Showing posts with label Elmore Leonard. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Elmore Leonard. Show all posts

23 October 2019

Reversals


Some of you may know that the Brit writer Mark Billingham started out in comedy, and he once remarked there were a lot of similarities between doing stand-up and writing thrillers. Namely, setting up punchlines. E.g., "The pope, the Dalai Lama, and a stripper walk into a bar." I don't know where it's going, but it catches your attention. Jokes, of course, depend on the reversal of expectations, and setting a trap in writing is much the same. Sometimes the punchline gets left out, all the more effectively. The ending of Pet Sematary. You're not turning around.


The twist ending is a time-honored tradition. I got thinking, on the other hand, about twist openings. I just watched Night Train to Munich again, which is a terrific Carol Reed picture from 1940. The set-up is almost completely self-contained, a story all by itself, and Rex Harrison doesn't even show up until 20 minutes in. Not long after, the movie takes a sharp left-hand turn into the Twilight Zone. It's not what you were expecting.


I realized, watching it this time around, that Night Train to Munich puts me in mind of certain of John LeCarre's novels, The Little Drummer Girl in particular. The beginning, the set-up, "Sooner or later, they say in the trade, a man will sign his name," is itself masterful, and then he seems to wander off the beam, into some other story entirely. You're like, Wait, What, Where Are We? He's actually got absolute control, he's simply gathering the reins. Little Drummer Girl is about a deception operation, and the book is an illustration of method, a metafiction.


Metafictions can be said to call attention to themselves. Sometimes it's sleight of hand, sometimes it's done in plain sight. There's a Dutch Leonard book called The Hunted - some years before La Brava made him a household name - and it starts out with a guy in Witness Protection, who's been relocated to Israel, but the mob tracks him down and puts a hit on him. So far, so good. Then maybe a third of the way in, the story goes off at a right angle and all of a sudden, it's not about that guy at all, it's about this other guy, somebody you thought was a supporting character. Well, okay, it's Elmore Leonard, but hello? 


For my money, The Charm School is still Nelson DeMille's best book, not least because he takes what I think is a false and discredited premise and sells it, utterly. Not just that I suspended my disbelief, but that he had me totally convinced. Whether or not the spell wears off is of no consequence; he owns it, and you sign on. Here's the thing. Nelson pulls the same damn trick Dutch does. He starts off in one direction, and puts the pedal to the floor. We got ignition. Then he takes a curve at speed, and snaps your head around. He's got this guy who's only a walk-on, so you think, and suddenly he's center stage.


I don't think this is all that common a narrative device. At least, I haven't run across it that often. David Copperfield begins, famously, with "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else - " but we don't imagine Dickens is going to give Steerforth the lead. Likewise with Scott, no stranger to conventional theatrics, the hero of Old Mortality is your usual generic ingenue, and Scott quite happily loses control of his story to the two contending heavies, Lord Claverhouse and the Covenanter assassin Burley, who basically walks off with the book, but in the end, convention wins out.

Then there's the thing where you shift gears without even meaning to, or because the story requires it. In the first of the bounty hunter stories, for instance, I started out in one direction and veered off unexpectedly in another. I never intended it to be the beginning of a series, the guy himself seemed accidental, I thought I was channeling The Wild Bunch, and it turned out to be Have Gun, Will Travel. Not that I'm complaining, mind, but it took me by surprise.

I think this is where I'm going with this. That we should anticipate the unexpected. In anybody's narrative, but particularly our own. You follow the scent, you follow the story where it leads you, convention be damned.

Oh, and the punchline? "Mustard, custard, and you, you big shit."

02 March 2016

Taxonomy Lesson


by Robert Lopresti

Hey folks...  the Short Mystery Fiction Society announced the finalists for the 2016 Derringer Awards yesterday and fully 25% of the stories are by SleuthSayers!  John Floyd scored in two categories.  Barb Goffman, Elizabeth Zelvin, and I settled for one each.  Congratulations to all the finalists!

Back in November I had the chance to speak at the university where I work about my novel Greenfellas. The good folks there have put a video of my talk on the web, which reminded me of something I wanted to discuss about it.

