Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sunday Round-up

Most of you have already figured out that I'm a geek and the resident internet expert (tongue firmly planted in cheek). In other words, I have good google-fu and follow more blogs than is probably wise. Part of that is because I believe in being prepared and knowing all I can about any endeavor I'm undertaking. That means, as a writer, following agent and editor blogs, reading and trying to make sense out of thing like the Amazon - Macmillan ebook pricing war as well as reading blogs by other writers.. Then there's the research necessary for whatever my current wip might be. As a result, I spend a lot of time online and have to be careful not to let it become an all-too-convenient excuse not to write.

That said, two blogs/articles caught my eye this week. The first is the always informative Writer Beware Blog. The last three entries are of particular interest for those of us looking for ways to get our work noticed. The first, Beware of Fake Awards, lists several of these so-called awards and how to make sure you aren't being scammed. The next entry is Inspired Living Publishing: Another Vanity Anthology Scheme. This isn't the first vanity antho out there, and it won't be the last. But it is something to be aware of before signing on the dotted line and then realizing you are cutting the check and not the other way around.

The final Writer Beware entry of interest this week , MyFreeRead.com: Not Quite What It Appears, is a good reminder for all of us to be careful where we put out work online and how much of it up post. I've written about the perils of posting work online before. I'm not talking about someone stealing your idea and getting it published before you do. Nor am I talking about the comments -- some good and some very hurtful -- that can come and be counterproductive to your creative process. What is of concern is that there are a number of publishers out there who look at posting on the internet as publishing. That includes posting your work in places like the slush piles on Baen's Bar or online critique groups. Putting it up on a sight like MyFreeRead.com or Authonomy can take you right out of contention with a publisher, so be sure before you post on sites like this that you aren't shooting yourself in the foot. Check the guidelines and blogs of the publishers you are interested in and then think twice before hitting the send button.

The article that caught my eye -- and the eye of a number of other bloggers this week -- is Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.

  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 readers are apt to leaf ahead looking for people. . .
  2. Avoid prologues: they can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreward. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want . . .
  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". . .
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words. . .
  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, unless you're Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don' 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. . . thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.
Mr. Leonard concludes with: My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Sarah and some of the other MGCers have already talked about prologues and when you should or should not have one. But what about Mr. Elmore's other rules? Any thoughts or comments? How about any other rules you have when writing? The floor's yours. I'm off to find some more coffee.

24 comments:

Jonathan D. Beer said...

I have to say, I have flagrantly broken about 7 of those 10 rules (I haven't opened with the weather,I don't use regional dialects [a personal dislike of mine unless used precisely the right way] and I keep a close eye on my character descriptions), and I feel perfectly happy with the result?

Why? Because, as has been said whenever "rules of writing" are discussed, the rules can be broken as long as you are aware you are doing so, and are confident that the resulting paragraph/page/book is better for it. These ten aren't bad rules, as far as they go, but there ain't no such thing as gospel.

(That said, I'm starting to use a system of corporal punishment whenever I find the word "suddenly" appearing too many times. That's my personal demon of writing.)

Stephen Simmons said...

The subject of openings/prologues has been well-covered in recent posts, I think. Personally, as both a reader and a fledgling writer, I greatly prefer the opening to immediately provide a significant (not necessarily "the central") character, and a problem or question (again, not necessarily "central").

I generally agree with the rules concerning use of "said". In fact, in my writing I make a conscious effort to make attribution unnecessary for as many lines of dialogue as possible. And while the specified quota of exclamation points is probably overstating the case against them, I would tend to agree that they should be used only when really, REALLY necessary.

"Suddenly", or other words to that effect, should ideally be redundant, if the change is presented effectively, imho.

matapam said...

Dialects are a problem for me. But by minimizing their use, it's a lot less work. My Characters just have to be really good at picking up local differences as they travel between almost parallel worlds. A couple paragraphs of rapidly declining usage and it's gone.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

This is probably awful of me, but I can't read Elmore Lenard. Just can't. Can force myself through three pages, then quit.

Okay, the caveats -- he's a minimalist, that's why I can't read him. J.K. Rowling broke all of those rules, plus some.

