Four Examples of Bad Writing and How to Fix Them

There are many ways in which your writing could be thought of as bad, but in this week’s blog, I want to unpack just a few:

  • Sentimental
  • Melodramatic
  • Lazy
  • Overwriting.

Sentimental

As with all writing rules, there is a place for sentimental writing. When used sparingly it can be emotionally evocative, when used in great swathes it becomes heavy handed.

One of the biggest problems that can occur with sentimental writing is when cruel, oppressive, pitiful, or difficult issues/situations are romanticised.

Think of the portrayal of black domestic workers in The Help, the violence these women would have suffered is swept aside in place of a pie joke.

There is nothing sentimental about inspiring compassion in our readers, and writing manipulates its audience one way or another, but when facts, history, or suffering are stuffed into the back of the closet or concealed by an ornate mask … that is a problem.

Melodramatic

In terms of writing exercises, melodrama can be fun; however, no one wants to read a 600+ fantasy novel dripping with over the top emotions or purple prose.

Melodrama is exaggeration, extreme emotions, and unbelievable dialogue (“nobody talks like that!”).

Basically, it’s another form of telling instead of showing. Rather than establishing the mood through language, the writer is relying on the melodrama to communicate the seriousness of the situation.

Yes, life can be dramatic, but melodramatic writing can break believability and your reader may struggle to take the story seriously.

This bad habit can be avoided by focussing instead on a few craft basics such as, character development, obstacles, and feelings.

Readers need to care about the characters enough (or at least the MC) to be invested in what happens to them, they need to encounter obstacles, and the reader needs some access to their interior landscape.

Lazy Writing

There’s a huge difference between simple writing and lazy writing. Simple writing is clear, lazy writing is boring and unspecific.

Simple writing: The room was empty when he entered.

Lazy writing: He walked through the garden.

We’re all guilty of slipping into this lazy form of prose, hell, first drafts are usually full of these types of sentences as we’re trying to figure out the story!

Lazy writing relies on overused and unspecific verbs.

Not every sentence will be a work of art, but a bad sentence can be fixed simply by exchanging the dull verbs for lively and surprising ones. (NB: you cannot solve this problem with adverbs!).

Take the above example, what would happen if we exchanged ‘walked’ for another verb?

Edited version: He skipped through the garden.

What if we added some adjective, nouns, or even proper nouns to spice it up further!

Edited version: Larry skipped through the luscious garden.

The sentence is still simple, but now it is clear and specific. We can see Larry, his actions, and the setting, whereas before we could not.

Lazy writing can also be an over reliance on cliché’ or your specific writing ticks – words or phrases that you unconsciously use … a lot!

Weeding these bad boys out and finding new ways to say the same thing will ensure that your sentences remain surprising and delightful.

Overwriting

I’ve previously blogged about how to reduce your word count, but there are several different ways in which we can overwrite.

First there is the inclusion of too many adjectives or adverbs.

For example: The chipped and worn door flew open with a bang to reveal a stately man with quite the pronounced belly and exceptionally large nose.

While this sentence is a bit fun in its’ over the top nature, reading an entire novel in this manner would be … unpleasant.

Edited version: The door opened with a bang to reveal a well-dressed man with a pronounced belly and large nose.

The edited version is tighter (18 words instead of 24) and more specific (well-dressed instead of stately).

The second way you can overwrite is by either saying the same thing two different ways (tautology) or by over explaining things.

The door, which is a large piece of wood that separates two rooms and is secured to a frame by hinges, flew open with a bang.

Emily is Erin’s sister. Emily is Erin’s female sibling.

I don’t think I really need to unpack these …

Look, there are times when bad writing is okay.

Your first draft for instance will be bad, but when we becoming aware of what bad writing looks like, why it is bad, and most importantly how to fix it, we can effectively revise our prose and publish stories that we are truly proud of.

Now, over to you. What are some examples of bad writing that you can think of? What areas in your own writing do you need to work on? Leave a comment below, I’d love to know.


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Can you Teach Someone How to Write?

Can you teach someone how to write?

As a sessional creative writing teacher, I believe the short answer is: yes!

As a creative writing student, and author, I believe the long answer is: it depends.

Depends on what?

You. Basically.

Perhaps the better question is, can someone be taught how to write better? Absolutely.

 

 

Two things need to happen before you even pick up a pen or open a word document:

  1. You need to be genuinely interested in writing (and hopefully, you’re an avid reader too).
  2. You need to be humble enough to recognise that there is room for improvement and getting an A+ for a short story in high school English does not mean said story is ready for publication.

Why?

Because the standard of writing expected of a high school student (or a graduate from a non-creative writing university course) is different from the standard expected by publishers and industry professionals.

But like I said, writing can be taught.

It is possible to learn grammar rules, sentence structure, plot, characterisation, narrative drive etc. You just have to want to learn it and you have to practise.

Your writing can improve with time and effort. 

When I was a creative writing student, I watched my peers develop their writing alongside me.

When I compare the short stories they wrote at the start of the program to the one they submitted at the end (we were constantly reading and critiquing one another’s work), it was often difficult to believe it was written by the same person.

Here’s a few things I’ve noticed …

Students got better at writing when they experiment with different view points.

Some found that when they wrote in third person, they tended to ‘tell’ more than ‘show’, but when they switched to first person this problem was eliminated and vice versa, because they intuitively understood the mechanics of that POV.

What’s interesting is that the students who were good at the beginning of the program were still good at the end of a program, but what was thrilling was seeing all the ways that other students improved over the course of the year.

How did they do that?

By take the lessons learned in class and applying it to their writing and by coupling this learning with their own independent study, which included reading craft books, critically reading fiction books (reading like an author), listening/reading author interviews, and practising various writing exercises.

It sounds intense, I guess, but when you love what you do it doesn’t seem to really matter.

I would like to add a small caveat …

Writing can be taught,  but it’s difficult to teach someone how to have something to say.

