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There’s nothing I like better when consuming some good fiction than to feel that cold thrill run through my body when a particular scene strikes me. It’s a rare experience, of course, and it’s often hard to tell exactly what kind of thing is going to get to me enough to elicit such a response. I enjoy the element of fear so much – be it in books, movies, songs, even my own nightmares – that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the various ways it manifests itself.

See, the sensation I mentioned above is only one of many types of fear that anyone in the horror genre strives to create in their reader/viewer/listener etc. I prefer some more than others, and some are more difficult to inspire, but all of them are delicious, and so I will do my best to list all I know about them here, as a scotch enthusiast records tasting notes for his favourite single-malts.

 

  1. The Shocks (Also known in movies as Jump Scares).

Not my favourite flavour, since it can be (and has been in a lot of recent movies) overused for cheap screams. It’s an easy way to give people a jolt, and over the years some directors and writers got lazy and forgot that the jolt should be only a part of the experience, not the whole package. Whenever I see this type of thing used over and over again in a movie I’m reminded of the old Goosebumps books. Don’t get me wrong, I loved those as a kid. But R.L. Stine did have an annoying habit of ending chapters with a jump scare: ‘And then I turned, only to see that Billy’s throat was horribly slashed!’ only to start the next chapter with something like: ‘Gotcha! Billy said, wiping the ketchup from his fake wound.’ Also seen in a million movies where someone is facing away from the camera, and the protagonist slowly approaches them and puts a hand on their shoulder, preparing to spin them around to face the camera as quickly as possible and reveal the horrible Face of Death!

But it can be done well, and when it is, a good old fashioned Jump Scare can deliver a pleasant adrenaline rush that rivals the best roller coasters.

  1. The Dreads

The Dreads are very difficult to accomplish, because they are mostly to do with atmosphere, and the instilling of an idea without ever quite stating it. It an ominous, vague presence, a back of the mind monster lying in wait, or a fate too terrible to imagine but which is inevitable nevertheless. The best horror always has at least some element of The Dreads, and they often use it as a solid foundation on which to build the other elements. Three movies that come to mind which do this well: Deliverance, Event Horizon, and The Shining. You know shit’s gonna go down, and that it’s gonna be really bad, but this is all communicated to you in only the most subtle of means, so that it speaks more to your subconscious than anything else.

  1. The Creeps

God damn I love me some Creeps. I don’t know what it is, but to me The Creeps are as addictive as Nando’s hot sauce. The Uncanny Valley, spiders pouring out of eyeballs, heads that do 180 degree twists, the buttons in Coraline’s eyes, etc. You get the picture: The Creeps are the bread and butter of horror. You can even, as Tim Burton does, stick them in as extra decoration in places that have nothing to do with the story. The spindly, big-eyed paleness of his characters is creepy. Edward Scissor hands’ scissor hands are creepy, even though he isn’t a malicious person and only kills one person with them in the whole movie. I really should do a whole separate post on this, because there are so many different ways to create Creeps for different effects, but I’ll leave it for now. Suffice to say that if a horror has nothing else, I’ll be satisfied with even two or three scenes that give me a solid dose of Creeps. It’s my heroin, baby.

  1. The Icks

The first resort of horror amateurs and the last of pros, the Icks are definitely a part of horror, and neglected only by the careless. I associate them most with the horror movies of the eighties, when a casual knife to the throat was likely to result in ten meter blood sprays. Wounds with maggots in them, extremely detailed dead bodies, intestines spilling from the open belly of a screaming soldier, etc. Done badly, the Icks are nothing but a cheap gross out. Done well, and they can be the icing on the cake of a truly horrific scene, and make something that would have been merely off-putting seriously disturbing.

