The Idea that #Writers Must #Read Everything Is Absolute Bullsh*t (Unless you know how and why to read)

Okay, I will admit that this idea is a recurrent theme of mine. Anyone who has heard me talk about writing has heard me call bollocks on the idea that  novelists cannot hope to become good writers unless they read every novelist they can find. Stephen King is a particular advocate of this way of thinking.

Hey, Stephen, kiss my adverb.

Let me tell you what these writers are actually telling you. They are saying, “One of the most important market segments for novelists is aspiring (and published) writers who read voraciously in hopes of becoming successful. If you lot stop buying our books, we’ll lose a shite-load of money.” In other words, you should buy everything, because since you’re listening to them, it’s likely theirs is whose books you’ll then purchase.

On its face, this advice sounds logical. It isn’t. It is tantamount to a painter’s telling you that the way to become a great artist is to visit every museum you can find. In fact, the way to become a great painter is to paint, just as the way to become a skilled writer is to write, edit, solicit readers, re-edit, submit, publish, read reviews, and respond to what you’ve learned via improvements.

Want a short cut? So did Little Red Riding Hood. Look how that turned out.

Certainly there is something to be gained from visiting a museum. You can learn how people react to art, all of the different styles available, and even techniques, colors, or creative combinations you’d never have thought of before. Similarly, you can learn how different writers’ styles are, and how uniquely each uses language. But will these teach you how to hold a brush or create a story? Not likely.

In order to become a skilled writer, you must write. F*ck reading. If you don’t have time to do both, don’t read anything but short pieces and whatever you’ve written. Get others to read your work and tell you honestly what they think. If you must read, then read like an analyst, not a fan. It shouldn’t even matter to you if you finish a book, unless you’re trying to understand how books are finished. I rarely finish a book I start. That’s not what they’re for. If I want to love a story, I write one. If I’m reading, say, a Toni Morrison book, it’s because I want to understand how she uses the rhythm of her language to paint a lyrical mood without overwhelming the reader with unneeded prose.

Read, sure, but have a specific objective in your reading. Start by asking yourself what you want to know from the book (and it’s not whether Mary and Tom eventually hook up, though it could be understanding how the writer made you care whether they did.)

There’s no you, after a while. There’s only the books you’ve read.

I know some of you aren’t buying this, since it goes against the grain. Let me start with a quote by writer and teacher  Roz Morris.

Reading—the good and the bad—inspires you. It develops your palate for all the tricks that writers have invented over the years. You can learn from textbooks about the writing craft, but there’s no substitute for discovering for yourself how a writer pulls off a trick. Then that becomes part of your experience. – Roz Morris

Sounds good, right? Well, it is, with one caveat. Discovering how Hemingway pulls off a trick will only teach you how he did it. Should you do it the same way? Should you read ten other writers and then choose one of their ways? I’d suggest you focus on good characterization, story telling, and plotting, and trust that your natural language abilities will improve as these things improve. Read to learn what good writing sounds like and then develop your own tricks.

Reading others will give you ideas, certainly, but the idea of consciously imitating another author–no matter what some people say–should make you queasy. I can have a character ask a question and then say, “She told me no,” similar to how Raymond Chandler did. However, I shouldn’t then attempt to imitate his staccato dialogue pattern. I should, instead, F*CKING LEARN HOW TO WRITE DIALOGUE BY ACTUALLY HOLDING AND LISTENING TO CONVERSATIONS.

Oh my god, stop believing advice that’s meant to teach you how to be commercial is the same as teaching you how to be good. Read because you like books, stories, and language. Read in order to diagram and understand the process. DO NOT read start-to-finish like you’re in a book of the month club. Let me go back to Roz Morris and tell you HOW she says to read (with annotations by me).

  1. Skip sections – you’re in writing school, not doing a book report. And by the way, I got the best book-report grades on books I never finished. Read the good bits, skip the boring bits and those telling you how to do things you already do well.
  2. Quit altogether – if it bores you, seeyalaterbye it.
  3. Read things you hadn’t thought of reading – yes, yes, yes, read! But not just novels, for goodness sakes. I read tons of stuff, but rarely novels. I know how to tell those stories. What I want to know is how people tell true stories so that I can make my fiction sound true.
  4. Walk away and take notes – again, you’re not reading a library book; it’s a text book. Mark it up if you want, but if you’re reading Hemingway or Proust to learn their style, take notes on what you’ve learned.

See, I’m not opposed to reading. I am opposed to aspiring writers’ thinking this advice has anything at all to do with their book-of-the-month club. I never read King anymore because I read 10 or 15 of his books and I know how he does them. There’s nothing else to learn. I’m too busy trying to improve to waste time with people who have nothing to teach me. Now, when he gives advice on marketing, I’m all in.

To summarize, let me quote Ray Bradbury, who was pretty adept at both writing and being successful, as he spoke about reading, and specifically, what to read and why.

For the next thousand nights, before you go to bed every night, read one short story. That’ll take you ten minutes, 15 minutes. Okay, then read one poem a night from the vast history of poetry. Stay away from most modern poems. It’s crap. It’s not poetry! It’s not poetry. Now if you want to kid yourself and write lines that look like poems, go ahead and do it, but you’ll go nowhere. Read the great poets, go back and read Shakespeare, read Alexander Pope, read Robert Frost. But one poem a night, one short story a night, one essay a night, for the next 1,000 nights.  – Ray Bradbury

Let me tell you the final reason that the Big Five publishing world is telling you to read, read, read. Their products aren’t necessarily great, but they’re commercial. Reading successful authors won’t help you get better; however, they might show you trends that are selling. If you’re getting a book out within the 18 months after the book you read was published, maybe you’ll get in on the trend before it passes. Their job is to sell commercial dreck and convince you that you should buy it and write similar dreck, so that they retain their market power. What happens if all writers stop buying this crap? I’ll tell you what: they’ll stop publishing it, or they’ll lose market share to the indie community.