It’s possible to write a story that is technically correct – the commas are in the right places, the dialogue is witty, the setting visceral – but by the time the story has concluded the reader is left wondering, what was the point in that?

Now, having something is say can have many forms, some more subtle than others.

A space opera could be an analogy for global warming, a novel about high school social hierarchies could be an exploration of classism, a short story about a woman wearing a green ribbon may actually be about female oppression.

These are all big ideas, but maybe your story is exploring smaller, more personal ideas.

Maybe your short story is an attempt to articulate what it is like to live rurally or regionally, to have a health scare, or uncover a family secret.

Maybe your novel is an attempt to create something beautiful and the goal is simply to make the reader feel something.

The rules of writing, if they can be called that, are learnable.

How long it takes is obviously depended upon the person who is learning them, the time they are able to devote to the endeavour, their personal discipline (ie: turning off the wifi during writing sessions), and the amount of effort they are willing to put into the work.

There is a myriad of grand and humble activities you can engage with to become better.

Grand Activities:

  • Sign up for a writing course (undergraduate course, diploma, an online short course, or through your state’s writing centre)
  • Hiring a mentor
  • Hiring an editor
  • Become a member of a national or state writing organisation
  • Submit your work to competitions or magazines (NB: Do not submit a first draft to a publisher or agent, you have one shot at a first impression so don’t blow it!)

Humble Activities:

  • Reading like a writer (this may mean highlighting interesting sentences, dissecting plot/character/structure etc.)
  • Actively improving your vocabulary (see here)
  • Joining a writing group or starting your own
  • Establishing a writing routine 
  • Reading craft books and listening to writing podcast
  • Reading writing advice blogs …  🙂

Writing can absolutely be taught, but the difference between an aspiring writer and a published is self-motivation.

Do you want to improve?

Do you have something to say?

The story inside you is hoping the answer is yes.

Now, I’d love to hear from you. Have you enrolled in formal education as a way to improve your writing, or are you more of a boot strapper? Is your writing continuing to improve or have you hit a plateau? Leave a comment below and let me know!


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The Emotional and Cognitive Benefits of Writing

We’re all familiar with the idea of ‘the starving artist’.

The average Australian author make $12, 900 a year from their books and writing.

That being said, it is possible to make much more than this and these types of statistics need to be taken with a grain of salt.

If you want to hear a counter agreement to the idea that being a writer means accepting a life of poverty, please read this excerpt from Dean Wesley Smith’s Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing. 

And yet, we need to acknowledge that most writers do not make a living wage from their writing.

Let’s be honest, writing books is not a great way to get rich fast.

So, what are some of the other benefits for writing?

Of course, there are all kinds of ways we can engage with writing: journaling, creative writing (fiction), and non-fiction (memoir, biography, blog, journalism). And these three categories can easy blend together if you’re creating something experimental.

While each form contains its own unique benefits, all forms of writing share a few essential boons.

Transformation

Writing is a transformational process. This is especially true if you are working on a long-term project, but this transformation process can also occur through journaling and morning pages.

If you’re working on a novel, memoir, or non-fiction book, chances are you’re going to change a lot.

The way I see it, this transformation occurs on three levels…

On the basic level, you developed knew skills that you didn’t have before: how to write a sentence, how to write a better sentence, how to structure this project etc.

On the medium level, you acquire knowledge through whatever research supported the narrative or argument.

On the top tier, you achieve the impossible, you said you were going to do something and then you actually did it! You followed through, you complete a massive task that was years in the making — congratulations!

This same transformational process can also happen through journaling as you may develop a deeper understanding of your own interior world, clarify your thoughts, and figure out what you really think about personal and global issues.
NB: novel writing can also do these things because it is the most magical of unicorns.

Unless your ghost writing a book on statistics, you’ll experience a myriad of emotion rewards throughout the writing process. Why is this important?

Because expressive writing has been linked to improvements in mood, well-being, and reduced stress levels, but only if you engage with it regularly.

I’ve blogged previously about the benefits of journaling, which you can read here, and there is some pretty cool research being conducted into how journaling about one’s feelings and goals can lead to practical results.

One research investigation lead by Laura King, showed that writing out goals for the future made people happier. Similarly, keeping a gratitude journal can also increase happiness as the writer becomes more aware of what is working in their life, rather than fixating on what is not.

You are also forty percent more like to achieve a goal if you write it down.

In one study lead by Jane Dutton, it was discovered that people running stressful fundraising initiatives became twenty-nine percent more productive just by journaling about how their work was making a difference in the world.

Improved cognitive abilities and communication skills

In terms of emotional intelligence and the “hard sciences”, writing forces us to articulate complex ideas and feelings in a way that allows others to understand us.

Good writing happens when a writer is able to communicate clearly and concisely what it is they are trying to say.

Brevity, word selection, cutting adverbs, and sentence structure are just some of the things we need to consider when writing.

“It’s difficult to describe” isn’t going to cut it if you are a writer, and these types of statements don’t serve you or your reputation.

Writing can make you a better learner

If I’m researching a blog post or for an academic article, I don’t just read one source, scurry off and type up my spin on it.

Depending on how complex the topic is, I can interact with three to fifty different sources before and/or during the writing process.

I will read articles or journals online, watch YouTube videos, or listen to podcast. When completing a major project, I also interview experts in their field (this goes for novel writing and my research as an academic).

Additionally, I also believe that there are times when we need to consume before we can create.

If you have nothing to say, then you have nothing to write, and if you have nothing to write it’s because you haven’t been taking in any new ideas.

People talk about replenishing the creative well all the time for good reason, because it’s true.

The sources that inspire you and that gift you with new ideas may very well change over time which is yet another reason why we must continue to read widely and expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are different from our own.

Creating work in a vacuum will lead to dull, unimaginative prose.

Writing is a skill, it’s one that we can develop with practise and intentional effort.

Writing a good book will not guarantee you a truck load of money, but are other benefits that are just as valuable and frankly, longer lasting. 

However, the core reason why you should make time for writing is because you want to write.