I guessed correctly that a lot of people in the audience would not be mystery fans and since this is an educational institution, I figured I should educate them a little on the field.  When you ask someone not familiar with the genre to think about mysteries they tend to conjure up Agatha-Christie style whodunits so I explained that there are also hardboiled, police procedurals, inverted detective stories, noir, caper, and so on.

All of which is fine and dandy.  But in the Q&A someone asked me what types of mysteries I particularly enjoyed.  I happened to mention Elmore Leonard - and then I was stumped as the thought ran through my head:  What type of mystery did Elmore Leonard write?

Well, you could say, he wrote Elmore Leonard novels.  That's not as silly as it sounds.  He wrote a novel called Touch, about a man who acquired the ability to heal people by touching them.  At first publishers didn't want it because it was not a crime novel, but by 1987 they were willing to take a chance on it because it was an Elmore Leonard novel, and readers knew what that meant.

The subject was also on my mind because I had recently read Ace Atkins novel The Redeemers, which struck me as being very much in Leonard's territory.  (That's a compliment to Atkins, by the way.) And I can't exactly say he is writing Elmore Leonard novels.

So, what am I talking about?  A third person narration story from multiple points of view, and most of those characters are criminals, each of whom has a nefarious scheme going.  The main character might be a good guy or just a slightly-less-bad guy.

You know I love quotations, so here is one from Mr. Leonard: "I don’t think of my bad guys as bad guys. I just think of them as, for the most part, normal people who get up in the morning and they wonder what they’re going to have for breakfast, and they sneeze, and they wonder if they should call their mother, and then they rob a bank."

Is there a name for this category of book?  Crime novel is useless.  Suspense doesn't really cut it.

You could argue that my book Greenfellas falls into that category, but I don't think it does.  First of all, it's a comic crime novel.  It's an organized crime novel, about the Mafia.  (Leonard's characters tend to be disorganized crime.)  And - I have harder time explaining this one - to me it's a criminal's Pilgrim's Progress, concentrating on one bad guy as he goes through a life-changing crisis.

So that's three category names for my novel.  But I'm still thinking about Leonard's.



29 July 2015

Be Yourself, Or Someone Just Like You





by Robert Lopresti

First, about that title.  Stephen Stimson lives in Bellingham, as do I.  (In fact, he coined our unofficial municipal slogan: the City of Subdued Excitement.)  Mr Stimson used to run a store called Lone Wolf Antiques, and one day I strolled by and saw the entire front window of the shop covered by a piece of brown paper bearing the remarkable words of today's title.  And that's all the explanation you are going to get from me.

Now for the main topic. Lawrence Block was recently interviewed by Tripwire Magazine and I recommend you go to his site and read the whole thing.     It's all great, but there was one piece that caught my attention in particular.

The interviewers brought up the Leo Haig novels, Block's pastiche of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books.  Then they asked if he had read Robert Goldsborough's novels, authorized continuations of the Nero Wolfe series.  Here is his reply:

I read two early on and didn’t care for them. I gather he’s improved some, and makes a good job of writing like Stout. But, you see, there’s the thing in a nutshell; Stout didn’t try to write like Stout.

As I recall I stomped my feet and shouted: "Exactly!"

I'm not here to pick on Mr. Goldsborough, or Ace Atkins,  Ann Hillerman,  Felix Francis, or anyone else who has inherited a franchise. What I am reaching for is this: I get uncomfortable when a young writer is advised to try copying someone else's style.  I can understand doing it as an exercise, or for a pastiche, but keep it up too long and it can only stunt your growth.  Rex Stout was trying to find his own voice, not copy someone else's.

I recently read a book by Elmore Leonard called Charlie Martz and Other Stories.  They are previously unpublished, and you can understand why Leonard chose to keep them that way.  Most of them are interesting primarily as a peek into the laboratory, a chance to watch Leonard looking for his voice.  (Compare them to the tales in When The Women Came Out To Dance, stories he wrote when he was at the top of his form.)  You can see a glimpse here and a touch there of Leonard, but he wasn't quite there yet.

