Sunday, June 19, 2011

10 Commandments for Writers

James Scott Bell





Back when I started teaching writing to others, in a moment of what can only be described as great hubris, I jotted down 10 Commandments for Writers. Recently I dug up the document and took a fresh look. And you know what? I think they're still pretty good. I've tweaked them a bit for updating purposes, but they remain essentially the same as when I first wrote them. And while I don't have them engraved on stone tablets – yet – I offer them here for your perusal:

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. 

(UPDATE: I used to advocate a daily quota, but I changed it to weekly because inevitably you miss days, or life intrudes, and you can run yourself down for "missing" your quota. So set up a weekly quota, divide it by days, and if you miss one day make it up on the others).

So important is this commandment that I posted a video on it.

2. Thou Shalt write passionate first drafts
           
Don't edit yourself during your first drafts. The writing of it is partly an act of discovering your story, even if you outline. Write hot. Put your heart into it. Let your writer's mind run free. I edit my previous day's work and then move on. At 20k words I "step back" to see if I have a solid foundation, shore it up if I don't, then move on to the end. There's magic in momentum.

 

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 experience, 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. Thou Shalt get thy story running from the first paragraph
           
Start with a character, confronted with change or threat or challenge. This is the opening "disturbance" and that's what will hook readers. It doesn’t have to be something "big." Anything that sends a ripple through the "ordinary world" will do.

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.

(UPDATE: This one seems self-evident now, but at the time I was seeing manuscripts with scenes written for their style, not their substance. Another way to put this is the old advice to be ready to "kill your darlings.")

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 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.

So there's my ten. Comments welcome. Or maybe you have an Eleventh Commandment you'd like to add?

26 comments:

  1. Awesome, Jim! Thanks for these. I'm posting them by my computer to guide me. I'm currently dealing with what might be commandment 11 or 12, thou shalt not spend so much time in promotion that thou neglects thy writing.

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  2. As I'm reading, I'm thinking, this all sounds so familiar...hmmm... Oh yeah, now I remember. I just read some similar bits a couple of weeks ago. It was in this book, called something like, uh...no don't tell, let me think...Plot & Structure. Yeah, that's it. That's the book. A fantastic read! Everybody should read it. It's like the writing Bible.

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  3. Love it! Most of the Ten seem fairly obvious as you read them, but as you're writing, it's easy to lose sight of that "laser beam."

    Thanks for the reminder!

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  4. Brilliant! I want to post these on the wall above my desk. Thanks for the sage, concise advice. Always appreciated.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

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  5. Making trouble for my lead. I'm getting better at this. I used to have a nice girl complex but I'm getting over it now. *-)

    BK Jackson

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  6. I like your commandments, Jim--and your video. Your office looks like mine. ;) Thanks for another thought provoking post.

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  7. Great list, Jim. Your advice is always spot-on.

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  8. As always, writing advice by the bite-sized chunk. Thank you for that, Jim. Your books and seminars shape my writing daily. Thanks for continuing to inspire us!

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  9. Jim, These were a great help when I first read them (and weren't they really on stone tablets then?), and they're equally valuable now.
    I especially like this little nugget: "Simple three act structure: Get your Lead up a tree, throw things at him, get him down."
    Thanks for the way you've taught, encouraged, and helped me and so many others.

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  10. Thanks for all the kind words, everyone. I'll be on the road today, thinking about how to apply these to my next book. Happy Father's Day to all the Dads, too.

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  11. I like the idea of the weekly word count goal. I've always been nervous of word count goals because many years ago, I burned myself out with such a goal. I was trying to break into Hollywood, and a well-meaning person said I needed to write a script a week (a script was anywhere from 50-120 pages). That was literally what I did, and then suddenly, there simply wasn't anything there to write with.

    I could easily see the same thing happening with a daily word count goal. I was trying it at the recommendation of a writing course from another writer, but I wasn't happy with the results. I'd work late or not feel good or whatever, and it would be a struggle to get the daily minimum count.

    One thing I'm trying is rounding up. I check my last word count. We'll say it's 28,228. I add 300 to it (which is the number I started with while I'm getting used to it), so that's 28,528. Then I round the number up to the nearest hundred, so I end up with needing to reach 28,600. That way, it also ensures that if I just can't write one day, I will likely hit the weekly word count.

    Also got a network to do writing at lunch at work. This appears to be a very good time for me to write -- I usually hit 300 words in 30-40 minutes. Will be using it on a couple of flights I have to take later this summer, too.

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  12. Terrific post, Jim.

    I would respectfully add, Thou shalt make certain all characters have a stake in the proceedings.

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  13. These are wonderful commandments. They are ageless and hold true for all fiction writers. I like what Tammy says, too, about not getting carried away with promotion. That can suck your bones dry. I also offer my favorite quote from Galaxy Quest: "Never give up, never surrender!"

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  14. Hi Jim, What a great list! I'm passing these on to my writing students, which means I have to memorize them!

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  15. Thanks Jim, it always helps to have great reminders such as these! Going to print them out and stick them above my desk:)

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  16. Fantastic list! I'm still struggling with #1--some weeks my quota just goes out the window--but I'll keep trying!

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  17. I like how Yoda puts it, "There is no try. Do. Or do not."
    I'm learning that writing is more about hard work than talent.

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  18. Incredible post,hopefully one day I'll be able to be present for a live session on the subject.

    I did think of an eleventh commandment...11) Thou shalt never give up on yourself. This seems to go beyond the Rhino skin and focus on maintaining confidence in oneself against our own personal fears and worries.

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  19. Good stuff Jim.

    Here's a couple additions for Appendix B: Stuff you might want to consider too, maybe

    B-1. Thou shalt limit thine research to things that mayest not get thee torn asunder or maimed or badly scarred or puking out thine guts into a gutter or lest ye find thineself at the mercies of a foreign constabulary of legendary avarice and vice who likest not thee as thou art a "Stoopeed Melican."
    Avoid testing ballistic vests with your own body, getting into the octagon to find out what a sucker punch or groin kick really feels like, kicking a sleeping bear to see how fast he reacts, going to an opium/cocaine producers plantation to see how criminals really live, or eating that stuff the Bizarre Foods dude does...you might die.

    B-2. Thou shalt not try to instantly write down ideas that pop into thy mind while driving 80 mph down the highway in moose country. Pulleth thee over and park first.

    B-3. Thou shalt limit thine imbibement and libations to non intoxicating levels whilst writing, lest thou write with the likeness of thine ass or thine donkey or thine dumb-bunny Keep the Guinness to single pints an hour, and the liquor locked up or you're going to be redoing that whole chapter in the morning.

    B-4. Thou shalt not name thy evil femme villain after thine mother-in-law, especially be she Korean. For yeah though she canst not read thine English, she shall findeth thee out. Baaaaaad juju that one...thou shalt perish by rectal kimchi flames of hell.

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  20. This is one of the more helpful posts I've read in awhile! I'm hooked!...and printing them off to post in my office :) Thanks!

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  21. Really love this. The one that smacked me in the face was "Write passionate first drafts." I edit myself all the time--my order at Starbucks is carefully edited--so this is really hard for me. I liked reading your process, and knowing it's okay to be passionate and edit it later. Great 10!

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  22. I have several of your books and love them, so when you speak, I listen. I'm posting a link to this article on my own site. Thanks!

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  23. What an amazing set of commandments! I wilt follow them all from now on. :D

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  24. Informative I like it. I want to share this to others. I want to get the excerpt of this Ten Commandments and link it here for the detailed explanation.

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