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On Writing

On a whim I downloaded the sample chapter for Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which is actually a book about writing. And I am howling through the whole thing. (For example, talking about writing bad first drafts, she talks about writers she has known “Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her.”)

It’s not a book on technique or anything else, but then again, I don’t read many books on technique. I think I’ve read three books on writing in my life–On Writing, by Stephen King, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Orson Scott Card (back before he lost his shit) and…um….okay, maybe I’ve read two books on writing. No, wait! The intro to the book of poetry that we used as a textbook in Freshman Writing in college had some stuff about how you should just call snow snow, goddamnit, and calling it “pulverous silver essence” didn’t make snow any better. There. Three.

It’s not like art, where you can learn various techniques about layering colors and different media and all that. Writing is all words on the page, and you can’t do the equivalent of jumping between encaustics and watercolor without torturing the hell out of a metaphor. (You leave that poor metaphor alone! It didn’t ask to be here!) Writing advice tends to either be so specific as to be generally useless (“Ursula, it looks like you filled a shotgun full of commas and fired them at the page.”) or so general as to be specifically useless. (“People like action!”)

About 30% of writing books can probably be summed up as “No, really, there’s not a secret or a trick that writers all know. You just sit down and write what happens next, over and over, until it’s done. That’s really what they do. Honest. That is all it is. No, there is nothing that makes this easier or go faster.” and the other 30% is “No, really, if that’s how you get yourself to sit and write what happens next, that’s fine. Do that. Seriously. No, it’s okay if that’s not how Hemingway did it. Do the thing you do if it makes words happen. It’s cool. No one will yell at you.” Then the other 30% is padding and inspirational quotes and a suggestion that you buy the Manual of Style, and then a recap of the first bit, with the addition “It’s okay that it’s bad. Everybody writes bad stuff. It’s cool. Just keep practicing.”

You can read all kinds of suggestions on how to get the ideas flowing. If you need to get the ideas flowing, fine. Very few books seem to have been written for those of us who suffer like the guy in Sandman from ideas that never bloody stop, probably because nobody wants to hear about it, but possibly because there either is no cure or the people who know about it are too busy writing their paranormal romance about night-gaunts to write the book about how to shut your brain up and focus on one idea at a time, or maybe the answer is blindingly obvious and there’s a common kitchen tool that fixes it and nobody told me because they all thought I knew, like getting through the foil on wine bottles.

After a point, though, I’ve always felt that writing technique is pretty much between you and your god. This is not to diss workshops, support groups, how-to books, or anything else—if they work for you, great. Do that. That is a good thing. Just don’t talk to me about it, because I will glaze over quickly and look around for the gin. Technique is the thing that happens when you sit down and your heroine has to get from here to there and then you get bored and add ninjas. I don’t know HOW it works. It just happens or it doesn’t, kind of like a bowel movement, and if you try to force it, you’ll end up with an aneurysm, and at the end of the day, I don’t want to hear about how you poop* and will assume the feeling is mutual.

If you must talk about it, it is best to employ a specialist.**

Having said all that, I will now share the one bit of writing advice that I actually remember from a how-to book that has stuck with me, which was “You can use unlikely coincidences to get your character INTO trouble, but if you use it get them OUT of trouble, the reader will think that’s cheap.” I felt this was good advice and have attempted to adhere to it ever since. And also I think Ursula K. LeGuin said that if you try to fake your way through a language, one of the readers ALWAYS speaks it like a pro and will catch you, so either make the language up completely or bloody well learn what you’re doing, and this absolutely includes Ye Olde English, so either thee and thou correctly or not at all. This was also excellent advice.

None of this has any bearing on anything, except that I’m really enjoying Bird by Bird, because it’s full of actually useful statements that have nothing to do about writing technique, like the fact that everybody wants to get published and once you do, it doesn’t actually change the world and make you suddenly happy and fulfilled and you do not run toward your self-esteem across a field of flowers. Which is totally true and made me laugh a lot and then go put my head in the oven. Then I realized it was an electric oven and felt stupid. (Side note, I always heard about sticking your head in the oven as a form of suicide as a kid, but only ever having had electric ovens, I just assumed that you were dying because it got so hot your head cooked and it seemed sort of unpleasant, but I was really impressed at the sheer dedication of the people involved, because dude, that’s hardcore. I do not want to admit how old I was when I realized that wasn’t what was going on, but I’m pretty sure I was at least old enough to vote.)

But anyway, I digress. Time for ninjas!



*Unless you tell it really really well. And if you’re going to tackle that, you better write like an angel with wings of wine and orgasms.

**Unless you have an interesting parasite. I am always up for an interesting parasite story, like the one comic about the guy with the tapeworm at the restaurant. That was awesome. I’m not actually sure if we’re talking about writing any more, though.

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.


I have to admit: Ninjas make me happy.

I am going to go to sleep dreaming of angels with wings of wine and orgasms. I've forgotten the rest of the post.

