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

Thursday, September 6, 2012

15 Terrifying Things That Will Make You A Better Writer

Ready to do some things for your craft that will terrify you even more than a sewer-dwelling clown?

Oh what I wouldn't give for a simple, peaceful Texas Chainsaw Massacre right about now.
Photograph: Daniel Arsenault/Getty

Tired of the same ten articles online giving you the same twenty bits of advice about writing punchy verbs or sitting down at the same time each day?  Are the thousands of clones of "How to be a Better Writer" articles  getting you down?  Do you think, "Okay, already!  I'm already carrying the damned notebook everywhere I go.  What's next?" Ready for some new advice?

Then this list is for you!

But be warned.  This is not a happy list, an easy list, or a list filled with fluffy easily-implementable things you can do in an afternoon to make yourself feel incredibly productive.  It's not a list for those who want to think themselves writers without doing the work.  I have a list like that over here. This is a list for people ready to take their writing, and possibly their craft to the next level but aren't sure how.  Maybe they've run into a wall or two or maybe they just feel like there's something they could be doing to write better.  Many of these things will not be fun or enjoyable or may even add an "unpleasant" dynamic to your writing.

But they will make you a better writer without ever using a word like "punchy."

There are hundreds of craft books that will help you dissect every word choice of your prose, and there are millions of articles with those same 20 bits of advice.  But somewhere between those two is this list: things you can do that are less well known, but that writers swear by.

1- Write When You Don't Want To/Keep Going When It Doesn't Feel Good

This is the flip side to "write every day."  This is the side no one talks about.  This is the shitty reality of that plucky wisdom.

[2021 Nuance Edit: Okay, before we go any further…. You and your health are your thing, and I don't know it. I can broadcast general advice telling everyone they need to push through their initial resistance like I'm a personal trainer encouraging you to "feel the burn" on the weights, but you should never be doing something if it harms you (just like you shouldn't be lifting weights if it's causing injury). And I'm not here to judge what does or doesn't harm you. If writing daily destroys your mental health, you shouldn't do it. If you need a day off, you should take one. What I will say, is that the graveyard of "I-really-want-to-MAKE-it" writers is littered with the bones of those who never wrote when they thought it was a chore and never established a habit because doing something when they're not in the mood for it would destroy their creativity (it doesn't). So, like everything, you have to proceed knowing which advice to put back because it's not for you and which maybe hurts like that last pushup you think you're never going to be able to do––because actually it's helping you reach your goals.]

Eventually even the best writer doesn't feel in the mood.  No matter how much joy and pleasure the simple act of writing brings you, one day, you will face the fact that you won't want to.  And you won't want to a lot.  Some days it's like your desire to just take a day off is Aragorn wielding Anduril and your motivation is one of those comic relief orcs.  But these are the days when it's most important to do push through and do something.  Even if you just write a couple of pages.  Even if it's just a freewrite. Even if it's just a spruced up email.

Now, you're going to find a lot of people who don't do this.  A lot.  They are legion.  Actually, they look at legions and say, "what's that small group doing?" They don't write when they don't want to.  They talk about how doing that will take the joy out of writing and that if they were to write every day, they would find rainbows just a little less magical.  And if you just want to be the kind of writer who writes when the mood moves you, great.  But if you take a close look at the "don't take my magic away" types, you're going to find a healthy dollop of rationalization in their artsy sounding bullshit.  People have been making excuses since the dawn of fricken time for why they couldn't do work.  Writers did not somehow get a pass on this.  If anything, we are even more creative about our bullshit than average excuse-makers, and can make it seem legitimate in much the same way we make dragons seem life-like.

Yes, you can find people online who claim they are successful writers without writing every day.  You can also find a blog from a time traveler, and "proof" that the holocaust was made up. I'm not saying no one who wrote sporadically ever published anything.  I know several who have.  But when you line up the writing careers of those who write even when it hurts and those who don't want to sully the purity of their unicorn farts, you quickly see a HUGE chasm.  The prolific writers (of blogs, books, journalism, and more) with many accolades and robust careers in writing are invariably the ones who "keep at it" even when they don't want to.  The people stuck in the writing career equivalent of second gear with one or two works to their name, maybe a blog they update sporadically at best, and perhaps a single success they can't seem to reproduce, struggle constantly with writers block, plateaus in their quality, and the nagging feeling that their writing isn't going anywhere...

...they are the ones who only write when they feel like it.

Eight hundred million web pages agree: the best way to improve at doing something is by not doing it.
It's like...whatever I want to be true, I can find validation in the warming glow of the Internet.

