Elmore Leonard's 42nd book is his shortest, by far. And that's the point. After penning numerous page turners later adapted for the screen, like Three-Ten to Yuma, Rum Punch, Get Shorty, and Be Cool, Leonard gave a speech in which he listed 10 pithy guidelines for writers. The list gained a following, and a revised version became Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing. In a recent chat with U.S. News, Leonard, 82, discussed his rules—which include "keep your exclamation points under control" and "try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip"—along with his views on writing, movies, and modern technology:
I know you've probably been asked this a hundred times, but can you explain briefly where the rules came from?
In 2000 I was asked to give a speech at the Bouchercon, where all these mystery writers get together. Before giving my speech, I thought of these 10 rules in the hotel room. I wrote them down on a yellow piece of paper. They were meant to be tongue-in-cheek. When I delivered them, there wasn't much reaction, then when I came down off the stage, somebody came up to me and said, "Can I have that?" I said, "Sure," and gave them the piece of paper. Then three or four years later, the Times asked me to write about something for their column "Writers on Writing." So I revised my rules and sent them in. Everything was clear in my mind, and I realized they weren't as tongue-in-cheek as I thought they were. They were real rules.
Are there rules that didn't make the cut? What would No. 11 be?
I suppose No. 11 would be, if it sounds like writing, rewrite it.
What about never ending a sentence with a preposition? Should that be a rule?
There's nothing wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition. I write from whoever's point of view it is, so if that's the way the character would say it, that's the way it comes out.
So you're willing to make it official? It's OK to end a sentence with a preposition?
I think it is.
Your rules are for fiction writers, but what about writing in general? Do you think writing has gotten better or worse, whether it's what people write in books, in company memos, in E-mail, whatever?
I'm not familiar with E-mail, and I don't use a computer, but it seems like something people could waste a lot of time on. I'd think a lot of E-mail is showing off. I don't mind writing letters, though, and sometimes it can take me a half hour or even an hour to write a letter.
If I look at the Times's bestseller list, there's seldom a book on the list I have any kind of urge to read.... Grisham—I read his first book, thought it was not written well at all. But I wanted to find out what happened. James Patterson, he has these two- or three-page chapters, and there always seems to be somebody else's name on the book, so I guess he's getting other people to help him with the work. I don't read as much as I used to. I read more when I was trying to learn how to write. I read a lot of Hemingway, until I found out he doesn't have much of a sense of humor. Then people would say, "What do you mean Hemingway has no sense of humor?" And I'd say, "You mean Gordo's stand on the hill?" OK—but that's about it.
I keep reading, but not nearly as much. For one thing, it takes me longer to write now.
Because it takes me longer to get started. I don't know why. I didn't start writing today until about noon, although of course I had breakfast, read the paper.... I'm not sure what else I did. When I had my first job at an ad agency, I'd get up at 5 a.m. to write fiction. And it's a good thing I did or I wouldn't be talking to you about writing right now.
A lot of your books have been turned into movies.
Three-Ten to Yuma was one of my first stories. It was a western. I got $90 for it, then sold the screen rights for $4,000. Back then, all the westerns on TV ended the same, with two guys standing on the street facing each other—which probably never happened in the old West. Probably what really happened is some guy was in a bar, some other guy came in, shot at him, missed, and then they ran around shooting at each other and missing.
You've heard the old adage about how once you've seen a movie based on a book, it ruins the book and you can never go back and read it. Do you think that's true?
I wanted my books to become movies. That was my aim. I wanted to make some money doing this. My first books, I would get like 2,000 bucks. That was mostly in the '50s, then it went up to $4,000. I didn't really make money from books until the 1980s. But I got a lot more from movies.
Why didn't you just write screenplays?
I don't like screenplays at all. You're not writing for yourself; you're writing for a committee. They're throwing ideas in, then the producer gets involved, saying you need to add this character or that character. I need to be alone and write my own story. I used to go to these Hollywood meetings where you'd meet on a Friday and they'd tell you how you needed to change the screenplay. Then they'd say, "Well, you've got something to do all weekend!" And they'd all go off and have fun, or do whatever they do, while I'd go back to my hotel room to stare at the walls.
When you write, do you think about developing characters who will work well in movies?
It's my style. My writing has a lot of dialogue, which seems to producers to be readily available to be made into a movie.
So you feel most of your books have survived the transition to the screen?
Lately they have survived. But one of my books, The Big Bounce, when I saw the movie, I thought, there must be something worse, but that's gotta be the second-worst movie ever made. Then they remade it a few years ago, and set it in Hawaii, and when I saw that, I knew, aha! Now I know what the worst movie ever made is. It had a decent cast, Owen Wilson was in it, but it was so bad the director basically gave up. He sent me the script and said, "Do what you want with this." Then they wanted me to play a part in the movie, playing dominoes with Harry Dean Stanton. But it was shooting two days after Christmas, and when I learned that, I said no.