I would be happy to hear what you have to say about this subject but before we get to the comments, there is one more detail.  When I told my wife about Block's remarks she smiled and said "Zusya."

Zusya was a Hasidic rabbi in the nineteenth century.  He was apparently a "wise fool," like Nasrudin, Diogenes, or Saint Francis, a spiritual leader or philosopher who (deliberately?) behaved eccentrically in order to get his lessons across.  What follows is the most famous story about him. There are many versions, but this is the one I heard first.

One day Zusya's followers came into his study and found him hiding under the desk, weeping and shaking with fear.  "I have just learned the question I will be asked by the angel of death when I die.  And I am terribly frightened because I cannot answer it!"

"Rabbi," said the followers, "you are good man, and a wise man.  What could death ask you that is so terrifying?"

"I thought he might ask: 'Zusya, why were you not Moses, to lead your people to the promised land?' I could have answered that!  Or he could ask 'Zusya, why were you not David, to fight your people?'  I could answer that.  But, no!  What he is will ask is: 'Zusya,  why were you not Zusya?'"
    

24 November 2014

USC Scores


By Fran Rizer


The University of South Carolina scored big in October, 2014.  No, I'm not talking about the football team.  I'm referring to 150 boxes containing 2,400 linear feet of documents, a couple of typewriters, and some other writing equipment.

What makes this special?  The fact that the documents belonged to Leonard Elmore.

The following article appeared in Columbia, SC, weekly newspaper Free Times:


USC Scores Collection of Crime Writer Elmore Leonard
By Rodney Welch 

Elmore "Dutch" Leonard was a true son of Detroit, but this week Columbia became the eternal resting place for his literary legacy. At a Wednesday ceremony at Hollings Library, USC President Harris Pastides announced that the university had acquired the complete archive of Leonard, who died in August of last year at 87. The university would not disclose the cost of the acquisition.

Besides all of his published work, the collection includes over 450 drafts of Leonard's novels, short stories and screenplays. The collection also includes appointment books, research files, letters, photographs, director's chairs from movie sets, many awards, his desk, typewriters--and even some Hawaiian shirts and a pair of sneakers.

The collection covers a 60-year writing career that spans Westerns--including the screenplays for films like Hombre, 3:10 to Yuma and Joe Kidd--to crime fiction, where he made his name with novels such as Swag, LaBrava, Get Shorty, Rum Punch and Maximum Bob, among many others. Many of these drafts can be seen under glass at the Hollings Library, such as the handwritten draft on yellow legal paper of his oft-quoted "Ten Rules of Writing."  (Rule One:  Never open a book with weather.)

Elmore Leonard
1925-2013
"Each page is unique primary research material that will bring researchers from around the world," said Pastides. The acquisition is a considerable boost for the university's research collection, which also holds the papers of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and in recent years has acquired both a significant Hemingway collection as well as the Pat Conroy archive.

"Certainly, he's one of the most significant and influential writers of the second half of the twentieth century," said longtime crime and mystery editor Otto Penzler, who was at Wednesday's ceremony. "The number of very accomplished mystery writers who have tried, to some degree, to emulate Duch's style--in terms of quick, punchy dialogue, leaving out the parts people tend to skip, and that sort of thing, is enormous," Penzler said. "Almost everybody now, to some degree, has been influenced by Elmore Leonard and his style of writing."

One such devotee is writer-director Daniel Schechter, who found Leonard a deeply cinematic writer, which proved beneficial when Schechter made the recent Life of Crime, starring Jennifer Aniston, based on Leonard's novel The Switch. "It felt like I was given not just a good book, but a great script by Elmore Leonard.:

So just how did the university snag the collection? Because USC Dean of Libraries Tom McNally went after it, and Leonard liked what the university had to offer. When McNally first made inquiries, he half-expected that the well-heeled Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin--which has the manuscripts of everyone from James Joyce to David Foster Wallace--had already snapped up the rights.

