The Rules of Writing

Facebook has a fun little feature called ‘memories’ which shows people posts they made years ago on that day of the year. I go through mine because it’s fun to look at stuff that was important enough to post about in the past. This morning I came across a note I was tagged in by a writer friend nine years ago.

Toby Neal, a very successful author of mysteries set in Hawaii, posted this article by Elmore Leonard which first appeared in The Guardian newspaper. (I’d never heard of him, either. Read his bio here.) (BTW, if you like crime stories, do look at Toby’s work. They’re good. Click on the link on her name.)

Leonard Elmore

Using adverbs is a mortal sin (ME: I don’t know why this was on its own, I suppose because it is a MORTAL sin, whereas the other rules will only send you to purgatory.)

1 Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2 Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”

3 Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.

5 Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6 Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”. This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7 Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, what do the “Ameri­can and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.

9 Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

ME:

It all sounds good, doesn’t it? Yes? The general consensus was that as guidelines, Leonard’s ‘rules’ are worth considering. But not everybody agreed. Especially the late MM Bennets, who was a historian, author, and professional literary critic among many other things. She was a great help to me when I wrote To Die a Dry Death. I’ve condensed the comments on the post to make a more coherent narrative but I’ve not changed the words.

MM Bennets: Those are tremendous if and only if you wish to write like Elmore Leonard. I don’t. At all.

Whenever I read daft rules like Leonard’s, I think of the Sayer’s novel, The Nine Tailors, where she uses the weather of the fens as a metaphor for the roiling shared guilt that has destroyed this small community. It’s a monumental book…or think how Conrad used it as metaphor and almost as a character in some of his work…

I have to say this. Why are writers are desperately keen to subscribe to some fellow’s Rules of Writing. Why? Why won’t they read what they like, analyse those authors, or even the work of authors whose styles they don’t like, and then come up with what works for them? All of these rules by other writers are little more than literary straight jackets that don’t even fit right. It’s the literary equivalent of putting a straight-jacket made for Hagrid on Frankie Dettori.

I’ve just been thinking about this post while I made more tea. And Leonard’s advice contains some fundamental flaws. We all, when we go about our daily lives, are constantly taking in our surroundings. And the weather. This is a constant feed to our brains. If we desire to write books so that the reader is inside the head of a character or at the very least in the room with them, some of this information is essential. So that the reader is seeing what the character sees, and therefore can empathise. (If you want to be Albert Camus when you grow up–obviously, this is not the method for you.) The thing about the weather–that has to be dated. Because if you look at the most popular and fascinating of police work today, that’s the forensic work and a lot of that, much of it very detailed, is about weather conditions or the where it happened determining how it happened. So setting has become if anything more important.

Just read rule nine. Which is complete crock. What would Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights be without the moors? How well would Doctor Zhivago work without the snow? And I don’t even want to contemplate A Tale of Two Cities without the taverns, the guillotine, the prison…Or Miss Garnet’s Angel without Venice? Please…

Before Toby sends me to stand in the corner, I just want to ask why are writers setting their sights so low? Why are they not looking to Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Fitzgerald, Zola, Tolstoi, Cather, Twain, Wodehouse…these are the authors whose work has lasted, so why aren’t we asking ourselves how did they do it? What were their rules?

Judith Kinghorn is another successful author. She said:  There are a few obvious rules included here, but if we try to adhere to each and every list of writing rules – and get too hung up on them – what becomes of our voice?

I think prologues can and often do work: it depends on the story and how well the prologue is written! The weather: some of the very best and most evocative writing in the English language opens with the a description of the weather.

Almost everthing is a cliche, because almost everything has been said before…our struggle is to try and say it differently, and in the context of a new story. My advice is – read these lists of rules, but don’t necessarily adhere to all they say. Writers should, I think, break rules and create new boundaries all the time.

Garalt Canton, (yes, another author) came up with his own set or sules based upon Elmore Leonard’s.

Gary Canton’s 10 Rules…er..guidelines of Writing in response to Elmore Leonard’s stab.

1 – Opening a book is a physical act and a leap of faith. ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ spoken in Highland Scots will only close that book again and quickly. Weather is relevant only if it is relevant to the character you are writing about or to the narrative you are writing.

