Q&A With Novelist Elmore Leonard

Advice from a master at page turners: Keep it simple.

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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.

Why?


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.