Reading is imperative, I agree. However, if you don’t know what to read, how to read, and why you’re reading it, you are doing yourself no good.

In the last 18 months, I have completed 6 novel manuscripts and 1/2 of a short story collection. Each is probably better than the first 9 books I wrote, and they’re not bad. I’ve read exactly 1 book in that time, and came to the conclusion that the writer was brilliant with plot and language, but wrote characters you couldn’t love and fell in love with miserable endings. So, I read his story collection, and learned I wanted to ensure none of my stories included those two things I hated.

Read, but wisely.


Part 2: The 40 Best Tips from Successful Authors & When to Ignore Them

Here’s Part 2 of my massive article on writer’s tips on writing. You can read Part 1 here.

21. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” –Anton Chekhov, playwright and short story writer

Chekhov is widely accepted as one of the greatest writers in history. If you have his skill level, you likely have an innate sense of when to show (glint of light on broken glass) versus tell (moon is shining). You also probably know how to show lyrically and efficiently. Otherwise, you’ll have to learn it. Books that only show or do so in too much detail for too many things can get bogged down, lose the flow, and get tedious. Readers will skip those pages. (For an example, see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.) You can still earn a Pulitzer or a Nobel Prize, apparently, but your book won’t be as fun to read.

Likewise, books that only tell seem simplistic and amateurish. The magic is knowing how to show what’s important, creating visceral imagery and emotion with your prose and tell what’s not important, so that the pace of the writing stays good. Do both, as appropriate.

22. “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.” Elmore Leonard

Despite how pretentious this sounds to me, it’s not bad advice. I’d change the first sentence to read, “If it sounds like pretentious, pseudo-literary bullshit, I smack myself and rewrite it.” Other articles on writing advice include the first sentence of his second quote without explanation. This one’s simple: don’t add details that aren’t vital to the story. We really don’t give a shit what your main character is wearing, except when it reveals something about her character. We don’t need to know what’s on the suspect’s work desk or how glorious the flowers are he passed by. Too much detail is simply adding words to the book to make it look impressive.

See how that last sentence bored you? It was unneeded. Just leave out the  page fillers.

23. Write the book that you’re desperate to read. Fall in love with your characters. Finish the day’s writing at a point where you want to know what happens next. And keep writing every day. – Keren David, author of Cuckoo and others

Yes. Don’t write for money (you probably won’t make any) or fame (fewer will care than you hoped). Do it for the love. Write because other people’s books suck and yours don’t. Write because you might explode if you don’t. Then keep writing because you like your books, and just maybe others will too.

24. “One thing that helps is to give myself permission to write badly. I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or ten pages no matter what, and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want. I’ll have lost nothing—writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off.”
Lawrence Block, crime and mystery author of over 100 books

This is the secret to being prolific. Edit yourself after you’ve finished, but before or during. If you’re a bit off your game one day, you can always edit it the next, so write. One day we’re good at chugging out the plot in boring language, and the next day we’re freaking poets. Creating the balance is what editing is for. While you’re creating, let yourself ebb and flow.

25. Keep generating new writing and new ideas. The more you do it, the better you’ll get. Oh, and make peace with the fact that (in your eyes) it will never be perfect, or finished. – Michelle Thomas, campaigner and journalist

We’ve said this before, but it can’t be emphasized enough. Don’t be your own roadblock. Perfection is death.

26. “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.” —Neil Gaiman, best writing advice giver

Word-for-word truth. Get this on a tattoo.

27. “In the planning stage of a book, don’t plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.” —Rose Tremain, author, short story writer

 I included this one to poke at the plotter (planning out the book) vs. pantser (making it up as you go) debate. The answer is to do both. I can always tell a book that wasn’t plotted in advance, because the flow is uneven. It might devote 50 pages to the events of two days and then wrap up the next 15 years in the following 20. They aren’t bad books and equally likely to be best-sellers or award winners as those rigidly plotted in advance. However, in reading them, I’m always left with the feeling I used to get when my dad would drive us through back streets, and I was the only other person in the car, besides him, who knew we were lost. I hate that lost feeling.

This doesn’t mean you should plot every nuance of the book. That is way too limiting. It means you should have an outline and sort of a word budget in mind before you write. It might be something as simple as, “in this section, these two things happen, in around 1,500 words” I don’t start writing a book until I know the ending, but it almost always changes during the book. I can’t see starting if I don’t know when I’ll be done.

28. “It’s important to be inspired by other writers and sources, but when it comes to the actual writing, I swear by going into Tunnel Vision Mode. Pretend nothing else exists but you and your idea. Don’t compare and don’t despair.”
– Emma Gannon, author of Ctrl Alt Delete: How I Grew Up Online

Agree. ‘Nuff said. No one knows your book but you. The other guy’s book is his book. I’ve read Nobel Prize winners that made me want to puke and unheralded books I thought were magic. Own your magic and let no one take it.

29. “Make yourself write regularly. It’s like anything: The more you practise, the better you’ll get.”
– Jennifer Gray, author of the Atticus Claw and Chicken Mission series

This is the skill part. There are NO shortcuts, but any writing is good practice.

30. “Give yourself permission to be terrible. There’s nothing more paralyzing than trying to write a perfect novel in one draft. Do your best to turn off your inner editor and just write. Everything can be fixed later!”
– Sarah Rubin, author of Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue

Worthy of being repeated.

31. “Listen to the criticisms and preferences of your trusted ‘first readers.” —Rose Tremain

 If you don’t have any first readers, get some. Again, hear, “Something’s wrong here,” when they have critiques, but you decide how to fix it.

32. “You will inevitably be told be someone that you have to write a thousand words every day. You don’t, in the same way that you don’t have to run every day, or go to the gym every day. Your work is percolating at the back of your mind. So, going for a walk is writing. Watching TV is writing. Staring into the depths of a glass of rum is writing.”
– David Barnett, journalist and author of Calling Major Tom

Writing is the process of inventing a story and characters, including putting them down on paper, but not exclusively so.

33. “I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.”
Michael Moorcock, science fiction and fantasy author

Be really careful about the running the risk of copying ideas, characters, or styles. In fact, just don’t risk it. Read other stuff, and make sure your ideas are fresh.

34. “When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”
Stephen King

This is great advice if you don’t plot your books. They’ll be full of fat to cut. Ahem. I’ll just leave this at that.

35. “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is … the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
Mark Twain

Almost-good writing is bad writing.

36. “Beware of clichés. There are clichés of response as well as expression. There are clichés of observation and of thought – even of conception. Many novels, even quite a few adequately written ones, are ­clichés of form which conform to clichés of expectation.”
Geoff Dyer

Too much of today’s writing consists of carbon copies and formulaic genre fiction. For God’s sake, write something new or don’t write. Don’t use clichés and stay clear of idiomatic expressions (which are usually hackneyed and hard to translate once you’re super famous). Also, stereotypes are also clichés, so don’t get caught up in a “this one’s sort of true” bind. It may be true, but it’s also irritatingly boring, so leave it out.

37. “Only bad writers think that their work is really good.”
Anne Enright

You. Damn. Skippy. If you doubt yourself, you’re probably skilled enough that you’re focused on the areas where you’re less-than-perfect. The reverse is likely true too, sadly. Bad writers don’t know enough about writing to hear the off-key notes in their poetry. Don’t be that guy.

38. “Write. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down. 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. Keep moving.”
Neil Gaiman


39. “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. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.”
Neil Gaiman

Y’all don’t hear me! We having church up in here!

40. “Ignore all lists of writing tips. Including this one. And including this tip. Or at least take them with a big pinch of salt. I have never met two writers who work exactly the same way: One of the hardest, but ultimately most rewarding, things about writing is that you have to work out for yourself who and what you are as a writer, and how you yourself work best. When you’re starting out, it’s very easy to see a piece of advice by [insert your favourite author here] and think, If s/he writes like this, I must do it that way too. That can be unhelpful, and instead I think that every time you hear a writing tip, you have to decide whether it means something to you, resonates with you, or whether it sounds like the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard. It’s your book, you need to learn to write it your way. Now please ignore this advice.”
– Marcus Sedgwick, author of The Ghosts of Heaven and others

“There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be.”
Doris Lessing, novelist, poet, playwright, short story writer

“Beware of advice—even this.”
Carl Sandburg, author and poet

No one can tell you how to write. They can only tell you how they write. They aren’t you, don’t have your brain, imagination, or experience, and you likely don’t even want to write the book they wrote. Know whose books I wish I’d written? Mine. They aren’t perfect, but I did them the way I was supposed to, and I broke every goddamned rule I could find.

Figure out your process, work at it, keep going. Beware of advice from writers with no social life or with substance abuse problems. Beware of advice from millionaire writers or those hoping to sell at least one book before they die. Beware of the experienced and the novice. Be wary of the falsely humble, the introvert hiding in their dim cave and venting that it’s where you must live. Avoid those who profess to know what’s right and wrong, and ignore anyone who is always negative, especially when it comes to you or your art.

In fact, now that you’ve read this, know that it now resides in your brain, and just go write. To hell with advice. You’re a writer; make shit up. That’s all you do. I hereby bequeath you with a degree from MSU: the school of Making Shit Up.

There’s life to be had out there. Go invent yourself some.

— Bill Jones, Jr.

Part 1: The 40 Best Tips from Successful Authors & When to Ignore Them

Due to the length of this post, it’s being presented in 2 parts. Part 2 (numbers 21-40) is presented here.

For longer than I have been writing, I have been reading quotes from writers on writing. Some are clever, some schmaltzy, a few invaluable, and quite a few utter bollocks. I’ve decided to spend part of my evening weeding through some of my favorites (and some loathed ones) and share them with you. After having written a half-dozen novels and two short fiction collections, I’ve seen my writing improve enough that I feel qualified to at least comment on the advice given below. Take a look and then decide which ones you can use and which ones you can discard.

01. “As Kandinsky says, ‘Everything starts with a dot.’ Sometimes the hardest thing in writing a story is where to start. You don’t need to have a great idea, you just have to put pen to paper. Start with a bad idea, start with the wrong direction, start with a character you don’t like, something positive will come out of it.”

Marion Deuchars, illustrator and author of Let’s Make Some Great Art

One of the great fallacies is that there is such thing as a writer’s block. This isn’t just excuse-making; it’s more a mistaken belief that you have to have a good idea to start. You don’t. You only need a start. As an example, I had four rough ideas for novels I want to write, but no decent plots that would allow me to start. Rather than continue to mire in inactivity, I decided to sit down and just start writing whatever popped into my head. Within two hours, I had turned four vague ideas into plot outlines and actually wrote the first chapter of a fifth book I’d not even considered. The point is that creativity starts when you remove self-doubt and allow it to start.

02. “Ignore every current trend and movement; pay no attention to what is presently most admired or most mocked; beware fervent admiration of any writer, however lauded, or any style, however praised. Think only of how you can make your writing most perfect, and most perfectly your own.”
Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent

We writers are sheep. Sadly, however, there are no longer any good shepherds to herd us in the right direction, toward literary fame, and in truth, there never were. Around nine of ten books published via traditional publishing never turned sufficient profit to even cover their writers’ advances. The idea that there are great agents, publishers, critics, or even public trends that will accurately foretell which book will be next great success is ludicrous. Writing trends are about as rare as truly viral videos, and have about the same shelf life. Don’t waste time trying to master Toni Morrison’s poetry or JK Rowling’s magic. We’ve read those books and want something new to read. Try writing that.

03. “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
Stephen King – author of All The Books

“To use adverbs [to modify the verb ‘said’] (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.”
Elmore Leonard, author of Fifty-Two Pickup

The road to bad writing is thinking that one guy’s inability to use a portion of the language with precision means that you can’t. Dear Mr. King, hush. Mr. Leonard comes closer, by stating that adding adverbs to “said,” as in “’Go quickly,’ she said, emphatically,” should be avoided at all costs. In truth, he’s right. It’s just lazy writing, and most of the time, readers won’t even know what the hell you mean. Saying someone “answered obsequiously” isn’t nearly as powerful as describing what the speaker was doing.

In other situations, adverbs can be used effectively, particularly in passages where you’re purposely choosing efficiency over detail. We don’t need four words to understand an unimportant part of your story if a single adverb conveys the thought. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH ADVERBS. Okay?

04. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
George Orwell, author of 1984, party pooper

Oh, boo fricking hoo. If writing is a horrible, exhausting struggle, take up photography or knitting, for Chrissakes. It’s supposed to be fun. If it’s not, you’re doing it wrong. (Or, you’re a pretentious git who’s trying to make himself sound like a martyr.) Plus, personally, when I sit down to write a book, I am attempting to tell a truth (or a lie) but damn if I don’t at least hope to make some art. Here’s a hint: art isn’t always Rembrandt and Swan Lake. Sometimes, it’s Banksy and Footloose (or Shabba-doo, if you’re my age).

05. “If your characters decide to play up by going silent on you, take them for a walk. Mostly, by the time you get home they’ll be chattering away to you again. Walking refreshes everything and chances are you’ll be running to get back to the manuscript to continue with their story!”
Kate Hamer, author of The Doll Funeral

Yes! A thousand times yes. My favorite book to date, a mystery starring my lead Eddie Daley, I wrote almost entirely during my daily two-mile walks around the neighborhood. Now, it’s almost impossible to walk without starting writing in my head. Thank goodness my wife wants us to walk 3-4 miles daily.

06. “Set a goal each week for your writing and work to reach it. Wake up every morning and treat it like a job. It’s all about regularity. Read back what you’ve written and ask yourself, ‘Do I enjoy this? Does it work?’ If you’re stumbling over something as you read it, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite!”
Sharon Grenham-Thompson, author of Jail Bird

Here’s the secret to success in life: Success is not determined by what you do best. Success (or failure) is determined by what you do most often.

07. “First drafts are always horrible and ugly. Don’t worry about that – it’s the same for everyone. Just remember that the first draft is as bad as the book is ever going to be, and if you keep redrafting, one day you will look at your horrible book and realise that you’ve turned it into something actually quite beautiful.”
Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike series

There is a general consensus among authors that first drafts suck. They kind of do, and they’re supposed to. However, adjacent with statements in that regard are often statements that claim one shouldn’t attempt to edit during a first draft due to risk of impeding your ability to get the story out. I disagree. I’ve had the most success by tweaking whatever passage I wrote the previous day before I begin the next day’s writing. It tunes the work and ensures that I am in the same rhythm and flow throughout.

Additionally, I don’t start writing Chapter 2 if Chapter 1 stinks. I keep at the first chapter until it’s right and can set the tone for the rest of the book. A bad start gives you permission to suck all the way through. Just remember, you aren’t looking for perfection; you’re looking for “This is what I was trying to say.” Those are two different things.

08. “Read! Read! Read! It’s vital to fill that well of creativity within you. Otherwise you’ll simply run out of words and ideas. By reading other authors’ books, you’ll learn what works, what doesn’t, absorb new words, trigger new ideas, and above all immerse yourself in the world of writing. A writer who doesn’t read can never be an author!”
Chris Bradford, author of the Bodyguard series and Young Samurai series

“Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.”
P.D. James, author, queen of crime novels

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
Stephen King

Okay, here’s where I lose some of you. In my opinion, this is bullshite. The idea that you can learn to write by reading someone else is absurd. My reading Toni Morrison didn’t make me poetic anymore than reading John Milton made me blind. The reason to read is that you like books. The reason writers tell you to read is so that you buy books. Theirs. True story.

Instead of “just read” I would partly agree with Ms. James. Read, but read good writing, if only so you know it when you see it. Don’t read to learn how to write. There are too many kinds of good writing for that to work, and good writing is situational. What works in one place is wrong for another. Besides, the person whose writing you should read the most is yours. Put it down for a month or six. Read and re-read. See if you’re getting better. Don’t compare your style to anyone else’s; instead, compare the reading experience. Did you laugh with your work? Cry? Were you in suspense? If not, revise and WRITE. You get good at writing by writing. Reading makes you good at reading.

09. “I think writing is a lot like acting, or role-playing. You need to create an environment that lets you get into that headspace. That might be about sitting in a comfy chair, or listening to the right music, or burning a scented candle, or whatever, but you can only do your best work in surroundings that support it.

“The most important thing you can do while writing is to spend time absolutely and completely NOT writing. The cliché is taking long country walks, which definitely helps, but so does playing a video game or watching a really stupid movie. Your unconscious brain needs time to process what you’re thinking about. I’m pretty sure my unconscious wrote most of the best bits of Boy Made of Blocks.”
Keith Stuart, author of A Boy Made of Blocks

You can’t write effectively if you’re not alive. Go live. And for the record, the subconscious does most writing, full stop. That doesn’t mean your active mind is disconnected. It means that your brain handles multiple levels of activity simultaneously. It’ll still be writing while you’re out there doing stuff, so sitting there staring at your desk is self-defeating. Just remember to come back in and write down what you’ve come up with (or at least take notes) before you forget it.

10. “Write down everything that comes to you in an adrenalin rush in the small hours, and on waking up. About one-half – truly – will turn out to be useful and it sets you up for the morning’s work.”
Laura Cumming, Observer art critic and author of The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velazquez

“Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.”
Will Self, author, journalist

“Always keep a notebook and pen by your bedside. No matter how much you convince yourself you’ll remember that brilliant idea in the morning, you really won’t. Write it down because sleep has a way of giving you ideas and then stealing them right back.”
Swapna Haddow, author of the Dave Pigeon series

These  are at least partly true. If you awaken with an idea, write it down right away. In fact, anytime you get a good idea, write it down. You will forget it later. It’s how the brain works, and there’s no guarantee you’ll ever get it back. Don’t believe me? Well, have you ever written anything and then later wondered who the hell wrote that? Same process.

11. “When you know your characters inside out, when you know what makes them really ‘comfortable,’ throw the exact opposite at them and observe how they cope. It’s only when we are met with challenges that our true self comes to the fore, and this is the really interesting stuff, for it’s simple and honest warts-and-all reality.”
Tracey Corderoy, children’s author

I hate this kind of writing, but if you’re in the Game of Thrones School of Torturing Characters, go for it. I won’t read your book, but a lot of people will. Yes, characters should be challenged and they must grow. But no, that doesn’t mean your whole plot needs to be torture. Show how they deal with success  too. Nobody loves a loser, and success is harder than people think.

12. “Do listen to songs. Some poems need to sing.”
Alison Brackenbury, poet – latest collection Skies

Write to them too. Your lyricism may surprise you.

13. “Fill your life with love and joy and pain. Then fill your books with each of them. All creative acts are acts of love, and vice-versa. Fill your books with love and the act of creation comes easily.”
Christopher Jory, author of The Art of Waiting

See? Joy and pain. Both. Not just pain.

14. “I don’t care if a reader hates one of my stories, just as long as he finishes the book.”
Roald Dahl, author with more than 250,000,000 copies sold

“To defend what you’ve written is a sign that you are alive.”
William Zinsser author and journalist

The first quote is almost certainly not true, unless he meant “just as long as he buys the book”. We want to be read, and then we want them to fall in love. Mr. Zinsser is right. We care what readers think, because we’re human. Just don’t go arguing down reviewers on Amazon. It’s bad form and will backfire.

15. “Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.” — Zadie Smith

This will take some negotiation. Isolating yourself on your private island is cool, if you have one. (Can my wife and I borrow it?) But if not, talk to your people about your job, writing, and set up some realistic time allotments. Also be prepared to come out of your cocoon to interact with the HooMons from time to time too.

Dying alone sucks.

16. “Think of your book in layers. The first layer will by its nature be rough – it’s just a sketch – so don’t get frustrated if it feels too light or is badly drawn. You’ll add to your story as you go, layering more character, deeper plot, better description, and twists and turns; and painting in light and shade.”
Abie Longstaff, children’s author of How to Catch a Witch and others

Yes! Writing is best likened to painting. The first draft should be good, but mostly focused on setting the tone of the book and getting the story in place. You can do wordsmithing, filling holes, and adding detail layers later.

17. “Don’t give up. Take rejection on the chin. My first picture book [was] almost 21 years old by the time it [saw] publication. And two of the poems in my collection, Dinosaurs & Dinner-Ladies, are pieces I wrote over 30 years ago, when I was still at school. One of them was rejected by the teacher in charge of the school magazine for having, apparently, ‘no literary merit.’”
John Dougherty, author and poet

Don’t know what to tell you. I’m still working on this one.

18. Growing up I believed only certain people were allowed to write books – namely, fancy literary heirs who had gone to the right school and university. Not people like me. But of course, anyone can write a book. And anyone should, so that we have more diversity of voices in publishing.
– Julie Mayhew, author of Mother Tongue and others

I’m not an elitist, but NO. Some people shouldn’t write books, mainly those who don’t know how to write. If you don’t, learn, get good at it, and venture to books once you’ve developed skill. Talent is imaginary. Real people have skills. Skills take time and work. And rework.

19. “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” —Jonathan Franzen, author of Purity and other novels

“Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.” —Zadie Smith author of Swing Time and others

Um, no, and don’t use a typewriter either. Instead, develop self-discipline. The internet is great for looking up needed references. If you don’t want to be distracted, don’t be distracted. I have ADHD. If I can do it, I promise you that you can.