  1. The Horrors

This is an interesting category, because it is concerned mostly with concepts rather than types of scenes or techniques. The Horrors are what you get when you realise a truly awful truth, or contemplate a terrible fate. See Stephen King’s ‘The Jaunt’, Harlan Ellison’s ‘I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream’ and Winston Smith’s Fate in ‘1984’. It’s a difficult effect to create, but it has a high potential for resonance, which is why you’ll most often find it at the end of stories. But you can have it in small tastes, too, in little scenes over the course of a novel or movie that stick with you, long after it’s over, even if they were only mentioned in passing. You can even include it indirectly: perhaps a character gets The Horrors so badly that he or she goes completely insane (ie. Pretty much any Lovecraft story). Which brings me to the next flavour, one of the most valuable of all in the horror writer’s arsenal…

  1. The Unseen

This is not so much a flavour as a base. It is a versatile tool, and the principles that govern it can be adapted to enhance the scare factor of just about any scene. Why do Harry’s friends never speak the name Voldemort? Because to acknowledge the evil, to face it in some way, immediately diminishes its power over you. There is nothing more terrifying, when faced with a horror, than to turn one’s back on it.

Besides that, all fear ultimately stems from the unknown, so it makes sense that horror does best when it capitalises on mystery as much as it can. Just as the best books give you just enough for you to complete the scene in your mind, the best horror stops just short of showing you the source of the fear. The Unseen complements all the other flavours of horror, and that is what makes it so good. Here is someone banging on a door as hard as they can to get out. Nothing strange, but you happen to know that door has only ever opened on a brick wall since you bought the house… The fear lies entirely in the question, and vanishes the moment you answer it.

 

So, these are Horror’s tasting notes, the things we all seek so hungrily as we flip the pages of Dracula or It or Ghost Story (and in those cases, find in abundance). Why such tastes are so delicious is, I think, as pointless as asking why one enjoys the taste of pickles. That’s just how my tastebuds work. The more important question, as far as I’m concerned – and you too, if you enjoy the craft of horror fiction as much as I do – is how do I create such things myself?

That’s a question I can only answer in the vaguest terms, but I think it begins with understanding the nature of the feeling, and how other authors have so masterfully created it in us in the past.

Until next time, I urge you to seek your favourite flavour – whether you like the jolt of a Shock or, like me, the crawling itch of The Creeps. Seek it out and when you find it, take a minute to savour it. Look for clown faces in drains and red balloons in odd places. Listen for the howl of a werewolf on the full moon. Go and stand in forest at midnight. Find an abandoned house, open the front door, and turn your back on it. Laugh, and listen to the sound of your voice.

And when you feel it… smile.

Happy Halloween ‘17

– Ben Pienaar

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

Architects, Gardeners, Schemers and Dreamers

 

“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have – they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.” – George R. R. Martin

 

The first question that usually comes to mind for a writer reading the above quote is: I wonder which one I am? The question that should follow this, but never does, is: Why does it matter? After all, everyone does it their own way. If you’re one kind or another, who cares? But as I’ve learned in recent months, it does matter, and it does help to know where on that spectrum (and another, which I’ll get to in a second) you lie.

The reason for this is that if you are a gardener and you work like an architect, or vice versa, you will crash and burn. And I don’t think it’s a matter of choice, either – it’s not as simple as deciding which one you want to be and then doing it. It’s more that you just are one or the other and you have to discover which so that you can then act accordingly. And once you do know where you stand, the process becomes a lot easier. If you have a natural talent for the piano, in other words, maybe you shouldn’t be trying so hard to play the trumpet.

So which one are you? It’s not so easy to know. I’ve always thought of myself as more of an Architect, but once I started experimenting with novels I found I tended to do better work when I took the ‘Gardener’ approach. My short stories tend to come out better when I ‘blueprint’ them, but my novels are better improvised.

I noticed also that there were some authors, in both of the groups mentioned above, that liked to write things down, and others that didn’t. There are authors out there, for example, who won’t even think of starting a book until they have the beginning, middle and end written out in detailed summaries, with character analysis and backstory material on the sidelines in case they have relevance to the story.

