writing, Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Eight Non-rules For Writing

Recently, I was browsing a website called Lithub (which I highly recommend to anyone fascinated by any and all things writing and literature related) and came across an article by Elizabeth Percer entitled “The First Rule of Novel Writing is Don’t Write a Novel.” I was intrigued. The gist of her article was that all these different lists of rules for writers miss one very important aspect of being a productive (and good) writer: that writing is an art form more than an industry. Writers are artists and need to work like artists, not accountants, or machinists.

In response to this realization, Ms. Percer came up with a list of nine non-rules for writing. I thought they were so refreshing and original, I decided I simply had to share the best of them with you (along with my own interpretation on occasion). I think you will find them as valuable as I have.

So, the seven non-rules of writing.

Don’t Write a Novel

Ms. Percer states that every time she sits down to write a novel, she gets next to nothing done. In fact, she feels she often loses some critical ground. Her point that often the pressure of trying to meet a preconceived goal can make it harder to create. Call it performance anxiety. Call it the contrariness of the subconscious mind.

For an example, the famed composer John Philip Sousa really, really, wanted to write lovesick ballads (which were kind of the pop music of his time) and he kept working at it. The thing was, the songs he produced weren’t very good ballads. But when his wife changed the time signature and tempo, they became very good marches. He was a talented composer of marches that kept trying to make them ballads.

In the same way, we writers shouldn’t sit down with a preconceived notion of writing a novel, a poem, or a multi-volume history of a fictional family. We should sit down with the idea of a particular story, or emotion, or even just a simple image and simple write the story. The story (or image, or emotion) will reveal which form it should take as it’s written.

Don’t worry about the form. Just write and the form will take care of itself.

Writing Doesn’t Always Look Like Writing

Ms. Percer states that about 80 percent of her writing looks nothing like writing. Personally, I’d put it closer to 90 percent. Writing looks like daydreaming, or reading, or gardening, or driving, or sitting in the back yard watching the birds at the bird feeder. It’s about trusting yourself and your creative spirit, not that nasty hyper-critical inner voice that tells you you aren’t working hard enough. It takes both the hard-driving professional, pounding out pages on the keyboard and the playful, curious child to make creativity work.

Books Do Not Respond to Timelines, Spreadsheets, or Graphs

Timelines, spreadsheets and graphs are very efficient tools the modern world has invented to help manage time and increase our efficiency. However, it is in the nature of art to become stubbornly distant when it is asked to punch a time clock. Sometimes, these time management tools can do more to get in the way than they help production.

Ms. Percer states that because she’d a writer and not a physicist, she doesn’t believe “writing always follows the laws of space and time.” Much more writing can be accomplished in short time periods enhanced by patience, thoughtfulness, and peace, than gets done in months of “writing time” defined by expectation, disappointment, self-loathing and a diet of coffee and Snickers bars.

Accept What Comes

This goes back to the first point. If you have your heart set on writing a bodice-ripper historical romance, but all you can really come up with is a brilliant haiku about garden peas, by all means relish writing the poem about garden peas. Maybe the world needs a book of haiku centered on garden vegetables. You may be just the perfect person to create that book.

Just like John Philip Sousa, don’t reject the very good work that occurs to you, just because you had other ideas. Sometimes the story needs to be told and doesn’t care what you want.


Writers like us want to create brand new works and if we’re going to do that we need to accept that the way we work is not going to look a whole lot like the way your accountant cousin works. It’s a different kind of work. This makes a certain amount of logical sense. However, in practice this can be threatening because creativity thrives with the very behaviors that many others label as lazy, self-indulgent, or some other label that might be appropriate if we were cogs in the corporate machine like everyone else.

Creative work demands that occasionally we stop and allow the well to be refilled, the slate to be wiped clean. We need down time. The key is that only you, the artist, knows when and how much down time you might need. We all need to learn to trust ourselves and have confidence in our judgement and to know when we need down time and when we’re just avoiding the work. The ability to discern the difference involves trial and error, but will always come back to trusting our instincts.

Sometimes the best thing for our writing is binge-watching a couple of seasons of Game of Thrones. Sometimes, a little voice is telling you that the small town murder mystery you’ve been working on should concentrate a little less on the evidence of the crime and a lot more on the town’s internal politics and Game of Thrones is exactly the example you need. Sometimes, you just need to walk.

