Shortly after writing last week’s blog on Reader Expectations, I came across an article that fit right in with that post. Here’s the link:
Grisham listed eight points. Because it’s a NY Times Book Review article, it may or may not be available down the road, so I’m going to list the points I want to emphasize (using his numbers).
Grisham first qualifies his advice as suggestions because, as he says, “…advice is usually ignored and rules are routinely broken.”
2: DON’T WRITE THE FIRST SCENE UNTIL YOU KNOW THE LAST.
He says that this usually means you need an outline and that most writers hate to outline. Both parts of that statement are pretty much true. I’ve been known to use an outline from time to time. At the very least, I jot down notes about the plot. I’ve known writers who write mostly by the seat of the pants and develop the story as they go, but few inexperienced writers can pull it off successfully, and those who do will usually need extensive revisions. Seat-of-the-pants writing (often called pantsing) generally requires dedication and focus on the part of the writer with few outside distractions. I pulled it off once, with my first novel because it was the only thing I was writing. However, while I achieved a decent first draft as a result, being my first novel, it took quite a bit longer to polish it. Nowadays, I have to outline, at least mentally and use liberal notes. I would not write anything today without having some idea of an ending when I begin.
As Grisham points out, some writers spend years pursuing stories that aren’t viable in the end. Using a rough outline will help you avoid that scenario. It’s much easier to spend a little time sketching out your story idea to see if it will work than to go in blind and find out that you have to start over or scrap the project entirely after you’ve wasted so much time on it. Grisham’s advice is good advice. Unless and until you’re an experienced writer, you should have some sort of roadmap to guide you initially. You can always modify it, but going in blind as an inexperienced writer will lead to frustration down the road, when had you planned ahead, you could have saved yourself a lot of that frustration.
Don’t forget: We’re talking fiction here. Biographies, memoirs, and real life stories you have little control over if events in the lives of those involved are still ongoing. Be sure you have contingencies for those if things don’t work out as you planned.
4: DON’T WRITE A PROLOGUE.
Grisham advises this because prologues too often serve as gimmicky hooks. I’ve seen them used as repositories for backstory or to introduce the characters. A well-written prologue might be successful. A poorly written one can kill your book before it begins. Prologues in books are often the sign of an inexperienced writer. And unless that prologue is a killer, your reader will realize that he’s in the hands of an amateur—and maybe put dowen the book.
Until you understand why most of the time you shouldn’t use a prologue, then you likely do not yet have the writing skill to know when one is appropriate and how to write it well.
5: DO USE QUOTATION MARKS WITH DIALOGUE.
Grisham says, “Please do this.” I say, “It’s one of those reader expectations.” I said last time that deviating from reader expectations and using a style too far outside the norm can cost you readers. More power to those writers who ignore style conventions purely for the sake of “art” and who don’t care about whether they have readers or not. Maybe they’ll get lucky.
6: DON’T KEEP A THESAURUS WITHIN REACHING DISTANCE.
This is one of my favorites. Grisham says, “There are three types of words: (1) words we know; (2) words we should know; (3) words nobody knows.” Unless you’re trying to teach vocabulary to your readers or show off (which only a handful of readers might appreciate), then stick with category 1 words most of the time and deviate with care.
7: DO READ EACH SENTENCE AT LEAST THREE TIMES IN SEARCH OF WORDS TO CUT.
Another favorite of mine. This should be self-explanatory. The result of following this Grisham pearl of wisdom will streamline your writing and make it interesting. Nobody appreciates bloated prose. Here’s a quick exercise: In the sentence below, cut the number of words in the following sentence by at least a third (and even in half) so that it says the same thing, only stronger.
“I looked at him, narrowed my eyes, and while shaking my head I brought a finger to my lips to indicate that he should not say anything.”
8: DON’T INTRODUCE 20 CHARACTERS IN THE FIRST CHAPTER.
Again, this should be self-explanatory and self-evident as well (sadly it isn’t to some new writers). Grisham advises no more than five characters in your first chapter. My thought is even that could be overkill unless properly handled.
Going along with this one is the caution about referring to the same character by different names just because you think you need to mix things up. If your character Mildred St. James also has a title and is someone’s relative, don’t frequently mix the references to her: Countess, Her Ladyship, Aunt Mildred, and Ms. St. James. Not only have I seen this done, but I’ve seen the author do the same for several characters in the space of a few pages. Talk about confusing a reader!
That’s Grisham’s list. Do I have any personal ones to add? Oh, I have plenty, but I’m only going to add one here:
DON’T OVERUSE LONG PARAGRAPHS!
I see this so much among new writers. Long paragraphs can be difficult to read, and they can bore a reader. Give your reader a break. Use moderation and common sense and break your paragraphs in logical places. At the same time, don’t go too far the other way and overdo the short, one-sentence paragraphs. Balance your writing and paragraph size. Be especially careful of long paragraphs that explain or describe without any action. (Action scenes shouldn’t have long paragraphs anyway.) Be careful of longwinded speeches. They may be justified, but try to break those up strategically, perhaps with a listener asking a question when appropriate or some action to break the mesmerizing spell of extended prose.
A story that begins with a long paragraph could alienate your reader on page one. The days when writers like Henry James could write page-long sentences are in the past. You won’t win any fans by attempting to copy that style today.