I get a lot of emails. And questions at conferences. And psychic missives sent through the galactic nebula from various superior alien species. And they ask me questions about writing and so I thought I’d drop a big ol’ compilation of writing advice — answers to many of the questions I get — here in this whopper of a post. A list of fifty. My first. (Likely my last, though I’ll also note: this list of 50 is as long as many of my lists of 25, word-wise.)
Go forth. Read. Absorb. Yell at me. Share if you like.
Oh, and —
I want you to read all of this in the sexy voice of Benedict Cumberbatch. AKA, Benderspink Umberhulk. AKA, Benneton Umbrellahat. AKA, Kennebunkport Slumberparty. AKA, Bob Benson.
Or, just read it like it’s being screamed by Animal from The Muppets.
Let us begin.
1. Snap Your Trap And Write Some Shit
Stop talking about writing. Stop reading about writing. Stop dreaming about writing. Stop doing things that don’t qualify as writing. The thing that defines a writer is that the writer writes.
2. No, Seriously, Quit What You’re Doing Right Now And Go Write
I wasn’t fucking joking. Stop reading this post. Get out now. Go! Go. I will Taser you in the face, nipples, butthole and genitals if I see you hanging around here when you could be banging out perfectly good word count. Go right now and write. Come back here when you’re done. This entire blog will be waiting for you. Like a stalker in your shrubbery.
3. Nobody Has Any Goddamn Answers
I don’t have answers. Neil Gaiman doesn’t have answers. Jane Austen didn’t have them. Nobody has answers. We have ideas. Suggestions. Possibilities. The only writer who has answers about your writing is you. Advice is just advice. It is not an equation. It is not the instruction manual for Ikea furniture (which are admittedly super-fucking-vague anyway). You are your own Muse.
4. Think About Writing More Than You Think About Publishing
Writing and storytelling is not a means to an end. The story is the end. Publishing is just a delivery system. It isn’t that fucking exciting. It’s not a carousel. You should ask more questions about wordsmithy and story architecture than you do about query letters or e-book formatting.
5. Learn How To Put Together A Proper Fucking Sentence
If you can’t put together a cogent sentence, you’re fucked.
6. You’ve Gotta Wade Through Your Own Waste
You want to be Hercules, Boudicca, Annie Oakley, and Einstein right out of the gate. You want a perfect novel to pop out of your head fully formed like an adult-grown chicken right from the egg. Won’t happen. You’re gonna suck first. You’re gonna suck for a while. Even when you’re awesome you’re still gonna suck a little bit. This is how you get better. Wade through your own word-waste. I wrote a bunch of assy novels before I wrote one that wasn’t assy. The less you write, the more you suck. You write a lot so you can suck only a little.
7. What Other Writers Do Doesn’t Fucking Matter
It’s like kids in a classroom. Stop paying attention to Billy flicking boogers on Betty. Stop looking at Cindy’s grades. So what if Earl, Jr. keeps fondling himself and smells like weird cheese? What other writers do don’t matter. What matters is what you do. You have to write your story. They aren’t sitting at your desk, with your computer, with your coffee, with your chimpanzee manservant. You are. Own it. Fuck you. Be your own writer. Tell your own tales.
8. Any Rule Can Be Broken If You Break It Like A Fucking Boss
For every writer, a billion writing rules. Snidbits of wisdom. Chestnuts of truth. You can break all the rules. You can roast all the chestnuts. But first, you have to learn the rules. First, you gotta get good. Otherwise you’re a toddler driving a car, shooting a pistol out the window.
9. For Some Reason The Blank Page Is Scary As Hell
The first empty page always makes you want to shit your pants. It’s normal. We’re all scared.
10. Write Brave And Bold And Bloody
Fuck it. Don’t do what everyone else is doing. Stop dicking around. Be brave! Be powerful! Take risks. Base-jump off Godzilla’s nut-sack. Hang-glide into the fire-vagina of Mordor. Bleed on the page. You don’t get up on stage and do a mumbly little rendition of I’m A Little Teapot. You get up there in a glittered sarong with dragon-wings on your back, with bottle-rockets taped to your inner-thighs, with the loudest, meanest, baddest-assest version of the song that fills your fucking heart. Write big. Write without fear. Write with blood, guts, madness and majesty!
11. People Will Always Be There To Tell You You Can’t Do Something
You will run a gauntlet of naysayers. Everyone has a reason why you shouldn’t even try to be a writer. You gotta run this gauntlet. Fly as a writer. Or die as something else.
12. Learn To Say “Yes” More Than You Say “No”
Early on, say yes. Take chances. Try things. All doors are open. All windows. All eyes. Take it all in. Embrace potential. You don’t know if you don’t like a food, a TV show, a bizarre sexual position, until you try it. Try it all. Learn the power of fuck yes, motherfucker.
13. But Eventually Transition To Saying “No” More Than You Say “Yes”
Eventually, though, you learn the power of “no.” As soon as you can start confidently saying “no” — and knowing why you have to say no to a job, to a book, to a style, to a POV or a genre or a format — you see your confidence as a creator begin to manifest.
14. You’re Your Own Worst Enemy
If you’re not writing, that’s your fault. It’s not anybody else’s. It’s not your wife’s fault. Not your Mom’s fault. Not your kid’s fault. It isn’t because of a job, or Big Six publishing, or Amazon, or a Muse, or Writer’s Block. You might as well blame a Yeti (who acted in collusion with a cabal of randy leprechauns). It’s all on you. Accept responsibility. Stop complaining. Fix your shit.
15. Figure Out What You Love About Stories
Realize what you love about stories, and bring that love to bear on the page. Let the audience in on that love. Your love should be viral, like cat videos or the norovirus.
16. Quit Chasing Your Voice
You will never find your voice. It isn’t a car and you aren’t a dog chasing it. It’s not a pearl in an oyster or an elk in the forest. Your voice is who you are. The way you think. The way you speak when you’re not thinking about how you speak. You are your voice. If anything it’s like a lost key. It’ll turn up just when you stop hunting for it.
17. Imagine That You’re On A First Date
I’m dating your story. It’s the first date. You have, five, ten pages to make me want that second date. Don’t waste time. After those ten pages, it’s fuck or walk. Then you’ve got the rest of the book to make me want to put a ring on it. I wanna fall in lust, then love, with your story. I want to be heartbroken when its over. I want to need it like I need a drug.
18. Get To The Fucking Point
More to the point: get to the fucking point. Your story should move like a wolf chasing a cheetah chasing a vicious line of gossip. Don’t sink us in narrative mud. Exposition murders mystery. Backstory is a boggy mire. Don’t write to waste time or fill space. Run, fuck, leap and fly.
19. Less Is Nearly Always More
Use as few words as you can. Use as little plot as you are able.
20. Stop Fucking Describing Everything
Pages of description make me want to go back in time and punch you as a baby. Except I can’t because you’ve bored me so much I fell asleep. Description is key. You need it. But you only need so much of it. Let the audience do some work. I know what a chair, a tree, a dude, a dildo all look like. I’ve got memory and imagination. The noun is enough. Describe those things that break the status quo. Describe only those things the audience can’t already know.
21. The Truth About Those Motherfucking Adverbs
Adverbs are not your enemy. Examples of adverbs include: “Quickly,” “There,” “Upstairs,” “Too,” “Yesterday,” “Only,” “Abruptly.” That list goes on and on: adverbs of time, place, manner, extent. The goal, as with all words, is to use them correctly and to not bludgeon your reader about the head and neck with them. An adverb, like an adjective, is a spice. It can highlight a meal. Or it can kill it with too much flavor.
22. Note The Shape Of Question Marks
It’s not a coincidence that question marks are shaped like fish-hooks. We are pulled through fiction by mystery. We want to solve for X. We want to fill in the variables. (Weirdest come-on line ever: “Hey, baby, I wanna fill in your variables. Let’s solve for X, sexypants.”)
23. Your First Job Is To Entertain But It Is Not Your Last Job
Entertainment is job number one. The enemy of entertainment is boredom and the moment your story bores me I’m off like a toddler looking for a loaded revolver and the keys to Daddy’s minivan. But entertainment is just the start. A guy who can fart the alphabet is ‘entertaining.’ You should aspire to do more. Like, say, for instance…
24. Make Me Feel, Make Me Think
The best two things your story can do is to stir my emotions and to challenge my assumptions. Make me feel something (rage! lust! love! grief!). Make me think something (what is the nature of evil? what is the enemy of empathy? what happens if I sneeze while I’m ejaculating?).
