Ten Rules for Writing Joyless Books

My children are avid sticker book consumers. (Bear with me: this is an extended metaphor, not a parenting blog post.)

At first they simply wanted to jam the stickers onto the pages, upside down, off the edges, covering each other in great lumps of shiny paper, just for the pleasure of playing with sticky things.

Then they got a bit older and more careful. Put the penguins in the snow scene, put the pirates on the beach. They set up little bits of staging. “Look, Mummy, the baby dinosaur is going to eat the bird. Look, the pirate’s chopping the other pirate’s head off. Look, the polar bear is going to – I am playing nicely, Mummy!” Even when the sticker scene was long completed, they’d sit there poring over the pages, making up stories about what the absurdly juxtaposed creatures were up to.

Older still, and the sticker books have become more complicated. Now you have to put the sticker in the right place. The pirate has to be applied perfectly over just the right bit of rigging or it looks all wrong. The clothes must be put on the correct dolly in the correct order.

Let’s just consider that. The sticker book’s purpose is to give the child a scene to populate with characters, yet we insist the characters should be applied and arranged only in a certain way, the right way. These dinosaurs have to go in those trees. Those knights only fit if you use them to fight the dragon. The sticker for the Lego dumper truck must be applied over the silhouette of the Lego dumper truck. The boy dolly has to wear the boy clothes. This isn’t play any more, it’s an exercise in form filling. The books where you put the stickers wherever you like and create your own scene are babyish. Big boys and girls follow instructions. Even if the child, half way through a sticker page that was supposed to be fun, looks up and pleads, “Mummy, do I have to finish this?”

I’m sure you see where I’m going. In this case, I have been driven to distraction by the umpteenth repetition of Elmore Leonard’s ‘10 Rules for Writing’, which would be more accurately titled ‘10 Rules for Writing Like Elmore Leonard’, but you can put ‘top ten tips for writers’ into your search engine of choice and come up with any amount of vetoes and restrictions and rules. Let’s just start with his first tip, shall we?

Never open a book with weather.

–  Elmore Leonard

To which I have only this to say:

LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.

–  Charles Dickens, Bleak House

Or again

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

– Elmore Leonard

I’ve ranted about poorly chosen speech verbs myself, but never?

“Shut up,” he explained.

– Ring Lardner

Leonard goes on to say that writers should not go into detail to describe people, places, or things. I’ll just go home now. (In fairness, Leonard knew perfectly well that his rules were for himself, not for everyone. I’m just sick of seeing them repeated like they are a recipe for anything other than his prose style.)

I’m bored of reading text that feels like it’s been run through a set of rules. I’m bored of literary novels by authors that have been through the same Creative Writing MA course and learned to do the same things. I’m bored of genre fiction that knows how genre fiction should be written and does it just like that because it should, not because it wants to. I’m unbelievably bored of books that don’t play.

Of course authors need to learn how to write, which is mostly done by reading, and writing, and by being read, and by taking criticism and learning from it. A writer who doesn’t learn her craft is the child jamming stickers onto the page, and the wallpaper, and the cat.

But when ‘rules’ of writing (of what publishers say the market wants, of what the SFF establishment approves, of what gets a Booker prize nomination, of what this top author or that course dictates as the only good) kill the creativity and individuality and fun of the writer doing her own thing… well, that’s when the readers start to wail, Mummy, do I have to finish this?

13 replies
  1. Jenn
    Jenn says:

    Yes!!!! Tropes and other aspects exist for a reason, but I’m so tired of the SAME thing over and over again. I want books to surprise me. I want them to be fun, or thought-provoking, or just different. I don’t want to have a list of books that I can check as I read a book. It takes the joy out my escapism. Rule breakage = Jenn happeh.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I just read a ‘This is how to write the opening of your thriller’ blog post and thought, yeah, I have read this opening. Many, many times. Which is one of the reasons I can’t remember the last thriller I read that wasn’t by John Connolly, who has exactly as much fun as he wants doing his own weird thing, and sells like hot cakes with it.

  2. John W. Howell
    John W. Howell says:

    Yeah very excellent essay. I wish all the agents, publishers and book sellers were as enlightened about the fun that books could be. Right now it is just not happening in the traditional world and when the dinosaurs finally fall prey to the winter maybe things will change. Until then the reading public will still flock to the best sellers like they don’t have a brain.

  3. ABE
    ABE says:

    I don’t feel so bad now: I listen to all the advice, and then I ignore most of it.

    But I did listen! I think beginners may have too much arrogance sometimes. Or just can’t see things clearly enough to self-diagnose.

    But I’m a grown-up writer now, and will publish by and by. I rarely learn anything any more that I haven’t already seen. Maybe that’s just because I’ve read everything I can get my little eyeballs on.

    Nice post – your examples were well selected for your points.

  4. kiracee
    kiracee says:

    I read a lot of writing advice, most of it excellent, but I’ve been thinking the last few days that all those rules have been smothering me. I am now trying to dig them out of my brain and stuff them in a box so I can write again. Thank you for this. It clarified a few things for me.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      My work here is done.

      Seriously, that’s great. I’m really aware as an author/editor how unintentionally stifling even good advice can be. I hope you can find your voice and run with it.

  5. sarahblack5
    sarahblack5 says:

    It was a dark and stormy night. I LOVE weather. Especially rain lashing the windows, slush puddled in the streets, a brisk November wind knocking a limb off a sturdy oak, a warm and sunny Indian summer day, the last of the beautiful weather, but with mean-looking clouds on the horizon.

    I like to read Robert Boswell’s writing advice. He says don’t try to know your characters or understand your story. Just work at it, work at it, work at it some more, and it will reveal itself to you. That sounds about right to me. Keep working and you will be amazed at your own brilliance! GO WEATHER!

  6. Elin Gregory
    Elin Gregory says:

    Oh Lord YES. This stupid set of rules has been a thorn in my side since my fan fic days. Elmore Leonard’s rules are fine if you want to write what he writes and appeal to his readers. They are just silly if you want to write, say, a comedy of manners set in the late eighteenth century yet some editors / publishers / readers want that homogenization. Like the advice I was given that when writing a sex scene I should stick to using just cock and ass because anything else, no matter how location or period appropriate, is a euphemism and alienated readers. God forbid we do anything unexpected.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I swear, though, some people just want a checklist, any checklist. Like, if they can just eliminate all the words that are Wrong, such as weather and speech tags and nonstandard sex words, they’ll be left with the perfect words in the right order and it’ll be a book.


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  1. […] Ten Rules for Writing Joyless Books KJ Charles on why following the “rules” of writing too closely can suck the life out of your book. […]

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