Called "Dutch," Leonard
had his own
director's chair at filmings
"It came about as a surprise," said McNally, to discover that Leonard's collection was still in play.

"Elmore's big statement was 'I don't care about posterity, I care about now," said his longtime researcher Greg Sutter.  Sutter, who has been putting the archive into shape for some time, said there were extensive talks with Michigan State Univesity in Lansing.  But while Sutter was thinking Michigan, Leonard started getting calls from McNally.

"I called him every other week," McNally said. "I got to know him, started talking to him about his collection coming, asked him to come down as a speaker. I told him we wanted to give him the Thomas Cooper Society Medal."

Sutter was already familiar with USC.  He had visited in 2006 for the university's exhibit in honor of crime writer George V. Higgins, and thought of it as a model for a future Leonard retrospective. While the Higgings collection would turn out to have a major impact on Leonard's decision to leave his papers with USC, Leonard's son Peter said Wednesday that his father was a little leery of the award.

"I said 'Do you know who has received this award?" Peter recalls asking. "John Updike, Norman Mailer, William Styron." Elmore said 'I don't write like them.' I said, 'It doesn't matter. This is a prestigious thing.' " Elmore and Peter Leonard and Sutter arrived for the ceremony in May of last year, and the writer liked both USC and Columbia--especially the restaurant Saluda's.

"He loved the fact that they had grits and pork belly on the menu," Peter Leonard said.  His father, who was born in New Orleans, grew up on Southern cooking  What really sealed the deal, though, was Leonard's tour of the Irvin Rare Book Library, when Leonard saw that the university housed the works of the two writers who influenced him more than anyone else:  Ernest Hemingway and Higgins.

Hemingway collector Edgar Grissom, who donated his archive to the university in 2012, showed Leonard the first editions of Hemingway.  "Then Edgar pulled out a manuscript of For Whom the Bell Tolls," Peter Leonard said, "and I could see my dad's eyes light up."

Yes, I know smoking is harmful,
but I had to share this author
photo of Elmore Leonard.
Then there was the Higgins archive, and Leonard got a look at the manuscript of The Friends of Eddie Coyle.  That was the very novel, back in the 1970's that Leonard's agent had insisted that he read. "Elmore said it really influenced him," Peter Leonard said.  "He saw how Higgins was writing, and that book set him free, he said."

The destination of his archive was now clear.  "There was Hemingway, there was Higgins, and I think all of these things just had an impact," Peter Leonard said.

"He was swept away," McNally said, "by the collections, and what we're trying to do here in this library.  We don't have all the money that the Ransom Center has, but we take a real personal approach with our writers.  We make a real commitment to them, that we're not just going to take the collections and put them on a dusty shelf and forget about them."

On the plane back home, Peter Leonard asked his father what he thought of South Carolina.  "That's where I want my papers to go," he said.

Some of Elmore Leonard's works

Peter Leonard, who is also a novelist, admits South Carolina is not the first place you think of a writer whose novels are neck-deep in the crime and corruption of inner-city Detroit.  "Friends of mine have said, 'Why South Carolina?' Because it doesn't really make a lot of sense until you know everything."

"It's kind of hard, when you're a favorite son of Michigan, to leave it," Sutter said.  "It's not that they didn't have the facilities or the energy to do it.  This university is dedicated to creating multiple collections in crime fiction and this acquisition is only going to help them get more."

"I didn't know he had any particular connection to the University of South Carolina," said Penzler. "But I couldn't think of a greater library for those papers to go to. The fact he's associated with Hemingway and Fitzgerald and other significant American writers, I think really does show the level of respect and admiration that Elmore Leonard is getting and richly deserves."


The above is printed in full with permission.
www.free-times.com/blogs/usc-scores-collection-of-crime-writer-elmore-leonard-101614

For more, go to:

www.elmoreleonard.com

I wanted to share this with SS readers, but please don't think I "copped out" by simply copying and pasting Mr. Welch's feature story.  Since that frequently distorts format on SleuthSayers, I typed it out word-by-word.  I tried to remain true to the article, but if there are any typos, please be assured they are mine, not Mr. Welch's.  Since I live very near Columbia, SC, if any of you come to SC to see the collection, let me know and I'll take you out to eat some grits and pork belly.

