March 25th, 2013

3 Writer’s Commandments and the Importance of Avoiding the Dreaded “S” Word

by Jenny Hansen

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
~W. Somerset Maugham

Novel writing isn’t for sissies.

I know we’ve talked about this before. I’ve even brought you people like Margie Lawson, Susan Mallery and Stephen J. Cannell who know way more than I do on the subject.

However, since this is Spring, it felt right to step out of my happy little pre-published cozy zone and share my “3 Writing Commandments.”

We’ll see if y’all agree (or disagree) that these three babies will help you keep your sanity while you go through the long, often lonely process of penning your stories. Just so there’s no ambiguity, I even put them in my order of importance. *drumroll please*

Commandment #1 ~ Thou shalt not quit.

“The only way to guarantee failure is to stop trying.”

Susan Mallery was the one who really brought this home to me in the talk I linked to above (just click her name). She freely admitted to being “an OK writer who didn’t give up until she became a good writer.”

Note: In my humble opinion, she’s a damn good romance writer at least 95% of the time and I don’t think you can ask for more than that in this business.

All the writers I know, except a few tentative ones who worked hard on their craft before they put their babies books out there, were rejected for years…

  • By agents and editors they really, really wanted
  • In contests they wanted to place in
  • By critique groups
  • By family members and friends who pooh-poohed their dreams

Did they give up?? No they did not.

They kept learning and working until the doors that were previously closed inched open. Maybe those doors only opened a teensy little crack but, like the prisoner who digs for freedom one spoonful of dirt at a time, these writers kept writing.

Our own Laura Drake went through 13 years of rejections before her door opened. Here’s her post on the subject: 5 Things I Wish I’d Believed Before I Sold.

Commandment #2 ~ Thou shalt not adopt nonsensical rules.

The only rules that matter are the ones that work for you. Really. Truly. I promise.

I’m not saying you don’t need to have great Craft and good structure. I believe you do. A novel without structure is a paper brick you’ll end up heaving under the bed with your dustbunnies.

Those of you who’ve been at this for a while probably shake your head over your early work. This is what beta readers and critique partners are for, so you don’t throw that brick onto Amazon before you know better.

The point of this commandment is you must write your stories in a way that allows you to finish them. Period.

It doesn’t matter if you’re surrounded by linear, plotting writers. If YOU aren’t linear in your process, nothing — not rivers of chocolate or jiggy dancing tunes — is going to lure you to The End of that book.

No magic potion will help you zoom straight through to the end using “someone else’s methods” because you can’t. Your brain doesn’t work that way. It works your way.

Learn good craft, but above all learn your own process! Part of why I’m unpublished is it took me so damn long to figure out I’m a scene writer. I don’t write straight through a book. I simply can’t do it.

And — important side note here — I was hung up on that silly, stupid, stopping “S” word: Should. *boo-hiss. throws virtual tomatoes*

I HATE that freaking word. It has wasted a boatload of my time.

What I can do is build a basic structure to work in, even though I write my scenes out of order. (I know all you organized linear peeps just got the heebie-jeebies over that last sentence.)

Here’s how it works for me:

  • I lay out some character sketches – often in the form of short stories.
  • My critique group helps me hash out the basic 3-act structure and turning points.
  • I scribble up a list of all the scenes I know (sometimes this takes a few sessions).
  • I write those scenes as they come to me, with an approximate idea of what comes before and after each one.
  • I stitch it all together later.

Diana Gabaldon and Lorna Landvik write like this too, which makes me feel better since I love their books.

Writing like my linear pantser friends gave me nothing but frustration and bad self-esteem.

Using other peoples’ processes ensured that somewhere between page sixty and one hundred, I’d start moaning to the Writing Gods about what a failure I was. My old ways guaranteed that I’d grow bored with my books because I never progressed past the beginning of the second act.

My way lets me see pages pile up and allows me to participate in challenges like ROW80 and Fast Draft. Plus, now that I’ve figured out “my system,” I’ve got about 9 books to finish. Sweet!!

This leads me to my third point, and the one I’m working madly at right now…

Commandment #3 ~ Thou shalt finish thy books.

