My rule is never to follow religiously anyone’s Never Rules. For that reason―and I say this fully aware that people will think I have a lot of nerve to question a master of crime fiction―I don’t agree with most of Mr. Leonard’s rules. Why? They don’t take into account the specifics of the story. Now I realize these are generalities, but Leonard writes them as if they’re the Ten Commandments. I’ll take them one by one.
1. Never open a book with weather.
Storms, hurricanes, blizzards, floods can be the antagonists in a story. They can set the conflict on the first page. Now, if a character wakes up―worse if he’s waking from a dream―and the rain is pouring down, we have a different situation.
2. Avoid prologues.
Most writers won’t use prologues because agents and editors have told them not to. Writers get around this by calling prologues Chapter One or heading them with a date. Time shifts are perfect reasons for prologues. If I need one, I wouldn’t hesitate to call it a prologue. Star writers use prologues all the time, but they have a different set of rules called ― No Rules.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
3 & 4 together: Said is a perfectly anonymous attribution, which is the point. BUT, though I hate said with an adverb, what’s wrong with someone whispering or muttering? Yelled? Whimpered? Interesting that Leonard’s example, “admonished gravely,” is one where the word gravely is superfluous. If he had used “he said,” it wouldn’t have the same impact as the words “he admonished.” So is he breaking his own rule?
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
I rarely use exclamation points: them because they’re distracting, but 3 or 4 in a 100K book? Hmm, okay.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
I agree with Suddenly. There are other ways to say the same thing, and “All hell broke loose” is an obvious cliché. So I agree there too.
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Setting the tone so that the reader hears the dialect, whether it’s written or not, is tricky. I’ve done it, but mostly I used grammar, if possible. I do have a stutterer in one book, and I did show the stutter in moderation. No one’s complained about it being a distraction. I also dropped the g in an ing ending for one character to …in’. The problem with this is once you do it, you’re required to do it throughout the book.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
I bet a lot of writers disagree with numbers 8 & 9. This is one place where the story dictates how much description we use. Many times, less is more. Other times, more is necessary. Readers want to “see” our characters, feel the setting. If either goes on too long, you’ve lost them. The trick again, moderation.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
This one is my personal favorite. Applying it to numbers 8 & 9, you can see how a reader might skip pages of description. I’ve done it.
Leonard is all about dialogue, and in the hands of a good writer, dialogue is the key. Personally, I wish I knew which parts of my books readers skip — maybe a sex scene I feel is intrinsic to the story. One thing is sure: if I’m bored with a scene in my book, readers will be too. I might not want to acknowledge that boredom at first, but I’ll eventually go back and delete. Sometimes this falls under the “kill your darlings” column. You know, those passages you love but really need to go.
So, what do y’all think? (Notice my dialect.) How do you feel about rules when writing? Do you follow them or break them? Me? I think rules are meant to be broken, but since I’m self-published, with no masters but my readers, I can do what seems right to me.
Polly Iyer is the author of seven novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and three books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, and Backlash. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.