Get To Know the Demons on Your Block

Every writer’s block is different. However, most have a few things in common. Maybe you’re blocked because your standards are too high. Maybe your expectations are so extreme that your creative self doesn’t want to show up. Maybe we’re taking ourselves and our work too seriously. Maybe your creative self is fighting to get yourself to do something different. Maybe it’s telling us to forget about writing a best seller and just write the story we want to read.

Don’t Neglect The Rest of Your Life

At its core, great writing comes from an unrestrained approach to the things that make life worth living. If you are neglecting those things, guess what happens? You’ll have nothing to say. So you’ll eat too much Doritos, stay up too late watching reruns of ‘70’s sitcoms and wake up hating yourself in the morning.

In short, what Ms. Percer is saying is that we should stop working so much at writing and, instead, just write. It doesn’t have to be such a chore.

writing, Writing advice

Generating Ideas, Part Two

Last week I shared a productive exercise I learned in a workshop at the South Coast Writers Conference. The workshop, instructed by Bruce Holland Rogers, was devoted to producing ideas and chock full of methods to do that. Some of them (like the one I told you about last week) I really liked and will probably use in the future. Others, not so much.

Today I’d like to share another method that I like, but not as much as last week’s. Mr. Holland Rogers called it “Arbitrary Beginning.”

In this method, we took the first sentence of an existing story, without the title or context, and attempted to finish the story. In the workshop example, we were given this first line: “Clara, neither the first nor the most loved, was the one that showed me I could withstand the pain.” (I apologize for not writing down the title of the story, or its author). Again, we were timed. Again, we were freewriting, taking the information and conflict we found in that first sentence and building upon that to create a story.

Like last week’s exercise, it is meant as a way to step around the critical self-editor that so often paralyzes us. As such, it is particularly useful when we find ourselves (as we all do at one time or another) fighting writer’s block.

Sometimes, what we need is an exercise to work around that critic.

Another, similar exercise is to read a book or short story by an author you admire, but have not read before. At some point a sizeable way into the work, pause at the end of a scene or chapter. Now, knowing the author and his/her style, ask yourself what will the next scene entail? If you were writing this work, this story, what would you have happen next? Write that scene. When you have finished, compare your scene with the one the author actually wrote. Were they similar? Did you take the story in an entirely different direction?

In a similar way, find a story that interests you. Read it half way through. Now put the story away and finish writing it, using your own imagination. How does your story compare to the original? Do note that yours will be a rough draft while the author’s is a polished, finished work, with several drafts behind it. The object is not to compare your writing with that of a professional author, but to use another author’s inspiration to jumpstart your own.

It is pretty much the basis for all the many forms of fan fiction, right?

Another exercise is what Bruce Holland Rogers calls “Collaborative Writing.” This is like the old game of “telephone” except that each person has more invested in the final product. For this exercise, you need a small group of willing participants. Your writer’s critique group is good for this.

Choose one writer at random. He or she writes the first paragraph (or few paragraphs) of a story, then hands it to the second writer, who writes the next paragraph, then hands it to the third writer. The story should make at least three rounds of the writing group (to keep anyone from getting too absurd during their part) and the object is to end up with a coherent, unified story. You may not be able to do it, but the object is to let your imagination feed off and be reinforced by each other.

But that’s the purpose of all of these exercises, isn’t it? They are designed to get our imaginations up and running when they don’t really want to. They are to help when our creative juices need a jump start.

So start.

Writing advice

To Outline or Not

Do you outline before you write?

Many people do and even more teachers recommend them. I know the composition teachers I had in high school and college all advocated writing a detailed outline of your work before you ever sat down to create a first draft. For many, it was a required step you had to submit just as, but before, you submitted a first draft and a final draft. It was considered an integral part of the writing process. And there are good reasons for that. Outlines can be extremely useful.

Outlines can keep you organized

With an outline, your work can move efficiently from point a to point b to point c, without useless and time-consuming tangents.

Outlines can help you create and maintain good story structure

In the same way that outlines heighten organization in a nonfiction work, it can keep a fictional piece focused and on track. The outline keeps you from spending too much time in the first half and not enough presenting your climax.

Outlines keep you on course

Working from a good outline removes the awful question “what’s next?” from your writing day. With the outline in place, you already know what’s going to happen next. You may even have a few lines sketched in. All you have to do is write it.

