He said what?

Anyone who has been a long time follower of the blog knows that we don’t believe that there is any one “right” way to write. Everyone’s process is different and, if you’re like me, that process changes from project to project. So, when I came across this post by best selling author John Grisham, I found myself staring at it and shaking my head. Then I laughed and then I got angry. Why? Because he writes about what works for him in such absolute terms that there will be someone who believes it is the only way to be a successful writer. 

1. Do — Write A Page Every Day

Now, I have issues with this on so many levels it isn’t funny. First, he says “every day” and yet, if you do the math, he only advocates writing five days a week. I guess if you’re a famous author like Grisham, you don’t feel the need to write on a daily basis. Of course, if all you are doing is a single page a day, you also are working at least one job to help pay your bills. That means most of your writing time will be on weekends. Are you supposed to forget about that?

Then there’s the whole, “Do that for two years and you’ll have a novel that’s long enough.” Long enough for what? Isn’t what he’s saying putting more emphasis on word count than on content? Seems that way to me.

Now, if all he’d said is that by setting a daily goal and working to meet that goal helps you become a better writer, I’d have no issue. But geez, he has this twisted around.

2.   Don’t — Write The First Scene Until You Know The Last

Now, if you are a plotter, this is excellent advice. However, what about all those pantsers out there? You know who you are. You’re the writers who sit down and start writing. The book or story comes flowing out to you without warning. If you’re good at it, you know to get the story down and then to go back and clean it up, making sure you haven’t let Scott having off the edge of the cliff back in chapter 2, never to be heard about again.

By Grisham’s own words, he thinks the only way to write is with an outline. Nope, sorry, but he’s wrong. People write as they write and, as I said earlier, there is no one right way to do it.

3.   Do — Write Your One Page Each Day At The Same Place And Time

Pardon me while I laugh a bit hysterically. It really must be nice to believe you are the font of all wisdom when it comes to writing. I pity him because he assumes we have the same benefits of being able to write when and where we want, without the demands of work or family or repairmen making noise, etc. Instead of angsting over whether or not you get to write at exactly the same time and place each day, just write. Do it when and where you can. The goal is to get the words down. It’s not to do it in a certain place and time.

4.   Don’t — Write A Prologue

Again, another concrete statement that allows for no deviation. I am not a fan of prologues. However, I recognize there are times and places for them. There are also certain genres and sub-genres where the reader expects them.

5.   Do — Use Quotation Marks With Dialogue

Wait! What? There’s a “rule” I actually agree with him on? This once, Grisham and I are on the same page. Please, please, please, use quotation marks with your dialogue.

6.   Don’t — Keep A Thesaurus Within Reaching Distance

In a way he’s right, especially when he talks about how some beginning writers try to use fancy words when a simple one will suffice. However, there are times when you need that thesaurus. When you see yourself using the same word over and over again, especially in a short space on the page, you need to find alternatives. That is where a thesaurus can come in handy. The caveat? Make sure you are suing the new word properly — which means also having a dictionary nearby.

7.   Do — Read Each Sentence At Least Three Times In Search Of Words To Cut

No, read each sentence as often as you need to in order to do reasonable edits. If you read something too many times, especially if only to find words to cut, you can wind up cutting the life out of the story. Ask Sarah. She used to yell at me — and threaten dire things — because I did something like this. So find what works for you — and use your beta readers or editors to help with this.

8.   Don’t — Introduce 20 Characters In The First Chapter

Oops, that’s two things I agree with him on. If your reader needs a score card before finishing the first chapter, you’ve introduced too many characters. The first chapter or two are where you set up the story. You don’t need every character to make an appearance in the first few pages.

So, here are the rules from Amanda.

1. Write


2. Write on a regular schedule, one that best fits your needs.


3. Write when and where works best for you.


4. Write.

56 thoughts on “He said what?

  1. Saw that article and chuckled as well. A page a day(200 words is what I saw)? I write as much as I can get down when I can. Some days it’s nothing, other days it’s thousands of words. Word count so far this week is over 8k and that’s starting on Monday.
    Outlining? Sometimes I have an idea where things are going before I start writing. Of course by the time I get to -30- I have taken a different turn off. Sometimes I get lucky and end up in the same vicinity of where I was aiming.

    I think, just write, write often, and fix only what needs fixing is the only good advice.

    1. Sometimes, I do an outline. It might be no more than a page of bullet points about what I want to hit. Other times, like with the current work, it is pages long and much more detailed. Why? Because this is the fourth book in the series and there are a number of plot points that need to be pulled in and tied together. The only way I can do that is to make notes. But, it still all comes down to write, write often and don’t worry if you are doing it the way anyone else is. Do it the way that works for you.

