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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Rules of writing

There's an active discussion going on in the Short Mystery Fiction Society about the "new rules" of writing such as "don't begin with the weather" and " don't use synonyms for 'said' in dialogue." People are asking who makes the rules and when can they be broken. Here's my take on the rules.

There are rules of grammar and rules of style. I don't think anyone
has repealed Strunk and White's rules. These are not fads, either, as
Strunk was teaching them in 1919. Even Strunk and White distinguished
between rule and considerations. In the fifth chapter of the book, An
Approach to Style, S&W admit that where previously they were concerned
with what is correct, now they are concerned with style in the broader
sense of what is distinguished and distinguishing. This is the
section where you will find reminders such as "Write with nouns and
verbs," "Avoid the use of qualifiers," "Do not explain too much,"
among others. The last one is where they discuss synonyms for "said'
and the use of adverbs to modify "said." These are not rules.
Instead, they are stylistic considerations that can lift the writing
out of the ordinary and into the distinguished.

Elmore Leonard put forth a list of "rules" that include, " don't use
any synonym for 'said.'" "don't begin with the weather." and others.
Leonard has been turning out some of the greatest mystery stories of
the modern era and making a ton of money at it, so I think he's
entitled to claim his guiding principles are rules. We don't have to
follow them, but we'd be hard pressed to deny their efficacy.

Leonard's rule about "said" is clearly a restatement of Strunk and
White's reminder 11, which is not a rule either, but a guide for
making your writing distinguished.

Don't start with the weather? Plenty of good stories begin with the
weather. I don't think the weather is the issue so much as what makes
a good beginning. Dwight Swain in "Techniques of the Selling
Writer," says, "The function of the story's beginning is to let your
reader know there's going to be a fight. . . and that it's the kind of
fight that will interest him." Swain says farther on, ". . .
beginning spotlights three things: desire, danger and decision." When
Chandler begins with the Santa Ana winds, you know there is danger.
For too many writers, however, beginning with the weather is a way of
avoiding desire, danger or decision and the reader loses interest in
whatever fight is brewing.

I use the rules to answer the question, "Why does this suck?"
Usually, it's in response to a rejection because agents, editors and
publishers don't tell you why your baby sucks. They leave it to the
writer to figure out. So out comes Strunk and White, out comes Swain,
out comes Leonard. I agree that an adverb in a sentence doesn't make
the sentence suck, but it does make me ask if there might not be a
better way to say it. Perhaps a more powerful verb?

The word "rules" gets a lot of writers hackles up, because, after all,
we're artists. The cutting edge is where we live. Rules are for
beginners, writers with learning permits. We don't need no stinking
rules. Rules are made to be broken.

Until the rejection letter arrives. Then it's time to call the Suck
Busters--Leonard, Swain, Strunk and White.

That's my take on rules,