How Elmore Leonard wrote all his books

August 20, 2013

Sad news this morning: Elmore Leonard, the legendary crime novelist, has died at the age of 87.

Elmore Leonard Stroke.JPEG-0e6c0
Elmore Leonard (AP)

You can read his full obituary here, but also check out this fun tidbit from a 2008 Washington Post profile on how Leonard wrote his more than 40 best-selling books, from "Get Shorty" to "La Brava" to "Three-Ten to Yuma":

He still writes as he always has, from 9 to 6, on an unlined yellow pad, then typing up a scene when he likes it. He never has an outline. He thinks of, say, "two guys in a room, talking," usually about some criminal endeavor, and lets them "audition" for leading roles. He shapes them by intense research -- in 1978, he hung out with the Detroit police's homicide squad, an experience that shaped the rest of his writing -- and then lets them wander deeper into trouble. If any passage sounds like "writing," he rewrites it. This nets two to four pages a day. The next morning, he'll read over those pages and "add cigarettes and drinks and things like that" and press forward.

He is not obsessed by crime, says he doesn't have an opinion about crime in America. Maid theft notwithstanding, he has almost no life experience with it.

Sutter's research fills a box for each book. What cops do each day, books on prison culture and slang. The boxes are kept in the basement. Inside, there's a regular schoolboy's notebook, 80 pages. It's the "skinny" for each book, or his essential notes. These are filled with possible character names, addresses of banks that get robbed, snippets of dialogue, and facts like the population of Miami and the number of autopsies performed each year in Detroit.

Back in 2001, Leonard laid out his 10 rules for good writing in the New York Times. The basic precepts are below, though you should read the piece for a fuller explanation:

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” … he admonished gravely.
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."
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 part that readers tend to skip.

Related: Louis Bayard's obituary for Elmore Leonard.

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Neil Irwin · August 20, 2013