Saturday, February 27, 2010

The thing about writing rules

is that they're made to be broken. No set of rules that works for one writer will work perfectly for another. Most writers will break their own rules when it feels right.

I've been thinking about this topic a lot since I read the Guardian piece I mentioned in my blog the other day. What has lingered most with me is a contradictory pair of feelings: Just about everything every writer said is worth considering, and just about everything every writer said is worth ignoring. More the former than the latter, but still, both apply.

For example, Elmore Leonard warned against adverbs and opening with weather, both solid pieces of advice. Consider, though, this beginning to a novel:

"The evening sky was streaked with purple, the color of torn plums, and a light rain had started to fall when I came to the end of the blacktop road that cut through twenty miles of thick, almost impenetrable scrub oak and pine and stopped at the front gate of Angola penitentiary."
and this one, from a later book by the same author:
"The sky had gone black at sunset, and the storm had churned inland from the Gulf and drenched New Iberia and littered East Main with leaves and tree branches from the long canopy of oaks that covered the street from the old brick post office to the drawbridge over Bayou Teche at the edge of town."
Both open with weather. The first uses an adverb. Despite, that, both are gorgeous, and I'd read this author all day.

Of course, I do read this author every chance I get: these are the words of James Lee Burke, who for my money is one of the most amazing writers and stylists working in English today. The first is the opening line of The Neon Rain, the book in which Burke introduced Dave Robicheaux. The second is from a later Robicheaux novel, In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead.

In the interest of fairness to Elmore Leonard (who, I must note, is an amazing writer who knows more about writing than I ever will), I have cheated a bit here. He specifically said not to go on too long with weather, and he also said there are exceptions. Burke wove action into the first line of Neon Rain, and a great bit of business occurs in the third line of Electric Mist. Burke is also clearly an exception.

Still, my main point remains true: Each of us should consider all of these rules and then choose the ones that make sense to us.

Except, of course, the one about writing, putting butt in chair. That one, we should all follow.

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