Everyone’s Got Rules

Everyone’s Got Rules
Terry Odell

Red book saying The Rule Book with a pair of black glasses

Cruising Undercover is “finished” and waiting for release day, August 23rd. Early reviews have been positive, and it’s time to move on to the next project. In a rare moment of office “housekeeping” I came across an unmarked folder. Inside I found a page titled “Barbara Wright’s Rules of Writing.”

Because I have handwritten notes on the page, I must have attended a workshop where this was a handout. I had no memory of Barbara Wright, but she was smart enough to include her website in the footer. Looking at her picture on the site, I still had no memory of either her or the workshop, but the “Rules” she gave were interesting and, of course, I thought they’d make good discussion fodder here at TKZ.

  1. Keep it concrete
  2. Familiarize yourself with the best writing. Dismantle it and ask yourself what makes it work
  3. Create the conditions you need in order to write
  4. Everything is material
  5. Anyone can be a writer
  6. Don’t take rejection personally
  7. Keep your eyes open (my notes added ‘ears’ here)
  8. There’s no such thing as failure. The only way you can fail is to quit.
  9. Don’t show off. All details must be in service of the story
  10. Pretty good is not good enough
  11. You don’t find ideas; ideas find you
  12. Take risks (my notes say ‘forces you to be better than you are’)

Her last “rule” was the familiar quote: There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are. (Somerset Maugham)

All right, TKZers. Do any of these resonate with you? Any you’ve tried and given up on? Any you don’t think are worth trying?

For me, when I was starting, #6 was a tough one to develop. Currently, I’d say my top three are 5, 9 and 10.

And one final note: On Saturday, August 27th, I’ve been invited to speak at the Speed City Sisters in Crime chapter’s meeting. I would really love to “see” some of you (or at least your names, because they turn off video for the audience). The Title is “How I Became a Writer by Mistake” and it’ll be mostly Q&A. Time: noon EDT, 9 Pacific. You have to register, but it’s free. Details here.

Cruising Undercover by Terry OdellNow Available for Pre-Order: Cruising Undercover.

Not accepting the assignment could cost him his job. Accepting it could cost him his life.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

31 thoughts on “Everyone’s Got Rules

    • Good morning, Cynthia. There are books where you say, “Dang it, I wish I’d written that.” Others where you say, “Dang it, I could have done that so much better.” We learn from both.
      Thanks for signing up for the webinar. Looking forward to seeing you!

  1. It’s a good list, Terry. I would only take issue with #11. You can’t sit around waiting for an idea to “find” you. You have to generate them yourself, lots of them, then choose the best ones to develop. Goose the Muse.

    • Good point, JSB. I go out to my idea tree once a month to check on the fruit.
      Or, as Nora Roberts said, “Every time I hear writers talk about ‘the muse,’ I just want to bitch-slap them. It’s a job. Do your job.”
      Or another one: “You’re going to be unemployed if you really think you just have to sit around and wait for the muse to land on your shoulder.”

      • The muse would look awkward sitting on your shoulder. It’s inside you, in your so-called Unconsious. It’s conscious, autonomous, and at least semisentient. It has no conscience. Challenge it.

  2. I’m not sure I 100% understand the intended context of “everything is material” but all of these seem good guides to me.

    ‘Ideas find you’ is true. Unless I quit doing research or reading articles or watching news, I’m not likely to run out of ideas.

    ‘Pretty good is not good enough’ raises my alarm bells. Not that it isn’t sound, but if you are a perfectionist, those 6 words can become a terrible trap. That’s when you should read #12—take risks.

    The one my rebel side has issues with is #2 about reading the best writing & dismantling it. Not that it isn’t valid, but in real life I have found that when someone tells me “You’ve got to read the classic (so and so). It’s stupendous.” IF I bother to read it, I in most but not all cases find myself underwhelmed by it. As to dismantling a story to see what makes it tick: while I do, unfortunately, now analyze pretty much everything I read (unless the author has been very effective in yanking me into story world) I don’t formally try to dismantle it—don’t have the patience for that.

    RE: Don’t show off—truly, don’t. It is painfully obvious to the reader when the author is showing off (yet may not be easy to pick up when editing your own writing. LOL!)

    “Create the conditions you need in order to write”: for me, more time—and not just little snatches. Still working on that one. But since I do believe that anyone, if determined enough can be a writer, I think I’ll just persist. 😎

    • “I think I’ll just persist.”
      Excellent advice, and knowing your own process and which ones will improve your writing and which ones lead you down rabbit holes is going to be different for everyone. Thanks for chiming in!

