The Rules of Writing: A Rebuttal

Two posts in one week? Crazy!

But I felt compelled to do something after I stumbled across a collection of “rules of writing” from other authors. Some items contained sage advice, and others made me want to choke the writer because they were so ridiculous, even damaging to an aspiring writer looking for tips on how to improve.

Now, I’m not talking about rules of English — i before e, don’t pluralize a word using apostrophe – S, etc. — I’m talking about the rules of writing, tips on technique that often aren’t a part of formal classes on writing, that you can really only learn from other writers who have already made all the mistakes and discovered all the little secrets.

The problem is, a new writer might hear these little nuggets of wisdom and go, Well, this is a professional and he knows what he’s talking about, so I better do as he says without ever questioning the rationale of the advice, and thus the neophyte writer unwittingly hamstrings himself by placing unnecessary restraints on his writing.

So here’s my first rule of writing: make up your own rules. Create your own process, your own style, your own list of dos and don’ts that work for you and your writing. Don’t take anyone else’s rules as gospel until you’ve made an effort to understand the whys and wherefores of the rule in question. If it makes sense you, then adopt it, as-is or with modifications; if it smacks of bullshit, ignore it.

(This is not new thinking, by any means. Michael Moorcock offers as one of his rules: Ignore all proferred rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say.)

Here are some of the rules I came across, and my thoughts on them.

Avoid prologues. Why? Because “they’re annoying,” says Elmore Leonard (one of the modern greats, so please know I do not dispute his advice lightly; the man can write circles around me in his sleep, and I admit that without shame). “A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.”

Prologues are not always backstory. That’s a broad generalization. Sometimes it’s a simple introduction that, in the author’s mind, falls outside the main narrative and needs a bit of separation. Nothing wrong with that.

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. Another from Leonard. “The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.”

It also renders the dialog bland and homogenous. The surrounding context can address this and imply the emotion behind the dialog, but so can a more dynamic choice than “said.” I believe in thoughtful, careful, and strategic enhancement of dialog rather than letting the reader always float free to infer meaning. Sometimes readers need, even want that tiny nudge.

A possibly apocryphal story: when asked why the cast of the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy was so often emotionless, George Lucas  said he wanted the characters to be blank slates through which the audience could invest their own feelings. But what he got was a lot of viewers wondering why the hell the actors were so bloody stiff.

I’ll make the same argument against Leonard’s next bit of advice: Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”. Now, I fully appreciate the thinking behind this. To many writers, adverbs are sort of the bastard child of grammar and should never be utilized, ever, because adverbs are weak, and I agree that there are almost always better choices for enhancing dialog or action.

Most amateur adverb abuse comes in the form of redundancy: “John ran quickly.” Well, duh. If he’s running, it’s implied he’s doing so quickly, because one cannot run slowly. But if the point is to convey the John is hauling ass (maybe he’s running from zombies. Or tigers. Or zombie tigers), that can be achieved with a more dynamic verb: John raced, John sprinted, John booked it, etc.

But what is John was running drunkenly? Saying so isn’t redundant, so it is a viable option, but it isn’t as effective or efficient as John staggering.

Personally, I think adverbs should be used stingily (see what I did there?) because excessive adverb use is extremely distracting. Go check out Michael J. Nelson’s “Mike Nelson’s Death Rat! – A Novel” for an egregious case of dialog modifier abuse (and solid evidence in support of Leonard’s last two rules, but I still disagree with the man).

Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. This is Leonard’s version of a rule I’ve read elsewhere in various forms — no more than three exclamation points per novel, no exclamation points ever. I agree with the first part completely. Runaway exclamation points are distracting, but three per 100,000 words? That strikes me as an utterly arbitrary number (and very limiting since the typical novel length is 50,000 to 80,000 words).

Consider Robert DeNiro’s outburst as Al Capone in “The Untouchables“, rendered here without exclamation points (and, for fun, using Leonard’s “said” rule and “no adverbs” rule):

“I want you to get this fuck where he breathes,” Capone said. “I want you to find this nancy-boy Eliot Ness, I want him dead. I want his family dead. I want his house burned to the ground. I wanna go there in the middle of the night and I wanna piss on his ashes.”

Now, the same line of dialogue, with exclamation points:

“I want you to get this fuck where he breathes! Capone said. “I want you to find this nancy-boy Eliot Ness, I want him dead! I want his family dead! I want his house burned to the ground! I wanna go there in the middle of the night and I wanna piss on his ashes!”

A minor change with major impact.

I’m going to leave the good Mr. Leonard alone now, lest he send thugs over to my house to have a nice little “chat” about my criticisms.

Esther Freud advises writers to cut out the metaphors and similes. Metaphors and similes can be dangerous, because they’re very easy to screw up; bad metaphors and similes sound cheesy and forced and stick out like a sore thumb (yes, that was intentional). So, another case where writers should be stingy, but shouldn’t completely eliminate this tool from the toolbox.

A more general rule I see a lot is write every day, even if you don’t feel like it. I can’t do this. I know a lot of writers who can’t do it. Sometimes your creative energy is absolutely dead and trying to jump-start it by forcing yourself to write something, anything, winds up wasting your time and producing crap you delete anyway. I say follow your instincts. If you know in your heart you can’t produce anything, don’t try, even if it means you don’t touch your keyboard for days or weeks. Sometimes you simply need to recharge your batteries.

I’ve also had dead periods when some part of a project is stumping me hard, and the theory “the only way through it is through it” is a headache waiting to happen. I occasionally need to let a project cool off a bit, and there’s nothing wrong with not writing for a while (as long as it doesn’t become your new lifestyle).

I have mixed feelings about the old saw write what you know. If you write about stuff you know, you can write with unshakable authority, and it can drive you to experience new things so you can write with authority about different ideas, but writers write about stuff they know nothing about all the time. If writers limited themselves to the realm of personal experience, you can kiss most fiction goodbye (particularly genre fiction, unless you happen to know someone who can travel to another galaxy or has fought an army of orcs), so that rule has its practical limitations.

Do you have a personal favorite (or reviled) rule for writing? Post it here.

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