If you feel pulled to take up a morning pages practise or to finally finish that novel, there’s a reason why.

And the only way you’re going to discover that reason is by opening a notebook, or a word document, and following that thread one word at a time.


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The Four-Burners Theory and Living a Mediocre Life

I first heard of the Four-Burners Theory while reading Emma Isaacs’s biography Winging it. The book essentially tracks Isaac’s journey buying her first business, a recruitment agency, at 18 to eventually buying the juggernaut company, Business Chicks, and becoming an entrepreneur.

I read that book two years ago, but have found myself referring to this theory constantly over the past few months.

 

 

Here’s the basics …

Imagine you have a four-burner stove-top. One of the burners is for family, one for friends, another for work, and the last one is health.

Now, your four burners may have different labels, but the theory remains the same: if you turn off one of the burners, you will become more successful in the remaining three areas, but if you cut off two, you’ll be really successful in the remaining two.

Three years ago, I was chatting with a senior lecturer at a conference about academic workloads and the challenge of living a balanced life.

“The thing is,” they said, “a person with a perfectly balanced life may be really happy, but from the outside their life will look mediocre.”

Issacs echoed this message in her book by stating that she’s minimised the relationships in her life in order to maximise her career and family life (she has six kids!). Similarly, when work gets busy, exercise and healthy eating go out the window so that she can devote more time to work.

The message? If you want to be great at something, say work, you may have to reduce or let go of another aspect of life say, family, friendship, or health.

Now for me, I imagine that each aspect of my life has a four-burner stove-top.

My work life is broken up into teaching, writing, researching, and my author platform. My health is broken up into eating, relaxation, exercise, and meditation.

My relationships are broken up into partnership, family, friends, and community/social clubs.

I can usually handle having four pots on my stove, but only three are ever on high-heat.

Last week, my work days looked like this: three days marking assignments, one day working on the novel, one day split between academic writing and research.

Five days, three pots, and not a single blog written or Instagram comment responded to.

Another week might be different, let’s say I’ve run out of blog posts/videos, so I have to spend one or two days writing, filming, and editing this content, that then leave three days to tend to the other three pots on my stove. Now, hopefully, if there are no pressing deadlines, I can cut off one of these pots so I can tend to the remaining two.

If you’re really clever, sometimes you can combine two pots together.

For example, a blog post can be slightly altered and sold to a magazine or journal (I have done this often), or an idea discovered while doing academic research can become the basis of a blog, or a question asked in class can spark an idea for a novel or short story.

The underlining message of the four-burners theory is simple: you can’t do everything at once, and you can’t do everything well.

If we were to accept the four-stove theory as a true and useful tool, how can we make it work for us in a practical sense?

For me, working with time constraints and batching tasks is often helpful.

Time constraints

If your working hours are 9am – 5pm, Monday to Friday, you now have a contain amount of time in which to complete your work tasks. So, how can you use this time to be as effective as possible?

If you have two hours to work on a novel, what can you do to be productive during that time?

If you only have four hours a week to work out, what can you do that will get you into the best shape possible?

By framing the question in this way, you are breaking out of a negative thought loops (“I don’t have enough time!”) and instead critically considering what you can do to make the most out of the time that is available.

Batching Tasks

I’ve written about batching tasks previously, so if you want the full rundown, check out the post here.

The essential theory behind batching is that you’ll get more done when you dedicate a whole day to one activity or similar types of activities.

For example, rather than writing for one hour then posting on social media, then editing a YouTube video, then preparing for a class, and then reading an article, you would be much better to spend the whole day writing (maybe working on a novel in the morning, and then a blog post in the afternoon).

Obviously, this may not always be possible as we all have different deadlines and levels of responsibility and some activities cannot be batched.

For example, you can’t cram a whole week’s worth of exercise into a single day.

And yet, when it comes to work related activities, batching tasks is a great way to make traction on a particular project within a short amount of time.

The four-stove theory reminds us that we only have so much energy and we have to be discerning in how we use it. 

While I can appreciate the lecturer’s sentiment that a balanced life is a mediocre life, I also believe that life is a little more complicated than that.

All of the following statements work on a macro and micro scale …

There are times when work has to be the priority. You’ve started a business, a degree, or you have a massive deadline at the end of the month.

There are times when family has to be the priority. You’ve meet someone, or gotten married, had a baby, or a family member has passed away.

There are times when health has to be the priority. An unwelcomed diagnoses or health scare, you’re feeling sluggish, have low energy, or are generally unhappy.

There are times when friendships have to be the priority. Out of town visitors, birthdays, celebrating milestones, or perhaps a friend is going through a hard time and needs extra support.

Hell, sometimes you just want to have a cup of tea and a chat because life!

Whether you believe in the four stove theory or not, I think we can all agree that you can’t do all the things all the time.

If you want to meet your goals AND have a happy life, then you need to be constantly assessing your to-dos against the other components of life that make you feel fulfilled and sane (see: relationships and health).

What do you think of the four stove theory? Do you agree that you have to cut off one or more burners in order to be successful in other areas, or do you believe a balanced life is a better life? I’d love to know, so please leave a comment below (sorry about the rhyme).


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What You Read Matters

Recently, someone on Instagram commented on one of my posts about Standard Written English (don’t know what that is? You can read the blog here) and stated that they don’t buy books because of the author, that they don’t pay any attention to who has written the book, their race, gender, sexuality, or even what genre the book is — they just read whatever book appeals to them in the moment.

Their argument was that they have no bias because they aren’t intentionally reading books by white authors.

I know you’re a good person; I know I’m a good person (mostly).

I know that neither of us would intentionally hurt another person.

If you’re an avid reader, it’s reasonable to assume that you are thoughtful, progressive, empathetic, and considered (among many other sterling qualities); you’re one of the good guys!

And you are (!), but here’s where things get a little tricky and sticky.

Want to hear some disturbing facts?

79 percent of the publishing industry is white.

