From Dave Kelly’s Blog, Lapis Loquens. Dave Tucker was kind enough to e-mail this collection to me.
Every trade has rules or at least generally accepted processes for getting things done. Brown the roast before putting it in the oven, that sort of thing. Writing is no exception.
Below I’ve compiled rules from four renowned authors. I’m not suggesting that a scribbler needs to observe them all. Any writer who’d try to keep all these in mind is likely to resemble the millipede who became paralyzed when he thought about how his legs worked in tandem. I do suspect, however, it is helpful for writers to hear these rules echo in distant mental canyons. And while we’re at it, let’s not forget that some cooks serve a first-rate roast without ever browning it first.
Eight rules from Kurt Vonnegut
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Six from John Steinbeck
1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
Ten from Elmore Leonard
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 to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, 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 nonfiction. 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 to get 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 flavor 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, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, 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. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.
My most important rule is one that sums up the ten: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
Ten from Zadie Smith
1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
3. Don’t romanticise your ‘vocation’. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle’. All that matters is what you leave on the page.
4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.
5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.
7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.
8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
9. Don’t confuse honors with achievement.
10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.
Enough rules for one day. For dessert I’ll serve up this observation by Steinbeck on the why rather than the how: “A writer out of loneliness is trying to communicate like a distant star sending signals. He isn’t telling or teaching or ordering. Rather he seeks to establish a relationship of meaning, of feeling, of observing. We are lonesome animals. We spend all life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say—and to feel— ‘Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.’”