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.


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.

Five writing myths – and why they’re crap

The writing business is full of advice, some good, some bad and some plain bullshit. I guess I’ve heard one story too many today, so this rant is my response.

1. You’ll never make money from your first novel

Have a look at this list of ‘first novels’. Admittedly, some of these people will have other manuscripts that have never seen the light of day, tucked away in desk drawers and the like. But one hears so often about the number of rejection slips. This is, if you wish, the other side of the coin. No one is saying all those first novels were necessarily an overnight success. We’ve all heard about how many of those were rejected multiple times. But they’re still ‘first novels’. Sometimes, indeed, only novels.

2. Your first novel will be crap

Really? Please see above. I’ve actually read advice along the lines of “write four novels, throw them away, then write your ‘first novel'”. Hello? Throw away four books? Throw away? Don’t do it, folks. Revise your little heart out. I’m here to tell you that the first versions of the first two books I ever wrote don’t look a lot like their published versions. But that’s editing, which isn’t the same as throwing away. Oh, and while we’re on the subject of editing, be careful whose advice you take. I had a little rant about that.

3. Shucks. My muse did it for me

Before I start, I’ll make the point that this one is just my (humble) opinion. I see it so often, writers extolling the virtues of their ‘muse’. I remember watching a presentation by a very successful author who claimed the words just kinda “came out” of their own accord. She was very humble about it, telling her audience some other hand had written through her. To that I say, bullshit. The muses were a bunch of minor Greek goddesses. I don’t believe in some sort of higher entity which works through me. I make up my stories in my head, undoubtedly building upon the stories I have heard or read or seen during my life. But they’re my words, they’re my plots and I take responsibility for them. If I write a load of universally panned rubbish, can I also claim that it wasn’t me, I didn’t do it? Point my finger at… oops, there’s no muse for space opera. Maybe that’s my mistake? If you have to take responsibility for your mistakes, why can’t you glory in your successes? But I’m not here to judge. If you’re a muse supporter, you go for it.

4. Aaaaargh – writer’s block!

This one isn’t just from the ‘muse’ supporters. “The word’s aren’t lining up in my head and pouring out my fingertips,” the writers complain. Did you guys watch The Jewel of the Nile, with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas? Turner played Joan Wilder, successful writer of romantic action-adventure. In the opening part of the film, there’s a ludicrous chain of events with a bunch of impossible characters, doing unlikely things. That was Wilder suffering ‘writer’s block’. And that, dear reader, is how to solve ‘writer’s block’. Go and write. Something. Anything. Yes, it might be crap, but you can edit crap. Writer’s block is really

  • I can’t be bothered
  • I’m not in the mood
  • I have other things tying up my brain cells right now
  • What if I can’t do this anymore?
  • It won’t sell anyway, so what’s the point?

And other bits of negative and/or non-productive nonsense. If you want to write… write. If you don’t, do something else. It’s your choice.

5. Good writing will rise to the top

Er… no. Writing isn’t a bottle of milk, and ‘good writing’ isn’t cream. What is ‘good writing’? I’m not talking about grammar and spelling here. To me, they are tools of the trade and if you don’t know how to use them, you have no business in this profession.

Let’s name a few names which are often included in the ‘bad writing’ lists. JK Rowling, Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, EL James. And some people touted as ‘good’ writers. James Joyce, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway. I loved Harry Potter, wouldn’t touch Twilight with the proverbial barge pole, ditto for EL James, and I blew a resounding raspberry at the da Vinci Code – but in each case, not because of the writing. To me, Joyce is incomprehensible, Dickens is overwritten pompousness, Jane Austen is dated and Hemingway is just not very interesting. Sorry. Okay, actually, I’m not sorry. These are my opinions and they have as much validity as anybody else’s. And therein lies the point. ‘Good’ writing is relative. It depends on you the reader. I’ve mentioned before today that I persevered with a piece of fan fiction which was full of grammatical errors, because I enjoyed the story. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

So there you go. Rant over. Anything you’d like to add? Any other writing myths that are sure to get your goat?

The Rules of Romance

I’m in the throes of editing. I’ve written a good story but it needs some restructure and it needs a lot more romance. That last is a skill I have yet to properly master but I know and understand it must be done. Apparently I was quite successful in my Iron Admiral books, but not so much in Morgan’s Choice and Starheart, which are principally action-adventure stories with romance as a side dish. (See books for more info)

Many people scoff at romance. Sure, there are pot-boilers – as there are in every other genre, but it isn’t necessarily an easy genre to write well, as I have discovered. I’ve also learned there are Rules. You know me and rules, know ’em so you can break ’em. The one that really, really bothers me about romance is the one that says ‘when the hero and heroine first set eyes on each other, they shall have no eyes for anybody else’.

