My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

5 Things You Can Do to Be a Better Writer Practically Overnight

Okay, okay. It might be a couple of months.
"Overmonth" just doesn't have the same ring to it.
Want to know how to be a better writer in a short period of time? It's shocking how well–how really, breathtakingly WELL–these easy tips actually work to improve a writer's writing in just a short period of time. You will notice a significant increase in the quality of your work right away.

1- Write

In the annals of absurd, you might think there aren't very many things more worthy of their position than someone who wants to be a writer but doesn't write, but they're like locusts across the landscape.  Big, nasty, pretentious locusts who go to Kevin Smith Q&A events and ask him to take a look at the first draft of their zombie story cause it's "really awesome."  And once you actually see them, you will drop your bottle of strawberry flavored milk dramatically to the ground and scream "My god.  My GOD....they're EVERYWHERE!!"

Of course, there might be one place of actual legitimate confusion here. When I say "write," I don't mean once a month or one draft of that thing you thought about since you were in high school. I mean a lot. Every day (or almost).  Like, more than you do almost anything else, except maybe sleep and earn a paycheck to survive capitalism.

If you don't want to write every day that's fine. If you love it when you are inspired and it feels like a chore when you're not, great. And even though maybe it shouldn't be a stretch to write more than you watch Netflix or play video games if you claim to love writing more than anything else (particularly Netflix and video games), but I'm not here to harsh your squee.

But in order to cash in on the promise of this listicle and be better "practically overnight," you're going to have to commit to something more strenuous than,  "I wrote three times last month!"

Like any art, writing has a heavy component of technical skill to it, and like any skill, it gets better with use and rusty with disuse. The irony with writing in particular is that there is almost no art in which one can make such amazing strides in skill with simple practice than writing. (No one is going to be a noticeably better piano player after only a month or two.) This is because unlike pretty much every art, almost everyone you ever meet has had about 12 years of training–maybe more. That's a lot more than any other art, so the bedrock of training means most people who practice will get instant and amazing returns. Unfortunately it also means a lot of people are capable of deluding themselves into thinking they are the fucking bomb (yo) at writing because they got an A on their essay about the themes of death in Emily Dickinson poems.   ...even though that was ten years ago ....in a freshman composition course ....and even though they haven't written a word since (beyond a memo to the staff about stealing all the peanut butter cups out of the "On Your Honor" candy machine).

People like imagining how their lives will be after they're rich and famous, but most enjoy this pleasant fiction a lot more than they like actually doing the work to get there. They envision the book tours, the signings, the groupies, the Tonight Show interviews, but somehow imagining being a writer and the work it takes to get there are vastly different. People also like to imagine themselves as famous actors and great musicians and don't take acting classes or practice their accordions for the four hours a week their instructor demands.

You can't just dream if you want to get better "practically overnight." You have to earn your er.

2- Read 

In no other art on the planet would someone who eschews exposure to their fellow artists be taken even remotely seriously by the world around them, yet somehow there are legions of writers who honestly think they they are bomb diggity writers without really reading.  No musician who said, "I don't really like music," would not be laughed to the curb.  No painter who said, "I'm not really into visual arts," wouldn't get a blank stare.

Why then do so many would-be-writers somehow think this is kosher? It's as kosher as a bacon wrapped falcon cheeseburger with a large land-bound lizard garnish and a tall glass of shellfish juice.

Yes, movies might give you a sense of pacing or of dramatic tension or of character arc, but only reading gives a writer the direct connection to expression through language that they will need to turn around and do the same thing themselves. Writers who don't read are like people who try to ONLY breathe out.

Read. Read all the time. Read great authors. Read mostly what you want to be writing, but also read totally different genres and totally different authors just to expose yourself to different stuff. Read in small sips and deep gulps--for a few minutes at a time or for hours. Read like you are a pretentious jackass if you don't.

Cause...um...you would be.

And as you read, recall why this journey began. Maybe you stumbled a little along the way, or got caught up in the American dream of wealth and fame and glittering prizes, but way back when this whole quest began, you probably did it for a different reason. You probably held a book in your hand and felt its power. Remember that you don't want to be a writer for the money, the fame, or any of that crap but because you know that books are magic, and you have a spell or two you'd like to cast.

