Saturday, August 24, 2013


Farewell, Elmore Leonard, father of five children and 45 novels.  Glimpses of your hugely successful writing process will continue to inspire those of us struggling to find a fraction of your writer's life.

  • Elmore Leonard talked about his approach to Bob Greene (Wall Street Journal): "When I get into the writing, I have a pretty good idea of who the main characters will be. But I still don't know exactly how the story will work. And something happens to me in almost every book: A character that, in my mind, may have been fairly minor turns into a major character. I hear him talking, and I realize: This guy is interesting."
  • Elmore Leonard always wrote a scene from a single character’s point of view, then often rewrote the same scene from another character’s POV to see if it was more effective.  
  • His use of dialogue is legendary.
  • Though he started writing in the 1950’s, he ‘found his style’ after reading George V. Higgins’ classic 1970 crime novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle, with its prolific profane dialogue: “I read it and I changed my style somewhat…I started to use expletives where they belonged. I started to open my scenes with dialogue. Higgins set me free.”
  • His 25th novel (Glitz) was his ‘breakthrough.’ In 1996 he said, “After writing anonymously” for decades, “I am what you call an overnight success.” 
  • Elmore Leonard wrote every day, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in longhand on unlined legal pads, ordering a thousand pads a year. 
  • He stuck to his own rules, and did his best to teach the rest of us.  Mr. Leonard talks about his recent experience at a Santa Barbara writer's conference in an in-depth interview (well worth a longer look) with Anthony May (Contrappasso Magazine, Issue 2, December 2012): 

"I listened to the students, reading. And they all use adverbs, ‘She sat up abruptly.’ And I tried to explain that those words belong to the author, the writer, and when you hear that word there’s just that little moment where you’re pulled out of the seat. Especially by that sound, that soft L-Y sound. Lee. So often it doesn’t fit with what’s goin’ on, y’know. I mean, if a person sits up in bed, they sit up in bed. You don’t have to tell how they sit up in bed. Especially with what’s goin’ on.  
In this instance, she sat up in bed ‘cause she hears a pickup truck rumbling by outside very slowly and she knows who it is. So you know how she sat up in bed, y’know. And in her mind she’s saying, ‘It’s that fuckin’ pickup truck’. She knows it is. And then there’s another, say, half a page or so of inside the character’s head and the phone rings. She gets out of bed and feels her way over and almost knocks a lamp down. And she passes this stack of self-help books, on the desk, and picks up the phone. And I suggested to the young woman who wrote this, ‘Save the fuckin’ pickup, drop the fuckin’ adverb, and put it with the self-help books and it’ll say a lot more about your character.’ See, it’s little things like that. The contrast works better."
Writers for the TV show “Justified”, based on one of Elmore Leonard’s characters, so esteem Leonard's writing that they wear rubber wristbands stamped “WWED”: What Would Elmore Do?

In case you need reminding, here are Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing (originally published in The New York Times, July 16, 2001):
  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”…
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control
  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 parts that readers tend to skip.
Wise words, along with “If it’s not fun, you’re not doing it right.”

So... have fun, and ask yourself WWED?


  1. Love #10!! (well and all of them but that one makes me laugh, always)

  2. We have an Elmore Leonard shelf in one of our bookcases. I clipped the NY Times obit and slipped it into the most recent title we have. Thank you, Elmore, for your ten rules, they gave us many hours of happy reading.

  3. I've always enjoyed an Elmore Leonard novel. I think he did too!

  4. His rules are like his writing - tight, taut, true.