88 percent of the books reviewed by The New York Times are written by white authors.

Consumers engaged with a product up to SEVEN TIMES before they even consider buying it.

While you may not be bias about the types of books that you are reading, the publishing industry is bias about the types of books they’re willing to publish.

The majority of narratives published by the industry belong to white writers.

So, even if you are not intentionally buying books by white authors, statistically speaking, the majority of the books you SEE will be written by white authors.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we do have a natural bias for the familiar.

We read books by white authors in school, we study them in university, we (somewhat) unknowingly fill our bookshelves with these particular narratives because we have been told this is what good literature is.

If this person is learned and reflective, they will likely recognise this fault and start to diversify (hopefully).

This is where the road splits and two things can happen:

  1. The unaware reader gets a job in publishing and continues to advocate for books that fit into the shelf of ‘familiar white narratives.’
  2. The aware reader gets a job in publishing and learns that books written by white authors sell better than books written by black, indigenous, or people of colour.

In a research paper published by Macquire University in March 2017, 63% of Australian readers believe that books by Indigenous authors are important for Australian culture, but only 42% expressed interest in reading these narratives.

Fifty-one percent of Australians read one to ten books a year.

Similarly, according to the Pew Research Center, the average American reads 12 books (in whole or in part) a year. When this statistic was broken down further, it was revealed that Hispanic and black, non-Hispanic people read eight books a year, and white, non-Hispanic people read 13 books a year.

My point? That’s not a lot of books.

Want another scary statistic?

In 2017, Australian publishers (of which there are 4,078) collectively published 23, 832 new books.

23 832 new books in ONE year and the average reader is getting through ten (if I’m being generous). 

Want another one?

The average person will read 2,000 books in their lifetime.

It’s reasonable to assume that most people working in publishing are pretty progressive, but when you look at the data and see who is buying books, it is easy to see why (and how) books are marketed to white people and why white voice are promoted over marginalised narratives.

The problem is complex and systemic, and the challenge of correcting this problem has left authors, publishers, and readers wondering, ‘Where do we start?’

There are a variety of issues that need to be addressed.

  • People in positions of power need to check their bias and publish narratives by BIPOC authors.
  • The industry needs to create more opportunities for black, indigenous, and people of colour, so that publishing is able to diversify from the inside out.
  • How we educate readers and writers about what constitutes ‘good prose’ needs to change.
  • We need to consider who has written the books that we are consuming.
  • We need to buy books by authors whose race, gender, religion, and sexuality, differ from our own.

And all these changes need to be made to an industry that is already in crisis.

People may be reading more than ever, but they aren’t reading books. It’s the sales of a few, very high-profile authors that are keeping this ship afloat.

I don’t want to live in a world without books, and I don’t want to live in a world with only one type of book.

So, what can you do?

Buy books by indigenous Australians (here’s ONE list and ONE publisher).

Buy books by black authors (here’s ONE list)

Buy books by black booksellers (USA).

Include characters who aren’t white in your fiction (here’s a blog about how to do that).

What a long read that does a deep-dive on this topic? Check out this fantastic article by Vice. 

This is a big topic, more than I can possible cover in a 1,000 word blog post, so if you have any recommendations or points you’d like to raise, please leave a comment below.


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The Creative Void and Why it is Different to Writer’s Block

I’ve been wracking my brain for two weeks trying to come up with blog topics for next month and it hasn’t gone well.

For those that don’t know, I put 1-2 days aside every month to write and film my blogs and videos for the coming month, but for the past couple of weeks, I’ve felt as though I’ve got nothing to say.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of issues I could and will blog about, but that doesn’t discount the fact that everything feels a little bit shit and oh so heavy.

Motivation and inspiration are cheap tricks when it comes to writing. Habit and discipline are much more effective if the goal is to get things done, tick the box, hit publish, and get the cheque.

Can we take a step back for a minute?

I published my first book in November, 2019 (feels like five years ago, right?). It took a lot of work, and I don’t just mean the actual writing, I’m also talking about the publishing and marketing of the book.

The physical preparation – editing, proofreading, formatting, organising the cover design – was intense, but it had nothing on the marketing campaign which included creating teaser images for Instagram, reaching out to 150 book reviewers, local media (newspaper, magazines, TV, and radio), and running multiple competitions including a pre-order giveaway.

Did I mention that my confirmation of candidature also took place in November last year?

For those who don’t know, confirmation is when you present your research project to a panel of academic experts who then determine the quality of your investigation and whether or not you should continue. This usually takes place 10-18 months into your doctorate/PhD and needless to say, it’s a bit of a deal, and a lot of effort is spent preparing for this presentation.

I also moved house.

As you can imagine, it was a big end to a big year.

Then 2020 happened.

Yeah.

On a personal level, I continued with the revisions of my next novel, accepted a sessional contract for my first ever teaching gig (which moved online three weeks later), completed coursework (including three assignments), and wrote and filmed weekly blogs/vlogs that went up every Thursday morning without fail. (Including today).

Why am I telling you this?

Cos I got nothing.

I am in a creative void.

The tank is empty.

The well is dry.

I’m bored. I’m restless. I’m frustrated. I’m concerned. I want to want to make stuff. I’m worried about how long this will go on for, and then I stop caring and start Googling things that have nothing to do with academia or writing.

I’m still getting the things done that absolutely have to get done because a) I’m getting paid to do these things and b) people are depending on me to do these things.

But when I’m done, I’m done, and I’m back to mindless Googling. A desperate, grabbing, grasping search for something that is propelled by the idea that there is an article or a YouTube video out there containing the exact information I need to hear right now.

What am I looking for? I have no idea.

A glance at my internet history reveals the following:

How to cook without using oil. What is human design? Neuroplasticity. Racial biases in the publishing industry. Intergenerational trauma. Beached whales. Should you quit your PhD during COVID-19? Virtual book tours. Rachel Hollis divorce. Indigenous Australians dying in police custody. Indigenous Australian authors. Nature-centric stories. Is it a good time to invest in Australian property?