There were two problems that arose when I did things this way. First of all, I found that because I wanted the book to follow the blueprint, I kept forcing the characters to do the things I’d planned for them, an approach which makes for flat characters. Author Scott Sigler gets around this problem by tearing down his plans and rewriting them as soon as his characters develop in a way he hadn’t expected. That just sounds like too much work to me. Besides, life isn’t predetermined, so why should writing be?

But I can’t criticise one method over another, because the truth is that your choices of method depend on who you are as a person. Sigler prefers his way, and his characters aren’t flat at all. His methods are simply aligned with his personality, and so it works.

There is a dark side to being a ‘Gardener’ too. Once, I had a great idea for a book. I wrote the first fifteen thousand words, and then realised I’d done it all wrong. So I deleted everything and wrote eight thousand words of something that was closer to what I wanted. And then deleted that because it still wasn’t right somehow, and instead wrote a chapter of something else which was almost there, but still fundamentally wrong in a way I couldn’t put my finger on. Stephen King apparently wrote something like eighty thousand words of The Dome, realised it wasn’t working, and then deleted it, only revisiting the idea many years later. In On Writing, he talks about hitting the wall at the five hundred page mark while he was writing The Stand. Imagine being five hundred pages into a book and considering throwing it all away because it was wrong.

Then there are those I like to call the Schemers and the Dreamers. At first glance, it seems that these are really the same thing, because Architects are usually Schemers and Gardeners are usually Dreamers, but I believe there are in fact two different intersecting spectrums and that you can even be on opposite ends at the same time.

Let me explain: A Schemer, by my definition, is someone who writes everything down. They have detailed storyboards, they have character backstories, geography, world building details, ‘treatments’, alternative endings, etc. By contrast, the Dreamer writes nothing down, and keeps everything in his head, except for the actual work itself.

Of course, Architects gravitate to the former method and Gardeners to the latter, but it’s not always the case – it’s just a common theme. The obvious question then is: if you’re a gardener and therefore don’t like planning ahead, then what is it you’re writing down if you’re also a Schemer?

Plenty. You could write detailed biographies and character outlines. You could create maps of the geography of the place your story takes place. You could record the chapters you’ve written, and detail what each consists of. There are a million ways you can use writing and drawing to better illustrate and understand your own book for yourself without actually planning ahead. Then, with all the information you have created for yourself, you can go ahead and improvise.

Alternatively, you might be both an Architect and a Dreamer. In this case, you’d write nothing down, but you’d plan and blueprint everything in great detail. It may even be complete, in your mind, and all that remains is for you to translate to paper what you see inside. The path is clear and you have only to walk it.

The trick with the above spectrums is not to try to be one or the other, but to figure out what you already are. How far along each line do you feel comfortable? Write in that place. In any case, it’s unlikely you’ll end up solidly in one corner or another. Maybe you write some things down, imagine others, outline characters but not plots, and improvise just a little.

If there is anything to be gained from the list of ‘Rules’ that I put up in my last post, it’s that every one of those writers arrived upon their lessons through trial and error with their own writing. In other words, a large part of what they did was not to figure out how to write so much as how they write.

So if you want to know what you are – Gardener, Architect, Schemer, Dreamer, or any combination of the above… well, I can’t help you.

You’ll just have to find out for yourself.

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.

 

 

Learning to write well is like playing a really hard videogame. You die a lot, and sometimes when you have to fight the same boss fifty times in a row it makes you want to tear your hair out and eat it. In the end, though, it’s all worth it for that sweet, sweet Level Up, when the bell sounds and you see a little golden ‘plus one’ in the corner of the screen.

It’s not a perfect metaphor, but the idea of levels along the learning curve has always appealed to me, and when I look over the stacks of unseen manuscripts that track my own slow journey, I swear I can see these moments – as though at some point something just clicked and from that point on I did everything differently. Level Ups.

In my experience, most of the big levels lie behind doors that you can only open if you’ve already conquered previous ones – like finding keys or unlocking doors in games. And as in games, these doors only lead to further rooms and levels which are in turn steadily more and more difficult to progress through. There’s no point working on your paragraphing, for example, if you haven’t yet nailed sentence structure or basic grammar.

