You are probably already aware of novelist Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for writing. As a reminder, and very much in summary, these are:
1 Never open a book with weather (where it’s used to create atmosphere).
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 points under control.
6 Never use the words ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell broke loose’.
7 Use regional dialect and patois sparingly.
8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9 Don’t go into great detail describing places and things (unless you’re Margaret Atwood).
10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip (basing this on your experience as a reader).
It’s worth mentioning that fashions in fiction change. Take Thomas Hardy’s famous opening chapter in The Return of the Native, the pages-long description of Egdon Heath that takes in not only the moorland’s physical features and climate, but also its history. Later, John Steinbeck produced a lot of scene setting. In The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, the well-known opening line ‘To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth’ proceeds to a number of paragraphs on landscape and weather that would break Leonard’s rules 1 and 9. These are from a time before the industry of ‘creative writing’ launched.
Nowadays, however, readers are less likely to tolerate the slow pace of the Victorian and pre-war novel. It’s a case of ‘just get on with it’. True, Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel The Hours, say, opens with: ‘She hurries from the house, wearing a coat too heavy for the weather’, but this is a conscious echo of Viriginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, published in 1925 – plus it’s brief.
As for prologues, yes they are sometimes used by today’s successful authors – Michael Cunningham’s The Hours again, Donna Tartt uses them, and crime novels often do, too, e.g. Henning Mankell in his Wallander books. Crime novels aside, though, the overriding sense is that readers will simply skip a prologue (see also rule 10 above). So if you must, keep it short.
And it’s not that all contemporary authors avoid detailed description. Philip Pullman, for instance, Mankell again, Hilary Mantel in her historical fiction… Speaking of historical fiction, it does, in general, appear to employ ornate detail more than books with modern settings. As above, this is presumably to summon a sense of the earlier novel form, as well as to evoke a sense of period. Jessie Burton’s best-selling The Miniaturist (2014), for instance, opens with much lush detail on notepaper quality, architectural features, the October’s day warmth, and light breeze upon our heroine’s hair (weather alert!). Science fiction and fantasy, too, seem to be heavier on description as they portray other worlds. Still, even in such examples, detail is used with mindful caution; it is not indulgent, and rhythm, action, and plot are not sacrificed for the sake of descriptive passages.
So I humbly agree with many of Leonard’s rules, for what it’s worth. It is evident that when rules are broken, it is about being – or becoming – a good enough writer to breach them.
Along those lines, author Matt Haig wrote Ten Writing Rules to Break. Haig reminds us of some commonly-stated decrees, only to point out when these can be broken – and to give examples of famous writers who’ve done just that. Using cliché is realistic in dialogue, for example, and the fact that a neat happy ending may be as authentic as an unhappy or open-ended one – it’s all a snapshot in time.
A few years ago, The Guardian asked known and published authors for their writing rules. Many focus on the writing process, some on the text. Several of my own selected favourites are below, and you can read the rest here.
- Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones. I was working on a novel about a band called The Partitions. Then I decided to call them The Commitments. – Roddy Doyle
- Finish the day’s writing when you still want to continue. – Helen Dunmore
- Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire. – Geoffrey Dyer
- The way to write a book is to actually write a book… Keep putting words on the page. – Anne Enright
- Don’t wait for inspiration. Discipline is the key. – Esther Freud
- Don’t look back until you’ve written an entire draft, just begin each day from the last sentence you wrote the preceding day. – Will Self
- Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly. – Jonathan Franzen
- Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. – PD James
- Forget the boring old dictum ‘write about what you know’. Instead, seek out an unknown yet knowable area of experience that’s going to enhance your understanding of the world and write about that. – Rose Tremain
- Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them, so you won’t need to take notes. – AL Kennedy
- Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. This is especially important for historical fiction. When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that’s the point to step back and fill in the details of their world. – Hilary Mantel
- Never stop when you are stuck. You may not be able to solve the problem, but turn aside and write something else. – Jeanette Winterson
The best, I think, was from Margaret Atwood, who appears to be another ‘rules’ refusenik. From archly fundamental advice on the usefulness of pencils and paper, she added: ‘Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What fascinates A will bore the pants off B’. Though, she concluded, ‘Prayer might work.’
Finally, this from Neil Gaiman: ‘Never forget, even your own rules are there to be broken.’
Whether as a reader or as a writer, which of Leonard’s rules do you agree or disagree with?
What would your own rules be?