Though tons of metaphors about exercise or establishing good habits would be a shoe in for describing this, what it comes down to is that writing is work.  And you are a mammal--which means you don't like to do work, and will avoid it if you can.  Unless you're a Calvinist.  You are also a smart mammal, so you can concoct any number of dazzling excuses for why you can't work if given the opportunity. If you actually think that your willpower is strong enough to overcome your excuses, then ask yourself why you are still looking at some thing you always tell yourself you want to do (learn a language, learn an instrument, actually keep up with The New Yorker) but you haven't done it.

Writing is no different. Your capacity for self delusion is near infinite. If you give yourself a day off from writing, your lazy lobe (it's totally a thing) will be that much stronger the next time it tries to tempt you.  It will learn how to manipulate you.  It will deny you the joy and pixie dust in the hopes that you will take a day off.  Suddenly, because you don't like to write when you don't "feel it," you find you're "feeling it" with less and less frequency.  You just became your muse's butt-monkey.

Making writing a thing you just do, like brushing your teeth before bed, means you don't have to struggle with excuses or whether or not you feel it, or inspiration, or lightning strikes, or a fae orgasm or whatever it is that makes writing happen. You just fucking do the work. And some days you don't want to but you do it anyway, and some days you really enjoy.

More of that 2021 Nuance: This one always has and always will get a lot of pushback. (And there IS nuance –– like knowing you don't have to write Every. Single. Day.) Especially as our Covid-19 pandemic drags into its second year and good faith is a little frayed around the edges and some folks think I'm telling them they can never take a day off or even just take a break for a while. This blog is positively filled with the "Yeah buts…." and the exceptions and the fact that you decide your own level of commitment (and a lot of advice is tailored to people who want to get better and are disappointed that they're not advancing in skill or career), and gives room to the fact that "writing" each day doesn't have to be six hours on your work in progress and there's even some advice for folks who can't write daily and acknowledgement that mental health means the expectation isn't even safe for everyone. But the vast majority of people with careers (be they tidy and comfortable niche writers or household names who border on stardom) are not trying to find reasons or permission or excuses NOT to write. Like literally any job or career (from neurosurgery to chef to director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases), they did not get to professional accolades by putting in hobby effort and they certainly don't achieve the best few hundred in the field by only do it a few hours on weekends. It's up to you to balance wanting to improve with your limits. After all, the title of this article isn't 15 Terrifying Things That Don't Have Anything to Do With How Well You Write, but I'm Going to Prescribe Anyway Because I Don't Care About Your Mental Health.

2- Learn Grammar...so you can abuse it
A girl with quick and dirty tips...
who's good at grammar???
What's not to love?

Yep.  Grammar is your friend.  Not because those prescriptive pedants who actually let their quality of life be effected by the misuse of literally or "Twelve items or less" need to be placated, but because it is only by understanding how something works that you can MacGyver it to do what you want.

You actually do hear this bit of advice quite often (though not nearly enough), but most of the time it's based on getting your writing "right."  How can you possibly be a good writer if your modifiers are dangling all about!  However, if you are reading prolifically (and you should be), you already know 95% of the grammar you need to write clearly.  You just don't know all the names for stuff.  (You've been using relative clauses since you were five--even if you have no idea what those are.)  You might need a decent copy editor or a few days of studying grammar to be able to handle the other 5% and to help with the rules you can't intuit, but it's really not that hard.  Unless you need to write in a very formal, academic voice, most of the time you can "hear" what's right.  The rest is just figuring out where the commas go.

Believe me, if you have a great story with compelling characters, it is not your missing comma around the appositive phrase or a use of "very unique" that's going to kill it.  (Though the wrong they're/their/there might, so copy edit that crap as best you can.)

Grammar is The Matrix of language.  (~switch to Lawrence Fishburne voice~)  It has been created with rules.  Rules like mandatory subjects.  What you will learn if you study grammar, is that some of these rules can be bent.  Others can be broken. You think that's not prepositions you're ending your sentences with?

I don't want you to learn grammar so you can save money on a proofreader or prevent an aneurysm from someone reading your use of "irregardless."  I want you to learn it so you can take your writing to the next level.  Make up words with (what would be) proper nomenclature.  (Joss Whedon does this all the time with word like "slayage" "hellmouthy," "badness," and "single white female'd".)  Manipulate punctuation.  Twist and bend grammar so that it works for you instead of the other way around.  Have fun!  Know when a single adverb paragraph adds to the meaning of what you intend to say even though it breaks about half a dozen rules.


