5 Pieces of Writing Advice You Should Ignore

bad writing advice

Today’s post is an excerpt adapted from Just Write by James Scott Bell (@jamesscottbell), recently published by Writer’s Digest Books.


Some time ago I cheekily posted on my group blog, Kill Zone, the three rules for writing a novel. The post produced a spirited discussion on what is a “rule” and what is a “principle,” but by and large there was agreement that these three factors are essential to novels that sell:

  1. Don’t bore the reader.
  2. Put characters in crisis.
  3. Write with heart.

But here I’d like to discuss some writing advice writers would do well to ignore.

Where does such advice come from? I have a theory that there is a mad scientist in Schenectady, New York, who cooks up writing advice memes and converts them to an invisible and odorless gas. He then secretly arranges for this gas to seep into critique groups across the land, infecting the members, who then begin to dispense the pernicious doctrine as if it were holy writ.

I now offer the antidote to the gas.

1. Don’t Start with the Weather

This meme may have started with Elmore Leonard, who once dashed off a list of “rules” that have become like sacred script for writers. If his advice were, “Don’t open a book with static, flat descriptions,” I would absolutely agree.

But here is why the rule is baloney: Weather can add dimension and tone to the opening disturbance. If you use it in that fashion, weaving it into action, it’s a fine way to begin.

Look at the opening of Bleak House by Dickens. Or the short story “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away” by Stephen King. Or the quieter beginning of Anne Lamott’s Blue Shoe. All of them use weather to great effect. Here’s a Western, Hangman’s Territory, from Jack Bickham:

The late spring storm was breaking. To the east, boiling blue-gray clouds moved on, raging toward Fort Gibson. To the west, the sun peered cautiously through a last veil of rain, slanting under the shelf of clouds and making the air a strange, silent bright yellow. The intense, muggy heat of the day had been broken, and now the early evening was cool and damp, and frogs had magically appeared everywhere in the red gumbo of the Indian Nations.

Eck Jackson threw back the heavy canvas under which he had been waiting. His boots sank into the red mud as he clambered out of his shelter between two rocks and peered at the sky.

If you think of weather as interacting with the character’s mood and emotions, you’re just fine to start with it.

2. Don’t Start with Dialogue

Starting with dialogue creates instant conflict, which is what most unpublished manuscripts lack on the first pages. Sometimes this rule is stated as “Don’t start with unattributed dialogue.” Double baloney on rye with mustard. Here’s why: Readers have imaginations that are patient and malleable. If they are hooked by dialogue, they will wait several lines before they find who’s talking and lose absolutely nothing in the process.

Example:

“TOM!”
No answer.

“TOM!”
No answer.

“What’s gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!”
No answer.

The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room …

—Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

3. No Backstory in the First 50 Pages

If backstory is defined as a flashback segment, then this advice has merit. Readers will wait a long time for backstory information if something compelling is happening in front of them. But if you stop the forward momentum of your opening with a longish flashback, you’ve dropped the narrative ball.

However, when backstory refers to bits of a character’s history, then this advice is unsound. Backstory bits are actually essential for bonding us with a character. If we don’t know anything about the characters in conflict, we are less involved in their trouble. (Read Koontz and King, who weave backstory masterfully into their opening pages.)

I’ve given writing students a simple guideline: three sentences of backstory in the first ten pages. You may use them together or space them apart. Then three paragraphs of backstory in the next ten pages, together or apart.

I’ve seen this work wonders for beginning manuscripts.

4. Write What You Know

Sounder advice is this: Write who you are. Write what you love. Write what you need to know.

5. Don’t Ever Follow Any Writing Advice

A few literary savants out there may be able to do this thing naturally, without thinking about technique or craft, and those three people can form their own group and meet for martinis.

Just WriteEvery other writer can benefit from time spent studying the craft. I’ve heard some writers say they don’t want to do that for fear of stifling the purity of their work. Some of them get a contract and their books come out in a nice edition that sells five hundred copies. And then the author gets bitter and starts appearing at writers conferences raging how there is no such thing as structure and writers have wasted their money attending the conference—that they all should just go home and write. (This has actually happened on several occasions that I know of.)

Here is some advice: Don’t be that kind of writer.


If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out Just Write by James Scott Bell.

Posted in Creativity + Inspiration, Guest Post and tagged , , , .

James Scott Bell

James Scott Bell is the No. 1 bestselling author of Plot & Structure, and award-winning thrillers like Final Witness, Romeo’s Rules, Don’t Leave Me, Blind Justice, Deceived, Try Dying, Watch Your Back, and One More Lie.

Jim attended the University of California, Santa Barbara where he studied writing with Raymond Carver. He graduated with honors from the University of Southern California law school, and has written over 300 articles and several books for the legal profession. He has taught novel writing at Pepperdine University and numerous conferences in the United States, Canada and Great Britain.

A former trial lawyer, Jim now writes and speaks full time. He lives in Los Angeles.

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30 Comments on "5 Pieces of Writing Advice You Should Ignore"

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[…] Novelist James Scott Bell identifies 5 common "rules" that writers would do best to ignore—such as "Don't start your story talking about the weather."  […]

Linda Apple

Excellent article. Thank you!

C. S. Lakin

Love this! Especially the tips about backstory–great advice. And I’m a stickler for great weather details. I suppose the better way to say it is “don’t write boring weather or weather that doesn’t help create the mood you need for a scene.”

A while back I did a fun series along these lines. For more “bad advice,” writers can check out this post on Words of Advice from Famous Authors That Are Just Wrong:

http://www.livewritethrive.com/2013/07/29/words-of-advice-from-famous-authors-that-are-just-wrong/

My conclusion is: don’t do what famous writers tell you unless it resonates with you (and makes sense!).

