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Rules - Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

In keeping with the October theme here at The Blood-Red-Pencil, loosely connected to Halloween and fears and all that, I thought I'd pop in with something that has bothered me for some time now, and that is the proliferation of writing rules that can leave a new writer's head spinning. I got the idea after reading a blog post over at the Author's Community site, about rules of writing. A lot of rules have popped up over the years I've been writing, and more and more they are matters of opinion, often contradictory, hence the head-spinning and all that.

Some of the more popular rules that are cited on the blog post I read, and elsewhere, are Elmore Leonard's famous rules that include:
  • 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. Instead of "never" that would be a good guideline if it suggested making sure the genre in which you are writing calls for a mood-setting opening where the weather plays an integral part in the story. 
  • Avoid prologues: They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. Well, yes. One would hope that a good writing instructor would point out that fiction often has a prologue. No introduction or foreword. Those primarily belong to nonfiction books. 
  • 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. True. And an overuse of other attributives can be jarring. But a better approach is to use action tags. "Oh my lovely." Jared touched the face of his cat with great affection. See how much we learn about this character while also eliminating that pesky dialogue tag? More about this can be found HERE from a post by Dani Greer.
  • 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. As much as I admire the writing of Elmore Leonard, I would hesitate to give him powers to attribute sinfulness to writing. Would we have to run to our confessor after using an adverb? That said, I do suggest that adverbs be used sparingly. Let the wording of the dialogue or the narrative imply the tone.
  • Keep your exclamation points under control: You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. That is a bit much of a quota, Mr Leonard, but I do agree that that particular punctuation mark is overused. I recently edited a manuscript for a client that was rife with them!!!!! A well-used exclamation point is a good tool of craft and has more impact when it shows up now and then in a story.
  • Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly: Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Perhaps not being able to stop is a bit of a stretch, but I do agree with this one. And note, Mr. Leonard did not say "never." Fractured English to show certain ethnicity in fiction can sometimes make the reading difficult, so it is better to capture the rhythm of the way people speak to get that across. This was pointed out to me when I submitted a short story, Maybe Someday, to Southern Living magazine many moons ago. While the story was not accepted for publication, the editor was kind enough to suggest I stop dropping all the "gs" off the end of words to make the characters sound more Texan. He, the editor, is the one who told me about rhythm, and listening for rhythm when eaves-dropping on conversations at the country diner.
  • Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, and don’t go into great detail describing places and things: You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill. That applies to some writing, but not all. Fantasy and science fiction do require quite a bit of detail to set up the world in which the story takes place. For most other genres, however, there is not a great need for details, and I don't enjoy books that use what I call "the grocery list" of description of people and places. Shon Bacon offered a concise take on the topic HERE
Polly Iyer posted her response to the ten rules here at the Blood-Red-Pencil four years ago, and it is interesting to see that her take on it is pretty close to mine.

If I wanted to post a rule of writing, it would be to "never say never." Nothing is cast in stone when it comes to writing a good story, except write a good story. All these other things are mere guidelines to help one along the way, and books are published every day that break all these so-called rules.
So write away my friends. Write away.
Maryann Miller - novelist, editor and sometimes actress. She won her first writing award at age twelve with a short story in the Detroit News Scholastic Writing Awards Contest and continues to garner recognition for her short stories, books, and screenplays. You can find out more about Maryann, her books, and her editing services on her Website and her Amazon Author Pageread her  Blog,  and follow her on Facebook and Twitter


  1. You've made lots of great points about "never" rules. I think new writers would appreciate your suggestions; I know I do as a semi-seasoned writer.

    1. Glad you found the post helpful, Paddy. I think we all need some good advice at all levels of our writing expertise. I am always learning new techniques. :-)

  2. The "said" proscription amazed me. I always thought Agatha Christie, or her editor, needed a Thesaurus because every line of dialogue ended with "said".

  3. Excellent post, Maryann. The last note about descriptions is right on. Nothing is more annoying in a good thriller than a pause to describe what a character is wearing.

    1. I finally gave up on reading some popular mystery authors for that very reason. Every character who stepped into the pages got a description, and most of those started with hair and eye color, then details of clothing. UGH!!

  4. It helps to know the rules before you can understand when and how to break them. I consider them training wheels. :)

    1. I like that, Diana. That's even better than guidelines, which is what I usually call rules.


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