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MBM: Four Essentials Elements of Good Writing by Gerald N Lund

Welcome to the second day of March Book Madness. (The schedule and explanation is at the bottom of this post.)

Today I’m thrilled to have my dad, Gerald N. Lund, here talking about his thoughts on the four essential elements of good writing, plus some advice he’s followed from other authors through the years.

(Pardon me for a moment while I gush. It’s my blog so I can gush, right? But feel free to skip to what my dad has to say below.)

My dad, Gerald N. Lund, has written around 30 books, both fiction and non-fiction. His books are consistent bestsellers. Three are now movies. He’s won countless awards, served as a member of the Quorum of the Seventy for the LDS church, and he’s also prolific speaker.

In one word, he’s amazing.

But above and beyond all that, he’s an incredible dad. Really truly wonderful. His books, movies, speaking engagements, etc, always came second behind his family. Still do. My mom, Lynn S. Lund, is the same way. She’s composed music since before I was born, played everywhere, and her songs are sung all over the world. Yet us kids always came first for my parents.

2011 Sadie Book Signing with Rebecca Belliston and Gerald N Lund

My parents surprised me and showed up to one of my book signings. (My mom is behind the camera.)

My siblings and I laugh because if you read the bio on my dad’s books, he has a couple of paragraphs about all of his accomplishments, but only one tiny sentence at the end that says, “He and his wife Lynn are the parents of seven children.” That’s so opposite of who they are. Their family is everything, and I’m eternally grateful to them for it.

So yeah. My dad’s my hero. My mom is my hero, and I’m extremely spoiled.

Family Book Signing with Cynthia Lund Dobson, Gerald N. Lund, Rebecca Lund Belliston

Family Book Signing, Deseret Book in SLC. Cynthia Lund Dobson, Gerald N. Lund, Rebecca Lund Belliston–What a blast!

As intimidating as it can be to follow somewhat in their footsteps, they’ve been so supportive of me as an author and a composer. They give me advice, cheer me on, and think everything I do is amazing. 🙂  I dedicated my new novel, Citizens of Logan Pond, to them. Now you know why.

(Okay. Gush over.)

When I asked my dad if he wanted to share some writing advice for my March Book Madness, he was like, “Sure.” 🙂

So here is Gerald N. Lund giving us the four essential elements of good writing. 


Gerald N. Lund:

I’m surprised how many times aspiring writers ask me about “good advice” they’ve received from other authors, writing classes (some at university level), well-meaning friends, and total strangers.

For example:

  1. Before you ever begin, write a detailed outline so you know exactly where you’re going. 

(ME: I do an outline on paper which includes the basic elements of a new book, but I only go back to it infrequently.  When I do, I use probably no more than half of it.  Remember, the outline is a skeleton not the full body.)

  1. Keep your book simple.  Don’t feel like you have to use a bunch of verbs instead of “he said, she said.” And only use adverbs if you are desperate–then strip them all out later.

(ME: I read an author who takes pride in the fact that he only uses the word “said.”  Curious, I got one of his books.  I can appreciate the simplicity, but for my taste, it got pretty monotonous.  No question that this can be overdone–often you don’t have to include anything but the dialogue itself–but well chosen verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are what enrich a book for me.  There is a huge difference between, “I love you too,” she said,” and “I love you too,” she spat.)

  1. Develop your characters fully before you start writing. 

(ME: Many years ago I read a comment by an author that puzzled me.  He said: “Be careful with your characters.  If you’re not watching, they take the bit in their mouth and go off in their own direction.”  Now I know what he means.  It’s good to know characters before you begin, but they may end up surprising you as you go along. More on that below.) 

I believe writing is an intensely personal experience. What may work for one is like a millstone to another.  So one and hard fast rule I have is:

Be wary of hard and fast rules.

With that said, here are some reflections on what I have learned from the last forty years of writing. 

I believe there are four basic elements or fundamentals to good writing.  Get these right and the end product will very likely be readable and publishable.  These are not original with me.  Most successful writers speak of them but may call them by different terms. 

