Dialogue in fiction is nothing like how people talk in real life. Anyone who says different needs to a) listen more and/or b) get a job where they have to talk a lot, like sales or retail. Actually, scratch that last one, it’s probably not worth it.

            There are the obvious differences, such as the absence of uhs, ums, and ers from most dialogue (unless planted there deliberately and with intention). There’s tendency of real people to go off on rambling tangents that interest no one, or share irrelevant details of their lives.

There is rarely ‘small talk’ in good dialogue. Rarely do characters start a conversation in an interesting book with: ‘Hey, how are you today?’ Not too bad. How about you? Had to take the dog to the vet…’

            A group of people in a book manage not to interrupt each other for the most part, unlike real people in a crowd, who will shout and interject constantly, derailing the conversation a hundred times a minute.

            But even when you take all of these differences into account – and if you do nothing more than that your dialogue will at least be readable – there is still so much more to learn. You might think you’re writing dialogue in English, but in reality you’re speaking another language, with its own rules to follow, few of which apply in real conversation.

            This is what I know so far about that language.

  1.  There is conflict in every conversation.

There’s an important point to be made here. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that conflict means two characters yelling at each other. That can make for a good scene, depending on what they’re yelling about, but it’s not necessarily what I mean by ‘conflict.’

            Here’s an example: one character has an idea about how to solve the book’s central problem, another character has a different idea. They disagree about it, and maybe someone takes action the other has warned them against.

            Another: The two characters prioritize different goals that don’t necessarily match up. Gollem covets the ring; Frodo is trying to destroy it. Even though they are working together, their goals are different, giving rise to constant conflict in their every interaction.

            There are plenty of ways to create conflict between characters. Even if they agree on their goals and solutions to a problem, give them radically different worldviews. Perhaps character A did something in the past which character B disapproves of, and the lack of mutual respect is always present in their dialogue.

            Plenty of possibilities, and one of the best ways to create engaging dialogue is to ask yourself where the conflict is, or how it can be created. Do not write, as I often have in the past, dialogues with this kind of format:

            ‘Oh my god! Terrible thing has happened. We have to do X thing in response to solve the problem!’

            ‘Oh no that’s terrible. Yes, you’re right, that response seems completely reasonable. Let’s go do X right now.’

            Come on, man. No one wants to read that.

2. Constant underlying tension

There is a lot of overlap here with the above point, since you can often use the conflict inherent in the dialogue to create underlying tension. That isn’t always the case, though. For a good example of what I mean, go watch basically any Quentin Tarantino movie.

That guy loves putting in long dialogue scenes in which nothing meaningful is said, yet the audience is fully engaged.  

            The reason he can pull it off is because he practically always infuses the dialogue with tension. The perfect example of this is in the opening scene of ‘Inglorious Basterds’, where the SS Colonel is interviewing a family who he suspects of hiding Jews. The tension is there because of course, we know they are in fact hiding Jews who are holding their breath in another room. Watching the scene, the reader is constantly on edge because of the question will he discover them? And if he does, what will he do then? Probably something violent and horrific, something viewers have long come to expect from Tarantino. And, of course, the more sympathy Tarantino can drum up for the honest farmers, the more we fear this possibility.

            In that scene, the Colonel does not kick the door down and start yelling about hidden Jews. That would be a release of tension, not a preservation of it. Instead, he calmly and politely addresses the farmers, asks for milk, and so on. Compare this to another famous Tarantino scene, in which the two hitmen talk, not about the people they are about to murder in cold blood, but about what big macs are called in France. The very mundanity of the conversation preserves the tension – but it only works because we sense what’s coming.

3. Dialogue is a window to character.

In both fiction and real life, you can learn a lot from the way people talk. There are a million factors that can play a part here. How much do they talk, or how little? Long, rambling, breathless sentences, or short, blunt ones? Do they have an affinity for beautiful speech and wordplay, showing off their intelligence, or are they plain spoken? Do they laugh a lot, or never?

            Obviously I could go on, but it’s better if you consider your own experience in dealing with people. If you truly pay attention to the people in your life, you’ll start to notice all of the ways their personalities come through in their every word and gesture.

            From there, you will be able to match certain speech habits and patterns with particular character types. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but keep the ideal in mind: if you do it perfectly, the reader should not need dialogue tags at all to know who is speaking, but will immediately hear the correct voice in their minds. (You will not, of course, ever do it perfectly, but it’s good to try).

