No rules please. We’re fiction writers.

So I came across an article in the Guardian recently called Elmore Leonard’s rules for writers and saw red. (Okay, a bit of an exaggeration given all the things currently happening in the world I could get angry about. Let’s say I saw carnation pink.) Anyway, I felt compelled to write an anarchic response for writers and readers everywhere.

As always, before I move onto that, I have a handful of updates to share regarding Million Eyes.

Million Eyes — just 4 chapters to go

At the time of writing, I’m on page 248 of 291 of the final edit of Million Eyes. My copywriting work has quietened down a little over the last month, so I’ve used the time to make good headway with the edit. Now that I’m numbering each chapter (which I didn’t do before), I’m about to start editing Chapter 28, which means I have four chapters to go and the final book will have a total of 31 chapters.

My August 31st deadline for finishing is still ages away, so I’m more than on track to hit it, even as my copywriting busyness is now on the up. In fact, I’m hoping that I might have the book finished and proofread by then. I have two lovely volunteer proofreaders — my bookworm girlfriend and a fellow member of Rushmoor Writers. They tell me they’re fast readers (unlike myself), so let’s see if Million Eyes grips them enough to rattle through!

The Million Eyes Short Stories

No major news to report this month. I’m still submitting the Million Eyes Short Stories that remain unpublished, and the ones that have been published are being submitted to publications that accept reprints.

I had a particularly frustrating rejection from one publication that shall remain nameless a couple of weeks ago. It was a story called “The Bisley Boy” (regular readers of my blog might be able to guess what it’s about). The editor told me she “really liked the story” and got me to confirm that it was unpublished and not under consideration elsewhere. Then, hours later, she sent a further email saying she just wasn’t “comfortable” publishing it, but that the story was good, the writing was good, and she was sure other editors would love it. This magazine has done this to me before, telling me how much they liked The Charlie Chaplin Time Traveller and saying they wanted to publish it before ultimately rejecting it.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate constructive feedback, and what writer doesn’t love praise and kind words about their writing. This magazine has given me both over the last year or so. But when a writer is told these things while an editor is still considering a story, it makes the eventual rejection so much harder. My friend at Rushmoor Writers said the editor was a “lit-tease”. She’s right. It was some serious carrot dangling.

In any case, this magazine has now considered every one of my stories and, despite heaping praise on several of them, has declined to publish me. I literally have no idea what you have to do to get into this magazine.

Ho hum. Life of a writer, ladies and gentlemen.

Go away, rules. No room for you here.

Okay, so admittedly I don’t think every fiction writing rule should be exiled to a permanent oblivion. We all need a basic framework from which to work. We need grammar rules, for instance, so that our writing makes sense.

However, when you start saying “writers should never do this” and “writers should never do that”, you come dangerously close to stifling creativity.

This is why the Guardian article really got my back up.

It summarises American novelist Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing fiction. He says, for instance, don’t write prologues. I’ve read books with prologues. The book I’m reading at the moment has a prologue and it’s a powerful one. I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh. A Sunday Times bestseller. Absolutely nothing wrong with prologues.

Leonard says never use anything other than “said” to carry dialogue. That means no “shouted”, no “gasped”, no “whispered”. This is ludicrous. Sometimes dialogue will carry itself. Of course it will. But sometimes you’ll want a dialogue tag to tell the reader how something is being said. Without “shouted” or “whispered”, how can you know that something is being shouted or whispered? Without “gasped”, how can you know that your character is struggling for breath?

Leonard says adverbs are a mortal sin, especially when used to modify the word “said”. Alright, so I’ve heard this one before. Stephen King, in particular, wants to see all adverbs go the way of the dinosaur. I’ve talked about this “rule” before myself in a previous blog. Yes, too many adverbs means a lack of imagination in your prose, and too much ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’. For instance, instead of saying, “he stood watching fearfully”, you could be saying, “he stood watching, knees shaking, chest pounding”. And stronger or more accurate verbs will often render adverbs redundant. For example, instead of writing, “the woman ran quickly”, you could write “the woman sprinted”. Instead of writing, “said angrily”, you could write “snapped” (of course, this breaks the other rule about never using anything other than “said”.)

However, this adverb thing is not an absolute. Sometimes a carefully chosen adverb is absolutely the right word to use, either because a verb just doesn’t cut it, or because explaining every tiny character movement in order to avoid using an adverb will damage the pace of your prose. If you go with the “never use adverbs” rule, you could do your writing a disservice.

Leonard rounds out his rules with: don’t go into great detail describing places and things because it brings the story to a standstill. On this one I’d tend to agree, but I know that not every writer or reader will feel the same. I was advised by a member of Rushmoor Writers to add more description of a building to a scene, because he wanted to know what it looked like. Conversely, I thought that adding such description in those moments was unnecessary and detrimental to the pace of the story. Plus, I love reading dialogue myself in books, rather than thick chunks of description and scene-setting, so I try to keep such things to a minimum in my own writing.

But saying all that serves as an illustration of something I’ve banged on about many times before on this blog. Each to their own. Writing and reading are subjective. What entertains one person might baffle another. One person’s baloney is another person’s masterpiece.

Which is why there are and should be no rules in fiction writing. There is only guidance. Guidance based on what the industry has interpreted as readers’ current likes and dislikes. Guidance that should be considered, but with caution, because at the end of the day, your writing is yours. No one else’s. And you need to figure out for yourself what works, what doesn’t, what your readers want, and what they don’t.

Next week: the blog is taking a brief holiday due to the fact that I’m off to the “happiest place on Earth”, aka Disneyland Paris. So I’ll be back in two weeks with more murky mysteries, sinister secrets and cataclysmic conspiracies…

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