Until we meet again, take care of . . . you.

13 October 2014

"Rules" and Comments


by Fran Rizer 

In 2010, a bargain-loving friend of mine found Stephen King's memoir/writing guide On Writing in a clearance bin at a dollar store. She bought every one of them and sent them all to me.  The problem was  that there were over twenty-five copies.  I sent one to almost every writer I knew personally.

Recently I introduced a young sci fi writer to the realm of Stephen King--not the movie or television version, but the world found in his written words.  As my friend read It, I wished I had one more copy of On Writing to share with him what King said about writing and the story about the baby sitter. I bought one for him, but I was also fortunate enough to locate a list of King's "rules" on writing.

I grew up a rebel child who hated "rules," so I'll call these suggestions. You've probably seen most of them before along with those that overlap Elmore Leonard's, but I found these gentle reminders worthwhile. I couldn't resist the color red for my comments though I graded papers in purple when I taught school. (Some of you may recall that I did, however, write "Dear John, go to hell" letters in red.)

Today, I share twenty suggestions from Stephen King.


1. First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience. “When you write a story,you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”  My next two books are a thriller in January and a horror in June, 2015.  I think I'm writing for myself these days and I have no idea what story is going to insist on being told next.

2. Don’t use passive voice. “Timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason that timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.” And for heaven's sake, learn what the passive voice is.  I've dealt with too many young writers who think linking verbs are passive voice.  No comment on the timid lovers.

3. Avoid adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend.” I add "most of the time" to this or maybe "usually" is a better choice.

4. Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said.”  See number three.

5. But don’t obsess over perfect grammar. “The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story.” I always told students they needed to learn the rules as well as when to break them.  Sometimes those grammar rules are necessary.



6. The magic is in you. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”  Here I differ with Mr. King.  Years ago, when I attended a large writers' group, we encountered several truly horrendous writers who positively knew they were fantastic and tried to justify why they shouldn't follow any suggestions.  It's not surprising that those folks still aren't published.

7. Read, read, read. ”If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” Amen!

8. Don’t worry about making other people happy. “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”  I'm struggling with this right now.

9. Turn off the TV. “TV really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs.”  Why do we need television when we have shows in our minds?

10. You have three months. “The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”  This is no problem for me since the Callie books averaged six weeks for the first drafts, but I don't see how King does it with some books over a thousand pages.  How about you?  How long does it take to get that first draft written or do you have some that "wrote themselves" in a short time and some that take forever?  

11. There are two secrets to success. “I stayed physically healthy, and I stayed married.”  Too late for me to accomplish either of those.

12. Write one word at a time. “Whether it’s a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ the work is always accomplished one word at a time.”  I would add that commercial success is accomplished one reader at a time.

13. Eliminate distraction. “There should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with.” There should also be no family members who constantly interrupt writing with insignificant questions and comments having nothing to do with the story (unless they are grandchildren).

14. Stick to your own style. “One cannot imitate a writer’s approach to a particular genre, no matter how simple what that writer is doing may seem.”  "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," but does flattery have any place in creative writing?

15. Dig. “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.  I like King's reference to the writer's toolbox.  The goal is to fill that toolbox with all possible skills and ideas and then develop the craft of knowing what to use where.

16. Take a break. “You’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience.” And sometimes, going back and reading it after a layoff enables a writer to think, "Dang!  That's pretty good!"  (Okay, I know Elmore said no exclamation marks, but I love them so long as there aren't more than two per page. I began this by mentioning my dislike of rules from a young age.  What really p-o's me is when participants aren't given the rules until they are reprimanded for breaking them.) Back to the subject:  Sometimes after that six-week rest of a manuscript, a writer goes back, reads it, and says, "Oh, s- -t.  I can't believe I wrote that."

17. Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings. “(kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.)” Writing is also an excellent way to kill some people who are not your darlings.