3- Blow Up Your Television  

Strap C-4 to it. Feed it pop rocks and soda.  Put a shaped charge on it in a profile shot of Ernest Hemingway, and slap the plunger. Knock it to the ground and get the River Dance crew to dance over it before hiring Stomp to make it their 7 o'clock show. Slip it on board a Vorlon's ship, kill the Vorlon, and then smile as the ship drives itself into the nearest star.

Or don't pay your cable bill. That works too.

Look....I watch stuff. I fire up Netflix or Hulu two or three times a week. I put on old faves when I'm cleaning house. And frankly, there are some great TV shows out there that are worth watching, even for writer types. But if you're the type that watches TV for a few hours a day, and is easily seduced by the endless soul-sucking power of "Just ONE more show." If you like TV, particularly the show that never ends of network TV constantly slurping you into adding more and more shows to your routine, you could do worse than to just get rid of the whole thing for a while. Spend those hours reading and writing instead.

And don't forget, mass commercial media has one purpose. ONE! That purpose is to bring the most possible eyeballs together at one time to witness commercials. One of the neatest things about subscription television is that it is no longer fettered to this.

And those commercials can be kind of ouchy on the soul. They get to you after a while. You think you're immune because you don't wake up in cold sweats wanting Tostito taco shells, but what you aren't noticing is that they're selling you on a lifestyle obsession. The BEST thing any artist can do if they want to be able to make peace with the austere conditions that are 99.5% of aritists' lives, is to never know what it is they don't have. Advertisers are paid bizillions of dollars to trip every psychological button you have to make you want their thing. They are VERY good at what they do, or no one would ever EVER pay for a Prada bag that is the exact same as a JC Penny bag but with a label. You don't need that kind of social pressure in your life. Especially if you want to be zen about the fact that you are 38 and have a futon and ate ramen four times last week.

4- Steal (but don't appropriate)

Your new life as a bold and honest writer with new and original ideas is off to a bad start just because you forgot what a writer is. A writer is a little beady-eyed motherfucking thief who skulks around in the night and steals every damned idea that isn't nailed down like a literary racoon. (But don't appropriate.)

Heh, that's a joke because you can't nail down ideas. SEE WHAT I DID THERE?

Shakespeare is considered the greatest writer of English.  Now...for the $800 dollar Double Jeopardy question, does anyone know how many of his plays he actually made up and didn't rip off from some earlier source material?  If your answer wasn't ONE, you just lost $800.


One fricken play the greatest writer in all of the English language actually came up with himself. So get over the idea that you are above stealing.

Anybody notice how many "reinvented fairy tales" there are flooding theaters and bookstores lately? I mean I just happened to be driving along and I saw two billboards on opposite sides of the street for two different Snow White movies. Ever read The Hours? Michael Cunningham won a Pulitzer prize for it. It's just Mrs. Dalloway.

Stealing works. Stealing leads to great things. (Just not appropriation.)

You will bring yourself, your energy, your anxieties, your passions, your insights, your skill (or lack of), and your mojo to anything you steal, so it will become yours.  Of COURSE you don't want to steal in a way that you pass off someone else's work as your own, and of course you don't want to exploit the traditions of a culture that has spent hundreds of years on the shit end of colonialism without paying proper tribute (possibly monetary tribute) to your influences, but you also don't want to sit paralyzed trying to think of something no one has ever done before because you won't.


So just give up and steal. Join the Dark Side. It is your destiny. (No, seriously, it's actually your destiny.) Find something worth stealing and steal it. Make it your own. Write. See what happens. And you probably will realize that in a very short amount of time you are writing MUCH better and generating all those original ideas you wanted to be generating in the first place.

Just...you know...not Star Wars. Fucking steal something besides Star Wars.

5 Write At the Same Time Every Day

Some writers swear by a specific time (mornings, quite often).  But really you are the only you know when your personal magic can happen.  If a time isn't working, try a different time.

