Yesterday, my agent forwarded me a rejection letter for WHAT BURNS WITHIN. It was actually an amazing letter. It referenced my work as “fast-paced and well written” with a “compelling story” and my favourite line: “I can see why Ms. Ruttan has garnered such wonderful praise; she writes with incredible vividness and great attention to detail.” The editor even called me talented.
This is much better than form letter rejections or, worse, a “please fuck off and take your hack elsewhere.” I haven’t experienced that yet, but there’s always next week.
Now, the only reason I mention this is that it prompted a discussion between Evil Kev and I this morning, about writing. I was saying one of the risks with WHAT BURNS WITHIN, is that it starts with a lot of action. Evil Kev maintains that a year ago, I told him to never start a book with action.
I have concluded that any such statement on my part was limited to considerations for entering the Debut Dagger competition. I haven’t been eligible to enter for a few rounds now, but in assessing the previous winners and discussing them with those thinking about entering, I concluded the Dagger judges wanted introspection more than action. Something I would stand by now. There was a very specific style that seemed to win. Anything heavy on dialogue and pacey wasn’t likely to make the cut, based on what I saw.
However, writing for the Daggers and writing for publishers are different things. My friend Marsha spent years working in television and film before moving on to publishing. (Be well Marsha. Sending positive energy your way.) Marsha gave me some great writing advice:
Hit them on the nose.
She said in film you want to have the impact of walking up to the audience and smacking them on the nose. You want to get their attention. Hence my assertion to Evil Kev that stories should start with something happening. Not some long, lollygagging bit about tree bark. Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t start a book with thought. Or dialogue. What it means is, you need to make sure that whatever’s being addressed, it gets people’s attention.
As we were discussing this we started talking about memorable opening lines. I said the other day I’d pulled down LET IT BLEED, because I always remembered the opening line:
“A winter night, screaming out of Edinburgh.”
Kevin said Ian Rankin broke Elmore Leonard’s first rule of writing:
1. Never open with the weather.
Elmore says that weather is only to create atmosphere and readers will skip ahead looking for people if it goes on too long. Well, look at the Rankin line. For me, I’m right there. I read this back when I lived in BC. We had an apartment on the roof of a building, with a view to the Fraser River. There were only two apartments on the roof of the building – ours and my best friend’s. We only had one wall bordering them. The rest of our place had no buffer. And when the winter wind howled we damn well knew it.
Now, let’s look at the first two paragraphs from LET IT BLEED:
A winter night, screaming out of Edinburgh.
The front car was being chased by three others. In the chasing cars were police officers. Sleet was falling through the darkness, blowing horizontally. In the second of the police cars, Inspector John Rebus had his teeth bared. He gripped the doorhandle with one hand, and the front edge of his passenger seat with the other. In the driver’s seat, Chief Inspector Frank Lauderdale seemed to have shed about thirty years. He was a youth again, enjoying the feeling of power which came from driving fast, driving a wee bit crazy. He sat well forward, peering through the windscreen.
‘We’ll get them!’ he yelled for the umpteenth time. ‘We’ll get the bastards!’
See, I’m right there. Weather, people and action. The perfect balance of setting the scene. I mean, do you think the weather might impact the car chase? Could it cause an accident? I think this is brilliantly setting the stage.
My first paragraph from Suspicious Circumstances:
“Pulsing light shimmered on the rock face. Thunder rumbled, lightning flashed and, for a moment, the image of the woman was clear. She scrambled along the ledge, glanced back over her shoulder and pulled herself on to the crest of the hill. Her loose, white shirt and dark hair were buoyed by the wind. Then the light faded and the black of the moonless night engulfed her.”
Damn. Weather. (But there’s still a person and movement.)
WHAT BURNS WITHIN does not begin with weather.
Okay, rule #2. Avoid prologues.
Well, SC doesn’t have one. WBW doesn’t currently have one, but I can see a strong argument for moving a section and making it a prologue. It isn’t backstory in this case, and not all prologues are. So I’m launching an official protest of the assertion prologues are backstory and putting rule #2 in dispute. I actually hate it when people take what should be a prologue and rename it chapter 1 and it’s just a page long.
Rule #3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
Bill shouted, “Shut the fuck up.”
I have absolutely no problem with that. In my opinion it’s preferable to:
Bill said with anger, “Shut the fuck up.”
And Rankin used ‘yelled’. Hmmm. Listen to Elmore, listen to God*, Elmore, God*…
Rule #4. Never use an adverb to modify the said…
Okay, see, that goes to my point above. In this case I tend to agree, but most authors do this, and sometimes effectively. Sometimes it’s appropriate.
Rule #5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
Elmore and I are of one mind on this one. Is there hope for us yet?
Rule #6. Never use the words ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell broke loose.’
Suddenly, all hell broke loose and I’m so busy laughing at his explanation under that rule that I can’t comment!!!!!
Rule #7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Oh, bless your socks Elmore. Thank you thank you thank you! See, there are the masters – such as Ken Bruen, and Ian Rankin - who know how to do this perfectly. And then there are those, who shall remain nameless, who think it goes to setting and such but baffle the reader and pull you out of the story.
Rule #8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
You know, I’m with Elmore here too. I was always getting slammed on not doing enough description to give a full visual, but I didn’t really want to.
Rule #9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
This is definitely a Goldilocks and The Three Bears topic. There is an amount that’s ‘just right’. And it may not always be the same for everything. I mean, damn, if you spend a page describing a woman’s legs it better be erotica or her legs better be the murder weapon. Otherwise you should probably indulge your inner dog moment somewhere else.
Rule #10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Okay, so I let Elmore down about the weather. And I have some niggling issues with dialogue tags, because I do prefer people be more precise over using adverbs, in general.
But I also think that Rankin proves the point that you can break a rule and do it effectively.
I also think the word to the wise is that breaking the rules effectively comes with experience. If you’re able to craft a story to the point where people completely lose themselves in it they won’t even notice the nitpicky points because you have done your job – sold them on your world and kept them there. It’s fair to say editors read a bit differently – the more submissions we get for Spinetingler the fussier I get – so when you get feedback from them you know it’s an astute assessment.
That said, remember editors rejected Harry Potter too. As Elmore Leonard’s rules prove, to at least me, there are some things that come down to taste and it’s possible to do almost anything and get away with it. The minute you make a long list of rules you will find someone coming up with a long list of exceptions to them.
If I were to have one rule, it’s this:
Tell a captivating story so smoothly the reader never notices the details. If you do that, nobody will notice adverbs, exclamation points or weather. Ultimately, I believe that’s what Elmore’s getting at when he says, Being a good author is a disappearing act.
* See, I never learn.