Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Good-bye, Mr. Majestyk

As I write this the world has been without Elmore Leonard less than five hours and I am feeling the loss of my greatest writing mentor, although we never met.

Leonard didn’t win a boatload of awards and I don’t think he was ever regarded as a great literary figure.  Nor do I think he wanted to be.  What he did was write stories that hooked you at the start, held you thru the middle, and gave you a satisfying ending.  He was the master of crisp, realistic dialog that always rang true.  And he wrote the best damned characters in the English language, bar none.  That’s why he was a writer’s writer, the guy all us fiction writers wanted to be.  That’s why Stephen King called him The Great American Writer.

Leonard’s career started in the 50s with westerns.  He responsible for one of the best known western films (Hombre) and one of the all-around best westerns of all time (Three-ten to Yuma.)  His misbegotten people just trying to make it, combined with his dialog tells their hearts, made the transition to crime fiction so natural, that many of his works seem to fall into both camps.    

Leonard gave us more than 50 great novels, at least 19 of which went to the screen.  As such he is responsible for kicking off a lot of Hollywood careers including those of Roy Scheider (52 Pick-Up,) Burt Reynolds (Stick,) and Charles Bronson (Mr. Majestyk.)  And there is no doubt that he saved John Travolta’s career when it was on life support with Get Shorty.      

A healthy stack of Leonard short stories have also become films or television shows.  One of his short stories, “Fire in the Hole,” has offered Timothy Oliphant the role of his career on the TVshow Justified.

I feel a more personal loss than many today, not because of the great entertainment we will miss in the future, but because of all that I learned from the master’s work.  I learned all I know about creating characters that readers will care about by studying Leonard’s stories.  I learned the importance of both common and unique traits, of small mannerisms and emotional variety, and of terse, telling comments.  I learned how to put feeling into description and how to hold a point of view. 

And I learned one other thing: that a good writer can go whole chapters without using a single adverb.  You can search a long time without find a word that ends with “ly” in any of Leonard’s book.  Short, direct sentences driven by active verbs give his writing more life than almost any other author.  I’ve avoided adverbs in this piece in his honor.

I don’t know if Elmore Leonard is riding the range now like a ghost rider in the sky, but I would bet that the angels are begging him every day to tell them a story, because his stories always told you what it was like to be human.

So long to my greatest mentor.  Elmore, I’m still trying to walk in your footsteps.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

XM is Serius Radio!

I've had a few radio interviews in the last few years, some good, some not so good, but none of that experience quite prepared me for the interview I did a couple days ago with Maggie Linton onXM Sirius radio.

 We authors want to reach out to readers across the country so we appear on a lot of local radio stations, or blog talk radio.  In either case, we usually speak from our own homes, on the phone, in our fuzzy slippers with all our notes in front of us.  So the first difference with XM Sirius radio was that I went to the studio and could actually be face-to-face with my interviewer.

The building, in Northeast DC, is an impressive stone structure on a oddly-shaped corner.  To get in you give your name to the guard who lets you into the fenced-in parking area.  You sign in, and wait for an escort to walk you to what looks like a huge steel blast door.  He presses his ID badge against a scanner and the steel door silently slides into the wall on your left.  You are guided down a corridor lined, left and right, with what must be 30 discreet studios.

Maggie Linton's studio is bigger than my living room, dominated by a desk the size of my dining room table - with the leaf in.  That's the inner studio.  I waited in the control room where two techs handle the sound and watch the action thru a huge window.  I got to listen to the end of her last guest's segment before being ushered In. 

Maggie greeted me with a hug and a smile.  We met at Thrillerfest two years ago and have stayed in touch.  We had only seconds to exchange pleasantries before I donned the headphones and got down to business.

 Maggie Linton is the consummate professional in the studio.  She ran thru my short bio and launched into a list of questions calculated to guide me into telling her exactly what her listeners would want to know.  For the fastest half hour of my life we ran thru my writing career, the creation of Intrigue Publishing, and the upcoming Creatures,Crimes & Creativity conference.  She made it effortless, just a conversation between two pals, and I quickly forgot that I was talking to the whole country.

Too soon it was over, Maggie and I were shaking hands and she was preparing for her next guest.  It was a fantastic experience, so much better than "phoning it in."  I'm already trying to squeeze into her schedule again.  If you have XM or Sirius radio, I hope you'll seek our my interview.  Even if you don't you owe it to yourself to add Maggie Linton's show to your listening diet. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

How I Spent My (Unpaid) Summer Vacation

A couple weeks ago I told you that I was one of the Defense Department workers being furloughed, working and getting paid for a 4-day week instead of 5, for 11 consecutive weeks.  I thought you might be curious about how that affected this writer's life.

Monday, my furlough day, was not wall to wall writing.  As it turns out, days off are magnets for chores, errands and appointments.  It just seems like the easiest time to schedule that dental appointment, get the car's emissions test done, pick up the dry cleaning and buy random needed groceries.  It was nice to get things done without wasting my weekend.

But ultimately I did get quite a bit of writing in.  I called up the document of my next novel in progress.  I don't love either of the working titles - Capital Loss and Crossing the Line - so for now this document goes by Hannibal Jones #6.

The last scene I laid down was an action scene.  Now it was time to write the calmer emotional scene that comes next.  It had been a couple days since I added to this story, so I had to go back and read the previous chapter.  Nice stuff, if I do say so myself, even elegant in its way.  I burrowed back into the emotional flow of my characters.  Hannibal is almost being a narrator here.  His girl Cindy is carrying the emotional weight after a horrible night of violence.

It has been a long time since I settled into laying down words without watching the clock.  It's a joy I've missed.  I watch the movie play out in my head and record the events on the screen, making sure to see, hear, smell and feel what my point-of-view character experiences.  And I found my pace hasn't changed over the years.  I create about 1500 words an hour.  Five good pages that are raw, intense and sometimes clumsy or grammatically incorrect.  But I can't worry about that.  I'm too busy telling a story. 

This must be what it feels like for people who have no other job except writing.  I envy them more than you can ever suspect.  And I treasure those days when I can pretend, just for a little while, that I am one of those people.

But today the Defense Secretary announced that the planned 11 furlough days would be cut to six.  My financial life let out a cheer of celebration.  The writer in me heaved a sigh of disappointment.