25. Assume Your Reader Is Smart
The audience knows when you’re talking down to them. Even kids are smarter than you think.
26. Play Harder
The story is your sandbox. Play. Build. Have fun. If you’re not having any fun, we won’t either. Just don’t eat the cat turds. Every sandbox has cat turds. It’s science fact.
27. Work Harder
Not to say every day is going to be a fucking fun-a-palooza filled where it rains cookies and you construct your own magical dance-ponies. Some days it’s just about working your fingers to bony, bloody nubs — about chewing words, spitting them out, smashing them together. When play fails, you gotta pull the magic from the story like pulling nails from boards with your teeth.
28. Art Harder
Think about your story. Think about your art. Go elbow deep. Get into the guts like you’re trying to birth a humpback whale. Art is a kind of madness. Story is messy, weird, gory, greasy, hard to grasp. But always try. We’re all flying blind. We’re all feeling around in the wet-slick dark for the baby whale. Reach further. Think more. Art harder, motherfuckers.
29. Slow Your Roll, Speedy McGee
Embody patience. The worst thing you can do for your story is pull it out of the oven before it’s done cooking. Don’t quit early. Don’t publish thirty seconds after you typed the last word. Don’t query a stinker. Stories — like wine, brisket, romance and bondage games — need time.
30. Edit Till It’s Right
People ask how many edits or rewrites you need to do, as if there’s a magical number requirement — you edit three times and ding! The E-Z Bake oven pops open and a hot fresh story pops out. You edit and rewrite and edit and rewrite until it’s done. Until it’s right.
31. But Quit Before It’s Perfect
Fuck perfect. You’re a terrible judge of your own work. You’re all wrapped up in it like a sausage in a pancake. Perfect isn’t just the enemy of the good; it’s an impossible predictor, a meaningless pinnacle desired by the divinely-obsessed. Aiming for perfection is just another way to make sure you never finish what you begin. Choose a time and a place to stop. Then stop.
32. Write What You Know
Your life is a tally of experiences. Traumas. True loves. Hallucinations. Opinions. You once ate a spider. You once broke your femur. You once had sex with a dude and/or lady dressed up like a panda bear. You’d be a fucking dipshit not to mine your own life for the authenticity it provides.
33. But Don’t Write Only What You Know
Your life is a tally of your experiences but your fiction needn’t be. ‘Write what you know’ is not a proclamation to write only what you know. You are capable of writing beyond the walls of your own Plexiglas enclosure. Writing and storytelling is a good excuse to try to know more.
34. The Three C’s (creativity, clarity, confidence)
Creativity: Watch me pull a Pegasus out of thin air. Clarity: I will convey the Pegasus clearly and completely so that I am understood. Confidence: I am the god of this place and the Pegasus does whatever the fuck I want it to do. These are your Three C’s. Write with these in mind and nothing will stop you. Except maybe a bear. Because bears are dicks.
35. So Fucking Awkward
A lack of clarity in your writing leads to you not being understood. It can lead to your phrasing sounding awkward — meaning, your prose is clumsy and confusing, stumbling about like a wine-sodden orangutan dressed like Queen Elizabeth. (You may choose which version of Elizabeth inhabits the canvas resting upon your mental easel.)
36. All Things Serve The Character
Character is everything. Character choices create the plot. Characters build the architecture of the story. Characters have and transmit ideas. Characters shape and reflect the thematic argument. The characters form the bloody beating heart of your work.
37. What The Fuck Does Your Character Want?
If I don’t know what the character wants — love! revenge! liquor! cats! — within the first ten pages, then my investment in them is going to be as strong as piss-soaked toilet paper.
38. Whip Me Beat Me Love Me Hate Me
You must punish and reward the characters in your story — which by proxy punishes and rewards the audience reading or watching your story. Err toward more punishment than reward. Which, let’s be honest, is more fun for you anyway. (Looking at you, George R. R. Martin.)
