Elmore Leonard: How I Became a Writer

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In 2011, author Elmore Leonard sat down with Men’s Journal and described how he knew he’d realized the power of his gift….

I loved westerns, and, around 1950, the first couple of western stories I wrote were rejected. That’s when I thought, “Let’s do this right – do some research.” I bought books to learn how to bring my westerns alive. What did people wear? What coffee did they drink? What types of suspenders did the men wear?

I made my first sale just before my 25th birthday. I had a belief in myself, and it came from reading. I was always reading stories in magazines, and I just thought my stories were better than most of them. In the early forties, most stuff was too wordy. Books were too long, too crowded with lines of narration. I’ve always said: If it sounds like writing, revise it.

After World War II, I found Hemingway. I loved his style, the white space on his pages, that you could tell a story with dialogue. Reading Hemingway inspired me to think about my own sound on the page. I would copy down a paragraph from ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls,’ and, without looking at the book, I’d try to continue writing in that voice. It was an exercise I’d do to try and find my own sound.

For nearly 10 years, I worked in advertising, but my goal was always to sell to the movies. I got up every day at 5 am to write. I’d sit in my cold living room at a cocktail table with my 8-1/2-by-11 tablet, with no lines. I’d make rules for myself – I couldn’t put the coffee on until I’d already started to write. I sold 30 stories in the fifties and wrote five books, westerns. At work, I’d sometimes write with my arm in my drawer behind my desk, so people couldn’t see I was writing. I hadn’t sold anything to the movies, but I quit my job anyway in ’61. Instead, I did some freelancing to make ends meet.

After a few years, the market for westerns dwindled, so I turned to crime. I’d gotten advances of $4,000 for my third and fourth paperbacks. The next one, ‘Hombre,’ got only $1,250, and it took a year for the publisher to sell it. In ’72, I read ‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle‘ and saw that you could start in a scene with dialogue already going. By the fourth line, you can tell where they are, and in the sixth line, you could sprinkle a little more backstory in while they’re still talking.

In 1984, I finally got on the ‘New York Times’ bestseller list, after I’d been writing for 30 years. It was never one of my goals because I didn’t care for any of the books on that list. The ones that made that list, I wouldn’t read. The review was written by that guy from Maine, who is at all the Red Sox games. What’s his name? Stephen King. He’s terrific. He wrote something like, “After I read this book, I had to go back and read the last seven or eight books.” That’s when I knew I was doing fine.

I had a belief in myself and it came from reading – I just thought my stories were better than most.

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