Rule Makers Rankle

One thing that rankles my muse are writers who think their way is the only way because they’ve sold a few books. The results are all these “6 Ways to do this,” or 8 Ways to do that.”

Here is an example.

10 things you should watch out for in your writing, according to Elmore Leonard”

1. Never open a book with weather.

Snoopy seems to have made that work. Know what an outstanding opener is and then re-write it better. If it includes weather, use it.

When the sound of a freight train reached Jackson’s ears, he cocked his head. Out here in the mountains? he thought. Looking out the tent flap Jackson Henry came face to face with a tornado.

2. Avoid prologues.

Avoid, yes, but know what a prologue is and what it is meant to do. If it looks and acts a first chapter, then it’s not a prologue. The technique has a valid place when used correctly. A good example is Clive Cussler.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

We have here folks, the resurrection of an old argument going back to Manny the Mammoth. “Said” is preferred because it is so common the reader glosses right over it, therefore maintaining the story’s pace; however, an “other verb” once in a while is not wrong. See next.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.

Back to Snoopy, but seriously, it sounds and looks clunky.

“…,” Jordon said as his eyes narrowed and demeanor turned grave.”

Be creative and descriptive. Some things can be left to the reader’s imagination. Some things can’t.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

Wash the hog on this one. Just don’t get carried away, otherwise be creatively descriptive.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

Grab a thesaurus and become imaginative.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

In Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” he identified 9 regional dialects in Mizzoura. Can you imagine what that story would have sound like if all the characters talked like carpet-bagging Yankees?! Be judicious and use enough to add flavor to the story while avoid drowning it in too much sauce.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Character dumps are not good. Several “big-time” authors do it repeatedly. They introduce a character and immediately spend the next paragraph describing them in detail. What happens is that the plot suddenly comes to a screeching halt as the reader plows through the details. Why not give a brief description that is important at the time and sprinkle additional detail in appropriate places along the way?

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Depends on the placement, doesn’t it? And, whether it is an info dump as in #8. In a recent novel, an author had the main character travel by mule from Mizzoura to Tucson, New Mexico Territory in 1869. The weather and terrain had an important impact on his travels as did the towns and people encountered along the way.

Cory carried the boy into the Indian camp and straight toward an old man seated in front of a wikiup.

From a previous paragraph, the reader knows the boy is Indian, injured after falling out of a tree thanks to an irate bear. Beyond that, I suppose the reader wouldn’t be interested that the Indians were Mescalero Apache, the camp was in the Guadalupe Mountains of NW Texas, the old man was the chief of all the Mescalero and the boy’s grandfather, and the wikiup wasn’t a buffalo hide tepee, but a dome-shaped structure made of brush. Oh, and they weren’t all that interested hanging his scalp from their war lance, but he’d better have a good story.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Back to Mark Twain. Follow this advice and you will have a very nice, boring short story no one will be interested reading. That’s like telling Rembrandt he can only use charcoal. Let the reader decide what to skip.

My spin on all these rules writers is to take what they say with a grain of salt. Study the art of writing, learn something new every day, and give your imagination free reign, then go back and edit, study the art of writing, learn something new, and implement where appropriate. And if I didn’t mention it – go back and edit.

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