39. The Audience Is Always Wrong
The audience thinks it knows what it wants but it’s wrong. The audience thinks it wants the protagonist to lead a charmed life. To get the girl, the money, the boat, the goat. But such ceaseless pleasure and la-dee-da-dee bullshit is boring as tacos made from cardboard and styrofoam. The audience thinks it wants a jelly donut but it really wants a smack in the mouth. The audience wants pleasure but what they really need is the struggle to find pleasure.
40. Conflict Diamonds
Conflict is the engine of your fiction. Without conflict, a story is just a flatline. And a flatline means your story is fucking DOA. Cold on the slab, toe tag, time of death.
41. Formless Fucking Blob
Another danger is a story has no shape at all: more a formless paramecium blob rather than a flat-line. The story doesn’t hang together. It’s mushy. Gushy. Poopy. If you can’t conceive of how story has shape, has architecture, has bones that connect at joints that pull with muscles and tendons while sealed in a tight swaddling of skin, then what the fuck? Think about it. Find the shape. Sculpt the story to it.
42. Brake And Accelerate
Know what speeds your story up and what slows it down. Dialogue is lubricant: frictionless. Description is grit: friction-filled. Action is a coked-up jackrabbit; exposition is a tired sloth. Short chapters are a bottle rocket; long chapters are a big boat. A story is the slowness of alcohol with the swiftness of meth; sometimes a story needs oxygen to breathe. Sometimes a story needs oxygen to light things on fire. Tension/recoil. Momentum/restriction. Green light. Red light.
43. Goddamnit, Pick A POV And Stick With It
First person, fine. Third person, whatever. Second person — well, you’ve got big balls and/or meaty labia to be trying that one, but whatever. Pick a POV and stick to it.
44. See Also: Pick Your Fucking Tense Already
Stop drifting in and out of narrative tense. It makes Story Jesus shoot puppies with lightning.
45. The Secret
The secret to writing is so simple it tickles: Write as much as you can. As fast as you can. Finish your shit. Hit your deadlines. Try very hard not to suck. That’s it. That’s my secret. Don’t tell anyone or I’ll charge you with espionage and shit in your fish tank.
46. Read Your Work Aloud
We read with our eyes but words are for the ears. We sound them out in our heads. Reading your work aloud lets you catch the bumps and divots and puffy bits of scar tissue. It lets you hear awkwardness, the uncertainty, the fractured confidence, the fuzzy confusion.
47. You Are Not Alone
Writing seems solitary. It isn’t. Hire editors. Gather readers. Bring audience. Learn from other writers. We all go through the same shit: so commiserate. Gather around the social media water cooler. You’re not a spider starving in its web. You’re part of an ecosystem.
48. Your Laziness Angers Me
Lazy cliches. Lazy constructions. Cheap stereotypes. Tawdry narrative crutches. You don’t edit. You find excuses not to write. Fuck that. Fuck you! You have no excuses. You can always do better. Why be satisfied with easy? Why answer your own indolence with reward? Grit those teeth. Get mad. Fuck passive. Be active. Kick your own ass up and down the block like an empty soup can. Didn’t I tell you to finish your shit? FINISH YOUR SHIT.
49. No, Really, You Have No Excuses
Other people have done what you’re claiming you can’t do. People who have it worse. Or who have more kids. Or another job. You want to ask me how you do it: you just do. You extract words like teeth. You spill them on the table like dice from a Yahtzee cup. You carve a path through the words, through the story, through the industry with a machete made from your own desire and doubt, carved from your femur and scented with your blood. You write even a little bit a day, you’ll get there. You can’t manage that, then don’t even talk to me. Whaddya want me to do? Shove my hand up your ass, work you like a puppet? You wanna write, write. Otherwise: shoo.
50. The Only Way Out Is Through, Motherfuckers
Write or die. Run or fall. Swim or drown. The best thing you can do for all the problems and all the questions is to write your way through it. And when you’re not writing your way through it, read other books, find out how they did it. Then go back to the page and write some more. I know, I know: I said this already. But it bears repeating — hell, it bears you tattooing backwards on your forehead so you can read it in the mirror: SHUT UP AND WRITE. That is the prime motherfucking directive. Do you accept the mission? Then embark. Explore. Attempt. Create.
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