However -- for the record -- said can be qualified. Sometimes has to. I was in a ridiculous argument with a thriller writer years ago. He told me that you could tell what tone of voice people used by the words they said. Right, smart boy. Tell me if this sentence is said, whispered or shouted, "Let's go." Eh. So "He said tenderly" and "He said quietly" are acceptable. I will say, though, that you can convey the same with stage business. "He said, and touched her arm just above the wrist" might do for tenderly, given context, etc.

So... I'd say break them sparingly and with good reason. oh, also, there's nothing wrong with "ask" and "answered" but use sparingly.

I like descriptions of people and places. Depending on the story...

Amanda Green said...

Jonathan, I think I've violated all the rules at least once. That said, I don't do prologues any more. Or at least if I do, I don't call them them ;-)

These particular rules may work for Mr. Leonard. Honestly though, I think that's because of his own writing style. I don't and can't write like him. I can hardly read him -- but that's a personal choice. Still, there is some good information in what he lists here and it is something we should all at least think about when writing.

Amanda Green said...

Stephen, agreed on the subject of openings. Others on the blog have done a much better job discussing them than I can. Most of all, I think it's important to remember that the opening, be it a prologue or the first chapter, must have a hook. Without that, the editor, much less the reader, will read no further.

As for dialogue tags, they can come in handy. You can't always express in the dialogue itself, or the text around it, exactly what your character is feeling. A judiciously chosen tag can help in that situation. However, don't overuse them. That can be annoying -- imo at least.

Amanda Green said...

Matapam, the use of dialect can help set your character in your reader's mind -- if you don't overdo it. What the issue becomes is what is overdoing it. For example, I have a very early printing of Brer Rabbit, one issued in the 1880's. The dialect is true to the time. It is, however, difficult to read now for the simple reason it is so far removed from what we hear and read today.

While that sort of dialect is difficult to follow, the constant use of it in stories today drives me bonkers. When writing an Irish-speaking character, the author doesn't have to drop the "th" sound every time. Once or twice with the note that "th" isn't something native to Irish gaelic is enough. It's the same for those who drop the last letter from a word, ie "somethin" instead of "something". A few instances to get the reader thinking that way is enough.

The key is to give the reader enough information to know who and what your character is without making it difficult to read. It's not easy and I'm sure you, as slush reader extraordinaire, know that better than most of us.

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, thanks. You said it much better and more succinctly than I could.

Dave Freer said...

New rule for writers advising other writers: never say never. ;-)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Dave said it better. :)

Kate said...

What Dave and Sarah said just up ^ there.

They're good basic rules for beginners and to get the craft on a nice solid basis until you know the rules well enough to know when you need to break them.

Every single one of those rules is something learning authors does wrong or does badly. Personally, I've managed all of them as sins, and to a lesser extent deliberately.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, YES! And one of those so-called rules I'd like to throw into that caveat is the one that says writers should never use passive voice. There are times when it is okay to use "was", etc.

So, which writing "rule" to you most wish was never repeated as gospel?

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, Dave usually says it better ;-p

Amanda Green said...

Kate, I agree. And I have mangled my fair -- or unfair -- share of them. My biggest problem with the list is that people will take it as gospel because it came from a name author. I really wish he'd used the term guidelines or something similar.

Stephen Simmons said...

Amanda,

I'm actually more attuned to the header of your post, to tell the truth. I'm just starting out trying to get my bearings in this business, and there's just so MUCH to know. But I'm rapidly approaching a "point of diminishing returns" -- if I spend any more time reading references and blogs, there won't be any time at all left to write.

As for the rules: on a hunch I went back and checked the first story I sold, which was only a flash piece. I broke five of these ten rules, in less than 700 words.

Amanda Green said...

Stephen, it is very easy to get sucked into the black hole of the internet, be it for research or fun. The key is to have a specific time or event of the day when you allow yourself to go wild, so to speak, online. For me, it's in the morning while I wait for the coffee to kick in. Lunch will usually see me checking email, sources, etc. Otherwise, I'd spend too much time doing everything but writing.

Dave Freer said...

