Showing posts with label rules for writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label rules for writing. Show all posts

02 February 2018

Career Suicide!!! and Rules Hawkers


Thomas Pluck








Hyperbole intended.

Recently a writer shared a link about How to Avoid Three Career-Killing Moves in Writing.
And being a writer who doesn't want to kill his career, I clicked. Now what were these moves? Going on vitriolic diatribes against reviewers who deign to give you any fewer than five stars? Buying a book by a writer who gave you a bad review, shooting it with a shotgun, and mailing it to her? Spitting on writers you don't like at cocktail parties?*

No! They were:

  • Writing in the present tense
  • Using the third person omniscient
  • Using multiple points of view
I'm not kidding. Now I can pick up successful books that use any of these without even trying. Of course, they need to be done well, but that goes with anything. I just had to laugh. Writers are still peddling The Rules, and using them to further their careers.

Writing workshops and books on writing can have real value, but be wary of anyone who says there are hard and fast rules for writing. Careers have been made on hawking "the rules", but if you read widely in the genre you want to write in, you'll learn what rules can be broken with skill. I recently read Laura Lippman's excellent Wilde Lake and she uses first person for the past scenes, with the narrator as a child, and third person when she's an adult. The point of view never wavers from the protagonist's, but it was an odd choice to use first person for the past and third for the present. But Lippman knows what she's doing, and it works wonderfully.

In my Denny the Dent stories, I have always used past tense for his childhood and present for "now," which annoyed one editor who demanded that I change it all to past tense. That has been corrected in my new story collection, Life During Wartime, which includes three Denny the Dent stories, and 21 stories total. I like to juxtapose childhood and adult scenes, and Lippman's method is very appealing, because children lend themselves to the first person, and adults are better at hiding things about themselves, so the third often works better. It wasn't third omniscient, it was limited to the protagonist, but we learned things about her that she was unlikely to share in first person.



Third omniscient has its place, but mystery often requires the limitations of perspective to "work." But not always. Two of my favorite Lawrence Block novels bounce between first person narratives of his sleuth Matt Scudder and the killer he is hunting, as he commits the crimes. This actually amps up the tension because we know how much danger Matt and Elaine and their friends are in, when from their perspectives, we would have no idea. This gives us the suspense of the bomb under the table rather than the short tension of the murderer appearing from nowhere and the victim dying in terror.

Eva Dolan breaks the rules in her thriller This is How it Ends, which I just started reading. It's gripping so far, and the POV changes are made clear in the chapter headings. That's not my favorite way to do it, but it works fine. But she needs it, because one character is in first and the others are in third. James Lee Burke does this as well in his Dave Robicheaux novels. He's a master, but sometimes this is confusing. Is the third person section what actually happened, or is it Dave telling us what he thinks happened? We can't be sure. In Swan Peak I am told he uses dueling first person perspectives and has them both on a phone call. I can't wait to see how he pulls it off. My buddy Josh Stallings--the author of the Mo McGuire hardboiled L.A. crime thrillers, and his wonderful disco-era heist novel Young Americans--raved about how well Burke handled it, so I have moved that book up my list.

For me, I prefer a loosely limited third and signify changes by beginning the sentence with the character we are following. Sometimes this is called "head jumping" when done too often, but Carl Hiaasen does it well enough, and it is entertaining as both a reader and a writer to get in the heads of bizarre characters. For me, it's fun to change voice and let the characters speak for themselves, rather than through the lens of one narrator, and you can get backgrounds and motives across much more easily than by playing games so the narrator learns it. But I enjoy singular narratives as well. In Bad Boy Boogie, the story revolves around the deceptions of Jay Desmarteaux's friends and family, so I limited the story to what Jay saw, except for one pivotal scene that drives the entire book. His greatest fear is becoming the monster that he killed, so I wrote from the perspective of that monster for one chapter, at the very end, to show the difference between them. Jay may not know the difference, but we do.

If that kills my career, put it on my tombstone.

I'm going to break my own rule and tell you my rules, which you don't have to buy on Kindle or subscribe to my Patreon to learn:

  • Write the best book or story you can in the time you have.
  • Treat people with professionalism and respect.
  • If an editor or agent has rules, follow them when submitting or querying.


