TEN RULES PAGE

     Everywhere we go, we encounter “top ten” lists. Letterman does it for humor. Many others do it to inform or guide readers who want to learn something from an expert.  I’ve added this page to my conglomeration, so I can pass along a few lists about the craft of writing. These aren’t my lists, of course, just some from other writers that  think might be helpful.

     One note, I’m hesitant to call these rules. I think of them more as conventions, things many, if not most writers do. Or, as Captain Barbosa told Elizabeth Swann in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “They’re more like guidelines.” I believe that understanding why writers do certain things will help the learning writer improve his or her craft. But, the writer can do anything he or she can get the reader to accept.

     With that in mind, here is one of the most famous lists about writing: Elmore Leonard’s complation.

ELMORE LEONARD’S 10 RULES OF WRITING:

From his book: 10 Rules of Writing

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 lef ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book, Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want. (Tom’s note: Leonard’s reference to Lopez’ book is an example of the writer doing anything he wants as long as he can get the reader to accept it.)

2.   Avoid prologues: they can be annoying. Especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it anywhere you want.

3.   Never use a verb other “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 asservated,” and I had to go to the dictionary. (Tom’s note: Steve Berry is a good writer, but he has a bad habit of using the phrase, “made clear,” as a dialogue tag, which does not make anything clear at all.)

4.   Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely. To use an adverb to modify the verb 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.” (Tom’s corollary: If you have to use an “ly” adverb, you’ve probably used the wrong verb.)

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.

6.   Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” (Tom’s addition: Or “shots rang out.”) This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7.   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. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour (sic) of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories, Close Range.

8.   Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” what do the American and the girl with him look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.

9.   Don’t go into great detail describing places and thngs, unless you’re Mrgaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10.   Try to leave out thepart the readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip when reading a novel: thick paragrphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Tom’s Note: I’ve got at least one other list that I’ll add later. In the meantime, let’s soak up Mr. Leonard’s wisdom.

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 Here’s another list:

The Ten Commadments of Writing Fiction

By esteemed writer and teacher John Dufresne.From his book The Lie That Tells a Truth

1.   Thou shalt sit your butt in the chair. (Mr. Dufresne used a different word for butt.)

2.   Thou shalt not bore the reader.

3.   Thou shalt remember to keep holy your writing time.

4.   Thou shalt honor the lives of your characters.

5.   Thou shat not be obscure.*

6.   Thou shalt show and not tell.

7.   Thou shalt steal. **

8.   Thou shalt rewrite and rewrite again. And again.

9.   Thou shalt confront the human condition. (Tom’s note. I’ve discovered this to be true. It’s not  what the story is about that is important; it is who the story is about.

10.   Thou shalt be sure that every death has a meaning.

* If you have anything to say, why would you make it difficult for someone to understand you? Could it be that you’re not so smart? That you think if you muddy the water a bit, it’ll seem deeper than it really is?

** Artists who hav weighed in on the Seventh Commandment:

  Lionel Trilling, “Immature artists imitate — mature artists steal.”

  T.S. Elliott, “The immature poet imitates, the mature poet plaigerizes.”

  Igor Stravinsky, A good composer does not imitate, he steals.”

  Wilson Misner, “If you steal from one another,t’s plaigerism. If you steal from many, it’s research.”

  Thornton Wilder, “I do borrow from other writers shamelessly! I can only say in my defense, like the woman brought before the judge on the charge of kleptomania. ‘I do steal, your honor, but only from the best stores.'”

Tom’s take on this commandment. I don’t think it is appropriate to copy verbatim or at length from another’s writing, but ideas are poached all the time. Consider how many times the plot of  “Romeo and Juliet’ has been copied (One the most famous is “West Side Story.” Jane Smiley acknowledges that she used “King Lear” as the genesis for her Pulitzer Prize Winning Novel, A Thousand Acres. The Coen Brothers used Homer’s The Odyssey as fodder for their very entertaining movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou. There are no new ideas, only new renditions of old ideas.

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Lenny Bernstein, my friend and fellow Appalachian Round Table member, has prepared his own list, which makes for thought-provoking study. He has graciously permitted me to include it on this page.Here ’tis:

Lenny Bernstein’s 10 Rules for Writers

1.   Tell me a story. Character development and scene-setting are important, but it is action that keeps me reading.

2.   Keep it simple. I stop reading if I have to go back more than once or twice in a story to re-read some of te text to understand what you’re trying to tell me.

3.   Keep it believable. Unless I’m reading fantasy, I don’t want magic or unbelievable coincidence.

4.   Stay on track. Secondary plots and side stories make the primary story more interesting, but they shouldn’t take over.

5.   Don’t assume that I’m a psychiatrist. You may leave clues in your story that would allow a psychiatrist to develop a profile of your character, but they aren’t going to mean anything to me. I need some overt indication in your story before I will conclude that a character is gay, misogynistic, schizophrenic, or anything else.

6.   Apply Occam’s Razor. If your story can be interpreted in two ways, I’m going to pick the simpler one. If that’s not the one you want me to pick, rewrite the story so that picking your interpretration becomes the simpler choice.

7.   Children should be child-like. Children, including teen-agers, are often self-centered, impulsive, and thoughtless. Portraying them in any other way is unrealistic.

8.   Inanimate objects are not characters. Characters have to be able to act and react.

9.   Be true to your time and place. You wouldn’t give an 18th century character a cell phone. It makes no more sense to give him or her 21st century attitudes.

10.   Don’t overdo the sensory detail. Description is fine, but I don’t ned t know every object in a room or the color of every article of clothing a character is wearing.

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