Monday, July 06, 2009

Names and Rules

What I'm reading: The File on Devlin, by Catherine Gaskin

I'm a clone today. I'm over at mystery author Nancy Cohen's blog, talking about naming characters. And here, I'm talking about Rules of the Writing Variety.

The other day, I saw a post at a colleague's blog discussing the "rules" of writing. She took exception to one, about opening with weather, checking books on her bookshelf to find those that "broke" it. There was an interesting discussion, although after one comment, she admitted she had no idea where the supposed "rule" had come from.

I think that's often the case. A rule, guideline, or suggestion has been around so long that it's abbreviated. And often, the context is lost. In 2001, Elmore Leonard published his article in The New Yorker where he gave ten rules for writers. The crux of the matter is that these are Mr. Leonard's guidelines to help an author, especially a beginning author, remain invisible on the page.

I thought it couldn't hurt to post some of it here – full credit to Mr. Leonard, of course. Take a minute to look at the complete rule which stops being a rule and becomes a guideline when you look at it in context. His first five today, the rest later.

Keep Reading...

These are rules I've picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I'm writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what's taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

1. Never open a book with weather.
If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues.
They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.
There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's ''Sweet Thursday,'' but it's O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: ''I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy's thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That's nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don't have to read it. I don't want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.''

3. Never use a verb other than ''said'' to carry dialogue.
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. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ''she asseverated,'' and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ''said'' . . .
. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.''

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

Tomorrow, my guest is Susan Oleksiw who will be taking us on a trip to India. You don't want to miss it!


D2TM2 said...

You mean it wasn't ' a dark and stormy night'?

Terry Odell said...

Snoopy snagged that one.

Anonymous said...

In the early 50's at an impressionable age, I read Rex Stout who said that to become successful as a writer a person needs to have as many jobs as possible. Many years later I realized I took this as permission to indulge my natural peripatetic life when I gave myself permission to stop keeping my resume for my 50th birthday present. It had hit ten pages single spaced.

For me, a most excellent "rule".

Denise Patrick said...

I love Prologues - most of my books have them.

Oh, and Terry, I tried to comment on your other post on names and it wouldn't let me.

Terry Odell said...

Elena, Denise, thanks for stopping by. I don't know why you couldn't post at Nancy's blog, Denise. I think the Internet is nothing more than a roulette wheel sometimes.

I've got mixed feelings about prologues -- the book I'm writing now definitely has one. One of my other ones starts with what my daughter calls, "A MacGyver Opening Op."

Beth Caudill said...

I think Horror books would tend to start more with the weather but I don't have any proof. Usually I think they start with weather/setting to set a mood.

I think Dean Koontz started Lightening and maybe Watchers with the weather but I don't remember and can't find my books.

I also ignore the prologue thing because I like the fantasy genre and a lot of times they have prologues. It's kinda ingrained.

Terry Odell said...

That's why I think they're guidelines, not rules -- and as any writer knows, there is no one RIGHT way to write. I'm reading a 1965 romance at the moment, and wow, have the "rules" changed!

Nancy J. Cohen said...

I'd add a rule/guideline about keeping flashbacks out of chapter one and keeping them to a minimum elsewhere. Inexperienced writers seem to get carried away by writing backstory. Readers care about the action NOW, not before the story started.

Terry Odell said...

I'll agree - no back story right off the bat. And when you do insert it, do it in IV drip style, not tube-feeding.

Sheila Deeth said...

Glad you posted a link back to this. Always fun to read the rules, though I'm sure I break them frequently. I used to tell chess kids you've got to know how it should be played before you can play it your way.