But you can't just do anything. Grammar may be a fetter some days, but to break the shackles, you have to study each link of the chain very carefully for which one is weakest.  Even ee cummings knew exactly what he was doing when he ended a sentence in three commas.  If you think his punctuation was random, look again. You have to understand the rules if you want to bend them or break them.

It's like how a good submarine captain knows exactly how far below the by-the-book crush depth their boat can go.  They can play with that if they need to, and it gives them options they wouldn't have if they just did everything by the book.  But if they just go straight down without any regard, they will end up a little wet and a lot dead.
    As metaphors go, Chris, this one ranks amongst your worst.

3- Read the Comments

Generally, you never ever ever want to read the lower half of anything on the internet.  The comment section of any web page more controversial than pizza toppings (and sometimes even that) is a cesspool of humanity.  This goes double if you're on a site that ends in "...chan" or "...ezebel."  Between people forgetting that on the other end of cyberspace is another human being, the lack of verbal and visual cues, and anonymity, most comment threads will shatter your hope in about three replies that the human race could ever do anything but wipe itself out.

Why would I ever want you to read this?  Because this is your bread and butter.  This is the good stuff.  Writers used to have to work really hard to see into the dark sides of people's souls.  But now, thanks to the internet, we can just scroll down, and watch people descending just as far as they can go.

All while streaming Westwood in another window. Isn't the internet great.

Those comment threads are despicable, but they are also truth.  And your job, as a writer, is truth.  This is what people are when no one is looking.  We're base creatures with lots of warts.  Even kind and decent people think uncharitable thoughts, are dismissive, are petty, are arrogant, and are even more than a little bit racist and sexist when they're not on their best behavior.  These are the thoughts and feelings that we all have in places we don't talk about at parties.

If you want to portray humanity with a shred of realism, you have to think about what people are really like.  If your protagonist is a gleaming paragon of morality all the time, you won't have much truth, and probably not too many readers either.  Your "bad guys" can't have all the moral failings.  Not everyone has conversations where they make brilliant, salient points like they're on the college debate team--in fact...almost no one does--so why would you have your characters talk that way when they are dealing with some controversy?  Reading the comments is a great window into the truth of how deeply flawed humanity can be.

Just, you know...don't do it when you're already having a bad day.  And look at some pictures of kittens afterwards.

4- Read Some Boring Shit

You need to read some stuff that you don't want to read.  You need to read some classics.  It'll be dry.  You won't like it.  And if you're like me, you're going to be irritated the whole time that it seems like you're pretty much only reading dead white guys.  But, there's no getting around how Englishy English is.

I feel the sudden need to write the most indecipherable book ever. 
These books are the fountainhead.  So much of what has come after them is built upon their scaffolding that you will find their value enormous.  Even works of pop culture fiction have dozens of references to precursor literature within them that you might not even notice if you aren't versed in it. The classics struggle with timeless themes and ideas, and help to put the arc of literary movements into perspective within history.  They are lenses into some of humanity's greatest struggles through the ages.

But mostly, they're just such goddamned awesome WRITERS.  You want to return again and again to the waters of their incredible prose, vocabulary, and skill with craft.  There isn't an easier answer to "How can I be a better writer?" than to read classics.  They are like protein/energy bars of writing: a little bland and dry, but chock full of goodness that you need.

Of course, today's readers will punch you in the groin if you write like Herman Melville or Nathaniel Hawthorne, so read, but remember to develop your own voice too.

5- Give Your Best

You probably have some story or manuscript tucked away that you tool on once in a while.  That's pretty normal.  Mine is a manuscript that I first wrote in high school with enough problems that I'll probably never be done with it.  But if all you have are manuscripts and stories tucked away that you are constantly retooling and never satisfied with, you might be holding back.  If you're never "done" with something, then you don't have to put it out there.  And so you can avoid risk and rejection if you just never give something your very best.

The number of writers who fall into this trap would boggle your mind.  If you take the number of writers and divide it by the number of writers who do this, you will get a number very, very close to 1.  Writing is an act of ego, so having writing rejected is a painful thing.  And a writer learns very soon that if something isn't their best effort, they never have to deal with the soul crushing experience of its rejection.  They learn to coast that median grade where they can be rejected without pain because, after all...it wasn't their BEST effort.  Rejection doesn't sting if you know you could do better.  You always could do better if you never do your best. Giving your best and then having that rejected is like dental work without anesthetic.

The problem is, you can't get better at anything by doing mediocre effort.  You won't get bulging biceps curling a five pound weight.  You won't improve your running time if you only jog.  You won't get a promotion at your job if you coast in late, leave early, and spend most of your time looking at LOLCATS.  You have to push yourself to excel at anything--writing isn't any different.