Not following these won't kill your career, but they may hinder you getting a career started. I'm not sure what can kill a writer's career if they keep selling books. Killing pets, beloved characters, bouncing away from beloved series to write standalones they love... these have hurt careers, but not always killed them. They return to favorite series characters, revive them like Misery Chastain, and they are back in the saddle... maybe short one foot, like Paul Sheldon in Misery.

* Just kidding, Richard Ford did the latter two of these and still has a career

13 October 2014

"Rules" and Comments


by Fran Rizer 

In 2010, a bargain-loving friend of mine found Stephen King's memoir/writing guide On Writing in a clearance bin at a dollar store. She bought every one of them and sent them all to me.  The problem was  that there were over twenty-five copies.  I sent one to almost every writer I knew personally.

Recently I introduced a young sci fi writer to the realm of Stephen King--not the movie or television version, but the world found in his written words.  As my friend read It, I wished I had one more copy of On Writing to share with him what King said about writing and the story about the baby sitter. I bought one for him, but I was also fortunate enough to locate a list of King's "rules" on writing.

I grew up a rebel child who hated "rules," so I'll call these suggestions. You've probably seen most of them before along with those that overlap Elmore Leonard's, but I found these gentle reminders worthwhile. I couldn't resist the color red for my comments though I graded papers in purple when I taught school. (Some of you may recall that I did, however, write "Dear John, go to hell" letters in red.)

Today, I share twenty suggestions from Stephen King.


1. First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience. “When you write a story,you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”  My next two books are a thriller in January and a horror in June, 2015.  I think I'm writing for myself these days and I have no idea what story is going to insist on being told next.

2. Don’t use passive voice. “Timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason that timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.” And for heaven's sake, learn what the passive voice is.  I've dealt with too many young writers who think linking verbs are passive voice.  No comment on the timid lovers.

3. Avoid adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend.” I add "most of the time" to this or maybe "usually" is a better choice.

4. Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said.”  See number three.

5. But don’t obsess over perfect grammar. “The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story.” I always told students they needed to learn the rules as well as when to break them.  Sometimes those grammar rules are necessary.



6. The magic is in you. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”  Here I differ with Mr. King.  Years ago, when I attended a large writers' group, we encountered several truly horrendous writers who positively knew they were fantastic and tried to justify why they shouldn't follow any suggestions.  It's not surprising that those folks still aren't published.

7. Read, read, read. ”If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” Amen!

8. Don’t worry about making other people happy. “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”  I'm struggling with this right now.

9. Turn off the TV. “TV really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs.”  Why do we need television when we have shows in our minds?

10. You have three months. “The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”  This is no problem for me since the Callie books averaged six weeks for the first drafts, but I don't see how King does it with some books over a thousand pages.  How about you?  How long does it take to get that first draft written or do you have some that "wrote themselves" in a short time and some that take forever?  

11. There are two secrets to success. “I stayed physically healthy, and I stayed married.”  Too late for me to accomplish either of those.

12. Write one word at a time. “Whether it’s a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ the work is always accomplished one word at a time.”  I would add that commercial success is accomplished one reader at a time.

13. Eliminate distraction. “There should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with.” There should also be no family members who constantly interrupt writing with insignificant questions and comments having nothing to do with the story (unless they are grandchildren).

14. Stick to your own style. “One cannot imitate a writer’s approach to a particular genre, no matter how simple what that writer is doing may seem.”  "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," but does flattery have any place in creative writing?

15. Dig. “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.  I like King's reference to the writer's toolbox.  The goal is to fill that toolbox with all possible skills and ideas and then develop the craft of knowing what to use where.

16. Take a break. “You’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience.” And sometimes, going back and reading it after a layoff enables a writer to think, "Dang!  That's pretty good!"  (Okay, I know Elmore said no exclamation marks, but I love them so long as there aren't more than two per page. I began this by mentioning my dislike of rules from a young age.  What really p-o's me is when participants aren't given the rules until they are reprimanded for breaking them.) Back to the subject:  Sometimes after that six-week rest of a manuscript, a writer goes back, reads it, and says, "Oh, s- -t.  I can't believe I wrote that."

17. Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings. “(kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.)” Writing is also an excellent way to kill some people who are not your darlings.

18. The research shouldn’t overshadow the story.“Remember that word back. That’s where the research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it.”  I try to avoid this in writing and hate big info dump/back stories when I'm reading.  I don't like to read fiction that is obviously an effort to teach me a skill or history. (Janice Law provides an excellent example of writing historical novels that don't shove lessons down the reader's throat.)