20. “Don’t share too much of what you are writing with anyone else – until it’s finished. Every comment or remark potentially derails you and who is to say that anyone else is right? Keep writing, keep focused (without constantly going back to the beginning). Once you have reached the end of your story, then re-read it yourself and be self-critical. After that invite other people’s comments, and listen hard!”
Victoria Hislop, author of Cartes Postales From Greece and others

Everyone should have a first (or prime) reader, the one person they really write for. But don’t invite anyone to give you criticism while you’re still in creation mode. Hell, even after that, but certainly not during. Get it out, get it right, and then get critiques.

Part Two Mañana!

The Stubborn-Ass Birth of Jesse Ed McKinney

This is the opening  of a novelette entitled “The Stubborn-Ass Ghost of Jesse Ed McKinney.” It’s the first draft, to the extent that one can assign a ordinal number to my draft. I’ve read plenty of advice that says one should never edit while one is attempting to write. That is absolute nonsense. I firmly believe that how you open a story — or any other process for that matter — determines how it will proceed. As such, I don’t attempt to write the body of any story, especially a long one like a novel, until the opening is right. Why start Chapter 2 if you still don’t know what style Chapter 1 will end up being. I suppose if everything you write is exactly the same then it’s fine, but if that’s the case, why bother to write at all?

It doesn’t have to be perfect. That’s what editing is for. However, it should reflect the tone, rhythm, and quality you’re aiming for in the longer piece. This is my third attempt at the opening passage, and odds are I’ll read it again before attempting to move on, and end up revising it. That’s fine, because once I think it’s good enough, then I’m in the right frame of mind to proceed.

I guess I’m as stubborn as Jesse Ed, but then again, all of my characters are a version of me, aren’t they?

Folks say that Jesse Ed McKinney was born stubborn.

His was an ordinary entry into the world—attended to by summer’s fly-buzzed sweat, by low expectations, and by the hovering burdens of a house too full of accounts too small—but it felt anything but normal. Even a silence-shattering electrical storm could not diffuse the night’s buzzing tension. Mama did her part, holding back when the midwife nurse told her to and straining through the sodden air in her incommodious bedroom when told to push. She lay panting and sweating, venting Jesus-cursed screams she didn’t mean, all to no avail. Mama’s small bedroom had seen more deliveries than some big-city dockyards, but Jesse Ed’s birth was running late. It was Jesse Ed who was the problem, staying put when he was egged by tears and incantations to enter the world. His little ship sat moored in place, much to Mama’s and the midwife’s dismay. One couldn’t really blame the boy, since the modicum of cramped privacy inside his mother’s womb was to be the last time he had any reasonable amount of space to himself.

The midwife, Mrs. Sarah Osceola Barnwell—who insisted on the unfashionable title of Missionary Nurse despite her charging the ungodly sum of five entire dollars for her one day’s work—sat hunkered down in the small bedroom’s rickety wooden chair, her chin propped up by her left elbow and her right arm slung wearily over the chair’s lyre-shaped back. The crisp whites of her uniform wilted like late-season flowers. Jesse Ed stayed put. Mama went hoarse from hollering, praying, and cajoling that boy out. He wouldn’t come. Outside, Daddy paced a rut in the old wood floor, but Jesse Ed would have let him walk himself all the way down to the hot place before he’d come out from where it was nice and comfy. At the very least, one could argue that a gentlemanly young feller would have noticed Mrs. Sarah Osceola Barnwell’s furrowed brow and made his entrance when it was due, if only to lessen her worry. If Jesse Ed noticed, he didn’t show it.

He was to be the last of his mama’s children, and given she’d easily forced out six sisters and four brothers before him, pretty much everyone, especially Mrs. Sarah Osceola Barnwell, expected Mama to squat and drop her newest load with no more difficulty than she would have had in taking a high-grass poop after a hefty meal of grits, gravy, and collard greens. Hell, Mama’s youngest girl, little Marguerite, herself no more than three summers born, had entered the world while Mama was on her way home from early Sunday services. By the time the church bell had finished ringing for the eleven o’clock service, Marguerite had been swaddled, cleaned, fed, and introduced to her nine siblings. Jesse Ed wasn’t having any of that hurrying into the world nonsense. For six hours, then twelve, while Mama lay sweating and pushing, her cervix dilated wide enough to spit out a fully grown man, Jesse Ed floated lazily inside with his anchor rooted where it lay. The midwife’s assistant stood by attired in her no-longer-white delivery gown with the round white cap and glared down at Mama with black, judging eyes. Her posture was stiff and erect save for her neck craned in Mama’s direction, which, with her folded arms, made her look like more like a white-clothed raven than a nurse. Every fifteen minutes or so that adjudicating bird would uncross and re-cross her wings, first right over left and then left over right, and then look at Mama and let out a long sigh, as though the poor woman lay looking like a fat dark stain in those sopping sheets because she needed the rest and attention. One could suppose that to be true as well, but no one had known Mama to dawdle as long as she had a breath to give and a job to do.

It was Mama who finally coaxed Jesse Ed out into the world. She, by this time desperate enough for tears and wanting her damned baby to be born so she could breathe easily and finally move her bowels, was lying on her back staring at the bare, flickering ceiling light. She said, clear as a bell and with no more ire than a mosquito shows at being swatted at by a slow drunk’s mitt, “Boy, I swear by Jesus, if you don’t get the holy hell out of me in the next five minutes, whenever you do come out, I’m gonna slam you through that ugly-ass wallpaper your daddy picked out and let him scrape up what’s left of you to raise by his damn self.”