Email. Instagram. Email. Instagram.

I’m struggling to create right now, and it’s not due to a lack of motivation, inspiration, habit, or discipline. I’m just … empty.

I’m in a creative void which feels very different to writer’s block.

Writer’s block is when you’re working on a story and then the story stops flowing. This could be for a variety of reasons, such as:

  • You don’t know what should happen next
  • You’re physically tired
  • You’ve painted yourself into a corner.

In a creative void, there are no ideas. There is no story. You sit down and open a word document and every word is hard won and not very good. There’s no PASSION. There’s no HEAT. It’s cold, banal, repetitive.

If this were a concert, the conversation in the front row would go a little something like this …

“I don’t know, it just sounds kinda, meh.”

“Yeah, I like her last album better.”

In order to create we must consume. We want our art to grow and develop with us. Our first book should be our worst book because ideally, we’re growing and improving with time.

I want to do better. I want to be more informed, more aware of my prejudices, have something to say.

Until then, I’m going to get comfy in this void; I’m going to sit back in this here magic dark until someone flicks the switch and the lights come on.

Maybe you can relate; maybe you’re also experiencing a creative void. If that’s the case, go easy on yourself.

If your work is flexible, focus first on the tasks that are fun or appealing. If you don’t have that luxury, do whatever you can to make completing those tasks enjoyable (as much as possible, anyway).

Restrictions following the shutdown are lifting, while somethings won’t go back to normal, many things will.

And then there’s some things that will hopefully never go back to ‘normal.’ Erasing systemic racism won’t happen overnight, but by continuing to educate ourselves, making better decisions, speaking up, and donating, we make change possible.

And this is what we must cling to, a single thread that can only be called hope.

Steven King’s Twenty Rules for Writing Part Two

If you’ve been following along these past few week’s then you already know that I am doing a series all about writing rules. I started off this series with Octavia Butler’s nine rules of writing, followed by Natalie Goldberg’s seven rules of writing, then Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules of fiction writing, and two weeks ago I unpacked Steven King’s Twenty Rules of Writing Part One. 

Stephen King
I want to preface this post by saying that there aren’t any real rules for writing other than the ones you decided on for yourself. I’m making this series as a means of inspiration and education so that you can take the advice that appeals to you, and leave the rest.

This week I’m continuing on with Stephen King’s TWENTY rules of writing by covering rules eleven to twenty.

 

 

 

Rule #11. There are two secrets to success

King attributes his success to staying physically healthy and staying married. While a literal reading of this statement won’t be applicable to everyone, the truth behind it is. Writing is not the most important thing in your life, people are, so you need to nourish those relationships. Writing is a solitary activity, but that doesn’t mean you have to live in solitude, tapping away at your keyboard until you finally kneel over. Take care of your relationships and your body, not so that you can write, but so that you can have a happy life.

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The two secrets for a successful writing career: stay healthy and take care of your relationships.

Rule #12. Write one word at a time

This echoes Anne Lamont’s famous anecdote shared in her book, Bird by Bird. There are many ways to write a book, but ultimately when you boil it down to the barest of bones, novels are written word by word.

King urges aspiring writers to stay present, to focus on the scene at hand, and not to become distracted by thinking ahead.

Rule # 13. Eliminate distraction

This rule is timeless. While the form may change over time, I think we can all agree that distractions are one of the biggest killers to creativity, in fact, I’ve written a whole post about this that you can read here.

You’re not stupid. Switch off the internet, switch off your phone, close the curtains, close the door, and commit yourself to the story in front of you.

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It takes 11 minutes to regain your focus following an interruption.

Rule #14. Stick to your own style. 

Reading allows you to become familiar with the writing style of other authors, and while mimicking your favourite writer is a good place to start, eventually, aspiring writers need to develop their own voice and style.

The world already has a Stephen King, J.K Rowling, Lee Child, Toni Morrison, and Octavia Butler, but what it doesn’t have is you (and your voice).

Rule # 15. Dig.

Stephen King describes himself as a discovery writer: the story reveals itself to him as he is writing it. King believes that stories are ‘found things’, like fossils in the ground. He believes that the story already exist and that it is his job as the writer to slowly dig it up using the tools in his writerly tool belt. For him, writing is a practise of excavation where the story is uncovered through the act of writing it. 

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King believes that stories are ‘found things’; we must dig our stories up like fossils from the ground.

Rule # 16. Take a break.

Given that he’s published 70+ books, I’m not sure how good King is at taking his own advice, but nonetheless he does recommend that writers take breaks from their work so that they can see their story with fresh eyes.

There are a number of way to look at this rule: you can put a manuscript aside for a few months so that you are able to then edit it with an objective eye (King’s tactic), you can choose not to write on weekends, or you can incorporate mini-breaks into your writing sessions so that you avoid fatigue, eye strain, and the general discomfort that comes with sitting in a computer chair for long periods of time.

Rule # 17. Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings.

This rule is pretty self-explanatory, but if there is a sentence, or a scene in your novel that is not revealing character, or moving the plot forward, or is otherwise dull, then it has got to go.

Rule #18. The research shouldn’t overshadow the story. 

So many authors break this rule. If you’ve done extensive research for your novel, do not make your reader pay for this through lengthy info dumps or excessive description. Include the details that are interesting and that bring a scene to life, but remember that research is the backbone of the story – it’s not the story itself.

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Reading is the quickest and easiest way to improve your writing.

Rule # 19. You become a writer simply by reading and writing. 

Writing workshops, classes, clubs, conferences, and craft books are valuable and you can learn A LOT (especially when starting out), but ultimately, the most valuable lessons you’ll learn are the ones you arrive at by yourself.

Reading and writing are the foundations of your craft.

Read well, by which I mean, think about what you are reading, look for the strings, dissect the work and consider what is working and what is not.

When editing your  work, be sure to question your decisions. Does this scene really need to be here? Are my character’s believable? Is the dialogue interesting? Have I used too many adverbs?