I’ve been writing seriously for about seven years, and in that time I’ve discovered (though not necessarily mastered) at least fourteen skill levels, which I suspect comprise the merest fraction of the game as a whole. Here they are, in the order of progression that I encountered them:

  1. Spelling and Grammar

When I was eight, my brother was the only one who could decipher my language and report the events of my extremely violent dinosaur novels to the rest of my family. Thankfully I’ve gotten better since then.

  1. Sentence structure and length

I wrote some books with endless, comma strewn, sentences. Others with short ones. You must find a balance that corresponds with how you think, and that can take quite a while, especially if you happen to be reading Hemingway and Tolkien side by side.

  1. Paragraphs

This one was a revelation to me. I wrote five full size novels in five paragraphs – each one a horrendous wall of text the size of the hoover dam – before I learned the art of paragraphs. It seemed so strange that an empty line could make such a difference, and the way it transformed word soup into individual, complete thoughts.

  1. Description

You only learn this bad boy through years of… well, describing stuff. How do you know how long to harp on about the designs in a carved table or the architecture of a castle? Do you describe what clothes people are wearing? How much do you describe, and what details do you focus on? What words do you avoid? Trial and error, my friend – hundreds of thousands of words of trial and error.

  1. Pacing

You can’t learn this without having a good grasp of the previous levels. It’s a tough one, too. I tend to rely more on intuition than anything else. Like breathing, you do it best when you’re not thinking about it.

  1. Minimalism

I’m not saying that everyone has to learn to strip their writing down to the bare bones. When I say minimalism I mean it in terms of efficiency: every word must have a purpose. By all means write a three page description of your protagonist’s childhood home; just be damn sure that every one of those words contributes to the story in some way. Rule 17 of The Elements of Style: Omit Needless Words.

  1. Editing

This is a big one. This is one of those levels with a hundred secret areas and dead ends that you can never completely explore. I hate those things.

  1. Dialogue

A weird skill, this one. Some people find it impossibly hard, and to others it comes naturally. There are lots of tricks to doing it right. People in books can’t talk exactly like they do in real life, but they also can’t talk as if they’re people in books. Go figure.

  1. Genre

This is really just figuring out what the hell you want to write about, which isn’t as obvious as it might seem. You might enjoy reading lots of genres, but that doesn’t mean you’d enjoy writing all of them. The only way to know what really gets your gears going is to write every different kind of story that interests you. You’ll start to notice patterns. Just like how I noticed I like people without faces and blood seeping out of walls and monsters that eat children. It’s different for everyone.

  1. Style/Voice

It took me about a million words of writing before I started to get a sense of what my voice is – and even then it’s evolved since. Before that, I was a mash of other cheap imitations  – Stephen King for half a novel, then Clive Barker for a few short stories, then Raymond Chandler, ad infinitum. It’s as much a case of reading your way through as writing it.

  1. Characters

Some guys are insanely good at this. A few well crafted lines and the reader has an immediate recognition of a person, like getting an instant window into their mind and the life they’ve lived. Magic, when it’s done well. On the other hand you can (as I’ve done in the past) write hundreds of pages following the same characters and never get beyond two dimensions. Mastering this level can make a huge difference to the quality of a book. The best authors I’ve encountered in this area to date are probably Joe Abercrombie and Elmore Leonard, the latter of which also happens to be a champion of dialogue.

  1. Theme

I touched on this in my ‘Craft’ post titled Truth. The idea is, whatever you write has to be about something. Not that you have to have an agenda, but you gotta have something. I resisted this, associating it with people who had messages to send me, who wanted to push their dirty morals down my throat. That’s the wrong way to do it, but it doesn’t mean you should abandon the whole concept. Often, if you’re a hundred pages into a book and you realise you don’t give a single damn what happens to anyone or anything in the story, it’s because the author has neglected theme.