This industry is hard enough.  Your best effort probably won't get accepted most of the time.  Learn to take the hit of rejection rather than never give your best.  Which leads me to....

6- Fail

Fail.  Fail a lot.  Fail spectacularly.  Fail like you swan dived into the ground face-first.

Just make sure you get back up.  Try again.  Fail better.  You're going to fail.  Everyone does.  Writers do more than most.  You might as well get really fucking good at it.

Can't I maybe just go fight some giant cockroaches or something?

In our entrepreneurial, pioneer-spirit culture, we don't talk much about the benefits of failure.  If we talk about failure, it is the "setback" in a wider story arc of success.  ("But did the Black Knight let a little thing like dismemberment stop him?  No he didn't!")  But failure has its own significant benefits.  Failure makes you question your approach, technique, motivation, and more.  Failure refines you.  Failure helps you decide if you really want something and if you do it galvanizes you for the next time.

One of my most brilliant failures led me to return to school to pursue a Creative Writing degree. While in school, I discovered that I loved teaching.  I learned all kinds of amazing things about linguistics and anthropology. I became better at critical thinking. And I learned about ten billion things that were terrible about my earlier writing efforts and how to fix them. None of that would have happened if I'd succeeded. Now, I could tell you about my successes and mention my failure as nothing but a speed bump, but the fact is, my failure was the defining moment and what led to all those wonderful things.

Embrace failure!

Let me put it as bluntly as I possibly can. If you aren't failing...a LOT...you are not really risking. Your life is a series of "easy kills." Anyone can succeed all the time if they set the bar low enough. You show me someone with a lifetime of nothing but successes, and I'll show you someone who never did anything they didn't know before hand would be easy. If you're not out there, completely making a mess of something, you're probably going easy on yourself.  It's like playing a video game with all the cheat codes.  "Oh good for you, you got to level 50 on the Atari version of Ms. Pac Man--now try playing the game with more than one ghost-monster, n00b."

Success is no one's defining moment. It really isn't. It is the culmination of efforts (and probably at least a few failures). It's the end. And really, even in our cultural narrative of success, it is not our defining moment. Our defining moment is our failures, and how we deal with those failures. Because even in those campy cultural success stories where failure is just a "setback," there is always a moment where it would be easier just to give up.

Or as Rocky says: it's not about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit.

Yeah...let's maybe not let Rocky paraphrase for us anymore, mmmkay?

Failure isn't some monster out there that will rend you limb from limb and spit acid with a shooty mouth inside its normal mouth.  It's just a lack of success in an endeavor...this time.  Just because we don't enjoy it, it's uncomfortable, and it seems like all the people with really white teeth and cool cars never failed once in their lives (as if!) doesn't mean that it's so awful.  Once you get the hang of failure, it's actually quite easy!  And that's not just a tongue in cheek joke--once you aren't paralyzed by the thought that you might fail, it's not such a big deal to risk it.  So what?  You fail.  Big deal. Learn to take a punch.  Learn that it won't kill you.  Learn that it's actually pretty easy to get up, dust yourself off, and keep a-trekin'.

Because here's the thing, and there's no getting around it: if you get up just ONE more time than you fall on your face--just ONE more time--you can't really fail at all.

7- Write Some Things You Will Never Ever Publish In a Zillion Years

Have you ever seen a musician practice?  Or even just jam on their instrument with no audience?  Have you ever seen a painter just doodle without any intention of making that into their next masterpiece?  Of course you have. Do you know someone who just loves to sing or dance, even if they're alone and there isn't anyone they could be performing for?  Sure you do.  Ever seen a visual artists' studio? They're filled with an eclectic melange of bits and pieces that are just "for fun" that they would be seriously confused if you wanted to buy.

Artists are constantly "playing" (for lack of a better word) with their art.  They diddle and fart around. They whimsically frolic. They have fun. Not everything is their next major project. They love their art. And like all love, not everything has to be a candlelight dinner, Sarah McLaughlin, and four hours of oral; sometimes you just have a quickie in the shower because YEAH!

Why then do writers somehow think every damned thing they ever write has to be something they might work into a story?  Every prompt...every exercise...every word ends up being fodder for the novel or something to be retooled for submission.

Stop doing that.

Just write because writing is AWESOME.  Write like you used to when you were just discovering how wonderful words could be and you were like new lovers who couldn't get enough of each other.  Delight in a page or two of something that is pure play without ever once thinking about these words will fit into something you will publish. Write for the joy of it and have fun.

