Tag Archives: dialogue

On the Death of Elmore Leonard

28 August 2013

Unlike most of his characters, may Elmore Leonard RIP

RIP Elmore Leonard

“The sky is cryin’ . . .”

—Elmore James

Like his blues-howling namesake, Elmore Leonard could conjure dark doings, and stretch your heart with worry about the survival of some lost soul on the underside. He was also one of my favorite all-time writers, but if you’re after a grand summation of his life and work, you’d better look elsewhere.  (” . . . one of America’s greatest crime novelists and one of Hollywood’s favorite storytellers” . . . “a seemingly inexhaustible cast of sleaze-balls, scam artists and out-and-out psychopaths.”)

I first encountered his work at a friend’s garage sale in the mid-80s. There was nothing of interest on offer, so just to be polite I grabbed a foxed paperback of Glitz. Little did I know the seedy, convoluted worlds of intrigue into which I was about to tumble. Forty books later (I think I’ve read everything Leonard published except for Escape From Five Shadows), the man was still turning over rocks to see what might crawl out.

Leonard always kept it short, sweet and to the point. As he famously said, “I leave out the parts that people skip.” He moved scene to scene, inventing as he went, so that his books never had the feel of being “plotted.” His ability to characterize meant that in a single page he’d have you feeling you knew deep motivations and festering hurts and couldn’t wait to see what some clown would do when pushed to the edge—particularly when pushed to the edge by competing factions all chasing the same McGuffin.

It never took long to tumble into the story either. Dig the opening sentence of another 80s novel, Bandits: “Every time they got a call from the leper hospital to pick up a body Jack Delaney would feel himself coming down with the flu or something.” How can you not keep reading?

An ex-nun, an ex-con, and an ex-cop stumble on a cache of money on its way to the Nicaraguan Contras. They're going to make out like bandits.

In New Orleans, an ex-nun, an ex-con, and an ex-cop stumble on a cache of money on its way to the Nicaraguan Contras. They’re going to make out like bandits.

And the dialogue! So crisp, so real. Look how much we learn about these two guys’ attitudes in this uninterrupted slice of repartee (also from Bandits):

“. . . the guy has the desk lamp on and he’s taking stuff out of the lady’s briefcase and putting it in this flight bag he has with him. So, I started to sneak up behind him.”
“No shit.”
“He was about your size. What’re you, five six?”
“Five seven and a quarter.”
“He wasn’t too big. Maybe a hundred and thirty pounds.”
“I go one sixty-two,” Mario said.
“So I don’t see a problem unless he’s got a gun.”
“Yeah, did he?”
“Just then he turns around and we’re looking right at each other. The guy says, very calmly, ‘I bet I have the wrong room. This isn’t 1515, is it?’ I said, ‘You aren’t even close.’ . . .”

And one more time. With Leonard, you share a random ride with an ex-nun, and before long you’re embroiled in Sandinista blood vendettas. They’re not long in the car together, still killing time, but getting intrigued (again from Bandits):

     “You’re a nurse?”

“Not exactly. What I did was practice medicine without a license. Toward the end we didn’t have a staff physician. Our two Nicaraguan doctors were disappeared, one right after the other. It was only a matter of time. We weren’t for either side, but we knew who we were against.”
     Were disappeared.
He’d save that one for later. “And now you’re back home for a while?”
She took several moments to say, “I’m not sure.” Then glanced at him. “How about you, Jack, are you still a jewel thief?”
He liked the easy way she said his name. “No, I gave it up for another line of work. I got into agriculture.”
“Really? You were a farmer?”
“More of a field hand. At the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Angola.”

Man, that’s good. I got to keep trying . . .

RIP Elmore Leonard.


Young Authors Conference Delights

24 July 2013

The last word in the title of this post can be read as either a noun or a verb. What is not a matter for debate is the joy I receive each year from teaching at this conference. I’ve been doing it steadily since YAC’s inception in 1990. Each day hundreds of 4th-8th graders from around the Twin Cities metro area pour into the halls of Bethel University to discover the wonders of working with professional writers. There are a couple dozen of us each year, covering the waterfront of genres and styles. Some years I do “Creating Characters.” Other times it’s “Doing Dialogue,” or “Starting Stories.” (And, no, there’s no requirement that session titles consist of two alliterative words.)

Whatever the title, the point of the sessions is to give eager young writers some fresh tools for their tool box, and to inspire them to keep digging deep inside themselves for expression and insight. As I tell the students, “We’re not all on the same road; we’re not all heading in the same direction. But wherever you are and wherever you’re going, it’s my job to move you further down the road of writing.” And then we take off, going a mile a minute and bouncing back and forth with bits and pieces of text, questions, story slices, and the like. For some of these kids, this is the first time they’ve ever been in a room filled with other dedicated young readers and writers. No longer are they the oddball who actually enjoys cracking a book. Now they’re trading favorite authors and offering up exceptions to every rule proposed. (As I say, “This is creative writing. Every rule can be broken—but before you do, you better know what the rules are, or there’ll be no creativity in the breakage.”)

Not actually from YAC, but this photo shows the author in action during a COMPAS Summer Writing Workshop in 1987.

Not actually from YAC, but this photo shows the author in action during a COMPAS Summer Writing Workshop in 1987.

The conference is run by the wise and energetic souls at Success Beyond the Classroom (particularly Gina Jacobson), and after the conference ends they send out examples of student feedback. I treasure these lists. Who wouldn’t? Here are some comments from the past two years from participants in my sessions:

“We got to do things for ourselves and learned new things versus reviewing the old ones.”

“He didn’t lecture on, and we switched off between talking and having us do stuff. He was funny.”

“I learned a ton in this class and got a chance to write, revise, and write more.”

“Because he really gave me a lot of good ways I should start my story and make good things happen so the reader can get hooked on it.”

“I enjoyed this session the most because dialogue is something I desperately need to work on and it improved my writing already.”

“I enjoyed this session because it was fun, the class kept moving forward, new techniques were taught, and I really enjoyed his thoughts.”

“I learned that when using dialogue I can show it in many different ways. Finding new ways of doing that was great.”

“I didn’t want to stop writing in this session!”

“I got to write an amazing story with a great beginning.”

There’s plenty more where those came from, but the point of listing them is to show that these young folks are serious about their work. A surprising number come up to me each year and say they’re writing a book already, or have a series of stories underway. I’m looking forward to seeing some of those names on the spines of books at my local library.

What I'm talking about: again from 1987 Summer Writing Workshop, the girl on the left is Vaddey Rattner, author of IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN

What I’m talking about: from 1989 Summer Writing Workshop, the girl on the left is Vaddey Ratner, author of IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN

Each year, when the conference is over, I drive away with fragments of conversations still bouncing around my head as I return to my own work with a renewed sense of vigor and enthusiasm.