Saturday, February 25, 2012

Breaking Leonard’s Rule Number 9

Congratulations to Kai, the winner of Cathy Perkins' giveaway. Cathy will be contacting you directly. Thank you to all who participated!

Leonard Elmore’s Rules of Writing made the rounds of the Internet again last week.

For those of you who missed them, here’s the list:
  1.  Never open a book with weather.
  2.  Avoid prologues.
  3.  Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
* Excerpted from the New York Times article, “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle”

While I’m not big on rules for the sake of rules, I can get on board with most of these. But I slowed a bit over number 8 & 9. I’ve read a few of Elmore’s books and he belongs in the “writes lean” camp. Haven’t read Elmore? Think John Sandford and Lucas Davenport’s half page scenes and staccato guy-speak. Works great for him.

I think we can all agree about just-shoot-me-now descriptions like this:

Mary batted her long-lashed green eyes and swept an errant blonde curl off her shoulder.

Yeah, I’d be skipping that part along with the rest of the description of her dress, apartment and cat. I’m not looking for a catalogue of what’s where and what color is it.

For me, setting defines the characters. Can you imagine Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum anywhere other than Jersey or Toni McGee Causey’s Bobbie Faye outside of Louisiana? Or at the other end of the spectrum, Fargo taking place anywhere besides, well, Fargo?

As an author, we want the reader to see the story world as the characters see it, not as we see it. So once the scene’s framed – conflict, tension, narrative drive – the setting accessorizes it (visual orientation, textures, sounds, smells). One of my teachers referred to the scene as a basic black dress with the setting as the jewelry.

I think it can go one step further. The heroine in the story may view the accessories as classy or trashy, while a police officer may assess the threat potential and a thief would consider the best way to relieve her of that jewelry. The way the scene is described should tell you a bit about the point of view character. What and how she sees the scene reveals character.

So rather than “setting the scene” with long block of description, I like to use setting as a delivery vehicle for characterization and emotion. The way characters experience a place, and the way they feel about it, tells readers much more about them as people than Mary’s laundry list of attributes up above.

What about you? Do you like stories where the setting is practically a character in the story? Or would you be perfectly happy with nothing more than, the heroine’s in her car/office/apartment?

The Professor is set in South Carolina, amid crimes scenes, “cop-shops” and small college campuses. Here’s the opening paragraph:

The body lay in dappled shade. Patches of light caught pale flesh—an ankle here, a hip there. Resurrection ferns spread lacy fronds, partially concealing the limbs. Mick wondered if the irony was deliberate.

Can you see the scene?

Cathy will be giving away a digital copy of The Professor to a commenter.

Giveaway ends 9pm EST Feb. 26th. Please supply your email in the post. You may use spaces or full text for security. (ex. jsmith at gmail dot com) If you do not wish to supply your email, or have trouble posting, please email justromanticsuspense @ with a subject title of JRS GIVEAWAY to be entered in the current giveaway.

Bio: Cathy Perkins’ suspense writing lurks behind a financial geek day-job, where she learned firsthand the camouflage, hide in plain sight, skills employed by her villains. Born and raised in South Carolina, the setting for THE PROFESSOR, she now lives in the Pacific Northwest with her work-a-holic husband and a 75-pound Lab who thinks she’s still a lap-puppy. You can learn more at Cathy can also be found on Facebook at and Twitter at

The Professor available at


  1. I actually prefer the setting to be part of the story. I think it adds something to the story. I have severe RA so I don't travel, but I do a lot of armchair traveling in the books I read. So I want to hear about where the book is taking place so I can visualize myself there. I don't think a generic setting is nearly as interesting. That's just my opinion though.

    1. I'm with you Linda. I could rattle off a laundry list of favorite authors who have their stories so firmly planted in an area I feel like I know the location.

      But all of them integrate that setting with their characters and the plot, so it 'works' together

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Absolutely the setting can be a character. Love to just plop myself into the scene with the characters. That's why I love to read --- transport me somewhere else. Love to win a copy. Thanks. Gator_Trish at msn dot com

    1. Hi Trish

      I'm reading Lowcountry by Alice Rivers Siddons right now and the setting is making me a little homesick for South Carolina!

      The events that drive the plot come directly from the location and the story just couldn't have happened anywhere else. To me, that's great use of setting.

  3. These are some interesting rules and I can see the point in some of them. I also don't mind when authors break the rules to stay true to a story. I've read some great stories where the setting is important. It gives the characters the opportunity to live within them. An insightful post, thank you.


    1. Morning Na!

      Don't you want to read, It was a dark and stormy night? :)

      I can see the point of several of the rules. I recently judged a contest where every other sentence seemed to end with an exclamation point. Really! I mean! I totally got that it was important!

      In all fairness to Leonard, I do think his rule #9 was aimed at the loooonnnngggg paragraphs we occasionally encounter and think, is there a point to this?

  4. Good morning!

    We're at our cabin this weekend, so I came into town for coffee and internet. I may be a little sporadic replying to posts - internet via cell phone if iffy in the mountains.

    Thanks for stopping by today.


  5. I have a push-pull relationship with writing and reading setting. I read too quickly for my own good and have a tendency to skip over long descriptions when I'm reading ... for a while, my writing was also really sparse on them! until I realized I had to go out of my way to put them in because they don't come to me in the natural flow of things. Listening to books on Audible helped cure me, too, because I listen to every word and get a better sense of how much is the right amount and how to integrate it. I've been writing a short story recently where the setting is almost like a character, and it's the first time I've really consciously played up setting like that--it's been fun!

    1. Hi Serena

      Your short story sounds fun. Isn't it interesting how differently we absorb material when we hear it vs read it?

      Re setting - finding the balance seems to be the key.

  6. I've read books where the setting was a major factor in the story and ones where it was immaterial. I don't have a preference for one or the other.

    jtcgc at yahoo dot com

    1. Hi Mary

      It sounds like you just like a good story. The best kind of reader. :)

  7. Hi Cathy,
    I like it when the setting is a character or "the" character. This way "he/she" can do more. I found "The Shining" did this.
    Oh, and by the snippit you gave it sounds like this is your forte.
    Thanks for the draw. Please include me.

    1. Ooh, I'd forgotten about The Shining - that creepy old house. Have you ever been to Paradise Inn at Mt Ranier? My kids swear the place is just like that house.

  8. I don't think there are any rules that are set. The story will goes wherever the story is going to. As for exclamation points usage, they are use to make a point. The characters will have to be so very excitable through the whole story if exclamation points exist throughout the whole book. I don't think that is likely to happened and the story will lose if finesse.


    1. Morning Kai

      I tend to see rules as guidelines, but I do have a reason when I 'break' one. Usually it's because the story tells me it 'needs' it. Or as you put it, "...wherever te story is going to..."

      As Jenny Crusie says, Many roads to Oz.

  9. I don't have a preference about the setting being an important part of the story, just as long as the story is good.


  10. I see the word rules in relation to writing, and I shudder. I like to have enough setting to ground me as a reader and like the setting to intertwine with the characters and action. The setting should be difficult to remove or change to another.

    shelleymunro AT gmail Dot com

  11. Hi Shelley

    You summed up my position beautifully.

    Off to see what the dog is barking about so frantically. Hopefully it isn't a skunk. Or a wolf.

  12. Leonard's list was interesting. Thanks for posting.


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