1. Concept 

The concept is a terse but spot-on summary of the central idea of your book stated in one or two sentences.  It’s often called a tagline or key concept.  It does for a book what a headline does for a news story.

If you can’t crystalize your story down to that kind of statement, it’s likely the book will be fuzzy and unfocused.

Concept by Gerald N Lund

For example, the 1982 movie “Blade Runner,” with Harrison Ford, was sold to a producer on the basis of six words: “It’s High Noon in outer space.”

Boiling your story down to something short and terse can be very helpful in later plotting.

One more thing:  If you don’t feel strong about the concept, I’d probably put it aside.

2. Characters

I put characters before plot because I believe that in the best books characters drive story and plot rather than vice versa.  It is the characters we care about (be they animals or hobbits or wizards or whatever).  Putting the story first is like putting the cart before the horse, and the horse will get dragged around and even hurt.

Here is another quote that has had a strong influence on me:

“The artist who has no strong feeling about his characters–the artist who feel passionate only about his words or ideas–has no urgent reason to think hard about the characters’ problems, the “themes” in his fiction.  He imitates human gesture in the movements of his puppets, but he does not worry as a father worries about the behavior of his son; and the result is a fictional universe one would not want one’s loved ones forced to inhabit.”  (John Gardner, On Writing Moral Fiction, 84-5).

Even if our characters are reprehensible or make stupid mistakes, our readers need to “like them,” care for them, root for them, weep for them.

Again from John Gardner:

“[People want] characters we love as we do real people.”

For me personally, I can tell my characters are real when they end up surprising me.

Work and the Glory Movie

For example, when I first created Jessica in The Work and the Glory to be a love interest for Joshua, the rebel, she was this wimpy, mousy, highly insecure woman.  My plan was to bring her on stage for a while and then have Joshua divorce her and write her out of the book.  All of that happened except the last.  When I got to the divorce, she had become a strong woman and a part of the family.  It was like she was saying to me: “Write me out?  No way!  I’m part of the Steed family now, so live with it.”

Imagine my delight when I was reading an interview with James Crumley, a crime novelist and came across these words:

“When my characters are out of control, I know that everything is fine.  In many ways, the novel is smarter than the writer if you’re working at it right–so long as you’re willing to sit down and rewrite those sentences over and over until they ring like a crystal glass and you avoid cliches (In Deseret News, June 18, 1995, E-6).

3. Plot/Story/Setting

Plot, story, and setting are how we let our characters act out their conflict. Conflict is at the heart of all great literature, be that external or internal.

Again from John Gardner:

“Ultimately plot exists only to give the characters means of finding and revealing themselves, and setting only to give them a place to stand.” 

That doesn’t mean plot and setting aren’t important.  They need to be carefully chosen and constructed so the enhance the strength of your characters.  

C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and J.K. Rowling created their own fictional world so their characters were believable and challenged.  Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and Monster’s Inc, the factory that generates power from the screams of children are both wonderful examples of how important plot and setting can be.

4. Craft

Craftmanship is how we turn the ideas that excite and grip us into a work that excites and grips others.

Sloppy craftsmanship can ruin a good concept, strong characters and/or good plotting.

One famous writer when asked to define good writing  said that he could do it in three words: Darn hard work! (That’s slightly edited.)  Someone else has observed that good books are not written, they’re rewritten.  I would only add: And rewritten.  And rewritten.

The head of a successful publishing house once said to me: “You wouldn’t believe the kind of manuscripts we receive from people.  Some have scratchouts.  Others you can tell didn’t even proofread but only spell checked, because you find things like ‘then’ instead of the, or ‘have’ for ‘had.’  Before I’m more than a few pages into it, I set it aside because I know there’s nothing in here I want to publish.”

Here is another observation by James Crumley:

“I am a compulsive rewriter and I don’t apologize for it.  I find a lot of people with talent but fewer who are willing to write the chapter five or six times or read it over five or six times.  For me, the real art is in the rewriting.  It takes a lot of hard work to appear spontaneous, as any hard-working actor can tell you.”