What I love about King's On Writing is that it's an autobiography with occasional bits of writing advice thrown in.

There are a number of bits of advice to give to writers that turn up pretty much anywhere, phrased in different ways. Things like "just keep writing" and "everyone thinks their work sucks at some point in the process so don't let that stop you" and "keep writing some more". And also things like "if they're charging you money, it's a rip-off" and "editors are good things". But beyond those general things, there's no magical formula and pretty much everyone who writes professionally will eventually say "Okay, if you really must know, this is what I do, but that's no guarantee it's going to work for you, because every single writer I know has their own way of doing things that work for them, so what you really should do is figure out what works for you."

Really, when you're writing about writing, you're not actually writing about writing, you're writing about yourself. Which is why, from your comments, that book you're reading works.

I'm also entirely amused by the fact that King will readily admit that he's the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I thought I was the only one. (How much of human expression is simply chasing after or providing that "I'm not a freak after all!" moment?) Writing advice/books/etc. have never worked for me. At worst, they make me too self-conscious to write at all, because I'm absolutely sure I am, as the kids say, Doin It Rong.

I think I just realised where I'm going wrong writing [or rather not writing].

I have not a frikin' clue how to get myself to write..or rather stick to writing. Starting I can do...and if it's a short story I can manage, but anything over 3 chapters and it just lays there and dieeess !

And of course, there's only so much one can do with short stories.

I have this problem. I get a story idea, start writing it, and a few minutes later, I'm bored. I know the whole story by that point from beginning to end, so there's no reward in taking the trouble to write it down. Plus by then I have some other idea nagging at me. I certainly don't get any feedback on the story portions I do write.

Forum Games (Anonymous) Expand
nomnomnom commas.

I prefer the slightly bitter tang of semi-colons, myself; fancy punctuation has always been my favorite.


Okay, that "into trouble/out of trouble" bit of advice is VERY good. Must file that away for later use.

Provided, you know, I ever decide to take another stab at the writerly endeavours.

#@__@# I got snagged by the Language Police once for using a German phrase that was dialectically correct in the little redneck part of Deutschland I lived in for a while but was drastically out-of-date elsewhere. Very embarrassed. Excellent advice, and I thank you.

The technique books for people who have TOO MANY IDEAS are called things like "Getting Things Done". And they're full of advice on how to quickly capture your ideas, then make yourself put your nose back to the grindstone on the one that Needs To Be Done Because There Is A Deadline.

(Right now I'm really finding the Pomodoro Technique to be useful for the grindstone part - there's definitely something to the act of Winding Up A Physical Timer for me. I have a common kitchen timer (that looks like a ladybug) that I've painted over part of the scale, and the crazy half-assed idea of opening it up and adding some smarts to it such that it'll send a message to my computer via Bluetooth to poke at a time tracker app...)

Age 28, and it took me this post to realize what was going on in those ovens. Hm.

24 here, but otherwise the same. >.>

On the subject of great writing books, I really liked Creating Short Fiction by Damon Knight, that doesn't do the froufrou 'Writing is magic!' thing but instead approaches it as a craftsman, dissecting the story and showing you how to tweak it to be better.

ursulav most certainly doesn't need it but I mention it in case someone out there is looking for a really good writing book.

That said, I giggled about 'pulverous silver essence'.

Keep your eye open for forthcoming science fiction from Mira Grant. There will be genetically engineered tapeworms.

Is there any advice on what to do if you've got great characters but absolutely no clue about a plot? I've got two people stuck in my head whose life (meaning back-) stories are fascinating, but no inspiration what to do with them.

Also, finding the time and stamina to write creatively when you are also writing your PhD thesis on top of some undergraduate teaching is not so easy.

Posted practically simultanously - I have exactly the same problem. If I do manage to think of a plot, the initial situaion tends to be so convoluted there's no way I could explain it to a reader without boring them, either :(

The only useful advice I've been given on this so far is to figure out a way to put a series of challenges in front of your characters that each either force them to change, or reveal something about them by how they behave in the encounter. But I've got nothing more specific than that!

There's a book called 'Story' by Robert McKee which was recommended to me; I haven't finished reading it yet, though, so no idea how helpful it'll prove to be!

Regarding apostrophes...sort of...

I stumbled across this blog entry whilst looking for obituaries for Anne McCaffrey, and it, and the attendant comments, made me laugh so much I'm now sharing it with any folk i can think of who might have read enough fantasty/scifi to appreciate it...

(apologies if you've stumbled across it before)


Regarding writing, my trouble is that i can come up with plenty of characters and fun settings, but apparently can't think of any storylines anymore :(

Re: Regarding apostrophes...sort of...

Oh god, yes.

I was under the impression that most useful writing advice was expressed in terms of don'ts rather than dos. First and foremost, Vonnegut's notion of not using a total stranger's time in a wasteful manner.

This being said, the more it goes and the more I feel the technique boils down to reconciling flow with flavour, both in the name of keeping the reader engaged, and that's about it. Easier said than done, though, granted.