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Elmore Leonard on Writing: 'If It Sounds Like Writing, I Rewrite It'

Elmore LeonardWhen I heard about Elmore Leonard’s passing earlier this week, I’m sure I had the same thought many writers had: “I need to read more Elmore Leonard novels.” A few months ago, I read Road Dogs, Leonard’s follow-up to Out of Sight, and realized as much as I have enjoyed Leonard’s characters and stories, I’ve consumed most of them as movies. I’m sure I’m not the only one to have this experience as over 40 film and television projects have adapted Leonard’s work since the late 1950s. Thankfully for writers, Leonard gave us more than his novels and short stories. The prolific author also distilled his habits into the book Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, and you can watch Leonard talk about these rules in the video below.

The video is an excerpt of a British program, and the video quality is very choppy – the picture even drops out at times. The audio, however, is why I posted the short video so you can hear Leonard talk about his rules of writing and personal work habits that made him the successful writer that he was.


Personally, I love how Leonard uses the daily act of making coffee as a motivator, not letting himself even start a pot until he knows what the scene he is writing that day is about. I’ll admit that I brew my tea first thing in the morning, but many days I forget to pour my first cup because I’ve become consumed in my writing.

Also, it’s admirable that Leonard could write from 10 am to 6 pm everyday — I certainly don’t have that level of focus — and explains why he was so prolific. More importantly to me, though, is his admission that when he looks at the clock and it says 3 pm, he’s excited that he still has three more hours to write. That feeling, more than anything, is why we should write.

You can find Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing on Amazon to read more about the author’s approach to his craft. To study how Leonard’s work translates to the big screen, it’s worth watching and rewatching some of the more notable film adaptations of his writing, such as Get Shorty (screenplay adapted by Scott Frank), Jackie Brown (screenplay adapted by Quentin Tarantino from the novel Rum Punch), and my personal favorite, Out of Sight (also adapted by Scott Frank).

How have you primarily experienced Elmore Leonard’s work: on the page or on the screen? Do you see ways to incorporate Leonard’s rules and work habits into your own writing? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

[via Studio System News]

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  • Elmore’s rule about never using anything except “said” when a character speaks is a good one. Then again, in “Catch-22,” Joseph Heller used about a hundred substitutes for “said,” including rejoindered, murmured, remarked, assented, reproached, and remonstrated. Heller also seemed to have a rule that declared, “You must use two adverbs in every other sentence” — a violation of both Elmore’s and Stephen King’s rules against adverbs. Maybe it was Heller going for an inflated, over-the-top tone to support the satirical story. Maybe it was excess from a particular era of writing. Whatever, it didn’t affect the acclaim for “Catch-22.”

  • But writing novels is different from screenplays where the majority of verbiage is dialog. And there, a technically improper dialog – a patois, as it were – can still work fine.
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    Insofar as synonyms go, one must be aware of his characters too because “shitfaced” for one can turn into “thoroughly inebriated” for another. (one of the reasons Eddie Haskell was funny – when talking to June Cleaver, he talked like June Cleaver!)

  • Discovered E.L. Through the film adaptation of Get Shorty. Out of Sight was just that, out of sight. Finally, had to go out and get a copy of the novel. Loved it. (Same way I discovered Graham Greene after seeing The Quiet American and The Third Man.)

    His system of writing 8hours a day sounds a lot like Neil Simon’s routine. Both are great to aspire to, but as an amateur, his get up early and write before going to work writing for ads technique is more INspiring.

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