Advice for writers

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You can't imagine the naughty things he did with Anais Nin!

Henry Miller was a nasty old genius. He knew what from what.

 

In the early 1930s, as he wrote what would become his first published novel — the hugely influential Tropic of Cancer — Henry Miller wrote a list of 11 commandments, to be followed by himself.

The list read as follows.

(Source: Henry Miller on Writing Image: Henry Miller, c.1950, courtesy ofAnswers.)

COMMANDMENTS

  1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to “Black Spring.”
  3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  5. When you can’t create you can work.
  6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
  9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. ConcentrateNarrow downExclude.
  10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book youare writing.
  11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

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There are millions of tips out there for being a better writer, but James Altucher’s list is one of my favorites. In fact, James Altucher is one of my all-time favorite bloggers. You could do worse than to follow him in your reader.

James Altucher’s 33 Unusual Tips for Being a Better Writer

Back in college, Sanket and I would hang out in bars and try to talk to women but I was horrible at it. Nobody would talk to me for more than thirty seconds and every woman would laugh at all his jokes for what seemed like hours. Even decades later I think they are still laughing at his jokes. One time he turned to me, “the girls are getting bored when you talk. Your stories go on too long. From now on, you need to leave out every other sentence when you tell a story.”  We were both undergrads in Computer Science. I haven’t seen him since but that’s the most important writing (and communicating) advice I ever got.

33 other tips to be a better writer.

-          Write whatever you want. Then take out the first paragraph and last paragraph. Here’s the funny thing about this rule. It’s sort of like knowing the future. You still can’t change it. In other words, even if you know this rule and write the article, the article will still be better if you take out the first paragraph and the last paragraph.

-          Take a huge bowel movement every day. And you won’t see that on any other list on how to be a better writer. If your body doesn’t flow then your brain won’t flow. Eat more fruit if you have to.

-          Bleed in the first line. We’re all human. A computer can win Jeopardy but still not write a novel. You want people to relate to you, then you have to be human. Penelope Trunk started a post a few weeks ago: “I smashed a lamp over my head. There was blood everywhere. And glass. And I took a picture.” That’s real bleeding. My wife recently put up a post where the first line was so painful she had to take it down. Too many people were crying.

-          Don’t ask for permission. In other words, never say “in my opinion” (or worse “IMHO”). We know it’s your opinion. You’re writing it.

-          Write a lot. I spent the entire 90s writing bad fiction. 5 bad novels. Dozens of bad stories. But I learned to handle massive rejection. And how to put two words together. In my head, I won the Pulitzer prize. But in my hand, over 100 rejection letters.

-          Read a lot. You can’t write without first reading. A lot. When I was writing five bad novels in a row I would read all day long whenever I wasn’t writing (I had a job as a programmer, which I would do for about five minutes a day because my programs all worked and I just had to “maintain” them). I read everything I could get my hands on.

-          Read before you write. Before I write every day I spend 30-60 minutes reading high quality short stories poetry, or essays.  Books by Denis Johnson, Miranda July, David Foster Wallace, Ariel Leve, William Vollmann, Raymond Carver, etc. All of the writers are in the top 1/1000 of 1% of writers. It has to be at that level or else it won’t lift up your writing at all.

-          Coffee. I go through three cups at least before I even begin to write. No coffee, no creativity.

-          Break the laws of physics. There’s no time in text. Nothing has to go in order. Don’t make it nonsense. But don’t be beholden to the laws of physics. Advice I Want to Tell My Daughters is an example.

-          Be Honest. Tell people the stuff they all think but nobody ever says. Some people will be angry you let out the secret. But most people will be grateful. Else you aren’t delivering value. Be the little boy in the “Emperor’s New Clothes.” If you can’t do this, don’t write.

-          Don’t Hurt Anyone. This goes against the above rule. But I never like to hurt people. And I don’t respect people who get pageviews by breaking this rule. Don’t be a bad guy.  Was Buddha a Bad Father? addresses this.

-          Don’t be afraid of what people think. For each single person you worry about, deduct 1% in quality from your writing. Everyone has deductions. I have to deduct about 10% right off the top. Maybe there’s 10 people I’m worried about. Some of them are evil people. Some of them are people I just don’t want to offend. So my writing is only about 90% of what it could be. But I think most people write at about 20% of what it could be. Believe it or not, clients, customers, friends, family, will love you more if you are honest with them.  So we all have our boundaries. But try this: for the next ten things you write, tell people something that nobody knows about you.

Read the rest of the list…

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via Open Culture by way of Brain Pickings:

There are very few creators alive today truly worthy of being called “creative genius.” Children’s book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, beloved forWhere The Wild Things Are and other gems, is certainly one of them. This affectionate 5-minute micro-documentary from Tate Modern zooms in on the iconic creator, uncompromising and idiosyncratic and brilliant as ever at the age of 83, to reveal the creatively restless and lovably grumpy workings of his heart and mind.

