When Elmore Leonard passed away on August 20th at the age of 87, he left behind more than 40 novels and nearly as many films based on his work. The public bought over 8 million copies of his books. He was the granddaddy of today’s crime novelist, a unique and confident writer with an unmistakable wisecracking style. Leonard knew what he was doing, plain and simple, and Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing contains timeless and simple advice that all writers should take to heart.
Incredibly, he always wrote in longhand on unlined yellow notepads. Today’s top crime fiction writers, including Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly, cite Leonard as a tremendous influence. When it came to writing crackling dialogue, he was the master. He was known to his friends and fans as “Dutch,” a nickname given to him as a sophomore in high school referring to Emil “Dutch” Leonard, a pitcher for the Washington Senators.
If you’re inspired to read something by Leonard there’s a plethora of options. I recommend Get Shorty, about a Miami loan shark who bets big on Hollywood and the gangster who wants him dead, and Rum Punch, about an aging airline stewardess who has been smuggling money into the U.S. and makes a plan to keep the cash for herself. Both are fantastic and inspired equally good movies (Rum Punch inspired the film Jackie Brown, which was Leonard’s favorite film adaptation of his work).
Elmore Leonard lived most of his life in Detroit, and once threw the ceremonial first pitch at a Detroit Tigers game against the Seattle Mariners. He claims to have practiced in his backyard by measuring out 60 feet and throwing at a wire fence to make sure he could throw in a straight line. He said that at the ballpark, they don’t want you messing up the mound, so you’re only 50 feet from home plate. That was Leonard, enough of an overachiever to practice with 10 extra feet, yet someone who could also relax and take great pleasure in whatever he did. One of his famous rules of writing was “if it sounds like writing, rewrite it.” The point being that you should never look like you’re trying.
Once when asked about his success, Leonard said, “My purpose is to entertain and please myself. I feel that if I am entertained, then there will be enough other readers who will be entertained, too.”
People say “Dutch” was always the coolest guy in the room. I believe it.