I wrote a post called The Most Important Writing Lesson I Ever Learned about a conversation I had with my pal, Natalie Hartford.

Quick excerpt:

No one has a masterpiece on the first run. The key is to start writing. Remember, done is better than good, my friend. You can make your “done” into “very good” MUCH easier than you can make a little bit of good stuff into a finished novel.

We went on a bit longer, but basically this conversation was about fear. Like all writers, Natalie was floundering out of the gate because she felt like she had to get some “BIG IDEA” to run with.

There’s only like six story ideas on the planet so we all need to chill and just write. And never, ever forget that “done is better than good.”

If you’re staring at your blank screen and need brainstorming ideas, you might also enjoy this post.

One last thought:

Part of the writing pain that led to Commandment #2 was good old fashioned fear. It’s hard to make rational decisions about your story when you’re scared.

The best post I’ve ever read on dealing with this kind of fear is called Talking Back To Your Brain. Susan and Harry Squires wrote it here at WITS. I’m not going to say too much more because you really need to click that link but here’s an example:

We’re not asking questions like: How can I make this a better book? Too big, too vague, and way too scary.

We’re not asking negative questions such as, “Why isn’t my heroine likable? A really long list of answers will just be depressing.

Keep it small (one scene, even one paragraph, one character, one action, etc.). Then let your brain work.

That’s the kind of advice that helps me stay sane during this crazy writing process.

Do you have some hard and fast “writing commandments?” What are they? What’s guaranteed to take you in the other direction and hold up your forward progress? What’s your position on the “S” word?

Jenny

About Jenny Hansen

Jenny fills her nights with humor: writing memoir, women’s fiction, chick lit, short stories (and chasing after the newly walking Baby Girl). By day, she provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. After 15 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s digging this sit down and write thing.

When she’s not at her blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter at JennyHansenCA and here at Writers In The Storm. Every Saturday, she writes the Risky Baby Business posts at More Cowbell, a series that focuses on babies, new parents and high-risk pregnancy.

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  • Those are great commandments. My favorite rule is always: There are no rules. Because I tend to get way too caught up in shoulds and supposed to’s. Two dreaded s-words. I love number 2 because it makes me feel better that I am such a linear writer. Writer friends are always telling me to skip ahead of a tough part and write another scene. But I can’t do that! I have to go in order or I will go crazy! I guess whatever works for us is what we are supposed to do. I’m sticking with that, now. Thanks!

    • I know, Emma…”shoulds” are seductive as hell, aren’t they?

      p.s. I get really impressed with all your linear writers. I can’t do it, but 3 of my critique partners can. 🙂

  • melindascollins

    LOVE your three commandments, Jenny! I can’t even pick a favorite out of these because they’re all uber important. I just recently learned #2. Knowing structure, scene and sequel is all you need to get started. And how you choose to move forward from there is up to the writer, no one else. I recently had a fear of writing the climax of my current WIP, so I ended up skipping over and writing The End. Only then was I able to come back to the ultimate showdown and do the scene justice. Now, if I had tried to work like some of the advice/rules I’ve seen out there, that fear would’ve debilitated me for a lot longer than I care to admit. 😉

    Ew, the “S” word … *shudders* The only things that “S” word will ever give anyone is regret and self-doubt. Replacing the “S” word with “CAN” is exactly what we should be doing. “CAN”–for me–eliminates negativity.

  • I think a rule I need to apply is “Thou shalt take a break from social media.” But I can’t! 😉 It’s too good. Best wishes!

  • Oh Jenny, I love this post. The road to publication is littered with bodies – of writers who gave up, because they believed the “S” word. Do NOT go there, people!

    I believe the hardest, most frustrating, and most fun and rewarding (yes, all at the same time) thing about writing is finding your process. Try not to angst about it. After all, there’s no timeline on success, right? No, those you’re thinking of are self-imposed!

    Remember, Man plans, God laughs.

