Writing Lessons from the Dead: Elmore Leonard

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I cried the day Elmore Leonard died. And I wasn’t the only one.

Leonard was perhaps the greatest crime fiction writer of all time, and even in his later years, he was still kicking out amazing work. He was one of my biggest inspirations as a writer, one of the first real authors to hook me as a kid. I have yet to read another writer who’s mastered the art of dialogue as well as Elmore.

I still get teary when I think about the fact that he’s gone. But the thing with writers is, even when they die, they are still alive. They leave their souls behind in the books they write. Their words make them immortal.

And sometimes, they literally come back to life.

If it sounds like writing, rewrite it. Simple, yet brilliant. If a writer can keep that in mind, then they might be going somewhere.

It all started when Charles Bukowski checked into my hotel as I was working the 11 PM – 7 AM shift. I’d been working on some writing when he showed up at the front desk, wanting to be checked in to his room. Then the following night, Kurt Vonnegut showed up. They both offered me writing advice, lessons on how to improve the craft. And yeah, it’s never a good idea to take anybody’s writing advice too seriously. Every writer is different. You pave your own path. But sometimes, someone might have a trick up their sleeve that’ll help you get out of a jam. And who better to help you than the masters? Bukowski, Vonnegut, shit... I had no idea how they had ended up at my hotel. I wasn’t a scientist. I wasn’t anybody. I was an idiot wannabe who’d barely graduated high school. One by one, everyone would eventually realize this.

After Vonnegut checked into my hotel that night, I was left wondering if this madness would continue. Would dead authors continue showing up in the lobby? Would Bukowski and Vonnegut disappear the next day? Every time I thought about asking the next shift their opinion, I reminded myself that nobody in this town besides myself knew how to read, so they wouldn’t really give a shit.

The night after Vonnegut arrived was a Thursday: my last night of the work-week. I walked into the hotel expecting a dozen dead authors hanging out in the lobby, drinking alcohol and smoking cigars. They’d all be waiting to drown me in their own writing advice. But the lobby was empty. Because I was insane, and dead authors were not coming back to life. Of course they weren’t.

I relieved the previous shift and stood behind the front desk, alone. Every time the automatic doors slid open I perked up, anticipating who it could be. It was never anybody exciting, just some sad sappy sucker in a business suit, stressed about tomorrow’s work day. Half the shift passed. I looked up Bukowski and Vonnegut’s guest folios on the hotel computer. They were still checked in. I called their rooms. Nobody answered. I thought about knocking on their doors but I had a feeling they wouldn’t answer. Were they even there? Were they ever there?

I went into the hotel kitchen to refill the coffee pots. There was still a good hour or two before people started waking up and distracting me with their various complaints, but it was good to have the coffee ready ahead of time. I hadn’t written a damn thing all night and I felt miserable about it. I’d have to write like a madman over my next two nights off work to make up for it. What would Bukowski say about this kind of thinking? What would Vonnegut say?

They’d tell me to get to work, to stop pissing about and do some real damage.

Was that their words—or mine?

When I brought a new pot of coffee out of the kitchen, I noticed a man sitting in the dining area, scribbling in a notebook. He was a slender, elderly looking man, and I almost dropped the pot of coffee on my foot when I realized who he was.

“Elmore Leonard,” I whispered, gripping the coffee pot’s handle tighter.  I lifted the pot up and set it on the coffee stand, then hid behind a column in the dining area, peeking my head around and watching the man write in his notebook.

Sure as hell, it was him. Maybe if Bukowski and Vonnegut hadn’t already interacted with me, I would have doubted it. But no. Dead authors were showing up at my hotel, and I’d be goddamned if that wasn’t Elmore Leonard.

Elmore Leonard, the man who introduced me to crime fiction. The man who made me laugh during the worst possible sins. The man who painted characters so vivid, so memorable, so real. The voice of not only Detroit, but of every crime fiction lover’s soul in the world. Here he was, sitting in my hotel, writing.

I took a step forward, shaking with excitement. This man would teach me so much. Hell, he’d already taught me so much, and that was before I had a chance to speak with him.

I stopped. He hadn’t noticed my presence yet. He was too wrapped up in his work. Hell. If I interrupted him right now, then I would break the flow. Sometimes, breaking the flow meant life or death. You don’t cross streams and you don’t break the fucking flow.

I stepped back, unable to take my eyes off the master. Tears streamed down my cheek. Elmore Leonard. My crime mentor. I thought about all the books he’d written, all the genius lines and intoxicating characters, and I couldn’t take it. Even though he was in my hotel, I knew it wouldn’t last. The man was gone. A champion for the ages, a living legend, was gone. And the thought made me lose it.

I returned to the front desk, lost in my head. The man had already given enough writing advice in life. I didn’t need to bother him in death, or whatever this was.

I logged back onto the hotel computer and Googled his “10 Rules for Good Writing”, despite already knowing them all by heart. When a person like Leonard gave advice, you listened. And listened I had.

  1. Never open a book with 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”…he admonished gravely.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. 
  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.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

One major rule, disguised as ten. If it sounds like writing, rewrite it. Simple, yet brilliant. If a writer can keep that in mind, then they might be going somewhere.

I dug my own notebook out of my bag and opened it on the front desk. I already had a pen out and my hand was shaking, eager to create something ugly and beautiful. If Elmore Leonard wasn’t fucking around even in death, then I had no excuse to fuck around either.

Together, we wrote.

Attention, writers! I am currently putting together a tribute anthology for Elmore Leonard called Stay Cool. Interested in contributing? Read more about the anthology HERE. And dont forget to subscribe to my NEWSLETTER.

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Kenneth Jobe's picture
Kenneth Jobe from Wichita is reading American Gods August 7, 2014 - 9:13am

When I was a kid, Stephen King got his hooks in me and was always my favorite author. Once I discovered Elmore Leonard, though, I saw what I'd been missing. There's no denying the impact King had on me, and I'm still a big fan, but there's a certain sense of satisfaction I get when I finish a Leonard book that I don't usually get from King.

Sue Lange's picture
Sue Lange August 12, 2014 - 6:30am

Somehow, Max, I think Bukowski would not tell you to get to work. He might ask you to buy him a drink, but tell you to stop pissing about? Hardly. He'd piss about you, though, for sure.



nooealnoor's picture
nooealnoor September 26, 2014 - 12:57pm

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