Commandments v. Rules v. Deadlines

By Shannon Kirk

Let’s please consider the opening scenes of Joe vs. The Volcano, in which Tom Hanks trudges through mud to a gray, windowless monstrosity of a surgical tools corporation (one sign reads, “Home of the Rectal Probe”), along with his fellow zombie employees. He arrives in a light-zapping cave of an office, in which his boss, Mr. Watori, repeats on a phone, over and over, “I’m not arguing about that with you, Harry.”  Well that…that is pretty much how I feel about rules in writing. But deadlines, not so much. Rules = record scratch. Deadlines = necessary evil.

Let’s tackle rules first. I’m not talking about technical requirements or the 10,000 Commandments of the Religion of Grammar and Copyedit, as chiseled on some ancient stones somewhere someone must have found because Our Saviors, Oxford, Strunk and White, GrammarGirl (whom I do refer to on a daily basis), and that woman who wrote the funny Panda Eats Shoots and Leaves comma book, the lot of them, all seem to declare these Holy Commandments as being here since the dawn of man. Comma here always, duh, you moron, not there, ever! You should die for not knowing everysinglething about commas like you know how to breathe air! I’m not talking about all that. Frankly, thank goodness for the folks compiling these snoozeville Commandments of Life and at least trying to make them entertaining and funny (GrammarGirl and Panda lady, not Strunk and White and Oxford; the latter two are just plain DULL). We have to know that stuff, or our editor does, because it’s simply rude to the reader to have effed up margins and commas and misspellings and wrong words where you meant something else, blah, blah, whatever. Fine. I’m not talking about all that. And if I’ve broken any Commandments in this article, you can blame that on the fact that my Murderers’ Row boss has me on this extended deadline and I’m still running up against that deadline. We’ll talk about deadlines in a second.

What I’m talking about are the many, many, many lists and courses and articles and talks that advise authors what NOT to do in writing. The DON’T lists. I’ve learned to just avoid paying attention to these because for me as a writer, I find I can’t tune out the reverberations when I’m trying to write, and they absolutely do cobble my creativity. Oh crap, in writing this scene, I gave this guy red shoes and I think that one article said never to color someone’s shoes…where did I read that? Am I making that up? I’ll try to research that RULE…. And then I’m off and I’m not in the scene that WAS straight from my brain but is now cobbled, stalled, hindered by some arcane, byzantine rule that I probably made up too—mixed it up with one of the other landslides of rules. Is any of that necessary to telling a story with my ass in the chair?

Speaking of which, I simply do not subscribe to the camp that believes we need to study writing and avoid 900 Indiana-Jones-style traps to tell a story. I’m in the camp of people who believe you should follow two rules:

  1. Tell a story.
  2. “Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.” –Dorothy Parker

In all honesty, I do let some rules filter in; some are really great tips, and I’m sure I’m missing out on some even better ones that would improve my writing. But I’d rather focus on the DO advice, not the DON’T. I’d rather just tell a story.

One rule comes from a guy in Maine who writes horrors. Here it is…


This one rule is pretty good. At first I was like, What the hell are you craziLY talking about, absoluteLY sure of this unwaveringLY solid rule, man? But I’ve implemented it, and as I said before, I cannot get the reverberations of this rule out of my mind. I went so far as to spend an entire three-day weekend, night and day and night and day, trying to completeLY eradicate ALL adverbs from a 110,000-word manuscript (which Mr. King might want to note is a horror). What I found was that it’s impossible to completely eliminate all adverbs. Has anyone been able to do this? This is not what he meant, right? Anyway, Mr. King is right on this rule, in my opinion. In most cases, if you rework an adverb-laden sentence, it becomes either clearererer, more vibrant, or more active. Here’s an example:

[W/Aderbs] I hastily severed his stupid head totally off, gruesomely allowing heavily-drenched veins to drip blood over my lazily-floating, stolen, yellow raft.

[Without] Too fast I cut, the sword’s blade sharper than anticipated, and before I could cantilever his headless body to drip into the lazy current beneath, his still pulsing neck veins bloodied the surface of my stolen, yellow raft.

It is very possible that my “without” example violates some other rule. I’m sure it does. But I wouldn’t know and I don’t care because the “without” sentence satisfies, me and I’m moving on to write more. I intentionally misplaced the comma in the last sentence to make sure you’re following the Commandments.

