Look at Me: Elmore Leonard, RIP

“If work was a good thing, the rich would have it all and not let you do it.”
– Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard has passed away. The world is a little dimmer and a little dumber, today.

One of my favorite writers — and the source for a few of my favorite films, too. I will have to watch “Get Shorty” tonight in his memory.

His “Ten Rules of Writing” are succinct and perfect:

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of 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. You are allowed no more than 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.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

A really good, really entertaining archival piece from the Washington Post:

“I’m doing exactly what I want to do. There is no better situation. I sit and look out the window when I’m writing away; I look out, and I don’t believe it. I’m sitting here all by myself, doing this story, getting all excited about it and getting paid for it — a lot of money. I’m not bending to a certain commercial way to fit a commercial need. I can’t do that. I have to do it my way, and thank God, it’s salable.”

You want to know something about Elmore Leonard, what it would be like to be stuck with him on an elevator for a couple of hours, here it is: Leonard wrote the preceding paragraph in the early 1980s as a contribution to “The Courage to Change,” a book by and for recovering alcoholics.

It was before he hit the bestseller list and became a household name.

This is my favorite Elmore Leonard riff from Esquire, 2005:

I like homicide detectives. They wear hats. They wear hats so that other law-enforcement people will know they’re homicide.

As a little kid, I wanted to play with a knife and my mother wouldn’t let me. I cried and she gave me a rubber one. I said, “Mom, a rubber knife just doesn’t do it.”

I’ve been married three times. During the first one, I had a love affair. Then I divorced, and Joan and I were married. She died in ’93, and I felt I had to get married again. Quickly. I like being married. Just then, the French-speaking landscaper showed up. Christine is twenty-four years younger than me. We started talking and that was it. I remember saying to a friend, “I’m thinking of marriage again, but Joan’s been dead for only six months. Don’t you think I should wait a year?” He said, “What are you, Sicilian?”

The best thing about my kids is the fact that I can count on them. I knew they’d understand when I married somebody their age.

You do appreciate sex more as you age. The simple fact is there will be fewer and fewer situations.

My material looks like a movie. Then when the studio gets into it, they find out it’s not quite as simple as it looks.

The convicts who write me assume I’ve done time.

A line of dialogue is not clear enough if you need to explain how it’s said.

Once, I came back from Hollywood in the early seventies throwing up blood. My doctor said, “We’re going to have to do an exploratory operation.” He said, “Acute gastritis? That’s something you see with skid-row bums.” I was drinking heavily.

Alcohol never prevented me from writing. But when I quit — on January 24, 1977, at 9:30 a.m. — my fiction got better.

I was brought up Catholic. I don’t go to receive the sacrament anymore. But it’s important to me to go through this little drill about what my purpose is before I get out of bed every morning.

God’s will is not necessarily something bad that happens to you. You can become a millionaire, and that’s God’s will. You have to look at it this way: What are you doing to deserve God’s will?

Yeah, just go on and read all of that. (It’s an excerpt from this book, which you can buy used.)

Rest in Peace.

A brutal, funny scene from Get ShortyLanguage Alert, you’re warned — with the also recently passed Dennis Farina and the great Gene Hackman.

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About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Fiestamom

    Dennis Farina passed away a month ago, and this is the scene I thought of! How did Get Shorty not win any awards?

    And James Gandolfini passed away earlier this summer. :(

  • KyPerson

    One of Elmore Leonard’s works is the inspiration for the wonderful TV show Justified. It has great dialogue and Leonard was so good at that. RIP.

  • Rebecca Fuentes

    He’s my husband’s favorite author. When I taught writing, I had his rules posted in my classroom, because they are much better, and more succinct, than any I would have written. It’s almost heresy for a public school teacher to tell students to just use said; stop trying to use yelled, whispered, interjected, muttered, sneered . . .

  • Kris, in New England

    “Get Shorty” – one of my all-time fave movies. Everything about it is just – perfect. And as mentioned already the incredibly fantastic “Justified” is an Elmore Leonard creation. Great writer, humble human being.


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