  3. Great post, Terry. Good list.

    #2 is the rule that resonates with me right now. “Read widely” has often been advised. I’m trying to read outside my genre, looking for authors who have been successful. Find craft books if that writer has written one. Then reading and dissecting. It’s been fun, and I’m finding ways to improve my writing.

    Good luck with your book launch and with your talk on How You Became a Writer by Mistake.

    • Thanks, Steve, and you bring up a good point. The ‘important’ rules for you will change as you move along the writing road.

  4. Good morning, Terry. Thanks for giving us Barbara Wright’s list. A few of the items stood out to me.

    1. Keep it concrete. I’m not sure what that means.
    11. You don’t find ideas; ideas find you. For me, it may be more of a collaborative effort. I visualize myself out hunting for ideas with my notebook and pen in hand when one of them sneaks up behind me and taps me on the shoulder.
    12. Take risks. This one resonates with me. With each book I write, I want to try something new and push out a little farther from the shore.

    I’m excited for you that Cruising Undercover is launching out into the deep waters. I love the title and the cover. Good luck!

    • Thanks for your input, Kay. I think a lot of these “rules” are open to “what works for me” interpretation.
      Hope you’ll check out Cruising Undercover. You get an armchair trip to the Adriatic along with the mystery.

  5. Keep it concrete
    –I’m not entirely sure what this means. If it’s the same as keep your writing crisp, then I agree.

    Familiarize yourself with the best writing. Dismantle it and ask yourself what makes it work
    –Yes, yes, yes! This is exactly how I taught myself to structure a thriller. Thank you Frederick Forsythe and “The Day of the Jackal.”

    Create the conditions you need in order to write
    –Not sure about this one. Too many frustrated writers spend so much time fretting over the right music and the right chair that they squander writing time. I prefer to write in a quiet office, but I’ve written in bars, hotel rooms and airport terminals. And there will never be enough time.

    Everything is material
    –Absolutely everything.

    Anyone can be a writer
    –I have always disagreed with this. (Unless by writing, you mean the act of putting words on the page.) Just as anyone can sing in the shower, not everyone can perform at the Met–even after years and years of training.

    Don’t take rejection personally
    –Bidness is bidness. What most people don’t grasp is that it’s not their writing that’s being rejected, but rather the query.

    Keep your eyes open (my notes added ‘ears’ here)
    –A corollary to everything is material?

    There’s no such thing as failure. The only way you can fail is to quit.

    Don’t show off. All details must be in service of the story
    –This is the problem I have with many of the contemporary literary stars. They write too hard.

    Pretty good is not good enough
    –Um . . . Be careful here. Getting to the end of the story is far more important than sweating over commas.

    You don’t find ideas; ideas find you
    –Gotta disagree again. Ideas hide from me. Mostly, I have to hunt them down.

    Take risks (my notes say ‘forces you to be better than you are’)
    –Again, be careful. I know several very talented writers who would have been widely published if they’d not insisted on blending genres and being intentionally quirky. Everybody’s free to do whatever they want, but I think they’re wise to remember that writers are in the customer service business. For readers to buy a story, they have to want to read it first.

    • Thanks so much, John, for your reactions to these points. And sometimes, that rejection is because that agent has just signed several other books in that genre and knows she can’t sell all of them. Have a great day. As I mentioned, I have no recollection of the workshop, so I don’t know exactly what Barbara meant by some of these, either.

      • I eventually reframed a story rejection as “declining” a submission. Agree with John that business is business. One of my friends is a short fiction editor and can confirm 🙂

  6. Thanks for sharing these Terry. A great list.

    #6 is so important for a beginning writer. It bedeviled me for a long time. You can’t take rejection personally, nor can you take feedback on your writing personally.

    Like Jim, I disagree with #11. For me at least, I get to work and the muse will come when she will, but I’ll hunt ideas in the meantime. Usually she’ll show up pretty quickly.

    #12 Taking risks. This is so important, but can be so fear-inducing. It twins with #6, to me at least.

    Congratulations on your new release! I’ve signed up for your workshop. Thank you!

    • As I mentioned to Mr. Gilstrap above, rejections can come for so many reasons and not all of them are related to the writing, and none of them should be related to the author. I know that’s a tough one to get used to.
      Looking forward to seeing your name in a box at the webinar!

    • You’re right. A better title might have been Rules for Being a Writer” but I didn’t create the handout. 🙂
      Thanks for the link.