Amanda asked: "So, which writing "rule" to you most wish was never repeated as gospel?"

um. probably the one I hear all the time that will get me into trouble questioning. 'Agents (or Editors) know what the market wants.' 1)I can categorically and undeniably prove statistically that this is not the case. They _do_ have some idea what is being bought by editors or what Nielson says is selling well. While these are important things, they may have little or nothing to do with what the market actually wants. We don't really have an accurate test of that at moment. Anyway, the market is big amorphous, multifaceted thing. There is undoubtedly a market for dwarf piano porn written in classical Greek. It's just finding the scattered (in this case, we hope widely scattered) buyers.
2) A good writer can make what the market does not want... into what they actually do want... The village massacre or the 2 page start of the weather. (Madeleine L'Engle starts A WRNKLE IN TIME with 'It was a dark and stormy night')

Darwin said...

Here's a writing rule of mine:

"Whenever someone posts a set of writing rules that uses 'absolutes' - i.e. words like 'never' - more than cautionary words - like 'avoid' - I tend to assume that some asshat egotist is preaching from the podium of assumed authority and ignore them."

The concept of writing "rules" is erroneous. The idea, rather, of writing "guidelines" is completely valid.

Many things that the illiteratsi squeak and squawk about as "do not"s and "never"s are actually things that only become egregious in accumulation - i.e. something is only bad when you do it so much that it gets noticed.

"Suddenly" isn't a bad word by itself. Use it a hundred times a chapter and, yeah, it's annoying. Exclamation points once or twice per novel? Puhlease. Pull the other one. It's attached to someone who might give a piss.

Helping people to write better doesn't include stifling them with a holy writ of illiteratsi commandments. The goal of "paying forward" is to help newcomers to be aware of the pitfalls that easily open up before those seeking to craft engaging fiction while simultaneously boosting their enthusiasm about their creative endeavors.

But, hell, what do I know? I'm just paraphrasing Sarah, Dave, and Kate anyhow.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Darwin,

Actually the suddenly thing is the only one I'm willing to give credence to. It is redundant. UNLESS it's in a dialogue. "I was standing there and suddenly it was nighttime. Honey, I swear I don't know what happened" is perfectly valid. But if you're going to say "suddenly, lightening struck" it's better to remove it.

Exclamation points. I! Just! Tend! Not! To ! use! Any! :-p

Mrs. Heinlein told me I underuse them.

In general agree with you. Write it. save the rules for third read/edit, if then.

Scott said...

Prologues have to be back story? Since when? In my latest the prologue is actually forward story (of is it 'front story'). It a excerpt from in the middle of the novel.

Scott

Jonathan D. Beer said...

I agree with you Scott. I use a 300-word prologue in mine to set up what is effectively a vital piece of fore-knowledge for the reader, so the dramatic irony of what they are going to be reading is fully appreciated. Without it, my book really would be quite different.

I have mentioned this before on here, but I find a far more useful set of guidelines are the Turkey City Lexicon and, by extension, the enormous trove of tropes (I read tvtropes.com, but they apply to books just as much as tv and films). These list the stereotypes and cliches of various genres in remarkable detail, and the Lexicon is packed full of useful advice - not rules - regarding good writing.

These have been more useful for me than any list of dos and don'ts because it has made me aware of them; and as I said, as long as a writer is aware that their character is, for example, a Moustache-Twirling Villain, they can avoid that aspect being a negative part of the story. Some cliches exist because they are good elements of character or story - to say "never do this" seems far more ill-advised than to say "this is how it has been done before, you work out if it's right for you."

Amanda Green said...

Darwin, any time someone tells me there are "rules" to writing, I find myself looking at them, usually scratching my head and pointing out a dozen or more successful books that broke each and every rule. As I said earlier, I look at the rules more as guidelines.

I think the whole issue is that what works for one writer doesn't necessarily work for the next -- nor should it. We're a contentious lot and we like to do things our way.

Honestly, the only rules I think we have to adhere to as closely as possible are submission guidelines. The rest, pick and choose what is best for what you're writing.

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, well said...and I promise to try to remember it and not obsess -- too much -- about my own work ;-)

Amanda Green said...

Jonathan, I agree with you about TCL and tropes. I refer to them a lot myself. For me, the list of rules by Mr. Leonard are good food for thought, possibly even as guidelines, but rules they are not. I don't want to write like him. I can't write like him.

Also, his list of rules, just like so many books about how to write, will influence others who are looking for that special ingredient to make their work publishable. And that, imo, is a shame because a lot of very interesting, different voices may be diminished as they try to conform to what this well-known author has said.