  1. Resonance

Resonance is the feeling of awe you get when you finish a really good book, and it’s what makes you continue to dwell on it long after you’ve turned the last page. I suspect the reason it’s so difficult is because you have to be at least highly competent with all the other levels before you can engineer a lingering resonance. A lot of authors actually make a good living without bothering with it at all. In a weird way, I guess you could say it’s like a secret bonus level.

  1. Story Structure

Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and Shawn Coyne (The Story Grid and others) are must-read authors when it comes to story. I’ve only recently come across the idea of Story being a level on its own recently. Before, I just thought story was ‘stuff happening’, and as long as you made sure the stuff was cool and it kept happening you were good to go. No no, my friends – story is the heart of a book, and the reason people buy books in the first place, or watch movies and TV shows (both of which, by the way, are excellent ways of learning storytelling. Television especially must cater to short attention spans, and many screenwriters have become pros when it comes to compressing maximum story value into minimum timeslots.)

My current favourite role model for great storytelling is Dan Harmon (of Community and Rick and Morty fame), and he has some awesome posts on his wiki in which he explains and distils Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

If you want to improve your writing, learn story first. Learn it even before you learn how to spell – it’s more important.

 

I am, of course, only touching on the main aspects of each level. I could write many posts on each one, and I would still be skimming the surface. If the game of writing were an ocean, we’d all just be surfers and fishermen.

No, this is one game that never really ends. Even if there are only so many levels (and I have my doubts about that), there are yet levels within levels, and different ways to complete them all, and hidden doors. There is no final boss, no end credits; there is no ‘winning’ – you just keep levelling up.

But I’m not complaining – quite the opposite. After all, what could be more boring than mastering a skill? What would you do then? Nothing – it would be Game Over, no Restart. Forget Dungeons and Dragons, forget World of Warcraft or Minecraft or Starcraft – this is the only craft for me, my friends (see what I did there?) Writing is the most brilliant sandbox game ever invented, with a bare minimum of controls and infinite possibilities…

So go play.

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 think I still make it now and then. You can find examples of this error in just about any amateur work, and certainly in amateur horror stories. 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 it was that easy 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 favourite ever. 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.

Of course, it’s way harder to do it this way, and it takes a lot more words. The writer must work hard so that the reader doesn’t have to – and that, my friends, is the point.

I never do this the way I’m supposed to. Like the fat man who can’t bring himself to work out, I am under no illusions about my laziness, yet time and time again I cut this particular corner.

The corner in question concerns the ‘mellowing’ period. Many writers, myself included, advocate giving your finished work a cooling off period after your first draft, so that when you return to it you can read it with fresh eyes. I find this distancing effect comes into play if I leave a work for about one week per ten thousand words. Short stories should be left for no less than seven days, and novels seven to ten weeks.

The purpose of this post is not, however, to talk about what I know to be the right thing to do – it is to talk about what I actually do. What I actually do is I leave the thing for as long as I can, usually a few days for a short story and a couple of months for a novel. Another thing I don’t do that I should is extensive and thorough editing.

I’m sorry guys, I just don’t do that much. There is a part of me that rebels against the idea of editing because I feel it’s too easy to end up taking too much and losing the raw, emotional quality of a first draft. It doesn’t help that in practice, the stories I’ve edited for hours on end tend not to be as good as the ones I didn’t, and the latter always seem to have more feeling behind them.

But, most likely I’m not editing right. I don’t know.

There is this, though: I always do at least a second and third draft, and these definitely always improve on the original. So maybe it’s just that I’ve completed Editing 101 and have yet to learn the finer points of Editing for beginners, while all those writers who advocate doing ten or twenty drafts per book are busy mastering Advanced Editing for Experienced Pros. They’ve just learned how to do that many drafts without leeching the life from their material.

So how does one begin when faced with the daunting task of making an endlessly flawed first draft into something reasonable? The best way I’ve found so far is to begin by subtraction. I learned this neat formula reading Stephen King’s On Writing, and he apparently learned it from some other guy he admired, so it’s definitely a tried and true method, and it sure works for me. The formula is simple: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%

That’s it. You go through and take out as much stuff as you can bare to part with, and if you get to the end and you haven’t reduced it by ten percent, try harder. I actually find that I’m able to get rid of fifteen to twenty percent most times, but I don’t consider second draft done until I’ve taken out at least ten.

I’m a minimalist at heart, so I find something satisfying about editing this way, removing all the superfluous words and cutting to the core of the thing, but some people have trouble with it. If you’re more of the hoarder type, I’d argue that you should aim for twenty percent shrinkage, since hoarders are also more likely to add in a bunch of unnecessary bullshit during their first draft.

It helps to know yourself, too. For some reason, I have a whole list of words and phrases that grow in my first drafts like weeds. Among them: really, only, just, seemed, sighed, nodded, shook his/her head, he/she rolled his/her eyes… the list goes on. I’m also in the habit of eliminating instances of he/she saw/felt/heard/noticed/wondered/thought etc. I learned, I think from Sol Stein or William Zinsser (books listed in my top 10 on writing), that it’s much stronger to craft sentences without these words. For example, where before I would write something like: He saw the monster crawling up from behind the car… I now edit that to: The monster crawled up from behind the car, tongue flicking from its narrow mouth.

Anyway, where were we? Right, third draft. So after I’ve taken everything out that I can and reworked some of the language, I go through it one more time – and already at this stage I’m getting awful sick of the story, keen to move onto something else. But I always find more to do in third draft. I don’t have any system here, I read the same way I read anything else, and occasionally something just doesn’t sit right with me. A piece of dialogue, a description, a sentence, whatever. When I figure out what it is that’s bothering me – which isn’t always that easy – I change it until it no longer bothers me.

If I’m doing something longer, I give it to a few people whose judgement I trust, and sometimes I make changes based on their criticism. This, I think, is the part where a lot of people have trouble – not because of criticism, although there is that – but because of the insane discrepancy between what you thought you were doing when you wrote it, and what you actually ended up doing.

What I mean is, you have no idea what you’re doing until you’ve done it.

I hate this, but there really is no way around it that I know of – no trade secret about how to find out if you’re creating something worthwhile or producing nothing but steaming shit.

It’s like cooking a meal without a recipe and only a theoretical knowledge about what the ingredients taste like, and you’re not allowed to taste it as you go. And even when you’re finished you can’t eat it yourself – you have to serve it to a bunch of other people and then listen to what they say about it, and piece together what various spices and methods tasted like. And even other chefs have a limited ability to help you, because they all have different kitchen equipment, different ingredients, and different methods, and each has a unique style of cooking that contradicts other styles and doesn’t work with yours.

The analogy is probably breaking down here, but the point of these three ‘process posts’ has ultimately been that there is no recipe. There are tools that everyone uses, just like every chef uses a pan and an oven and some sharp knives. But if I’ve learned anything from reading all those books on writing and lists of writing rules by the pros, it’s that there are infinite ways to use the tools, and no one can tell you what the right way is, and thank Christ there is no right way; originality comes from the fact that you can wield the knife the way no one else does.

And you create lots of food that looks and tastes like literal faeces. But that’s okay, because every now and again, you get yourself a good juicy burger. That’s how the process really works, mine and everyone else’s, and if you’re reading this stuff to see how it’s done, and you’ve also been going through the On Writing Books and Mr. Famous Writer Guy’s 10 Ironclad Rules For Writing… Just remember that they don’t really know how to write – they only know how to write the way they write, and they only know that much at all because of the times they cut themselves and cooked vomit flavoured stew.

I guess that’s all I’m trying to say. This has been another process in progress, and that’s how I use the tools right now, and it seems to work okay for me, but maybe not for you.

Then again, who knows? Only one way to figure it out… go cut yourself.

Would highly recommend all of these to anyone interested in writing for a living. Every single one of them changed my writing significantly for the better, each in a different way, and I’ve read some of them several times. That’s saying something by the way, since as a rule I never read a book more than once – there are too many good ones out there.