  2. #5 yes, #6, yes . . . and I’ll actually also agree with him on #2. I need an aim point for the story, or it gets more floppy that usual. I’d say easily half my inspirations start with a HEA dump from the Muse.

    The rest are a bit strict, but when I look at how uneven my writing is, I tend to think developing some time-and-place discipline wouldn’t be a bad thing. But flexible. Real Life is anti-regimentation.

  3. I have found that sometimes good words take root in my mind and insist on flowing onto the page.
    This is where beta readers or a wait followed by a cold read yourself come into play.
    Personally, it often seems as though half my effort winds up coming up with alternative phrasing to avoid repetition.
    I would also point out that Grisham began his career as a disaffected lawyer, and it’s been my observation that the legal profession tends to instill certain attitudes in its practitioners about the use of words counter to those of the general public.

    1. I’d agree with you about it being a lawyer thing, except I’ve seen basically the same “rules” from other traditionally published authors, especially best sellers. For the rest of us, for those going indie, can you imagine only putting out a book one every two years at the most?

      1. Tradpub cycle, one hardback per year, mass market paperback release to promote the next hardback. Once you’d filled the supply line between advances and mmp compensation an author could make a decent living. Once upon a time in a land far away. But that paradigm broke long ago.
        The author I’ve been helping the most of late is doing one book in her new series per quarter while churning out the occasional short stories for anthologies and a couple of science fact books to boot. So far, eating money, but not mortgage money.
        Which reminds me, seems like Light Magic has been out forever , when can we expect the next one?
        And you will continue to nag your sister in sin about getting more indie product up and selling, won’t you please. I’m getting worn out.

        1. Quit nagging, Uncle Lar. VBG

          The next book is outlined, sort of. But I have to write several others from other series first. Up next is Victory from Ashes, which I’m currently working on.

          1. Just so long as you’re working on a series I like, but then I’ve never encountered a book of yours that I didn’t like, so I suppose you have my permission to proceed with your evil plans.

          2. Of course he’s not nagging.

            Only women nag. [Very Very Big Grin While Flying Away Very Very Fast]

      2. I’d try for a book every two years, except that I am usually working on two at once, one a little farther along than the other, so that I can bring out one a year.
        The Luna City books are a faster write, so I’ve been able to do two in a year.
        OTO – my first novel, I wrote in a blazing heat and completed the first draft in about two and a half months of solid full-time writing. IRRC, about two weeks to polish off a 6,000 word chapter, eighteen or twenty all told. Haven’t hit that rate again, although in the first book – the basic plot was already laid out for me,

  4. So, what you’re trying to say is, if I’m understanding you correctly is . . . write?

  5. The unpublished writer’s comments on the super-successful guy’s dos and don’ts.

    (1) If you write a page a day for two years, that’s something like a 700 pg. book. That seems like it’s more than a bit on the long side, unless you’re going for fantasy doorstoppers.

    (2) Even as a planner, I usually don’t have the last scene plotted out in detail. I deliberately leave my climax as a blank spot in the outline so that I can incorporate all the nifty things that pop up. However, I can sort of see this one as a way to try to make sure that you don’t end up with 60 partway finished novels in your computer that you abandoned because you couldn’t think what happened next.

    (3) Again, I sort of see this as part of a “making writing your job.” Yeah, sometimes it isn’t practical, but I can see the upside of having your “office” and your “work hours” as a way to increase your professionalism.

    (4) I will say that sometimes even in genres that don’t expect a prologue, it can be helpful to write on in order to get yourself into the flow of the story, even if it will be cut later.

    (5) True, but I’m a little baffled by why it’s included. Use correct grammar. Duh. Shouldn’t there also be a rule about using apostrophes for contractions and question marks after questions?

    (6) The snarker in me wants to point out that Word has a Thesaurus included, so it’s hard for most writers to write without a Thesaurus in easy reach.

    (7) What Amanda said. Worth pointing out that in Grisham’s legal thrillers, it might be true, but it’s definitely not a general rule.

    (8) Even this rule has exceptions. In general, yeah, you don’t want to throw too many characters at someone in the first page or so, but I had at least one where it worked: it was a huge family Thanksgiving and the point was that there were so many people that even the hosts couldn’t keep track of them all.

    1. Solid approach — and one that goes to what I said. Do what works for you and don’t worry about how anyone else tells you you should be doing it.

