NOTE: This post is for writers. If you’re not a writer, you may choose to skip this one… but come back soon, because you’re going to love my next post.
Then, last night, just four weeks later, I published the sequel: Fat Vampire 2: Tastes Like Chicken.
Now, maybe that seems impressive, finishing two big tasks in two small timeframes, but this isn’t about speed — and it’s certainly not about me trying to impress anyone. I’m not trying to break any records. What I’m trying to do — what I’ve finally done, after twelve years of creative stagnation — is to break through a bottleneck that frustrates a lot of writers.
In other words, maybe some of the stuff that helped get me unstuck can help you — regardless of how long you take to publish your book.
And so I figured I’d share fourteen tips that I’ve learned through trial and error and experimentation. Maybe you can take something from what I’ve learned and use it to create your own awesome thing.
Now, I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination… but I’m certainly getting better, and maybe you can take something useful from my experience.
Let’s find out.
Tip #1: Do the work
I’ve attributed this idea to Steven Pressfield over and over in the past, but let us not forget that the great sage Billy Crystal also said in the theatrical masterpiece Throw Momma From the Train, “A writer writes, always.”
It’s true. You’d never run into a welder who’s never actually welded anything, but you run into writers all the time who don’t write. So let’s get something out of the way that I would think should be obvious: you don’t get to call yourself a writer if you aren’t putting your ass into a chair on a regular basis and writing.
Stop treating it like it’s a delicate art. Sit. Write. Do the fucking work. End of story.
Tip #2: Write fast
I think it’s a mistake to agonize over every word in a rough draft. Getting words perfect is what second, third, and fourth drafts are for.
Stephen King says in On Writing (which every writer should read), “Writing fiction… can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self doubt.” I totally agree. You have to force yourself to get the story OUT in the first draft and to worry about making it better later on. If you write slowly, you’ll get mired in one place and will succumb to doubt and second-guessing.
I believe that writing a first draft is mostly a subconscious thing, and that your critical mind has no business butting in while your story is being formed.
Tip #3: Write thin, then fill in the details later
Feel free to ignore this tip (or any of them) because everyone is different, but I suggest writing the bare bones of your story first and then filling those bare bones in during subsequent drafts.
I used to write a TON during the first draft and then rely on rewrites to cut out the fluff, but I’ve found that this is a mistake. If I need 120k words in the end, I used to plan to write 150k words and cut out 30k. If I did that, it was hard to find the story in all that padding — like searching for a needle in a haystack. But if instead I write 100k words and then add a net 20k during rewrites (which might mean eliminating 20k of fluff and adding 40k of new clarifying/detail scenes), I find I can keep the story in focus.
Cluttered first drafts lose me while I’m writing and frustrate me when I’m editing. Think of it this way: In the first draft, your job is to tell yourself the story, and in the second draft, your job is to tell others the story. How much detail do YOU really need in order to understand the story enough to write a second draft?
Tip #4: Get over yourself
If you can’t produce anything, stop worrying so much about being Ernest Fucking Hemingway and just tell the story. When you try to be impressive and poignant and meaningful in a first draft, you usually end up looking like a pompous assbag and risk losing the story due to all of the hot air. See tip #2 above.
Tip #5: Understand that your voice is your voice — not somebody else’s
All writers read, and we can’t help but be influenced by what we read, so we tend to ape the styles we enjoy. You like Ray Bradbury? You’ll try to write like Ray. You like Michael Chabon? You’ll try to write like Michael. This stuff isn’t even conscious, but you’ll see it when you start wondering if you “should do” something stylistic or thematic. But the thing is, Michael doesn’t sound like Ray doesn’t sound like Chuck Palahniuk, so what does that tell you?
Good writers have unique voices, and you have to learn to trust yourself to find yours. So be careful which “writing rules” you obey.
Tip #6: Practice
Voice is just one of the things in writing that takes time to learn and to develop. A few of the others are pacing, the feel of dialogue, correct use of point-of-view, and how much to reveal at what times. The bad news is that there is no shortcut to learning those things, and that you have no choice but to keep writing (see tip #1) to clear the pipes until you begin to improve.
Check out this 2-minute video of Ira Glass talking about the creative process. It pretty much says it all:
Tip #7: Accept that you will probably despair and hate your work at some point in the process
Hugh Howey, blockbuster bestselling author of the Wool series, told us on the Self Publishing Podcast that he alternates liking and hating his stories as he takes them through different drafts. I was so glad to hear him say that, because I do the same. I’m very happy with the final versions of my books, but there were distinct times during editing all of them that I thought what I’d written was hopeless and terrible.
Push thorough this feeling. It’s destructive. First and even second drafts are allowed to be kind of ugly as long as the core of the story is there. And yes, what you’ve written may suck… but it’s equally likely that if you keep working and refining in spite of your doubts, you may find that you start liking it again.
(Note: This cycle may repeat. Don’t think you won’t hate it again eventually just because you liked it once.)
Tip #8: Tell the damn story
It’s amazing how tempting it can be to vanish into a character’s head or into an interesting scene and forget that the people in your story are supposed to actually be doing something. This was probably my biggest issue during my decade of lost production, wherein I constantly mistook situation for plot.