Outlines can increase efficiency

Many problems that arise in the writing process rises from the writer taking a wrong turn plot-wise. This has happened to me fairly often. Usually, I first realize I took a wrong turn when the ideas begin to run dry and the writing grows more difficult, the results more stilted. That usually means I need to backtrack, figure out where the wrong turn lies, and correct the mistake.

A good outline will avoid that problem.

Yet I, personally, do not work from an outline. This despite all the real good reasons I listed above to use one. Why?

Simply put, it doesn’t feel right.

Someone once said that there are two types of writers: architects and gardeners. The architect, just like her namesake knows where every little electrical wire and pipe is going to go before they begin building. To do otherwise, to their way of thinking, is just inviting disaster. The gardener, on the other hand, plants a seed, waters and fertilizes it, then sees what grows.

I am a gardener.

I begin with a couple of characters and a situation and a general idea of an ending (sometimes so general that it is just that the “good guys” win). Then I begin writing and see where it goes. Sometimes it doesn’t go anywhere, but that usually shows pretty quickly.

I find it makes the writing as interesting for me as I hope it is for the reader, because I usually don’t know where it’s going ahead of time either. I am often as surprised by plot twists as the readers because I hadn’t thought of them until they present themselves.

Granted, writing by the seat of your pants can be much less efficient. I go off on many wrong turns, but I realize it fairly quickly. I also end up overwriting quite a bit, but that is dealt with in re-write.

If anything, I find outlines most valuable in the re-writing and revision phase. I make the outline from the completed first draft and adjust the narrative accordingly.

So should you use an outline in your writing? Absolutely, if you find it helps. But don’t worry that you are doing anything wrong if you don’t. Despite what all your composition instructors seemed to tell you, there is no one correct way to write. Every writer is different. Every person who creates, creates through a different process.

Try everything. Find the method that makes you feel the most comfortable, most creative, and use it. And don’t let anyone ever convince you you’re doing it wrong.

Writing advice

Decisions, Decisions

After the recent publication of Deception Island, I, of course, began working on a new project. (One can never stop working, not if you want to get anywhere). The project—currently untitled—stands at about 10,000 words. Until recently, it has been successfully mocking me.

This is not terribly uncommon for me. I start writing something and cruise for a while (like 10,000 words) and then the ideas dry up and what I do produce begins to feel superficial and forced. For a while, I will literarily flail around. I try forcing the issue (thus the forced feeling). It doesn’t work. I try walking away, taking a break. It doesn’t work. I seek inspiration by reading something similar to what I’m doing. It doesn’t work. Nothing works. I’m stuck.

I’m blocked.

I’ve been writing for a while now. Longer than I like to think about. This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this phenomenon and I have learned the most common causes. Generally speaking, if you know the cause of a problem, you can figure out the solution.

But it isn’t always a quick process. It can involve a bit of trial and error. Or a lot of trial and error.

There are usually one of three reasons why this blockage occurs.

  1. I can’t do the story justice the way it stands.

This usually breaks down into two reasons: I either need to do more research, or the story is too ambitious for my writing skills. Earlier this year, I was sketching out a historical tale set during the Indian wars in Wyoming/Montana. But it quickly grew apparent as I worked on it that I wouldn’t be able to write it until I actually spent some time in the area. Now that I realized that, I could put the story aside and move on to something else.

  1. Somewhere along the way, the plot has taken a wrong turn.

I, generally speaking, am an organic writer. That means I don’t carefully outline or plot out an entire novel before I sit down to write. I know where it starts and an idea of where it will end up, but I literally make up the journey as I go. This makes for some interesting twists and turns (because often I didn’t see that coming any more than the reader did) but it also leads to the occasional dead end trail. Often, when the ideas dry out, it’s because I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. Then it’s just a matter of figuring out where that happened.

  1. Some kind of decision or commitment needs to be made.

Sometimes, whether we like it or not, we need to make a decision about our project. It can be hard. Decisions imply commitment and that can be frightening. What if we make the wrong decision? (See #2 above). However, the longer we postpone these decisions, the better the chance the story will force it upon us. It does that by keeping us from doing anything else.

In my particular instance, the problem I was facing fell into category 3. I needed to make a decision.

I had determined the situation/problem that begins the novel. I had also continued the main characters from Deception Island, because series characters are popular right now (look on Amazon or Goodreads. Nearly every title has a # attached) and it is much easier to continue characters than create entirely new ones from scratch. I had the general location and an idea of the plot.

