How Not to Write and How to Not Write

Stephen King’s wonderful book On¬†Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is something every aspiring writer (and maybe every reader) should read. I haven’t read it in quite a while and am due to revisit it. There are many great books on writing–how to, what the writer’s life is like, how to edit and plot, and all kinds of good stuff. I have a lot of these kinds of books and have read most of them and have gotten a lot of books on writing from the library. Some of the books are better than others, but anything that teaches you something useful is good. I haven’t seen too many books on how not to write, so let me see if I can fill a tiny bit of that void with some advice on how NOT to write and even how to not write. (They are different, trust me.)

First how not to write. Don’t write “in the style of” someone famous and much loved unless you’ve really made a study of how that person writes. You can certainly borrow plots (Shakespeare did) and some great stuff has come out of what was started out as fan fiction. But if you want to write in the style of, say Jane Austen, make sure you understand her wicked sense of humor as well as her time and culture. Paying tribute may be a great way to start, but honestly, you have your own voice. Find it. Use it.

Second, don’t slide over plot points. If it’s important to the story, give it some time and effort. Don’t spring stuff out of the blue without some foreshadowing. “Oh, and by the way, she was an orphan with a twin who was raised by witches,” you write in chapter twelve when suddenly, conveniently the twin appears. Readers hate that. It’s like cheating. Find a way to hint at or even tell about something that becomes important later.

Third, don’t pick you mom and your best friend for editors. They will love it no matter how bad it is. Get someone who will be honest AND instructive. “This is terrible” isn’t useful criticism. “I don’t understand this part” or “I wish you told me more about…” is. Part two of this is, don’t ignore criticism of your work. Fix it or explain it or make it better. If one person has trouble with it, likely others will too.

Don’t use “just”. The problem is, once you use “just”, it just invites all its relatives and just starts showing up everywhere, like in every paragraph and sometimes in every sentence. If you just mean “merely” or “simply” or “only”, use those instead if you must. If you mean “right and fair”, “just” is okay. Just do a word search and eliminate them all. Then if you re-read and in spots it makes no sense, just add it back. Just sayin’.

Don’t use cliches. I know everyone says this, but gosh it’s tempting to use the shorthand of cliches. Don’t do it. Don’t describe in exhausting detail things that don’t move the plot along. Don’t use slang unless your audience is familiar with it or unless it is integral to the story and you make it clear by the context what it all means. Don’t kill the dog. Or the kid. Unless that is what the story is about. Make sure you know what your story is about. And stick to it. The detailed sex scene may be earth shattering, but is it relevant? Of course there is a lot more, but this is only a blog post, not a book. Let’s get to how to not write.

You won’t get any writing done if you have no place to do it, no place where you and your thoughts can collude in some level of peace and quiet. And when you insist on not being disturbed because you’re writing, make sure you’re writing. You won’t write if you don’t have a time to write, a time set aside to focus on what you want to say. You won’t write if you put everything and everyone ahead of writing, if you’re never a little selfish, just for a little while. You won’t write if you spend too much time doubting yourself or thinking your work should be perfect on the first draft–it won’t be, but that doesn’t mean anything. You won’t write if you give up, but you also won’t write if you plug away at something that is making you bored and frustrated and disgusted. For Pete’s sake, give it a rest. You can always come back to it. And if you give in to the despair of writer’s block, you won’t write. But it will pass. An idea will mug you when you least expect it, and you’ll get back to writing and abandon not writing, so in your face, writer’s block!

I don’t pretend to know much about writing or how to write well, but I do write. I plan to keep doing it. Hope this helps.

Image: Some writing books. The rest are in the public library. By Marilyn Evans

Back in the Saddle Again

Maybe it’s the pandemic, maybe it’s the season or the era or something else entirely, but it’s been hard to write lately. I haven’t been the only writer having a long dry spell. I simply haven’t been able to get myself motivated. However, the contract with my publisher recently ended so he’s stopped supporting my book which means it has been listed on Amazon as out of print. That means I either had to find another publisher or self publish. I haven’t self published before, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I did a bit of editing (there was a continuity error that needed fixing and a couple of other things I wanted to add or change) and suddenly the second edition of Beloved Lives is on line and available as an e-book or paperback.