“Sweet Jesus!” crowed the midwife’s assistant, unclenching her arms long enough to clutch her chest.

Outside of the curtain that liked to pretend it was a bedroom door, three little voices giggled at hearing Mama curse for the first time. Daddy’s deeper voice bade them hush and go back to sleep with enough surety that the three giggled harder thinking it a lark that he would think they could sleep through such excitement in the first place. Daddy knew better, of course, but it was up to him to set the tone what with Mama laid up the way she was with that stubborn-ass boy she was about to give birth to. Mama didn’t mean to swear, of course, and she certainly didn’t abide  physical abuse, but Jesse Ed thought it might be time to weigh anchor and sail for home anyway, just in case ten kids were her upper limit for tolerance.

“There’s his fuzzy little head now,” whispered Mrs. Sarah Osceola Barnwell, snatching off what was left of the bedsheet and readying her gloved right hand as though it were a catcher’s mitt with Jesse Ed the Negro League’s official baseball.

After seventy-five frenetic seconds, wherein the midwife’s ravenesque assistant did her night’s work by mopping the missionary nurse’s sweaty brow (but only after a glob of Mrs. Sarah Osceola Barnwell’s perspiration smacked the newborn in the face, startling him into his first, screaming breaths of life) Jesse Edwin McKinney, III was born into the world. His birth was recorded in the family bible as being at precisely six minutes and six seconds after midnight on the sixth of August 1902 in Hawkins County, Tennessee, about three miles outside of Rogersville, which was pretty much near to being three miles from nowhere. Mama kissed that boy’s crumpled little head for fifteen minutes before she let anyone else touch him. Jesse Ed breathed easier, now knowing for certain that mama had room in her heart for number eleven after all.

How to Write Gud, by me and George Orwell

I wrote this back in early 2013, when no one read my blog (or, more accurately, when fewer people pretended to. Since I liked it, I decided to repost it.)


George Orwell, in his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, provided six simple rules for avoiding what he calls “bad English.” They are:

  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.

To these, I will be so bold as to add a few more I have picked up from years of reading and editing:

7. Learn the standard rules of English grammar and style before writing. You, as author, should be the expert. (Your editor is not your mommy.)
8. Edit as you go, rather than waiting until you have completed the work.
9. Expand Orwell’s rule # 3 to entire sentences and passages.
10. It’s only “lyrical” writing if they finish reading it.

Rule #1 is simple: Orwell talks about “dying metaphors [that] have lost all evocative power” and are used only due to laziness. Some examples he provided are: “take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over,” and others. Notably, the first metaphor, and others he used, are now dead, and few would even understand their meaning. Use metaphors sparingly, and be certain they evoke the meaning you intend.

Rules #2 and #5 he summarizes as “pretentious diction.” Long words do not make you sound smart. Learned people use precise words that they know their audience understands. He provides a long list of examples, which you can read for yourself. I summarize it by suggesting the writer choose a word in order to increase understanding, and for no other reason. The “right” word will, by definition, sound best. As Orwell suggests, French, Latin, or other foreign words do not make you sound smarter.

Rule #3 is touted particularly in poetry. As poets, we are taught to examine each word. If it can be removed without altering the piece, it’s unneeded. That applies equally to prose. Orwell makes a sound argument for what he calls “verbal false limbs” that “save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry.” In short, we use phrases like “make contact with, render inoperable, give rise to” instead of the simpler “meet, break, create.” Words are not like cash. Readers do not want more words; they want fewer words and more story. As a hint, if you’ve already said it, the readers are smart enough to remember. Don’t go all Stephen King and repeat the book’s damn catch phrase over and over. Simplify, grasshopper.

I won’t beat the drum about passive writing, because it’s been beaten enough. Suffice it to say that you should reduce passivity, because readers want to know what your protagonist is doing, not what life is doing to him/her. Contrary to popular belief, passive sentences don’t have to be zero percent of your writing, but I do think you should strive for less than 10 percent.

Finally, for my pet peeves rules, I will be brief. Nothing can take a reader out of a story she wants to like faster than bad writing. However, you cannot know it’s bad writing if you don’t know what the rules are. Learn when to use (and when not to use) punctuation. Learn the basics of AP (or Chicago) style guides. Learn. Bloody. Grammar. If you don’t believe these are important, go on Amazon and start reading one and two-star reviews. You will find them littered with disgruntled readers harping about poor grammar, editing, and writing.

And while we are discussing editing, understand that it is a big job. Bigger than that. Bigger. Don’t wait for the editor to start the process; go over the last passage you wrote, and re-read for editing. It will cull the gross mistakes and make it easier for your writing to flow from one passage to the next. The objective here, however, is editing as a reader. READ the work; see if it flows, if you stumble over grammar, if it makes sense. You will be glad you did.

My favorite rule is #10. It is how I have (recently) learned to take out those bits of brilliance that I love. If it is your most beautiful writing, but they don’t read it, or if it takes them out of the story, excise it. I know it hurts, but guess what, you can use it somewhere else. Make a poem, a short story, or just stick it on your website to show how gorgeous your prose is. I’ll tell you a secret, those “brilliant” bits are the stuff you’ll read later and groan, “What the hell was I thinking?”

Simplify, grasshopper, simplify. (See how annoying that is?)