18. The research shouldn’t overshadow the story.“Remember that word back. That’s where the research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it.”  I try to avoid this in writing and hate big info dump/back stories when I'm reading.  I don't like to read fiction that is obviously an effort to teach me a skill or history. (Janice Law provides an excellent example of writing historical novels that don't shove lessons down the reader's throat.)

19. You become a writer simply by reading and writing.“You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.”  I once knew a poet who refused to read other poets' works because he didn't want his "talent to be influenced by others."  He gave me a sincerely blank look when I mentioned "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening," and the last time I saw him, he was coming out of a local pawn shop.  

20. Writing is about getting happy. “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”  How about you?  I personally get a lot of happiness and pleasure from "falling into the page," but greater commercial success would take me closer to a happy ending.


See a fuller exposition of King’s writing wisdom at Barnes & Noble’s blog.




Your task for today is to let me know if you have a favorite among these twenty or if you have a suggestion you'd add to the list or if you flat out disagree with one of King's suggestions.

Until we meet again, take care of … you.

01 October 2014

Virgins in the Volcano


by Robert Lopresti

Someone asked us bloggers to include photos with our pieces.  I am happy to oblige, but like many Internet daters I have chosen to use a photo that is slightly out of date.  Trust me, I looked more dapper then.

 

Today I saw A Walk Among The Tombstones, the new movie based on one of Lawrence Block's novels about Matt Scudder.  It was good, and you should go see it if you don't mind some blood and guts.  Block called it "a thriller for grown-ups," and the New York Times called it "intelligent pulp" (I'm working from memory in both cases) which sort of captures it.  It's grim, it has lots of suspense, and it doesn't force you to suspend disbelief to the point where you will strain yourself.  

By that last I mean it doesn't rely on unexplained connections and bizarre coincidences, like so much that passes for TV/movie crime stories.  We get to see Scudder doing the legwork to piece the story together and if the final link is made by someone else, it is at least completely in character. 
 

If I don't seem to be overflowing with enthusiasm, I guess I'm not.  The fact is, I think private eye stories tend to work better on the page than the screen, because of their very investigatory nature.   To make that work on the screen the B-level characters need to be deeply interesting.  (This one picks up considerably when Scudder's young "associate," T.J. shows up).
 

But that's not actually my main point.  It is almost always a depressing thing to see a movie made from one of your favorite books.  Partly because it can't precisely match the film in your head, partly because Hollywood genuinely tends to do horrible things to good books.  For example, A Walk Among The Tombstones is Citizen freaking Kane compared to the earlier movie about Matt Scudder, Eight Million Ways To Die (based on a much better novel, in my opinion).
 

Jim Thomsen recently pointed out an anecdote that is mentioned in the new Library of America collection of some of  Elmore Leonard's novels.  Apparently Leonard got very upset over the  movie version of his novel Stick.  His friend Donald E. Westlake - who had a reason or two of his own to complain about Hollywood - said to him: "Dutch, why do you keep hoping they'll make good movies out of your books? The books are ours; everything else is virgins in the volcano. Be happy if the check cashes." 

Another example of that philosophy: someone supposedly told James M. Cain it was a shame what Hollywood did to his books.  He replied: "They haven't done anything to them.  They're right there on the shelf."


At the other end is former screenwriter Sue Grafton who refuses to sell ther Kinsey Milhone books to the movies.  She claims she is well-respected in Hollywood, because they haven't been able to purchase her.  Once their books have been acquired writers tend to be extremely unloved by the studios.  I recently read an old interview with Harlan Ellison in which the multi-award winning author claimed to have received a phone call from a producer's secretary, apologizing that her notes on his script were late.  That was when he found out that everyone in the producer's office, including the secretary, had been invited to critique his work. 

Here's my favorite example of what goes wrong between a book and a movie: Gregory MacDonald's award-winning Fletch.  The book revolves around two crimes: a businessman who wants to hire someone to kill him, and a drug ring.  These separate events have precisely one point in common: the apparent homeless man who the businessman picks to commit the murder is actually an undercover reporter investigating the drug ring. 


Nice and simple.  A single coincidence that the whole plot hangs on.