So for instance, Fat Vampire could have been about a guy who was turned into a vampire and finds himself forever physically unfit. That’s amusing, but it doesn’t go anywhere. The story had to move from A to Z. Reginald had to have a task or a quest, and he had to complete it or overcome it.
Think of it this way: There’s a famous story about how the movie Speed was pitched as “Die Hard on a bus” — but there are TWO elements to that statement. You can’t just have a Die Hard type of setup. That’s just a situation, or a setting. In order for the film to work, you need to have the plot, too — which is the action that occurs on the bus.
(P.S: This is true even if you aren’t writing novels with a lot of action. Jane Austen novels aren’t exactly a thrill a minute, but clearly something still HAPPENS in those books.)
Tip #9: Have faith that your story will find itself
I used to write without an outline (“pantsing,” so-called because you operate by the seat of your pants), and my podcast partners Sean and Dave do the opposite (“plotting” = working from an outline). I’ve learned that I work best somewhere in the middle. I create a few bullet points and have a decent idea where the story will end up, but I don’t write out every detail ahead of time. But regardless of whether you pants or plot, you will find that there will always be points at which the story will stray from your plans and begin to make itself. Your job is to let it.
I can think of three huge plot points in Fat Vampire 2 that I honestly didn’t know were coming… and the crazy thing is that those plot points were set up and foreshadowed in the first book, before I even knew there would be a sequel. This kind of thing will happen more and more as you write faster and learn to trust yourself.
Tip #10: Don’t overexplain
Most beginning writers explain things to death because they fear being misunderstood. I get it. I’ve been there. But consider this: another great Stephen King quote from On Writing goes like this: “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” What that means is that a little bit can go a long way.
When a character enters a room, you don’t need to go through a laundry list of exactly what the room looks like and how many coins are on the dresser. Describing a room simply as “cluttered” will often do the trick. And as a bonus, your fiction will feel more real because you’ve given the reader freedom to provide her own picture of a cluttered room, rather than imposing your vision onto her.
And the “story writing itself” stuff from #9 above? That happens when you give it room to happen. Don’t feel the need to explain every detail of how things work or why they happen in your story. Tell what’s relevant, and keep the rest to yourself.
I’m really glad I learned this one, because the ending of Fat Vampire 2 depends entirely on my decision NOT to include certain explanations in Fat Vampire. I didn’t know that at the time, though… and if I had overexplained my world in the first book, I’d have been screwed when I needed a solution at the end of the sequel.
Tip #11: Omit needless words
This one comes from Strunk and White and is the natural follow-up to tip #10. It says that if you can eliminate words and not lose any real meaning, do it. Most writers resist this, and their thinking goes like this: “Every brush stroke in my art is vital, because it is my art.”
Well, good for you, but your readers may disagree. Loose, flowery writing tends to feel bloated and sluggish to readers, and no matter how literary you feel you are, it’s true more often than not that tight prose will provide a better experience for readers. Your precious extraneous words don’t mean shit to them.
Omit needless words in sentences. Omit paragraphs you can do without.
It’s true that a lot of words that are technically unnecessary end up being part of your “voice”…. but a lot of them are just slowing your readers down, so err on the side of editing too much rather than not enough.
Tip #12: When you write, vanish from the world entirely
You can read all about this one in this post, in “Way #10.” You need to take your writing seriously if you expect to get anywhere. When you write, unplug the phone, close the door, and wear headphones if you’re able. Ignore the world. You’ll be back to it soon enough.
Tip #13: Use the right tools
If I had to write again using Microsoft Word, I’d knife myself in the eye. Do yourself a favor and download the Mac or PC version of Scrivener, the best writing software ever. (Go ahead and try it — you have nothing to lose because it gives you a free trial. And yeah, you bet your ass that’s an affiliate link. I want to marry Scrivener and have its children.)
Not only is Scrivener spectacular to use, but I consider it flat-out necessary for modern publishing to any format other than an inkjet printer. If you use Word or most other software to try and produce .mobi (Kindle) or .epub (everyone else) files, you’re begging for a strong compulsion to fork yourself in the eye. I painstakingly converted The Bialy Pimps from Word to Scrivener so that I could publish it without the internet blowing up. Don’t make the same mistake as I did.
Tip #14: Get the right support
Writing is lonely. You need reasons to believe in what you’re doing, and people to hang onto when your faith wavers, which it will. So find yourself a writers’ group — virtual or in-person — and meet regularly.
You also absolutely must subscribe to the Self Publishing Podcast (look for it on iTunes, Stitcher, and in other directories) so that you can regularly hear from guys who are making a living at this (Sean and Dave) and a guy who’s getting there (me). I find that I get inspired when I listen, and I’m one-third of the show. I guess I impress myself with my insights.
And if you want some real mind-supercharging and accountability, you might also consider joining my Everyday Legendary community. There’s a bunch of writers in there, and they form accountability groups in the forums. You’ll also be surrounding yourself with forward-thinking, possibility-oriented, optimistic people instead of downer assholes. So think about that, too.
Now, obviously some of the above tips may not fit with you, your personality, or the way you write. That’s cool. But seeing as it’s all stuff I’ve had to learn over time and have found useful, I figured it’d be jerky of me not to share it with you. Who knows; might help you come unstuck if you’re stuck, or get supercharged if you’re already rolling.
Use it well. Practice. And do the work.