I kind of understand the reasoning, here. It isn’t about reality, it’s about an ideal, if you like. But it comes down to male versus female needs/wants/desires. Alan and Barbara Pease, who wrote an iconic book about body language, also wrote another book entitled “Why men want sex and women need love”. To me, the argument they give is compelling and they could easily have used ‘males’ for men and ‘females’ for women in the title because the behaviour is found in many, if not most, species. (I know some species form a monogamous relationship – but even the fabled swan mating has been shown to be not quite so monogamous as we’ve been led to believe.) Males spread their sperm around to father offspring. Females are usually shouldered with the job of raising said offspring. They need the support of a loving male to help them do so. Fair enough.

Now back to our mythical couple. It’s love at first sight. But there are problems and setbacks and she knocks him back. We have a frustrated male. Yet when I suggest he would go and find consolation in the arms of an acquaintance, friend, or hooker, this is deemed wrong. I’ll bet it’s realistic, though. Men’s urges and motivations aren’t the same as a woman’s. Is it just that (as a friend told me) women read romance to escape reality?

Any thoughts on all of this, people?

What’s this ‘hard SF’ stuff, anyway?

Lately I’ve been pondering the term ‘hard’ science fiction. Probably because I used the expression myself when referring to Jack McDevitt’s books. But once you start to ponder, the mind turns to ‘but what does it mean’? And if there is ‘hard’ science fiction, what is ‘soft’ science fiction?

Wikipedia says hard SF is ‘a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific or technical detail, or on scientific accuracy, or on both.

There is a degree of flexibility in how far from “real science” a story can stray before it leaves the realm of hard SF. Some authors scrupulously avoid such technology as faster-than-light travel, while others accept such notions (sometimes referred to as “enabling devices”, since they allow the story to take place) but focus on realistically depicting the worlds that such a technology might make possible. In this view, a story’s scientific “hardness” is less a matter of the absolute accuracy of the science content than of the rigor and consistency with which the various ideas and possibilities are worked out.

To me, this smacks of ‘Rules’, as well as snobbery – the kind of distinction that says literary fiction is a ‘better class of literature’ than genre fiction. Needless to say, Star Wars doesn’t get a jumper in the ‘hard’ SF team. I’m okay with that. The science is often ordinary but regardless, the Star Wars galaxy has held millions enthralled for over thirty years.

Back to ‘hard’ SF. Let’s take Jack McDevitt as an example. Most of his books include FTL so die-hards would discount them as ‘soft’ SF. I don’t because he so rigorously depicts his worlds and his physics. An example is the wide array employed in ‘Black Lightning’ to collect signals sent out thirty years before. Let’s say he squeezes in, then, under the ‘enabling technology’ rule. A foot in the door. What about Anne McCaffrey’s ‘Pern’? Yes, it has dragons – but they are genetically engineered animals based on a beast native to the planet. And the planet’s destructive scourge (thread) is in itself a logical reason why the dragons developed the ability to teleport. Then we have Elizabeth Moon, where humans have spread throughout the Galaxy by terra-forming planets (McDevitt has this, too). We can’t do this now and it seems a monumental task. So I assume we cross off Moon and McCaffrey.

As is so often the case, science fiction offers a spectrum starting from scenarios set (of necessity) in the present or near future which adhere strictly to the known – or perhaps I should say, the currently accepted – rules of physics or an extrapolation thereon. Something like Star Wars would be at the opposite end and everybody else would sit along the line somewhere.

Where would they put my books?

To be honest, I really don’t care. I’ve tried to think through my universe and make it plausible, so I avoid some of the more obvious mistakes. Some spotty student with nothing better to do may well be able to tear apart my world-building but my aim was to tell a story that would grab and hold a reader. I’m never going to please everybody and if readers wish to ignore my work as ‘soft’ SF – so be it.

Oh, and before I finish, I must point out that science is not immutable. In 1920 the Galaxy was estimated at 65,000 light years in diameter. With better equipment and more knowledge, we now estimate the diameter at nearly double that amount. That picture at the top of the post shows galaxies – hundreds of them. Maybe one of them is a Galaxy ‘far, far away’. We now know that stars and planets are much weirder than we could ever have imagined. We know that there are no rainforests on Venus and no four-armed Martians on Mars. It’s mathematically accepted that there are more than four dimensions. Etc etc.

At the crux of the matter, though, this is fiction. It takes people to other places, other worlds, other times. Isn’t that why we read this stuff?