3 Writer’s Commandments and Avoiding The Dreaded “S” Word

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 LawsonSusan Mallery and Stephen J. Cannell who know way more than I do on the subject.

However, since this is the blog about MORE, 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.

My own critique partner, 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 structure. I believe you do. A novel without structure? That’s 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’s 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 truly like 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…

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 fear comes from Susan and Harry Squires: Think Small. 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. [They explain how our brains work in terms of creativity.]

Do you have some hard and fast “writing commandments?” What are they? What’s guaranteed to take you the other direction and hold up your process? What’s your position on the “S” word? Enquiring minds always want to know these things here at More Cowbell!

Jenny

Final, final thought: September 11 is a day of remembrance here in the U.S. Here’s a link with a plethora of ways to commemorate the day if you wish. I really appreciated the Downloadable Suggestions for Talking to Children about 9/11. 

Thank you to all of you who give service to our country. Freedom isn’t free and we appreciate your sacrifice!

About Jenny Hansen

Avid seeker of "more"...More words, more creativity, More Cowbell! An extrovert who's terribly fond of silliness. Founding blogger at Writers In The Storm (http://writersinthestormblog.com). Write on!
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59 Responses to 3 Writer’s Commandments and Avoiding The Dreaded “S” Word

  1. LauraDrake says:

    Thanks for the shout out, Jenny! My writing commandment wasn’t about writing at all – but it sure applies:

    “Brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want something badly enough. They are there to keep out the other people.
    – Randy Pausch ( 1960-2008 )

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  2. I loathe the word should, Jenny.

    I wrote my first two novels in the blissful state of Unconscious Ignorance. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. After I studied craft (Faves? Margie Lawson and Donald Maass), it slowed me down. MRUs, Scene/Sequel, required pp to turning points for ## of pages. ACK! RULES!

    The person who used should was a goofball named Gloria Bertha Higgenbotham (with side-kick inner-editor, Gracie). My critique buddies kept saying, “just write. You can fix it later.”

    I still edit a bit as I go, but I set myself free to get in voice and write. Sadly, I’m not a NaNo or Fast Drafter. I end up with hog-wash that requires HazMat suits for clean-up. But, I can write more and better if I let myself write the scene at my own pace, knowing I’m the only one who will see it until I decide it’s ready for critique. And, I do have a separate file on my desktop for “out-of-sequence” scenes. The file may be largely comprised of intimate (secks) scenes…*whistling as I be-bop away*

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  3. zkullis says:

    Jenny, this was such a good post. I feel like the poster child for noob authors, the quintessential fledgling writer. With one selfpubbed e-book under my belt, a full time job that takes much more than 40 hours each week, and a knack for autocriticism, it is easy to get sidelined by issues that your three commandments address.

    Thanks for the booster shot!

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    • Jenny Hansen says:

      There’s nothing wrong with being a noob author, Zack. Wallow in it…that feeling only comes for a short time in a writer’s career.🙂

      I too work a LOT and have a ton of things that sidetrack me but, I’ve learned to trick myself into getting my writing done. Whatever works is my motto.

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  4. K.B. Owen says:

    Great post! I think it’s terrific that you’ve found what works for you. I know BASICALLY what works for me – I’m a plotter – but I’m still working on coming up with a consistent, duplicatable approach that I can use with each novel, to streamline the process and make it more efficient. ‘Cause, you know, I’m going to be writing SOOOO many books!😉

    Thanks for the tips and inspiration, Jenny!

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    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Kathy, don’t let my excitement fool you. I’m still discovering new things about my process all the time. It’s just SO much further than it was 5 years ago, it’s like and entirely different planet!

      I can’t wait to see all of those soooo many books.🙂 (Oh, and thank you back for all the inspiration.)

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  5. MarinaSofia says:

    I love these – short, simple, memorable. There really is nothing more complex than that. You’re galvanizing me into action, thank you so much!

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  6. Great commandments, Jenny. I will write these down and pin them to my motivation board. t’s great that you’ve found a writing process that works for you. It mixes the best sides of pantsing and plotting🙂

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  7. Diana Beebe says:

    The S word was my nemsis for a long time. I’m still figuring out my style. I’ve done the linear way and found that I rearranged scenes a lot. I’m writing by scenes now–so far, I’m enjoying the process more. I love your commandments!