4. The non-verbal is as important as the verbal.

Generally speaking, it’s a bad idea to write conversations that consist purely of dialogue. It can be done – Elmore Leonard often goes for pages of pure dialogue – but it’s not advisable. For one thing, you’re likely to find yourself writing a script rather than a novel. For another, the longer you leave your reader with nothing but dialogue, the harder it becomes for them to actually visualise the conversation. The characters become frozen in place, a couple of talking heads floating in a void.

            Another less obvious use for doing this is to help manage pacing. One of the problems with a continuous stretch of dialogue is that it reads too fast – especially if the sentences are short. That can actually be useful for short action scenes, but for most dialogue the use of body language helps to give the reader a small amount of time to digest what’s being said.

            Note the difference between these two exchanges:

Exchange 1:

            ‘The last thing he told me was to watch Alex. Said he didn’t trust him at all. Said there was a rat somewhere in the organisation.’

            ‘What, you think it could be him?’

            ‘Rats are rats, Jim. Could be anyone. Could be me.’

            ‘Yeah, well. I’ll take my chances.’

Exchange 2:

            ‘The last thing he told me was to watch Alex. Said he didn’t trust him at all. Said there was a rat somewhere in the organisation.’

            ‘What,’ Jim said, finally igniting the cigarette that had been hanging from his lips for several minutes, ‘You think it could be him?’

            ‘Rats are rats, Jim. Could be anyone.’ Ray’s expression remained deadpan. ‘Could be me.’

            The corner of Jim’s mouth turned up, just slightly, acknowledging the unspoken implication. Could be me, could be you. Taking a deep lungful of smoke, he let it all out in twin streams through his nostrils and sat back in his chair, serene.

            ‘Yeah, well. I’ll take my chances.’

The second exchange is much slower, giving the reader time to think about every word. But the sections between dialogue do more than that. They serve as dialogue tags, so that at every moment the reader is fully aware of who is talking. In a long chain of straight dialogue, it gets very easy to lose track of that, and impossible if there are more than two characters talking.

            These pauses also add depth to the conversation. ‘Could be me, could be you.’ This is an added subtext that adds tension. It’s clear that Ray suspects Jim, and Jim knows it. His relaxed response to this, leaning back and having a smoke, tells us something about him as a character.

            You might also notice that I used ‘Ray’s expression remained deadpan’ to split his sentence into two parts so that the pause after ‘Could be anyone’ is longer, and the final statement ‘could be me’ hits harder.

5. Dialogue attribution

If you’ve read On Writing, you’ll know how Mr. King feels about dialogue attribution, and I tend to agree: he said/she said is best. But even better, in my opinion, is to be clear enough so that even that isn’t necessary. As invisible as the word ‘said’ tends to be (and invisible is what you want in this case), it becomes all too visible if overused, as in the following case:

            ‘I don’t know what to do,’ Darla said.

            ‘Listen, we just have to figure out what Bill wants, and co-operate, right Bill?’ Ryan said.

            ‘But what about – ’ Darla said

            ‘Never mind him,’ Ryan said.

            ‘Right. Both of you in the corner, for a start,’ Bill said.

            ‘I can’t – I won’t go!’ Darla said.

Setting aside for the fact that the dialogue itself sucks, all those ‘saids’ sound repetitive. This kind of exchange is better served by other kinds of dialogue tags. Ideally, if you’re sure the reader knows who’s talking, you can eliminate dialogue attribution altogether.

            King also takes a hard line on adverbs, and while he makes a good point (specifically, that context should tell your reader how someone said something), I have read many books that use them quite well. Overuse is a pitfall, but as long as you’re conscious and careful with how you use adverbs, and stick to ‘said’ most of the time where necessary, the occasional ‘he said harshly/serenely/sharply’ is okay and can sometimes clarify the intention and tone of the character.

6. Everyone has an accent; everyone has a verbal tic.

Yes, even you. There is no one on earth who does not possess some kind of accent and some kind of verbal tic. You might not realise this if you have always lived in the same small community where everyone talks the same, but it is true. I discovered this when I emigrated to Australia from South Africa. Within my first week of school I learned a painful lesson: it was not the Australians who had the bizarre foreign accents, but me!

These kinds of verbal tells can be useful for a number of reasons – adding realism, giving the reader a sense of place and time, dialogue attribution etc. But it can also be easily overdone. In my experience, the best way to go about it is to keep the speech patterns of your characters in mind, yet use as little accent as possible in dialogue.