I should probably caution you to take your time reading these, if you’re planning to go through the list. The best way to do it, I think, would be to work your way down from #1, and as you finish each book spend at least a few months practising and applying the things you learn. Otherwise you run the risk of taking in too much information and forgetting half of it before you get a chance to internalise it.

  1. The Elements of Style – Strunk & White
  2. On Writing – Stephen King
  3. Stein On Writing – Sol Stein
  4. On Writing Well – William Zinsser
  5. The War of Art – Steven Pressfield
  6. What Good Editors Know – Shaun Coyne
  7. No One Wants To Read Your Shit – Shaun Coyne
  8. The Artist’s Way – Julia Cameron
  9. The Hero With a Thousand Faces – Joseph Campbell
  10. Zen in the Art of Writing – Ray Bradbury

Truth

 

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 even 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.” It seems 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:

  • Addiction is dangerous.
  • Some rocks are better left unturned.
  • If you don’t overcome fear, the consequences are ultimately worse.

 

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 be 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 steaming heaps of action and adventure, badass heroes, and lots of explosions. It’s possible to enjoy that, as a reader.

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, if you want, and may your plotlines be as zany and hilarious as you want.

Just make sure you tell the truth.

Writing Badly

 

They tell you to write every day, no matter what. They tell you to revise endlessly, to omit needless words and to trim your work down; correct your grammar, close your plot holes. What they are actually telling you is that much of what you write will be total trash.

It’s just mathematics. A certain (large) percentage of what you create is junk. No one sits down and just churns out reams of gold plated words. If anything, the greater quantity of words you produce on a daily basis, the percentage of bad writing rises until, like someone in a Mills and Boon Romance Factory, you’re frantically slamming out a novel per week which consists of one hundred percent shit.

Here’s the thing: up to a point, it’s not only okay to write badly, it’s necessary, and next time you sit down to write you’d do well to remember that. If, that is, you are in the habit of editing more than once or twice. If not, then you’re better off writing no more than one or two hundred words a day and making sure they’re exactly the right ones in the right places, but minimal editing is generally a bad idea; there are some things you just don’t see in first draft.

Even the top writers at the top of their game occasionally drop something so bad it makes their own fans shake their heads in wonderment. What the hell was he thinking? I’ll tell you what – he’s reading the same book you are and shaking his head for the same reasons. He’s muttering to himself: ‘Damn, what the hell was I thinking?’

For example: ‘I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit.’ That’s a hell of a percentage. Whoever said that has to write ninety two books before they have a decent one, or revise the same book ninety two times. Who said that, you wonder, Stephanie Meyer? Nope, Hemingway.

It is a painful truth my friends, but over my years of writing badly (so many years, and still counting), I have learned that it is normal to create a quantity of bad work. If you work exceptionally hard, you can lower your percentage somewhat – but keep in mind, the source of bad writing does not always stem from the execution so much as it does the idea itself. It lacks heart, it’s hackneyed, it’s bland. Lacking heart is the worst one of all, because it’s usually not fixable, and often stems from the fact that the author wrote the entire novel with the subconscious knowledge that it sucked.

So accept that you will write badly, and often, if you’re a beginner. In fact, I have a suspicion that I may be writing badly this very moment. That’s alright though, because I plan to edit this a few times. But the point of the post is to explain why this truth is a blessing in disguise, and that you should stop beating yourself up about it and in fact acknowledge it as a necessary part of the process.

Here are all the ways writing badly has helped me.

 

Lately I’ve been making a lot of false starts. I don’t like false starts. Once I’ve begun, that should be it, goddammit. There is nothing more irritating than writing five thousand words of what will probably be a seven thousand word short story and then realising to yourself that it sucks so bad you have to start again. But it happens to me all the time, and it will continue to happen. As much as I dislike it, however, I need to do it. Why? Because false starts help.

To toot my own horn, one of my recent stories, Fear, went down extremely well with my beta readers. One said it was the best thing I’d ever written, and another said it was the scariest (same thing). I was happy with it too, especially since it took me three and a half false starts before I got going. The first one, I wrote four thousand words before I deleted everything. The half is because the fourth time I did that, I just changed the title (it was originally called Pool. I know, right? Three rewrites and the very first word still sucks.)

