Writing Routines

Elmore Leonard’s Writing Routine: “I’ve stayed with it for over 50 years and it’s paid off.”

Elmore Leonard was an American author, short story writer, and screenwriter, best-known for his novels in the Western, crime fiction and suspense sub-genres, many of which have been adapted into films.

I’ve stayed with it for over 50 years and it’s paid off. You need to be determined and write every day, even when it’s hard. 

The secrets of my success: Elmore Leonard | Daily Mail

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During the early years of Elmore Leonard’s writing career, he was spending most of his hours as a copywriter at Campbell-Ewald, an advertising agency where he churned out copy for brands like Chevrolet. To juggle his full-time job and writing aspirations, Leonard set his alarm for 5am every morning so that he could get in 2-hours of writing, before heading off to his day job.

“The alarm would go off and I’d turn it off and go back to sleep. But once I got into that routine, it got easier,” Leonard said in a Daily Mail interview. “I’d sit in the cold living room in the semi-darkness and write two pages in those two hours. Pretty soon, I was waking up automatically at 5am.”

He wrote five books and 30 short stories (a mix of Westerns and crime thrillers) with this set-up. It was a necessary arrangement for the author-screenwriter who was also supporting a growing family. “If you have a family, you have to stick with the job until you feel financially secure enough, and I’d had four of my five children before I quit the agency to write full-time,” he explained in a GQ interview.

I liked western movies a lot, and I wanted to sell to Hollywood right away and make some money. I approached this with a desire to write but also to make as much money as I could doing it. I didn’t see anything wrong with that at all. I think the third one sold, and that was it. After that, they’ve all sold since then. But then the market dried up, and I had to switch to crime.

The Writing Life | Los Angeles Times

Elmore Leonard’s daily writing routine

When he finally made the move to writing full-time, Leonard approached his craft with a workmanlike ethic; like clocking into a regular job with set hours. He described his daily writing routine to fellow author, Martin Amis.

I write every day when I’m writing, some Saturdays and Sundays, a few hours each day. Because I want to stay with it. If a day goes by and you haven’t done anything, or a couple of days, it’s difficult to get back into the rhythm of it. I usually start working around 9:30 and I work until 6. I’m lucky to get what I consider four clean pages. They’re clean until the next day, the next morning. The time flies by. I can’t believe it. When I look at the clock and it’s 3 o’clock and I think, “Good, I’ve got three more hours.” And then I think, “I must have the best job in the world.” I don’t look at this as work. I don’t look at it as any kind of test, any kind of proof of what I can do. I have a good time.

The Writing Life | Los Angeles Times

When it comes to his writing routine, Leonard, who went on to write novel like Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Swag, Hombre, and Rum Punch (which was later adapted into the Quentin Tarantino film Jackie Brown), never used a computer. He could never stand the sound of them. Instead, he wrote out his novels by longhand on yellow legal pads, then inputting them into the typewriter a few pages at a time.

He explained his creative process in a 2009 interview with AARP:

I write with a ballpoint pen and scratch out lines and paragraphs, revising them as I make my way into the story, the characters letting me know what comes next. Once I’ve handwritten a page until I like it, I put it on the IBM Wheelwriter 1000. If I composed on a typewriter I’d spend more time x’ing out lines than writing. I don’t use a word processor, I can’t imagine looking at a screen as I write. I have to look at the words on unlined yellow paper, my only writer affectation. I used to aim for five clean pages in an eight-hour day. I’ll settle now for three in a somewhat shorter day, continuing to revise to maintain the sound I want.

Making It Up as I Go Along | AARP The Magazine

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