Rule #20. Writing is about getting happy. 

This is perhaps the best rule, we need to remember that writing is fun, or at least it’s supposed to be.

I can’t wrap this rule up any better than the King himself …

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”
— Stephen King


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Stephen King’s Twenty Rules of Writing

Before we get into this week’s blog, I’d like to acknowledge that people all across the United States (and the world) are transforming their grief into action following the death of George Floyd. For those who are interested, I’ve curated a short list of articles, websites, and podcasts that can help you sifted through the flood of information that is coming out right now.

Anti-racism Resources from Australia and Beyond

75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice

whenwestandtogether.com

Writing class with Alexandra Franzen: How to Inspire People to Listen, Care, Take Action, and Change the World (honour system donation)

1619 Podcast by The New York Times 

About Race Podcast

George Floyd Memorial Fund

 

I understand that I will never understand.
However, I stand. 

There’s no smooth way to transition into this week’s blog and vlog, I can only hope that my 1000 word post and 10 minute video provide a brief moment of relief during these tense, angry, and grievous times. 


If you’ve been following along these past few week’s then you already know that I am doing a series all about writing rules. I started off this series with Octavia Butler’s nine rules of writing, followed by Natalie Goldberg’s seven rules of writing, and last week I unpacked Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules of fiction writing.

I do want to preface this post by saying that there aren’t any real rules for writing other than the ones you decided on for yourself. I’m making this series as a means of inspiration and education so that you can take the advice that appeals to you, and leaving the rest.

Stephen King
This week I am covering Stephen King’s TWENTY rules of writing. Don’t worry, I’ve split this blog into two posts, and today’s I am covering the first ten rules.

I’ve been beginning each of these posts with a brief author bio,  but I’m pretty sure you know who Stephen King is, so let’s jump straight into the rules.

The following blog outlines the first ten rules of SK’s twenty rules of writing (geared specifically towards fiction writing), followed by my own interpretation of each rule.

Rule #1: First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience 

This rule echoes a point I made in last week’s post: write the story you want to read.

King argues that your first draft should be written for yourself.

What he means by that is not only are you writing the story you want to write, but that you also allow the story to take you wherever it wants to go.

Don’t put on your editors hat until you start your second draft, this is where you can take out all the stuff that doesn’t need to be there.

Rule #2: Don’t use passive voice

Passive voice is when you turn the object of an action into the subject of a sentence.

For example, saying “Mandy hugged Clara” is active while “Clara was hugged by Mandy” is passive. Can you see the difference? Mandy’s action – giving a hug – is diminished when using passive voice.

Writing is revising.
Remove adverbs and change passive voice into active voice when editing your work.

Rule #3: Avoid adverbs

King has become famous for this rule, yet he openly acknowledges that of course he too uses adverbs.

You’ll note that the rule is avoid adverbs, not ignore them.

Adverbs can be a sign of lazy writing, but if you do the work up front you often won’t need to added these additional descriptors.

Think about it, if two characters are fighting and one leaves the room in a huff, you show the reader that the character’s are angry through their dialogue and actions, that way you DON’T have to relay on statements like, “he slammed the door, forcefully” because the reader already knows that the character is angry.

Rule #4 Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said”

Again, note that this rule is to avoid adverbs following “he said” and “she said.” Sometimes it is okay to say “he said, softly” or “she said, loudly”, but most of the time, a simple he or she said is all that is necessary.

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Don’t stress about perfect punctuation or grammar while drafting.

Rule #5. Don’t obsess over perfect grammar

As a writer, I believe that you do need to know the tools of your trade, but I can also appreciate that if you didn’t learn grammar in school, or if you were taught incorrectly, or simply weren’t paying attention, then learning these rules as an adult can be startling difficult.

It is important to learn the rules of grammar so that you can properly edit your own work and so that when you do break the rules, you do so intentionally.

That being said, your primary motivation for writing should always be to tell a good story.

Bad grammar may put a reader off a book, but nobody ever finished a book and said, “Wow, that author knows what a semicolon is and how to use it!”

Rule #6. The magic is in you

This rule speaks specifically to the fear of writing, King believe that most bad writing is rooted in fear and he advises aspiring writer to be bold and fearfulness in their storytelling.

You’ll notice that this rule echoes Natalie Goldberg’s rule of Loosen up.

Writing is a vulnerable act, but it would suck to get to the end of your life and to think that you never got to bring forth all of the treasures deep inside you because you were afraid. 

Read more
The more you read, the more your writing will improve.

Rule #7. Read, read, read

Interestingly, this did not appear on either Vonnegut’s or Goldberg’s list, but reading is essential to writing regardless of genre or form.

Unlike film or theatre, there are no secret stings being pulled behind the covers of a novel.

Everything you need to know about how to write a novel is right there on the page. If you want to see the strings, all you got to do is slow down and look for them.

Rule #8. Don’t worry about making other people happy

We’re all leading busy lives and few people can make writing their full-time gig. So, sometimes, you have to say no to opportunities, invitations, or events because you need to make time for your writing.

This will upset people, but that’s okay.

If you’ve made the decision that you’re going to write a book, then you need to honour that commitment and follow through until completion.

Sometimes, you have to say, “no, thank you” to a momentary pleasure in order to say “yes!” to a lifelong dream.

Turn off the TV and read instead
Only watch EXCESSIVE amounts of TV if you want to be a screen writer. If not, PICK UP A BOOK!

Rule #9. Turn off the TV 

Okay, I rarely watch TV, but because of the recent lockdown I started watching some TV (and movies) as a way to spend time with loved ones.

And I’ll tell you what, I haven’t been missing out on much.

Binge watching Netflix is a time suck and it will not support your dream of becoming a writer.

If you want to write for film and TV then that’s another story, but if you want to be a novelist then the time spent watching TV would be better spent either reading or writing.

Rule #10. You have three months

King believes that it should take three months to write the first draft of a novel.