But I was stuck, blocked.

So what was the problem?

I had to decide whether the project was going to take place before or after the action in Deception Island. Was it going to be a prequel or a sequel? Thing is, I’d been putting off that decision, even as I wrote two chapters and well into the third.

Then the story stopped me. I went into block and stayed there for a couple of weeks. I stayed there until I realized I needed to make this decision. Was it going to be a prequel to Deception Island, or a sequel? It was time to make a decision.

I decided it needed to be a sequel. I decided.

Almost at once, the backstory fell into place. The relationships between the characters grew deeper, more nuanced, as did the plot. Suddenly ideas were popping up everywhere, like mushrooms after a rain. I’m not stuck anymore. I’m not blocked.

And all I had to do was make a decision.

writing, Writing advice

With the Muse on Hiatus, Exercise

Sometimes the muse seems to take a few days off, a mini-vacation if you will. When that happens, the inspiration we writers come to rely on dries up like a creek in a hundred-year-drought.

Some of us call this situation writer’s block.

We have all felt it. We have all survived it.

The key to overcoming writer’s block (or any other kind of slump for that matter) is to wait it out. Don’t go changing your writing routine and rituals, your methods that have worked for you in the past. Most of all, don’t lose faith in your talent and abilities.

Like the hundred-year-drought, your writer’s block will eventually end, but only in its own good time. Nothing you can do will end it earlier, or lessen its duration any more than the desperate farmer can end the drought, no matter how much he prays or how many rainmakers he hires. Trying to force the issue will only leave you frustrated and even more likely to doubt yourself.

Patience is important.

So we need to wait while our muse finishes her week at the beach in Pago-Pago. But what do we do in the meantime. What about that novel we need to finish? That short story?

We step away for a moment and do exercises.

It’s one of the tricks I use to overcome writer’s block. By working an exercise rather than an actual story or poem there’s no pressure to perform, yet it can still cause the creative juices to flow. (Sometimes the muse even gets jealous and returns early.)

So here’s a writing exercise I do on occasion. In the interests of full disclosure, I based this exercise on one offered by John Gardner in his book The Art of Fiction. I just expanded upon his idea.

The Situation

A farmer steps out on to the back porch of his house and looks out over his property. There is a barn, a corral with several head of cattle, a tractor, and several fields ready to plant. Trees dot the landscape.

Exercise # 1

Take the initial situation and render it from the farmer’s point of view, describing everything as he sees it the day his girlfriend accepts his marriage proposal. Do not mention the girlfriend, proposal, or upcoming wedding.

Exercise # 2

Same as Exercise # 1 except this time describe everything as the farmer sees it the day his first son is born. Do not mention the son.

Exercise # 3

This time, describe the scene as the farmer experiences it the day his wife moved out. Do not mention the wife.

Exercise # 4

Describe the scene as the farmer sees it the first day after he purchased the farm. Do not mention the purchase.

You see the pattern here. The object is to describe the same location differently with emotionally charged language. A very powerful skill. Think “show, don’t tell.” You won’t have to the reader what is going on because she’ll be able to feel it.

Plus, it might just be the spark that burns away your writer’s block.


Return of the Muse

It happened, as I knew it would, sooner or later. It always does. My writer’s block lifted (for no particular reason I can come up with) and my creativity has come rushing back to fill the void. It was nice. It felt good to get my groove back, if you know what I mean.

I never really doubted it would return. It always has before, after all. I didn’t believe I would never again be able to write a piece of creative fiction. The question was only whether I would be patient enough to let it return.

Creativity can be like a romantic interest: you have to let it go sometimes. If it was truly yours, it will come back to you. If it doesn’t return, it was never yours to begin with.

In other words, don’t press too hard.

Dealing with my occasional bouts of writer’s block (about two relatively serious ones a year, give or take) has given me plenty of time to think about this whole concept of creativity, especially when it comes to the creative arts. (There are all sorts of other manners of creativity, but I’m not talking about creative accounting here).

So where does creativity come from? Why do I write short stories and novels, but my neighbor not only doesn’t, but can’t? I’d like to think I’m special, but I’m really not out of the ordinary. I’d hardly cause anyone to think twice if they passed me on the street. But I do write stories, poetry, and novels. Why?

Because I have to. It’s what I do.