For the most part, yeah, my books have done OK on the screen. Out of Sight, Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, it worked for those.
There's this presumption that a book is somehow a higher form of art, of a higher form of expression, than a movie. Do you agree?
I don't think the book is a higher form at all. Because most books are not very good. They're a chore to read.
Anything on that bestseller list interest you?
No, I don't think so. Most writers are pretty boring.
Do you think that's something new? Or has it always been the case?
Probably that's always been the case. When I started writing, I was reading a lot. Probably a book a week. I remember reading Mickey Spillane's I, the Jury, which came out in the '40s. I thought, this is terrific, and I couldn't wait to read more Spillane. But then he ended up writing all the same stuff. It didn't get any better. Then I began to read Book-of-the-Month Club selections, and all of these books, they just had way too many words in them.
Then I read Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, with its mock chapters that you don't have to read if you don't want to. He also had this prologue and a character who said, "I don't like the author telling you what to think." A lot of good writers seldom, if ever, describe the character. You can essentially stop the action if you describe too much about a character. You might be messing with the reader's idea of the character, and that's not a good idea.
When I'm writing about a character, I'll describe things important to me. I've concentrated more on my women characters, getting them right. I'll describe how a woman is sitting with her legs crossed and a high heel hanging from her toe. You can see her arch. Or I'll write about her nose. I don't think of her as a woman; I think of her as a person, describe her the way I'd describe a guy.
How do you feel about the kind of stuff most people read every day—what's in the newspaper, or in magazines, or even the writing they hear on the news or on sitcoms?
I was reading the sports section of the newspaper this morning. There are eight pages in the sports section, but nothing in there about what's really going on. Sportswriters always seem to open with a negative. Like in Detroit, our catcher recently re-signed for $13 million, and they seem to take that idea and say, "Well, he's not worth $13 million." And I say, well, who's better that they can get? He's an awfully good catcher, and I think he is worth $13 million.
In the kind of fiction you write, you can invent dialogue that tells your story. Do your rules apply to nonfiction?
When Pete Hamill saw my rules, he said they should be posted in every newsroom in the country.
What kind of nonfiction do you read today where you feel the writing is pretty good?
I read Time and Newsweek, the New Yorker, that big one... Vanity Fair. The writing is good. Time used to piss me off a little bit, they seem so righteous sometimes.
Tom Wolfe is very good. Gay Talese, this guy is fun to read. He tells what he sees. He can write a story about a film star or comedian, and it doesn't matter how long the guy gives him because he also writes about waiting to talk to the guy, and the things he saw and heard, and it's really interesting.
What do you find most pleasing, or most rewarding, about good writing?
Most pleasing...well, it might be the way a writer expresses himself. Thomas Lynch—he writes about Ireland every once in a while. His constructions are different. There was another guy, a writer I discovered in the 1950s. Richard Bissell. He had a very rational style. His books were mostly set on a river. Bissell was a boat pilot, and his characters worked on barges going through the tricky parts of the river. He also wrote 7½ Cents, which became the musical The Pajama Game. Then he got tired of writing fiction and that was it.
The Internet gives more people a forum for writing, a place for expressing themselves. Does this seem meaningful to you?
It sounds like a lot of people wasting time, to me. So many people say, "I'm dying to write." Well, if you're dying to write, why aren't you writing? If you're not writing, you're not dying to do it enough. Writing to me is such a pleasure. It's hard, but it's so satisfying.
You said you like to write letters. Do you get many letters in return?
I get a lot of letters, a lot of fan mail, and a lot of them sound alike. "You're my favorite writer, I've read all of your books," even though I know most of them haven't read all of my books, maybe they've read a few but not all. But if there's a question, I'll always answer their question, or write a letter to turn down people who ask for blurbs for their own books. One guy I turned down, I read the first page of his book and it was awful, so I told him I didn't have time to do much reading, and he wrote back, saying, "I would have thought that a letter from a professional writer like you would have been more artfully crafted." Artfully crafted. I loved that. I said, if you're writing a contract, that's when you worry about artfully crafting your words.
Do you have a list of books, maybe some classics, that you've never read but you really want to some day?
There's a new translation of War and Peace—two of them, actually—and I may read one of those. I first read War and Peace when I was 17 or 18, and I liked it. But I've started Crime and Punishment twice and never gotten past page 50. There are just too many words.
Think you'll give it a third try?
No. I'm not going to try that one again.
I'm curious about some American writers. Hawthorne. Whitman. But I probably won't get to them.
What about Twain?
I've read enough of him. I always liked him. Also Red Badge of Courage. Although writing then was so obviously written. I remember reading that book, and looking for obscenities. There were none. I always wondered, when did obscenities become a normal part of everyday speech?
Did you ever figure that out?
Never did, really.