There are no universal rules for writers

Here is a post at Writer’s Write: John Grisham’s 8 Do’s And Don’ts For Popular Fiction.

Here are the 8 rules, mostly stripped down to just the rule itself. For the comments under each rule, click through to the post.

1. Do — Write A Page Every Day

2. Don’t — Write The First Scene Until You Know The Last

This necessitates the use of a dreaded device commonly called an outline. Virtually all writers hate that word. I have yet to meet one 
who admits to using an outline.

Plotting takes careful planning. Writers waste years pursuing stories that eventually don’t work.

3. Do — Write Your One Page Each Day At The Same Place And Time

4. Don’t — Write A Prologue

5. Do — Use Quotation Marks With Dialogue

6. Don’t — Keep A Thesaurus Within Reaching Distance

7. Do — Read Each Sentence At Least Three Times In Search Of Words To Cut

8. Don’t — Introduce 20 Characters In The First Chapter

Several of these are questionable, but the one I bolded above is soooo easy for outliners to spit out — You must outline the complete book before you start writing! This method is the only one that works! — and so annoying to those of us who don’t (sometimes can’t) do this.

In a few weeks, when you read Shadow Twin, you will hopefully find that the plot possesses reasonable coherence. In case this sort of thing interests you, I will just tell you up front that I literally did not know what the climactic scenes would involve until I was 100,000 words in. I remember clearly the moment when the ending of the book suddenly fell into place. It did not take very long at all to go back and nudge the earlier part of the book so that it would be in line with the ending.

As for the very last scene, I wrote that way after finishing the book, after Laura Florand told me she found the ending of the earlier draft too abrupt.

Also, this morning I roughly outlined the 4th book of the series, Copper Mountain. Except for the ending. I don’t know what’s going to happen at the end. I decline to worry about this, no matter who assures me that I’m Doing It Wrong if I don’t have a clear view of the last scene when I write the first.

One last note, though.

I did write the entire sequel to House of Shadows because I had the ending scene in mind and wanted to write that particular scene. If you happen to remember that as you read that Door Into Light, maybe you’ll remember this post, compare it to Shadow Twin, and decide for yourself whether you think the books differ dramatically in their respective tightness of plotting. If anything, I would say, Door Into Light is substantially less tight in plotting than Shadow Twin — but read them both and decide for yourself.


Also! To go back to the full list of eight rules: Why bother with a rule about using quote marks in dialogue? Who out there is not using quote marks in dialogue? (Other than Cormac McCarthy.) That does not strike me as super-important rule to put out there if you’re trying to come up with eight important rules for writers.

Look, I hate to criticize without trying to be helpful, so I will just provide a better, more universal set of 8 rules for writers who want to be successful:

1) Finish at least some of the stories you start.

2) Don’t slavishly follow any rules for writers, even the ones promulgated by famous bestselling authors.

3) But do have a decent grasp of standard grammar and break grammatical rules with intent, not by accident.

4) Read a lot in your chosen genre.

5) Read a lot outside your chosen genre.

6) Read nonfiction to deepen your worldbuilding, if that matters to you.

7) Don’t expect your tenth book to be easier to write than your first.

8) Don’t focus on negative reviews.

There you go: Eight rules that I think are a lot more universal — if only because fewer of them are prescriptions and proscriptions about the actual writing process. Those are just always going to be iffy.

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6 thoughts on “There are no universal rules for writers”

  1. Was it Hilary Mantel who didn’t use quotation marks? Someone in recent years with lots of praise did. Whoever it was, I’m sure that affectation contributed to me not connecting with the book. As for writing at the same time every day, well… I’m aware of writers raising young children, or writers with health problems (my Teen for one), and they write when they CAN, never mind keeping a schedule. If any of these people followed that advice they’d probably never finish.

    I like your rules better. On the ‘read’ rules, have you been seeing what I have about people who know others who want to be writers, but don’t read, and don’t want to? That is so WEIRD.

  2. Sometimes one trick of a writer is so annoying that you list a rule against it.

    There are entries in Tough Guide to Fantasyland where Jones is clearly taking aim at a specific writer, for instance.

  3. Mary, I thought so too, but I’m not sure I actually recognized any of the specific books or authors DWJ was aiming at — I just knew that she must be aiming at something specific.

    Still, if you’re going to do eight rules for writers, maybe that’s not the best place for that kind of specificity? To me that kind of list looks like a place to go big and broad, not little and specific.

  4. Maybe Grisham was really annoyed by McCarthy and Mantel’s lack of quotation marks. I agree, his list really isn’t very useful. Except by generalizing from ‘write at the same time each day’ to “write regularly’. that sort of thing.

    On Tough Guide
    DWJ reportedly wrote it after being a judge in a contest, so maybe some of the targets were what she was judging, which may or may not have ever been published. I’m also pretty sure I spotted some general D&D bashing, and if she wasn’t aiming at early Lackey’s horse books with others … well, I haven’t run into the other writers.

    I’m surprised no one has put together a web site of ‘sources’ or ‘targets’ for the Tough Guide . Not even TVTropes, really has.

  5. I judged a contest and gave one entry a low mark in one category largely due to quotation marks. Sometimes the author used them to indicate speech, sometimes not. Sometimes the author used them to start a piece of dialog, but forgot to use them at the end of the person’s speech. Sometimes she used them to indicate a character thinking. (Sometimes she used italics for internals, just to keep the reader guessing. Or nothing at all.)

    I 99.9999% agree with the “Don’t” about prologues. In the vast majority of the time, they don’t add to the story. Instead, they cause me to imprint on a character who is either a)going to die at the end of the prologue or b)not show up again until the last chapter of the story.

    Is Copper Mountain the fourth book in the Black Dog series?

    I had no idea how the second novel I wrote (The English Lieutenant’s Lady) was going to end until I got to the end. I mean, it’s a romance so I was kinda figuring it was going to have a happy ending, but while I knew Who, I had no idea of How and Where or even Why (what made them reconcile their different goals).
    It must be murder* to be a mystery writer.

    *Yes, I know. But I couldn’t help it. I had to go there.

  6. I will never understand why someone who decides to write a book but isn’t sure about quote marks (or anything else so completely standardized) doesn’t, you know, pick up any book ever published, open it anywhere, and just look at the quote marks and punctuation.

    I suspect this person must be one of the would-be writers who doesn’t read (which, yes, makes absolutely no sense to me either) and therefore hasn’t absorbed even the most basic, ordinary punctuation.

    I used to 99.99% agree about prologues. Now, having used several myself and seen others that work, I only 89% agree.

    Yep, Copper Mountain will be the 4th Black Dog book. I actually mean to write something else this summer, but at the moment I have been seduced into starting Copper Mountain because various scenes were suggested to me when I went back over Shadow Twin and then wrote Ethan’s novella for the collection.

    YES about murder mysteries. I can hardly imagine. Maybe I could imagine knowing who did it but not how that would be revealed? But just think of all the tweaking you’d have to do to make it all fit neatly into place in the final draft. Plus inserting various red herrings and so on. Careful and complete outlining would surely be an asset to a mystery writer.

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