19. You become a writer simply by reading and writing.“You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.”  I once knew a poet who refused to read other poets' works because he didn't want his "talent to be influenced by others."  He gave me a sincerely blank look when I mentioned "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening," and the last time I saw him, he was coming out of a local pawn shop.  

20. Writing is about getting happy. “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”  How about you?  I personally get a lot of happiness and pleasure from "falling into the page," but greater commercial success would take me closer to a happy ending.


See a fuller exposition of King’s writing wisdom at Barnes & Noble’s blog.




Your task for today is to let me know if you have a favorite among these twenty or if you have a suggestion you'd add to the list or if you flat out disagree with one of King's suggestions.

Until we meet again, take care of … you.

05 March 2013

No Goodbyes


by David Dean

Before I go on with my last regularly scheduled posting, I have the honor of introducing the gentleman that will be stepping into the Tuesday time slot in my stead--Terence Faherty.  Actually, unlike the entirely necessary intro to my first posting, Terry probably has no need of one.  He is a winner of two Shamus Awards and a Macavity, as well as a nominee several times over for the Edgar and Anthony Awards.  All this by way of being the author  of two long standing and popular series featuring seminarian-turned-sleuth, Owen Keane, and Hollywood detective, Scott Elliot.  His short stories appear regularly in all the best mystery and suspense magazines.  Terry is prolific, talented, distinguished-looking, and shares many other traits with me, as well.  I'm looking forward to reading his postings and want to offer him a warm welcome to our little family.  I think he's gonna fit right in.  Oh, did I mention that he's a leading authority on the late, great actor Basil Rathbone?  Well, he is...but I'll let him explain about all that.  Look for Terry's first post two weeks from now.

I may have mentioned in my last posting that I'm determined to attempt another piece of long fiction--I call such things, "novels".  In fact, it was the august opinions of SleuthSayers' readers and contributors that helped me to decide which storyline to pursue.  As I am a simple man, not much given to multi-tasking, I feel the need to clear the deck in order to do so.  In other words, this will be my last posting for the foreseeable future.

My time with SleuthSayers has been truly wonderful.  I have enjoyed contributing my thoughts every two weeks, and greatly appreciate the kind consideration that each of you have given them.  Beyond the obvious breadth of knowledge exhibited daily by my fellow writers, I think a wonderful tolerance and greatness of mind has been a cornerstone of our site.  It has been a privilege to be amongst your numbers.

It would be wrong of me to slip away without acknowledging a few of you specifically, beginning with our mentor and leader, Leigh Lundin.  Have you ever dealt with a kinder, more passionately concerned man?  His guidance has been invaluable, his heart as big as the Stetson he wears so jauntily in his photo.  Leigh, you're the best.

There is also the erudite and always interesting, Rob Lopresti.  It was Rob that reached out to me years ago to do a guest blog on the, now legendary, Criminal Brief site.  There are few people better versed in the field of short mystery fiction than Rob, and he's a damn fine practitioner of the art, too.  It seems he intends to expand his literary horizon by entering the novel writing biz, as well.  Did I mention that he is also versatile?--librarian, critic, writer, blogger, musician, and probably other talents that I have yet to learn of.  He has also been a gentle guiding hand for me from time to time. 

My thanks also to the warm and wise, Fran Rizer.  She has been both an advisor and unstinting supporter to me, and her long-distance friendship has been a welcome surprise and an invaluable benefit to my membership here.  I've also become a great fan of her funny, sassy, vulnerable, and altogether intriguing literary character, Callie Parrish.  Fran has much to be proud of in her series.

John Floyd, through the magic of the internet, has come to feel like a personal friend rather than a virtual one.  His warmth and kindliness have touched me on several occasions via unexpected email messages.  He is a true gentleman, as well as a dauntingly talented and prolific writer.   

But as I said in the beginning, I have been in good company with all of you, and benefited from the relationship no end.  As the title of this blog states, there will be no goodbyes--I intend to read SleuthSayers daily and offer my usual array of pithy, sage comments.  If not altogether barred from doing so, I might even write a guest blog from time to time.  I can already envision the topic for my first: Why is it so difficult for me to write another novel? Or possibly, Why in God's name did I ever begin another novel? Or finally: Why won't anybody buy this damn novel that I've written?

Thanks everyone and God bless.