Thursday, April 16, 2015

One rule to... er... rule them all #amwriting

On Facebook I belong to a number of different writers' groups. Recently, this meme was posted on one of them.

There is nothing more likely to have me doing expletives deleted than seeing a list of “thou shalts” telling prospective authors that this is how they have to do it. Especially with a famous name tagged on to the end. Don't get me wrong, GENERALLY speaking, I would agree that each of these points deserves consideration. But the only one that is really, absolutely, no-holds-barred, TRUE is number...

See if you can work it out.

I particularly object to the word NEVER in these 'rules'. Never is black and white. Let's look at the 'nevers' in this list.

Never open a book with weather
Really? "The wind howled. Lightning stabbed at the earth erratically, like an inefficient assassin. Thunder rolled back and forth across the dark, rain-lashed hills."
Opening words of Wyrd Sisters Terry Pratchett

Never use a word other than “said” to carry dialogue
In fact the current wisdom seems to be to avoid having to use a dialogue tag at all if you can. Let's face it, a page full of “he said” “she said” isn't too wonderful either. But back to 'said'. People like Anne McCaffrey happily use words like 'exclaimed', 'shouted', 'whispered' in her books. I don't think too many people threw them at the wall because of that. But it probably is wise to use such words sparingly.

Never use an adverb to modify said... he admonished gravely
At least he has a sense of humour, breaking #3 and #4 with a few strokes of his keyboard. I'll bet we can all cite examples of where a famous author has broken this “rule”.

Never use “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”
I don't think I've read anything where all hell broke loose, but I suppose he's making the point the expression is overused. As for suddenly, it's a word. Maybe not the best word, but a word for all that. You might be able to find a better expression to show suddenness, but still, this is a recommendation, not a rule.

Okay, that's the 'nevers' taken care of. Now let's look at the others, starting with 'avoid', which is not quite so clear cut.

Avoid prologues
Best selling SF author Jack McDevitt almost always uses prologues. Sure, use them properly, not just to infodump background on the reader. And think long and hard before you add one. Personally, I dislike prologues. But I've written one myself. For excellent reasons.

Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three in 100,000 words of prose
Once again, I could point you at famous authors where that doesn't hold true. Try Terry Pratchett in Maskerade, where he uses the exclamation mark to convey a particular character's voice. That said, I remember reading a review of one of my stories written by a very young blogger. Just about every sentence ended in an exclamation mark, which rather ruined the purpose of that small piece of emphasis.

Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly
Guess what? Agreed. Too much regional accent can be hard to read. But have you read Wee Free Men? (TP again) It wouldn't be the same without the accent. I'm sure there are other examples.

Avoid detailed descriptions of characters
I don't describe (human) characters too much myself but I seem to recall authors writing YA are expected to do that because the readers want to know how to imagine the people. I think perhaps this 'rule' could have been expanded to add 'having the character describe him/herself while looking in a mirror' is overdone and might be best avoided. But if they're aliens, you'd best describe them because your reader needs to know what to imagine. It's all in how the describing is done. Rather than devoting a paragraph to a point-by-point description of the alien zzeeths, it might be possible to add tidbits here and there.

Don't go into great detail describing places and things
Sometimes a sketch is fine. Sometimes it's not. Detail can provide authenticity. Moreover, writing is subject to fashion. Dickens added excruciating detail, which is no longer fashionable - but then again, he was paid by the word. Mary Stewart's descriptions could become a little too long. But if you write SF and you don't provide a bit of detail you'll leave your reader floundering.

Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip
This is it folks, the one rule of writing that is the essence of the list.

There are certainly guidelines to consider, mistakes that others have made, overused tropes that may well jar your readers out of the story. That's what points one to nine are; guidelines. Nobody (except that poster up there) is saying you cannot do this, but it might be very wise to think about these things before you commit to publishing.

Oh - and don't believe everything you read on the internet. Probably including this article. Because, after all, it's just my point of view.


  1. My favorite rule of writing is: There are not rules. LOL Truthfully, I've been at this long enough to realize that a lot of what we thought were rules were yes, the fashion. Like the Pirate Code, they should be seen as mostly guidelines. But if you plan to kick a rule or style or whatever, to the curb, do it well.

    1. I'm in violent agreement, Pauline. Sure, go and do the writing course, learn how people think it should be done. Then write your own way.

  2. G'day, Greta. Leonard's list is a good one, but, as you say, they should be guidelines. While my opening paragraph in the novel I just released isn't about the weather, there is enough to set the mood (I hope.) Most of his "rules" are things to look at when self-editing, but if you've violated one, for good, well-thought reason, well, it just might be your voice speaking.

    I often see "never use sentence fragments." Ha! (exclamation point intended.) If I cut all the fragments in my writing, it would be someone's else's writing. It's a "rule" most effective writers I read violate often. Good for them.

    "Rules" may be good guidelines for writers learning their craft, but followed strictly, they also serve to inhibit. So learn them so you know when f**k them is right for how you want your writing to read.

    But I preach to the choir. ;)

  3. Hemingway was generous with writing advice. Most of it, apparently, a send up of the person who was asking. And it's slavishly quoted.
    Only rule for me: shut up, sit down (or stand) and write

  4. I think everyone should know the basic rules of grammar and punctuation, but aside from that find their own style. It took me years to stop writing the way I was taught in school (and frankly I tear my hair out over what my daughter is being taught in English because reading it is like nails on a blackboard to me sometimes with them having to use adverbs all the time etc). Writing books is a whole nother world compared to writing for an English exam. >_< But it's the ones who insist you 'must' do it their way and anything else is wrong is what gets my goat, especially when they're lecturing to newbies who might actually take it seriously.

    1. Yes, that thou shalt mentality irritates me. And you make a good point about how kids are taught. I recall that about adverbs and words instead of 'said' way back in the dark ages when I was a gel.

  5. Well, you have to laugh at Leonard's Rule #7, since he's a modern master of regional dialect and urban/criminal slang. You only have to (try to) read his last novel RAYLAN and translate the dense Appalachian banter that the writers of JUSTIFIED attempt to copy to know Leonard broke this rule on a regular basis. But then that's the point of writing rules. You have to know them so you can break them. The problem with bad writers is that they don't have a clue what the rules are and their lack of knowledge is like fingernails on a chalkboard.

    1. Just goes to show he either doesn't believe all this rigid rubbish, or (shock horror) he didn't write it.

  6. I have one rule of writing: Never tell me the rules.

    What can I say? I'm a rebel. I think most writers have their own style and voice that may very well break some or all of these "rules." And while I do agree "Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip" does carry some weight, if it's taken too literally, there won't be any parts left. Readers skip various parts for various reasons. Just like writers, no two are alike.

    1. Good point. Tolkien said that in his foreword to LOTR late in his life. The parts some would skip were the particular favourites of others.

    2. My own books have gotten shorter and tighter in part due to this rule -- concern that today's divided-attention reader will put the book aside if they manage to blink during a chapter. But I do think you lose something writing this way, especially in SFF.

  7. Another one I think is ridiculous is "never use a thesaurus." I use it all the time. The trick is not to use it to try and find a replacement for a word you've overused -- that tends to be pretty transparent. I use the thesaurus when I know there's a synonym that's more precise than the word I've used, but I can't think of it.

    1. Agreed. That's how I use it - to find a better word.


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