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  8. Yes, yes, yes!!! Well-said Jenny!! I too am a scene-writer . . . I just don’t do linear thinking so well. More important is your disbelief in the “shoulds” of writing. I prefer to think in “coulds” or in terms of what’s going to work in my book that I’m writing. The rules of other writers (particularly the ones who can’t write fiction for a damn) mean very little to me. And the main rule: don’t quit–exactly. I love this post!

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  9. Juliana Haygert says:

    Great post, Jenny! I agree with everything!
    I confess I struggle with the finish everything you start part, and I heard of several “famous” writers that they don’t finish everything they start, but I guess we have to try … a lot of ideas sound good and then, when you start working on it, it sinks … but yeah, I guess it’s better to finish and get to THE END, then trunk it if necessary, than to leave there and never find out if it could be good or not😉

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  10. That #2 is pure cracklesauce. The day you figured out you were trying to write like ‘they’ thought you should was a day of freedom for you. We all have different styles and we need to embrace our unique way of doing it. Rules are there as guidelines, nothing more. Once you understand the rules, then you can break them. I got total heebie jeebies from how you write and I’m not a planner at all. I totally pants my way through a book, but it does need to be linear. Except, I write the first scene and the last scene for every book I start. That way, I at least know how it’s going to end, I just need to get there. It’s like knowing what your Christmas present is, but that you have to wait until Christmas day to get it. I love that!

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  11. Jess Witkins says:

    I love this post. I mean love it. I mean I want to print it out and paint pretty watercolors over it and pin it up above my laptop. I so appreciate your honest review of the sticking points so many of us fall into. My big one to be finish what I started. Over the course of last year, I think I restarted my MS no less than 9 times! That’s sickening to think about how much time I wasted and all because I didn’t have clear direction and I threw it out there to that critique group and got all these new ideas, but it wasn’t what I wanted to write anymore.

    So I started over again. With a whole new story. And this time, I’m finishing it. I’m taking your advice and Candace Havens advice that it’s a lot easier to revise a page with words on it than a blank one. And I’ve stopped reading what I wrote before I write. That’s another sticking point. I’m too critical, and if I read my previous work I never get past it. I’m always editing it.

    I’ll share a funny example with you. During Fast Draft after DFW Con I was writing with a vengeance. I never looked at what I wrote before and like you wrote scenes out of order, and wrote stuff from my life or things I’d read or saw into the story to keep it moving. Then “life happened” and I hadn’t written in forever. So I had to go back and read a bit just to remember where I was. Well, I’d found much to my denial I’d written in a severe accident scene, a sex scene, and made my villain very wicked indeed! Gosh, I was busy while I was writing. I don’t know if all those scenes will stay in the book, but at least it got me moving forward and led to other places/ideas for my characters.

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    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Sweet girl…it breaks my heart to think of you going through all that angst. I’m glad you’re finding some things that work for you, especially on the finishing front. I feel your pain like it was yesterday.

      And I don’t find it surprising AT ALL that your wicked self-conscious would have come up with all those scenes. You’ve got a naughty girls floating juuuuuust under the surface. I love it!

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  12. Excellent post. And I find it funny because I bought into the “shoulds” but in the opposite way from you. When I was a newbie writer, I heard so much about how the best writers just sat down and wrote. They didn’t plan. They allowed their muse and characters to control the story. So I thought that my desire to plan my stories was wrong, but whenever I tried to write without a plan, I ended up frustrated, with pages of garbage, and no clue how to fix it. I had to embrace the fact that I’m a super-structured linear writer who plans down to the minute details. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered my way wasn’t wrong. In fact, there were many other writers like me.

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    • Jenny Hansen says:

      LOL…isn’t that the way of it? We’re always surrounded by the opposite of what we are. I’m definitely also mobbed by the pantsers, but all of mine are linear. They only write in order.

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  13. bronjonesnz says:

    Thank you Jenny for an inspirational post. I too am going along this journey.

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  14. Karen McFarland says:

    Can you imagine how boring it would be if we all attempted to be the same? Well yes, most of us do like sameness in our life. You know, the sameness that keeps us sane. But we all can’t be stepford writers. Where would our individual voices be and who would read our stories? I love this post Jenny. Why do we all struggle to fit into a single mold? It makes no sense, yet we all at one time in our lives try to do it. And we drive ourselves completely crazy! I just love this. I don’t know how you manage to do it Jenny, but you have a knack for helping others feel better about themselves. Which is a rare gift.🙂

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  15. My pet peeve is actually hearing or saying “I’ll try.” I follow Master Yoda’s philosophy of “There is no try. Do or do not.” Whenever I hear things like that or find myself starting to say it, I remember that “trying” to me, is half way to quitting. And I’m not quitter. 🙂 I guess you’d say that’s my one hard and fast rule. Do it. What have you got to lose, right?