 

“My books are really books that are impressed and in love with the memory of comics and how important they were to me as a child… I didn’t live near any famous person, I didn’t see Michelangelo go to work in the morning. I just lived in Brooklyn, where everything was ordinary — and yet, enticing and exciting and bewildering. The magic of childhood, the strangeness of childhood, the uniqueness that makes us see things that other people don’t see…”

For more Sendak gold, see his rare Velveteen Rabbit illustrations circa 1960.


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Even if you’re never read an Elmore Leonard novel, chances are good you’ve heard of his work. His detective novels star colorful, salty characters who engage in mayhem and highjinx, and many have been made into movies like Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, 3:10 to Yuma, and about a hundred more (give or take). His advice to writers contradicts some of the things I teach in my class, but they’re absolutely true, anyway.

 

P.S. Happy New Year!

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Flo Jo takes it home

Finishing anything at all is a total win

There are three key steps to finishing any project:

  1. Make it a distinct task, separate from your initial creative impulse
  2. Define what “finished” means before you start, so you know when you’re done
  3. Adjust your expectations down to realistic levels

The dirty secret that keeps people from finishing things: They don’t want to. Finishing things is no fun. That’s why you have to treat finishing as a separate activity, distinct from your initial creative impulse.

Finishing has nothing to do with starting. It’s like doing your taxes, or taking out the trash. When you get to the end of a project, the most useful thing you can do is reframe it as a brand-new thing, with a brand-new set of expectations and assumptions attached to it.

The least popular of my classes is the last session of Intro to Writing Fairy Tales. Everyone has heard the same stories at least once/week for five straight weeks. They’ve listened to endless iterations, struggled with intractable characters or plot points that never quite resolved to satisfaction, watched with frustration as the delicate soufflés of their literary ambition slowly deflate (every once in a while a story turns out better than anyone expected, but that’s rare). And they hate it. The only reason they stay is because I trick them into signing up for a public reading while their enthusiasm is still high, and we use the last class to polish the stories for the performance. There is so much sighing and grumbling in the last Intro to Writing Fairy Tales class. (“Finished” for them means “ready to read to a room full of strangers.”)

But you know what? The ones who hang in there, who honestly consider feedback on their second and third revisions, then go home to revise those hateful, lumpy passages again and again? When the time comes for the reading, they stand up in front of the microphone, read their fairy tales to a fresh group of listeners, and their stories shine like diamonds. Their stories are not only better than the stories of their less persistent classmates, they’re overall better than they realized!

By the end of the night they forget how much they hated their stories, and they’re practically drunk on praise, satisfaction, and the pleasure of showing up and doing their best. It’s amazing.

It’s easy to lose perspective when you’re working on the sixteenth version of something. You think it sucks, your [classmates, friends, family, pets, etc.] are starting to act like they’ll die if they hear/see it again. You can’t remember why you’re working so hard on something you’re probably not getting paid for.

By the time you’re finishing something, you’re usually sick to death of it, yourself, and everything associated with it—and you’re nose to nose with your limitations, which is often unpleasant. (This is why it helps to have low expectations. Don’t try to write a masterpiece. Just write a story with a beginning, middle, and end that you’re not ashamed to read to some strangers in a bar.)

But if you can make it to the finish line, you’ll be rewarded with a sense of satisfaction that’s bigger than the castle in the sky that got you started in the first place. Starting is about sparkles and fairy dust, tangerine-colored splashes of creative juice running down your chin, worlds of possibility opening before you—each more perfect than the last. Finishing is about sandpaper and touch-up paint, obsessive attention to detail and, finally, compromise—reconciling your real-life abilities with your ambitions. It’s also about having a real thing to show off. It sets you apart. Lots of people start. Finishing things makes you kind of a rock star. That’s worth a little discomfort, isn’t it?

 

 

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Are you one of the intrepid souls riding the rapids of NaNoWriMo this year? If so, I commend you! It’s hard work to show up to the page day after day, slogging through a morass of your own making. You’re like a god shoving settings and personalities and destinies around, like a heroic, metaphysical terraformer. “No, no,” you say, “this chasm is in the wrong place! Jerry, I’ll need about 10,000 tons of fill dirt over here. No, I don’t know where you’re supposed to get it, just get it.”