    • LOL. I adore this comment, because YOU have taught me the art of perseverance. I’ve always been a “grand gesture” writer, rather than a 2 page a day writer. You proved to me with your perseverance that slow and steady really DOES win the race. So I’m re-training myself. 🙂

  • Oh, Jenny, Jenny, Jenny (a little Margie there 🙂 … there isn’t a single thing in this post I don’t own … lock … stock … and ten completed novels, twenty short stories and a completed literary novella !! I’ve blogged for almost four years now and half of it could be compiled into a humorous memoir. I’ve heard … “Why aren’t you published?” “When are you going to stop being afraid and get out there?” “Just do it.” “Query the damn thing.”

    Okay, so I did query with three of them enough to qualify me as a PRO with RWA. Gees, I don’t even write romance novels and already I was a PRO? I had a short and long list of agents. I researched publishers, I read posts, books, bought courses, attended workshops, watched webinars and of course, I read this blog all the time.

    I think we learn at our own pace, and instinctively know when what we do is really good. It hardly matters how we get from Chapter One to The End. I don’t buy into the debate of panster or plotter because I think I use a bit of each. I am a hybrid, a combo kind of gal. New writers get too caught up in process and perhaps listen too much. Before they have the chance to learn, they are in danger of ruining their own voice. You don’t do high octaves if you are a born alto. You don’t let the ballet teacher put the five year old on point. We learn as we try. We learn as we fail. And failure is something I’m all too familiar with. Started and lost three businesses. Filed Chapter 13. Got evicted during the Great Blizzard of 1978 with two babies in tow. Gotta fail to succeed.

    And about fear? I truly believe that women more than men … are more frightened of success than they are of failure. Failure or mediocrity is what we were told was our lot. It was success that we were never prepared to handle. And here I am writing another post to your post.

    Know that I love you and this group for what you share and teach. And this year. The year I got a dream cottage, a new computer, a new used car and started an on-line business … this year … I will get a deal. How do I know that? The same way I knew the other work wasn’t ready. I know because I’ve stopped being afraid of me 🙂

  • Fabulous. One of my favorite moments with my therapist was when she charged me with removing “should” from my vocabulary. Major “whoa” moment. 🙂

    • That is a major “whoa” moment, Ellen. It’s an extremely demoralizing word. I’ve not been able to completely ban it yet, but I’m working on it. 🙂

  • Jenny, your words really grabbed me today: writing isn’t for sissies. Love it! Thanks for the encouragement. When I get on Twitter later, I’ll link to this post.

  • As to how we create our art, there certainly are no rules. Those who finish have used a million different methods, plus one single ingredient: persistence.

    What do you think of the contrast between methodology, how we get it done, and craft, the fact that, as you say, there are only 6 stories? Complete immersion in Larry Brooks’ “Story Engineering” keeps reminding me that, yes, there are aspects to craft which are universal. Skip one, execute it poorly, and we’ll deliver sub-par. Know them and nail them, and the results will show it.

    I’m just grasping the difference myself; how I write is mine to create; what I write has rules, core aspects which can’t be ignored, must be learned and believed.

    • I’m learning the persistence part, and always (always!) working on craft. Next up for me is more Margie Lawson and a course on “Writing the Emotional Draft.” I still need to buy Story Engineering. I haven’t done that yet and Laura raves about it too. 🙂

  • Terri-Lynne DeFino

    I was pointed here by a writing friend; this is a lot of really great advice. Really great. The best part, most basic writing “rule” is: done is better than good. I cannot tell you how many friends I have who never finish anything because they’re waiting for it to be worthy of BIGness. Oy. I’ll be sharing this.

    • Thanks, Terri-Lynne! We hope to see you back soon. And yeah…”Done is better than good” has been a really hard lesson for me.

      We appreciate you sharing us!

  • Great post, Jenny , and I agree Thou Shalt Not Quit is the number one thought to keep out in front because fear can creep in at any time during a writer’s career (thanks for the reminder!). Life after publishing can also be a challenge when your work is out there among readers’ comments and reviewers’ starred or one-starred reviews. Joyce Carol Oates has gotten some terrible reviews and nasty reader comments along her way, even though she is proclaimed to be one of America’s most prolific, successful, and brilliantly gifted writers. I wonder how she handles it? Getting a negative criticism from a reader or reviewer is often a jolt for many of us. Perseverance is key throughout the life of a writer.

