Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules for writing inspired this post, but not quite the way I planned. I thought I’d hate them all. Now that I’ve actually read them, I’m in the uncomfortable position of having to admit that I agree with some of them. Embarrassing.
Before I hold forth on what I do and do not like, it might help if we all knew what those 10 rules say:
The site is a good resource so check it out : https://www.writingclasses.com/toolbox/tips-masters/elmore-leonard-10-rules-for-good-writing.
So, no. 1 ‘Never open with the weather’. As soon as I read this one, I immediately thought of a 19th century novel that begins with:
‘It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.‘Taken from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It_was_a_dark_and_stormy_night
Now apparently this opening is considered to be a prime example of ‘purple prose’ and to be avoided at all costs because…to modern readers it is boring. As someone who grew up with the classics, I love the first phrase – ‘It was a dark and stormy night’. The rest I could do without because it’s kind of pretentious to my ears. Back in the day though, it would have been considered quite normal.
The following is the opening sentence from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, published in 1866:
‘At the beginning of July, during an extremely hot spell, towards evening, a young man left the closet he rented and….’
The young man in question is a student who talks himself into killing a moneylender and her sister. The story is possibly the first psychological novel ever written. So much that we now take for granted was pioneered by Dostoyevsky, and yet, gosh…he starts with the weather. Why? Because he’s actually ‘showing’ the reader the world in which the story will unfold. The problem with weather is not about quality but quantity. Too much of anything is boring.
On that basis, I give rule no. 1 a big thumbs down.
Rule no. 2 says to avoid prologues. Why? I assume because they’re considered boring by modern readers. Fair enough, boring prologues should probably be avoided, but prologues don’t have to be either boring or long, and in some stories they are almost a necessity. Which stories? Fantasy and science fiction stories because both are set in worlds that are unfamiliar to the reader.
I like throwing readers in at the deep end, but that’s a preference only. If a story needs a prologue I’ll give it one. I give rule no 2. another thumbs down.
Rule no. 3 ‘Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue’. Dialogue tags were discussed in Audrey Driscoll’s recent blog post so I’ll just say…”Bah humbug. Thumbs down.”
Rule no. 4 ‘Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’. Mmm…this is a kind of damned if you do and damned if you don’t one. I have no problem with a few adverbs but I probably wouldn’t use one to modify ‘said’, but I reserve the right to use one if it’s really necessary.
I think I’d better give this one half a thumbs up. Or half a thumbs down, depending on your preference.
Rule. 5 ‘Keep your exclamation points under control…’ I confess, my first draft is likely to be full of these. They’re a kind of shorthand from my subconscious to the keyboard: ‘this is meant to be exciting, make it so’. After that first pass though, I try really hard to make the sentence do the work instead of the exclamation mark. As with adverbs and internal monologues, too many exclamation marks are annoying [to the reader].
Sadly, no. 5 gets a thumbs up.
Rule no. 6 ‘Never use the word ‘suddenly…’ I object to the word ‘never’. Adverbs are a legitimate part of the English language. ‘Suddenly’ is an adverb therefore banning it completely is ridiculous. It is a perfectly okay word. What’s not okay is to use it ten times before breakfast. Anything repetitive becomes boring.
I give no. 6 a thumbs down on principle.
Rule no. 7 ‘Use regional dialogue, patois, sparingly’. This is one of those common sense things: if your reader has to dig out a dictionary to understand the dialogue, you’re in trouble. Why? Because said reader is going to become bored with the whole thing, and then they’ll stop reading entirely. Notice how ‘boring’ is cropping up rather a lot?
But…I truly loathe books that avoid all patois because they think their readers are too stupid to cope with anything but standard English. That’s dumbing storytelling down to a ridiculous level.
I’m giving rule no. 7 a thumbs up because ‘sparingly’ does not mean ‘never’.
Rule no. 8 ‘Avoid detailed descriptions of characters’. -sigh- Thumbs UP. When I first meet someone in the real world, I might notice general things – tall vs short, fat vs thin, attractive vs ugly, but I cannot remember a single time I’ve noticed that her eyes were a ‘cornflower blue’ or that his ‘manly chest rippled with muscles beneath the tight fitting t-shirt’. Okay, I might notice, but it would probably be accompanied by a mental eye-roll and a ‘really?’
My point here is the same whether I’m reading about a new world or a new character – info. dumps are incredibly boring, and they don’t work because most readers either skip them or don’t retain them. So there is no point hitting the reader over the head with one. Please…just no.
Rule no. 9 ‘Don’t go into great detail describing places and things’. Thumbs UP for the same reason as rule no. 8.
Rule no. 10 ‘Try to leave out the part that the readers tend to skip’. Yes. Thumbs UP.
Of course, the real trick is to recognize those parts in the first place, especially when they involve the darlings that Stephen King tells us to kill.
As a science fiction writer, you may have noticed that I love tech. Without fail, my first attempt at writing techie stuff is way over the top. I write it for me. The next day I re-read it and ask, ‘is this really needed?’ Sometimes it is. Yay! Sometimes only some of it is needed. Sigh. And sometimes none of it is needed, or it’s not needed at that spot. Bugger. Just because we love something doesn’t mean the reader will.
And finally the last rule that rules them all: ‘If it sounds like writing…rewrite it’. Yes.
Many years ago, I began reading a story that should have been strong, powerful, persuasive. Instead, the author inserted himself and his soapbox into every line. I hate it, and the fact that I actually agreed with his worldview only made it worse. As writers, all of our material comes from within, one way or another, but that does not mean we’re allowed to hit the reader over the head with it.
The power of ‘show’ is that readers get to see and feel things for themselves. They also get to come to their own conclusions. If we try to take that away from them, they’ll stop reading. Writing is easy. Telling stories that other people want to read is hard. It’s work. We may not get it right every time, but that’s no excuse not to try.
Well, I had fun with this. What do the rest of you feel about Leonard’s 10 rules, and yes, I’m asking readers as well as writers. What makes you stop reading?
P.S. you’re allowed to disagree with me. -looks angelic-