In the movie, there is a second  coincidence (spoiler alert) and it's a doozy:  the businessman ALSO happens to be the head of the drug ring!  Because in 1980s Hollywood every businessman had to be a crime boss.  When I saw that happen in the theatre my eyes rolled so hard I'm surprised they didn't tumble down the aisle.  Thank heavens nothing like that happens in A Walk Among The Tombstones.

To end on a more cheerful note, and to give you something to argue with, here is a list of my ten favorite private eye movies.  It is possible that after I think about it for a year or two Tombstones might muscle its way in.

The Big Sleep
Chinatown
The Conversation

Farewell My Lovely
Harper
Klute

The Late Show
The Maltese Falcon
Twilight
Vertigo

Put your own alternatives in the comments.

19 May 2014

Odds & Ends, Bits & Pieces


by Fran Rizer

My most recent post was one week ago (5/12/14) when I interviewed Darlene Poier, publisher of the Canadian magazine Ficta Fabula, and Laura Crowe, editor.  For some reason beyond me, their photos disappeared though they still show on my preview.  Here they are again, and I sure hope whatever went wrong last week doesn't happen again.


Darlene Poier

Laura Crowe

ANTHOLOGIES

As some of you know, I've been working on an anthology of ghost stories.  It turned into a labor-intensive project, but the manuscript is complete, and the publisher accepted it Friday.  More about that later.

All this thought about anthologies set me to thinking of some I'd like to see in print:

Woman's World One Page Mystery Rejections -  An anthology of stories that have been rejected for this market where John does so well.

Very First Stories by Successful Authors

Historical Bloopers in Historical Fiction

A Collection of Leigh's Reasons Not to Move to Florida

An Anthology of Travelogue Pieces by SleuthSayers Who Vacationed this Year

All of John M. Floyd's and Rob Lopresti's Lists

Anything else you can think of and share with SS


FAMOUS QUOTES BY FAMOUS FOLKS










I agree with all of the above except Agatha Christie's.  

What's on your mind this morning?  Share it!

Until we meet again, take care of … you.

04 November 2013

Word Power


by Fran Rizer

One of my favorite photos of Leonard Elmore shows him standing in a room decorated for Christmas.  He's wearing jeans and this 
T-shirt.  It's now on the Internet advertised as "the Leonard Elmore tee."




Though I hardly ever wear T-shirts, I do collect them.  Since I'm in no mood to write today, I'm sharing some of my favorites with you. The next one has emblazoned across it my answer (usually unspoken) to people who approach me with great ideas for novels and want to tell me all about them, but never put anything on paper or a computer.


My favorite before I saw the Leonard Elmore version:


I call this one the "get lucky" tee that belongs to a young
sci fi writer friend of mine.



This is more my style--threat instead of promise.





Another favorite.




Another threat.

A truism if ever there were one.




I'm beginning to worry about myself.  This
is another threat.


My second favorite shirt.





I apologize that I can't supply a pic of my most beloved T-shirt of all time.  I wore it out years ago, but Callie wears one in her first mystery.  The tee said:

VIRGIN

(This is a very old shirt.)


Until we meet again, take care of . . . you!




23 August 2013

The Immortal Timing of Elmore Leonard


by Dixon Hill 

Buddy Hackett said, “Ask me what’s the secret of comedy.”   

Johnny Carson started to say, “What’s the secret of. .. ” and Buddy yelled, “Timing,” very loudly, right in his face. It killed me. Timing is important — Johnny Carson has a throw pillow in his house that has embroidered on it, “It’s All in the Timing.” 

The excerpt above is from How To Play In Traffic by Penn Jillette and Teller, published in 1997 and reportedly now out of print. But, whether or not the book’s out of print, this excerpt deftly demonstrates comedy timing.

Or, perhaps in this case: counter-timing.

