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Life Lessons

Making It Up as I Go Along

The author of such classics as Get Shorty and Out of Sight advises writers: the best ideas come from the most unlikely places.

I took some of Chili's backstory and created the book's Chili Palmer, my shylock who traces a deadbeat to Hollywood and becomes a film producer. At the end of the book he'll hire one of the many short leading men as his star. And that's why it's called Get Shorty.

Once I have an idea what the main character does, I say to Gregg, "See if you can find a high diver doing his thing without going all the way to Acapulco." A few days later we were in Florida watching four divers put up their dive ladder at the Miracle Strip Amusement Park. They told us what it was like to dive 80 feet into a 9-foot tank of water. One diver said, "Put a 50-cent piece on the floor and look down at it. From up there, that's what the tank looks like."

The diver I came up with is Dennis Lenahan in Tishomingo Blues. He's getting too old for this business, but once he witnesses a murder from his diving platform, he's drawn into the plot.

Making it up as I go along. I write with a ballpoint pen and scratch out lines and paragraphs, revising them as I make my way into the story, the characters letting me know what comes next. Once I've handwritten a page until I like it, I put it on the IBM Wheelwriter 1000. If I composed on a typewriter I'd spend more time x'ing out lines than writing. I don't use a word processor, I can't imagine looking at a screen as I write. I have to look at the words on unlined yellow paper, my only writer affectation. I used to aim for five clean pages in an eight-hour day. I'll settle now for three in a somewhat shorter day, continuing to revise to maintain the sound I want.

After 58 years you'd think writing would get easier. It doesn't. If you're lucky, you become harder to please. That's all right, it's still a pleasure.

Elmore Leonard's latest novel is Road Dogs (William Morrow, 2009).

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