You’re at the quarter-mile mark today, so hopefully you’re still feeling somewhat fresh and motivated. But just in case, I thought it would be nice to pull up a pep talk from the NaNoWriMo pep talk archives to give you a little lift. You remember Philip Pullman, don’t you? He wrote a little series called His Dark Materials that a few people sort of enjoyed a while back. Anyway, he’s excited that you’re writing a novel this month, and he wanted to let you know. Here’s an excerpt from his letter to you:

You know which page of a novel is the most difficult to write? It’s page 70. The first page is easy: it’s exciting, it’s new, a whole world lies in front of you. The last page is easy: you’ve got there at last, you know what’s going to happen, all you have to do is find a resonant closing sentence. But page 70 is where the misery strikes. All the initial excitement has drained away; you’ve begun to see all the hideous problems you’ve set yourself; you are horribly aware of the minute size of your own talent compared to the colossal proportions of the task you’ve undertaken; that’s when you really want to give up. When I hit page 70 with my very first novel, I thought: I’m never going to finish this. I’ll never make it. But then stubbornness set in…

Check out the rest of it.

One of his miserable experiments turned into this:

So you keep going, too. You never know what might happen.

 
Psst! If you’d like more creative inspiration, you might enjoy strolling through the FTF archives.

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Ready, set, WRITE!

When it comes to creative expression, one of your worst enemies can be your inner editor, that judge-y, mean-spirited, hyper-critical jerk who starts harshing on you as soon as you sit down to create. You know the one. It’s a toxic blend of lofty expectations and distorted perceptions, and left unchecked it can perpetuate creative infanticide on all your baby ideas.

That’s why NaNoWriMo is such a great event. If you don’t know about it, NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write 1,000 words a day, every day, for 30 days. At the end, you’ll have a 30,000-word novel! How amazing is that? And there’s a tremendous community around your effort. Libraries invite you in to write. Independent bookstores do, too. You can meet other sweaty scribblers just like yourself in forums and support groups all over the world.

And, as if that’s not enough, amazing writers will write you pep talks! People like Jonathan Lethem and Audrey Niffenegger have already signed up to tell you how great you are for doing this, and how much everyone appreciates the fact that you’re showing up and putting in the effort.

You can even roam through the pep talk archives when you’re feeling frustrated and in need of inspiration. People like Lynda Barry (LYNDA BARRY!) and Lemony Snicket (one of my favorite bits about writing, ever, for all time) and Neil Gaiman and Dave Eggers and Peter Fucking Carey – all these people, these talented, accomplished people, will be cheering you on.

So what are you waiting for? Inspiration? Bah. The right time? Double bah! For the swelling to go down? BAH! The swelling may never go down. You may never have the right idea. And you will certainly never have the time. So why not just start?

As my sainted father always says, “There ain’t nothing to it but to do it.”

It starts in eight hours. Ready, set, WRITE!

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It's hard work!

There are lots of hard things about writing, but one of the hardest is editing your own work. Editing brain is an entirely different animal from writing brain, and flaws that seem obvious in someone else’s work often go unnoticed in our own. So what’s a poor writer to do?

Fortunately for us, Carol Saller, senior manuscript editor at the University of Chicago press and an editor at the Chicago Manual of Style, has compiled a list of errors she sees in manuscripts over and over again. For instance:

* Throat-clearing. When writer Richard Peck finishes a novel, he claims, he throws out the first chapter without reading it and writes it anew. He reasons that when we begin a work, we’re rarely certain of where it will end. Revisiting the beginning after the end has emerged makes sense. This time it will be easier to eliminate all the bush-beating.

* Personal tics. Most writers have a few pet words or phrases: decidedly, or by no means, or incredibly, or most important. Ditto for favorite sentence constructions: “Not only X but Y” is always popular. Once you identify your own foibles, they become more difficult to ignore.

* Repetition. Word-processing encourages this to the same degree that old-fashioned typewriting discouraged it: why say something once when you can say it three times? A common keyboard error is to copy and paste when you mean to cut and paste, so that whole passages are accidentally repeated verbatim.

Read the whole list.

And hook yourself up with an incredible blog about language and writing, while you’re at it.

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Edmund Dulac's 'The Ebony Horse'

I’m no Stephen King, but I have been an honest-to-goodness paid professional writer for the past 15 or so years. And every time I read this wonderful bit from Mr. King, Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully: In Ten Minutes, I am struck with the raw, perfect truth of it. (Even though it was written in 1986! Before they even had teh innernets!)

Some of my favorite bits:

1. Be talented
This, of course, is the killer. What is talent? I can hear someone shouting, and here we are, ready to get into a discussion right up there with “what is the meaning of life?” for weighty pronouncements and total uselessness. For the purposes of the beginning writer, talent may as well be defined as eventual success – publication and money. If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.

4. Remove every extraneous word
You want to get up on a soapbox and preach? Fine. Get one and try your local park. You want to write for money? Get to the point. And if you remove all the excess garbage and discover you can’t find the point, tear up what you wrote and start all over again . . . or try something new.

5. Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft
You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time…

Read the whole thing: Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully: In Ten Minutes

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How dare you want to write a story?

So I’m blatantly stealing this content from the Nanowrimo site. And I’m even lazier than that because I didn’t even find it there. My friend David sent it to me.

But since Nanowrimo is almost upon us (five short weeks, kids), and since this is a brilliant, beautiful, absolutely necessary piece of information, I think it’s okay.

Lemony Snicket’s Pep Talk to Writers

Dear Cohort,

Struggling with your novel? Paralyzed by the fear that it’s nowhere near good enough? Feeling caught in a trap of your own devising? You should probably give up.

For one thing, writing is a dying form. One reads of this every day. Every magazine and newspaper, every hardcover and paperback, every website and most walls near the freeway trumpet the news that nobody reads anymore, and everyone has read these statements and felt their powerful effects. The authors of all those articles and editorials, all those manifestos and essays, all those exclamations and eulogies – what would they say if they knew you were writing something? They would urge you, in bold-faced print, to stop.

Clearly, the future is moving us proudly and zippily away from the written word, so writing a novel is actually interfering with the natural progress of modern society. It is old-fashioned and fuddy-duddy, a relic of a time when people took artistic expression seriously and found solace in a good story told well. We are in the process of disentangling ourselves from that kind of peace of mind, so it is rude for you to hinder the world by insisting on adhering to the beloved paradigms of the past. It is like sitting in a gondola, listening to the water carry you across the water, while everyone else is zooming over you in jetpacks, belching smoke into the sky. Stop it, is what the jet-packers would say to you. Stop it this instant, you in that beautiful craft of intricately-carved wood that is giving you such a pleasant journey.

Besides, there are already plenty of novels. There is no need for a new one. One could devote one’s entire life to reading the work of Henry James, for instance, and never touch another novel by any other author, and never be hungry for anything else, the way one could live on nothing but multivitamin tablets and pureed root vegetables and never find oneself craving wild mushroom soup or linguini with clam sauce or a plain roasted chicken with lemon-zested dandelion greens or strong black coffee or a perfectly ripe peach or chips and salsa or caramel ice cream on top of poppyseed cake or smoked salmon with capers or aged goat cheese or a gin gimlet or some other startling item sprung from the imagination of some unknown cook. In fact, think of the world of literature as an enormous meal, and your novel as some small piddling ingredient – the drawn butter, for example, served next to a large, boiled lobster. Who wants that? If it were brought to the table, surely most people would ask that it be removed post-haste.

Even if you insisted on finishing your novel, what for? Novels sit unpublished, or published but unsold, or sold but unread, or read but unreread, lonely on shelves and in drawers and under the legs of wobbly tables. They are like seashells on the beach. Not enough people marvel over them. They pick them up and put them down. Even your friends and associates will never appreciate your novel the way you want them to. In fact, there are likely just a handful of readers out in the world who are perfect for your book, who will take it to heart and feel its mighty ripples throughout their lives, and you will likely never meet them, at least under the proper circumstances. So who cares? Think of that secret favorite book of yours – not the one you tell people you like best, but that book so good that you refuse to share it with people because they’d never understand it. Perhaps it’s not even a whole book, just a tiny portion that you’ll never forget as long as you live. Nobody knows you feel this way about that tiny portion of literature, so what does it matter? The author of that small bright thing, that treasured whisper deep in your heart, never should have bothered.

Of course, it may well be that you are writing not for some perfect reader someplace, but for yourself, and that is the biggest folly of them all, because it will not work. You will not be happy all of the time. Unlike most things that most people make, your novel will not be perfect. It may well be considerably less than one-fourth perfect, and this will frustrate you and sadden you. This is why you should stop. Most people are not writing novels which is why there is so little frustration and sadness in the world, particularly as we zoom on past the novel in our smoky jet packs soon to be equipped with pureed food. The next time you find yourself in a group of people, stop and think to yourself, probably no one here is writing a novel. This is why everyone is so content, here at this bus stop or in line at the supermarket or standing around this baggage carousel or sitting around in this doctor’s waiting room or in seventh grade or in Johannesburg. Give up your novel, and join the crowd. Think of all the things you could do with your time instead of participating in a noble and storied art form. There are things in your cupboards that likely need to be moved around.

In short, quit. Writing a novel is a tiny candle in a dark, swirling world. It brings light and warmth and hope to the lucky few who, against insufferable odds and despite a juggernaut of irritations, find themselves in the right place to hold it. Blow it out, so our eyes will not be drawn to its power. Extinguish it so we can get some sleep. I plan to quit writing novels myself, sometime in the next hundred years.

Lemony Snicket

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