Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Elmore Leonard - Where Have You Been All My Life?

3:10 to Yuma
E.L. - Now One Of The Literary Gods

Talk about shameful, this is way beyond that. Who hasn't heard of Elmore Leonard? The Father of Crime Fiction? Whaaat? Wasn't Micky Spillane, the great Crime Noir author of all time? WTF? They both hail from the same era, the 50's, after all.

It's Detroit vs. New York folks. Who's the winner? Hmm, forget that, I won't turn this into a popularity competition. I love Spillane and in my mind he is the best crime novelist of all time because that's all he ever wrote. Leonard really comes across as a Western writer for the most part, not counting Get Shorty, or the TV series, Justified, of course.

Several of Elmore Leonard's best hits, like, Killshot, 3:10 To Yuma, and lately, the TV series Justified, which is based on Raylan's character, all come to mind. I'm not a huge fan of crime fiction, (because I'm a snob) but I am a huge fan of great (literary) writing, and both these writers were great in their own way.

And what better literary author to be inspired by than Ernest Hemingway, whom Leonard studied and practically idolized, with reservations about Hemingway's serious side, mind you. I know what he means. Hemingway was not exactly a comedian. At least not in his novels, but his autobiographical, A Movable Feast, does show Hemingway's lighter side.

Right now, though, it's all about Elmore Leonard, who passed away due to a stroke, August of 2013. He was 87 and still writing. That in itself is inspirational. But, when you're on a roll, why stop? And what a roll it was. It all started with "Trail of The Apaches," in the 50's and Leonard never let up since, right up to his last novel, Raylan, and his last short story, Ice Man. Read it here.

Absolute gems, folks. What else can anyone say? Writing like this doesn't come by that often. This kind of writing is not something you can learn, but I believe, you must be born with this kind of instinct. And yes, Elmore Leonard was born to write these kind of stories. That's why we're still talking about him and his amazing work.


His writing techniques are all but missing. He seems to break plenty of "writing rules" but somehow manages to pull off the stories either way. This suggests an innate ability that many writers just don't have. He's a natural who makes up his own rules, and to great advantage. Proof enough that writing techniques are just guidelines, and not the Holy Grail, which, brings to mind Elmore Leonard's own 10 rules for good writing.
  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. 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.
These are the rules Leonard admonished, although, he always said that if you only follow number 10, you'll be ahead of the game.

"If it sounds like writing, I re-write it."

The surprising thing about this top 10 list, is that all these rules are quite in line with literary standards, which many writers (myself included) abide by. (I'm a writer? Who knew? Okay, I'll have to live to 87 to prove it. I have about 35 years to go. Just preaching to the choir, folks.)

So, as we can see, even when we follow all these tried and true rules, we're nowhere near the level of writing that Elmore Leonard was. Don't know about you, but I'm not there yet. My early onset of Alzheimer's gets in the way a lot more than I'd like to think. Then again, maybe I'm just plain dense. I think that's the real answer. Unfortunately, God did not bestow me with any gifts. None whatsoever. A few minor talents, but nothing in the literature and writing department.


Remember the movie, Amadeus? I'm the hopeless Italian composer. Don't get the reference? Look it up, young guns, this is a good one, especially if you're a fan of music, specifically, Beethoven. Also, The Verve Pipe's, Bitter Sweet Symphony. Another classic gem. Forgive me, I just can't help myself.

Okay, back to my new hero, Elmore Leonard.

Don't you just love it when you discover a writer like this? I mean, I've read him before, but never really immersed myself in his work. If you're a literary snob like me, give Leonard a chance and check out his work, because he's not the hack you might think he is. Quite to the contrary, E.L., as I've already mentioned, has literary roots running through his veins. He's no Mickey Spillane, folks. And that's not a jab at Leonard. I'm just trying to make a distinction in my own ridiculous way.

Elmore Leonard is in a league of his own. There. That's more like it. Leonard, by all counts is a pioneer of literature, and he has the classic stories to prove it. Period.

Check out the links here and get some of his books and enjoy them. Everyone, especially Hollywood, has been doing just that for 60 years. He's had to be doing something right, and yes, I know what it is.

Aren't you glad you stuck around for the end of this Post? (Whatever.)

Here it is folks. Here's the takeaway.


If there's one thing and one thing only, consistent about Leonard's writing, it's that he works with very conceptual ideas. What does that mean? It means that without a winning concept, there is no story. Because the kernel of any idea, is its concept. And concept means, the reason you read a story. The reason a story exists to begin with. The What if factor.

And to propel his concepts, add plenty of crisp dialog to the formula, and you have a winning combo. (Wow, this is even better than D.Q.'s burger combo.)

Transporting a prisoner to Yuma Territorial Prison on the 3:10 train, is a high concept with never-ending possibilities, plus theme, built right in. Hence: 3:10 to Yuma. (Yes, I know you'd surmised that already.) One of my favorite Westerns of all time. Originally a short story, published in 1953, by Dime Western. First filmed in 1957, starring Glen Ford, and then filmed again in 2007, starring, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. One damn good story, two great movies. And if Leonard's University of Detroit studies in English and Philosophy ever shined, they were certainly exemplified in 3:10 to Yuma. His flair for great concepts? That's a secret we might never know. (I'll get back to you about that.)

But how's Jackie Brown, for high concept? A flight attendant who smuggles drugs from Mexico to an LA guns runner who's under the close watch of the A.T.F. A classic Quentin Tarantino film, originally published as a novel, Rum Punch, by Leonard. And yes, Tarantino took many liberties with Rum Punch, including changing its protagonist from White to Black (The wonderful, Pam Grier) and its title, but Leonard said it was one of "Hollywood's" best adaptations of any of his books and highly praised the film.

And we all know that means that Leonard thought Jackie Brown was as good, or even better than Rum Punch. Better than the book, only because cinema, when done right, adds another dimension to the written word. Hurray for Tarantino! (That'll be my only exclamation point in this article. Thank you E.L.) C'mon... Elmore Leonard and Quentin Tarantino, truly a match made in literary/cinematic heaven. This is the best three-way marriage among Crime Noir, Blaxploitation, and Neo Noir films ever.

Now, there's a gift you can't deny. Thank you, literary gods. At least I've lived long enough to enjoy this gift given to others. (Really?) That's a blessing, folks. Don't kid yourself. Even Norman Maclean  was still writing in his later years when he penned the wonderful A River Runs Through It. Another undeniable classic, wonderfully brought to life on screen by Robert Redford.

How lucky are we? Lucky enough to have experienced great writers and filmmakers, and amazing human beings such as Hemingway, Maclean, and yes, especially Elmore Frank Leonard.

Thank you, Elmore Leonard. Your legacy will always and forever live on.

Cue, sentimental music, that's a wrap, folks.


Check out this list of classic stories and Pulp Western Fiction book covers:

No comments: