November 1, 2020

NaNoWriMo Go Go GO!

And here we are, mere hours into November. I hope you got to have a little Halloween fun, even if it was just watching some favorite movies or making creepy displays for your home. We had a socially-distant candy bowl but… didn’t get a lot of takers. Which means now I have a lot of candy.

But now it’s November, and we all know what that means…


(shouted like the opening to “Mortal Kombat”)

If that handful of syllables means nothing to you, we’re talking about National Novel Writing Month. Every November thousands of folks sit themselves down at the keyboard or microphone or notepad and try to get an entire book out—start to finish—in just thirty days.

This is probably going to be one of the most brutal years ever to try to do NaNoWriMo. Yeah, it’s just after Halloween and heading full speed into the holidays, but at least that part’s normal. We’re also dealing with a somewhat intense election cycle (already in progress) here in the states. Plus a pandemic that’s raging around the world at levels anywhere from “screaming woman in the grocery store” to “actual kaiju attack,” depending on where you are.

As I mentioned the other day, it’s understandable if you’ve had trouble focusing on your writing. Or if you just don’t feel up to this. NaNoWriMo can be fun and it can get your enthusiasm for writing really stoked again. But the truth is, it’s a huge, exhausting undertaking.

Anyway, here’s four quick things for all of us to keep in mind so we don’t get as intimidated or overwhelmed trying to do this, y’know, intimidating thing at this overwhelming point in time.

1) We Shouldn’t be Hard on Ourselves—NaNoWriMo is supposed to be fun.  Technically we’re on a deadline, yeah, but it’s a self-imposed deadline with no consequences if it’s missed. Seriously, relax. Push yourself, but don’t pressureyourself.  The real goal here is to improve, and any and every improvement counts. So have fun and try to enjoy all the little victories this month. 

And don’t worry about “winning.” This is a time when coming in second or third is still a fantastic achievement. So don’t beat yourself up if you don’t make your daily or weekly word count. That’s the kind of thing that only makes you feel bad about yourself. It doesn’t help anything, it just makes you not enjoy writing as much.

2) Pace Ourselves—nobody wins a marathon by sprinting the entire way. Trying to fill every single waking moment with writing will burn any of us out quick. Seriously. And it’ll show in the work.

It’s tough, especially on projects like this, but we need to stay aware of diminishing returns. Personally, when I’m on a deadline, a lot of times I’ll work late into the night. Sometimes it goes great, but more often than not… I start to slow down. I get distracted. My productivity drops. Eventually it hits the point where I would’ve been better off going to bed two hours ago because I would’ve gotten just as much done in half an hour after a good night’s sleep.

Again, you can’t sprint for a month. And after too many sprints, you’re just going to crash. So find a good, steady pace that works for you and just keep it up. Remember, we’re not trying to write faster, we’re trying to write at a much more regular rate. It’s better to do a thousand word every day than two thousand every third or fourth day.

3) Rest and recharge—if the last two pieces of advice got together and had an advice baby, it’d be this. Don’t be scared to just step away for a little while. Have a meal at the table, maybe a drink out back.  Curl up with somebody on the couch and watch an episode of The Mandalorian or Camp Cretaceous or something. Put on your mask and go for a walk. Take a nap. Take a shower. No, seriously, take a shower.  Yeah, I’m talking to you—you’ve been sitting there since midnightSaturday and you’ve got Halloween stink and writer stink on you. Please use lots of shampoo.

My point is, again, don’t feel bad about stepping away from the computer for an hour.  We’re trying to get a lot done, yeah, but we also don’t want to overwork our brains to the point they overheat and seize up. Take time to cool down and refuel. I’m not saying take off two or three days, but don’t be scared to get up and stretch now and then. In the end, it’ll make everything run smoother and faster overall.

4) Nobody’s Going to Buy This— Seriously. They won’t. I don’t care what somebody said on that other website, it’s just not going to happen. As pressing concerns go, this is only slightly behind wondering if we can get Letitia Wright to play the lead in the movie adaptation. We’re just not there yet. Nowhere near it.

Y’see, Timmy, National Novel Writing Month isn’t really an accurate name, because we’re not writing a novel. We’re writing the first draft of a novel.  Maybe even just the first draft of a novella. And there’s a huge difference between a first draft and a polished, completed manuscript. Most relevant to our discussion here—nobody’s going to buy a first draft. No agent’s going to look at it. No film studio will pre-emptively buy the rights after a prolonged bidding war.

This draft’s for us. It’s to do whatever we want with. Don’t wast time wondering about agents or editors or producers. They’re never going to see this. They may see the third or fourth draft later—and be interested in it—but what we’re doing right now? This is just the first steps. If we actually complete this draft, we’ll barely be halfway through the process.

So forget them.  Right now, just crank up the music and let your imagination run wild.  Do whatever you want. Tell your story. Drop all inhibitions and expectations and just write.

Try to keep these things in mind over the next couple days.  Hopefully they’ll make things a little easier for you. Which’ll make the writing a little more enjoyable.

Next time…

Jeeeez, let’s be honest. Who knows what things are going to be like next time we talk. Crap, not the best thing to say when I’m trying to psych you up. But let’s all take a deep breath (no matter what) and…

Yeah, next time, I’m going to beg you to stop telling me things.

Until then… go write.

October 8, 2020 / 1 Comment

Nothing Left to Learn

I was thinking of new topics a week or so back, and about the fact there’s not much I haven’t covered here. I mean, it’s been well over thirteen years now. There’s only so many times I can say “Try to make your characters relatable somehow.”

And that train of thought led me to, well… why are you still here? Why are you still reading this? Not just this post but I mean… the whole blog?

Yeah, over the past year or so, I’ve tried to be better about doing stuff here. Writing advice is still the majority of it, but lately I’m also trying to put up some related thoughts on publishing, marketing, movies, and well… the state of the hellworld we’ve all found ourselves living in.

But, yeah, in all fairness, a lot of the writing advice is stuff I’ve gone over once or thrice before. Which makes me ask, again… Why are you still reading this?

I mean, I love that you’re here. Seriously. It’s truly appreciated. But I’m asking about you in the larger, general sense. What are you still hoping to find here?

For a lot of our time as writers, professional or not, there’ll be people taking that journey with us. They can be teachers in school or professors at university. Maybe they’re other writers we know. Some might be at the same stage of their writing career as us. Others may be a bit behind. A bunch of them may be way ahead of us. Or they could’ve written a bunch of books (or blog posts) about writing and storytelling you really enjoyed.

And these folks have given you tips and suggestions. Maybe some rules to follow. A few guidelines. Maybe a bunch of examples. They’ve pointed out paths to follow and given you a gentle (or not so gentle) nudge in what they think might be the right direction for you.

Eventually, though—like with any active effort to learn—there’s going to come a point when the time and money I’m investing in all that reading and listening and learning is going to outweigh what I’m actually getting out of them. We call it diminishing returns. It’s the point when I’ve gotten ahead of the learning curve. When I’m getting less and less out of each book or class or blog post because, well… I already know I should try to make my characters relatable.

And this is when I need to move out of that safe, comfortable learning bubble and start doing real work. 

This is a big, scary step, because it’s essentially taking away my safety net of excuses. A lot of them anyway. Why didn’t I write today? Well, I’m not quite there yet. I signed up for a class. I’m waiting for feedback from my writer’s group.  I was reading a new book about how to structure novels. And there’s this other book coming out in a few weeks, and I don’t want to get started and then go back and redo things. Plus, let’s be honest… writing’s just the first step toward getting rejected, right?

If you’ve followed this blog for any amount of time, you know the advice and tips here are mostly aimed at people who’ve got a solid grip on the bare basics and are ready to start taking a few more steps forward. But right there, that’s telling you this shouldn’t be your go-to place for years and years. If you’re doing things right, there’s going to be a point where the returns have diminished and these posts just aren’t worth your time.

And I’m cool with that. It happens. It should happen. Your writing should hit a point where you don’t need to be paying for classes or buying books or searching the web for the best way to include subtext. You should progress, improve, and just not need these things anymore. Over the years I’ve belonged to a ton of writing groups.  I took several classes in college. I’ve attended a few writing conferences. And I have bought soooooooooo many books on writing. I don’t regret doing these things, but it’s also been a while since I’ve done any of them.

(True fact—the last writing book I bought was Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig when we were both attending Phoenix Comics Fest. He laughed at the idea I was buying a copy, and he signed it “You don’t need this book, so I hope you enjoy it”)

(it is, for the record, a really fantastic book on storytelling, and even though it turned out I did know a lot of what he was saying, I really did enjoy how he said it and the examples he gave)

Look, I’m not saying any of us are ever going to be the end-all be-all authority on writing. Personally, I’d tell you to steer clear of anyone who claims to be. But that’s just because with any art—with anything at all—there’s always going to be more to learn. So if I’m waiting until I know it all before I start… it means I’m never going to start.

So stop worrying that you don’t know enough yet. Recognize that maybe it’s time to stop putting effort into learning how to write and shifting some of that effort into… y’know, writing. Give yourself permission to learn on the fly, to figure things out as you go, and to not look up every possible way to do something before you do it.

Next time—if you’re still here—I think it’s time we talked about the cheating problem.

Until then, go write.

No, seriously. Go write. What have I been talking about for the past ten minutes?

January 19, 2012 / 2 Comments


            Okay, first off, it’s time for some shameless pandering.

            Permuted Press just released a collection of short stories I wrote called The Junkie Quatrain.  I talked about it here a couple weeks ago.  There’s a little picture/ link of it over there on the right (the green one).  It’s four connected/ interwoven/ overlapping short stories set in the same post-apocalyptic world.  I’ve been explaining it to people as 28 Days Latercrossed with Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon.It adds up to a mid-sized novella, so it’s also very cheap.
            Anyway, I was thinking about today’s little rant and a phenomenal analogy sprung to mind.  No, seriously, phenomenal.  You’ll be talking about this one for months to come.  Ready?
            Have you ever watched an episode of Jeopardy where Alex Trebek will give an extremely easy clue and everyone just stands there?  He’ll say something like, “It’s the longest river in Egypt,” and all three contestants will twist their faces with intense concentration.  The timer eventually runs out and an eight hundred-dollar clue vanishes into the game-show ether.
            The answer is “The Nile,” by the way.
            Thing is, you all knew that, didn’t you?  And so did those three hypothetical contestants.  They were just overthinking it, because there’s no way the answer could be that easy and straightforward.  So they convince themselves it has to be something other than their automatic first response.

            If you watch Jeopardy a lot, you know one of the most challenging categories (statistically) is “Stupid Answers.”  Guaranteed, every time that shows up on the board, the players will miss the first one or two questions.  They’ll get something like “It’s the tomb memorializing soldiers whose identities are unknown,” and all three contestants will frown, furrow their brows, run through lists in their—oh, time just ran out again.

            There’s actually a catchy little term for this you might’ve heard before.  It’s called paralysis by analysis.  It’s when we get so caught up in thinking about how to do something that we never get around to doing it. 
            Some people do this with writing.  They get so wrapped up in having the right word and exquisite language and  perfect characters that they don’t write a single thing.  They’ll spend their time going to seminars with gurus, buying books, and reading article after article about how to write.  And in doing so, the one thing they never get around to is… well,  writing. 
            These folks are convinced there has to be something more to it than just sitting down and putting words on paper.  They think there has to be some special trick of structure or plot, and once they learn it writing will be a breeze.  Until then, it’s not worth doing anything.  They end up paralyzed by constant attempts to break storytelling down to a simple formula.
            The only way to move forward in your writing is to write.  Like so many things, a week of experience is worth more than months of instruction.  I’m not saying instruction is useless, mind you, but I have to know when it’s time to put other people’s books aside and start writing my own.  Put another way, I can’t expect anyone else to think of me as a real writer if I acknowledge I’m still studying how to be a writer, just like I can’t think of someone as a real doctor if they’re still studying in medical school.  We might earn our titles someday… but that day isn’t today.
            It’s still close to the start of the year, so next week I’d like to blab about something for the first time.
            Until then go write.
July 21, 2011 / 1 Comment

Tastes Like Chicken

There’s about a hundred jokes in that title. Hopefully one or two of them will fit with this week’s little rant…

Sorry about missing last week, by the way. I’ve been trying to stay ahead on the new project and prepare for Comic-Con, and the blog somehow slipped right past me. Shouldn’t happen again. Well, not for a little while, anyway.

My dad is a phenomenal cook. Have I ever mentioned that? For a guy who refuses to retire and spends his working hours writing up safety protocols, his cooking skills are just fantastic. There was a time when my mother and brother and I were all trying to convince him to open a restaurant, but he wasn’t interested. Cooking was the fun thing he did to relax. He didn’t want to take that extra step and make a job out of it.

We were all fine with it. Mostly because it worked out great for us. My dad can turn Thanksgiving leftovers into a sandwich you’d gladly pay twelve bucks for, so I’m definitely not going to complain. Not as long as I keep getting invited to Thanksgiving.

