Retread #5: The Rules of Writing: Fun to Make and Break

A sudden painting project means at least one more retread for the blog. I saw a post about Elmore Leonard’s writing rules recently, which brought to mind this post from February 2012. No grumpiness warning needed.

Recently [in 2012] CBC Radio issued a challenge to its followers to write sentences breaking Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing. I suspect the assumption was that the results would be examples of really bad writing, and therefore chuckleworthy.

Setting the challenge aside here, I wonder if that assumption is justified. Surely it depends on what kind of thing a writer is writing. Rules that apply to gritty, hard-boiled urban fiction may be totally wrong for romance, or fantasy, or Literature with a capital “L.” There may be a few fundamental rules that apply to all writing, but I’m not sure that Elmore Leonard’s list qualifies.

I have to admit, this topic of Rules of Writing is one that I find hard to leave alone. It’s like salted nuts, or maybe like a burr, because I find such rules irritating. Never mind whose rules they are; as soon as I perceive that someone is pontificating to writers (even other writers), I go into combat mode, or at least argument mode. A year ago the Guardian newspaper published writing rules by a large number of writers. Some are quirky, or just funny. From Canada’s own Margaret Atwood:  take two [italics mine] pencils with you on planes, in case one breaks and you can’t sharpen it because no one can take a knife on a plane any more. (But are those little stick-it-in-and-twist pencil sharpeners confiscated by security, I wonder?) See what I mean about arguing?

So what about Mr. Leonard’s rules? I agree with a few of them, such as the one about avoiding adverbs (words that end in “ly,” including “suddenly”) — and not just to modify “said.” Ditto exclamation points and dialect.  Also, I would add, italics.

But I think some of the rules are too restrictive. Yes, it’s best to carry dialogue with “said,” but sometimes you need another word, as when a character doesn’t just say something, but splutters, groans, sighs or mutters. Words like these add texture and juiciness. They should be used sparingly, like spices, but not banished from a writer’s vocabulary.

Come  to think of it, Mr. L. uses “never” way too many times in his rules.

Weather and description. Mr. L. says never to start a book with weather and to avoid descriptions of people, places or things. I think it’s a matter of degree. Having your character stand there like a dummy while you give a verbal snapshot of their clothing, hair and accessories doesn’t work. But readers want to know something about your main characters, including what they look like. The trick is to create vivid images of them by slipping details into sections of action or dialogue, so people don’t even recognize the descriptive bits as such.

As for weather and places, these can be opportunities for “beautiful writing,” the kind that gives the writer a frisson when he or she reads it over at the end of a writing session. The trouble is that readers don’t always share those frissons and often skip over those sections to find out what happens next. Sad but true, at least for plot-driven books. Writers of the literary type may get away with beautiful writing, because they attract readers who enjoy that sort of thing.

Rule #10 is one of those sneaky lines that gets remembered and quoted; it’s also guaranteed to induce anxiety in the insecure writer (and just about all of us are insecure at some point). “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” So what parts are those? Here is my quick top-of-brain list of what to look for in your never-ending revision sessions:  1. Long paragraphs that contain extended descriptions or backstory, even though the writing is beautiful. Consider cuts or moves. 2. Extended sections of dialogue with no action, especially those where the speakers are not identified. 3. Long action sequences of the sort where all hell breaks loose for several pages. They may be crammed with verbs, but when they go on and on, the little movie-maker in the reader’s brain gets tired and wants a break. Have your characters go for a drink and talk about the weather.

Image from Pixabay

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40 comments

    1. Maybe it’s the word “rule” applied to something that isn’t absolute. To be fair, Mr. Leonard may not have been 100% serious when he made up those rules of his, but they’ve been treated seriously by many on the internet.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I find most of them interesting, and think novice writers should be aware of the count of words they add that don’t do anything for the story, and your idea of ‘said’ sometimes needing more – I agree; there are times when a good verb or a physical beat do more for the underlying tension and subtext than said could. And sometimes, a tag isn’t needed at all.
    But to know the rules and when you break them and why is of value – not understanding why the rule is there isn’t good enough for me. I have to know both sides of the story, and then I’ll choose my own fence to place between ‘do’ and ‘do not’. For a good reason, of course.
    And it’s all fun as long as the story is what comes first.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s always worth taking a second (third, fourth, fifth…) look at a piece of writing, and rules like this may be helpful, as long as they aren’t followed slavishly. And as you say, the story always comes first.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love your vocab. Today’s new word for me: frisson.

    I don’t mind it when a book starts with a good weather description. I’m too early in my writing journey to try it myself, but I enjoy a good frisson as a reader.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Just like the Kenny Rogers songs,” know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away and when to run…” Bet you and I may be the only two reading that know what AACR2 rules really are. I used to read them when I had trouble falling asleep.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I shy away from rules and I have just realised my WIP starts with the weather; our 1214 Valentine’s night storm inspired an idea of what might happen on such a night.
    ‘Ellen had never felt the house shake before. It was not unusual to hear the South Westerly driving rain against the bedroom windows….

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Yes, I’ve read all those rules, and I’m guilty of breaking all of them! (exclamation point) And you know what? I don’t care. I’ve also read that you should never describe a character by having them look at themselves in a mirror. In The Termite Queen this happens when Kaitrin is grousing about how unattractive she is. Her mother hauls her in front of a mirror and they analyze her good points. I decided that worked just fine.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I remember that scene, and I don’t recall having a problem with it. I’ve also used that device myself — Margaret Bellgarde in Islands of the Gulf Vol. 1, which you read recently. Some rules are rules while others are guidelines, and therefore flexible.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t even remember the scene, so I presume it didn’t bother me. Btw, I just bought Islands of the Gulf v.2. It will be my next read.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I prefer the term “guidelines” rather than “rules.” While I agree with many of Elmore’s points, let’s not stifle creativity.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Weather works not as description, but better as a cause: Joe shivered and stamped his feet in 40 mile wind and heavy snow as he walked from his car to the diner.
    I don’t like rules either, but I do have pet peeves. #1 is the word had. She had had a bad night, good grief. It’s always a good idea when editing to delete any “had” in the story that isn’t needed. What’s wrong with saying He went to the store, instead of He had been to the store?

    Liked by 2 people

  7. -giggles- I like these posts. My hackles rise at the mention of ‘rules’ too, and not just because of the underlying assumption that all genre writing is basicalLY formulaic because genre readers can’t cope with anything out of the ordinary. Grrr….English is the richest language on Earth, yet we seem intent on hobbling it as much as possible.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Proud to say I break all of them.

    I’ll put weather where I durn well pleased, enthusiastically, vibrantly, fearlessly.

    Leave out the parts readers ‘skip’…..1960s dialogue is needed here..
    ‘Err…like man…Can you really dig that vibe? That’s too freaky for me man,’

    I may never get to be ‘known’ and my books could well be forever obscure, but I will not be dictated to on how I write.

    Ok, I’ done…Time for another cup of tea (the British answer to everything)

    Liked by 2 people

  9. In his book ‘Steven King On Writing’, King warns about adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend,” he writes. “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
    Of course we all slip them in once but avoiding adverbs sends us searching for strong verbs.

    Liked by 1 person

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