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Writing Rules

A news report about the storms in The USA on BBC World yesterday evening made me squirm and hide behind my ten year old daughter. The reporter used four adjectives in her opening sentence and it really did sound rather silly when I should have been concerned about the content of the report rather than the way she opened. Sadly too much clutter put me off.

The same is of course true in our writing and there is supporting evidence according to a study by The Times Higher Education. Elmore Leonard also had a few things to say. . .

Elmore Leonard: Using adverbs is a mortal sin

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 leaf 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.

2 Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”

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”.

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”. 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 of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. 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 things, unless you’re ­Margaret 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 the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs 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.

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

If you have any writing tips, send them in and I will include them in future posts. Don’t forget to add your personal details, book links, etc.

Namaste and have a beautiful day


Let it Flow

One of my favorite things to do as a writer is to ‘Just Write.’ No aims or goal in mind, just me, fountain pen and paper. Some of the results have found their way into my novels, others sit waiting to be called upon.

Of course this will be entirely familiar to every writer but I thought it might be interesting to share my process which starts with a mind clearing meditation. Why? Because the mind is always too busy applying its thoughts relating to things going on in the world around me. The soul however is a different matter and the blocks need to be sent away for universal recycling so it can shine through.

The soul knows its place in the universe and has a wonderful way of surprising the mind and feeding new data. The problem with the mind is that it has too many circular thoughts and bin loads of useless information because it is not directly connected to the Whole. You might say that it’s infected with mundane poison.

Imagine yourself floating in space (don’t worry, you have air). While you float along, you can’t fail to notice the magnificence around you, the detail in the stars, the colours and of course, our beautiful planet earth. Notice how peaceful she looks as she follows her path around the sun. Stop! Keep the mind at bay, don’t let it remind you about what’s going on down on the planet. There will be time enough for that later. You see what I mean? One moment you are in a place of infinite beauty, the next you are transported to the dark corners of the earth.

No, of course we can’t ignore the mind. But, what we must do is to make sure that our beautiful soul is not smothered by it because the more we allow that, the further we drift away from our true path and divine nature.

Sadly though, some people are so smothered by the activities of the mind and in particular the dark spots that serve only to block out their true nature that they become lost in forests of negativity. Often they are unaware but for those who sense that they are in the wrong place, help is at hand and it doesn’t need to be in the form of somebody expensive.

Mind cleared, now I can just write and that is one of many wonderful things that connects me to the universe. Oh don’t worry about my mind, it is not completely ignored. It will be required to add experience to my writing, it’s just that it is not allowed to control all that I am.

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