No, really, this is all relevant. You’ll understand why soon.

As it happens, I’ve had several different friends and acquaintances ask me for writing advice over the past few months. Granted, they all had different skill levels, but none of their questions were really about writing. They were about improving by buying the right books or starting blogs or catching the interest of publishers. I tried to answer as politely as I could, but I’m pretty sure none of them were really listening. I know at least two weren’t.

So, here’s a better way to look at it.

Should you go to cooking school?

I’m sure a lot of you are shaking your heads at that one, but let’s stop and consider it. Cooking is a great metaphor for writing, on a bunch of levels. It’s an art. The end product has to hit certain benchmarks but it also, to a fair degree, is a matter of personal taste. A few rare people have a natural knack for it but most of us need lots of practice. It’s something most of us do every day, but we know only a small percentage of people are good enough at it to deserve recognition or make a living off it.

So, if you want to get better at cooking, should you go to cooking school?

Right up front, let’s be clear. Any cooking school is going to expect that you have a minimum degree of experience and knowledge right off the bat. They’ll assume you can tell flour from sugar on sight and that you know the difference between basil and oregano. The point of cooking school is not to teach you how to make peanut butter sandwiches. If you’re still struggling with these things, cooking school is really a waste of your time and money.

Now, if you plan on making a living off food, cooking school is almost a necessity at some point. Not everyone needs to take classes on desserts and soups and seafood. We’re just never going to use them. There’s about a hundred better, cheaper things we could be doing to improve our cooking skills. There are free recipes online and on the back of most staple ingredients. There are tons of cooking shows and podcasts where we can learn little tips.

And of course, the easiest thing we can do—what hopefully most of you have already seen as the obvious thing I’ve skirted around—is cook stuff. Just get in the kitchen and cook. If I want to be a better cook, the most useful way to spend my time is cooking. Makes sense, yes?

Y’see, Timmy, if you want to be a chef, there’s a point that you need to take some classes, and you’re probably going to keep skimming through cookbooks forever. But it’s all going to come down to spending time in the kitchen. That’s how you become a good cook. Going to Harvard doesn’t automatically make you a great journalist and going to MIT doesn’t guarantee you’ll be a phenomenal engineer. At the end of the day, it all comes down to just doing the work and how hard you’ve been doing it.

In fact, there’s a fair argument to be made that cooking school won’t help you become a great chef. It can make you into a good chef, but the greatness comes when you go out and start doing stuff on your own. You don’t hear about Wolfgang Puck or Gordon Ramsay taking classes. Neither of them probably has in over a decade, at least. If you just keep going back to cooking school and never really stepping into the kitchen, it should be clear you’re dooming yourself to a life of mediocrity (at least, on the food-preparation front).

You’ll always learn more by doing the job than you will by reading books about doing the job. Doing the job is almost always more educational than taking classes about doing the job.

So, with all that being said… should you go to cooking school?

A bit clearer now, isn’t it?

This pile of rants is cooking school, in a way. Not one of the great French academies, but a bit higher up than the Home Ec class you might’ve taken in seventh grade (if you’re of a certain age). Probably better than those cookbooks aimed at recent college grads.

A few people who are reading this right now desperately want advice on getting agents and publishers interested, but they haven’t bothered to learn how to spell. They’re convinced they’ll learn some magic structure or word (mellonballer…) that will make it all easy for them. They’re so desperate to learn the secrets of a good Hollandaise sauce they haven’t bothered to learn how to boil an egg.

I’m guessing most of you can use about half of the various tips and suggestions I throw up every week. There’s weeks that you learn a clever trick or new approach to an issue in your writing. There’s also those weeks you just skim because it’s something you’ve got a good grip on.

And a few of you… well, you’re probably just killing time here, aren’t you? There isn’t much I go over that you don’t already know. You’re just putting off doing some actual work for half an hour or so.

Learn the basics first. Don’t worry about level five before you’ve mastered level one. If you aren’t sure what the basics are, that’s probably a good sign you haven’t mastered them yet. I’m not being glib. If you’re reading this rant with the goal of becoming a better writer, you should already know what it means when someone says “the basics of writing.”

And then, once you’ve hit that level, start thinking about cooking school.

Next time, just for something different, let’s chat about slasher porn and why it’s not as bad as you may think.

(Yeah, I’m probably misleading you a little with that title…)

Until then, go write.