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Rules: E.B. White had a book full of ’em and George Orwell boiled it down to six. Stephen King has a book of his own. It seems like when you start hanging around in writing circles, everyone has a few of their own and recite them like gospel. I don’t mean grammatical, syntactical rules, but the maxims like “use strong verbs” and “forgo prologues” and “begin as late in a story as possible.” Some are common sense, some are debatable, and some are contradictory.I’ve become an agnostic when it comes to these rules, even though two of the most famous rule-mongers are on my short list of favorite writers (White and Orwell, with all due respect to Mr. King), but I’m particularly struck by Elmore Leonard’s rules, because even with my agnosticism and belligerence in regard to various listings and rubrics, I usually fare pretty well by them — but by Elmore Leonard’s rules, I am a total failure.
Well, let’s take them from the top:
1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
Ulp. I open my first book with a prologue about weather!
3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.
This seems to be in contradicition with the well-known dictum to use “strong verbs,” which means verbs with a little adverb built into them. In other words, you’d want to say “He scolded her,” rather than “He said brusquely,” right? Oh, wait he also says….
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said”
. . .Which means that people can only say things, and they can’t say them in in any particular way. Well, I don’t see myself using nothing but “he said,” and “she said,” in scenes with a lot of dialogue. Believe me, I tried, and it drove my editor up the wall.
I don’t have a particular problem with Leonard’s rules 5 through 7 (well, I do use the word “suddenly” twelve times, but otherwise…. oh, and I also use exclamation points!) but my spirit really starts to break with 8 and 9, which advise us against describing people and places.
Not that I tend to be very descriptive, mind you. It wasn’t until a late draft that my editor politely suggested I let readers know what my hero, um, looks like, because they might want to know. I do tend to go on with the setting of my first book, though. Many paragraphs of it were cut, but many remain. It’s an unusual place, and bears a little describing.
And then we get to 10: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
I guess that includes prologues, since some readers (and even some very successful writers I know) tell me they never read prologues* and the aformentioned descriptions, and perhaps anything else that isn’t a gunfight or a love scene.
Now, following rule #10, in particular, I think that John Steinbeck’s East of Eden would be about a third of what it is now, and a meaner book for the editing. James Joyce’s Dubliners would be so pared down, we’d be lucky to have enough syllables left over to form a haiku. George Eliot would be whittled out of existence along with Willa Cather and Edith Wharton — which isn’t too surprising, because these rules strike me as rather masculine rules, all jutting-jaw and hand-on-pistol and just-the-facts-ma’am. It makes me feel a little bit better about faring so poorly myself. I’m in pretty good company.
Sure, the rule is well intentioned, but it borders dangerously on the suggestion to dumb it down, and have no respect for your readers’ patience. I admire writers who trust their readers, from J.K. Rowling, who ignored the people who told her her books were too long and too complicated for children, to Nabokov and Joyce, who must have known they were losing practically everybody along the way, but also knew they’d have nothing but the best readers with them at the end of their journey.
Now me, I like prologues. I like adverbs. I like the occasional description. I like slow, ponderous paragraphs that culminate in an epiphany. I like romances that are all glances from across the room and innocent conversations rife with double meanings, and only the most accidental physical touches to consummate the frantic passion that seethes beneath the facade of calm and civility. I like stories where small, interesting things happen that you think about later. I even like weak, timid verbs that barely assert themselves. Most of the verbs we do in real life are weak, timid verbs. Some of the most important verbs we do in real life are weak, timid verbs — the aforementioned lovers act out their passion in weak verbs and adverbs. She says something tentatively, and he looks away, blushing.
I’m sure that Elmore Leonard’s rules are absolutely dead-on helpful if you want to write like Elmore Leonard, and I also hear he’s a great writer so you could do worse. Otherwise you might want to write like yourself, and spend the rest of your life figuring out what your own rules are, whether there are six of them or ten or fifty-four. In other words, writing is more like calvinball than baseball. You make up the rules as you go along.I would post a few of my own, but I haven’t sorted them all out yet.
* I’m tempted in these situations to say “I never read chapter 8, myself,” but I think it would come off as a bit too snarky.