  6. > 5. Do — Use Quotation Marks With Dialogue

    Whaaaat? Is “no quotation marks” a thing now?

    Likely I would wall such a book, as I do the ones where the author makes up his own tenses.

    1. My first thought was that some British publishers use a single quote. Then I found myself wondering if he meant for internal dialogue as well. It’s one of those absolute statements that will leave you scratching your head if you look at it too closely.

      1. The Brits also use decimal points instead of commas for thousands delimiters, most confusing.
        And they have the oddest spelling for some words, colour me surprised.

        1. The decimal points vs. commas thing drove me crazy at work when we were trying to partially automate some data processing, in part because we were trying to do it very much on the cheap. There were users from Europe and North America both producing data. The decimal points vs. commas thing had never been a problem before because we’d set things up per-project one way or the other – but suddenly the same project was producing data in both decimal/comma formats, and the underlying file format was CSV, to complicate things even further. Major headache.

      2. There’s also a French convention of using these things ” to indicate dialogue.I can recall seeing it in OLD versions of James Joyce, presumably taken directly from the original French publishers, he having been banned in Boston and other right-thinking areas.

        1. Should have been a left caret and a right caret, but they were eaten by the HTML. And I couldn’t remember the names of the damn things

            1. Yep, works. Do those as “&” followed by “gt;” and “&” followed by “lt;”

              Doesn’t work everywhere; it depends on how sophisticated the comment platform is.

          1. They were called “guillemets” when I was in school (in France), and they look like « and », not < and >.

            Then there’s the way modern French publishers seem to be indicating dialogue, which is a single em-dash at the start of the paragraph, and no quotation marks. I literally just pulled a French-language book off the shelf (it happened to be a Japanese light novel translated into French, which I bought because the English translation had never finished all the books), and the first sentence my eye landed on, translated from French to English, looked like this:

            — But… said Toshin.

            In English punctuation, that would be:

            “But…” said Toshin.

            I really do NOT like the French punctuation style for dialogue. Drives me nuts when I have to stop and re-parse the sentence every time to decide if the “he said” phrase was the dialogue marker, or was part of what the character actually said (e.g., “But he said they’d meet us here…”).

    2. Cormac McCarthy might get the blame for this. I got through a page and a half before quitting due to the “idiosyncratic” punctuation.

    3. Something I saw a few years ago in my writer’s group – the (trad pubbed!) writer had used, iirc, dashes in place of quote marks. It was the most confusing thing I’d ever seen, but I guess in some circles it’s “avant garde”

      1. I’ve seen that from works in Russian. It was standard for them for a while (don’t know if it’s changed.) I wonder if this is a symptom of “Europe must be imitated in all things”?

      2. I’ve been reading some 1920s/1930s pulp detective stories, which often use colons to set off dialogue –

        And then he said: “Drop the gun.”

        – instead of a comma, which is normal now.

        The strange this is, none of the books have been consistent; they all mix up up with commas on some lines, colons on the other.

        If there was once some rule for which was what, it’s not apparent to a casual reader such as myself.

      3. My one attempt at reading a novel in French (a translated version of Test of the Twins) and they used double crocodile brackets, the kind we use for opening and closing HTML headers. It gave me headaches.

        However, some books I’ve read that want to convey telepathic speech used **dialoguetalking** and other nonstandard ‘speech’ was indicated by other symbols, to show that the being was communicating through non-verbal speech, which when introduced naturally, makes it easier to accept ‘that’s the mode that one speaks in’. This was fine with me, since otherwise all the rules of grammar were followed, broken only by species’ dialogue-modes (such as a group-based alien entity referring to themselves in plural, not singular.)

        1. The double crocodile brackets are normal for French, though, just like in Spanish you see otherwise “normal” quote marks – upside down.

          Language is interesting. Still not a fan of the dashes preceding (with nothing following).

    4. I will not read a book where the writer refuses to use normal punctuation. It’s not clever, it’s annoying.

    5. Apparently, there is a (fortunately small) movement toward writers freeing themselves from the horrible restrictions of quotations marks.

      While assisting my publisher with slush reading I ran across a story that didn’t use them at all. The story wasn’t great but, in the spirit of offering useful feedback, I suggested the author use quotation marks. I got an indignant response from the author telling how wrong I was and appealing to the authority of some liberal arts academic type I’d never heard of.

      I was tempted to send a response with no punctuation, no spacing between words, no paragraph breaks, and in all lower case with the suggestion that he should throw off all the grammatical chains and just concentrate on the letters. I resisted the temptation because it wouldn’t have been appropriate. And also because I was afraid he’d take my suggestion and run with it.

