To Follow or Not to Follow

Rule books, coffee, and chocolate chip cookies. Mmmm...

Rule books, coffee, and chocolate chip cookies. Mmmm...

I am a member of a few writing groups on Facebook. I am usually lurking around the edges, reading things quietly and riling at this thing or that or rolling my eyes at others, feeling the pain in my heart for some lost souls....

Lately, it seems like every other post is confusion around writing rules or guidelines and whether to follow them or blaze your own path like the creative genius you are. I am by no means an expert, and I don't think anyone really has it all figured out, but I'll share with you what I think based on trial and error and passion for reading.

THE RULES and Guidelines Causing Contention (as told by Elmore Leonard):

  • Never open a book with weather
  • Avoid prologues
  • Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialog
  • Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"
  • Keep your exclamation points under control
  • Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
  • Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly
  • Avoid detailed descriptions of characters
  • Don't go into great detail describing places and things
  • Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip

The most upsetting rules and guidelines seem to be the ones about using adverbs and passive voice. But people get offended by any of these rules and guidelines. Why? Because as writers, we are artists, and I think we find it hard to be told what to do.

So let's break them down.

Anyone can open a book about the weather. It's easy. If it wasn't discouraged, any and everyone would do it. We want to start our book talking about the weather because the weather affects everything. We worry that the reader won't understand why our character is wearing a fur-lined coat and can see their breath unless we tell them it's a chilly morning in late December and the sky is covered in dark grey clouds. I think we forget to give our reader some credit. They'll get it when your describe the jacket and her rubbing her arms for warmth and moving from foot to foot.

And do you really need a prologue for a snippet of a scene that the reader has no idea the significance of yet? Has anyone ever raved about a prologue?

The words other than "said" one is tough for me to argue about. I don't use a lot of closers for my dialog, I use action. For example:

“Elena, what are you doing home already? I thought you were at Anthony’s.” She doesn’t make a move to get up or at least try to act shamed.

But when I don't do it like that I always use "says" or whatever form I need of "said." It's better than looking like you combed the thesaurus for words to use other than "said" just so you won't use the same closing more than once. That's weird. 

Adverbs are unnecessary.  "'Linda!' he said happily" or "'Linda!' he said, grinning like a fool." You know which one sounds better and paints a better picture in your mind. I don't think all adverbs are a death sentence, but I don't think you need more than a few stubborn ones to get your point across.

And, obviously with the exclamation marks. It's exhausting yelling every sentence. You don't want your reader brain drained reading your book. My mom ends all her texts with exclamation marks and I constantly think she's yelling and mad at me.

Suddenly is a stupid adverb and it would be much more interesting knowing what happened instead of reading "all hell broke loose." First this happened. Then this happened....

It is hard to read words and phrases and languages we don't know. Be kind to your reader.

I hate when authors go into too much detail about what characters or settings look like. It makes me not able to paint my own picture. 

The last one seems pretty obvious. If it's boring to write a passage, it's most likely boring to read. Why would you pour you heart and soul into a passage that can be deleted with no adverse effects? I get very irritated when I only have a little time to get to the end of a chapter before having to do some adulting and there are just passages of useless description that I have to read or skim over.

What do you guys think? Agree with rules? Disagree?