    • I think the really smart writers, artists of all kinds, ignore feedback from people who were never their target fans in the first place. Shun the non-believers, as they say in Charlie the Unicorn.

      Those who lambaste a work which others regard as brilliant aren’t “right” about their criticism. They’re just the wrong audience. It’s vital to ignore their perhaps well-meaning but misguided feedback. Its purpose would only be to turn YOU into the writer THEY want, when in fact, that writer is someone else.

    • Isn’t that negative criticism supposed to mean you’ve arrived? 🙂

      Agree that the challenges in a creative career remain constant, whether you’re at the beginning or already entrenched. That’s what writer friends are for…to help you get through it.

  • amyskennedy

    I’m in love with this post. I write in scenes too! Out of order! Have tried to stop and then you know what happens…I don’t write anything. I really have to free myself from other people’s expectations. Thanks Jenny!

    • Awwww, thanks Amy! Yep, that scene writing is definitely hard to keep in order, but the brain works the way the brain works. Scrivener has been a godsend to me because now I can write in whatever order I want! I just wiggle them around when I’m done.

  • Super post, Jenny! And y’all’s comments are right on. The year I was president of my NTRWA chapter is why I’m going to be published this summer. Every president’s column was about “Keep On, Keeping On.” The messages were to me! I was so ready to give it all up. I only held on because of my responsibility to the group. That year I bid on and won a 1/2 price trip to Margie Lawson’s magic mountain. (A little illiteration.) I’d decided I’d give it one more push. Margie was certainly the giant push I needed. All summer long, I toiled through her packets getting Vermont Escape ready so I wouldn’t be too embarrased. She and my Stellar Scribes sisters took that book to new heights. By the time I finished applying all the tools, I knew it was good. I sent to 10 more e-pubs with the idea if no one bit, I was ready to indie pub. As things turned out I had two offers and MuseItUp will bring out the book this summer, and I didn’t have to learn how to do all the technical stuff! LOL I’ve got my on blog now, Thoughts on Thursday http://marsharwest.com/category/blog.

    A Lot of changes since Feb. 5 when I signed.

    At another Margie conference, I drew a star from her basket of stars, a quote from James Michener: “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” I keep it ever before me, because in my heart, I think the words “should” come out perfect the first time. Mine so don’t! 🙂 The quote makes it okay. My editing/rewriting process is lengthy, but it works for me.

    So, Jenny, you are so correct with the 3 rules. Not quitting is paramount. The “should” thing is tough for me. I’m a rule follower, and I just want to be able to follow them. But it doesn’t always work that way for writers. And of course, # 3, finish the book. I’ve finished 6, Vermont Escape is number 4. Still working my lenghty editing process with 5 & 6. 🙂 I’m in awe of your process, being a lenier (sp?) person. I’m excited you’ve found “your” process, because that’s what matters. Thank you again for another super post. I’ve learned so much from WITS.

    • Marsha, congratulations on all these bright spots in your career recently! I love all your quotes and you just can’t go wrong with taking your work to Margie Lawson on the mountain. 🙂

      p.s. Our own Sharla Rae was president of NTRWA many moons ago. How small is this world??!

  • Every time I make a “rule” about my writing, I break it the first day. Thanks for reassuring me that I was being silly by making, rather than breaking, my own rules! 🙂

  • Love this, Jenny. I’ve met to many writers that find themselves on the verge of giving up when they get too caught up in the “shoulds”. The shoulds can be pretty crippling!

    • Amber, I was almost one of them! Julia Cameron, the gals here at WITS and my personal blog, More Cowbell, all pulled me back from that very scary ledge filled with ‘shoulds’ and despair. I’m definitely speaking from experience with this post. 🙂

      (Thanks for your sweet comment, friend!!)

  • Fabulous article. I tweeted it, posted it to Pinterest and Facebook. As someone who has litany of shoulds in her head, this article really hit a chord.