This rule is a bit prescriptive, and yes, King has written a lot of novels (70+), experienced a wild level of success, and won many awards, but that’s because he figured out a process that works for him.

What we can take away from this rule is the idea of deadlines.

Creating a self-imposed deadline for your first draft is a great way to keep yourself on track and to create a sense of accountability, especially if you buddy up with another writing pal.

Which of these writing rules speak to you? What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received? Leave a comment below and let me know! Next week, I will be unpacking rules 11-20 of Stephen King’s twenty rules of writing, so be sure to join my email list so you don’t miss out!


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Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules of Writing

Recently, I was checking the analytics on my YouTube Channel and noticed that a short video I posted over a year ago called Heinlein’s Five Rules for Writing was the most watched video on my channel.

So, I took the hint and decided to create a five-week long series uncovering the ‘writing rules’ of four famous authors. Firstly, I covered Octavia Butler’s nine rules of writing, then Natalie Goldberg’s seven rules of writing, and this week I’m focussing on Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules.

Kurt_Vonnegut_1972Kurt Vonnegut is an American writer who’s novel, Slaughterhouse Five, you probably read in high-school, and if you didn’t, I recommend you slide that puppy to the top of your TBR pile!

Vonnegut’s writing career spanned 50+ years. He published fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of nonfiction, with further collections published after his death.

If you haven’t read any of Vonnegut’s work, then here’s a quick quote that captures the his spirit well:

“Novel writing doesn’t breed serenity. It is lying, you know, and the novelist has to spend a lot of time during the course of his writing worrying about whether he is going to get away with his lies. If he fails to, his novel isn’t going to work.”

Now, I do want to preface this post by saying that there aren’t any real rules for writing other than the ones you decided on for yourself. I’m making this series as a means of inspiration and education so that you can take the advice that appeals to you, and leaving the rest.

In the following blog, I list Vonnegut’s eight rules of writing (geared specifically towards fiction writing), followed by my own interpretation of each rule.

Rule #1: Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

This rule takes on a totally different meaning in the age of technology. People are busy, our attention spans are shorter, we’re highly distracted, and we have easy access to entertainment. Contemporary novelists aren’t competing among themselves, they’re competing with Netflix, Stand, YouTube, Social Media, and so on.

Few people will stick with a book that isn’t demanding their attention, that they don’t feel compelled to read.

Few people are willing to invest their time in a work that doesn’t give them something back.

Rule #2: Give the reader at least one character they can root for.

I’ve read a lot of novels over the last few years, both literary and genre, whose casts are comprised of despicable characters; however, there was always one character who I despised a little bit less than everyone else or whose flaws were more endearing than off putting.

Everyone likes a fuck-up with a heart of gold. 

I absolutely believe that there are readers out there who are sophisticated enough to stay with a book whose characters are complex, contradicting, and unlikeable; I can think of several authors who’ve made best-selling careers out of this formula, and yet, even in these challenging works there is at least one character for whom the reader can root for.

Every character must want something
Every character must want something, even if it is a glass of water.

Rule #3: Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

One classic craft rule is, ‘figure out what your character wants and then take it away from them.’ This one simple tactic forms the basis of tension, character motivation, and narrative-drive.

If you know what your characters want, you also know the general trajectory of the plot, the core conflict, potential obstacles, and who your protagonist is.

Rule #4: Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action. 

This circles back to rule number one: don’t waste people’s time. You cannot afford to have any dead sentences in your story; every line must be doing something. A novel that keeps us awake until 2 a.m. does so because each sentence pulls us along into the next.

If a story is constantly turning, a reader will stick with it.

If the writer gives in to his poetic genius by publishing purple prose, then the reader will set down the book and turn on Netflix.

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Every scene must do something, either reveal character or move the story forward.

Rule #5: Start as close to the end as possible.

This is a different take on ‘start in the middle’, but it bears the same philosophy: the only person who needs 150 pages of backstory is the author.

My favourite anecdote about this comes from Jay Kristoff, author of the Nevernight trilogy. While revising book one, Kristoff deleted 80,000 words from the start of the novel. Why? Because it was all backstory!

Now, you can weave that backstory into the main plot or you can allow that backstory to inform the narrative, but you do not need to hold the reader’s hand through pages of ‘set-up’ material.

We don’t care where a character has come from, we care where they are, and where they’re going.

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Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

Rule #6: Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

This is probably the hardest rule, or at least it is for me.

If you love your characters, or at least like them, then you’re rooting for them to succeed. You want them to achieve their goals and to live long, happy, pain-free lives.

Unfortunately, that’s not very interesting to read. And victories without losses, aren’t that compelling.

We want to see the character overcome obstacles, pull up by their bootstraps, be clever, and survive emotional and physical setbacks; we want them to earn their victories.

Rule #7: Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

You decide who that person is; however, I hope that person is yourself.

Whether you decide to go indie or traditional, publishing is hard and you cannot control your readership. What you can control is your story. It would suck to spend five years writing a story that you think will sell and then have it tank. It would be even worse to write a book you aren’t that into, have it succeeded, and then feel compelled to continue in that series, genre, or style.

The best way to be happy as a writer is to write what you want to write, anything else will feel like a waste of time, money, or passion.

Rule #8: Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

This rule is perhaps a little controversial, though I have to say, I needed this advice while writing Every Time He Dies. There is a careful balance between withholding information as a form of suspense and withholding so much that your reader either becomes confused or bored, but what Vonnegut is getting at is that you can create narrative drive by dripping out information.

You need more than a good secret to keep a reader reading.

It is far more interesting to be given the information, to see what the core conflict is, and then to follow the character as they go about resolving it.


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Natalie Goldberg’s Seven Rules of Writing

Recently, I was checking the analytics on my YouTube Channel and noticed that a short video I posted over a year ago called Heinlein’s Five Rules for Writing was the most watched video on my channel.

So, I took the hint and for the next four weeks I am going to be covering the ‘writing rules’ of four famous authors. Last week, I discussed Octavia Butler and her Nine Rules of Writing and this week I’m unpacking Natalie Goldberg’s Seven Rules of Writing which appeared in her craft book Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life.