You might just surprise yourself...and that's where the real magic begins.

8- Acknowledge That You Do Not Possess The Golden Pen Of Dripping Honey

You just aren't that awesome.  Your every written word is not brilliance made manifest that sends your readers into paroxysms of ecstasy.

Get over it.

It's a tough lesson, but you are not that great of a writer.  Really.  You're not.  I'm not just saying that.  You might be competent.  Possibly even good.  But if Hemingway could acknowledge his room for improvement, you can too.

Too much!
This is just too much!
Even a lot of writers who struggle with the feeling that they are terrible hacks have a strange sense of pride about their ability.  Some of this might be false modesty, but in a lot of cases it's more of a duality.  A writer feels their work is inadequate, but you can still see a pride about it belied in how they never do anything to improve or how they cheerfully ignore criticism.

If you know ten writers, you probably know nine who are too good to accept any direction, advice, instruction, or think anyone around them might have anything of value to say.  (One of the reasons this blog has such a limited niche is because most writers who could stand to hear this advice are the exact same ones who don't think they need it.)  They might intellectually acknowledge that they don't know everything, but the theory breaks down in practice.

Don't worry.  There's good news.  You can get better.  You can get a LOT better.  You can kick the doors open Angel-Intro-Sequence style when it comes to your writing.  All you have to do is admit that you have room for improvement.  Not admit it in that I-am-theoretically-capable-of-making-mistakes kind of way that people talk about the possibility of being wrong when they argue politics online.  I mean really admit it.  Admit it in your insides.  Admit it in your very bowels.  Grok it.  (And shoot me for using that word.)

The day you stop thinking you're pretty goddamned fly just by virtue of the fact that you smithed a word or two will be a great day for your actual ability to write.  It opens up the doors for you to admit that other people might be able to give you suggestions, or that you everyone require an editor.  It helps you accept criticism.  It makes you receptive to things that can improve your prose.  It'll let you revise without feeling like that means you weren't brilliant the first time around--because you already know you weren't.

9- Get Criticism 

I know it hurts.  It hurts because what they are not saying is "Oh my fucking God!  This is the most brilliant shit I have ever read crafted by the hand of man.  Lookout Shakespeare.  Here comes (insert your name here)!"   They're going to tell you places where your writing needs work.  They're going to tell you they didn't understand what was going on in that scene you pictured so clearly.  They're going to tell you that your main theme didn't make sense.  Every word from their lips is a testimony to how badly you pulled off what you thought you had done so well.

Too blunt?
Maybe I should have used "I feel" statements.
I feel that everything you write should be burned.    
But you need it.  You need it like young teeth need that god awful floride goop or someone with tetanus needs a huge ass injection.  You need it because without it all those problems are still there--you just don't know about them.  Getting rid of the criticism didn't get rid of the problems.  It just got rid of your AWARENESS of the problem.

You are not too good for criticism.  You might need to find a writing group that is roughly on the same level as you.  It is possible that the high school Creative Writing Club may have less to offer you than your fellow MFA students at Iowa.  But you need that process of feedback and criticism more than you can possibly know.

I know you don't want to.  You pour your soul into something, and then some asshole ignores all the brilliant shit and tells you he doesn't get why your character did X or what the hell you were talking about in what you thought was your most poignant paragraph.  It's going to hurt.....a lot....the first few times.  But then you start to learn to relax and go with it, and you can even find it to be really wonderful.

Am I too classy to put an anal sex metaphor here? Yes, of course I am. Sheesh. 

You need to toughen up, anyway.  Writers don't just need thick skins--they need anime-style exo-suit power armor.  With point defense laser systems.  And missiles.  You're going to get hit with criticism for the rest of your life if you're serious about writing, and the more you succeed, the worse it's going to get.  You think anyone would care how mediocre the prose of Harry Potter is if Rowling wasn't the bestselling fiction author of all time?  You think anyone scrutinizes other authors they way they do Stephen King?  You think Dan Brown would have a gagillion web pages dedicated to dissecting his awful style if he were some little-known author with a 20,000 book run?  You put your shit out there, and someone's going to criticize it, so better learn to do it early.  The criticism is just going to get louder and louder.  Might as well learn to deal with it when you still have to go out and ask people to give it to you so that when it comes looking for you like the Terminator, you'll be ready for it.


...you need to develop a "barometer" for what is good criticism and what isn't.  Learn to respect people who know their shit and not people who are full of shit.  Learn how certain criticism lands on you like uncooked spaghetti, and you just don't know what the person is talking about, but some of it feels like a javelin to the chest because, deep down, you knew that was a problem.  Learn that great criticism sometimes can't account for taste, and learn how to take criticism back to the drafting table and incorporate it into what's next.