    • Thank you, Chris! We appreciate it so much. Now, get those “shoulds” out of your head, girlfriend, so you can write all those stories inside you. 🙂

  • Wow! Three great writers’ commandments, Jenny! And I’ve learned through my own life lessons that “shoulda, woulda, coulda” are the three worst words in my vocabulary. Just go with life as it unfolds. Just go with my writing. Everyone writes in their own way, just as everyone writes in their own voice. That first quote is so spot on: There are three rules for writing—and no one knows what they are!

  • I really enjoyed your post. Your rules are ones that writers might consider taking to heart.

    (Notice that I avoided the “s” word – should. It’s a word that by its very nature is judgemental. It’s one we do not allow in our home. We find other words to convey our feelings without judgement.)

    Thank you for not only the solid information, but also, the heart that it conveys.

    Smiles,

    Linda Joyce

    • Thanks, Linda! I’ll take your smile and send one right back.

      The heart is what’s most important in all our writing, isn’t it? We definitely love sharing our hearts with our readers here at WITS. 🙂

  • Hey Jenny! Fantastic advice here. Your excerpt from Natalie Hartford in Commandment #3 reminds me of an little engineering mantra: “It’s easier to get a working system optimised than it is to get an optimised system working.” I think that applies to writing too. Finish the story first. Get it working from start to finish. Then clean it up and make it work even better. I’m still fighting my bad habit of polishing every paragraph before moving on to the next. That was one reason I did NaNo last year. I thought that would help. It did, but at 51K words in 30 days the novel still isn’t finished! But it made a lot of difference. I’m currently working on a serial novel which probably doesn’t help. I feel the need to polish each chapter before putting it up.

    • Good for you, doing NaNoWriMo!! I think it actually takes a few rounds of that for the magic to really seep all the way in so I hope you do it again this year (with me!). I love it too. I never win, but I’m delighted with the 20-30K of new words I get each November.

      An as an IT gal, I can definitely concur that if you didn’t optimise in the first place, it’s all up hill from there. We speak of database design that way. 🙂

  • Like everyone else, I love this post. Fortunately for me, I tend to have a bit of a rebellious nature so it’s been awhile since some of these things have affected me. Mostly because while I’m a firm believer in obeying laws…I hate rules. I don’t want to join most clubs because I think too many rules are stupid…and unnecessary, established by people who have an ‘I’m the boss’ complex.

    Somewhere along the line, I think that some of those same people decided they were the final authorities on how writers should write. ‘You have to have an outline.’ ‘If you have to have an outline, you’re not a real writer.’ And don’t even think of beginning a sentence with ‘and.’ The list goes on and on and on. And on.

    AND (sorry, I’m feeling rebellious, lol)…I think it’s cause writing to more of a chore than it needs to be. There are too many authors who are afraid of ‘doing it wrong,’ when there are only a few basic things we really need to do. Read…a lot. Read what we want to write, read what we don’t want to write, read books about the craft, take good advice from people we trust, and just do our best.

    Like you, I wrote Enza as a compilation of scenes. It drove one person nuts, and they were actually quite irritated because it didn’t make sense. It wasn’t supposed to at that point. All I wanted was an opinion on what I had so far, and they wanted the finished product. I learned a lesson then…never give a book written that way to a proof/beta reader until after you’ve added the less important scenes that tie everything together.

    Do I have any writing commandments? Yeah. 1. Write the story that’s floating around in my head, and write it to the very best of my ability. 2. Learn everything I can…but only apply what works for me. 3. Write for the people who like the stories I need to tell. They probably wouldn’t help a lot of people, but they’re my commandments. 🙂

    • What a gorgeous comment, Kristy! It’s nice to see you over here at WITS. 🙂

      I totally dig your three commandments…looks like a great blog post for you. Don’t you think that would be awesome?!

  • Reblogged this on Ella Quinn ~ Author and commented:
    Another great post from WITS

  • Great post. I tweeted and reblogged.

