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Grisham's writing commandments

Posted by Simon Parke, 03 November 2017, 2.23pm

John Grisham recently offered us some writing tips.

Well, they’re commandments really, given from some way up the mountain of success.

What works for Mr Grisham may not work for you or I.

But for us aspiring/jobbing/wondering authors, his words may start a conversation within ourselves about our practice, which is always good…as long as it doesn’t go on too long, paralysing our will.

So here goes: John’s eight writing commandments.

1. WRITE A PAGE EVERY DAY – ‘Nothing will happen until you are producing at least one page per day.’

John here focuses on the discipline of writing - if we wish it to be a job rather than a hobby. It’s about turning up and getting writing…rather than getting distracted.

2. DON’T WRITE THE FIRST SCENE UNTIL YOU KNOW THE LAST ‘Writers waste years pursuing stories that eventually don’t work,’ says John.

I understand his fears. He warns here against unstructured (and self-indulgent?) drift; though I don’t obey this commandment.

I feel writing is best as an adventure, when the author and their characters share responsibility for the outcome.

I have no idea where I will end up, because communities aren’t like that. You don’t know what people are going to do.

Of course, after the first draft, the adventuring is largely done, and it is more about editing than writing; about bringing order, precision and clarity. But first, enjoy the adventure.

(I think John is an excellent beginner of books, absorbing straight away; but a less good ender, which is the harder craft.)

3. WRITE YOUR ONE PAGE EACH DAY AT THE SAME PLACE AND TIME – ‘go to the same place, shut the door. No exceptions, no excuses.’

We’re back with the value of discipline and routine here; shut the door, yes, you will need to do that. You must leave home even if you haven’t left home.

Though I’m not getting too hung up about the ‘each day’ thing. Sometimes I need to be elsewhere to earn some money (I’m aware John doesn’t); and sometimes I’m on holiday, when I prefer to read, to absorb new things.

4. DON’T WRITE A PROLOGUE – He calls prologues ‘gimmicks to hook the reader.’

I’m not sure why he is so against these. Is there anything wrong in hooking the reader if they are open to being hooked?

I agree prologues are a last resort; an admission that your prose is going to struggle, without some help.

Plunging straight into the story is clearly the best approach, and let the reader find their way, as and when…trust their intelligence.

But we don’t have to be precious about it and occasionally - if you’re taking us to a very different time and place - there’s no crime in a scene-setting prologue, before you plunge…to ease the explanatory burden in the prose.

Explanatory prose/dialogue can feel clunky. With historical fiction, it has to be carefully handled.

Historical films, (like Frankie Howerd) use prologues to simple effect. ‘The year is 1588. England lives in fear of invasion…etc’

5. USE QUOTATION MARKS WITH DIALOGUE

Not controversial.

6. DON’T KEEP A THESAURUS WITHIN REACHING DISTANCE – Concentrate on words you already know, spiced up with some words you should know… but not words nobody knows.

Grisham maintains that a thesaurus encourages writers to use words nobody knows. And really, what is gained by that?

I use a thesaurus for variety of expression rather than incomprehensibility or to impress.

Words are carefully chosen but discreet operators, creating a climate. If the reader notices the words, I feel the writer has failed in some way.

7. READ EACH SENTENCE AT LEAST THREE TIMES IN SEARCH OF WORDS TO CUT.

So yes, always be looking to cut; prune and prune again. And then again.

Though in my books, each line has been read/spoken out loud about fifty times rather than three…

8. DON’T INTRODUCE 20 CHARACTERS IN THE FIRST CHAPTER. ‘Five names are enough to get started,’ says John.

I’d even suggest less than five…two seems ideal. With both the Abbot Peter series and my historical fiction, ‘The soldier, the gaoler, the spy and her lover,’ I think it’s always two.

So there we have it. Eight commandments from on high.

You will come to your own view, for no two writers are the same.

And if in doubt, though numbers are not the only truth, do remember that John has sold a zillion more books than me.

 
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