My Uncle Jim gave me my first Elmore Leonard book.
Technically, Jim didn’t give me the book. He lent it to me. For more than 30 years, Jim and I have lent each other a lot of books, knowing that it would be years, if ever, before we got those books back. What would happen is one of us would read a book the other had lent us, and then it would get mixed in with other books and likely lent to someone else who would eventually lend it to someone else.
It’s the cycle of books.
The name of that first Elmore Leonard book was “The Moonshine War,” and after reading a few pages of the novel, I was hooked. When I finished “The Moonshine War,” I immediately went out and bought all the Elmore Leonard books I could find. Fortunately, I was able to find a lot of his books.
Leonard took his writing seriously, churning out, on average, one novel a year. One time, in an interview, someone asked him why he wrote so much, and he said, “It’s fun.”
It was the sort of thing one of Leonard’s characters might say. No lengthy description of the writing process or what compelled him to sit down and write every day. Just a simple answer to a not-so-simple question.
People who read a lot of Elmore Leonard like to praise his simple, sparse, to-the-point dialogue, and rightfully so. But I am always drawn to the characters in his novels. While the dialogue in Elmore Leonard’s novels might be simple, his characters never are. His good guys aren’t always good, and his bad guys aren’t always bad.
Elmore Leonard died Tuesday. He was 87. According to numerous news accounts, he died of complications from a stroke he suffered a few weeks ago.
I remember reading about Leonard’s stroke and smiling at the fact that before his stroke, he was working on another novel.
I probably should be able to tell you exactly how many books Leonard wrote during his lifetime, but I would have to look that up, and then I would have to pretend that I didn’t look it up. I would have to pretend that I knew exactly how many books Leonard wrote.
I don’t like to pretend in this column. Pretty much what you read in this space is what you get. Really, not pretending is one of the few rules about writing that I have. Leonard was like that. The New York Times once asked him to write a piece about his take on writing, and Leonard famously came up with a list of rules that became known as “Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules About Writing.”
One of the things I picked up from those rules was the fact that as far as he was concerned, his rules didn’t apply to everyone.
For example, his first rule on writing is: “Never open a book with weather.”
But then he goes on to say: “If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.”
Leonard also says to avoid prologues, but then he goes on to cite the prologue in John Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday” as an example of a great prologue.
He also suggests that writers not “go into great detail describing places and things.” Of course, the reason Leonard suggests going light on the description is because he discovered he was lousy at describing things.
But the most important of Elmore Leonard’s rules is actually the 11th: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
Elmore Leonard didn’t want his readers to hear him; he wanted them to hear his characters.
That’s what made him a great writer.
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