Why take Elmore Leonard’s advice?
“The next best thing to reading Elmore Leonard is re-reading him.”
Mike Lupica, New York Daily News
Elmore Leonard is the king of the hard-boiled novel. His writing rings true. It sounds the way people talk. His characters may be lowlifes, but his books are bestsellers and critically acclaimed. His ear for dialogue has been praised by writers such as Saul Bellow, Martin Amis, and Stephen King. “Your prose makes Raymond Chandler look clumsy,” Amis told Leonard at a Writers Guild event in Beverly Hills in 1998. Stephen King has called him “the great American writer.”
Born in New Orleans in 1925, but growing up in Detroit, Elmore Leonard’s day job was as an advertising copywriter. His early published works, like the short story 3:10 to Yuma, were mostly westerns. When that genre’s popularity waned, he went on to specialize in crime fiction and suspense thrillers, many of which have been adapted into movies. Among his best-known works are Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Hombre, Mr. Majestyk and Rum Punch, which was filmed as Jackie Brown.
Elmore Leonard’s “outstanding achievement in fiction writing” was honoured by the National Book Foundation in 2012 with the presentation of the medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. “For over five decades, Leonard’s westerns, crime novels, serialized novels and stories have enthralled generations of readers,” the foundation said. “Mr. Leonard has produced vibrant literary work with an inimitable writing style.”
So what is Elmore Leonard’s advice?
Hailed by critics for his gritty realism and strong dialogue, Leonard says this to aspiring writers: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
In an article in the New York Times in 2001 (read it in full here) he described the 10 rules “I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.”
1. Never open a book with weather.
If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.
2. Avoid prologues.
They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.
3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.
The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .
. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.
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.”
I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
In Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
Watch these videos for more of Elmore Leonard’s indispensable advice for writers:
In a four-part interview with the 2008 F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference Awardee, Elmore Leonard discusses his career with host Michael Brown of Montgomery College Television:
Here he shares his personal story of how he began writing westerns:
Elmore Leonard talks about his legendary career and the joys of writing:
What does it mean to write cinematically?
Elmore Leonard takes a look back at his writing career and how he evolved his writing over many decades:
Here he shares his story writing process, including how he usually starts with an idea for a character and the question of what happens next:
Elmore Leonard discusses the need to learn the writing craft and his appreciation of authors like Hemingway, Richard Bissel, and others:
Elmore Leonard shares his writing process and schedule:
Elmore Leonard answers ten Time readers’ questions here: