This is the fourth installment in the Western Writers Series at MontanaWriter. Other writers in the series can be found at Western Writers Series.
While the last two western writers featured here (Les Savage, Jr. and H.A. DeRosso) remain obscure enough to not even have Wikipedia articles, today’s featured writer is quite well known… though not primarily as a western writer.
Elmore Leonard is a household name for gritty novels with great dialog like Get Shorty and Rum Punch. But his gritty style and his long writing career actually began in the 1950s with stories for western pulp magazines. It was not until the marketplace for westerns began to dry up in the early 1970s that Leonard made the switch to crime fiction for which he is now so famous.
What caused the marketplace for westerns to dry up has been greatly debated. Some have suggested that it was the ubiquity of bad western television-shows during the 1950s and 1960s that exhausted America’s interest in all things western. Some believe it was the 1960s and Vietnam that made the western mythos seem anachronistic and irrelevant, especially when the biggest star of the Western movie came to be synonymous with all things that were being rejected.
I suspect it is a combination of both combined with the rise of Louis L’Amour as a market force. The fact that L’Amour’s competent historical fiction came to represent the art-form of western fiction at every newsstand and bookstore ensured the end. Blase had won the day. The western was dead… at least for awhile. (Obviously, I believe in the resurrection of the dead.)
Westerns, as has been said before at MontanaWriter, fall along a continuum between mythic literature and historical fiction. Leonard shares much in common with is fellow Michigan writer, H.A. DeRosso. His West is not the historically accurate one. It is more the metaphorical/iconic one. That is why he is one of my favorite of all western writers… and to my mind the best..
Leonard honed his 10 famous rules for writing first by writing western short stories and then by writing 8 western novels, each of which would belong on any list of best western novels.
Elmore Leonard’s 10 Tricks for Good Writing
- Never open a book with weather.
- Avoid prologues.
- Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
- Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
- Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
- Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
- Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
- Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
- 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.
Though Leonard has written that he kept a research notebook at his side as he began writing westerns so things would be accurate, his rules of writing indicate that accurate description was not his primary focus. There is none of the extraneous horse-talk and gun-talk that some historical-western writers feel compelled to throw-in just to show-off. He gets to the point of the story and sticks with it. And the point of a story is to tell a story. And he does it well… better than any western writer.
It is shame that Leonard felt he had stop writing westerns… a shame for the western art-form and for those of us who are readers. Think of all the great westerns that were never written.
Elmore Leonard Western Bibliography
- The Bounty Hunters (1953)
- The Law at Randado (1954)
- Escape from Five Shadows (1956)
- Last Stand at Saber River (1959)
- Hombre (1961)
- Valdez is Coming (1970)
- Forty Lashes Less One (1972)
- Gunsights (1979)
- The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard (2004)