Still Breaking the Rules

Strange Ambitions

Cross-over advice

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
I recently completed editing my fifth novel, and am about to return to querying and self-promoting via social media and blogging. I feel like I've just built and furnished an ice station in the Arctic by writing my book, which I'm now leaving the comfort of to wander the cold wilderness, ill-equipped and without any sense of direction. Eek, a polar bear! :eek:

In anticipation of receiving a blizzard of rejections from literary agents, I've been reinforcing my ego by reading articles about best-selling novels that were turned away multiple times:

Best-Sellers Initially Rejected

There's so much advice flying around about how to write and the best way to get published, that it's easy to get buried by it all. One thing that drives me slightly crazy is when I see published novels, some of which have become bestsellers, break the rules that I'm expected to conform to. I had a rant about this anomaly early this year, but now I'm re-entering the fray of making submissions, I again find myself mystified over the gulf between what we're told to do as unpublished authors, and what really happens.

If I take notice of one frequently given piece of advice about how to begin a story, I've shot myself in the foot straight away with the first chapter of my first Cornish Detective novel. Elmore Leonard states in his Ten Rules of Writing not to begin a story with the weather, though I may get away with it, as he allows it if it shows 'a character's reaction to the weather'—which my story does. Also, in my story, the weather becomes a character, interfering with the investigation of the drowning death of an elderly naturist.

Leonard's advice about weather is regurgitated all over the place about what not to do, yet there are many fine novels that begin this way, including:

* Charles Dickens—Little Dorrit—Thirty Years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun, one day

* Charles Dickens—Bleak House—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 snowflakes--gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.

* Charlotte Brontë—Jane Eyre—There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.

More recently, best-selling crime novel The Dry, by Jane Harper, thrusts the weather to the fore, with a malevolent drought that holds an isolated Outback town in its merciless grip:

It wasn't as though the farm hadn't seen death before, and the blowflies didn't discriminate. To them, there was little difference between a carcass and a corpse.

The drought had left the flies spoilt for choice that summer. They sought out unblinking eyes and sticky wounds as the farmers of Kiewarra levelled their rifles at skinny livestock. No rain meant no feed. And no feed made for difficult decisions, as the tiny town shimmered under day after day of burning blue sky.

The opening two paragraphs of my first Cornish Detective novel Who Kills A Nudist? are:

The weather wanted her: she couldn't resist its call. Salt spray coated the windows, a frill of wind-blown sand edging the frame. The photographer gazed out of her cabin at the breakers 50 yards away. A gale was brooding, as the nor'westerly tried a few breathing exercises in rehearsal for a full recital tomorrow night. This would be the third tempest she'd endured in her time on the beach.

Built a century ago, as a coastal watch station at the start of the first world war, the wooden hut endured. It flexed just enough to tease the wind that jostled it without animosity. She pressed her hand to the wall timbers in the darkness, feeling the structure pulse like a pliant lover ignoring the bluster of a clumsy brute. She was learning life lessons from her refuge, but couldn't stay hidden forever.

The story is set in the wettest winter on record, so it would have been foolish to ignore it. The weather is obstructive to the investigation, literally destroying the crime scene when a storm surge removes 8' of the beach!


I've considered rewriting the opening (for all of two seconds), but decided against it, partly as the weather is such a dominant feature of Cornwall's rugged landscape. Even the beautiful Mediterranean-like beaches and ocean turn lethal; my latest novel begins with two murder victims being retrieved from the sea.

Apart from weather advice from writing gurus, other things that irk me include:

* Not overusing adverbs and adjectives. I admit, writing can often be improved by pruning these, as I recently did with the help of the Hemingway Editor app. When lost in full flow while writing, it's easy to get over-flowery. One thing that I noticed about my own writing, was that superfluous adverb use was often a form of tautology.

Having seen the value of removing adverbs, the world's first writing billionaire J. K. Rowling sprinkles them through her prose like confetti. As adverb hater, Stephen King bitchily observed: “Ms Rowling seems to have never met one [adverbs] she didn’t like”

The adverbs that gave JK Rowling away

* Leave out the bit that readers skip. This will remain one of the mysteries of the writing nebula! If you take this advice to mean, don't get too wordy with detailed descriptions, then fine, for hinting at things with a sketch is always better than making an accurate engineering drawing.

But, just from feedback offered by my beta readers, there are some who skip over the violent passages, while others race ahead to get to the dialogue as if the meaning can be entirely understood by what the characters say. I included a love-making scene in my latest novel, the first one in the series, which so embarrassed one reader that she said she preferred it when my protagonist got stabbed with a sword! :rolleyes:

What writing advice confuses and enrages you?

Which bits do you ignore?

The context you provide is always lacking. So. Here I am. In case no one but me noticed.

All of the writers you mention who started their novels with weather wrote long before Elmore Leonard. You give one example of a contemporary novel. There are always exceptions.

I'm a spirit of the law rather than a letter of the law person myself. The spirit of the weather law is 'Don't try and describe a situation, a world, or a setting by taking the easy way out'. Which is to say, our environment is more than a report. It's more than the temperature. These things can be used as literary devices. But the literalness of a setting isn't the value of a setting when writing fiction.

A similar rule is 'Don't start your novel with your protagonist waking or waking from a dream'. Starting at the beginning of a day, a life etc. is a clumsy way to start a novel or a story and more than that, its lazy. But who knows? There might be a story where waking from a dream is perfect. This is common sense.

Which ... is how you know which rules to follow or pay attention and which ones not to pay attention to... they have an underlining principle that makes sense... they're not dogmatic....

At least, I don't think it does any of us any good to be dogmatic. Being dogmatic clogs up the pipes.

I ignore stupid writing advice that doesn't have an underlying principle which obviously serves good storytelling and structure. I know it when I hear it and see it.

Elmore Leonard is someone I'd pay attention to. He's a brilliant storyteller without a whole lot of literary frills.
Rules should just be like Stop signs. Halt, think about it - is it right to proceed? Then do.

I agree about the weather though, unless the whole novel takes place in a cyclone. Now there's a thought...

For first lines it's question of if there's a hook in them. If there's no action, questions raised, mystery or promise of something terrific to come it might be worth starting elsewhere. Beautiful words don't need to be lost, they can get threaded in further on.
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Strange Ambitions

Cross-over advice