Mind you, I have been writing a tiny bit over the past months. Story ideas come in the night and poke me until I wake up enough to work them out and/or write them down. In the morning I’ll get a draft together, let it sit a while, then do serious editing after a decent interval. Then it needs to rest a bit more. It’s kind of like making bread with time between steps to allow the yeast to work and the loaf to rise. One story has gone off to be published eventually in an anthology. Anthologies are notoriously slow, so no telling when that will be in print, but there is nothing like getting an acceptance letter to get the juices flowing. And I have a couple of other new stories that are trying to find homes as well. When I’m sure of the publication dates or see actual contracts, I’ll let you know where and when these things might appear.

I have to admit, the process of reviewing and editing Beloved Lives got me in the mood to revisit The Gingerbread House, a mystery that wasn’t quite mysterious enough and needed a couple of red herrings thrown in. Over the past year it has been really hard to get back to it, but lately I’m having a lot of fun working on it. Revisiting my characters is being a real treat. I hadn’t planned to finalize and publish it until 2022, but Jonathan, my beloved spouse, thinks I ought to try to have it done in time for Christmas. If I work hard over November, that is a real possibility. Once all those things are done, perhaps I can finally get back to The Iliad in Space (working title, of course). That one has been in process for a very long time.

I do enjoy my stories, and I love my characters. It’s good to be back in the saddle, riding along with them into the publishing sunset.

Image: Fort Leavenworth Fox Hunt at Mulvane Ranch in the Flint Hills. By Jonathan Hutchins.

Writer’s Block? Nah.

I don’t seem to suffer from writer’s block–that horrible time when you stare at a blank page or computer scene and can’t bring yourself to begin. There are times, however, when I can’t write, like this January when I was celebrating my birthday and burying my brother.

Over the last few weeks, I found I had nothing important to say, or at least, nothing that was worth inflicting on others. I can always blather away about nothing in particular, but I mercifully try to keep most of that to myself. Instead, I’ve lately found myself thinking and pondering and struggling with meaning or some form of significance worthy of taking up someone else’s time.

I had another birthday, so I looked back on my year and my life and found I’m the same and different. I reconnected with a lot of long-lost relatives and friends over the past year and found I had been missing those connections. I hope in the coming year to spend more time with those people and to not misplace them again.

And my brother died. My last full brother, the last of the Fantastic Four, the small family that consisted of my father, my two brothers, and me. The time when we were a family I remember through the fog of time as being the happiest of my life. Mind you, this was when I was somewhere between five and eight years of age. In the house my father built with his own hands, I had a bedroom with horse wallpaper and a lamp that was a black knight on a black horse and, pinned to the wall, dozens of pictures of horses cut from magazines or traced from books. Are you detecting a theme here? During that time I spent Christmas with my Great Aunt Sadie in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we all ate popcorn balls and played Monopoly. It snowed, something that doesn’t happy in Albuquerque very often, and the luminaries on the tops of the adobe houses were beautiful. We four camped and traveled fearlessly and celebrated Treat Night every Friday (see my earlier post about that).

Things changed. My dad married and suddenly our family included a stepmom and two stepbrothers and, later, a half sister. Meanwhile, my mother had remarried and had a son, a half brother I’ve only come to know over the past few years. Time has been taking these people away from me, one by one. I still have one step brother, my stepmom, and the two half siblings. Over the holidays I visited my half sister and was delighted to see my father alive again in her mannerisms and turns of phrase–there was so much of him in her.

So instead of writing, I have been thinking. But enough of that. Time to write again.

Image: Birthday flowers. By Marilyn Evans