Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Ten Rules...

I was poking around Neil Gaiman's blog today, as I am wont to do, and in the recent past he posted a link to an article called Ten Rules For Writing Fiction.

There are more than ten rules/commandments. Actually, there are ten from several different authors. Some of them are complete bunk. Some of them are gems of wisdom. I haven't (yet) come across the one that essentially reads: "Break the Rules", or "Tell the Rule Makers to STFU", but I'm hoping they're in there.

Elmore Leonard (of whom I have never heard, but now I have someone to look up) has two rules of especial note:

3 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". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.


4 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. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs".

Now, I can somewhat see what he's getting at there - there are definitely those who go overboard. At the same time, I fail to see why I can't use adverbs if I damn well feel like it. I've always used adverbs, to one degree or another. I try to keep them simple, just because I want dialogue to flow properly, but eradicating them entirely just seems...stupid. Plus, it's probably a personal foible, but I've noticed that, in the midst of books that follow those two rules, I find myself wondering what emotions I'm supposed to be feeling.

(One of) the most important thing(s) about writing is to find your own voice, that thread of style and phrasing and diction that screams to everyone that this work is yours, and no other's. Part of my 'voice' is the use of adverbs. So Elmore Leonard can lump it. He also writes westerns. So hah.

Seriously, though...the best rules about writing to follow are the ones you come up with after long years of practice. Everything else is merely a suggestion, and can therefore be treated as such.


E said...

Huzzah for breakin' the rules!

I also take issue with Elmore Leonard's veto on colourful descriptors of dialogue, but mainly because I was once told that I used "said" too many times in my dialogue and that I should liven it up. I complied. I then recieved a review that said that it looked like I was avoiding using "said" and that I should tone down the dramatic descriptors. Needless to say, I'm not touching THAT particular debate with a ten-foot-pole ever again.

Rhiannon said...


I don't see why a balance between the two can't be struck. Pratchett manages it...

One of my favourites, though, is Al Kennedy's Rule No. 6:

"Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go."

And Esther Freud's Rule No. 7:

"Never forget, even your own rules are there to be broken."


Jam said...

I thoroughly agree with the two points made by, uh, Elmore, if that's his real name.

I do find unless it is phrased differently (I once asked "Dabba dabba?" rather than "Dabba dabba?" I asked.) that words other than said can detract from what is trying to be conveyed rather than shedding light on the situation. Words like ascertained should not be used post-dialogue because the reader will have to stop and digest the word describing the dialogue, whereas I think dialogue should flow in the time it takes to read it. That said, I don't use much dialogue when I write, so I don't become overloaded with saids.

The point on adverbs I agree with only because I dislike adverbs. I feel like the action should communicate the emotion, so sadly and angrily should be implied. That said--as all rules can be broken--I think quickly and the like can be used tactfully, though I'm not sure about after saids.


Jam said...

And now I'm not so sure I agree with myself as I edit something of mine. I use simple said-type words such as ask and reply now and then, but not often.

I guess I just don't like the elaborate words that describe dialogue.

Or maybe I don't like the way they're used.

Or maybe I have no idea what I like.

Athena said...

I find that most of my dialogue just kind of floats there. I mean it's introduced, but I am a big fan of the -"Yes you did." -"No, I didn't." type of back and forth, with only the occasional mention of who's talking to keep the reader on track. This becomes hard to write when there're more than two characters, or two characters of the same gender.

I don't only use 'said' when something's needed, but I tend to stick to the basics, Said, Asked, Replied, Told Admitted, Cried, Shouted, Screamed, Breathed, Mumbled, Muttered, Scoffed, Mentioned... ok, I'm out of the basics. But the number of ways you say 'said' cuts down severely on the number of adverbs you need.

That being said, I'm not adverse to the occasional adverb. Saying "suddenly" or not if a character says something suddenly can be the difference between keeping in character or not. Although, I suppose they could do something else suddenly, immediately before delivering their dialogue.

Of course, this is all true only for my own writing, and truth be told, I wasn't sure what my stance on the issue was until I looked over something I'd written and scanned through the dialogue. Ah, just there "the woman said urgently".

I LOVE Al Kennedy's Rule No. 6. I think it should be on a T shirt, which I would wear every day.