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Craft

Yeah, I see you – you with your hard drive packed full of ‘finished’ work. You prolific bastard, so proudly telling everyone ‘I write every day, no matter what – a thousand words at least!’. So cocksure, so professional. Maybe you’re even pretty good. Maybe you’ve been published in pro markets before, and have written more novels than you can count. I see you, with your giant body of work, your hours of dedication, and your well-thumbed hard copies of On Writing and The Hero’s Journey… and I call bullshit!

You can be as professional and consistent in your writing as you want, but if you don’t take the same attitude toward editing, it’s all useless. If you think I’m being harsh, read the first paragraph again with the knowledge that I am addressing my younger self as much as anyone else. I have made the mistake, and seen the results, over and over.

See, I hate editing. The very thing that makes you a good editor – self criticism – is also the thing that makes you hate your work. It’s impossible to love your work and be a good editor at the same time.

In the past, I did everything I could to minimize the amount of editing necessary. It paid off, to a degree: I put a disproportionate amount of thought, rewriting, and overall effort into my first draft, specifically so that I don’t need to edit as much later. You never catch me slacking off in the first draft with the justification I’ll fix it in post-production. Hell no – if it was up to me there wouldn’t be any post production, the first draft would be IT.

But there’s the crux of the problem: you can’t get away from editing. No matter how hard you try, the first draft (even if you rewrote it ten times) needs to be edited.

Over time, my computer began to get awfully cluttered up with shitty drafts, and each one inhabited a space in the back of my mind like a gnawing parasite. Hey buddy, remember me, that short story you wrote three months ago and haven’t looked at since? I’m alright, you know – or at least I could be… with some work. I was like a man with a rotting leg who refuses to look down, insisting on going about his day while the infection grows and festers, spreading up his thigh and then his hip, eating him alive.

I couldn’t go on like that. Here and there I’d give a story a read through and send it out, but it was never quite what it could be and I knew it.

When I began work on my most recent novel, I promised myself I was going to do all the work. I was going look down at the rotting leg, take stock of every maggot, pustule, and patch of black flesh – and then I was going to grab the scalpel and get to work. I can write like a pro, no problem there, but now I was going to have to learn how to edit like one, too.

This is the method I’ve developed slowly over the last few books that hopefully removed as much pain from the editing process as possible. This is the best way I know how to edit a novel when you would rather just amputate…

 

Phase One: Identify the Problems.

When I finished the book, the first thing I did was print the entire thing out, double spaced. I did this for two reasons: one, it’s a lot easier to sit down and edit when all you have to do is grab a pen, as opposed to turning on the computer, finding the file, etc. Two, it’s way more satisfying to see pages with pen marks all over them, and to watch that pile of edited pages build up. Not only that, but being able to see those marks allows you to note where you haven’t made many changes and where you have. What scenes were so good you didn’t need to fix them? Maybe you should take a look again. The goal is to make the manuscript as dirty as possible.

These might seem like dumb reasons when you consider how much more tedious it is to use pen instead of the more efficient word processor, but remember that this is for me – someone who despises editing – and doing things this way definitely made the process more rewarding and satisfying. If you love nothing more than tweaking and revising, this post isn’t for you.

Anyway, once I have the printed thing, I read it the same way I’d read a normal book. If you’re naturally critical, like me, you’ll immediately start noticing inconsistencies, bad grammar, and other jarring mistakes. If it’s an easy, obvious fix, I change it there and then with the pen or else remove it completely with a line through the middle.

Of course, if you only ever come across problems that can be easily addressed with a few strokes of the red pen, you won’t be reading this post, because you don’t exist. With a short story, mayyyyyybe. With a book? Impossible! The only way to end up with a manuscript that flawless would be if it was so ridiculously simple nothing actually happens in it.

So you will definitely encounter complicated problems, many of which will require lots of thought and work to solve, and some which will require you to drastically alter large sections of your manuscript. This is one of the reasons I hate editing, and why I decided I would have nothing to do with any of it in the first phase. No, in the first phase, my only job is to identify the problem – not fix it. So I will write something at the bottom of the relevant page like: ‘How did Bill get all that money? You have to explain this.’ Or: ‘You talk about this dark history between these two characters, but you never actually reveal it? Gotta address that, man.’ Yes, I call myself man in my notes. Dude is also common.

This makes the first phase infinitely more appealing. Now it’s low effort. The only problems I need to worry about are the easy ones! Even if I come across a badly worded or structured paragraph, I don’t always fix it – I just circle it and write RW next to it (Re-Write).

Now you know how the first phase works, all you gotta do is decide on how many pages to get through a week, just like you’d decide on a quota for word count in first draft. Before you know it, you’ve got yourself a nice satisfying pile of red-marked pages, and you’re ready for phase two…

 

Phase Two: Fix the Problems.

This is normally the most difficult aspect of editing, since you really have to use your brain and figure out how to solve the problems without tearing the whole thing to pieces. With my system, however, it’s a little easier, since now you don’t have to worry about any of the stuff in phase one, and you don’t have to read your manuscript through.

I do this part on my computer, with the stack of edited manuscript beside me and again, a quota of pages to get through. The rule is this: every mark I made on the paper in phase one, I must address – however, I don’t have to do or think about anything else. I look at the page, find the first mark, make the adjustment to the file, and move on. I correct the spelling, I re-write where it says RW, and when I come to one of those notes I left myself, I do whatever I can to fix the problem before I move on.

I know it sounds like a lot of work, but here’s a neat trick I learned: you can use your impulsive laziness to make you a smarter editor. Bill Gates said: ‘I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.’ So many times I’ve come upon an apparently insurmountable problem in my story, only to discover that I could fix it with nothing more than a word added here and a sentence removed there. Before you start tearing down huge portions of your book or adding chapters to explain something, ask yourself how you’d fix the problem if you had a gun to your head and less than an hour. You’d be amazed how much you can change your story with very little effort.

 

Phase 3: The Polish

After all that work, we finally have a finished, shining manuscript!

Haha, no, no we don’t. We have something, though – perhaps even a diamond. But while one might be able to get a good price for a hunk of dirty rock, it would be a waste of potential not to take the trouble to cut it, clean it, and set it to a ring so we can really see what we got.

The polish is the last chance you have to edit with the door closed, before strange eyes have forever warped it with their unforeseen judgements. It’s the part of the speech where you ask yourself ‘any questions?’ and also, more commonly: ‘What the hell was the point of this, anyway?’

Here’s how I go about the polish for best results: first, I try to alter my state of mind from that of editor to reader. I pretend I just got given the book by someone else, and when I sit down to read it now it isn’t with the red pen but with the eager eye. And mouth, because for this stage of the draft I do the thing that all writers say you’re supposed to do, and so few actually do: I read aloud.

As I go, I format the book, making sure the chapters and scenes are in the right places, adding quotes and titles here and there, and in general making it look professional. Besides that, I don’t stop except when I hear something wrong in the course of reading. I’m trying to enjoy the story as much as possible, but despite the work I’ve already put in there will be countless missed blunders brought to light as soon as I try to read it with my own voice.

It can be tedious and throat scorching, but the results are undeniably smooth, and I guarantee your dialogue will benefit as well. If you are out of breath, your reader will be, too. If you find yourself droning on, bored of your own voice – your reader will be, too. Problems with language, pacing, and grammar which you weren’t quite sure about in the first and second drafts will suddenly become glaringly obvious, but thankfully so will the solutions.

Finally, when the last word rings in the air (and if it doesn’t ring, maybe you should check that paragraph again), you are done, my friends. The herculean task of editing is over, Sisyphus now stands at the summit of his mountain, the boulder almost in place, and then…

Well, you know. Then you actually give it to other people to read.

‘Where do you get your ideas?’

This question is notoriously annoying for writers and usually elicits a sarcastic or disparaging response. The general consensus is that no one really knows. Until now, my responses to the question have been more to do with action than method: ‘I stare at blank walls.’ ‘I go for long walks.’ Or when I’m impatient: ‘Same place you get yours.’

But I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, mostly because I’ve been having a lot of bad ideas (and worse – no ideas) and I decided to nail down something more solid – something I, and hopefully you, can use. Sure, I stare at walls, but what actually goes on in my mind when I make that jump from disconnected thoughts to a coherent idea? What black magic is this?

So, over the past few months I set up camp in the slimy dungeons of my mind and I watched my thoughts from afar to see what they were doing. Here is my field report.

 

There are, I discovered, certain things I like. They seem completely random, yet connected in some way I can’t quite identify. Cacti is a recent one I became aware of. Why the hell would I be interested in cacti? Cacti, of all things! I don’t know, but I am – I love cacti. (Now I think of it, maybe it has something to do with tequila…) Here are some other things I like: Hyenas. The Moon. Hell. Silver. Keys and locks. Fire. Blood. Wood and stone. Knives. Monsters of all kinds. Shadows. Time. Magic. The ocean. Jungles. Cities (big and dirty preferred). Everything Noir. Guns. I could probably fill several pages with these things, ranging from objects to abstract concepts. Why they fascinate me, I have no idea – but luckily I don’t have to know.

When I go for one of my long night walks, or stare at a blank wall, or stay up late and stare at nothing, I turn my mind towards these things that I like, and I focus on one or another and see if I can make what I think of as a ‘story element’.

A story element is a character, a setting, a concept, an emotion, a sensation, a monster, fill in the blank; it is an aspect of a story, a single piece of the puzzle. Here’s an example from a walk I took yesterday. Among the things I like are: Motorbikes, Cool, James Dean type characters, and Magic. Thinking on this, I came up with a character, a wizard who has – instead of a magic wand and a broomstick – a magical cigarette lighter and a motorbike that takes him wherever he wants to go and never runs out of fuel. I haven’t decided yet whether or not he’s good or evil, or what story he’s going to fit in, or even what the magical properties of his cigarettes might be, but none of that matters – I have enough to write him into a story if he fits, so he’s become a workable story element.

Once an element is clear enough in my mind, I file it away. Some of these I’ll forget, which is fine because that means they weren’t good enough to be memorable – and it’s for the sake of this sifting process that I never write down my story elements. If I can forget it, I should. The good ones will always sit there and maybe jump to the forefront of my mind again in the future to be fleshed out a little more.

In any case, during the course of a walk or a blank-wall stare I’ll file away a few of these, so I always have a bunch of them boiling in the back of my mind like so many eyeballs in the witch’s pot. The next phase is to take an element here and another there and try to combine them to make the beginnings of a story. Usually this is where I’m asking a lot of ‘what if’ questions.

There’s a story I’m working on right now with the following elements: a surfer in a small seaside town who hears an urban legend about a secret ‘break’ of monster waves. The break is also rumoured to be haunted by the ghost of a surfer who died there, but the story is only known by the town’s oldest resident, a bartender with greasy grey hair and a mysterious past.

This is what I call a ‘seed’, which is basically just a collection of several story elements wound together in a very rudimentary and incomplete story. There’s a lot I don’t know, for example, and in fact some of the things I just outlined will probably never make it into even the first draft. The elements in this case are the character of the old bartender, the setting of the seaside town with a secret break, and the concept of a ghost surfer haunting a beach. These elements in turn were developed from a few of those ‘random things I like’, specifically: The ocean, surfing, giant waves, small towns, ghosts and secrets. I’m pretty sure I can work a silver coin into there, too – but I’m not sure how.

I have a page in my red notebook called ‘Seeds’, and here I’ll finally write down the titles of the most resilient seeds – those that won’t be forgotten. By the time I do this, I usually have the story fleshed out enough that I have an ending in mind. I can already hear some writers throwing up their hands and saying: I could never do that! Once I know the ending it takes all the fun out of it! I hear you, I do – I’m an improviser myself. That’s why the ending I have in mind almost never turns out to be the way the story actually ends. I only use it as something to aim at, with the understanding that it is subject to change.

Once I have the seed written down, the thing is getting written – for better or worse. There was a time when I’d have a dozen seeds at a time recorded, and of them only two or three would end up in draft, but since then I’ve learned to wait, to let the sick children die, so to speak. They say to kill your darlings; I say let the runts starve.

So that’s how I do it, boys and girls: that is the best answer I can give for the age old question – make of it what you will, and I hope it helps, or gives some insight rather than a sarcastic comment about unimaginative journalists.

Adios for now.

There is a strange mysticism around the creative arts – albeit one that has been slowly eroded by works such as On Writing, The War of Art, Stein on Writing, and many others. The traditional idea is that creativity is a mysterious force, and that artists are damaged madmen who are able to think and see on some other plane and connect with this force. They are compelled to write, yet sometimes the words ‘just don’t come’ or the muse is absent, or they can only write when they have achieved the perfect state of mind, brought on by a mixture of alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and sleep deprivation.

I think most reading this have been enlightened beyond such ideas by the aforementioned books. No one can argue that Stephen King, writing two thousand words every day no matter what, ever waits for the muse, and Ramsey Campbell is at the keyboard at six every morning – no inspiration needed.

Still, there are some things even us jaded anti-musing, vomit-drafting, regular-producing folks will not do. For me in the past there have been certain conditions under which I won’t write. If my laptop breaks, for example. If I’m on holiday and between novels. If I don’t have ‘enough’ time.

Your own hang ups might be different: maybe you only write in the morning, or only late at night. Maybe you only write longhand, or only by keyboard. Or only in public places, or never, or only with music, or never. You see my point. Such conditions are not conducive to the creative process! you cry. I will never produce anything of value in the midst of such chaos!

But I thought we agreed earlier that ‘the creative process’ is nothing more than the act of creation itself. Isn’t that the whole point of not being afraid to write bad work, and to write as frequently as possible regardless of how you ‘feel’ at any given time?

The trick, my friend, lies in the art of Guerrilla writing.

In your element, under ideal conditions, you are the most effective soldier. Your gun is clean and fully loaded, your uniform spotless, your physical body at peak fitness. You can kill a lot of bad guys that way, but the problem is if you only train under such conditions, you’ll get eaten alive in short order as soon as you’re dropped in the jungle.

No, the best kind of writer is the guerrilla writer. You want to be like Rambo, able to disappear into the roughest of environments and subsist indefinitely as if you’d lived there all your life. Not only can you survive in the jungle, you can become part of it, thrive in it, even.

But before I get lost in my own analogy, allow me to demonstrate.

Not long ago, a couple of things aligned in my life that made me aware of this concept. The first occurred only in my mind, as I was pondering the concept of the Ideal Horror Writer. Who would this person be, I wondered, and what would he or she do? While I was contemplating this, I lost the use of my trusty laptop, ten hours a week of free time – which was scarce to begin with – and I completely ran out of story ideas.

Ordinarily, any one of these would have put an enormous dent in my productivity for at least a month or until I could figure out a way around the problem, but all three? No one could blame me for taking a little time off to regroup, right? And I would have, except…

Except I was bothered by that idea of the perfect writer. Would someone like that accept my decision? Surely not – they would be capable of working under any conditions! If I was that perfect version of myself, that highest conceivable standard, wouldn’t I be able to seal off the world at will, find the nearest available tools, and conjure at least the seed of an idea – enough to start?

Yes, I decided. I would. After all, if I had a gun to my head with the trigger primed to pull at midnight if I had not arrived at my daily word quota, I’m pretty damn certain I could do it, even if the result had to function as a first draft of a story.

Once I understood this, the way forward was simple – after all, the only way to be able to do something is to start doing it. If you’re a bad snowboarder, there’s only one way to become a good snowboarder: Snowboard. Some things don’t fall under this rule, I know. Practice being ten years younger all you want, it won’t take a minute off your life. But experience has taught me that most people vastly underestimate how many things do follow this rule, and I suspected that on-demand creativity was one of these.

Therefore, to become a guerrilla writer – the kind unfazed by exploding laptops, public places, mental exhaustion, breaks in routine, and all the rest… I would have to start pretending that I already was one.

And so, over the course of that one month, I wrote. I wrote tired. I wrote longhand, on sheets of paper taken from someone else’s printer with someone else’s pen. I wrote with only the flimsiest premises in mind and followed them wherever they took me, abandoning many projects along the way but taking an element from each until – lo and behold – I found myself writing an actual idea. I wrote late at night and early in the morning and in between; hungry, thirsty, drunk, caffeinated, in rooms with people, by myself, with music or movies playing in the background, and in the dead quiet of midnight.

I fought in all weathers, and I improvised with what I had. I had to use strategy – whatever it took to win the war, in other words, which is after all the ultimate goal of any guerrilla soldier.

But the big question remains: what did I learn?

You probably won’t like the answer. Most people don’t like simple truths, and for good reason: They already know what it is, and they haven’t been acting on it. That’s why.

So here is the truth: If you want to be able to do something, you have to just do it, over and over again. Then you can do it.

Do you want to be able to focus your mind in the space of a few minutes and smash out a hundred words of acceptable (relatively) quality, in between work shifts? Then you just have to start doing it. You have to act as though you already have that ability, and in the doing of the action you will attain it.

The famous soccer player Pele said: ‘Everything is Practice’, and I found the words returning to me every time I sat down to write. When I wrote under time pressure, I was practicing writing under time pressure. Keep in mind, however, that when Pele said ‘Everything’ that means negatives as well as positives. So, every time you decide not to write because of some circumstance, you are also practicing not writing. Every time you allow yourself to become distracted, you are practicing becoming distracted.

I found, soon enough, that by forcing myself to adhere to this brutal regime of guerrilla writing, not only was the quality of my writing improving under the circumstances, it was also becoming less hard (I don’t want to say easy) to begin. Suddenly the idea of writing longhand on scrap paper with no idea of how to start and less than thirty minutes available was automatic – a prospect I would have dismissed in the past. Impossible, I’d have said, I can’t work under such conditions. I’ll hardly get anything done, and what I do finish will be dogshit.

Which brings me to another thing I learned: it is entirely possible that even under the least hospitable circumstances/mental and physical states/whatever other confounding factors there may be – you can produce work that is just as high quality as if everything had all been in your favour.

Of course, ideal conditions are still best. But the good thing about being a skilled guerrilla writer is that you’re just as good – if not better – in ideal conditions as you were before. Plus, if the shit really hits the fan? You can shrug your shoulders, slather some mud across your war-mad face, and start killing.

Second Million

 

Well, here we are you brilliant bastards! You lunatics and jackles, you, you drooling maniacs and hungry ghosts… Two million words.

Not that this Second Million of mine is necessarily any good. That said, it has been decidedly better, and that is really all we can ever ask, isn’t it? To be better. To curb-stomp the heads of our past selves and spit on their inferior corpses. I’m better than you, bitch! You might scream. I may still suck, but I’m better than you!

Sorry, I’m in a mood – can you tell? Not a bad mood, though. A triumphant mood. It was a difficult journey, this second million words of fiction, but it was a profitable one. I’ve learned things again, and so I have returned faithfully to this site to share the spoils of war for anyone who cares to listen.

Most of this post isn’t concerned with the nuts and bolts of craft – I will leave that for future posts here which I hope to put up more frequently in the coming year (2019). Rather, I want to talk more about the life of it, about the struggle and the love, intertwined as they are, and about what it is to be out here in the dark, grinding my axe in the hopes of one day, maybe, making it just sharp enough to slice bone.

I know I’m not alone. I know there’s more of you out there like me, with your headphones on and your laptop glowing in front of you, fingers tapping (or perhaps not, for a long and wandering time). Grinding. Burning the midnight oil, bleeding your soul into a thousand stories, a million words, for the sake of a distant hope.

Well, I’m with you, you dog-eyed savages, and I’m here to help. Here are some things I’ve learned on my journey to two million words…

 

  1. Don’t Sacrifice Your Life To The Muse

What do I mean by this cryptic statement? I think it can be best summed up by this quote by French Playwright Francoise Sagan: ‘I shall live badly if I do not write, and I shall write badly if I do not live.’

There was a time when I could not surf. I mean, I could surf (barely – it’s more like I can keep my balance on a board while a wave has its way with me), but there was a time when I denied myself the pleasure. The regret would set in on the drive to the beach. A free day, I would think – a free day I could spend writing, editing, submitting, and yet here I am wasting it all at the beach. Only for brief minutes on the face of a wave could I dispel this poisonous guilt, but always it returned. So I stopped going. I did the right thing: I stayed home and wrote.

This was only one manifestation of an illusion that plagues so many of us dreamers: the illusion of the crystalline future. In the Future, you see, I would be a rich and famous author, a man with a wealth of free time and ability. Like Ian Fleming, I would write a thousand or two words in the morning, and then spend the rest of the day spearfishing and, yes, surfing in some tropical paradise.

I had plenty of hobbies I wanted to pursue like surfing: learning languages, martial arts, hiking – but in my mind those adventures would have to wait until I had achieved the dream of being a writer.

Similarly, what I did for money at the time (selling poison to legions of the walking dead) didn’t matter. I wouldn’t need to work once I sold a few books.

There are two big problems with thinking this way. One, you have less to write about. No one wants to read a book by someone who has never lived, never left their little hermit hole of a dark room or seen another soul in decades. What do they know? Their lives, and therefore their minds, are not open, and inevitably their writing will be equally narrow. Two, when you rest everything on the writing, you crush it. You start second guessing every story. Is this good enough? Will this sell? Does it have commercial appeal? While these are by no means unimportant thoughts, by obsessing over them you lose the capacity to take risks, since the stakes seem so high. However, as any creative person will tell you, taking risks is an essential part of creating good art.

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.’ So says the master himself, Stephen King in  On Writing.

I surf now; I learn languages and martial arts and history. My new job is not a soul crushing machine but a place I like to go with people I like to see. I have less free time, and yet I write more, the quality of my work is better, and I take risks – some of which have paid off very well.

So… put your desk in the corner, go surfing, and don’t sacrifice your life to the muse.

 

  1. Books Aren’t Dying, So Stop Panicking

‘Millenials aren’t reading fiction! Print book sales continue to plummet! The average salary for a writer is now only ten thousand dollars a year!’ Ah, the media at it’s best: zero in on a public concern and then use it to scare the shit out of everyone for those juicy, juicy clicks.

I bought into these ideas for many years and became existentially depressed because, like many of you, I knew that writing was not one of those things I could ever just put aside and move on to something better. There was nothing better, never will be. No, I would just have to keep going, only with the sure knowledge that I had as much chance of making it as a writer as I did becoming a lamplighter.

It wasn’t until much later that it occurred to me that it was all bullshit.

Don’t worry – I won’t drag you through the tedious swamp of statistics and surveys to prove my point. I won’t shove frantic and blind positivity down your throat, my red eyes cracking at the seams with barely restrained despair, no… I’ll just give you the same realisation that I had, when I was most worried about my own future as a writer and of books in general. Here it is:

  1. Lots of people read fiction. Who do you think those clickbait articles are targeting? That’s right: avid readers who are terrified of the death of books. How ironic it is that the existence of the articles’ main audience is the very thing that proves the content false.
  2. People still become professional writers. It’s super hard – it’s always been hard – but it happens all the time.
  3. Books can only ‘die’ if they stop being valuable. But that is as ridiculous a concept as the idea of gold or coffee or houses dying. The prices and popularity may vary, but the idea that people will one day wake up and decide that books have no value is as insane as the notion that people will decide that chocolate has no value. Say it all you want – scream it from the rooftops until your lungs are red raw. But the moment that creamy dark cacao touches your tongue you will know the truth: true value cannot be denied. Gold, in other words, is always gold.

I will leave you with this quote from the inimitable Neil Gaiman, recalling a conversation he had with Douglas Adams:

  “Douglas said…Books are sharks,” Gaiman told a packed audience at the Royal Geographical Society in London.

“I must have looked baffled because he looked very pleased with himself. And he carried on with his metaphor. Books are sharks … because sharks have been around for a very long time. There were sharks before there were dinosaurs, and the reason sharks are still in the ocean is that nothing is better at being a shark than a shark.”

Adams told Gaiman: “‘Look at a book. A book is the right size to be a book. They’re solar-powered. If you drop them, they keep on being a book. You can find your place in microseconds. Books are really good at being books and no matter what happens books will survive.’ And he was right,” said Gaiman.

           

  1. Finish Stories, Send Them Out

It was a painful thing to learn that I could not trust myself to judge the quality of my own work. I have been surprised many times, but one story I wrote recently pushed me over the edge. This one, I decided, was definitely shit. There was no question – burning this trash would be too good for it. If only it had the capacity to feel pain so that I could torture the thing to its miserable end.

But no, after the last time I had drastically misjudged my own work, I decided that despite my own opinions, I would give the abomination to my beta readers and – cringing and cursing all the while – I did.

Aaaaand they loved it. Some of my best work, they unanimously agreed. They went further, pointing out the various detailss that appealed to them in particular. I knew they were being honest, too, having never shied away from telling the truth about my numerous terrible stories; they weren’t trying to be nice.

So what the hell was I supposed to do with this new information? I had been looking for a pattern, some sure-fire way to tell during the creation of a story whether or not it was good. Now I saw that there was no pattern, no rhyme or reason: I was more clueless than anyone when it came to gatekeeping my own work.

There was only one thing to do: throw the gates wide open and come what may.

If I couldn’t tell the quality of my stories in advance, all I could do was to make sure they weren’t completely broken – that when they were finished they at least functioned as stories, and that they were as good as I could make them… but beyond that, it was no longer up to me.

I can’t help but recall the now well-known genesis of (again) Stephen King’s first novel: Carrie. Evidently, he had yet to learn the lesson, because it was his wife Tabitha who picked the first fifty pages out of the wastepaper basket and insisted he continue.

If you finish a story, send that shit out, because you never know when it might be Carrie.

 

  1. Self Publishing is Not a Shortcut

I have had a few short adventures in the world of short publishing. Over the last decade or so there has been a total overhaul in the publishing industry because of the invention of the kindle, ereaders, and online fiction. A few years ago the general feeling seemed to be that if you were good, and you wanted to avoid the mean gatekeepers in traditional publishing, you could just self publish and the cream (assuming your work was, after all, nice and creamy) would rise to the top.

First I tried a novel – the first decent one I ever wrote, in fact, a dark fantasy titled ‘Book of Worlds’. I Made it as professional as possible, found the best possible advertising deal kindle provided, published, and waited for the inevitable fame and fortune. Through a promotion, I managed to sell five hundred copies for zero dollars, and about twenty for one dollar.

After that, nothing.

One could argue that the book wasn’t actually that good, and one would have a point – it wasn’t. I’m not convinced, however, that that was the reason for the failure. When I made my next attempt at the self publishing game, with a serial novel published on this site, I became more certain that quality, in the chaos and scope of the internet, was less important than a combination of quantity and dedicated marketing.

What I came to realise was that publishers get paid a bunch of money for a reason: there is a ton of money, time and manpower that goes into marketing and distributing books, even in the seemingly even playing field of the online world. That doesn’t mean self publishing is a bad idea: in fact if you’re a skilled marketer/self promoter and are willing to put in the full time hours it would take to use those skills to sell your book, it’s probably a very good idea. Especially if you’ve written a book that Publishers are afraid to publish because, for example, it’s a mix of genres, or it’s a genre that doesn’t seem to be selling right now, etc. See Scott Sigler (I linked a couple of interviews with him on the ‘Links’ page) for a perfect example of this.

In my case, I’m a pretty straightforward guy. I write adult horror, and not only do I suck at marketing but I have no desire to get any better. I would rather pay a publisher money to do that work for me.

The lesson? There are no shortcuts, only business decisions. Make the one that’s best for you and your work.

 

  1. Structure is Everything

Well, not everything, but believe me when I say that if you don’t prioritize your structure, you’ll be screwed come second draft. I wrote sixteen novels before I even became conscious of structure, and they were all dogshit for exactly that reason. I agonized over characters, over prose, over atmosphere – and somehow my books continued to suck so badly that I threw them out one after the other, insane with frustration.

Then I read a book called The Story Grid, by Steven Pressfield and Shawn Coyne, and I became truly aware of structure for the first time.

I have plenty of criticism for that book and the ethos behind it, by the way. That rabbit hole can easily consume and paralyse a writer, pulling apart the mechanics of storytelling until all the magic is lost and one becomes obsessed with creating value adjustments, turning scenes and adhering to genre conventions.

That said, there is a very important message to be gleaned from that book, and the message is this: stories have rules and a structure, just as houses have foundations.

Many writers scoff at the idea of such limitations, such boring conventional ideas as the three act structure and the ‘obligatory scenes’. But the greatest and most beautiful mansions all started with a hole in the ground and a solid concrete block.

And I know, after two million words and as many failures, that nothing predicts the success or failure of a novel as does the underlying structure. Everything else can be fixed in the subsequent drafts, but structure? Screw that up bad enough and you might as well bring in the wrecking ball and start from scratch.

But maybe you’re a rebel without a cause – a John Kerouac kind of writer, a feel-it-in-your-bones-play-it-by-ear jazz artist. You don’t need no rules, man.

Hey, I get it, I do, I like to improvise stories myself. Hell, I’m improvising right now! Think of it like this: Do you like games? I know I do. But what is the essential ingredient of a game, the foundation on which all else stands? That’s right: the rules.

So, learn structure, read every on writing book you can find, and build the foundations so that the fun can begin.

 

  1. Everything You Write is the Last Thing You Write

            Next time you’re grinding away at the blank page, fingers hammering as you pull another story together from the reluctant oblivion, imagine this: the cold barrel of a revolver pressed up against your temple, followed by the echoing click of the safety being pulled back.

‘Make it good,’ a demonic voice growls in your ear. ‘It’s your last one.’

I mean, it could be, when you think about it. You might leave the house after finishing your next short story only to be mauled to death by a rabid pit bull. Or whip out a celebratory heroin syringe when you complete your next novel, only to tragically OD. I would urge any writer to think about this the next time he or she sits down to the work in progress. What if this is the last thing you do? What if this is the thing people will remember you by? This is what you leave behind on earth when you’re gone. It might be, after all.

It can be easy to fall into the grind: Gotta get my thousand words done today. Get that story out. Edit that novel. Finish a million words of fiction. Practice my ten thousand hours. I get it. There’s definitely something to that mentality – that blue collar work ethic of laying words the way a builder lays bricks rain, hail or shine. I’m not against that, exactly, but what I am against is the humdrum another day another dollar attitude that this idea fosters.

After all, it’s entirely possible to churn out ten thousand words a day and never get any better. To be a hack, a typist, rather than a writer. What makes the difference? You have to throw everything you’ve got into every story you write. Treat it as though it’s the last thing you’ll ever do, and try to make it the best. Every time I sit down to write a story now, I promise myself that I’m going to hold nothing back. I try with everything I have to write the perfect horror story, the best one I can imagine.

If you could walk over to your bookshelf and pull out a novel that had been written for you by divine beings, a novel that was tailor made to suit your soul – one that was the perfect book in your favourite genre (or your favourite mix of genres), and which was so perfectly executed you could read it a hundred times and never tire of it… That’s the book you have to try to write, every time.

It sounds exhausting, I know, and it’s deflating too, because you can’t help but fall eternally short of your ideal. In an incredibly entertaining interview with Tim Ferris, actor Terry Crews talks about how when he would paint (he won an art scholarship in his youth), he would try to imagine the perfect image in his mind and then strive to transcribe it onto the canvas. He could never match what was in his mind, he said, but it was fun to try.

To quote another artist, Vincent Van Gogh: ‘I’m always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.’

All learning happens at the very edge of your ability, but you can’t get to the edge unless you push yourself. Only in falling short of your ideal story will you be able to see where your weaknesses are and improve.

By all means, write your thousands of words a day, but when all is said and done ask yourself: if my heart explodes in my chest at the end of this story, will I be satisfied with my efforts?

 

So that’s about it, folks. These are the lessons I’ve learned on the long journey to my second million words of fiction. Over the course of this journey, I went from selling my first story in a non-paying market to regularly selling to semi-pro and professional magazines and anthologies (six cents a word, one of them! Six cents!) and after several failed attempts created my first novel which (thanks to lessons five and three) I will not set alight but will instead edit and ship.

The gold comes slow, but it does come. To this day in all my endeavours I have never encountered any activity so vast, so complex and so satisfying as writing, and I suspect I never will. I can’t help but wonder what I will learn about this endlessly fascinating craft over the next million words, but you can bet your ass I’ll have a good time along the way.

Thanks for reading and good luck,

Ben Pienaar

I was listening to an interesting podcast the other day – I think it was Story Studio – where the author being interviewed was asked to give her best writing tips. I was pleasantly surprised to hear her supply, rather than vague platitudes like ‘Never give up!’ or ‘try to put yourself in your character’s shoes’, actual writing advice. As in, things to do with words that I can actually directly apply to my own writing to make it better.

I love this kind of stuff. To me, there is nothing more infuriating than receiving advice that sounds awesome and is ultimately useless. It’s like, imagine asking someone to teach you how to surf and they say: ‘You just gotta feel the wave, dude.’ I just want to shake them and be like ‘How? How do you feel the wave?’ No, no, you want the guy who says something more like: ‘Try to have your hands a shoulder width apart on the board, and plant your front foot in the middle when you stand.’ That’s something I can act on, god damn it.

I don’t know why I chose surfing as an analogy. I haven’t been in a while, I guess.

Anyway, I’ve had a great time testing out these lessons in some of my recent stories, and been happy with the results. When I thought about it a bit more, though, I realised that I’ve actually picked up a bunch of these useful things, small adjustments you can make on a nuts-and-bolts basis that immediately strengthen your writing. One of my favourites is the old 2nd draft =  1st draft – 10% rule stated in On Writing. There are a bunch of other well known ones, but I wanted to make this post specifically to talk about things I’ve learned in recent times that have helped.

Of course, as always one should remember that not all tricks work for all writers, and certainly not all the time. But I can pretty much guarantee you one of these will level up your language skills in a single blow. Try ‘em out and see.

 

 

  1. Put the most important word of the sentence at the end.

 

This is not so much a technique as a useful piece of knowledge. Specifically, that whatever word you put at the end of a sentence has more impact than any of the others. When you read a complete sentence, there is a split second during the full stop when the final word hangs in the reader’s mind, emphasising it. It is the same effect that also occurs at the end of paragraphs, chapters, scenes, parts, and books.

You could write: ‘A thunderous shot sounded over the rolling hills’, or you could write: ‘Over the rolling hills came the sound of a thunderous shot.’ The second is stronger because the shot, being the last word, rings in the reader’s mind for a split second after the sentence finishes, giving it more impact.

Rather than trying to figure out which word is the most ‘important’, just ask yourself which word you want to be the most important. You might think, for example, that in the sentence: ‘he fired a bullet into her head.’ The word bullet is the most important. But if you were to structure it that way you’d end up with ‘Into her head he fired a bullet.’ Passive, and terrible.

Also remember that context is everything. Maybe you happen to be writing a story about hills which are evil and mysterious and have many bodies buried beneath them. Then maybe the word ‘hills’ is what you want to have in your readers mind. It’s your call, but just be aware of what you’re doing.

 

  1. If you have two adjectives describing something, you can usually cut one.

 

I’m pretty sure I got this from Sol Stein’s great book Stein On Writing. His argument is that if you use two adjectives, each then only has half the impact. Don’t tell me about the bent, twisted tree – pick one, especially when the two words mean essentially the same thing. And even when they don’t, eliminating one usually results in a clearer image.

Here are some examples:

The ancient, dusty book. The whippy, short-haired hound. His teeth were sharp and long. The truck ground and wheezed onward.

You get the picture. When your attention is divided between the two adjectives you try to imagine both at the same time and they interfere with each other. As soon as you cut one out, the other is more prominent in your mind and therefore the image becomes clearer: The dusty book. The whippy hound. His teeth were sharp. The truck wheezed onward.

 

  1. Tag Dialogue with unmodified ‘said’ and when you can get away with it, not at all.

I’ll be quick with this one, since it’s been repeated a bunch of times.

Basically, if you use any other word, the reader will notice it. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but the problem is it directs the reader’s attention away from the dialogue, which is where you want it. If you use something besides ‘said’ it immediately detracts from that and draws their attention to the adverb or adjective or whatever you chose to modify or replace ‘said.’ So if you do it? Better make sure it’s worth their attention.

Better yet would be to not say anything at all and use an action or speech pattern to distinguish who’s talking. I Bill always stutters, than when you write: ‘Y…Y…yes, Bev.’ You don’t have to add ‘Said Bill’, at the end. Likewise. You could say: Bill ran a hand through his long hair. ‘Yes Bev.’

No need for said at all.

 

 

  1. Don’t preface experiences with: he/she heard/felt/saw/listened as/watched as/screamed as etc.

I’ve found this one to be particularly useful because it used to be my default construction. For a long time it was common to find in my stories such things as: ‘He watched as they cut her open…’ Or: ‘They listened to the sound of crunching bones…’ You get the idea. When you add these unnecessary words, it takes away from the experience itself. If you stop doing this, you’ll find it brings the reader closer to whatever it is you’re trying to describe, rather than separating them by having to experience via the character’s senses. Instead of ‘He watched as she struggled to escape.’ Just write: ‘She struggled to escape…’ Instead of ‘They listened as she sang’, perhaps write: ‘The high notes of her song reached them across the river…’

 

  1. Try not to start sentences with words ending in ‘-ing’

‘Running as fast as they could, they hopped the fence and dove into the ravine.’ ‘Fearing for their lives, they reached for their weapons.’ ‘Smiling, he extended a slender hand.’

Look, these aren’t the worst sentences ever, and you can certainly get away with a few here and there. In my experience, though, they have same the addictive quality of adverbs: it can be terribly easy to get into the habit of using them, and when you do it becomes increasingly irritating to read.

 

  1. Avoid repetitive sentence structure.

This relates to the above rule to a certain degree, since what’s annoying about 5 is the use of such sentences many times during a paragraph or a page. Bottom line: if you’re starting every sentence with the same word or construction then you need to change it up. Try not to start every sentence in a paragraph with ‘He’ or ‘She’. Try not to repeatedly begin paragraphs with -ing words: ‘Smiling, he handed her a cigarette.’ ‘Running as fast as he could, his lungs burned.’ ‘Crying, she reached for a napkin.’ It gets old, fast. Change it up.

 

  1. Avoid ‘First Level Creativity’

This is a rule I had no idea existed, or that I was breaking all the time, until I discovered it in a book called ‘Writing Tools’ by Roy Peter Clark. Put simply, it is the concept that there are certain ideas, descriptors, analogies, metaphors, etc. that are not quite clichés, and at first glance seem original, but are in fact your brain’s lazy effort at real creativity.

‘He fought like a lion’, is a cliché. ‘He fought like a wild racoon’, is better, more original, and perhaps ‘good enough’. But ‘good enough’ is a red flag for first level creativity. If you find yourself saying that a certain metaphor or descriptive paragraph is ‘good enough’, that’s a sign that you didn’t push yourself hard enough to be truly original.

Often you’ll find that if you really think about what you’re trying to say, you can write something that is not only good, but also unique to you – a way of seeing something that could only have come from you.

If I was to try to push the above example beyond first level creativity, I might say something like: ‘He fought like a black-eyed lunatic.’ Although better yet would be to get rid of the ‘He fought like’ beginning altogether, since it lends itself to stupid analogies like: ‘He fought like a rabid squirrel’ or some ridiculous shit.

Once you find yourself falling into this slothful trap, as I did, you’ll most likely catch yourself falling into it constantly. You’ll also find this kind of language ubiquitous in books by authors who are under pressure to churn out mountains of words. When you’re trying to turn out five thousand words a day you’re lucky if you can avoid cliché’s, let alone first level creativity. Anyway, give it a shot, surprise yourself with your innovation.

  1. Employ Synesthesia

Synesthesia is the interesting mental disorder which makes people mix up their senses. One inflicted with the disorder might, for example, taste garlic every time they hear a G flat. Or see red whenever they encounter the number nine.

The reason I bring it up here is that you can use this useful disorder to help you describe things in a unique way. Say you want to describe a car. The car is red in your mind, but it is boring to call it a red car. Even to say it’s a bright or dark red – or blood red or scarlet – is fairly bland. But what if it’s a smooth red? Or a loud red? Or we could go with the taste/smell angle and call it an acidic red, a metallic red. What sound do the cars tires make as they squeal into the driveway? Is it merely high pitched? Or does it sound like sandpaper on a raw wound?

You see what I mean. When you mix sensations, the most simple and basic sights and sounds can take on a whole new quality. It’s endlessly fun to play with.

That’s all I got for now, friends and neighbours.

Hope it helps,

Ben Out.

Motors, Spines and Stars

 

The art of character is, like all arts, difficult to learn and impossible to master. It is also, in my opinion, one of the most important elements of good fiction. The greatest epic saga is meaningless if it is populated by two-dimensional characters. You can no more have a good story with them than you could have an interesting conversation with a cardboard cut-out. Read the submission guidelines of just about any decent publisher and the words ‘character driven’ are just about guaranteed to popup somewhere.

This isn’t news to anyone, but the nuts and bolts – the how – of character development is where things start to get all ill-defined and hard to pin down. Here is some of the advice I’ve come across (not direct quotes):

 

Don’t think of them as characters but as real people with desires and fears and emotions.

Every character must want something, even if it is just a glass of water.

Characters must need as well as want something.

Highlight details of appearance, speech patterns or clothes to reveal personality.

 

Don’t get me wrong, this is all good advice, on the surface of things – but I started running into problems as soon as I attempted to apply these lessons in real time. At first, I tried assigning each character a desire, a flaw, and a detail of appearance or speech. That seemed kind of contrived, to begin with. Then, once the story really got rolling, the characters started to do things which didn’t fit with who I originally thought they were, thus rendering all my clever details irrelevant. Or, if I decided to force them to act in a way that was consistent with my initial visions for them, they came off as fake and the plot became forced.

As I asked myself this question and searched for the answer in the pages of many books and podcasts, I came across three key concepts that have since improved my approach and my writing: The Motor, The Spine, and The Star.

 

I’ll begin with The Motor.

Every character must have a motor. To put it plainly, a motor is a thing which makes another thing go. In other words, find what makes your character act, and then make it have them act.

It is important here to distinguish a motor from a want or need. The short answer is that what drives someone is not necessarily the same as what they most desire. You might want to murder someone, but you are driven by rage, say, or greed. The motor, in other words, represents an inner quality that allows you to pursue the things you want. The want/need is the destination – the motor is the gas that gets you there, the thing inside you that allows you to commit the necessary actions.

The thing with motors, however, is that you have to keep them going. It isn’t quite like a desire, which you can establish for a given character near the beginning and then not really mention it again. The motor must keep running, and the best way I’ve found to do this is to put obstacles in the character’s way (which is itself another often quoted writing tool, but that’s another post). If you want to kill someone, and you almost manage it but are foiled at the last moment, well now you really want to kill them. The proverbial motor revs up.

 

Besides a motor, it is also important to give your characters spines. I mean, everyone should have a spine. But especially characters in books. And I am talking, of course, about the figurative rather than the literal spine, although arguably the latter is far more important for different reasons.

Anyway, the most obvious reason to include a spine is what happens when you don’t. A spineless character cannot stand up for themselves, are fuzzy and ill defined, and generally don’t take action. You will recognize all of these traits as things you absolutely do not want in a book. These kinds of people, when you meet them in real life, are horribly boring. Nice, perhaps. Contented – accomplished, even. But always boring.

I’m not saying it’s a bad idea to have a timid or shy character. But don’t mistake shyness and timidity for lack of spine. If you choose to have such a character in your book, go right ahead – just make sure you make the person in question emphatically timid; overbearingly shy.

A great example is Wormtail, in Harry Potter. He is a grovelling coward. He has no spine at all, by the traditional definition. My point is that I’m not talking about spines even in the traditional figurative sense. The thing about Wormtail is that he’s so cowardly, so fearful and so spineless that these things completely define him. They are his spine. He isn’t lukewarm, and he isn’t a weak character, because he’s a weak character. He’s so weak, in fact, that he becomes interesting to read about, if for no other reason than because we hate him.

