Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Enough with the Rules, Already

I've seen this a couple of times now, so felt compelled to post something about it, mostly because it's writerly and writerly topics have been a bit sparse on this here writing blog lately.

Elmore Leonard has some writing rules. Ten of 'em, apparently. And there is a caveat. And the folks blogging about this are giving their own experiences with these rules, many of which are nothing we haven't heard before. Leonard says (the bold italics are mine):
"These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over."

hmmmm..... We can skip the rules. But only if we have a facility for language, etc. Gee, maybe they aren't rules, then. Perhaps, they're... guidelines? Rules of thumb? Things that work for Mr. Leonard?

Here are his "rules," minus his explanations for brevity's sake. You can use the link above to read them in their entirety. I will however add my comments to each.

1. Never open a book with weather.
I'll agree it's rarely an incentive for me to keep reading, except when it's exciting, like opening in the midst of a hurricane or tornado or...

2. Avoid prologues.
I've read so many books with wonderful prologues, bearing in mind that they're prologues because they've been labeled that. The really good ones have taken place years before the start of the story, what he'd call backstory and as he suggests, would work as flashbacks. But that would violate a supposed rule I've seen elsewhere about not using flashbacks. Sometimes, backstory works in flashback, sometime in prologue. Sometimes you can feed it in bit by bit and sometimes you don't need it there at all.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
Actually, I'd avoid any word if I can convey conversation in another way. But sometimes, you just need whisper, choked out, grumbled, mumbled, and muttered. Sometimes, it's better than coming up with elaborate ways to convey tone, etc that would be wordy and unwieldly. Sometimes, the words themselves convey all that's needed. Sometimes, not.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . .
Except when, you know, it works. What you might want to avoid is overuse and awkward or unintentionally funny constructions.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
Well, they do tend to lose their strength if overused. I rarely use them, but I can see their use in satire, etc. I seem to recall they came into favor with comics because they were more visible than periods. For what that's worth.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
Well, cliches and expressions that would work better being described probably aren't necessary. How did hell break loose would be more helpful for the reader to know. But to not use "suddenly"? All I can say is, huh? Seriously, I can see it being used to avoid some hard work and I can see it sounding stilted, in a "it was a dark and stormy night" sort of way.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Unless you do it well. Actually, he offered a lot of exceptions to his rules, too, which always bugged me about rules. I never got the whole "exceptions prove the rule" concept. If there are a lot of exceptions, doesn't that disprove the rule? As for dialect, etc, it bugs some readers and is almost unnoticed by others. If it's easy enough for me to read, I usually don't notice it much.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Well, I do, but not by design. I just suck at descriptions. Actually, there are physical descriptions and the non-physical ones. The non-physical ones can be worked into dialogue and behavior so aren't necessarily something that needs to be stated upfront, ie Jenny was smart, neurotic, whatever. But I know people who hate not having characters described for them because they don't visualize and like the descriptions to help them mentally distinguish the characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
See my comments on #8 (minus behavior and personality). I think, especially in sf and fantasy, that describing the setting, often in great detail, but not all at once, is important and can be very useful in placing your reader into your universe.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
heh. Yeah. Just try to figure out what that is and not worry much that it differs from reader to reader. heh

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