Rules for Writing Fiction From The Best

After Elmore Lenoard died, one of my writer friends sent out a list of his Rules of Writing. This gave me the idea to look and find what other famous authors were guided by writing rules. I found this fun, interesting and worth sharing with other Writers

Elmore Leonard started out writing westerns, then turned his talents to crime fiction. One of the most popular and prolific writers of our time, he’s written about two dozen novels, most of them bestsellers, such as Glitz, Get Shorty, Maximum Bob, and Rum Punch. Unlike most genre writers, however, Leonard is taken seriously by the literary crowd. What’s Leonard’s secret to being both popular and respectable? Perhaps you’ll find some clues in his 10 tricks for good writing:
∙ Never open a book with weather.
∙ Avoid prologues.
∙ Never open a book with weather.
∙ Avoid prologues.
∙ Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
∙ Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
∙ Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
∙ Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
∙ Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
∙ Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
∙ Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
∙ Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
∙ My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.
**From from the New York Times

George Orwell has earned the right to be called one of the finer writers in the English language
through such novels as 1984, Animal Farm, and Down and Out in Paris and London, and essays
like “Shooting an Elephant.” Orwell excoriated totalitarian governments in his work, but he was
just as passionate about good writing. Thus, you may want to hear some of Orwells writing tips. A
scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
∙ What am I trying to say?
∙ What words will express it?
∙ What image or idiom will make it clearer?
∙ Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:
∙ Could I put it more shortly?
∙ Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can
rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:
∙ Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech you are used to seeing in print.
∙ Never use a long word where a short one will do.
∙ If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
∙ Never use the passive where you can use the active.
∙ Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
∙ Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
** From Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.”

Joyce Carol Oates is an acclaimed author of more than forty novels and countless short stories. She won the National Book Award for her novel, them and has been thrice-nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Oates is known for tackling hard subjects, such as poverty, violence, and racial tensions. She offers these earnest, yet entertaining tips:
∙ Write your heart out.
∙ The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written.
∙ First drafts are hell. Final drafts, paradise.
∙ You are writing for your contemporaries not for Posterity. If you are lucky, your contemporaries will become Posterity.
∙ Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.
∙ When in doubt how to end a chapter, bring in a man with a gun. (This is Raymond Chandler’s advice, not mine. I would not try this.)
∙ Unless you are experimenting with form gnarled, snarled, & obscure be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.
∙ Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!
∙ Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader or any reader. He/she might exist but is reading someone else.
∙ Read, observe, listen intensely! as if your life depended upon it.
∙ Write your heart out.
** Originally tweeted by Joyce Carol Oates and compiled by Brain Pickings, July 2013.

E. B. White holds the rare distinction of being admired both by adults, for such breathtaking essays as “Here is New York” and “Once More to the Lake,” and by children, for such wondrous stories as “Charlotte’s Web” and “Trumpet of the Swan.” White is also revered by writers for bringing us The Elements of Style, a classic on the art of writing good prose, in any form. White actually just tweaked and arranged publication of the book, which was originally a privately printed text by one of his professors, William Strunk Jr. Though a slender book, it contains such priceless wisdom as these 11 Elementary Principles of Composition: *
∙ Choose a suitable design and stick to it.
∙ Make the paragraph the unit of composition.
∙ Use the active voice.
∙ Put statements in positive form.
∙ Use definite, specific, concrete language.
∙ Omit needless words.
∙ Avoid a succession of loose sentences.
∙ Express coordinate ideas in similar form.
∙ Keep related words together.
∙ In summaries, keep to one tense.
∙ Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.
**From The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

From Writers Digest: The 10 Commandments of How to Write a Thriller
∙ Start with action; explain it later.
∙ Make it tough for your protagonist.
∙ Plant it early; pay it off later.
∙ Give the protagonist the initiative.
∙ Give the protagonist a personal stake.
∙ Give the protagonist a tight time limit, and then shorten it.
∙ Choose your character according to your own capacities, as well as his.
∙ Know your destination before you set out.
∙ Don’t rush in where angels fear to tread.
∙ Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want to read.

As you study and compare these “rules” from successful fiction writers and from The Elements of Style author E.B. White, think about how you can use these techniques and ideas to enhance your fiction. When you see more than two or three authors suggesting the same “rule,” make sure you take it to heart.

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  1. Jill W November 16, 2013 at 9:38 am #

    What a great list of rules, Gail. I’m definitely printing this for future reference. Thanks!

  2. Jean Ann Williams November 17, 2013 at 10:15 pm #

    I don’t think I’ve seen such a extensive list as this. A lot of work here. Thank you!

  3. Davalynn Spencer November 21, 2013 at 3:42 pm #

    Priceless, Gail. Thank you.

  4. Tamara Meyers November 23, 2013 at 2:56 am #

    The 10 commandments of How to Write a Thriller had just the items I need to remember for my WIP. (Give the protagonist a tight time limit, and then shorten it) It’s not a thriller but does have a time limit for the protagonist to accomplish his goal.
    In reviewing what I’ve written, I noticed that I have given him far too much time to succeed. I also believe that I have to increase the consequences for not achieving the goal within the time limit.
    Thank you for the time and effort you put into all of your posts.

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