[cb_profit_poster Storytelling]Clinton, S.C., Wednesday, August 21, 2013, 10:06 a.m.
Yesterday Jim McLaurin, fast becoming a regular character in these epistles, predicted that I would write my blog about Elmore Leonard, who died at 87. Jim knows me too well. He knows me better than me. I had already written the daily blog, stupidly incapable of recognizing what I should be writing about.
Jimmy Mac may not have been right, but he was prescient. The telltale hint was when I tweeted, or posted, that I had learned to write dialogue by reading Leonard’s novels.
(Can’t someone in the social-media biz come up with one more “platform,” one more term, that has to be used to signify an electronic scribble varying only slightly from another?)
For the record:
Not that I mastered it, but Elmore Leonard was my dialogue teacher … by example. Very little of his I haven’t read. (10:59 a.m., 8/20/13)
So why in the world did I write a collection of very short stories, the balance tilted toward silly doings of the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees? The answer, obviously, is that I should have consulted my onetime running mate, McLaurin.
Now, of course, I’m at a terrible disadvantage. I’ve read the perspicacious odes of the great Timeses, New York and Los Angeles. I’ve read the thoughts of writers considerably greater than I, of which there exist many more than I’d care to list. Just this morning, I groaned with disappointment that Tommy Tomlinson’s blog was so good, because, being the stubborn dolt that I am, I knew I was going to give it a shot, anyway.
Enough of my inadequacy. It could take up volumes.
I’ve been reading about three Leonard books a year for more than a decade. He was one of my “go-to guys,” along with Larry McMurtry, Dick Francis, Graham Greene, John Irving, Sinclair Lewis, Tom Wolfe, and, most importantly, John Steinbeck. At the moment, I’m having a wonderful time with Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist.
Steinbeck is my favorite. McMurtry is the one to whom I most aspire, but there’s still no room at that ranch, not even in the bunkhouse. Leonard and Francis, both recently deceased, were my breaks from heavy reads. Any time I read something ambitious – for instance, Les Miserables, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom – I’d follow it up by taking a quick dip in the Leonard/Francis pool. Or Carl Hiaasen, who is kind of Leonard with belly laughs instead of chuckles.
Leonard. Dead. Francis. Dead. Greene. Dead. Lewis and Steinbeck. Long dead. I’ve reached the age where my reading gets lonely. I had taken Leonard as a renewable source of energy. Now I come to find out that his crime novels are finite. I thought only his westerns were limited. That’s how he started, back when dinosaurs rolled the earth and were called Packards, LaSalles and Hudsons.
“Gee, our old LaSalle ran great. Those were the … days!”
Much has been made of Leonard’s “10 rules,” which are old hat to us veterans of Glitz, Riding the Rap, Tishomingo Blues, Cuba Libre, Get Shorty and two dozen others that don’t occur to me at the moment. They are, of course, entertaining, but like most everything else about Leonard, they were written with a wry smile and a twinkle in the eyes. No one could kill a pan like Leonard.
He had his own style. It was spare. For all you ambitious kids out there who write for one principal reason – to let everyone else know just how smart you are – Leonard is one of his cops, slowly revealing your fraud. When I was young, I used a thesaurus to find a word to impress. When I got older, I reached the point where there was a specific word I wanted, but now I need the thesaurus to find it because I sort through it better than my own mind and it wouldn’t be fair to keep Jimmy Mac on call.
Leonard didn’t need those big words. His novels were addition by subtraction. He didn’t describe his characters. He let them talk and you formed images in your mind, and by the end, you and he were looking at the same picture.
No one wrote better dialogue, and few besides court reporters and journalists typed more of it.
As I was gearing up for a late-life-crisis profession known as “novelist,” Leonard became my model for dialogue. I don’t obey all his rules, but I try to heed them. It doesn’t do any good to copy a great writer because he’s already existed. Imitating Cary Grant doesn’t make one Cary Grant, but, rather, Rich Little.
I saw one reference to Leonard as the quiet fellow, standing over to the side, who looks like he knows something. If one reads as many of Leonard’s novels as I have, it’s obvious.
Friends and neighbors, thanks for stopping by most each and every day to see what in the hell I thought of. Keep those cards and letters coming. Next time you’re at the hardware story, tell ‘em old Monte sent you. Y’all come back, you hear?