A spine, in other words, is just another way of saying that your character acts out their personality in its extremes. What characterizes someone? Bravery? Then have them be excessively brave. Play around with it, by all means, and have the apparently brave person be revealed, in the crunch, to be a coward. But whatever they do do, just make sure they do it with every bit of their imaginary hearts.

 

The third idea I want to talk about is one I came across while reading one of my favourite On Writing books by The War of Art author Steven Pressfield. The book in question is: No One Wants to Read Your Shit (And What To Do About It). If you want to write like a pro, go read both of those, and everything else he’s ever written on the subject with his editor, Shawn Coyne.

Anyway, in the book he has a chapter titled Write for a Star. The idea behind it is that regardless of what you’re writing, be it a script, literary novel or comic book – you should always write your characters as though they’ll be played by an A-list actor. Now I should stress that it doesn’t need to be a specific star – I don’t even think it has to be a real star that exists on the planet. It’s just an approach.

Look at the characters in your current work in progress, and ask yourself: if you made this into a script and took it to Hollywood, would an A-list celebrity be willing to play X?

What this does is prevent you from creating weak (spineless) characters. It might also give you an idea of how much depth you’ve given them. Good actors love playing parts which require a wide range of emotion over the script. I mean sure, there’s the Terminator, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. You want to attract a guy like Daniel Day Lewis or Leonardo Dicaprio, and the way to do that is to make interesting characters shown from a unique angle, or in an original light.

This does not just apply to your central characters, either. Good actors have a way of making even the most non-essential side characters into fascinating people. Look what Johnny Depp did with Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: the pirate was meant to be a sidekick type, a trickster to play in contrast to the lead role. Several movies later he’s the main attraction. Marlon Brando only appears briefly at the end of Apocalypse now. Anthony Hopkins only had fifteen minutes of screen time in Silence of the Lambs and he won an Oscar.

So… your characters begin, limp colourless things, like dolls without faces. You can add some colours and clothes and pull the strings to make them dance around, and maybe that will give them some unique qualities, help discern them from the crowd.

But only when you give them a spine to hold them steady, a motor to push them onward, and the qualities of a star, do they truly come alive.

The first thing they tell you in any creative writing class is that all stories are divided into a beginning, a middle, and an end. The reaction the speaker usually gets to this infallible wisdom is an eye roll, a shrug of the shoulders, a muttered ‘duh’. Obviously that’s true. Of course things have to start somewhere and stop somewhere and have a middle part in between. We know this.

The thing is, if you don’t consciously apply this rule to your stories, they have a weird way of not conforming to this ‘obvious’ rule. It is entirely possible to write a story in which the central characters end up in the same place they started. It is also possible for them to change so much, and go from one situation to the next with such chaotic abandon, that there are a hundred beginnings and middles and endings over the course of the book and nothing makes any sense.

Part of the problem it’s so easy to slip up is that when you read books, you aren’t immediately aware of their structure unless you’re looking for it, in the same way that you never get halfway through a great book and say to yourself ‘Gee, I haven’t seen a single spelling mistake yet!’ It works in part because you’re not aware of it.

Even when it’s not there, you’re only aware of its absence in a subconscious way. It arrives as a feeling of indifference to the outcome of the tale, or mild confusion.

The worst offenders are books which are all middle. They start in medias res (in the midst of things), and you dutifully follow the main character through a series of obstacles and problems, all of which he overcomes, and then he meets a girl and they fall in love, and then the book ends with a standing ovation or some bullshit. The characters don’t change or suffer, the stakes remain the same, and the end looks like the beginning because it’s really all the middle. It’s like walking around the block and calling it hiking.

Then you have to consider the length you want each section to be. If you’re a long winded person, you might write sixty thousand words of beginning, panic when you realise nothing has actually happened, and then try to wrap up all one hundred loose ends you’ve laid out in a twenty thousand word sprint.

I had a crazy Scottish lecturer at university. He used to give out free cask wine in class, and we’d spend most lectures drinking beer and eating burgers at the pub, and as far as I’m concerned he was the only guy who really knew what he was talking about. One of his many tricks was this easy way to avoid overly long beginnings: when you edit the first draft, delete the first two or three paragraphs. If it’s a novel, the first two or three chapters. I don’t delete so much these days, but only because doing that showed me how much time I was wasting in the early stages.

So beware of long beginnings and hasty endings. The best approximate distribution for a novel (taken from one of Shawn Coyne’s books) is roughly 25% beginning, 50% middle, 25% end. Only a guide, of course, but one I’ve found extremely valuable.

The middle is longer because you should be spending it ramping up the suspense and tension as much as possible to keep them turning pages. The climax happens at the beginning of the end, and once the climax is done it’s all about closing arcs and trying to get that feeling of lingering resonance that a good book delivers, but that can stale pretty quickly if you spend a hundred pages post-climax describing how characters go about their lives in the aftermath of whatever Big Event they experienced.

And speaking of the Big Event…

Be aware of the climaxes. There’s only one major one, and it should occur around the end of the middle (second act). Have you ever noticed how the good guy always ends up in hand to hand combat with the bad guy? And how, for the first two thirds of the fight, the good guy always gets his ass kicked all over the place? But then at the last minute he has some kind of a realisation, or he sees something he didn’t before, or he changes in some fundamental way? And suddenly he starts kicking major ass? That’s the end of the act two climax in a nutshell. It’s the scene in the matrix where Neo gets shot full of bullets and then realises he can stop them with his mind and fights multiple Agents one handed. God damn that was badass. We love it. How much worse would the movie have been if he could kill agents one handed from the beginning? There would be no story, right?

Act two must belong to the villain. It is his (or its) job to heap horror after horror upon the hero, who is then forced to prove what he or she is made of. The climax is the hero realising something or changing in some way and then using that change to turn the course of events; it is the hinge upon which character development turns.

So to summarise: Act one is all setup. Introduce your characters and give your reader the clearest picture of them that you can without waffling on. Plant them in a setting and establish the current relationships and situations. Most importantly, raise a lot of questions about things, because questions are why people continue to read a book they’ve just started. They want to know what’s going to happen – and they won’t want to know unless you give them a question they need to answer.

Basic example: John is a nerd with an awkward personality. That is a character introduction.

John is a nerd with an awkward personality and he loves the popular cheerleader ice-queen. That’s raising a question: Will he get the girl?

Act two must contain at least the following, (and much more that I haven’t learned yet): 1. Every scene must raise the stakes and make everything more dangerous for the main characters. 2. The hero must suffer as much as possible at the hands of the villain. 3. Almost everything should go the villain’s way. 4. There must come a point of total despair, where it looks as though the hero can’t possibly win. 5. At this point, the hero changes in a fundamental way, or finds just the thing they need, and it must not be done in a contrived or lazy way (hey, I just remembered I hid a gun in my pants and forgot all about it!). 6. The hero will then use this to win the climatic confrontation and turn things in their favour.

And finally we arrive at Act three. Here the hero has beaten (mostly) the villain and the climax has come and gone. The first part of act three is usually the process of the characters returning to a state of normality, and if done well it shouldn’t be easy for them – even if the villain is done. Sauron is destroyed, but Sam and Frodo must still escape from Mount Doom. Indiana Jones has obtained the Holy Grail and healed his father, but now he must escape the crumbling temple.

Once this part is done, the story is over – but at the same time it isn’t, because the story was never really about the story – it was about the characters. So the End is where you need to show how they’ve changed, what the results of their actions were, and try to do it all in such a way that the reader is left with a lingering sense of… something. Sadness or happiness or relief or love or even horror and dread. The extent to which you achieve this resonance is partly skill in terms of how you go about those final scenes – Frodo returning to the Shire – but it is also dependant on the depth of your story leading up to that point. If you didn’t sufficiently raise the stakes and develop the characters over the course of the book, it will be impossible to leave the reader with a sense of resonance at the end.

So, as the Red King said: ‘Begin at the beginning, and go on until you come to the end: then stop’. Simple advice, no? Ignore it at your peril.

– BP 2/9/17

Rules of the Game

 

It seems like every writer out there has a set of hard and fast rules that they deem indispensable to creating good work. Either that, or every interviewer asks them the same question: ‘What are your top ten rules for writing, Mr. Famous Author?’ And they’re forced to come up with a list of ten points that somehow summarise everything they’ve learnt over their twenty or thirty years of practice.

They contradict each other, some of them are out dated, and some of them will simply not work for you because of who you are and how you write. It doesn’t matter, you should read them all anyway, and decide for yourself which ones to discard, which to take with a grain of salt, and which to take as gospel.

Either way, ignore such wisdom at your peril.