Before we dive into today’s video, I want to acknowledge that for many of us, writing may not be the biggest priority right now. We’re all dealing with a slew of other concerns as we’ve had to adjust to working from home, changes in our financial situations, and the general restrictions we’ve been adhering to as part of the pandemic.

In many places, these restrictions are starting to lift and while it may be some time until things get back to normal, I wanted to put this series together as a way to inspire and support you during this time.

Natalie Goldberg is an American author of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, but she is most Natalie Goldbergfamous of her books that explore writing as Zen practise.

While many craft based book focus on the nuts and bolts of writing – character, dialogue, plot, theme – Goldberg’s book focus on the emotional rewards of writing, as well as how to develop a writing practise. Goldberg’s methodology is skewed towards journal writing, but the advice presented in her books can easily be applied to all forms, whether it be fiction, poetry, or memoir.

The following quote sums up Goldberg’s writing philosophy perfectly:

“I don’t think everyone wants to create the great American novel, but we all have a dream of telling our stories-of realizing what we think, feel, and see before we die. Writing is a path to meet ourselves and become intimate.”

Now, I do want to preface this blog by saying that there aren’t any real rules for writing other than the ones you decided for yourself. I’m making this series as a means of inspiration and education so that you can take the advice that appeals to you, and leaving the rest.

So, let’s get to it.

Rule #1: Keep your hand moving

This is perhaps Goldberg’s most famous rule. Keep your hand moving is a challenge to your will power and determination. It is also the best way to separate the editor from the creator. By keeping your hand moving, you are less likely to stop, ruminate over what you wrote, and give into the false temptation of perfectionism. It is easy to waste an hour of writing time fiddling with a paragraph or a single sentence.

There is a time for revising, and an hour spent polishing a paragraph is an hour well spent when you are in the revising stage of your novel. However, you do not need to be wearing your editing hat if you are creating a first draft, if you are new to writing, or if you are simply trying to make writing a habit.

Writing wins when you keeping your hand moving.

Rule #2: Lose Control

We self-censor our work all the time. Why? Because writing is a vulnerable act. If you are writing memoir, this is doubly so because you are sharing personal details and stories from your own lived experience.

Writing fiction is its own sticky net. Sometimes people mistakenly think that our work is memoir in fancy dress and that our characters are mouth-pieces for our own thoughts and beliefs. Sometimes, writing fiction is shameful because we fear that what we have written isn’t very good.

There are so many ways that we judge our work and censor ourselves during creating practise.

We cringe at the idea of our grandmother reading the sex scene in chapter seven, or that our friends will assume that’s what we’re in too!

When you are writing a first draft, or when you are writing for practise (exercises, journaling), it’s important that you loosen up. No one is going to read your work and judge you unless you let them.

Let the words be ripped out of you, raw, and covered in gore.

If you want to write something that feels alive, then you need to write honestly, without censorship.

Losing control in your writing can be a good thing.
Losing control in your writing can be a good thing.

Rule #3: Be specific

This rule relates to writing craft on the line level. It is the details that transform words on a page into images in the reader’s mind. So, when you’re writing, it’s important that you pay attention to the nouns, verbs, colours, and texture, that create your descriptions.

Not every sentence has to be filled with original prose and breath taking beauty – some sentences are just there to move the story forward – but if you’re practising the art of ‘keeping your hand moving’ and notice that one sentence seem a bit … vanilla … push yourself to be more specific in the next sentence.

Focussing on sensory details or embedding imaginative metaphors and similes are just some of the ways you can become more specific in your descriptions.

Rule #4: Don’t think

If you’re keeping your hand moving, then there really isn’t that much time to think anyway, but Goldberg makes a strong argument for following your “first thought” when writing.

For Goldberg, this rule, specifically, is tied to her Zen practise: by following her first thought, she supports rules two and three, because she is forced to stay in the present moment. By staying present, she is better able to avoid self-censorship, keep her inner editor at bay, and to really let loose with her writing.

Personally, I believe that “don’t think” is a good practise for writers like myself who need to get down a crappy first draft before they can move forward.

The ideas that appear in a first draft won’t be the best, but by getting down the bones of the story we can begin the slow process of building that skeleton up into a completed book.

Don't think about what to write
If you think too long about what to write next, you’ll freeze and write nothing!

Rule #5: Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar

This is another way to stay present with the work in the moment. Spelling, punctuation, and grammar are duties that belong to the editor and your editor does not need to be in the room while you are drafting or journaling or brainstorming.

The editor operates out of the left side of brain. She is analytical, literal, and thinks linearly. Exploratory writing needs the qualities of the right side, creative, imaginative, non-linear.

Spelling, punctuation, and grammar are important, but they are not the building blocks you need to concern yourself with if you are drafting or simply trying to developing a writing habit.

Rule #6: You are free to write the worst junk in the world

You don’t have to publish it, but you’re free to write it.

The more you write, the bigger your body of work will become. The more you write, the better your writing will become.

But, of course, not everything you write will be good, even if your writing as a whole improves. Stephen King has written 70+ books and The Tommyknockers is definitely not of the same calibre as The Shinning, The Stand, It, 11/22/63 … you get the picture.

Write bad stuff, write good stuff, just write. 

Be bold and brave in your writing
Go for the jugular. Be brave and bold in your writing!

Rule #7: Go for the jugular

If something uncomfortable, controversial, painful, wild, or surprising pops up while you’re writing, don’t stop! Keep your hand moving, continue with the thought and write it all out. As Hemingway said, “Write hard and clear about what hurts.”

Remember, you don’t have to publish what you’ve written and you can always edit your work later, but it’s important that you give yourself permission for the writing to be messy, undulating, and alive.

You may end your writing session, look back on your work and see nothing but chaos, but as long as there is a beating heart nestled within that story, then you have done your job and it’s up to your inner-editor to plug that heart into the body of your story.


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