Look, if you’re a writer who likes to read about the DON’T rules and they’re instructive for you, then great. Every writer is different AND SHOULD BE. My point is simply that if rules drag you down, make you think too much on form and not telling the story, like they do for me, perhaps just write the story first, ass in the chair, and then maybe, if you want to, go back and see if there are any cardinal rules you’ve violated. This is just a suggestion, because what I’m not saying is there is a rule to DON’T FOLLOW THE DON’T RULES. That is definitely not what I’m saying. 

Here’s how I’ve managed to manage this….I write the story with my sometimes okay, sometimes not okay ass (ass okayness depends on the following equation: Jeans I’m wearing x How I feel about myself that day + Barometric pressure x Whether I ate a pint of frosting for breakfast) in the chair. THEN, after whatever story I have in my brain is bled upon the page and out of the neurons of my mind, I read it a thousand billion times and edit. THEN I churn it through Autocrit (Highly recommend this). Autocrit detects the more flagrant and important rules violations, and I then edit from there, based on those suggestions.

Here’s a representative photograph of me with my ass in a chair eating frosting.


The lovely Mila Capone on her First Birthday.  XOXOXOXOXOXOXOXOXOXOXOXOXOXO

I’m done talking about rules. Deadlines. In my other job, the one that pays enough money to live on, my whole life is governed by deadlines, deadlines that could cost you your whole career if you miss an important one, like one imposed by an actual Judge, so you’d think I’d detest and resist deadlines when it comes to writing. I just want to have the freedom to tell a story. Any story. Any damn story I want to tell, and tell that story, whenever it comes to me, and however long it takes. But if I truly want that freedom, I have to have some time goal in mind, or, let’s face it, with so many other competing demands on time, the story would never get told. For me in writing, to balance everything, I have to impose some discipline so that I can gain the freedom to be creative. When I first decided that I was going to stop free-wheeling around with my writing, I decided to impose deadlines and discipline on myself. The best way I could do this was also the most productive in terms of gaining at least something to put in query letters to make it sound like I had writing street cred: That solution was entering writing competitions.

I can’t think of a suggestion I give more than advising people starting out to find some writing contests with good solid deadlines and enter them. First, you get the deadline. Check. Second, if you place, then you have something to add to the query. I understand that a lot of contests cost some cash, and so contests aren’t necessarily feasible for a lot of people. But if you’re investing in your writing career, perhaps consider siphoning off some of the budget for at least one or two contests. Also, I’ve heard there are some good gratis contests.

The best contest I found was the William Faulkner Wisdom competition out of New Orleans. First off, the entrance fee is never that bad. Second, the deadline is in May, which is spring in New England, the most USELESS and dead season, so there’s nothing better to do anyway. Third, they have a fantastic category, the Novel-in-Progress category. This category. Te amo, Novel-in-Progress category, kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss. The Novel-in-Progress category requires only the first 7,500 words, so you can focus on polishing just that by the deadline. Plus, you need to complete a fairly solid synopsis by the deadline, which forces you to really THINK, not necessarily write, about the structure of your story. Now I’m not about writing detailed outlines, in fact I never do, but having to write a synopsis about the general direction of your tale, by a deadline, now I do like that. How the hell else are you ever going to finish that manuscript, especially if you have to work to pay the bills to keep the electricity on for your computer that sits opposite the chair you have your awesome ass in?

The last thing I’ll say, because I have other deadlines I have to deal with, is there is not a chance in Hell that I would ever have written this piece or any of the pieces I’ve written for Murderers’ Row had it not been for boss E.A. Aymar reminding me of deadlines. Here’s a rule: DON’T miss deadlines when you’re on Murderers’ Row. Am I right, boss? Oh, and Boss, I’m not equating you to Mr. Watori at all. Not one bit. Nope. Thought never crossed my mind.

Shannon Kirk is the award-winning author of the debut psychological thriller, METHOD 15/33 (THE METHOD in UK, NZ, and OZ), which has garnered three starred reviews, won the National Indie Excellence Award for best suspense, was selected by the School Library Journal as one of the best 17 adult fiction books for teens, and was the Gold winner of the Benjamin Franklin IBPA award. METHOD 15/33 has been optioned for a major motion film and has sold into sixteen foreign territories. Ms. Kirk’s second novel (not a thriller), THE EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY OF VIVIENNE MARSHALL, will be published in September 2016. Read more about Shannon Kirk, her books, and short stories at

To learn more about METHOD 15/33, click on the cover below.