  • I love this! Thank you so much for sharing. I am a pantster. I couldn’t use an outline to save my life and I don’t know how people organize their thoughts that way. (I never colored inside the lines as a child and never used the paint by numbers as directed either. Too limiting) It boggles my mind. ;o)
    With that said, I sometimes skip around and write a chapter or two…the parts that are SCREAMING to be let out. Then I go back and tie it in. So am I a hybrid? lol

    Keep up the most excellent work! ;o)

    Hugs,
    Suzan

  • Thank God. I thought you were going to tell me yet another rule I cannot agree to…but you didn’t. you are most reasonable in your rules.

  • I’m glad that you posted this…I keep hearing that I need to write straight through…but like you, I don’t work that way, I write the bit I’m excited to write about at that moment and “stitch” later…and it works just fine 🙂

  • Love the post Jen and so true. I always get hung up on rules a lot of agents and editors spout. I think my favorite one to hate is “write from the heart.” It’s such a big fat lie. Unless you are an indie and then go for it and prove everyone wrong. 🙂 These days, I believe you “must” pay attention to what’s being purchased and then look ahead to gamble on what the future hot stuff will be. Kind of deciding where to invest your money. 🙂 I think I have a new blog idea! Ha!

    • I do think you need to have your heart in your book if you are going to be able to sustain it all the way to “the end.” But that doesn’t mean that you have to write about ninja socks if that’s your passion.

      Your passion had better be a bit universally appealing if you want to be a commercial success.

  • Krista Mettler

    That’s it!!! That’s what I am… a scene writer. I don’t writer in a linear fashion at all. I simply cannot outline in advance because the stories don’t present themselves to me in that fashion. I write completely out of order and stitch it all together as well. My linear writer friends cannot fathom how I manage to pull this off, but I have finished three manuscripts this way and have two more in various stages of completion. I know, just as surely as a linear writer does, where my story is going and how I need to get there. I know my characters’ motivations, personality traits, back stories. I sometimes felt that I was doing it “wrong,” and reading this post was a lovely reminder that my way is the right way for me. Just because I don’t outline (and then have a bear of a time doing a synopsis after I’m done), doesn’t mean it’s wrong if it works and I finish and the end result is what I wanted it to be and I’m happy with it.

    Thank you for posting this. It was a nice reminder that what works for some does not work for others and the way I write is just fine, thanks!

  • These are utterly fabulous! I guess a couple of my own personal commandments would be:
    1. THOU SHALT KEEP LEARNING. When I first started writing, I didn’t want to read books on writing…because hey, I knew what made a good story. But at some point, I learned how much I still needed to learn. And now I’m devoted to being a lifetime student of craft. I don’t take the advice I read as “shoulds” for me, but rather suggestions that I can use or discard as they work/don’t work for me. But why not learn from those who have been successful?
    2. THOU SHALT PRIORITIZE. Maybe there’s a better way to say that, but essentially I must put writing the book above all of the other writer-related tasks. That’s easier said than done some days. It takes determination to set aside time and put your fingers-on-keyboard/butt-in-chair and put words on the page. But to be a writer, I have to prioritize.
    Excellent post, Jenny! I will be saving and sharing. 🙂

  • OMG. Jenny Hansen did I ever need this post. I’m bookmarking it! I am driving myself nuts. I’m having an awful time focusing on my writing. Thank you so much for sharing your method with us. Who cares how you put down your story. The point is…you get it done. It’s your method and it works for you. 9 books? Wow, are you going to be busy! 🙂

  • Yvette Carol

    Ha ha, brilliant, Jenny. I laughed! I thought setting it out as ‘commandments’ idea was really funny. The boo, hiss, throws tomatoes comment cute too. I think that dreaded ‘S’ word should be chopped out of popular diction. It ruins everything! Talk about a creativity killer, right? 🙂

  • […] ten or more. Like a lot of rules, we tend to break them at some point and so I pass along author Jenny Hansen’s post on her three, especially because of her #2: “Thou shalt not adopt nonsensical […]

  • Good tips. I think most people quit because they don’t follow #2 and don’t work at it long enough to learn what actually works for them. Discouragement follows, etc. There’s so much noise out there, very easy to get overwhelmed. I’m bookmarking this and will refer to it again.

  • […] 3 Writer’s Commandments and the Dreaded “S” Word by Jenny Hansen […]