There Are No Rules

There are a countless number of books, websites, and classes designed to teach people how to write, including the rules associated with writing. Elmore Leonard, author of Get Shorty, Rum Punch, Glitz, etc., has ten rules for good writing. However, W. Somerset Maugham, author of The Razor’s Edge and Of Human Bondage said: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Elmore Leonard’s rules include:

  • Never open a book with weather.
  1. Rule: Weather is usually used as a conversational opening, when there’s not something better to talk about.
  2. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle: “It was a dark and stormy night.” Though weather is continued for the next paragraph, the main character is introduced after the opening line.
  3. The Rapture by Liz Jensen: “That summer, the summer all the rules began to change, June seemed to last for a thousand years. The temperature was merciless: ninety-eight, ninety-nine, then a hundred in the shade. It was heat to die, go nuts or spawn in…Asphyxiated, you longer for rain. It didn’t come.”
  • Avoid prologues.
  1. Prologues tend to be used improperly as massive information dumps, are too long, have nothing to do with the main story, can be folded into the main story, or are used to set the mood (which should be done in chapter one anyway).
  2. Prologues can be good, if used correctly: used for a critical element in the backstory or used to resolve a time gap with critical information
  3. i.e.: Garth Nix’s Sabriel and Lirael novels both contain prologues that resolve a time gap and include important background information.
  • Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  1. There are plenty of published and successful books that use more than “said.”
  2. i.e. – Veronica Roth’s Insurgent, “‘She is not my friend,’ snaps Lynn.’”
  • Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
  1. Again, there are lots of successful novels that break this rule.
  2. i.e. – Delirium by Lauren Oliver: “‘Hi, Carol,’ Hana says breathlessly, catching up to us.”
  • Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  1. Rule: When overused, an exclamation loses its meaning.
  2. i.e. – In Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants five exclamation points are used within the prologue.
  • Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  1. i.e. – Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants: “‘Oh Jesus,’ I said, suddenly understanding. I stumbled forward, screaming even though there was no hope of my voice reaching her. ‘Don’t do it! Don’t do it!’”
  2. i.e. – Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories: “Funeral, he said suddenly. Going to my brother’s funeral.”
  • Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  1. Rule: Convey the feel of speech through expressions and phrasing, not misspellings, etc.
  2. i.e. – The Color Purple by Alice Walker: “My mama dead. She die screaming and cussing. She scream at me. She cuss at me. I’m big. I can’t move fast enough. By time I git back from the well, the water be warm. By time I git the tray ready the food be cold. By time I git all the children ready for school it be dinner time. He don’t say nothing. He set there by the bed holding her hand an cryin, talking about don’t leave me, don’t go.”
  • Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  1. This is subjective. Some readers like description of characters, other do not.
  2. i.e. – In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, three men are described in one paragraph: “Mr. Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners…His brother-in-law, Mr. Hurst, merely looked the gentleman; but his friend Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien…”
  3. i.e. – In Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely, it takes multiple paragraphs to describe Kennan: “…he did nothing but smile. / And he was devastating when he did. He glowed faintly all the time, as if hot coals burned inside him. His collar-length hair shimmered like strands of copper…tan and too beautiful to touch, walking with a swagger that said he knew exactly how attractive he was…he was almost average in size, only a head taller than she was. / Whenever he came near, she could smell wildflowers, could hear the rustle of willow branches…a taste of midsummer in the start of the frigid fall.”
  • Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  1. Rule: Too much description and the story’s action comes to a standstill.
  2. i.e. – John Crowley’s Four Freedoms: A Novel has long, detailed descriptions of objects and places sometimes extending for over a page.
  3. i.e. – James Joyce’s The Dubliners: The Dead: “The middle of the room was occupied by two square tables placed end to end, and on these Aunt Julia and the caretaker were straightening and smoothing a large cloth. On the sideboard were arrayed dishes and plates, and glasses and bundles of knives and forks and spoons. The top of the closed square piano served also as a sideboard for viands and sweets. At a smaller sideboard in one corner two young men were standing, drinking hop bitters.”
  • Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
  1. Rule: Readers skip thick paragraphs of prose, but not dialogue.
  2. This is another subjective rule. For instance, I’m not an erotica fan. I once bought a book thinking it was a fantasy adventure. It turned out that the book was more erotica than anything else. I didn’t finish that book, but gave it to a friend, who devoured it. So, where I found the sexual descriptions repetitive and rather boring, she was engrossed.

As you can see from the examples I’ve provided above, Maugham may be right. Leonard’s list of ten rules can be counted more as suggestions, observations, and helpful points than as strict letters of the law. If they were, these rules wouldn’t be contradicted.

With writing, it isn’t a linear process. There are no definite steps to follow. You move forward and backward. You write something brilliant one day and then the next you have no idea why what you wrote the previous day was so good. Eventually, if you stick with it, you finish writing a story.

Fiction writing holds no absolutes. There’s no right or wrong way to write your novel. There are suggestions and insights from successful authors. But, the only true measure of what kind of shape your novel is in is by how well it’s received by you and your readers.

Do you lean more toward Maugham or Leonard’s belief about rules for writing?

[Elmore Leonard’s rules from The New York Times “Writers on Writing; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle”]

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