Friday, January 30, 2015

Ten Commandments for Writers

by James Scott Bell

1. Thou Shalt write a certain number of words every week.

This is the first, and greatest commandment. If you write to a quota and hold yourself to it, sooner than you think you'll have a full length novel. (I used to advocate a daily quota, but I changed it to weekly because inevitably you miss days or life intrudes and you run yourself down. I also take one day off a week.) So set a weekly quota, divide it by days, and if you miss one day make it up on the others.

2. Thou Shalt write passionate first drafts.

Don't edit yourself heavily during your first drafts. The writing of it is partly an act of discovering your story, even if you outline. Your plot and characters may want to make twists and turns you didn't plan. Let them go! Follow along and then move on. At 20K words I "step back" to see if I have  solid foundation, shore it up if I don't, then move on to the end.

3. Thou Shalt make trouble for thy Lead.

The engine of a good story is fueled by the threat to the Lead character.  Keep turning up the heat. Make things harder. Simple three act structure: Get your Lead up a tree, throw things at him, get him down.

4. Thou Shalt put a stronger opposing force in the Lead's Way.

The opposition character must be stronger than the Lead. More power, more experiences, more resources. Otherwise, the reader won't worry. You want them to worry. Hitchcock always said the strength of his movies came from the strength and cunning of the villains. But note the opposition doesn't have to be a "bad guy." Think of Tommy Lee Jones in "The Fugitive."

5. Thous Shalt get the story running from the first paragraph.

Start with a character, in a situation of a change or threat or challenge, and grip the reader from the start. This is the opening "disturbance" and that's what readers respond to immediately. It doesn't have to be something "big." Anything that sends a ripple through the "ordinary world." 

6. Thou Shalt create surprises.

Avoid the predictable! Always make a list of several avenues your scenes and story might take, then choose something that makes sense but also surprises the reader.

7. Thou Shalt make everything contribute to the story.

Don't go off on tangents that don't have anything to do with the characters and what they want in the story. Stay as direct as a laser beam.

8. Thou Shalt cut out all the dull parts.

Be ruthless in revision. Cut out anything that slows the story down. No trouble, tension or conflict is dull. At the very least, something tense inside a character.

9. Thou Shalt develop Rhino skin.

Don't take rejection or criticism personally. Learn from criticism and move on. Perseverance is the golden key to a writing career.

10. Thou Shalt never stop learning, growing and writing for the rest of thy life.

Writing is growth. We learn about ourselves, we discover more about life, we use our creativity, we gain insights. At the same time, we study. Brain. Read surgeons keep up on the  journals, why should writers think they don't need to stay up on the craft? If I learn just one thing that helps me as a writer, it's worth it. 


James Scott Bell is a bestselling suspense author. The former trial lawyer was the fiction columnist for Writer's Digest Books and an adjunct professor of writing at Pepperdine University. His books on the craft of writing are among the most popular today.

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers, where you can read Bell's interesting interview.)


Joan Hall Hovey said...

One of the best in the business. Both as a writer and a teacher.

I highly recommend his books, both fiction and nonfiction.

Kathleen Delaney said...

I don't think it matters how many books you write, we need to be reminded of these 10 actually simple rules. We all know them, but its easy to backslide. Just as it is with another set. Thanks. I'm going to print these and past them on my wall.
Kathleen Delaney

Jean Henry Mead said...

I agree, Kathleen and Joan. His writing books and novels are must reading for writers in every genre. I also have the commandments on my office wall.

Marja said...

Excellent post, James. Sometimes we become too complacent and forget these wise words. Thank you for the reminder.
Marja McGraw