2 – Prologues: If it is back story I’d advise splitting up the back story over the entire novel but if you are setting the scene or creating the world of the novel you might like to keep it short and relevant to the story.

3 – People talk to one another and so they say things. However, unless your novel is populated by speak and spell machines and Stephen Hawking you might like to include tones of voice – a warning – try to keep your actors keeping it real and not shouting, wailing, declaring and hissing at one another (unless you’re PG Woodhouse, that is). ‘Said’ works most of the time if you have a gift for dialogue but if not, and you have no plans to write in iambic pentameter, you may need to inject some tone of voice into your dialogue.

4 – Avoid tautologies in adverbs after speech actions”he shouted loudly”, “she whispered softly”. “I cooed cooingly” – You get it. In fact, avoid tautologies in all verbs: “He stabbed violently”, “she screamed hysterically”, “they ran quickly” etc.

5 – Kids love excalmation marks – ‘Nuff said.

6 – Actually what does all hell breaking loose look like, feel like, smell like, sound like? We’d like to know. – Suddenly – actually delays the action by three syllables so its not that sudden is it?

7 – Patois: regional accents or in my case translated Occitan: If both characters are speaking the same patois, English is fine. If one character is speaking unintelligible gibberish to another, why spend hours and hours spelling that out – just say it’s largely gibberish and pick out the important bits for the reader. Otherwise, think about writing poetry instead.

8 – The Dan Brown Trap! He is handsome and intelligent, she is beautiful and smart, even sassy. They both look like Hollywood stars and their vital statistics are as follows….Yawn Your characters lose audience the more definite they have been described. Proof? Where in the bible is Jesus described physically? Exactly!

9 – This is contentious – Are you Sir Peter Hall or are you Franco Zeferelli? Dogme works if you have done a LOT of work on your characters. Detail works if you have strong characters that stand out from the backdrop. The prisoner sat a cell. The prisoner shivered from the damp halflight that drifted down from the sole crack in the lichen covered walls. Both work. Describe that which we have never seen before.
But no need to focus on the intricacies of the traffic light – we’ve all seen one.

10 – Read a book – where did you feel longueurs? Did you feel naughty and skip forward to see how much more of this guff you need to wade through? Does anything change in the next three paragraphs? No? You can cut them if you like. The story won’t suffer. Do we learn something more about the character from the next three paragraphs? No? Red pen.

Oh – by the way, enjoy what you’re writing and write YOUR story.

ME: I’ve just finished re-reading Terry Pratchett’s Wee Free Men and I’m now reading the next book, A Hat Full of Sky. Pratchett doesn’t respect anybody’s rules and he completely ignores Leonard’s Rule 7. The Feegles always, always, always speak in broad, essentially Scots, dialect which does sometimes require a re-read. And he uses footnotes, such a basic no-no in fiction that Elmore doesn’t even mention it. As they say, ‘rules are meant to be broken’.

Or, to put it another way, make up your own damn rules.

10 thoughts on “The Rules of Writing

    1. Greta Post author

      Glad you liked it. I particularly enjoyed M’s comments. She was a very witty lady.

  1. Decima

    Rules for writing! Only the rules of grammar thanks, it’s supposed to be a creative process.

    1. Greta Post author

      Creative, yes. Certainly some of the winners of the big literary prizes didn’t take much notice of any rules – not even grammar. I don’t like ‘experimental’ books so I try to take into account things like story structure and replacing adverbs with stronger verbs. But since I’m a great Pratchett fan, I can’t help but ignore the “Rules”.

  2. Greta Post author

    I will say, though, that aspiring writers need to learn grammar and be sure they know how to spell. As Marj said, it’s all about communication and typos and weird grammar throw people out of stories.

  3. Greta Post author

    Yes, if you try to follow a set of rules you risk messing up your own style.

  4. Mona Karel

    The rules? There are NO rules except write. Then write again. Give yourself permission not to write from time to time then write AGAIN. Write drivel if you have to but write

  5. Marj McRae

    Trying to follow rules can really mess up a person’s writing. Only one little guide is needed, that since writing is about communication, anything that helps communicate is good, anything that impedes communication is bad.

    Well written.

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