Kiyaa! I Punch Your Face With Writing Tips!

Retirwepyt! Suckers! I have worked a powerful gris-gris over all y’all. You come here and read all this writing advice, and truth is, I make half this crap up. What, you think I know what I’m doing? Am I a bestselling author? Do I have my own TV show? A movie? Hell, I’m so high on mescaline and decades-old Pez candy, I don’t even know if this blog is real. Here I am, preaching, but am I a successful author? Pshhh. Nope. Yes, okay, I’ve maybe committed about, ohhh, two million words to the game industry. And yes, I looked good doing it. (I have the body of a beautiful dolphin, after all.) But heck, I don’t know crap about shit about poo about shit. I write these things because I’m working through the same questions and problems you have. We’re on this journey together. Let’s hold hands. Let’s play doctor. My instruments are icy.

Point is, since I have all you wriggling fish on the line, I might as well keep on reeling you in using the sweet, sweet bait called lies. So, you want more writing tips? I gotcher writing tips right here, pal. Since a bunch of you might just be getting to this here bloggeryspace, it seems high time to go through and actually hit on some chief fundamentals — things I hold to be self-evident. Plus, a number of you might be NaNoWriMo folks. So. Are you ready for a hot, searing injection of writerly wisdom right to your cerebral cortex? And also, your ass? Buckle up, Jennifer. Here we go.

Ten tips. Scattershot. In no particular (or particularly useful) order. And yes, those of you who read this blog regularly will have seen this tips before. Feel free to ignore. Or throw things at my head.

Schreib Mach Arbeit, Or Something Equally Awesome In German

Writing is work. I want to get that out of the way right up front. I do not consider writing an art. I consider it a craft. It is on par with building a chair, not stirring some epiphanic experience. Fingers on keys is no different than hammer on nails. We consider work to be a dirty word, because so many people despise what they do. But work can be satisfying. Just because writing is work — as in, it necessitates effort — doesn’t mean it’s a horrible experience. I love it. But I work at it. I work to be good at it. As for it not being art, well, I’m not suggesting that the rest of the world can’t see it as art. That, however, is for them to decide. Not you. I’m not attempting to demean the craft or the creator; I’m only asking that you get your ego out of the way of your work. Think you’re an artist? Then your ego is in the way. To be a functional, capable writer, just do the work. Perform the task. Words on page, clickity-clack. And you’re saying, “How is this a tip?” It’s not. Except, maybe it is. The tip is really to hunker down, focus, and learn how to swing a hammer. Your wordhammer.

Write Every Day

This ain’t no joke. Write every day. Set a target, and hit that target. To be clear, this advice is for people who want to be professional writers. If you don’t want to be a professional writer, then you don’t have to listen to one word coming out of my mumbling monkey mouth. You can sit in your attic all day, Emily Dickinson. Let us all know how those spiders taste. But you want to make  career out of this, you have to know how to write daily, on a regimen. Writing is like any skill or craft. It needs practice. You want to learn how to throw hatchets at dudes, you practice throwing goddamn hatchets. You want to write professionally, you practice writing. Write blog entries. Short stories. Novel chapters. Vignettes. Poetry. Doesn’t matter. Commit to the act.

Read Your Work Aloud

Your number one goal as a writer is clarity. If you cannot communicate clearly, then nothing else matters. Got an awesome character? A wicked story? A plot so hot it burns the faces off of Nazis? Doesn’t matter if you cannot arrange words in sentences so they can be understood by your readers. The best way to ensure clarity is to read your work aloud. You will hate me because I will say this so often to you. I don’t care if you read it at a whispered decibel, or if you scream it from your third floor window at any hobo who walks by your house with a can of shit in his hand. Read. Your. Work. Aloud. You’d be amazed at how often you clumsily bumble through a sentence thinking it’s the King Of All Sentences, but then you go back and read it aloud, and it doesn’t make a lick of damn sense. In my developing days, I was fond of using the three letter designation AWK to describe something. This was not a bird noise. This meant, “awkward.” As in, this reads awkwardly. As in, fix that shit, because it don’t make no sense, Jack.

Seriously, I’m Not Fucking Around Anymore: Outline, Outline, Outline

Already said it once, and you should probably check that out. Still, it bears repeating. I don’t care what form it takes — mind-map, whiteboard, Roman numerals, whatever. Just outline. You’ll thank me. Well, no. You’ll curse me while you’re doing it, but then you’ll thank me when your story stays on the rails and doesn’t wander off into the woods like Grandpa on a bad day. Unless you want to find him hunkered down by a stump eating a still-kicking squirrel, you best draw Grandpa a map and get him a leash. Meaning, outline, outline, outline.