            For example, if you have a character from the American south, the last thing you want to do is write every sentence like this: ‘Well ah do say sah what a fahn day we’re havin’. I mean, imagine trying to navigate through that mess as a reader. And never mind the potential for unintentional racism.

            Instead, make sure that when the character is first introduced, a particular accent or verbal tic is fixed in the reader’s mind. After that, only very occasional reminders are necessary to maintain the effect. As long as the reader remembers what they’re supposed to be hearing, they will make all the necessary changes in their own mind.

            Of course, don’t say a character has a thick Jamaican accent and then allow them to say things like: ‘I do say, this is a curious situation.’

At the time of writing, that’s about all I know when it comes to the art of dialogue in fiction. If you really want to improve, though, I wasn’t entirely joking about getting a job in retail or sales – although any activity that forces you to constantly interact with other people will help. The listening, of course, more than the speaking. And the watching. And the smelling. Yeah, people smell different, and sometimes that’s a useful thing to know when you write about them. People feel different, too, and probably taste different, as I’m sure some uncontacted tribes might attest… but that’s all for another post. Hope this helped.

A lot of the articles that come up when you google ‘Nightmares’ revolve around how to cure them or stop them from happening. Most people agree that nightmares are an unpleasant experience, and the fewer of them you have the better.

            On one hand, having too many bad dreams can’t be good – especially if it causes insomnia or somniphobia (fear of sleep). Onnneee, two, Freddy’s comin for youuuu… We’ve all been there, right?

            Personally, though, I find I enjoy nightmares in an odd way. Kind of the same way I enjoy cold showers, really: painful while it’s happening, but the aftermath has its rewards. Since I’m a generally happy and optimistic person, I had a hunch that even though I seem to have more nightmares than most people (one or two a week, I’d say), they were doing me more good than harm. Weird as it sounds, I kinda like them. I like how they make me think about them the next day, how they make me appreciate my life more (thank god I’m not being eaten alive by goblins! Hallelujah!), and how they often force me to think about things I wouldn’t otherwise.

            Plus, I’ve always thought that if books are, as Neil Gaiman says, dreams you hold in your hands, doesn’t that make horror books physical nightmares? And if we assume that the mind in some way needs dreams for its health and function (and all science demonstrates that it does), then it follows that nightmares must serve some purpose, must be good for something.

            One study from the university of Geneva revealed that after experiencing nightmares, the brain areas responsible for controlling emotions responded to fear-inducing situations much more effectively. Another recent study found that people who reported being fans of horror media or had a morbid curiosity were more resilient in the face of adversity.

            To tell the truth, I tend to roll my eyes with this type of stuff – not because I don’t think there’s something to it, but because there’s something broken about needing to justify reading fiction for the purpose of self-improvement. It bothers me. It brings to mind an image of some bright teenager being forced to read The Brothers Karamazov because they’re told that reading fiction develops your mind in such and such a way. Even if it does, is that not the worst way to go about it? What about the love? What about the enjoyment of the activity? Why do so many people go on about how many books they’ve ‘devoured’? as though the number of pages consumed is the goal, instead of their content?

            Aaaaanyway, I digress.

            You know who’s really annoying? Relentlessly ‘positive’ people. But why? Why would consistent positivity be annoying? Because it’s dishonest. If you know someone who always has a wide smile pasted on their face and refuses to acknowledge any kind of negative emotions or feeling no matter what because stay positive! They’re probably suppressing a lot of shit. They might be suicidal.

            I’m joking, but also not. The way I see it, one can’t be happy in a meaningful sense unless one fully acknowledges and comes to terms with darkness and misery. Of course, ignorance is bliss, and one has only to look at a pet dog to see the truth in that. Still, I don’t think blissful ignorance is true happiness, any more than injecting heroin is true happiness. And it’s certainly not the kind of happiness an adult can or should aspire to. One cannot will oneself into ignorance, and trying to do so is an act of suppression.

            None of that shit would have flown back in the hunter gatherer days. Imagine walking the savannah with your tribe and trying to pretend Lions didn’t eat people. The real heroes were the men and women who sat around the fire late at night and told everyone else what they’d seen happen. Better yet, those that wove tales about what could happen, especially if you left the comfort of the fire and entered the dark jungle alone. The first horror writers weren’t writers at all but story tellers, and their purpose was as much to caution as it was to entertain.

