Saturday, March 6, 2010

Seven Simple Rules for Writing

Since Elmore Leonard released his slim volume about his 10 Rules for writers to follow, it has generated reactions from bravo to derision. Right or wrong or in between, all writers have rules they follow. Tricks of the trade that help make their writing better.
Here is Elmore’s list (numbered, apparently, as originally presented; but the tech writer in me wants to make this a bulleted list) followed by my own list of seven:
1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Instead of taking each of his points to task, I’ll just say to Mr. Leonard: Whatever works for you.
This is what works for me (with some overlap, where noted*):
  • Kill the Cliché. I’ve said too much about the cliché. Yet, maybe not enough. This is the big one, and most amorphous of rules. But pay attention to the cliché; make note--rout, remove, lambast, and sequester it for future generations. Your writing will thank you. Your agent will thank you. Your wife will thank you. Your cat won’t care, but you’re not writing for an audience of cats (or are you?).
  • Don’t describe concurrent action. “As Joe walked in the room, he took off his coat.” This forces the reader to backtrack within the same sentence. They may not notice, but in their brains the wheels and cogs will need to reread, as follows: “Let’s see, he walked in the room. Got it. Oh wait, he’s also taking off his coat. Let me start over.” Instead, place these actions one after the next: “Joe walked into the room and took off his coat.”
  • When a character asks a question, don’t qualify it with asked: “Are you going to take off your coat as you walk in the room?” she asked. It’s redundant. The question mark already alerts the reader that this is a question.
  • Don’t add paragraph breaks to a short story. They are mostly unnecessary, breaking the flow and deflating the tension you’re trying to create in a compressed time. If you often use breaks, try removing them and see if it reads better. Although, I admit I recently broke this rule at the suggestion of an editor. In my case it made sense to add a break because the story really did have two parts, with a thematic shift occurring in the middle. I tried to get away without a break, but it flowed more naturally with one. This rule depends on the story.
  • *Don’t use suddenly. What’s wrong with suddenly? Where’s the love for this bastard word that was initially welcomed to the party but later scorned? The problem is this: It’s beyond cliché to use suddenly. Suddenly can be inserted in almost any sentence, you know, like fuck or fucking. It’s more than a place holder, it’s a plague. If a sentence or paragraph uses suddenly to propel action (“Suddenly he walked in the room as he took off his coat”), then the sentence/paragraph should be rewritten. Suddenly is a lazy state of mind. One begets the next until (suddenly) you’re writing a story or novel using tokens in place of actual emotion.
  • * Start a story with action. Don’t start with dialogue, or worse, the weather. This is debatable. But I think the point is, introduce context to the reader before you throw dialogue or random atmosphere at them. It’s off-putting to read a line of dialogue when you don’t know who is talking.
  • Don’t write dream sequences. Dream sequences are as much fun to read as they are to hear (except when described by your significant other). But writers love to write dreams because they tell so much about the inner life of their characters, more than the character is sometimes aware of. And therein lies the rub: dream sequences distance readers because the events aren’t actually happening to the character. After the dream ends, it’s back to the regular story. And if important events, memories, symbolism, exposition, etc., are exposed only through a dream, then it’s best to back the truck up and rethink you’re strategy. I know this. I’ve done this. I wrote a great dream sequence, where all the women in a character’s life were gathered in a room and discussed what they really thought about this character. It was great. I mean, how else to convey this information? Well, it shouldn't just come miraculously in a dream. I ended up cut the scene from my novel because it slowed the story to a bloodless crawl. And the scene before and the scene after had nothing to do with the dream. Cutting it was simple; there were no ripple effects. And that’s what dreams do to your story; they leave no ripple. They are anti-matter, anti-scenes that nobody needs.
Want more? Read The Guardian’s interviews of authors that give their own list of rules.
For a different view, here’s a seasoned reader’s list of rules for writers, in case they care to consider their audience while they write.
What rules have you adopted? What helps you get through your writing day?


Muriel said...

I like your rules. They make sense. But what I really love about this particular blog listing is the picture of your cat. Have you trained Chester to critique your writing? Or did he just happen to fall asleep after reading that particular story?

Cynthia Sherrick said...

The best part of writing fiction, my list of "rules" will be different from other writers.
You summed it up best: Whatever works for you.
And I will add: Whatever works for you and the story you are telling.

Thanks for the insight. :)

Dell Smith said...

Chester's critique of my work is usually to fall asleep on it. Which is not high praise.

Randy Susan Meyers said...

Great lists.

Dreams in books, movies, plays, and TV shows should all be outlawed. Dreams about weather should be punishable by 10 years of hard labor. Dreams which happen suddenly!! may be subject to capital punishment.

Robin said...

Suddenly, I realized my writing didn't amount to a hill of beans. Yawning, I noticed it was a dark and stormy night. As I put my coat on, I tripped over a boot lying nosedown in the rug. Rats!

Brilliant list! I always use the word "suddenly" and will delete from my stories. Thanks for the writing guidance, Dell.

Dell Smith said...

Sudden dreams; that's catchy. Robin, I didn't mean to force a rewrite!

Cynthia Sherrick said...

I forgot to mention how comfy Chester looks stretched out on the next New York Times bestseller. ;)

Cynthia Sherrick said...

One more thing: I have a "dream sequence" in the middle of my "prologue" in my second book. Hmmm...

Dell Smith said...

Well, I have nothing against prologues, if used the way you use them--to introduce a history or backstory at an earlier point in time, and then starting chapter 1 a month a year a decade later when the story you want to tell begins. Use dream sequences at your own risk--Who knows, maybe I'm way off base. Maybe, in romance novels dreams help to set that fantastic/romantic tone?

Laurie Smith Murphy said...

Love your list, Dell! Always great tips you bring to the writing table...thanks!
Oh, and love Chester, the cat critiquer!