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    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I totally dig that Yoda. Best. Quote. Ever.

      I’m no quitter either, but I’ll confess to (often) having to try things a few times before I get in the groove.

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      • Eh, there’s a big difference between implementing several different methods until you find the one that works for you…”let me try it this way and see if this works better” v. A generalized “I’ll try”. One is a workable solution. The other is a cop out. I’ve got to say, I really loved reading your post…and all the resulting responses!

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  16. Good post Jenny. I think we each have to find our process. I took 3 years off from writing and had to re-learn my process. It was fun and exhilarating and dellightful. thanks for all the great reminders.

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  17. Julie Glover says:

    Figuring out your own process is one of the biggest things about writing. I have learned so much from reading craft books, but I now glean what works for me and leave the rest. Great advice, Jenny!

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  18. Debra Kristi says:

    😀 I totally get this. I don’t believe I ever had a problem with that particular word, but there is always a word that will be my Kryptonite with which I will struggle to keep my use under control. Enjoyed this post. Thought I hit the comment button earlier today. See how I am? LOL.

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  20. Thank you, Jenny. This brightened my morning a bit! I always get caught up in the “should” word. Reading this was like a breath of fresh air. And I agree about not giving up. I don’t know much about this pursuit except that there is no chance if persistence isn’t a factor. That’s all I can say I know for sure!

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  21. annerallen says:

    Fantastic advice. Especially about the “shoulds.” I’m so tired of people who trot out millions of rules that only serve to make your work identical to every other thing out there. Embrace your quirks!

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    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thanks so much, Anne! You’re one of my online goddesses – I admire how balanced you manage to stay. It’s hard to do in today’s world where things fly by at the speed of light. I appreciate you taking time to stop and comment.🙂

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  22. Sharla Rae says:

    Good advice. I think most of us know this stuff but we SO need a reminding kick in the tush and we need it often.🙂

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  23. lynettemburrows says:

    Great advice, Jenny. I think I would add only one more ‘rule’: Write your passion. Don’t write what you think might sell, don’t write what you think you shou– ooops, almost used the “S” word here. Write what you care deeply about – character, plot, theme, style, genre – whatever. If it doesn’t excite you, it won’t excite your reader.

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  24. Jenny: Reading this post is so “where I am at right now.” I am just following my heart and writing. Part of that is good – as I need to value my uniqueness. No cookie cutters, here. As I am relatively new to this whole blogging and creative writing form, this is an inspirational, necessary guide. I am so very appreciative. Just an observation – but so much of writing is a mental battle. Fear translates into so many forms. Thank you again. I plan on approaching this wonderful journey with a fearless attitude.

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    • Jenny Hansen says:

      That’s wonderful, Kristal. I’m so glad you’re getting to really embrace your journey. And writing is like 80% mental in my opinion. All the talent in the world won’t win out against perseverance.

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  26. Love it Jenny! Beautifully said and a timely reminder, as always.🙂 Off to read some of the links!!

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  27. Love this Jenny! I am bookmarking it for reference🙂 Just love when you talk about staying true to YOUR process. It’s essential in allowing our creativity to blossom. Thank you for this!!

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  28. Three most excellent rules! You nailed it. When I finished my first book, I sighed with relief and thought, “Now I’ve got it figured out, it will be easier next time.” LOL! Oh well, each book is a particular challenge, but I learn something new about myself as a writer. And when I get discouraged (which I always do!) I remind myself that I can’t edit a blank page or make it better. Probably the hardest thing for me is patience, allowing myself enough time to make it as good as I can make it.

    It’s such a grand time to be a writer and a grand adventure indeed. Great post!

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  30. Dawn says:

    Love this!
    One “trick” a friend recently taught me is to keep a notebook by the bedside and write your thoughts just before nodding off. Do I do this every night? No, but I’m working on it because for me it is PURE genius! I have had some of my best stuff pour out of my brain and onto the paper as I allow my whole self to just relax and reflect.
    Thanks for sharing – your advice has not failed me yet!

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