The man who pioneered the modern crime novel has passed on to that great Detroit in the sky.
Many good things are going to be said about Elmore Leonard in the days and weeks to come. And they’re all true.
So I’m just going to post a modest word of thanks to the author who influenced me the most. If I’m a better writer today, it’s in part because I discovered a copy of Killshot in a secondhand bookstore many years ago and was immediately carried away by the tough and tender prose and gritty, quirky, terrifying characters. Twenty years ago I didn’t know that fiction could be as original and literary as what Mr. Leonard made look so easy. His use of close third person is only one of his many masterful techniques in creating a world where the reader finds him or herself rooting for killers and drug dealers. Elmore Leonard once said that his bad guys get up in the morning, go to the closet, and decide what pants to wear.
When I was starting out, I had the very good luck to meet Elmore Leonard at a book signing. It was a Kidney Foundation thing that I’m sure he got roped into by his publisher and, unbelievably, no one else was lining up to talk to the man who brought us Hombre and Chili Palmer. They were all too busy hovering around Amy Tan (who has three kidneys as it turns out). So I got to spend a good twenty minutes chatting with ‘Dutch’ Leonard and, as banal as it sounds, he was the nicest guy. I told him, sheepishly (I’m sure he would have edited out the ‘sheepishly’) that I was writing a crime novel and looking for an agent. What advice did he have?
“Don’t send it out until you think it can be published as it stands,” I remember him saying.
I still have the book he signed for me that day, along with his other fine, funny, chilling works.
Here then, are ten rules for good writing from the Dostoevsky of Detroit. My favorite is to “leave out the parts readers tend to skip”. Follow any one of Elmore’s rules, or even a few, and watch your writing improve.