            Fear, as any soldier or first responder will tell you, is useful. And with fear comes the knowledge of darkness, of what lies beyond the campfire, and what could lie there, and therefore what you should watch for.

            But Ben! You cry. Maybe that was true back then, when people were getting stalked by lions on a daily basis. But how could a book like IT or Dracula or Frankenstein inform anyone or help anyone? What good would it do me to cross the road to avoid sewer gratings in case there are clowns hiding there?

            Well, first of all, if you think horror no longer serves that kind of purpose, I would draw your attention to Black Mirror. Practically every episode of that show is a cautionary tale regarding the future of technology. How about the transcendent horror film Midsomer? You don’t think that’s something of a warning about the nature of cults and their innate appeal? Have you noticed how practically every modern day zombie movie is actually about a man made virus that spreads through human hosts?

            But I’m cherry picking, aren’t I? Let’s use the initial examples – monster movies like IT or Dracula or Frankenstein, to which you could also add most ghost stories. These are certainly more abstract things, more departed from reality than something like Black Mirror. In these cases, I believe the focus is not so much on the lion as it is on the human in question. In other words, where a show like Black Mirror focuses on the external threat – technology/the lion – IT focuses on the behaviour of the Losers – the seven friends who ultimately defeat Pennywise.

When you tell the horror story of the human being hunted by the lion, there are two sides to the tale. The obvious one is that of the lion itself, but no less significant is that of the human. How does he or she react, and why? What are the results? Many of these kinds of tales often end badly for the human element, in part if not in total. You see? these stories say: if you’re getting hunted by a lion and you react this way, you will be eaten alive!’ And the more terrifying you can make that consequence, the more you turn the listener’s mind towards something good, towards avoiding that outcome as best they can. Aha, they think. I know that story: the lion stalks the man, and he freezes in place and is eaten. Now I know if I’m being stalked, I will run as fast as I can back to the tribe, and so stand a chance of survival.

            To return to the story of IT, in which a killer clown feasts on the town of Derry, Maine, we see the point more clearly. IT is a stand-in for the lion, and the focus of the story, despite its title, is not with IT at all but with the children who ultimately face their fears and walk into the lion’s den to eliminate the threat to their village. Not all of them survive, of course, but that is only true to reality: if you face your fear and slay the beast, you’re unlikely to come out unscathed. However, the effort will be worth it.  

            There is a parallel in psychology: the treatment of various fears and PTSD often consists of Exposure therapy, as outlined in this interesting Time Article. Essentially, exposing the person to what they’re afraid of in small, incrementally increasing amounts. Over time, the person develops a resistance to it almost as they would if exposed to small increasing amounts of snake venom.

            This might explain why books like Survivor Song (Paul Tremblay) have become so popular during the covid pandemic. People are self medicating, seeking to give themselves some exposure therapy so that when they have to put on their mask and step outside they’re a little braver for it, have a little more resistance.

            As a disclaimer, I should probably point out that it’s not a direct cause and effect thing. As the Time article from above mentions, too-frequent nightmares can be signs of trauma and depression rather than mental health. And while having an awareness of the suffering and evil of the world may be valuable, having an obsession about these things can quickly sink one in a mire of depression. The underpaid folks who work as content moderators for social media – or literally anyone who’s spent too much time on liveleak – will attest to that. The key, as always, is balance.

            “No tree can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.”

 – Carl Jung

Recently I wrote a story for someone I know who has Trypophobia – the fear of closely packed holes. The story turned out well and I’ll probably end up selling it in the near future, and this got me thinking about something Stephen Graham Jones said in one of his ‘on writing essays.’ I can’t remember the exact quote but it was something about how he always likes to accept deadlines because it reminds him that at the end of the day he’s a writer, and that he should be able to write a certain type of story to a specific length by a specific time.

It’s the same kind of ‘craftsman’ mentality that Stephen King subscribes to, when he says in On Writing that building novels is just like laying pipe or driving long haul trucks. And it’s the same idea that Steven Pressfield talks about in The War of Art.

In the past I’ve felt a mild resistance to writing according to a limitation or specific topic. Instinctively I don’t like having someone else tell me what to write. Like when every year every magazine starts asking for stories themed for Halloween, and then later for Christmas.

But I’ve come to realise that, if you’re actually good, it shouldn’t matter what topic you write on. A truly good writer could produce 100 stories, all of them Christmas themed, and all of them perfectly original. Stephen King wrote a vampire novel and a haunted hotel novel and they were both excellent. Stephen Graham Jones recently wrote a werewolf novel, Mongrels, and it was completely original and unique to him. Werewolves are one of the most done and re-done topics in all of horror literature.