10- Respect the Process/Write a Shitty First Draft

If you sit in front of a blank page or screen trying to think of the perfect words, you will be there for a long, long time.  Give that crap up.  It goes along with the fact that you don't have the pen of dripping honey, and the more you expect yourself to, the more you will put undue pressure on yourself to spin gold from straw every time you smith a word.

Fuck spinning gold.  Just try spinning tarnished lead for a first effort.  Stop trying to write a good draft.  Just write a draft.  Get it down.  Know that it will change and shift, and you will have ample opportunity to go back and make every word perfect.  Once you're okay with the fact that your going to write a steaming pile of crap, you can just do it without the worry.

Trust in the process.  Revision is where you will make that flaming turd of a draft into something special.  Heck, you can even have fun with it and TRY to make that story suck as much as possible.  Anything to just get yourself writing.  Get yourself out of that mindset that the first thing you write will be the final product.  It's just not that fucking important.

Have you read some of those Hemingway drafts they found in his desk?  Oh my god, that was the most hackneyed shit ever.  It was actually kind of embarrassing.   But Hemingway trusted that through the process of revision, his initial words would improve.

It's messy.  It's imperfect.  You may not end up with the same story you started with.  You might find a theme you never intended.  You might cut the parts you thought were brilliant.  But that's how it is.  There is a great essay called "The Eleventh Draft" because it often takes that many to tease out the best writing.

That's ten drafts from what you're about to write now...so really, don't worry about it.

Good fiction is so magical on so many levels because it's gone through multiple layers of revision.  Part of the reason it's so fucking amazing is that you can see how much effort went into it and that no one could ever possibly just sit down and write like that.  As soon as you really start to respect that process, your pressure to perform lessens and once that pressure to perform goes away, you find that you can really relax and dive into the act with gusto.

Am I too classy to put an impotence joke here?  No.  No I am not.

11- Cut 10-20%

Unless you are deliberately trying to expand a work or you have been accused (repeatedly) of being too minimalist (unlikely), you should look at your first step in the revision process as cutting 10-20%.  Really, think more like 20.

Yeah, I know.  I know.  There there.  There there.  Every word is brilliant.  You can't possibly make any cuts.  It's all absolutely essential.  It just wouldn't be the same without it.  I know, Terrence.  I know.

Okay.  Got that out of your system?  Feel better?  Good.

Now go cut the motherfucker.

I can say with almost 99% certainty that you're writing too much.  You're over explaining things.  You're spoon feeding your readers.  You have multiple scenes that are doing the same job in the narrative arc.  You are pontificating for far too long.  You are telling your reader how to feel.  Something.

Nothing in this world will help you distil your story down to its essentials like forcing yourself to cut a fifth of it away.  Suddenly you have some serious choices to make about what you really need--REALLY need--to tell the story you want to tell.  Getting some short stories down to the 5000 word limit of my short story class at SFSU was probably one of the best things that could have happened to them.

When you look for cuts, your knee jerk reaction will be "Nope, I need that.  It's important."  When you HAVE to make cuts, you are forced to really think hard about what matters to your story  It's kind of like how no one can ever see how their family could possibly survive on less money than they currently make, and then someone gets laid off, but they don't instantly explode into destitute poverty.  They figure out what's important, and stop buying the stuff that isn't.  Maybe it means they have family night in instead of out, eat a lot of casseroles, and start packing their lunches, but you can see the priorities pretty quickly.  (You don't often see such a family keep eating out and not pay the rent, for example.)

Your writing has a lot of "family night out" type indulgences in it.  At best you're just not respecting your reader's intelligence and all that they will bring to the table when they read your work.  But at worst you're being a self indulgent prat who just loves the sight of their own wordsmithing.  Make yourself cut it.

12- Treat Your Brain Like An Organ.  Cause...you know...it is one.

Your brain is a pretty spectacular organ, but it lives inside your body.  It's physical.  It needs chemicals and shit to do it's brainly things.  And as much as we think about mental and physical as being different, there is not a week goes by that we don't learn some new physical reality that affects our thinking, mood, imagination, and even creativity.  It may feel like your brain is out there on some psychic plane of existence, far removed from your body, but it isn't.  It's right in there eating the same chocolate covered doughnut as you.  And the way you treat your body is going to affect your brain.