Here they are, the many Rules of Writing (Not necessarily direct quotes):

 

ELMORE LEONARD

  1. Never open with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Only use ‘said’ to carry dialogue.
  4. Don’t use adverbs to modify ‘said’.
  5. Limit exclamation points as much as you can.
  6. Never use phrases like ‘suddenly’ or ‘then all hell broke loose’.
  7. Use regional dialect sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, either.
  10. Leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

 

STEPHEN KING

  1. First write for yourself, then worry about the audience.
  2. Don’t use passive voice (eg. Not ‘the body was placed on the floor’, but ‘they placed the body on the floor.’)
  3. Avoid adverbs.
  4. Don’t obsess over perfect grammar.
  5. The magic is in you – fear is the root of most bad writing.
  6. Read a lot.
  7. Don’t worry about making other people happy.
  8. The first draft of a book should take no more than three months.
  9. Find your own style. Do not try to be another author.
  10. Leave your first draft for a couple of months at least, before you start editing.
  11. Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings.
  12. The research shouldn’t overly saturate the story.
  13. You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot.
  14. Don’t write for money.

 

RICHARD LAYMON

  1. Write what you would like to read.
  2. Learn how to write. “At a cocktail party, a famous writer (possibly George Bernard Shaw) was told by a famous surgeon, “When I retire, I plan to write a novel.” Said the author, “When I retire, I plan to operate on people.””
  3. Be truthful.
  4. Finish what you start.
  5. Keep your projects to yourself.

 

ERNEST HEMINGWAY

 

  1. Use short sentences.
  2. Use short first paragraphs.
  3. Use vigorous English.
  4. Use positive language (don’t say he wasn’t lazy, say he was active).
  5. Tell the truth.
  6. Study the best literary models.
  7. Master your subject through experience and reading.
  8. Work in disciplined isolation.
  9. Begin early in the morning and concentrate for several hours each day.
  10. Begin by reading everything you have written from the start or, if engaged on a long book, from the last chapter.
  11. Write slowly and deliberately.
  12. Stop writing when things are going well and you know what will happen next so that you have sufficient momentum to continue the next day.
  13. Do not discuss the material while writing about it.
  14. Do not think about writing when you are finished for the day but allow your subconscious mind to ponder it.
  15. Work continuously on a project once you start it.
  16. Keep a record of your daily progress.
  17. Make a list of titles after you have completed the work.

 

KURT VONNEGUT

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

 

NEIL GAIMAN

  1. Write.
  2. Put one word after the other. Find the right word, put it down.
  3. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before.
  4. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  5. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon.
  6. Keep moving.
  7. Laugh at your own jokes.
  8. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­ honestly, and tell it as best you can.

 

CHARLES BUKOWSKI

  1. Give yourself time.

“Well, I’m 34 now. If I don’t make it by the time I’m 60, I’m just going to give myself 10 more years.”

 

  1. Submit work constantly.

“I remember when I used to write and send [Story Magazine] fifteen or twenty or more stories a month, and later, three or four or five—and mostly, at least, one a week. From New Orleans and Frisco and Miami and L.A. and Philly and St. Louis and Atlanta and Greenwich Village and Houston and everyplace else.”

 

  1. Sometimes you have to write a lot of bad stuff to get to the good stuff.

“I’m not one to look back on wanton waste as complete loss—there’s music in everything, even defeat.”

 

  1. Don’t worry about grammar.

“Thank you for lessening the blow on my weakness of grammar by mentioning that some of your college friends have trouble with sentence structure. I think some writers do suffer this fate mainly because at heart they are rebellious and the rules of grammar like many of the other rules of our world call for a herding in and a confirmation that the natural writer instinctively abhors.”

 

  1. Don’t overwork your writing. Often, the first is best.

“I have not worked out my poems with a careful will, falling rather on haphazard and blind formulation of wordage, a more flowing concept, in a hope for a more new and lively path.”

 

  1. Work all the jobs.

“Worked in slaughterhouse, dog biscuit factory, Di Pinna’s of Miami beach, copy boy on the New Orleans’ Item, blood bank in Frisco, hung posters in New York subways 40 feet below the sky drunk hopping beautiful golden third rails, cotton in Berdo, tomatoes; shipping clerk, truck driver, horseplayer ordinary, holder down of barstools throughout a dull alarmclock nation, supported by shackjob whores; foreman for American newsco., New York, Sears-Roebuck stock boy, gas station attendant, mailman…”

 

  1. Don’t get an MFA (Writing degree).

“Your criticism correct: poem submitted was loose, sloppy, repetitive, but here’s the kernel: I cannot WORK at a poem. Too many poets work too consciously at their stuff and when you see their work in print, they seem to be saying… see here, old man, just look at this POEM. I might even say that a poem should not be a poem, but more a chunk of something that happens to come out right. I do not believe in technique or schools.”

 

“Also got your new card today, must agree with you that one can talk poetry away and your life away, and I get more out of being around people—if I have to—who never heard of Dylan or Shakey or Proust or Bach or Picasso or Remb. or color wheels, or what. I know a couple of fighters (one with 8 win streak going), a horseplayer or two, a few whores, x-whores, and the alcoholics; but poets are bad on the digestion and sensibility, and I could make it stronger, but then they are probably better than I make them, and there is a lot of wrong in me.

 

DAVID MORELL

  1. Know your motives. Why are you writing what you’re writing?
  2. Know the genre’s history.
  3. Do your research.
  4. Be yourself.
  5. Don’t let your genre restrict you.

 

RAYMOND CHANDLER

What a good mystery must do:

  1. It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.
  2. It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.
  3. It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.
  4. It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.
  5. It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.
  6. It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.
  7. The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.
  8. It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.
  9. It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law…. If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.
  10. It must be honest with the reader.

 

GEORGE ORWELL

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least six questions, thus:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
  5. Could I put it more shortly?
  6. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

 

JOYCE CAROL OATES

  1. Write your heart out.
  2. The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written. FIRST DRAFTS ARE HELL. FINAL DRAFTS, PARADISE.
  3. You are writing for your contemporaries not for Posterity. If you are lucky, your contemporaries will become Posterity.
  4. Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.
  5. When in doubt how to end a chapter, bring in a man with a gun. (This is Raymond Chandler’s advice, not mine. I would not try this.)
  6. Unless you are experimenting with form gnarled, snarled, & obscure be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.
  7. Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!
  8. Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader or any reader. He/she might exist but is reading someone else.
  9. Read, observe, listen intensely! As if your life depended upon it.
  10. Write your heart out.

 

DENNIS LEHANE

  1. Read whatever you can get your hands on.
  2. There’s nothing wrong with a big ego.
  3. Know you’re writing something good even if no one else does.
  4. Have an ear for dialogue.
  5. Parental approval isn’t that important.
  6. Write a scene that breaks your heart.
  7. Ignore the critics.
  8. Don’t get comfortable with success.

ANNE RICE

  1. Rely heavily on concrete nouns and action verbs. Nothing conveys immediacy and excitement like the concrete noun and the action verb.
  2. Rely heavily on short sentences and even fragments. Long complex sentences, especially when filled with abstract nouns slow the reader and even confuse him or her. Break up these sentences. Or balance them with short ones.
  3. Don’t hesitate to write one sentence paragraphs and short paragraphs in general. Never, never bury a key revelation or surprise or important physical gesture by a character at the end of an existing paragraph. Move this to a new paragraph.
  4. Go easy on conjunctions such as “but,” “and,” “yet,” and “however.” The prose may feel fluid to you when you use these; but if you go back and simply remove them the prose may be even more fluid.
  5. Repeat a character’s name often in dialogue and in straight narrative. Don’t slip into “he” or “she” for long stretches because if you do many fast readers will find themselves having to go back to determine who is speaking or feeling or viewing the action. Punch the proper names.
  6. Be generous and loving with adjectives and adverbs. These words give specificity to the narrative; they make it vibrant.
  7. When you repeat yourself in a novel, acknowledge it, as in “Again, he found himself thinking, as he had so often before . . .”
  8. If the plot takes a highly improbable turn, acknowledge that through having the characters acknowledge it.
  9. In writing intense action scenes, avoid slipping into “ing” words. It may feel “immediate” to use these words, say in a sword fight, a physical brawl, or an intense confrontation, but if you stick with simple past tense, you will actually heighten the action.
  10. Remember that in writing a novel, you are crafting something that must be fully understood and experienced in one reading, yet stand up to innumerable readings in the future.
  11. Never underestimate the power of the two line break. You may not want a new chapter but you want to cut away from the scene. Make the two line break.
  12. Never get trapped into thinking that if you have a character open a door, he necessarily has to close it later on. You are creating a visual impression of a scene, and you don’t need to spotlight every gesture. And you can cut away from a scene in progress.
  13. Paragraphs again: they are the way you engineer the page for the reader. That’s why I say never hesitate to make one line paragraphs and short paragraphs. You’re punching action or an emotional moment when you set it off in a paragraph. And you want to make things easy for the reader. Long paragraphs always impose something of a burden. The eye longs for a break.
  14. Multiple point of view can be very energizing for a reader. The switch in point of view can be exciting. And multiple point of view gives you a chance to reveal the world in a way that single point of view cannot. Favorite multiple point of view novels for me are War and Peace and The Godfather.
  15. A single point of view throughout is the best opportunity a writer has to get a reader to fall in love with a hero or heroine. The limitations are obvious; you can’t go to “another part of the forest” to find out what’s happening. But you have immense power in single point of view to get into the thoughts and feelings of your champion.
  16. First Person single point of view can take the reader not only into deep love but deep antipathy. Great ExpectationsDavid Copperfield and Lolita are shining examples.
  17. If you find yourself becoming bored, then do what you must do to make the novel exciting again for you. Never keep building a scene because you feel you must. Think of some other way to solve the problem that is goading you to write what you don’t enjoy.
  18. When you feel yourself getting tired, stop and read something that is energizing. The opening pages of Stephen King’s Firestarter always refresh me and send me back to the keyboard. So does reading any part of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. So does reading The Godfather. So does reading a Hemingway short story.
  19. Keep going. Remember that you must finish the novel for it to have a chance in this world. You absolutely must complete it. And of course, as soon as I do I think of new things. I go back, refining, adding a little. And when I stop feeling the urge to do that, well, I know it’s really finished.
  20. If these “rules” or suggestions don’t work for you, by all means disregard them completely! You’re the boss when it comes to your writing.