Do Not Stop To Clean The Shit Off Your Shoes

Let’s say you’re running a race. Your goal is the finish line. In the middle of the race is not the best time to stop, check your laces, pick a wedge, eat a sandwich, admire your sweet-ass calf muscles, check the aerodynamics of your hair. You should’ve prepped for that. It’s too late. You’re running. Don’t stop. Don’t check your shoes for shit. Run, run, run! This is a gross oversimplification, yes, but the point I’m making is: keep Writing Time and Editing Time separate. Finish something. Then edit it. We writers are fucking nuts. We will obsess. Stop that. It’s easy as hell to fall into the trap of perfection, of writing a page, and then editing the page, and then editing the page, and then — holy shit! — editing the page some more. You’re not helping. You’re like a dog in the yard who runs ruts around the periphery because he’s OCD. Write now. Finish that. Then edit. Now, you might say, “But what if I’m getting way off track? Shouldn’t I stop to course correct?” First, yes, but that’s not the kind of editing I’m talking about. Second, that wouldn’t be a problem if you goddamn outlined like Daddy said. But nobody listens to Daddy, do they? Ohhhh no. (Is it weird that I refer to myself as Daddy, when I have no children to speak of? Don’t answer that.)

Your Tools Matter, But Only A Little

Another point of obsession for writers: the tools we use to write. The right notebook. The right pen. The proper word processing computer. The best liquor. The most effective butt plug. Stuff like that. Stop obsessing. Should you be pleased with your tools? Obviously. Find comfort in your tools. But don’t think any will be perfect. You want to use Scrivener, or Microsoft Word, or a Moleskine notebook, or the flayed skin of a Babylonian Witch-Dancer, hey, do what you want. But once more, it’s easy to get all OCD about the tools we use. Can’t get the margins right, the fonts, this doesn’t do that, that doesn’t do this, blah blah blah. Remember: a bad craftsman blames his tools. You can write with anything. Urine plus snow? Sure. Heck, first person to write me a novel with yellow snow gets a prize.

Stop Crying And Walk It Off

We’re talking about how writers are OCD and basically fucking nuts, and it’s kind of true. I’m sorry, it is. I don’t know that I’ve ever known a writer who wasn’t a little off his block. Are you a writer? Then come to terms with it. You’re probably a little bugfuck. Me, I’m crazier than a shithouse owl. The point is to know it, to own it, and to move past it. Yes, I realize it’s not that easy. No, I don’t expect you to just suck in a deep breath and vanquish the anxiety demons. But you do need to work at it. If you don’t, that stuff will build a terrible wall in front of your writing. You will always have to climb it to get to the writing. And many times, you won’t be able to. Maybe you didn’t create that wall. That doesn’t mean you don’t own it. It’s your wall. It’s there because you let it be there. I don’t mean to come across as callous. But you either deal with it, and find success. Or, you let the wall forever separate you from your potential.

Show Me Your Tiger Face, Don’t Tell Me About Your Tiger Face

Okay, yes, I just mean “Show, Don’t Tell,” but we’ve heard that so many times before. I figured the insertion of “Tiger Face” would liven up that tidbit, and damnit if I wasn’t right. Raaaar. Do you understand this particular piece of advice? You tell us that “It was autumn,” but you show us that the leaves are changing, the winds are growing cold, the grass awakens in the morning with a rime of frost upon its edges. Do you understand why this particular advice exists? Because nobody wants to read boring shit. Telling me something is boring. Showing me is awesome. If I were to say to you, “I could tell you about this guy I just saw who can shoot napalm out of his nipples while reciting the Declaration of Independence in Farsi, or I could just take you there and show you,” what’s your choice? Duh. Showing is cooler. Telling is pedantic and dull. That being said, you can get obsessive on this point. All rules have their exceptions, and from time to time, economy of language demands you get to the point: “John was angry.” Err on the side of showing, yes. But also know how to get to the point.

What I’m Saying Is, Don’t Overdescribe

Economy of language matters. And not just because you don’t want to write a book that could be used to bludgeon a Musk Ox, but also because going on at length about a fucking lamp is a surefire way to lose your audience. Here’s the thing: we writers like to think that everything in our story worlds matter. The clouds, the carpet, the dog’s mood, the distant thunder, the smell of ham, whatever. Let me boil down a story for you: Characters do things. Then characters say stuff about the things they just did or want to do. (Pro-Tip: Feel free to mix and match!) Everything else is window dressing. Now, we like window dressing. Window dressing does a story a lot of good. Mood is a powerful captivator in terms of keeping readers. Description is often a function of mood, though of course it can be a function of plot, too (the riddle inscribed on the bottom of that rose-handled Lady Smith revolver means something, maybe). Point is, if your description is working too hard to rock the mood, or is too tangled around the plot, then you’re getting in the story’s way. The story is, remember: characters do things, then characters say shit about the things they do. Too much description gets in the reader’s way. It’s like you just piled up a bunch of boxes in front of the door, or just tossed way too much salt into his meal. It becomes unpalatable.