The lesson is that limitations do not inhibit creativity: they actually encourage it. This is one of the reasons I’ve come to favour The Heroes Journey and the classic three-act structure. I love constraints. These days, I pursue limitation. I like that I can ask someone what their biggest fear is, and write a story around it, and the story actually works. It’s satisfying, like having a friend tell you they really need a car, and you build one for them and it runs well.

To find your voice, to make an idea into your idea, something that no one else on earth could write but you – the same way no one on earth could have written Oliver Twist but Dickens – you have to impose limitations.

If you need a good example, there’s a story by Adam Nevill in his collection of shorts called Some Will Not Sleep. I believe it’s the one called ‘Where Angels Come In’. It’s damn good, and it’s also founded on the most basic and unoriginal premise imaginable: two kids explore a haunted house. I mean, really? You couldn’t get less original than that! And yet, it’s a great and original story, because it’s told in a way that only Adam Nevill could tell it. The dread, the shifting of things just out of sight, the (no spoiler) ending had his name written all over it, and as a result this most basic of premises, in his hands, becomes a completely unique tale.





Some people have been doing a thing where they post about all the books they’ve written on the long journey to success. Seemed like a cool idea, so I thought I’d give it a crack…

Year: 2001

Title: Bobby Crown

Length: 50,000 words.

This was my first real book, written at the age of about eleven. It was about a kid who went into another world where he fought a bunch of monsters and whatnot. I just remember thinking that Bobby Crown was a cool name.


Year: 2002 – 2007

Title: Felix Bones Saga

Length: 160,000 words across four books.

As you can see, I had a thing about cool names back then. I also had a thing about boys adventuring in other universes and killing monsters, since that was exactly the plot of all four books, once again.


Year: 2009

Title: Hunt

Length: 70,000 words.

This was basically my version of hunger games. In my version though, the arena was filled with a bunch of African wildlife, lions and shit. I wrote the whole thing in pencil, for some reason.


Year: 2010

Title: The Garden

Length: 100,000 words.

Still hadn’t got the hang of titles yet. This was just about a haunted garden tormenting some kid’s family. He has to venture down to the bottom of it, where he finds some crazy monster and then kills it to save his girlfriend. Involved carnivorous monkeys. Probably the most fun I had writing a book in my youth, to be honest.


Year: 2010

Title: Green Thumb

Length: 70,000 words

Guess plants were my jam back in 2010. This is a kid oppressed by his parents who gains the power to control plants. He somehow uses his power to kill a bunch of people.


Year: 2011

Title: Winter

Length: 80,000

Some guy goes into an isolated little town. The idea was that there were all these creepy things going on in town, and I could branch off and address each area as an individual story. Inspired by the old school series Spookesville by Christopher Pike. Didn’t turn out well, the whole thing was fragmented and the story had no structure.


Year: 2011

Title: Wild

Length: 80,000

Terrible, terrible book. I wanted to write about a caveman in caveman times. So in this one a stone age guy has his tribe killed by wolves or some shit and he just goes wandering across the savannah in search of a home. No dialogue, no research, no point reading. Lesson learned.

Year: 2011

Title: Drugged

Length: 110,000

Wrote this during once a week, twelve-hour long writing binges fuelled by alcohol and energy drinks. The writing was awful, but there were some fun scenes. It was about a guy who develops a drug that gives him superpowers and is then hunted by the mafia because they want to steal it. Kinda like that movie Limitless, but I think that hadn’t come out yet. I enjoyed myself, but it was ultimately unreadable.


Year: 2012

Title: The Spiral Door

Length: 110,000

A group of kids move into some old guy’s mansion. Old guy has a collection of doors (of all things), in a big room in the house, and one of these leads into a creepy parallel universe. For some reason, I insisted on making every chapter 4,000 words long, and paid no attention to pacing or writing coherent scenes. So while I became lost in my own world, it was painfully boring for anyone else to read. Again, lesson learned.


Year: 2013

Title: Red Night

Length: 110,000

A friend of mine told me this was one of his favourite books, and he seems sincere, although I sure wouldn’t agree with him. A group of scientists exploring the Congo run into a massacred village, and soon discover the cause is a bunch of demon-worshipping superhuman cannibals. Just your average run of the mill horror/adventure.


