#Writing Mechanics: Stephen J Cannell’s Rule Number One

Stephen_J_CannellI’ve wanted to post something about Stephen J. Cannell for a while now. Cannell–you may remember his iconic “Stephen J. Cannell Productions” logo recreated above–produced, created, and wrote many television shows during the eighties and nineties. Shows like The A-Team, Hardcastle and McCormick, Riptide, and 21 Jump Street, to mention just a few, which, admittedly, entertained my young mind for many hours.

Cannell also wrote novels, most notably the Shane Scully series, of which I’ve only read On the Grind. I’d like to remedy that one day soon, if I can. Most people agree Cannell was an awesome human being who helped a lot of people, including wannabe writers for whom he produced a series of videos on writing tips. His death in September 2010 really shocked me. Although I never met him in person, having his work be part of my childhood growing up and then to still have him guide me through my writing tribulations as an adult, meant his death felt like a part of my history died.

I don’t want Stephen J. Cannell forgotten or his body of work or the fact that he was so willing to help other people.

One of the things I discovered about Cannell, that made me pay more attention to his advice, was that he suffered from dyslexia, and yet he carved out a hugely successful career with words. It made my wannabe writer brain remind me there were people around the world with bigger stumbling blocks who achieved success despite their circumstances and if I stopped feeling sorry for myself and wrote more I would eventually find success. And so I paid attention to Cannell’s advice, which I still do, and I wrote more. Success is always one book away.

I don’t know how many people know this, but Cannell gave seminars on screenwriting and today I want to link you to the page where his notes can still be downloaded with an excerpt below of what to expect. You’ll find that his advice apply to writing novels, too.

Give Yourself Permission to be Bad

Every great writer who’s ever lived has, on occasion, written garbage (in my case it happens all the time). It’s okay to write garbage. You’re a good critic, you’ll fix it later. Shakespeare wrote garbage, Hemingway wrote garbage, Faulkner wrote garbage. It is okay. Every writer has bad days, or a day when he or she isn’t connecting with the material. A day when, unknown to us, the story we are writing or the characters we created have been improperly designed. When this happens, writing becomes a struggle.

That doesn’t mean you’ve lost your muse or that you’re a creative burnout. It just means that you have a problem in your story structure or with character motivation. Something is dishonest that seemed okay when you set it up. Rewriting is part of the process. Most writers plot with their heads and write with their hearts. Sometimes that causes unintended dishonesty. You start to push to make it happen. It feels forced — you freeze and your creative fire starts to gutter and burn low. You say, “I’m outta here. Time to go to the beach.”

Don’t go! Stay right where you are. Start asking yourself a few questions. Put yourself in the place you’ve designed for your principle characters. Ask yourself, “If this was really my problem, would I do what I’m saying this character is doing? Would I say what he or she’s saying?” If the answer is “no,” start redesigning; get out of your head-plotting demeanor and deal with your emotions.

My favorite story dishonesty (which I see constantly) is where the hero is in trouble, but doesn’t seek police help because then the police would solve the case. Then there would be nothing left for the hero to do, and the story is wrecked. You can’t let this flawed logic stand. You’ve got to redesign. Put the hero’s fingerprints on the murder weapon; he’s now wanted by the cops, so he can’t go to them.



5 thoughts on “#Writing Mechanics: Stephen J Cannell’s Rule Number One

  1. Woelf,

    You are right, Stephen Cannell was an amazing man. I had the pleasure of meeting him at a RWA meeting. He offered so much hope and inspiration. Like you, I was shocked by his death and felt the world had lost an incredible human being.

    I’ve been to his site numerous times and have found he offers some great device.



    1. Thanks for visiting Tina. Meeting him must’ve been so amazing. I respect him and the legacy he left. His work ethic alone is inspiring.

      It’s truly sad when the good guys leave us.


  2. Those are some of the shows I grew up with too. I didn’t know about the author, though.

    That advice sounds very solid. I do it, actually, I always ask myself what whould I do and what would I say in the characters’ position. You need to be honest though, otherwise, as he says, you end up with the MC not going to the police because it would ruin the story. That’s observation is fantastic! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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