But here’s the kicker: important things happened during those rewrites. In the first one, one of the characters tells some freaky stories in detail to the protagonist. The existence of those stories was necessary, but the thousand words detailing them was not. In the end, I allude to the stories only in a couple of vague sentences, and the effect was much stronger. In the second rewrite, I found myself over describing both characters: who they were, what they looked like, etc. In the final draft, you’ll note I don’t spend that much time on their daily lives, thoughts or appearances. But I needed that failed draft, because I had to know those things. Each time I got a better picture of what was going on, what I needed to say and what I could leave out, and when I finally got going, a lot of it was fixed in my mind.

There are many things that require a restart: you’re writing from the wrong point of view, you’ve started in the wrong place or time, your characters are badly thought out, etc. The trick about writing badly is a simple but difficult rule: know when to fold ‘em, folks. Sometimes I write a story which I think is great, and after I’ve sent it to everyone I know I start to get a sour feeling in my stomach, and a week later, even if no one’s commented on it yet, I know it was bad. Other times, I think it’s awful initially, and everyone raves about it. If one can only catch the rotten things before they escape into the world, you’re doing well.

Extensive editing is one way to do this, but it doesn’t always work. I do find, though, that I’m more likely to be so disgusted by something I’ve done during the editing phase that I won’t let it see the light of day, and that’s probably for the good. Once I wrote a six thousand word short story, spent a week thinking about it, and then deleted the whole thing without so much as a second glance. A mistake? Maybe, I’ll never know. To return to the poker analogy, it’s like learning not to cling to your flush draw when all the signs are telling you to fold and cut your losses. And like I said, even the pros get it wrong now and again – didn’t Stephen King throw the first fifty pages of his breakout novel Carrie in the bin?

The best way I’ve found to make the decision to cut your losses is to get out of it with something good. Look hard at the shit you wrote, and ask yourself ‘what did I do right?’ Then when you start the rewrite, you’ll be able to home in on that one thing and bring it to the fore.

You must accept your propensity to spill offal onto a page. This will eliminate the fear of daily writing. When I used to be more erratic, I would excuse myself from writing on a given day because I was tired, or sick, or at a loss for ideas, knowing that whatever I created would probably be subpar. Once I accepted that subpar was going to happen and I could always improve it later, I was able to write day in, day out, just like the pros. The fear of failure was gone, and ultimately, I’ve had a lot of good days at the keyboard which I thought were going to be terrible. (Note: I’m currently editing this essay for the third time and feel obligated to mention that I still don’t make my quota every day, but I do write every day, and in my book that’s a win).

Failure in general, while unpleasant, is a learning curve, just as natural as a child skinning his knees learning to ride a bike. It stings like hell, but if you don’t fall you won’t get anywhere. The real crime is not learning. The story I mentioned which I deleted without a second glance was a mistake. What I should have done was read it over thoroughly, worked out how to avoid the mistakes in future, asked myself why I started writing it in the first place and whether there was a better way to go about it, and then deleted it and, maybe, started again.

Finally, we have my favourite mining analogy. If you mine for gold, you must excavate large quantities of worthless mud. It would be nice if you could just reach down and pick it up off the ground, but the good stuff is buried way down there, and if you have to dig through an acre of putrefied faeces, you will, because it’s worth it. In writing, sometimes you’ll do a scene or have an idea or even make just a sentence, and it will be excellent and at the core of what you wanted – and you will realise that you couldn’t have got there if you hadn’t first written a bunch of other bullshit.

So next time you start something and find you have to delete it over and over, or you’re hesitant to start your daily one thousand, just remember that it is okay for you to do a bad day’s work. Try to catch it before it gets out though, because you should also remember that the same guy who wrote The Old Man and the Sea also wrote The Green Hills of Africa, and the same guy who wrote The Shining also wrote Maximum Overdrive.

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