Thursday, February 16, 2006

Rules of Writing

A while back, Angela Booth had a good post in her blog about writers' unconscious rules for their work. "For example," she wrote, "one of my favourite rules used to be that I had to know roughly what I wanted to write before I started writing. The result was that I used to procrastinate on some writing projects." She goes on to ask writers, without thinking too hard about it, to list ten of their personal rules for writing.

So, here goes:
  1. Always have an outline.
  2. Always end a chapter with a cliffhanger.
  3. Divide chapters into shorter scenes.
  4. Avoid pages and pages of internal monologue, description, or exposition. Break it up with dialogue.
  5. Use the verb "said" very sparingly.
  6. Never have characters do two things simultaneously that a real person can't do simultaneously. (e.g. "Bob said as he took a drink")
  7. Show, don't tell. (An obvious one, but one that I have to constantly remind myself about.)
  8. Begin each chapter or scene in the middle of the action.
  9. Chapters should be about ten pages long (when they're double-spaced with a 12-point font in Word).
  10. There should be about twenty to thirty chapters in a novel.

Angela's purpose in that excercise is to get you to look closely at your writing habits and drop any that don't work for you anymore. I'm working on easing up my restrictions about the outline and how long everything needs to be, but other than that, I think my list makes for stronger storytelling. A lot of them are rules that I've learned directly from other writers.

Speaking of which, the thing that got me thinking about this today is that someone just pointed me towards Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing. Click the link for Leonard's insights about each of them, but here's the short version:

  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”
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
  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.

He sums them all up in this one rule: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

Good advice that I'll be adding to my other rules.


Anonymous said...

Heh. I'm browsing through your blog. One thing about writing rules to remember: they're different for everyone, and more important, they're different for every genre. Which makes me think it sucks to write mainstream, cause you never know for sure WHO your audience will be. :)

Michael May said...

I agree that they're different for every writer (otherwise we'd all sound exactly the same -- yawn), but I'd like to talk more about how they're different from genre to genre.

One of my pet theories is that good storytelling is good storytelling regardless of what genre you write in. I'm of the opinion that if you're trying to follow certain genre "rules" as you write, you're crippling your ability to tell the best story you can because you're trying to make it sound like all the other genre stories out there.

Isn't it better to just write a really good story and let the marketing folks figure out how to label it?

Anonymous said...

Nope. And yes.

Here's the thing: you have to know how to market your OWN work to even make it to the marketers who market it before you. Period. Good storytelling or not, the sad, sad truth is that editors don't have time to read manuscripts, and they'll rarely get past the first page.

At Seton Hill, David Morrell talked about having a platform. When someone asks you what the book is about, it's your one-liner: the example he gave (from one of our class members): A female sniper. Right away, that tells you the character, what the story is going to be about, and who the market for it is (most likely, women).

Now, the trick: that's mainstream fiction. In mainstream fiction, you're competing with EVERYONE from Joyce Carol Oates to David Morrell to Chuck Palahniuk to basically anyone and everyone you can find labeled under the mess of "fiction" in the bookstore. That's a wide range of writers, and a wide range of audience.

If you focus your audience, are writing a particular kind of piece, that's when you want to make sure you aren't breaking any rules that could get you into real trouble.

To focus on these rules: literary fiction readers, for example, don't care if the chapter ends in a cliffhanger. Fantasy readers usually WANT longer chapters, and for that matter, there's going to be more than twenty to thirty chapters in a fantasy novel, especially if you're making them SHORT chapters.

Dialect might go over well in certain audiences, but not in others. Romance readers WANT detailed descriptions of the characters. Hell, most readers expect detailed descriptions of characters.

So in those general rules alone, there's a lot of room for flexibility. And sometimes, you have to make a decision based on what your audience expects. If you're writing an epic fantasy novel, why follow the rules that apply more for literary audiences?

And going back to the whole platform idea: the narrower your audience, the less you have to worry about it, IMHO. Audiences tend to know what to expect.

But you have to be able to self-market. Yes, good storytelling is good storytelling, but you have to pretty much make editors realize it.

(The publishing world for novels, no matter what you're writing, is NOT a pretty business. And I think the more popular genre you write in, the worse it gets.)

Michael May said...

This might be terribly naive of me, but isn't that what agents are for?

Anonymous said...

You still gotta get the agent's attention, don't you? And don't you also want to get an agent that markets books in the same vein that you're writing in? :)

But yes, agents are a big help. :)


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