It’s stunning that writers ever get anything done, with all the rules we’re supposed to follow.
Here’s Elmore Leonard’s rather famous list:
1. Never open a book with 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"…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
And George Orwell’s:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Ten Tips for Writing Fiction
by Donna A. Leahey
14 January, 2015
1. When you elevate your word choice, you should be careful not to elevate it right past the meaning of the word.
2. You can disregard any writing rule you like as long as you’ve got the writing chops to make it work.
3. Writer’s Block doesn’t exist. Either make yourself keep typing words or walk away and do something else for a few minutes, but don’t give yourself the excuse of saying you have “writer’s block.”
4. Bad guys don’t think of themselves as evil. They always believe what they’re doing is justified in some way or another.
5. You’ve got to make me care about your character before I’m going to care about his backstory.
6. A good, well-used trope is a writer’s best friend.
7. Don’t try to write a male character or a female character. Write a character.
8. Beginning a story is easy. Continuing that story is difficult. Finishing the story? That deserves a medal.
9. Don’t worry about your writer tics until it’s time to revise. Then kill them with fire.
10. You have to find your own process. Ignore anyone who tells you there’s only one right way to write. Find what works for you, then seek constantly to improve it.
My rule number 2 brings us to this post. Four years ago, I said you can disregard any rule you like, as long as you’ve got the chops to back it up. I still believe that (Actually, I think my list is pretty solid. I even stand by the trope one. A trope can be your best friend. Good going, Past-Donna!)
Several years ago, I submitted a story to a writing contest. The comment I got back from the contest I didn’t win was that the judge hadn’t read past the first line because in the first line, the character wakes up. It’s a rule. Never start a story with a character waking up. As it happens, there was a reason I started the story that way. But I didn’t earn the trust of the reader before breaking that rule. In that case, I didn’t have the writing chops to pull it off.
Another rule that experienced writers are perpetually hammering beginning writers on: For the love of all that is holy, do not have your character stop in front of a mirror and, for some reason, describe themselves to themselves. It immediately labels you and your writing amateurish. Can that rule be broken? Quantum Leap broke it every week. Because they had established a good reason why main character Sam Beckett needed to look into a mirror to know what he looked like. They established it and they earned our trust. For five seasons, Sam Beckett looked into a mirror every episode so that he and we would know what he looked like.
(Seriously, don’t do the mirror thing. You’re probably not writing Quantum Leap.)
Sometimes the passive voice is appropriate. On occasion, you need that adverb. It may be that a prologue is exactly right for your story.
All those rules and tips and guidelines and helpful advice are there for a reason. We should follow them. But just like Shannon’s 5-miles-over-the-speed-limit and Ryan’s U-turn, sometimes you have to go your own way. Drop it into 4-wheel drive and get off the road entirely! Just make sure you have the tires for it.