Year: 2014

Title: North Winds

Length: 60,000

This one was so close to being okay! But about two thirds of the way in I killed off most of the main characters and introduced a bunch of new ones and had to rely on some heavy deus ex machina for the ending to make sense. It was a monster story concerning a mythological beast called a Draugr from Viking folklore, terrorizing a town in Northern Ireland. Another mistake I made was not knowing anything at all about Northern Ireland.


Year: 2014

Title: Book of Worlds

Length: 75,000

My first actually decent and readable book with a proper structure. I even self published it for a while, and it got a positive review on goodreads. (I think it might even still come up if you google it, but it’s not available to buy any more.) I had some superfluous characters and plot holes and the writing was still a bit amateur, but otherwise it was okay. A group of kids figure out a way to open doorways into other worlds, but they let some horrible shit through and have to close it before the world is destroyed. I have some kind of obsession with portals.


Year: 2015

Title: Cursed

Length: 78,000

Energised by my recent success, I was sure that this book would be even better than my last. In the end, the complicated plot was so riddled with characters and meanderings that it was not salvageable. It didn’t help that the premise was mediocre: An evil witch attacks a town, but it turns out that the way to beat her is to (gasp) not be afraid of her and thus deprive her of power.


Year: 2016

Title: Bunyip

Length: 72,000

This time, I vowed to keep it simple: an isolated farmhouse in the Australian outback with just a few characters and an interesting monster. Surely I couldn’t screw up such a simple idea? But yes, yes I could. Despite my success with the three-act structure in Book of Worlds, my plot construction was flimsy at best. I didn’t know how to use scenes, and this was also before I read The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Story Grid, Stein On Writing and quite a few more that drastically changed how I approached novel writing. Luckily thanks to said books, this novel was also the last unmitigated failure I’ve had, to date.


Year: 2017

Title: Demon Haunted Boy

Length: 110,000

A boy travels into the underworld to retrieve the soul of his young sister, which has been stolen by demons.

This was actually two short books, but it would have ended up being a quadrilogy if I’d ever finished it. I was doing a self-publishing experiment, posting up one chapter at a time on the website in the hopes of attracting people, and selling it as an ebook. The story itself wasn’t bad, although I was stretched to my limit trying to juggle all the different plotlines.

I still think it might have turned out okay, but the one chapter at a time method does not work – at least not for me, though Charles Dickens did quite well with it. I also lost my illusions about self-publishing and learned that that path isn’t for me. That said, I learned a lot about story telling over the course of the books, and enjoyed every minute of it.


Year: 2018

Title: Holly and the Nobodies

Length: 83,000

Holly Anderson is a lonely girl, born with the power to materialize living beings from thin air. When she decides to kidnap a ‘real’ person to be her friend, schoolgirl Alex Miller becomes the target. But when Alex goes missing, her close friend James is the only one who suspects what really happened, and the farther he pursues the truth, the deeper into Holly’s bizarre world he finds himself. Even with some of Holly’s odd creatures on their side, it is soon apparent that they won’t get out unscathed – if they get out at all.

If that sounded like a draft blurb, good – it is. At the time of writing I’ve only just finished and am trying to get it published. Finally, I wrote something that doesn’t make me hate myself! I joke, but it was insanely difficult – and just as insanely fun – to write.


So that’s all of ‘em. The novels, anyway. I’ve written too many short stories to count or even remember. Sometimes it looks like a long road, but the truth is I’m only just beginning. Sisyphus will heave the boulder once more – but he does it with a grin.

Keep writing everybody – it’s amazing how far you can come in seventeen short years…




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.

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.

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 do it all again.

‘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.

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 many 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.

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, during hand to hand combat with the bad guy, the good guy spends the first two thirds of the fight 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, what a badass scene. We love it. How much worse would the movie have been if he could kill agents one handed from the beginning?

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.

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

Caveat (A note from 2019)

Reading this post again, I’m compelled to add that while the three act structure is indeed a very useful tool… at the end of the day it is one tool of many. There are more advanced and diverse ways to structure a book, so it would be a bad idea to take the three acts as gospel and never deviate. That said, I stand by this particular tool as a solid foundation. If you are lost when it comes to structure, the three acts will save you. But always remember that in writing, there is no singular way, no recipe or reliable instruction: there are only tools, and the wisdom to use them (or not). Take Bruce Lee’s advice: adopt what is useful, discard what is not.

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