Monday, February 22, 2010

Ten Rules

Those of us who write love to glean the advice from those who have made a success of the business of fiction. Crime writer Elmore Leonard's list of ten writing rules appeared in The New York Times in 2001 and has since been much quoted. (Rightly so, because it's sterling stuff.)
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
Now a book for writers based on the list is due to be republished next month by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.  (You can hear Leonard talking about the book and other writing here.)

The Guardian goes one better, and asks a whole lot of famous authors  - for their 10 Rules.  The result (in two parts here and here) is somewhat overwhelming (24 pages when I printed it off!) but there is a great deal of good stuff in there.  One or two points I highlighted because they rang true with me :
Margaret Atwood :

If you're using a computer, always safeguard new text with a memory stick.

Roddy Doyle :

So not place a photograph of your favourite author on your desk, espcieally if the authro is one of the famous ones who commit suicide.
Do not search for a book you have not written yet.

Anne Enright :

The only way to write a book is to write a book.

Neil Gaiman :

Style is getting yourself out of the way, not putting yourself in it.

Andrew Motion :

Decide when in the day (or night) it best suits you to write, and organise your life accordingly.

Annie Proulx 

Write slowly and by hand about subjects that interest you.

Colm Toibin

Finish everything you start.
Stay in your mental pyjamas all day.
So ... which bits of advice do you like the best? Anything you'd chuck out the window?  (Hari Kunzru on Twitter this morning called lots of these rules "nonsense" - would love to know which and why.)


savante said...

Maybe number 4. Not using said in a dialogue would get a lil bit confusing with a whole coterie of characters babbling. And you can't very well keep repeating said for everyone.

Oxymoron said...

The rules apply if you are writing for native English speakers. You can't or need not do the same for readers whose mother tongue is not English. Frankly, I really doubt I can reach those high standards myself.

David Byck said...

I really like this list of ten, Sharon. Nice of you to remind us. peace, david

bibliobibuli said...

Savante - it's interesting to take a look at novels you love and see how the writer handles marking who says what in the dialogue. i have noticed that if the voices are distinctive then i don't even need to have "said" repeated. but otherwise "said" is hardly noticeable but helps you keep track of who is who easily. the adverbs are no-no's for sure (though Rowling apparently gets away with them), and other verbs are just ... clunky.

Oxymoron - i think leonard's rules are pretty good for anyone and many a non-native speaker of English has gone on to write beautifully in the language. (my great heroine in this regard is Yi Yun Li who was an ESL student bedore she wrote her prize winning collection of short fiction)

wonder - if you wrote the rules for writing in Malay, they might be quite different, don't you think? how do they translate?

am just thinking - Leonard's rules apply to style, the rules the other writers have contributed seem to refer more to being a writer. i think their brief should have been clearer.

Lee Ee Leen said...

hahah Roddy Doyle!

One way out of he said/ she said is to write an appropriate action after the line of dialogue, e,g

"Wait! Don't go!" he ran after her...

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Solid reminders. "Suddenly" and "then" like to sneak in!

I also advise going on a "which" hunt. Many "which" should be "that". Know the difference.

fotolit said...

Rules, especially about writing, are meant to be broken.
What works for one, doesn't work for another and remember rule breakers can become best sellers and Oscar winners.

I agree about suddenly and all 'ly' words. But there are exceptions when they can be used. My pet hate is - he 'straightened', her breath 'quickened' Big red pen comes also for 'caress'. Never use it under any circumstances.
I found 'straightened' used often in one of our Australian award winning writers recent book. He straightened what? his tie?We know he wants to say stood up from a bending position or does he?

KayKay said...

Rule 7: "Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly"

Somebody wanna forward this to Junot Diaz so his next dirge doesn't have large swathes of idiomatic Spanish (or any other patois/dialect he picks up to make his characters sound "authentic" )?