In 2009 the American chapter of PEN awarded Leonard with a lifetime achievement award, stating that his books “are not only classics of the crime genre, but some of the best writing of the last half-century.”
If you’ve somehow missed Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing, here they are:
1. Never open a book with the 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 part that readers tend to skip.
Here’s some additional writing wisdom I gleaned from various obits and interviews. The examples are from my favorite Leonard novels:
11. Character Driven Plots
“I start with a character. Let’s say I want to write a book about a bail bondsman or a process server or a bank robber and a woman federal marshal. And they meet and something happens.” Leonard stated that when he started a new book he doesn’t know the ending. “I’d rather wait and see what happens. I get a better idea of what’s going to happen as I go along. I get to know who the people are—some become more or less important or somebody unknown will come along and play a major role.”
12. Strong Use of Voice
“I always write from a character’s point of view,” Leonard said. He never began writing a new scene until he decided which character would narrate. “Because then the narrative will take on somewhat the sound of the person who is seeing the scene.”
After writing 100 pages Leonard said, “Sometimes, if a character has trouble expressing himself, he gets demoted. He’s given less to do or gets shot.”
13. Alienated Protagonists
Leonard said that his protagonists are easily misjudged, and when called to action there’s no telling what they might do. Leonard said, “He may solve the crime—or commit it.”
Here’s a passage from Unknown Man #89
(Ryan, a process server is tracking a missing person and has put an ad in the city’s two papers.)
“…he picked up the phone and said hello.
It was his sister, Marion. She hadn’t called in at least six months, but she picked today. She was wondering how things were going, living alone. He’d been living alone for four and a half years, but Marion was still wondering and asked him when did he want to come over for a home-cooked meal. Ryan said anytime, you name it. Marion was not that much of a cook. In fact she was pretty bad. But he always said that, anytime. She never picked a date beforehand but always waited until she got him on the phone and then would have to go and get her calendar and study it and try to remember what nights Earl bowled or had Cub Scouts or an Ushers Club meeting. Ryan told he was expecting an important phone call, but it still took another ten minutes.”
14. Unforgettable Crooks
“The bad guys are the fun guys,” Leonard said. “The only people I have trouble with are the so-called normal types.” In another interview he said: “ I don’t think of them as bad guys. I just think of them as, for the most part, normal people who get up in the morning and they wonder what they’re going to have for breakfast, and they sneeze, and they wonder if they should call their mother, and then they rob a bank.”
Here’s a sampling of Leonard’s crooks:
“Cundo Rey sipped his coffee—very poor coffee, like water—watching Nobles wiping his big thick hands on a golden arch napkin, sucking at his teeth. The Monster from the Big Scrub, with a neck so red it could stop traffic. Cundo Rey had come ashore in Dade County only a few years ago, boat-lifted out of Cambinado del Este prison and had worked hard to learn English—asking the girls why they didn’t correct him and the girls saying, because he talked cute.”
Riding the Rap
“Bobby’s first impression of Chip Ganz, he saw a skinny guy in his fifties trying to look hip: the joint, a full head of hair with gray streaks in it brushed back uncombed, and tan. Bobby had never seen an Anglo this tan and thought at first Chip Ganz was lying there with nothing on but his sunglasses. No, the guy was wearing a little swimsuit, a black one.”
Bobby tries to collect on Chip’s gambling debt. He pulls out a nasty pair of pruners and tells Chip: “‘You don’t pay me the day after tomorrow I prune something from you. Like what do you think, this part of your ear? You don’t need it—you don’t wear no earring, do you? Okay, you still don’t pay in two more days, I prune the other ear. You don’t look so good then. Okay, you still don’t pay then I have to prune something else like let me see, what’s a part of you you never want me to prune? What could that be?’
Chip surprised him saying, ‘I get the idea.’ Pretty calm about it. Maybe it was the weed let him talk like that.”
“Man, she did not like to be argued with. Never did. It tightened up her face, put a killer look in her eyes.
‘Okay, they informed on us and now they’re sitting on fifty million bucks. You look around this dump you’re living in and you feel they owe you something. Am I telling it right?’
‘We feel they owe us something,’ Robin said.”
15. Humor in Contrasts
Elmore Leonard wasn’t a gag writer, but his writing crackles with wit. He said he found humor in “gathering an odd assortment of characters”— characters that knew what they wanted but didn’t know what they were doing. Here are a few examples:
A exhibition high-diver, a con man with the research skills of an ace librarian, and the Dixie Mafia come together during a Civil War re-enactment.
A loan shark, a horror movie producer and a B actress try to wrestle their movie from some drug-runners.
A redneck, a retired Jewish businessman and a FBI agent turned photographer all have the hots for an aging movie star.
A hard-assed judge, his crazy wife, a crack addict dermatologist, an alligator poacher, and a whole nest of ex-felons, the Crowe family, are out to kill one another.
Elmore Leonard said this about why he kept writing: “It’s the most satisfying thing I can imagine doing. To write that scene and then read it and it works. I love the sound of it. There’s nothing better than that…I’ve been doing it for 47 years, and I’m still trying to make it better.”
RIP Elmore Leonard. I’m sure going to miss you.