 

 

Since the beginning of my obsession with writing, I have sought the secrets of the great writers, those rare people who managed to give me real nightmares, who haunted me so effectively. I never cease to be awed when I find myself genuinely disturbed by a book. (This is unfortunately a rarer experience as I get older. Horror is like drugs, or hot chillies: the more you consume, the more you’ll ultimately need to get you to the same place.) How was it, I always asked myself, scrutinizing paragraph after paragraph, that this person could evoke such a primal reaction in me, an emotion so powerful it can save your life or kill you – with nothing more than words on paper?

The most recent idea I’ve come across, and one I’ve used time and again to my delight, like a child with a new toy, I learned from one of my favourite books on the subject: Sol Stein’s Stein On Writing. Among countless useful lessons in the book is this gem (not a quote): Your goal is not to describe emotions, it is to evoke them in the reader.

Duh, right? It’s a deceptively simple thought, and it seems completely self-evident – and it should be, too, since every aspiring writer has heard the phrase ‘show, don’t tell’ more times than they can count.

And yet it is so easy to make the mistake. I made it, many times, and though I try hard to catch myself before my work gets out, I still make it now and then. You can find examples of this error in just about any amateur work. The tell tale signs are descriptions of madly beating hearts, characters turning pale and getting dry mouths, cold sweats and the all time favourite goose bumps.

Of course, your character may well experience all of these things, and maybe for the benefit of sympathy or characterization it could be worth detailing whichever symptoms may be present… But the writer would do well to remember that describing fear does not create fear. Telling you that the main character is terrified does not, by extension, make you terrified – and that goes for all the emotions, by the way. I can’t make you feel happiness by describing the main character grinning and dancing in the sun, either. If emotions were that easy to manipulate there’d be no need for psychiatrists.

So what is a struggling author to do?

The simple answer is: whatever works. Think about the books that terrified you when you read them. Find the specific scenes. I think you’ll find that in almost every case the thing you found so scary had nothing to do with the emotions that the characters involved felt, but a number of other things.

Here’s a fun game: next time you write a scene or a short story you wish to terrify someone with, forbid yourself to describe the symptoms of fear in your characters. No screaming, no clammy hands, no shaking knees. Go one further – make it so your main character doesn’t even have a reason (from his/her point of view, at least) to be afraid at all.

The reason this works so well is that now as a writer you can’t cheat emotions by describing them – by telling. Now you have to try to create the emotions in the reader, and in doing so you will realise that all those other things are not only not necessary, they can even get in the way of the desired effect.

Recall one of my most beloved scenes in horror: The final showdown in Silence of the Lambs. Jodie Foster is in Buffalo Bill’s pitch black basement, her gun out and ready, searching for him. We see most of it through Bill’s night vision goggles as he darts in and out, a pale hand occasionally reaching out and stopping just short of touching her.

She is surely terrified, but she isn’t cowering in the corner, shaking, and that isn’t the point of the scene anyway – it isn’t what makes us cringe on the edge of our seats. What gets to us is what she can’t see – that he’s right there with her, close and dangerous.

Another example can be found in Coraline, a famously creepy story and one of my favourites. Coraline herself is rarely scared and in fact is quite brave, yet we as the readers have spiders running up and down our necks throughout. Coraline doesn’t bat an eye at half of the insanely creepy shit in the beginning that raises warning flags in the reader, and because she is so sympathetic we fear for her and put ourselves in her shoes. Coraline is brave; we are not.

The beauty of this idea is that it applies to every emotion, not just fear. If you describe character A in love with character B, you are not making the reader feel love for character B, you are making them sympathise with character A. If it was love you wanted to inspire, you should have made B a lovable character. If you want to make the reader laugh, describe a funny situation, and remember that the characters involved do not have to be rolling around in fits for the scene to work, and in fact some of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read were not funny at all to the people involved.

So, next time you sit down to write, ask not how to describe emotions in the characters, but how to create them in the readers.

 

Tell the truth. I read this advice from so many authors, and I never understood it. I mean, the truth about what, exactly – isn’t fiction essentially a lie? For a long time, I thought it was meant the same way as write what you know, which I also had difficulty understanding. What if you wrote fantasy? I was sure it was very important and potentially useful advice, but I couldn’t get a handle on what it meant, and therefore had no idea how to apply it to my writing.

In fact, truth can actually damage your writing, as I discovered on several occasions. The heart of the problem is that fiction isn’t meant to be realistic. I mean, it is, but it isn’t. Dialogue is the clearest example I can think of. When you speak in real life, your sentences are full of ums and ahs and interjections and tangents. Not so in a good book – unless the author is using it for a particular character to make them seem nervous or uncertain. If you read a book with ‘realistic’ dialogue, you would get irritated.

Characters pose another issue. The world is full of people who would not make good characters in a story. Not everyone is willing to take action to change themselves or get the things they want. The real world is, I hate to say it, full of boring, timid, or otherwise unheroic people. It would be realistic to include one or two such characters in your book, but honestly, why the hell would anyone want to read about that?

In light of these unfortunate facts, for a long time I set truth in fiction aside as something to be treated warily. The writers I admired were obviously referring to some other definition of truth that I had yet to discover.

At last, my friends, I know. I get it. And it’s all thanks to a single quote from our good friend Ernest Hemingway, and lots of deep thought. I can tell you what writers mean when they say ‘tell the truth’ and I’m happy to report that it isn’t the airy fairy directive I once thought it was. I used to put that advice in the same category I put things like: ‘Let the muse take over,’ and ‘Sit back and let your characters tell the story.’ Romantic ideas, but not useful to someone like me, who needs nuts and bolts and concrete examples. No, as it turns out, truth is something you can actually use to write better.

So here’s the Hemingway quote: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” Straight forward enough, but still useless. Go ahead, try it, write a true sentence. Oranges are orange. I love bacon. Doesn’t give you a riveting story, does it? So what’s the deal, Ernest? Why so vague?

Here’s what I worked out. When he says one true sentence, what he means is think of a meaningful statement about life, something important to you, that you truly believe. Keep in mind that part of the uniqueness of your story will come from this – the fact that it’s the truth as you see it, not as you think others see it.

Here are some of my own True Sentences:

  • Some stones are better left unturned.
  • If you don’t overcome fear, the consequences are ultimately worse.
  • The war between good and evil is often internal

So think of one of your own, and write it down. Something you believe is true about life, an important statement you would want to pass on to your children, perhaps.

Now delete it.

Why do we delete the true sentence? Because to write it would be telling, and we are writers, so we must show. Now your whole story, whatever it may be, is about this sentence. Sure you’ve got action, love, death, etc. happening, but ultimately the point of your story is to explain to the reader your sentence. You are demonstrating why your truth is true.

So why bother? Why can’t you just write an awesome nuts space cowboy epic with heads exploding and monsters and other awesome stuff without any underlying deep truth? Well, you can, and it might even sell, but it will seem meaningless and shallow. That’s cool too, I mean look at Matthew Reilly and Clive Cussler. Those guys are the Michael Bays of the book world. They provide action and adventure, badass heroes, and lots of explosions. Nothing wrong with that for some light reading.

But make no mistake: it is what it is, and nothing more. And what it is, is a sequence of crazy and meaningless events. That’s it. The characters move from one plot point to the other, and a bunch of insane stuff happens, and it’s entertaining on a basic level, and then you finish the book and forget it within a day. It leaves no imprint on you, and you don’t think of the characters, events or anything else about it ever again. In my opinion? Better off watching Transformers. At least that has cool special effects.

It’s not just for the reader, though. Having a true sentence helps you as the writer because it gives you direction when you are lost. If you are floundering in a sea of plot lines and characters and don’t know what to do next, now you can ask yourself a simple question: What event or action will help me get across my true sentence without actually saying it? There’s no guarantee you’ll write a good story, of course, but even if you write a bad one, at least it will mean something. At least it will be true.

Go ahead and mess around with cool scenes and crazy characters; make your stories as zany and hilarious as you want…

Just make sure you tell the truth.

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