Learn Your Craft

I could get into the nitty-gritty, but that would take me about 50,000 words. This probably isn’t you, because you’re a bunch of refined, genteel intellectuals, but for some weird-ass reason a lot of writers refuse to believe that they need to actually learn how to write. Well, oops. You do. I can’t instruct you on this part. You have to seek this out. But I will offer you a couple nuggets of advice. See, this process doesn’t stop. I’m still learning. Hell, I’m just a child in this process — I still have a lot of my own growing up to do. Here’s how I do it. I constantly check myself (chorus: before you wreck yourself). As I write, if I drop a semi-colon or I use a word I’m not 100% sure about, I’ll check it out. Google is your pal. So’s Dictionary.com and Grammar Girl. Heck, sometimes I read up on grammar from time to time just to find new things that I sometimes fuck up. Learning isn’t just bound to words and grammar. This is a whole crazy process. Writing, be it fiction or screenplays, has a ton of moving parts. Read other writers. Read what other writers say about writing. Once more, don’t obsess. But learn. Open yourself. Improve your game. Understand that you are imperfect and that your writing must forever be refined, like stones in a tumbler, polishing slowly so that they may become gems. Do all rules have their exceptions? Yes. But you must learn them first to know how to break them properly.

Other Tips, Tricks, Treats, And Tidbits

I continue to be surprised that you people return here to read my writing advice, but you do, so as long as that happens, I’ll keep writing it.

For those of you who are now, I’ll point you toward some earlier snidbits (snippets + tidbits), if you care to read them:

9 comments

  • Preachin’ that Gospel again, Brother Wendig.

    Personally, I believe the best “art” is art that knows it is work. “Art” that doesn’t feel demeaned by association as “craft.” Art that’s not afraid to get sweaty. The jeweler that made my wedding rings and all the gifts for my wife? (Like I’m Rockefeller, over here!) The man walked out of his back room, eyes goggled through jeweler’s glasses, hands black with soot or tar or some sort of ugly jewel dust, and said “What’choo need, buddy?” And this guy makes stuff that’d make a star feel inferior. Art that is too busy for pretension is craft.

  • Your Tools Matter, But Only A Little

    I had a perfect example of that yesterday. I needed to crank out 800 words of copy for work yesterday, but we were in the process of moving around cubes. I couldn’t get into the cube I was moving to, and the person moving into my cube was already eying my space. So, for about two hours, I was sans computer. But how could I possible write outside of Microsoft Word?

    I sat the fuck down with my notebook and starting writing that bitch longhand. After 600 words, I was able to set up my computer, transcribe it all into Word, and finish up before I started editing.

  • I think what you really wanted to say is “Schrieb Macht Frei.”

    Anyway, outlining is something that can’t be stressed enough. The plot, the history, a character’s day planner, the different pets owned by the villain – whatever it is, outline it. Get it out of your head. Then arrange it, structure it, and fill in the blanks. Before you know it you’ll have something resembling a story that people are interested in reading. Provided you’re showing, of course, and not just telling.

  • I kind of figured, but “Writing will make you free” makes more sense when translated than “Work will make you write.”

    …Then again…

  • I see you wrote about tools, a discussion I am familiar with.

    I’ll say this: I agree, in principle, but I believe that good tools can make a fantastic difference for a writer, especially in the revision/rewrite phase. And as you’re a fan of outlining, I think good tools can help with that as well.

    But a “bad” writer will not find help there.

    BTW, I consider myself a bad writer because I write so very little compared to how much I am capable of. I consider the words I actually write to be pretty good, most of the time.

    • I’ll agree that a good process can be made better by strong tools, but it’s also important to remember that no perfect tools exist.

      Revision/rewrite phase for me is a combination of Word (a program many people loathe), maybe some print-outs, highlighters, red pen. But I could manage that same process with missing tools, or different tools, too. That’s why I suggest that it’s good to have comfort with tools, but not to rely on one overmuch. You may like your perfectly balanced hammer, but any hammer can bang in a nail.

      The key is to get the nail into the wood, not to ruminate on the nature of hammers.

      Far as you being a bad writer — well, I don’t know about that. “Bad,” for one, is not the best adjective unless one’s craft really truly stinks up the room. I’d suggest that you could be a more *productive* writer, perhaps.

      — c.

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