So don't treat your body like a fucking toxic waste dump, and expect that your brain will remain above it all.  It won't.  It can't. Your brain can't pack up and leave your body if you stuff it full of double meat cheeseburgers and cheese nachos for a week.  It can't slip off to take a nap if you are running on four hours a day for a week and an I.V. of 5 Hour Energy Drink.  And it can't keep serving up the great story ideas if you just sit like a lump of lard and play turret defense games six hours a day.

Think of it like a machine. You feed it nothing but pizza, double caffeine soda, sleep deprivation, and expect it to churn out a brilliant story, you might find that it (quite literally) has other ideas.  You need neurotransmitters for creativity and concentration.  Put some good stuff in your face once in a while so that it has something to work with. You don't have to go "my-body-is-a-temple" about it, but stop treating it like a garbage disposal that can turn salt, fat, and sugar into literature.

13- Shut up and listen.

You probably have a lot of opinions. I know I do. I have opinions on marriage equality. I have opinions on politics. I have opinions on critical race theory's praxis as a social cudgel. I have opinions on the characterization of Shylock. I have opinions about your opinions. I have opinions about my opinions. I even have opinions about your opinions of my opinions.

You may want to express your opinions really, really badly. You may want to "get it on the record." You may want to "set the record straight." You may just want to argue. You may believe someone is wrong and morally bankrupt in their facey face for what they believe.

Trust me when I tell you that as a writer, it's better to listen.

The last thing you're going to want as a writer is to create a world where everything is a reflection of your opinions.  Not only would that be very, VERY boring, it would be anywhere between vaguely and highly insulting to anyone who wasn't you.

It also would not be truth.

Your characters should be as diverse, nuanced, and complicated as real people.  That can't happen if you're so busy interrupting them to get your own opinions heard that you don't stop and listen.  You can't hear the diaspora of voices if you never shut up.

Now, there's a tough caveat to this. Certain voices in our culture are marginalized, and sometimes you have to correct some epic dill-hole who isn't realizing that they are perpetuating that kind of thing. I can't tell you where to draw that line. It's a personal decision, and it has a lot to do with your own sense of morality. All I can tell you is that the longer you can endure such talk--the more successfully you can portray your next bigot. (Because they're FAR from all being small minded fools.) Just remember which groups you have to overcorrect for.

There's something else to consider here. As a writer, you have a certain power. You can't be oblique or preachy or come in too hard on politics or morality from a prescriptive stance without feeling didactic, but you can portray truth in a way that you decide and in a way that brings a message to more people.  Let that idiot with the damn fool opinion talk their tongue blue.  You're probably not going to change their mind anyway. Then make them a really interesting character in a story that might actually touch some hearts and get people thinking.

14- Stop taking yourself so seriously.  Take the writing seriously.  Not yourself.

Writing is sacred.  You take forty symbols--twenty-six letters and fourteen pieces of punctuation--and you do a little magic trick using those symbols to transfer entire concepts, images, even whole worlds from one brain into another.  That is a power that must be respected and approached with reverence.

You, on the other hand, aren't quite so important.  If I hooked you up to some angel food cake, you'd probably die.

So get over yourself.

The sooner you realize you pretty much are a pretentious joke with shitty sneakers and a rent-a-room paycheck and learn to laugh along with everyone else at these facts, the sooner you can stop letting the world get to you.  As soon as you stop letting the world get to you, you can go back to writing.

Revel in the absurdity of it. How pathetic are you?  Pretty pathetic.  A world of high-power materialism and you want to be an "artiste" for what will amount to pennies an hour.  People are laughing at you because it really is kind of funny.  As soon as you stop taking yourself so seriously and worrying about what kind of hat looks writerly and who thinks your reading was "deep" down at the Coffee Klatch, you will be a better writer for it. It's like writing shitty first drafts and not believing your pen drips golden honey: stop trying so hard to be good, relax, enjoy yourself, and you will probably be even better.

15- Stop wanting to be a writer more than you want to write.

I know it's terrifying, but I'm surprised this doesn't get mentioned a lot more.

If I could somehow tally up the calories spent by people wanting to be a writer and people actually writing, it would blow you away.  You would see a thousand fold difference, I'm sure, and I might be lowballing it. They want it. They dream of it. They learn the industry. They "network." They take classes. They read books on writing. They think about their tours. They work to establish and then maintain their identity among their peers as a writers.

What they don't do is write. Not much. Not really.

I'm not here to judge. I wouldn't if I could. All I'm going to say is that wanting to write and wanting to BE a writer are two different things, and a whole lot of folks probably need to unpack that. 

