and facing that snowy white screen.
Leonard wrote all the pages of his novels on yellow pads, especially made for him without lines, and then typed them later on a typewriter. He tried to write three to five pages a day and said it generally took four pages to get ONE he could use. He described writing as “the best job in the world.” I’m guessing he said that after he began earning more than 2 cents a word for his dime novels. He did it all without a computer. When asked by an Associated Press reporter how long he intended to write, Elmore Leonard said, “I probably won’t quit until I just quit everything – quit my life – because it’s all I know how to do. And it’s fun. I have fun writing. You have to have fun with this or it’ll drive you nuts.
Mary Verdier is a retired attorney with an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley College. Her novel, Are We Home Yet?, will be available online by mid-December. Purchase the paperback version of Mary’s novel now for $10 by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 602-403-0100.