Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Caveat emptor where writing advice is concerned

Here’s some writing advice. Don’t listen to advice dished out by mega-successful writers. Like John Grisham.

Maybe John had three spare minutes on his hands when he phoned in this piece from The Times the other day. All the usual admonitions. I like the one where he says don’t introduce too many characters at the outset. “Five names are enough to get started.” There goes your book about a family of six.

And that’s the thing about pro advice. They like to boil an idiosyncratic process (the making of art) down to a generic set of steps, overlooking the idea that writing a unique novel is almost indescribable and that ten of the best writers probably do it ten different ways.

But I forgot: Grisham has the word “popular” in his headline. And he’s been chortling all the way to the bank for years.

I think the most ridiculous thing he says in the piece is that you shouldn’t have a thesaurus anywhere near you when you write fiction. He thinks a thesaurus is only for finding bigger words when smaller ones (understandable by any reader) will do. Crepuscular is right out. He doesn’t see that you might not have all the possible smaller words on the tip of your tongue at any given time, I guess. Say the word “colorless” comes to mind to describe something, and even though that’s a little clunky and lacks connotations, you’re stuck with it. If you’d had your thesaurus handy you might have landed on drab or dingy or barren or lackluster — none of which are three-dollar words nobody knows. Muted. Muted would have been perfect!

I read many years ago that lyricist extraordinaire, Stephen Sondheim, always has a rhyming dictionary on the desk when he’s working. At first I was shocked, that an artist of his caliber would resort to such a workmanlike way of getting his songs out, but then I realized that the perfect word or rhyme isn’t always the one that pops up first. Without the thesaurus or rhyming dictionary, you might not come up with perfect, and perfect is what we’re trying to get to, isn’t it?

But I forgot: Grisham isn’t going for perfect. He’s going for popular (well-liked, favored, sought-after, in demand, desired, wanted; commercial, marketable, fashionable, trendy, in vogue, all the rage, hot, well attended).

16 comments on “Caveat emptor where writing advice is concerned

  1. John W. Howell
    June 2, 2017

    The rich and famous always have advice. I find it is usually the wrong kind.

  2. Yahooey
    June 2, 2017

    A classic case of “I did it this way and succeeded so I will tell everyone they should do the same thing to succeed.” Most are describing a way to not fail while lady luck does her thing.

    My name is the only thing I write without a thesaurus around. Sometimes I use it to avoid repetition, sometimes to find a simpler word. More often it is to find a word I am struggling to remember. I use all those synonyms people use to find a word that is on the tip of their tongue to put the word that is on the tip of fingers at the tip of my fingers.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 3, 2017

      Exactly! It’s a tool that helps the brain. What’s wrong with using words that you don’t see all the time, even when they’re simple words? It’s so myopic to think the thesaurus is only for finding flowery multisyllabic words that make you sound smart.

  3. Audrey Driscoll
    June 2, 2017

    Reminds me of those much-quoted rules by Elmore Leonard — never start with weather, cut out the parts readers will skip, etc. I think these guys toss off a bunch of random thoughts when asked. Who knows if they really stick to these “rules” in their own writing? The real harm is when others (including bloggers) repeat these rules as though they’re sacred and absolute, thus misleading some writers who may not yet have realized writing doesn’t really have such rules.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 3, 2017

      Yes, I was trying to remember that it was Leonard who had done that. Why is it always the slightly cheesy bestseller guys who dish out the advice so freely? 😉

  4. 1WriteWay
    June 3, 2017

    I like most of the novels by Grisham that I’ve read, but I wouldn’t take advice from the guy, unless I wanted to write the exact same kind of novel … which I don’t. I didn’t read the Times article, but I suspect his advice is definitely tainted by his own prescriptions and limitations. For one, none of his novels that I’ve read include sex scenes … which is okay by me, but still most readers might find it surprising given that his characters often have sexually tangled relationships. So, why not? Because he can’t write sex scenes. in an interview with Stephen Colbert, he admitted that he wrote a sex scene once. Passed it to his wife for her opinion and she basically told him not to quit his day job. So Grisham doesn’t write sex scenes because he’s no good at it. Does that factor into his advice at all?
    Interestingly, he has written what I would consider to be a literary novel: A Painted House, which is presumably loosely based on his childhood in Arkansas. I really, really enjoyed it and I think you would too. But he’s following the $$, the pulp that his readers want. Pity. You’d think with his success, he could afford to take chances.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 5, 2017

      Funny, I didn’t know that about the sex scenes, but that’s sure a good reason not to put them in his books! Nothing is quite as cheesy as bad sex scenes.

      I seem to recall that A Painted House wasn’t too well-reviewed, and Grish got kind of bent out of shape about it. He wanted to be taken seriously, boo hoo!

      • 1WriteWay
        June 5, 2017

        Oh, A Painted House wasn’t a great American novel but (IMHO) it was a well-written slice of life story. And a departure from his usual fare. I do think many best-selling novelists are criticized unfairly when they try to push their own boundaries. Where is the art in churning out the same boiler-plate novel year in, year out? Critics complain about the plethora of “popular” novels and then they complain when a “popular” author tries to do something different. I’m not an apologist for Grisham (he doesn’t need me, that’s for sure). But I do think critics are doing readers a disservice when they stifle creativity, which they do when they pan an author’s attempt to expand and explore. That said, Grisham is doing too well to get bent out of shape about anything 😉

      • Kevin Brennan
        June 5, 2017

        I think he should self-publish a Joycean stream-of-consciousness novel and let the chips fall where they may. 😉

      • 1WriteWay
        June 5, 2017


  5. Adrienne Morris
    June 4, 2017

    I guess I don’t see the problem with going after the money. Being poor isn’t as glamorous as some artists and writers like to pretend. I’m going to assume Grisham enjoys what he writes. I don’t begrudge him his success. He’s making people happy. Most advice on writing is just rehashed stuff from other people’s blogs or writing books anyway. At a certain point as a writer you just have to do your own thing. Maybe it will please the masses or only your mother. Lady Luck is a fickle one as Frank Sinatra said a long time ago.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 5, 2017

      I agree, Adrienne. Grisham has a product people love, and he’s figured out how to give it to them reliably. Booyah. I doubt if his advice is going to help aspiring writers much, though. Especially because luck is such a huge ingredient.

      As for Sinatra, Old Blue Eyes knew what he was talking about on that count. 😉

      • Adrienne Morris
        June 5, 2017

        Sometimes there’s just too much advice out there. 🙂

  6. Thomas Edmund
    July 8, 2017

    I take all of mega-famous writers advice with a grain of salt – even Mr King’s (which many writers seems to take as gospel). My problem is that advice is useful as a tool to get ourselves from wherever we are towards where we want to me. Mega famous authors might be exactly where we want to be, but they typically don’t know how to get us to where they are. I do find reading the first or seminal books in such author’s catalogs to try and observe what catapulted them to fame is helpful though.

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This entry was posted on June 2, 2017 by in Writing and tagged , , .
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