I know every clone list has a "just write" bit of advice, and this may seem like it's what I'm telling you, but it's not. I'm telling you to write more than you want to be a writer, and not to want to be a writer more than you write. Put all that energy you spend dreaming and use it to do "MOAR WRITING!"  Somewhere between sincere self-reflection and putting your energy in a productive direction, you will discover if you really love writing or the idea of writing. Most "writers" haven't actually figured this out yet, and it kind of makes a lot of them miserable.

At best you are wasting resources that could be better spent writing. At worst…. it's just a waste of spirit.

If you love writing, write. Take it into your arms, and let the rest of the world fall away. If you dream of writing--not the success or the talk show circuit or the money--but the writing itself, then go do it. If you can see yourself clacking away in twenty years without a publication credit or a dime to your name just because it gives you so much joy, then keep writing.

There's a time and a place for marketing and classes and money and all that stuff. But the ratio should be HIGHLY skewed towards actually writing, and if it isn't, you might want to question--are your priorities messed up, or are you just in love with an idea. I'm would thought perish telling anyone to hang up their pen, but if you just want to BE a writer but you find every excuse not to write (particularly that "it feels like a chore if you do it too much), you might be in for a long, hard, frustrating, unfulfilling life. 

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  1. Here's one.

    Your very favorite sentence in any piece?

    Delete it. Invariably, it doesn't really go with the flow.

    1. I like that one. Good advice! I think I can find that sentence in most writing.

  2. This is a fabulous list. Very original. Thank you.

    1. Yeah, a lot of them are pretty much clones of each other aren't they?

    2. They really really really are.

  3. Thank you, this is what I have subconsciously been searching for. I can now get off the internet and go back to writing my book.

  4. The horror. The horror!

  5. I refuse to read the comments on Youtube, Jezebel, or anything from Reddit. I just need to believe in humanity more than that.

    1. Awww. But that's the good stuff. That's where you learn what people are really like without ever having to buy them a drink.

    2. I'm always drawn to the comments, especially when the theme is somewhat polemic. If you make a superficial reading, it can be quite disheartening, but I usually end up LMAO. There are those bigots who think they are well-intentioned, and the logic behind their arguments is a masterpiece of the human mind on its own. And there are also those well-intentioned people surprisingly full of hate (which is almost always ironically misguided as well). The fact that these are all real people makes me think that, no matter how absurd I make a character's personality, moral or logic, I'll hardly be far from the truth. Things just got to make a little more sense in fiction than they do in real life.

  6. Intreresting thoughts. A couple of really useful ideas here.

  7. That last one really hit close to home. Thanks.

  8. I'd like to add a bit to the workshop part. Please send your work to people who are NOT writers or at least to people who you will not be critiquing their work later. I can't tell you how many creative writing classes have turned into a circle jerk of people praising each other or at best giving vague and unhelpful criticism. Everyone is so focused on their own work that they really aren't paying much attention to the quality of others (clearly not ALL groups do this but enough to make me annoyed by it). A non-writer friend will not be able to give specific help, maybe, but I bet they'll be more willing to say "I don't get it."

    1. That's probably good advice. I've known some graduate program workshops that get a little.....weird.

    2. I do this, too! Writers often give mechanical advice. Non-writers give "that made no sense." or "you've said the same thing repeatedly" or they let you know if it's too serious or over the top. It's like a critique from the actual audience instead of a critic.

  9. Best. List. Ever. (Seriously, this is *actually* useful. Thank you.)

  10. "....their on the debate team..." I'm paraphrasing since I did not want to scroll all the way back up. Shouldn't that ben they're?

    1. be they're? LOL

    2. Nice catch! This post is years old and you're the first to mention that. :)

    3. LOL, I thought this part "... that you everyone require an editor." under section 8 was purposely screwed up to drive the point home. I didn't catch any other typos.

    4. That particular error, I intended. Many many many many others I do not. Unfortunately hiring a copy editor for a blog post that might make a few cents is wildly impractical.

  11. The last one nails 90% of failed writers. Sharing this with my critique group!

  12. drugs really help, to both ward off depression and inspiration, etc.

  13. I wish I could print this list and stick it somewhere that is visible from my desk (or maybe on my bedroom wall?) and have it bore into my skull every day. However, I don't know if my printer would survive that much ink on a page!

  14. Great post. Inspiring.
    Could be summed up by NIKE. just do it.
    Oh, and that immortal quote "eliminate unnecessary words".

  15. ThisThis is a a great list - something probably a lot of us needed to hear. I know I did. I appreciate your writing and Facebook page. I have it set to see first in my newsfeed 😊