Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Only Ten Rules a Writer Needs.

I came across the following list on one of my social media sites, and you know what?  This is the most perfect list of writing rules I’ve ever seen.  I don’t know how many published writers who really, REALLY need to read this list!  My comments are in red.

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing

1. Never open a book with weather.  This one should be obvious.  Unless you’re writing a parody.
2. Avoid prologues.  I have used prologues.  I think there are a few occasions when they are necessary.  But I think most of the time they are used as either info dumps or a way of hooking the reader when your first chapter isn’t strong enough to do that on its own.  (Maybe because you started that first chapter with the weather?)  Re-writing the first chapter is usually the better option.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.  I think you could get away with using “asked” now and again – if the character is questioning someone.  Otherwise, please don’t.  Please.  I hate this practice.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely. A sure sign of sloppy writing.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.  Unless I’m on some social media site (in which case exclamation points are mandatory) I find it so difficult to use one of these in my writing.  On the rare occasion I do use one,  I normally end up going back and taking it out, because just knowing it is there disturbs my peace of mind.  They are just so amateurish.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”  Okay, I am guilty of using ‘suddenly’.  But I’m rapidly getting to the point where it bothers me nearly as much as an exclamation point, so I expect soon I won’t be able to use it at all.
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. I hate reading them, and I don’t like writing them, so this one is easy.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.  The best descriptions are short, simply and perfect.  And astonishingly difficult to do well. 
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” — Elmore Leonard

In my own writing, I’ve been struggling with Breathing Ghosts, my time travel novel.  I have to introduce two new characters in this current chapter, and a new plot point.  The first character I’m writing is difficult simply because she is Molly’s mother, and Molly (my main character) doesn’t get on with her mother.  In fact, she doesn’t want to talk to her, talk about her, or even think about her – and this makes it really hard for me, because everything I know about Breathing Ghosts is filtered through Molly’s knowledge and perspective.  I’ve said before that I have no choice about being a writer.  I write because I have to write, because otherwise my head would be so packed full of other people’s lives that I’d have no room in there for my own.  Most of the time when I’m writing, it’s the easiest, most natural thing in the world, because it feels exactly as though these imaginary characters of mine are real, and they are dictating their lives to me.  Writing surprises me and delights me, and I don’t understand at all how it works, only how it feels.

But every so often, writing frustrates the heck out of me.  And this chapter was one of those times.  Molly did not want to tell me anything about who her mother actually was, and every time I tried to muscle through and write something, it was always wrong.  For me, writer’s block is simply the Othermind’s way of telling me: You’ve got this wrong.  I’ve taken a wrong turn and the only way to fix it, is to delete everything up to the last point when the story was going well, and rewrite from there.  On this chapter, I lost track of how many pages about Molly’s mother I wrote, then deleted.

And what made it worse, was that Molly’s mother had the important job of introducing a secondary character, and raising a new plot point.  First I wrote the secondary character (SD) as a man named James.  And that was very wrong.  So SD became Katherine.  And Molly and she had a face to face meeting that was one of the loveliest bits of writing I’ve done.  I really, really liked it.  But it was wrong.  So…I deleted that, although it hurt.  Then Katherine was only spoken of, but that wasn’t right either.  Finally, Katherine ended up being dead, and I think she’ll stay there; the chapter finally feels right.    Alas, poor Katherine.

So, I think the chapter’s finally working out, which is good, because I don’t want to struggle with this book.  I’ve put a lot of me into this book; Molly is closer to being me than any other character I’ve ever written.  I’m not sure how or why that happened, but it’s…interesting to write.

Anyway, I didn’t intent to unload all this introspection when I sat down to post Leonard’s Rules, but…there it is.  All the crazy.

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