As I cap my career in bush league letters with the release of my third regional interest book ("It Happened in West Virginia," Globe Pequot Press, available soon in better bookstores, Sam's Clubs and truck stops in a three-county area), I note with sadness last week's passing of Elmore Leonard, a true writing superstar who cranked out 47 novels as well as the short story that launched the FX series "Justified " before his cover was closed.
Leonard relied on dialog to do his storytelling, and he was so good at dreaming it up and writing it down that he could make a story about a cross-country bus ride exciting and engaging, particularly if the passengers liked to talk and one or more of them happened to be a criminal.
In crime novels like "Fifty-Two Pickup," "Swag," "The Switch," "Rum Punch" and "Get Shorty," many of Leonard's bad guys are multi-dimensional characters, often in possession of a number of positive and attractive traits as well as interesting or understandable negative ones.
Since it's dialog that propels Leonard's stories, the author was careful with how he used it. In a 2001 "Writers on Writing" piece in The New York Times, he advised against writing in regional dialect. "Once you start spelling words in dialog phonetically and loading the page in apostrophes, you won't be able to stop," he said. He also suggested that writers never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialog, since "dialog belongs to the character" to share with readers, and verbs like "grumbled," "cautioned" and "lied" bear traces of the author's opinions.
Leonard also advised writers to avoid prologues, particularly if they follow a foreword and an introduction, and to skip detailed descriptions of characters, places and things, since they impede the flow of a story.
Starting a book with "It was a dark and stormy night" didn't cut it, in Leonard's opinion. "Never open a book with weather," he wrote. "The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people."
Leonard said that writers should above all "try to leave out the part readers tend to skip," which almost certainly won't include dialog.
Unlike recently departed crime writers Robert B. Parker and Tony Hillerman, whom I've followed faithfully and eagerly through the years, Leonard didn't have steadily recurring characters who can be kept on life support by other writers. Parker's soft-boiled private eye Spencer lives on through the efforts of writer Ace Atkinson, while Hillerman's Navajo tribal cops Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn have a future thanks to Hillerman's daughter, Anne, in "Spider Woman's Daughter," due out in October.
In Elmore Leonard's case, I'll have to follow the suggestion offered by New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica:"The only thing better than reading Elmore Leonard is re-reading him."