      1. > I was tempted to send a response with no punctuation, no spacing between words, no paragraph breaks, and in all lower case

        You mean, like 99% of the email I get…

        It was a sobering moment back in the 1990s when I realized that most of the email I got, even business mail, would not pass the Turing test.

          1. Where, or what? Arguably the most influential culture to today’s way of government, law, and logic. Marcus Aurelius has contributed more to philosophy than either you or I.

            Where? In the same rubbish heap as the Mongol, British, Carthaginian, and Chinese Empires. Name ONE individual other than Hannibal from the Carthaginians, please. Hasdrubal? ONE Samnite, period. ONE Gaul after Vercingetorix, who owes his notoriety chiefly to being J.Caesar’s biggest foe?

            Noting that they no longer “exist” is a trivial, meaningless, common, irrelevant, and pedantic observation. Wanna name an empire of, say, a thousand years ago that still DOES exist? What the HELL does that have to do with punctuation mark conventions?

            Sorry, (not sorry) but you got me preaching on my rantbox.(TM)

    6. I got the Kindle version of the Complete R.E. Howard, and BOY the lack of quotation marks hit me upside the head. Got used to it, though.

      1. Howard’s stuff DID have quotation marks. And it was all written in proper grammatical English. But I’ve noticed quite a few scans of old books apparently had the “de-speckle filter” cranked up to 11, and it eats punctuation.

        Gutenberg and archive.org have a lot of Howard’s stuff, and for some reason Gutenberg.au has a bunch that I didn’t find on the main Gutenberg site.

        Howard also wrote a bunch of Westerns, detective stories, and sports stories (which seem to have once been a thing) besides the horror/weird tales stuff he’s mostly remembered for.

  7. I have a prologue for the story I put on Wattpad, but only because it’s being told across several episodes, and I wanted a way to introduce people to the series in a way that makes that clear.

  8. I’d give his recommendations much more authority if after reading two of his novels, (The Firm and Pelican Brief?) I had no desire to read a third. Dear Mr. Grisham: don’t be boring and predictable.

    1. My favorite, and the only one of his books I finished, is A Time to Kill. It is actually the first book he wrote. However, no publisher would touch it until after he sold the Firm and it did well. The Firm and Pelican Brief turned me off of him for a number of reasons, not the least of which were what you pointed out.

      1. “The Firm” would have been pretty good, had an editor with cojones taken the chainsaw to at least a third of the bloat.

        Unfortunately mass-market potboilers seem to sell by page count, perhaps to try to justify their cover prices. Why buy a 200 page book for $8.99 when you can get a 1500 page book for $9.99?! And the thicker spines command more shelf space for visibility…

      2. I thought “A Time to Kill” would have been a lot better without the racial angle. “Is the sympathy on the jury enough to acquit a man who murdered his daughter’s rapists?” strikes me as a much more interesting question than, “Will the white southerners be racist enough to convict a black man for a murder that he committed in public in front of dozens of witnesses?” (Yeah, the movie emphasized that a lot more, but even the book made it seem like the only reason they might not acquit Carl Lee was because he was black.)

  9. I have to wonder if successful people give out intentionally bad advice to sabotage would-be competitors. Because that’s what I think when I read something like this from someone like Grisham.

    1. I don’t know. I wonder that and then I wonder if people like him truly believe there is only one way to write.

    2. If you enter creative writing from another field, already equipped to make a success of it and are very very successful right out the gate, you might not see the need to associate with other creative writers who are only successful. If your knowledge of creative writing comes from your own habits, which work for you, and from those of people you know, who consist only of those unsuccessful at creative writing, that small sample size would naturally give the impression that there is only one way to successfully write creatively.

      1. No, that would be GRRM’s writing advice: how to hook your readers and then fail to

  10. I’m iffy about prologues being in the actual book.
    That said, I think it’s awfully useful to write one before launching into the project. Lock down the tone, important setting details, and the “rules” of the story right up front where they’re easily referred to, preferably in a narrative form so they’re easier to remember.
    Of course, my finished novel count remains at zero, so salt to taste.

    1. It depends on how you define “prologue.” If it’s a scene set a ways before the main action, that’s one thing. If it’s an info dump, that’s another. And if it’s necessary culture-setting info dump, it’s often better to break it into manageable sections, like chapter headings.

  11. I started blogging to get myself into the habit of writing every day. It also warms me up to dive into working on my bigger projects.

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