  7. Congratulations on Cruising Undercover, Terry! Looking forward to its appearance on my Kindle on 8/23.

    “See you” on 8/27!

    #1 Keep it Concrete – I interpret that to mean use specific nouns and verbs to give the reader a precise picture.

    The car drove on the freeway.
    The Citroen Maserati raced through the elevated curve connecting I-5 to I-8.
    The pickup hauling the trailer labored up the long grade on I-15 toward Vegas.

    #5 – Nah. Anyone can TRY to write but few stick with it for long.

    #8 – Never quit. If you persist, you’ll outlast the thousands of writers who gave up. Eventually, you’re the last one left standing.

    • Thanks, Debbie. Enjoy your “cruise” and I’ll “see you” at the webinar. Let me know if there’s a topic

      I think as was mentioned above, that anyone can be a writer, but very few take the time to learn the craft, have the patience and persistence to stick with it. (And now, with indie publishing so prevalent, anyone CAN be a writer.) 😉

  8. Trolling at very random in KDP or at the rack at the local drugstore would suggest that these rules are honored more in the breach than in the observance. A lot of trees died for this stuff.

    Present company excepted of course. You’ve made your bones as the wise guys say.

    Paul Hendrickson once observed that any serious writer learns to write by imitation. I believe what he meant was in conformity with rule number 2. When I was a kid I learned to seesaw by watching, observing and trying it out. Of course there were skinned elbows, knees, bumps and bruises but that is what merthiolate was for and Mother always had a ready supply of ‘the stinger’. You could tell the kids in the neighborhood from down south whose fathers had moved up to New Jersey to work for Mister Ford at the Vineyard Road plant because they always used gentian violet.

    But I digress. That is the drawback of thinking in pictures as I do, going off the rails.

    I think that all else follows from Barbara Wright’s rule number 8.

    If you don’t have that you ain’t got nuthin’ because you haven’t written anything. Maybe you never started.

    Or as my father would say, “Get a shovel.”

    • Thanks, Robert. I remember those skinned knees and both Mercurochrome and Merthiolate. One stung a LOT more than the other.
      As for the writing: You can’t fix a blank page.

  9. If “keep it concrete” means being unambiguous, then I don’t always agree. I love me a good unreliable narrator, for example, and endings that give hints but make the reader decide exactly what happened.

    • Thanks, Priscilla. I’m not sure what “being concrete” means. Whatever works for you. There are enough readers out there bringing their own preferences to every book that you can interpret these rules any way you like.

  10. Late to the party, once again. But here are my ‘roolz’ anyway.

    A. Don’t write the same story twice.
    B. Avoid the ordinary, the trite, the expected.
    C. Hook the reader early and often.
    D. Thank and respect your Guardienne (AKA Muse, Boys in the Basement, etc.) for her/their contributions, They are autonomous entities.
    E. Collect punchlists and use them to vet your work.
    F. Make a timeline right away.
    G. Rewrite from theme upward. Edit text LAST.
    H. “Wotif” is your greatest tool.
    I. At every MC decision point, brainstorm the possible paths out.
    J. Keep theme, stakes, and motif in constant view.
    K. Workshop test everything. Otherwise, never discuss WIP details with anyone.
    L. There must be an unbroken, motivated chain of cause & effect in your book/script from start to finish.

  11. Going with your handout’s title, the main rule for writing I try to follow is “Don’t confuse the reader.” I don’t need to write all this down – I know the story – but a reader doesn’t.

    For me, the ultimate reader needs to be given a whole host of complex details which, added to what is already in their personal database of humanity and the world, create their individual version of ‘my’ story.

    That’s the challenge. That’s what makes it fun. And that is what sends me scurrying like a squirrel for a piece of craft I need to learn or develop to make sure I don’t confuse the reader.

    Because my detector of what does NOT work is well-developed and unyielding: what’s in the head needs to match what’s on the page, and until it does, it nags.

    • My critique partners and I have an acronym for this: RWIM.
      Read What I Mean. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and process, Alicia.

  12. Hi Terry – I’m very late for breakfast but just in time for dinner so my comment still counts 🙂 I like reading rules like the Barbara Wright list. Rules keep things in focus, whether they’re valid or not. I always adhere to the advice (and I have no idea who said it first), “Know the rules, so when you break them you do so intentionally”.

    • Never too late, Garry (as I read your comment over a glass of wine). It’s always good to look at ‘rules’ like this and think about them. Anything that gets you thinking is a good thing.

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