Timing isn’t only important in comedy, of course; it’s crucial in many sports, such as archery or running (when should a runner add that final burst of speed, for instance?). And, in my opinion, timing is also often crucial to the success of a story.
In Memoriam

Whether that story’s a suspense, mystery, romance, or even literary, timing often makes as big a difference between “hit” or “miss,” as it does on the archery range. Just the right “oomph” has to come at just the right moment, after a long period of climbing tension, or everything can fall flat and lifeless.

This is one problem I don’t believe the late Elmore Leonard suffered from.

In fact—comedic timing or suspense timing—I think he had a great sense of both. How else could he have turned out a work like Get Shorty?

Frankly, I believe folks will be reading Elmore Leonard for decades, if not centuries to come. And, though the reasons they sight for reading him may change over time, I believe his “timing” will be a major ingredient for his writing’s longevity, perhaps even immortality.

How did he do it? 

A comedian can physically stop speaking, wait a beat or half-beat, then deliver the punch line. But, how does one accomplish the same thing in the written word?

A writer can’t very well write “Stop and wait a beat before reading the next sentence, please.” Yet, Elmore Leonard’s timing was terrific.

I believe Leonard gave us a pretty good hint, four years ago on Criminal Brief, when he wrote: “I’m a believer in white space, the setting off of text (and illustrations) with surrounding ‘emptiness’ to lend readability and visual attraction. William Morrow and HarperCollins charge dearly for white space. …”

He wasn’t necessarily talking about timing when wrote that. But, I strongly suspect his belief in the “white space” had a lot to do with his success in timing.

Think about it:

How often does a comedian wind along on a story, raising the comedic tension — only to suddenly drop into silence for a beat, before delivering a verbal snap-kick that sends the audience reeling?

That silent beat, or half-beat, is timing.

And, in the written word as Elmore Leonard dished it up, I think the printed equivalent was often hidden in the white space he so revered.

If white space, alone, did the trick, of course, I’m sure we’d see far more books with two or three lines of blank space between certain lines. And, that’s not terribly common, even in Elmore Leonard’s work. In fact, thumbing through four of his novels while researching this column, I found that he only did that to denote scene changes — a pretty common practice, I’m sure you’ll agree.

So, how does white space help with timing?

I think the answer is that it works in the interplay of other elements. In that same post on Criminal Brief, Leonard posted his ten tips for writers as follows:
  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. 

Taken together, and in conjunction with a statement he made around the same time: “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” we’re left with a clear understanding of his desire to achieve spare or stripped-down writing.

I took the opportunity to examine this list on a few other sites, and found it interesting, however, that Mr. Leonard made it clear: There is room for compromise.

As he pointed out at one point: these are ten rules that work for him; he’s not suggesting they work for everyone. In one case he explains, “If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.” 

More importantly, he adds: ‘There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, but it's OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks."’

Reading what a character says, translating that into the “the way he talks” and using this to create a visual construct of the character may seem to be asking a lot from the reader. But, in an Elmore Leonard work it seems only natural.

He writes the character so that a reader can hear the cadence of that character’s voice, the “beat” of his words. Sometimes, it’s a staccato beat. At others, it’s a languid throb. But the beat is there! And, injecting abundant white space, which is the natural outcome of spare writing, in just the right way, can then create a gestalt of sorts that results in remarkable literary timing—right there on the page.

Is this idea crazy? 

According to the New York Times, Mr. Leonard said: “The bad guys are the fun guys. … The only people I have trouble with are the so-called normal types. Their language isn’t very colorful, and they don’t talk with any certain sound.” 

Of course, timing has to fit naturally into the voice that’s present, or the slight gear-change required to assure proper timing may signal a ‘heads-up!’ to the reader. This might work on occasion, but I suspect a more subtle manifestation of timing renders a bigger response on the part of the reader. 

And, Elmore Leonard was a master of this.  Perhaps that's why so many of his narrative view points seem to stem from the so-called 'bad guys;' perhaps they provided voices with the requisite cadence for successful timing.

Or, maybe I'm wrong.

One final comment on Mr. Leonard’s timing:

He passed away in his Bloomfield Township, Mich. home on Tuesday. And, the timing of his passing—from the viewpoint of this reader was:

“Too Soon! Oh, far too soon.”