Controversial rules

I’ve started a heated debate on one of the Lulu forums by posting Elmore Leonard’s ’10 rules of writing’.

I posted them in fun and as a way of getting some debate going, and you would think I’d just nailed a new version of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses on to the church door in Wittenberg. Oh, the controversy!

For reference, here are the ‘Rules’:

1. Never open a book with a description of 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 marks under control.
6. Never use the word “suddenly”.
7. Only use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Ditto, places and things.
10. Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.

Now to me, these are eminently sensible things to bear in mind when writing, and I’m sure they describe Leonard’s own approach to his work.

But to the ‘creative’ mind it would seem as though I’ve just tried to imprison writers by making it impossible to write anything, should they follow these rules. What nonsense!

The rule that has upset people most has been the one about only using ‘said’. It’s as if the writing community out there is holding on dearly to its use of ‘he whispered’, ‘she muttered’, ‘he moaned’, ‘she wailed’ … ad infinitum. It’s been pointed out that only using ‘said’ is boring – but to me that’s masking the point. The point is that ‘said’ is so inoffensive, it sinks into the background. In the end you don’t ‘read’ it at all, so your focus is more on the dialogue than the surrounding, qualifying verbiage. That’s one of the reasons I can’t read JK Rowling – she’s always telling you what to think about the characters through her use of qualifiers and characterising adjectives/adverbs. And it’s condescending to the reader AND the characters.

It’s also been pointed out to me that writing is a ‘creative’ art and so rules are surely anathema to it. Again, what nonsense! Writing these days is, unfortunately, a business and an industry. And if you want to get published, there are some rules you need to understand. I’m not saying Leonard’s rules are the be-all and end-all, but they’re a good start. And they’re not as bad as some I’ve read. For instance, in John Braine’s book about Writing a Novel, he begins by saying that after you’ve thought up your plot, you should divide it into 20 chapters … now if that isn’t prescriptive, I don’t know what is.

For me, Leonard’s rules are pretty good guidelines for writing commercial fiction. I understand that not all fiction fits into that bracket – the literary novel is the case in point – but if you want to get published professionally in the first instance, it surely doesn’t do any harm to show that you ‘get it’? That you can write professionally to begin with – and then, later, you can break whatever rules you damn well like.

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