Sit down at that time every day.  Do it no matter how badly your world tries to distract you. Do it even if your partner sashays towards you wearing kneepads and a lobster bib. Unless your mother bursts in with a machete sticking out of her skull and blood fountaining merrily about your office, ignore the world and keep working. This should be more important to you than any meeting with a friend. It should be more important than being on time for any "real job." It should be the most solemn commitment you can make. If you have to go out on Friday night and Saturday night and like to turn in early on Sunday so you're ready for the week, then don't pick nights. You have to do this every day. You might be able to skip one day a week, but really that's even pushing it.

You'll notice something starts to happen right away--maybe even after only a couple of weeks of doing this.  About a half hour before your time...ideas start coming. They just start showing up in your brain. They start gathering like workers loitering around the front door of a store waiting for the boss to show up with the keys.

Waiting for you. Waiting for you to show up with your typewriter keys....boss. (See what I did there...you know....with the keys thing....forget it.)

You will start to write before you sit down, and when you do finally sit, the ideas will gush from you in a torrent.  But only if you write at the same time every day. If these ideas don't know when to gather in order to find you willing, they will just keep flitting around your head aimlessly, and they will bolt like spooked butterflies when you try to write and catch them.

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  1. LOVE this. Even though my writing is different than your writing, it's still very much the same. I'll be linking to you!

  2. You don't really have to write every day. For some people that actually kills their creativity.

    1. I write a lot about this. At the risk of contradicting you directly and personally, I will just say that I think writers should really try this for a while before they decide that they are the exception to every creativity study that's ever been done.

  3. "It's as kosher as a bacon wrapped falcon cheeseburger with a large land-bound lizard garnish and a tall glass of shellfish juice."

    That's about as not kosher as it comes!

    1. I can tell I'm going to have to get up pretty early in the morning to get one over on you.

  4. I'm in my third rewrite! I'm starting to think that I should move on to another story... but I don't really want to leave it. Like, I've started to write this three years ago and I've got some feelings in this... the characters are so real to me as if they were my friends. What I should do? Give up? (English isn't my first language, sorry for the grammar).

  5. Great tips. Thank you. So simple, yet can be so difficult to achieve.

  6. Absolutely loved your points, I think if we can imbibe a bit of self-discipline, it'll all work out for the best. Keep working you! :)

  7. That sounds very reasonable. I'm very happy to realise I'm actually doing four of these (I really can't do the "same time every day" thing because I work shifts).

  8. Literally ALL of the author friends I have, if you liberally count Fanfiction authors as writers, have issues with #1. Mainly, they don't do it, even when I tell them it's all it takes. They just won't sit themselves in front on a laptop or PC until they're inspired. Hence the reason they only manage two or so thousand words a month. Glad I can show them this and gloat about not being insane... Entirely

  9. What do you do when ideas come around outside of their scheduled time? Part of what makes this advice difficult for me is that when ideas demand to be recorded for 4 random hours on a Wednesday that I have planned for other things, thus putting me behind on other work and exhausting me, it's hard to get up Thursday and spend an hour writing.

    I know difficult/hard doesn't mean I shouldn't do it, and I'll work towards trying this method -- I just wonder if you have any tips about how to handle thoughts that aren't very well-behaved. Or even just a reassuring anecdotal share that you had that problem too, but that ideas not only come when scheduled if you train them, but they also stay away when unscheduled so you can regulate your sleep, eating, and everything else that needs to be true in order to protect writing time. Especially if you aren't able to support yourself with your writing (yet), and tend to get sucked in whenever you start. (For instance, was there a time when you'd end writing sessions even though you hadn't gotten down what you wanted just in order to maintain good boundaries and do your other commitments?)

  10. I'm a bit spooked out. How did you know I love strawberry milk?

  11. Yay! I am doing most consciously except four. I, perhaps, do it unconsciously but I was surprised the way you put it �� ok I'm joining the dark side �� anyways, thank you for this article!

  12. good now i don't have to feel guilty about hw many ideas i've stolen, thankyou

  13. Writing every day doesn't kill creativity. It feeds. I know of no circumstance, none, where using a skill daily did not improve the skill. None. Not one