Tuesday, February 2, 2010

You Should Read Elmore Leonard

“You asking me,” Catlett said, “do I know how to write down words on a piece of paper? That’s what you do, man, you put down one word after the other as it comes in your head. It isn’t like having to learn how to play the piano, like you have to learn notes. You already learned in school how to write, didn’t you? I hope so. You have the idea and you put down what you want to say. Then you get somebody to add in the commas and shit where they belong, if you aren’t positive yourself. Maybe fix up the spelling where you have some tricky words. There people do that for you. Some, I’ve even seen scripts where I know words weren’t spelled right and there was hardly any commas in it. So I don’t think it’s too important. You come to the last page you write in 'Fade out' and that’s the end, and you’re done.”
- Elmore Leonard, Get Shorty

My preferred method of recommendation is quoting an author’s work. As you can see from the paragraph above, Elmore Leonard is funny, real, and spare. He’ll never come up with a line so poetic that hipsters want it tattooed across their shoulders, but if there’s another writer as masterful at revealing character through dialog, I’m taking nominations. Whoever you want to bring forward, it would still be called the Elmore Leonard Dialog Award.

He’s created some of pop culture’s most memorable characters, folks who populate his fiction and film. Chili Palmer. Karen Sisco. Ordell Robbie. Of course, for every Out of Sight and Jackie Brown, there’s a Big Bounce or a Stick.

As is so often the case, you’re better off with his books.

More than providing hours of page-turning entertainment, I have Elmore Leonard to thank (or blame) for buckling down as a writer.

When Andi and I first moved to Miami, I was a mess. Looking for the job with the least amount of responsibility long before Lester Burnham, I’d gotten a job as a dishwasher at Bennigan’s some years before. Why go to school to teach yourself to be an artist? What did it matter what you did to keep food in your mouth and roof over your head? The work mattered, not the job.

Of course, this was before I knew what the work would be. That fundamental weakness in my pursuit of art led to a lot of late nights, LSD, and – most shamefully – to my spinelessness when presented with a dollar raise. I forgot my job was a necessary evil and not a calling

Airbrushing supplies gathered dust. T-squares collected cobwebs in corners. Paints dried up. The writing was dump and flush, amateur hour, the drivel of a dabbling dilettante (yes, I know that “dabbling dilettante” is redundant, but who can resist the alliterative pull? Say it five times fast, drivel of a dabbling dilettante, drivel of a dabbling dilettante… might make a better blog tagline than that if I care how others perceive my passions stuff. I’ll change it after I change the About Me section of my profile to “twat with a Tank Girl tattoo.”).

When Elmore Leonard pushed me into the writing life, I had the day off from my management job at Borders. I was watching a DVD of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, which is based on Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch. I’d seen it so many times, just watching the movie wasn’t enough of a distraction. I decided to watch it with the text commentary.

During the scene when Samuel L. Jackson's Ordell Robbie shows Robert DeNiro's Louis Gara a video called “Chicks Who Love Guns,” these words flashed across the bottom of the screen:

Elmore Leonard’s Rules of Remaining Invisible:

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.”
5) Keep your exclamation points under control.
6) Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7) Use regional dialect 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.

All these rules have exceptions but the most important thing is- if it sounds like writing, rewrite it.

I hit the pause button on the DVD remote, sat up on the couch. The first draft of my first book opened with a prologue in which a person with a thick northeastern / reservation dialect talks about the weather (and how I heartily wish that was a joke). Clearly I had a lot of work to do. I ejected Jackie Brown from the DVD player and got to it.

I printed Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Remaining Invisible above my desk, imagining them posted above typewriters and computers across America. I started a program called “Mind Pissings” with the words what to write when you have no idea? Mind Pissings became my journal, my drawing board, the place where I wrote every morning at five am before my judgment bone woke up and stopped the circulation of my imagination.

At a Books & Books appearance some years later, Augusten Burroughs told aspiring writers to write every day, and on the days when they had nothing to write about and no ideas, they should write about having nothing to write about and no ideas.

It’s the habit. Like pushups and sit ups before bed. Switching fried food for salads. Thinking before speaking. The tiny, healthy steps which, in the fullness of time, will get you where you see yourself. It takes build up to make big leaps.

Thanks, Mr. Leonard. I build my room in the Tower of Babble by your grace.


  1. Some of this blog was posted on the Elmore Leonard website today and I followed the link here. Good stuff.

    And I just wanted to say good luck with your writing.

  2. Um, wow. My blog is linked on Elmore Leonard's website. Wow. Surreal, flattering, and...wow.

    Now all I need is for audio of the next ditty I make up after a few beers to be featured on Leonard Cohen's blog and I can die a happy man.

  3. Well-done Aaron, in multi-ways. That habits paragraph is especially graceful.

    I also followed Gregg Sutter's pointer to find you, and real glad I did.

    Keep going. You've got It.

  4. Hey Bud,

    Ref the Leomard Cohen comment - that's never going to happen!!!

    Nice if it would though.......