More Writers on Writing

Just what the title says. There is no best way to write. Find a process that works for you and follow it. Sometimes, as in my case, it’s not about how you write; the inhibitor more revolves around why you write. Once I learned whom I write for and why, my writing began to improve tremendously. Here are some successful authors’ views:

Charlie Rose talks to Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, Malcolm Gladwell, Joan Didion, Jonathan Franzen, and Fran Lebowitz:

Fran, by the way, voices my own problem with my writing. I’ve recently encountered an impasse, not because my writing is bad, but precisely because I’ve reached that precipice where I could make The Leap. Suddenly, who cares about good? Good, as we know, is the enemy of great.

So, the problem with posting talks from writers is that even the most inhibited author is full of words. Try getting one to talk for fewer than 30 minutes. Nonetheless, here are a few  more short talks.

William Faulkner on The Sound and the Fury:

Tennessee Williams:

Anne Rice:

(Blogger’s note: I swapped out Gore Vidal because I’d decided he really didn’t say anything worth listening to.)

Elmore Leonard:

(This is my favorite of these interviews. He’s describing my current book, and now I know what my issue has been. I’ve let the characters in without an audition.)

Hope you enjoy the videos.


This Week’s Essays on Writing

Slide3This was the 3rd post I ever did on this blog, back on 28 December 2010. Obviously, no one really watched the videos because almost no one read my blog. I thought it worth reposting for those of you who aspire to be (or already are) writers.

Ray Bradbury on Writing Persistently

Stephen King – Advice to New Writers

Joyce Carol Oates – On Writing Characters


Life Lessons from a Big Dog

1. Wag more. Bark less.
2. You will live longer in a pack than you will alone.
3. Every pack needs an alpha. See if it’s you.
4. They secretly like it when you lick them.
5. Not all females are bitches. In fact, most are not.
6. Wild dogs cannot be tamed; they can, however, be housebroken.
7. Always greet your pack like you just fell in love.
8. Say goodbye like you’ll never see them again.
9. Sometimes it’s good to be a bad dog.
10. When they hit the right spot – just there – don’t be afraid to shake your leg a bit.
11. If you don’t know what it is, piss on it.
12. Mark your territory.
13. Big dogs don’t threaten, they just bite.
14. If you don’t know how to cuddle, expect to sleep alone.
15. Girls won’t kiss you if your breath stinks.
16. When bad things happen, forget about it quickly, and then wag your tail.
17. Sex is good; there is no need to be ashamed.
18. Just because she’s running from you doesn’t mean she wants you to chase her.
19. Size matters, but leadership comes from the heart.
20. A little bit of petting goes a long way.
21. Eat. Sleep. Play. Wag. Life is simple.

A Dream Is Not a Hobby

A dream is not a hobby.

The difference between dreams and reality

Some of you are already nodding your heads; others are, perhaps, confused. Let me explain. Writers, painters, sculptors, photographers, those of us who try the arts hoping to eke out some acclaim and a living, do so because we love it, to be sure. I write books and stories, for instance, because I get genuine enjoyment whenever someone reads and enjoys my stories. I probably get more satisfaction than they do. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t care about financial results.

I routinely get told, by well-intentioned people, that I should be content with “writing for myself” or that I shouldn’t care about financial rewards.

“Why are you writing?” they ask, “Is it for money or because you enjoy writing?”

The answer is, “Yes.”

“Do you want to be good, or do you want to be famous?”

Again, “Yes.”

I, in fact, am confused by the question. It’s like asking, “Do you want to have kids or do you want to see them grow up?” Um, why do you think those are two different things? The theory seems to be we artists should be content with being able to create – that the work itself is enough, if we have people who recognize and appreciate our efforts. But that diminishes our dreams of being an artist to a hobby.

I write for two reasons. One, I love to write. Two, I dream of being able to quit my day job so I can write more. Why should I be content with the first reason? Would you, well-meaning friend, be okay with consulting for free, as long as clients tell you that you’ve done an admirable job? And you, dear doctor friend, do you treat patients as a sideline (hobby) while working full-time at another gig that pays the bills? Of course you don’t, and why should you?

See, here’s the secret that your artist friend isn’t telling you: they probably work as hard at their art as you work at your job. Plus, most likely have a “real” job to go along with it. My work days, if you count the days I’m at my career, or writing, or promoting, or editing, or any of other related tasks, are 7 days a week, 52 weeks per year. I “work” probably 10-12 hours per day. The fact that the writer/photographer work is fun doesn’t lessen how hard I work at it.

If you are not an artist, but you have a friend who is, promise me something. Promise that you will never tell him or her that they should be happy just doing the work. And, if you believe that to be true, keep going to work and give them your salary. See if that feels satisfying. The work is its own reward, after all. Right? Your artist friend has a dream to be validated, which in modern society takes two forms: First, people view the work, like it, and tell others they do. Second, there is some tangible, objective measure of its worth.

Now I’m not trying to reduce everything to money. Heck, my own research indicates that the bestselling books aren’t even the ones that are critically acclaimed. However, the way I know that my short stories are good is if people are willing to give something up to read them. A painter knows people appreciate her painting because they pay for it. If they were all free, would they be important? Who knows?

I give away books to people I like. Those who care, read them. But here’s a secret – the more they like me, the more they like the book. So, am I good? Not unless objective people think I am.

I don’t have a dream to be a writer. I have a dream to be paid because people like to read my work. Your artist friend doesn’t have a dream to do a gallery showing, she has a dream to have people come to the gallery, love her art, and buy some of it. Then, perhaps, she can spend the remainder of her life doing what she likes for money.

Because, at the end of the day, isn’t that the dream we all have in common?