In Summary:

Early in my writing career I came across a quote by Eric Ambler, a master of the spy novel, which I love:

“A novel, whatever else it may do for the reader spiritually, emotionally, or intellectually, ought to entertain; otherwise it is just a tract” (Literary Guild Magazine, Nov., 1974). 

I knew what he meant, though at that point I didn’t know why.  Only later did I learn that “entertain” comes from the Latin, tenare, which means “to seize, to grab, or to hold fast.” 

Years after that, I was gratified to read this statement from a successful screenwriter in Hollywood: “Entertainment is the least the viewer has the right to demand of a screenplay” (Erwin R. Blacker, Elements of Screenwriting, 4). 

Well, that’s enough.  You can tell I love writing.  I love the whole process, and I’m grateful to have been able to pursue the craft for over four decades now.

As you can also tell, I love to collect quotes about writing, by writers.  Some have influenced me in important ways.  Others just make me laugh because they show that I am not alone in this lonely work of writing.

I shall close with several of my favorite quotes.  Sorry I don’t always have a source:

  1. “Reading maketh the full man; conversation maketh the ready man; writing maketh the exact man.” ( Sir Francis Bacon)

  2. “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”  (Elmore Leonard)

  3. “Write without pay until somebody offers pay.  If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood was what he was intended for.” (As cited in Bergan Evans, Dictionary of Quotations, 781)

  4. “Writing is like driving a car at night.  You never see further than your head lights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” (E.L. Doctorow)

  5. “I love being a writer.  What I can’t stand is the paperwork.” (Peter DeVries)

  6. “I think I did pretty well, considering I started out with nothing but a bunch of blank paper.” (Steve Martin)

  7. “Writing is so difficult that I often feel that writers, having had their hell on earth, will escape all punishment hereafter.” (Jessamyn West)

  8. “The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.” (John Steinbeck)

  9. “Write only if the passion to write can be its own reward.  Otherwise the goal of publication is a snare and delusion–too difficult for most, and not worth it to most who attain what they thought they wanted.  Writing is a Chinese curse and a form of slavery.  If you do it, you had better love to tell your stories.” (Herbert Gould)

Gerald N. Lund

Gerald N. Lund received his B.A. and M.S. degrees in sociology from BYU. He also did extensive graduate work in New Testament studies at Pepperdine University, and studied Hebrew at the University of Judaism. He is a prolific author and speaker.

His novels include The Work and the Glory SeriesThe Kingdom and the Crown TrilogyFire of the CovenantThe Undaunted, and his newest series,The Guardian. He has also written several books on gospel topics, including a doctrinal trilogy exploring our relationship with Heavenly Father and how He expresses His love to His children.

During his thirty-five years in the Church Educational System, Gerald N. Lund served as seminary teacher, institute teacher and director, curriculum writer, director of college curriculum, and zone administrator. His church callings have included servings as stake president and bishop. He also served as a member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy from 2002 to 2008. 

He and his wife, Lynn, are the parents of seven children.

His books: 


Connect with Gerald:

Rebecca’s thoughts:

Thanks, Dad. Since I did all my gushing up front, I’ll just add one thought. Okay, two.

First, I love that he lists characters before plot. Not only does that describe his books, but I think it describes all of my favorite books, movies, and TV shows. Characters should come first.

Second, I love that a seasoned, successful author has so many quotes and inspirations from other authors. If you’re a writer, I hope you’ve felt the support and strength in the writing community. I learn so much from other authors. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I’m doing March Book Madness.

Well, that’s enough from me. Thanks again, Dad!

Now it’s your turn.

What are your thoughts on the Four Essentials of Writing? Do you agree that characters should come first? Any favorite writing quotes you’d like to add?

Four Essential Elements of Good Writing by Gerald N. Lund

Tune in tomorrow for our next guest: JoLynne Lyon.

If you’re new to March Book Madness, it has nothing to do with basketball (sorry) and everything to do with books. March is National Reading Month, so March Book Madness gives me an excuse to discuss everything about writing, editing, and reading books with some amazing authors.

If you’ve missed any posts, here they are:






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