Rosemarie DiMatteo

I love this post. Could possibly tattoo some of it on some fleshy expanse. Well done!

MooseNotes.com
My book opens with weather. And at least there’s that. Writing takes so much focus and commitment and belief in your work, that people should celebrate having even written those first few sentences. My mother didn’t know how to write, but she found a great writing group, really dug her heels in and stuck it out, and in her 70s published two mystery novels. She’s here: CarolePriceMysteries.com. But I remember the very first book she wrote, that never got published. She was so stuck on rules and what not to do that she dragged her feet through the entire manuscript.… Read more »
John Maberry

Love it. Never heard anyone fault Mark Twain!

Ann Stephens

Hey, rules were made to be broken! One thing should be noted about opening with weather and dialogue: the examples of successful rule-breaking that Bell mentioned were composed by experienced writers. For those of us who are newer, I would still say ‘approach with caution and be willing to edit ruthlessly’.
@James Scott Bell, thank you for posting this excerpt.

Penelope Silvers

Everyone should pick up one or two of Bell’s novels to see how he masterfully weaves backstory into his stories. His books are page-turners and I love to read and analyze at the same time. I never know whether to enjoy the book or study it! 🙂

Jean Johnson

Good advice. But do make this a rule: Don’t start a novel with the main character getting out of bed in the morning. And stretching. And reaching for a cigarette. If the story has to start with the character getting out of bed, it had better be three o’clock in the morning and the phone is ringing and the teenage daughter’s bed hasn’t been slept in.

C. S. Lakin

I so agree with you! This is something I tell my editing clients a lot. Beginning writers often think a scene must start when a day starts. Writers need to leave out the boring, ordinary action and cut to the chase [scene]!

Jane Friedman

Hahaha! Yes, I really dislike the “morning routine” opening as well.

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[…] 5 Pieces of Writing Advice You Should Ignore (Jane Friedman) But here I’d like to discuss some writing advice writers would do well to ignore. Where does such advice come from? I have a theory that there is a mad scientist in Schenectady, New York, who cooks up writing advice memes and converts them to an invisible and odorless gas. He then secretly arranges for this gas to seep into critique groups across the land, infecting the members, who then begin to dispense the pernicious doctrine as if it were holy writ. I now offer the antidote to the… Read more »
Michael W. Perry
Years ago, I read one of the papal encyclicals from the late 1800s. It was actually quite good. What it denounced would become in a few decades the vileness of Nazism. Nazism did not start with Hitler, it had a depressingly fashionable history. People wrote social Darwinian bestsellers. Aryan supremacy was taught at Ivy League universities. But the format of that encyclical, on the order of “If anyone says…. let him be anathema,” left me confused. It described an idea in detail and then at the very end denounced it. That ‘backwards go the ideas’ approach wasn’t easy to follow.… Read more »
Jeannie Prinsen

Thanks for these very helpful — and liberating! — points. As you say, some of the greatest pieces of literature of all time begin with descriptions of the weather, such as Jane Eyre and The Cat in the Hat.

Peter Rey

As usual, rules can be useful. But they should be applied with a grain of salt.

For sure, even the most talented writers can benefit from studying their craft. I think it’s like with musicians. I mean, it doesn’t matter if you’re particularly talented if you’re not willing to work your ass off. In fact, you can bet that sooner or later someone else, maybe less naturally talented but a lot more willing to work hard, will outperform you.

Ernie Zelinski
I agree with you that “rules should be applied with a grain of salt.” However, the principle of “. . . willing to work hard ” should be applied with many grains of salt. Hard work is vastly overrated — and can be a detriment to one’s success. These words of wisdom apply: “It’s better to do a sub-par job on the right project than an excellent job on the wrong project.” — Robert J. Ringer “Workaholism is an addiction, and like all addictions, it blocks creative energy.” — Julia Cameron, writing in “The Artist’s Way” “The wisdom of a… Read more »
Peter Rey

I agree with you, definitively. Working smart, that’s probably the secret.
I was thinking more about the dangers of sheer laziness rather than about the benefits of hard work.

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[…] 5 Pieces of Writing Advice You Should Ignore | Jane Friedman […]

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[…] Breaking All the Rules, Eventually […]

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[…] Jane Friedman offers 5 pieces of writing advice you should ignore. […]

Richard Mabry

As usual, Jim, good advice. Another way to say it is that all rules may be safely ignored, including this one. As for #1, which probably does come from the Leonard interview, note that the first line of the award-winning novel, A Wrinkle In Time, is “It was a dark and stormy night.” Take that, Edward Bulwer-Lyton.

jess

I loved A wrinkle in tine, a favorite book as a kid. Such a good story that didn’t dumb down the words.

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[…] 5 Pieces of Writing Advice You Should Ignore […]

Marianne Perry

Excellent advice re backstory. Working on the last chapter of draft # 2 of a novel and this will help guide draft #3. Thank you.

RJ Conte

I loved “write what you need to know.” Thank you!!

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[…] 5 Pieces fo Writing Advices You Should Ignore […]

Ingmar Albizu

That is some sound advice. Thank you. But it takes a certain amount of talent to break some established rules.

Charley Daveler
While writing a science-fiction novel, I struggled to get information about the setting out quickly enough for people to be satisfied with the world building early on. It didn’t matter where I started the story (literally location), it was too limited in scope and people had thousands of angry questions that I couldn’t answer without 1) a lot of editorializing and 2) raising more questions. My solution? I discussed backstory. By describing memories of how the main character traveled there, I was able to show more of the world faster and through emotional images rather than narration. This worked for… Read more »
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