That doesn’t mean I know where the creativity comes from. I just know how it feels when it works right. So do other creative types. I’ve heard people talk about being “in the zone” when the story seems to “write itself.” Others have described it as though there were a vast flowing stream of story running invisible through the ether; they were just tapping into the stream. Still others—this includes myself at times—describe the process as if the story existed somewhere “out there” and we were just the medium it used to gain form. We were channeling basically.

It all sounds kind of mystical, doesn’t it? As though we creators were merely the pawns of some power greater than mere mortals. Doesn’t it? In other words, we the creators of art, whether it is fiction and poetry, paintings, sculpture, music, or any other type of artistic endeavor, really have no idea how the creativity works, or where it comes from. It just is.

All the workshops in the world, all the writing manuals and guides, all the how-to’s are very good at teaching us how to harness our creativity. They help us train that creativity to do what we want. (Kind of.) Some of them are very good at this, very helpful.

But there are no books or workshops, no classes that can truly teach a non-creative person to become creative. You pretty much either have it, or you don’t.

So is it any wonder that the ancient Greeks (a fairly creative people, by the way) came up with deities to explain where the creativity came from? Ever since (for some 2500 years) we have written, painted, and composed at the whim of the Muses. And isn’t the concept of a Muse pretty much the same thing as tapping into an invisible stream of story flowing unnoticed through the ether? Either way, it is an ability that we find largely out of our control. It’s somewhere out there. If we are worthy, or lucky, it will continue to bestow its blessings on us.

Whatever, the origins, when I get into “the zone” and it seems less like I’m writing the story than just channeling it from somewhere else, the feeling is amazing. Indescribable. Unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. And for that I am grateful.

Perhaps, in the end, that is all we need. To be grateful.


Writer’s Block Revisited

This post is going to be a tad more personal than usual.

I have been struggling with a period of writer’s block of late. As most folks who write know, this is not that unusual. It’s frustrating as hell, maddening even, but not that unusual. Personally, I fight it a couple of times a year, sometimes more.

Writer’s block. So why does it happen? I don’t think anyone really knows for sure. (I don’t think anyone really knows why our minds do most of the things they do). On occasion, we creative types just have to deal with a period—sometimes short, sometimes agonizingly long—when the creativity appears to dry up. Usually, I have so many ideas and images floating around my mind that my primary task is to decide which ones to nurture.

Now, I can’t seem to come up with any worthwhile ideas at all. Or I do find an idea, but cannot come up with any details needed to develop it. Today, my imagination is populated only by the sounds of crickets and the smell of ancient dust.

I have some theories as to why writing blocks occur in my life. Often, they show up when I have just finished a major project like a novel. In that case, I look at it as my creative well having run dry and the block is a way for my subconscious to let it refill. (It also keeps me from writing multiple works that are all essentially copies of the novel in question).

That is relatively rare though. (I haven’t and don’t write that many novels).

Another type of block is a psychological one. It is very difficult to be creative when you are in a state of emotional turmoil, or physical exhaustion. Some people are very good at walling off the creative part of their life and preventing their day-to-day issues from affecting them. Honestly, I’m just not very good at that. If I’m angry or depressed or discouraged, it interferes with my creative process, which seems to work best when I am centered, level-headed, neither overly happy, nor overly sad.

I think that is the type of block I’m working through now. My father passed away at the beginning of July. As his oldest son and executor of his trust, most of the work of settling his estate has fallen on my shoulders. For those of you who haven’t experienced it, the process is emotionally and intellectually draining. You are forced to operate like a business while still going through the grieving process yourself. When I sit down at the end of the day and face my word processor, I have nothing. My mind is as blank as the page.

It is surprising just how much intellectual energy it takes to create something.

So what am I doing about it? Nothing.

You’re kidding, you say. You’re not doing anything to defeat the writer’s block?

Exactly. See, the way I look at it, the worst thing one can do when in the midst of a writer’s block is panic and try to defeat it. You cannot defeat writer’s block any more than you can defeat depression, panic attacks, or the sadness felt when a loved one dies. In each case, it is what it is and the worst thing one can do is pretend it doesn’t exist. The second worst thing you can do is to fight it.

The best thing to do with writer’s block (in my opinion) is to handle it like you would a mild depression: acknowledge it, try to keep it from getting worse, and know that eventually it will end. The best thing you can do is know that it will end. You can and will wait it out.

Sooner or later, the writer’s block will end and my creative well will be full again. All I have to do is wait.

And have some faith.