W. Somerset Maugham vs. Elmore Leonard. Are There Rules for Writing?

Happiness Key Collage

Every writer I know loves to quote the following by W. Somerset Maugham, (1874-1965) author of The Razor’s Edge and Of Human Bondage:  “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.”

More recently ten tricks for good writing by the late Elmore Leonard, renowned writer of westerns and crime fiction, made the rounds. I guess we have to believe that unlike Maugham, Leonard knew those three rules for writing a novel, and seven besides.

Since I tend more toward Maugham’s wisdom than Leonard’s I thought that for fun I would search some of my recent books to see how well I lived up to E.L.’s standards, too. My personal theory is that every rule is made to be broken, but only when the writer has mastered it.

I chose the three Happiness Key books and jumped right in. Thank you Elmore Leonard, and here we go:

  1. Never open a book with weather. I’m delighted to say that while the weather is mentioned briefly several pages into each novel in the series, it’s only mentioned with other elements to set the scene for the readers. Score one for me?
  2. Avoid prologues. Whoops. There are no prologues in Happiness Key and Sunset Bridge, but there is a short prologue in Fortunate Harbor. Could I have avoided it?Sure. Am I a fan of prologues? Nope. Do I still think it was a good way to begin this particular novel? Since this prologue establishes the suspense angle of the story and an intriguing aspect of a major character I’ll say yes.
  3. Never use a verb except said to carry dialogue. I surveyed the first five pages of each novel. In Happiness Key I have dialogue “repeated” and “continued” but for the most part, I uniformly use said. Fortunate Harbor: only said. Sunset Bridge: one added, one asked.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the word said. Okay, found one right away. . . “she asked hopefully,” in Happiness Key. Could I have made that point in a different way as I almost always do? Might have been tough, because the child who is speaking is masked by a screen door and keeping her voice low so her father won’t hear her. Would the writing be better had I just left this to the reader’s imagination, or said something like: she said “with a little lift to her voice that made Tracy think she was hoping for the best?” You tell me if all those extra words are a good thing. Fortunate Harbor and Sunset Bridge are free of this menace.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. I settled for the first scene of each novel. Nary an exclamation point in Happiness KeyFortunate Harbor? Let’s just say that I hope the next 135,000 words of the novel are free of them. Sunset Bridge is graced by one. Am I sorry? Nope. I considered each carefully and they convey the escalating emotional state of the character in each scene. I think they are under control.
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” I don’t think I’ve ever used the latter. No signs of “suddenly” in any of these novels, although how I avoided it when Tracy opens a tent flap and out of nowhere a raccoon launches itself into her lap is a mystery.
  7. Use regional dialect and patois sparingly. I try to convey the feel of speech by certain words a character uses, phrasing, expressions, and not by misspellings etc., although in my earlier romances I was more, shall we say, daring?
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. One woman’s detailed is another woman’s under-described. I try to show the details I find relevant. But as a reader I want enough detail to visualize as I read.
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. See #8. And while romance novels get a bad rap for this, mystery authors often use copious detail, and the good ones can describe the inside of a paper bag and make it feel relevant.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Ah, and therein lies the mystery. Because, you see, I skipped a lot of Elmore Leonard’s work because while it was clearly brilliant, it was sometimes too stripped down, for me. I need more fodder for my imagination.

I think Maugham is right. There may be rules, but if we all follow each one to the letter, we will appeal to a certain reader whose needs and preferences we’ve met. At the same time we’ll be leaving others to find different forms of entertainment, because we won’t be meeting their’s. Leonard’s rules are brilliant, but they are also made to be broken.

Different rules for different writers?  You tell me.


  1. Brenda on September 3, 2013 at 8:54 am

    Of all the Emilie Richards books I have read, The Happiness Key series was & is my favorite. I wish there would have been more books in that series.

  2. SueAnn Beer on September 3, 2013 at 11:06 pm

    I have read all of your novels, and there is not one I ever “skipped over”, you are doing just fine by me- however, there are many other mystery writers, that I do skip , sometimes a chapter….I do my speed reading thru them……the skipping part, to me, is a repeat section, mundane, not to the point, does not contribute much to the ongoing story line…becomes very obvious to me in the first sentence…but you…no skips yet! You are detailed and meticulous…and you always are moving forward in your story….

    • Emilie Richards on September 4, 2013 at 8:04 am

      Well, what a nice comment to wake up to. Thank you!

  3. Joyce on September 26, 2013 at 10:45 am

    On your rules for writing, I pretty much agree with all of them, especially the one on exclamation points. The one I question is how do you know which parts the reader will skip. My mother skips the sex parts and I devour them.

    • Emilie Richards on September 26, 2013 at 1:23 pm

      As Ricky Nelson says: If you can’t please everyone, then you have to please yourself.” And you absolutely can’t please everyone–I must stop quoting Ricky. It’s becoming a habit.

  4. Peggy Halford on September 26, 2013 at 11:49 am

    Emilie, I thought I had signed up and was reading everything you put out…but I’m so glad you sent me to this blog. I’ve now signed up for it, too! Love the idea of the internet books, also! Thanks so much!

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