Them’s the rules: or are they?

unknownRecently I have been attending an enjoyable novel-writing group here in Cheltenham. No-one in the group is a beginner, except me, but everyone is looking for rules. I like rules, too, but I’m perhaps a bit more resistant to them, having had rules drummed into me during my years in journalism.

This week I mentioned Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, which were a few ideas Leonard scribbled down before cunningly turning them into a (short) book. The 10 rules are for fiction writers. Here they are, reduced to their original form with no book wrapped around them.

  1. Never open a book with the 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.”
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control!
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7. Use regional dialect, patois,  sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Same for places and things.
  10. Leave out the parts readers tend to skip.

(This is probably a big copyright infringement, but I’ll take it down if Mr Leonard’s publisher object.)

Anyway, lots of people swear by them. But for what it’s worth, here’s Morrish’s gloss on Leonard’s rules.

  1. Weather: why not? Many wonderful books open with the weather. It tells the reader approximately where they are, when they are, what time it is. More importantly, it sets the mood of the book and plays off against the mood of the characters, either reinforcing or contrasting. There’s nothing wrong with starting with the weather.
  2. Prologues: why not? They can quickly provide a lot of background, leaving you to charge ahead with your first chapter proper. Or, they can do that clever thing of letting you believe you’re starting in once place when the book is really about somewhere else. It’s a bait-and-switch move, and it can be rather appealing.
  3. Verbs other than said: why not? This is a piece of journalistic dogma, really. You don’t want to read “Sgt Jones opined” in a police report. But readers have no objection to “he replied”, “she laughed”, “I asked”, etc. Personally, I like them. They condense and intensify, and that’s good. “‘I promise I will always tell the truth,’ she lied.” Or “‘I promise I will always tell the truth,’ she said, but she was lying.” I know which I prefer.
  4. Adverbs qualifying said: why not? I refer you to the classics. They are everywhere in Eliot, Austen, Dickens, James, Joyce. Again, the prohibition is journalistic. Not everyone is writing news stories.
  5. Exclamation points [marks]. Well, this is a reasonable point, if your characters are newspaper-trained or grammar-schooled, or you are writing a historical novel based, say, 10 years ago. Today exclamation marks are ubiquitous. Your readers will use them. Your characters should use them. We’re in the age of the emoji, for crying out loud.
  6. ‘Suddenly’ and ‘All hell broke loose’. I agree with this, but only because they are such awful clichés.
  7. Regional dialect and patois? Very difficult to do well, but why should all your characters sound like, say, Elmore Leonard? Writing in any sort of patois or dialect is extremely difficult, but without it we would have no Irvine Welch and certainly no Marlon James. Neither of those writers is easy. But even writers of delightful, light-weight prose are using a type of dialect. Right Ho, Jeeves is in dialect. Bridget Jones’s Diaries are in dialect.
  8. Descriptions of characters. I tend to agree, but that’s just my taste. Some readers very much demand them.
  9. Descriptions of places and things. Ditto.
  10. Leave out the parts readers tend to skip. Good advice, if you’re clairvoyant. Short of standing over a select audience of prospective readers and watching what they do, how would you ever know? I guarantee that when you are reading you will skip a different part to me.

Leonard had one other rule that didn’t make the Top 10. “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” I think that makes perfect sense for him. Indeed, all the rules make perfect sense for Elmore Leonard. If you want to be a writer of hard-boiled, comic, crime-caper novels then by all means follow them. And why not? His books are brilliant, and have adapted easily into movies.

The last thing I want, though, is to sound like Elmore Leonard. The world already has one. It doesn’t need another.