Sigh. Where Do You Get Ideas?

Quoth Anonymous: I know we’re not supposed to ask this because it seems amateurish, but where do you get your ideas?

There’s a certain kind of writer bully who loudly pretends that “professionals” like them don’t have the luxury of ideas: they just sit down and invent a character and go. 

Hey, dumbfuck. That’s an idea.

When assholes like that shit on “ideas,” it’s usually because they think some kinds of idea (mostly situations) are less pure or literary than others (say, a character or a beautiful line of prose or the yearning of the human heart).

Guys like that (and most of your English teachers) think Herman Melville sat down, cracked his knuckles, and whispered, “destructive obsession” to himself before diving into Moby Dick.

More likely, he woke up in the middle of the night thinking, “Wouldn’t it be ripshit to see a guy all tangled in harpoon lines and lashed to the side of an enormous breaching whale? And his arm could be free, kinda waving even though he’s dead? Fuck yeah.”

(Note: I’m no Melville scholar, and I’m aware there was already an incident that also inspired him. But you KNOW he had to see that image, too. Ideas are never just one thing.)

The reason it’s not super useful to talk about where ideas come from is that they come from everywhere if you’re the kind of perceptive and curious person you should be as a writer.

I’ve gotten story ideas from:

  • An episode of This American Life (“Remembrance is Something Like a House”)
  • A credulous 70s TV show about weird shit (“In Search Of”)
  • An image of ghostly people walking in a line at an abandoned asylum (“The Ghost Factory”)
  • An image of a giant hollow tree stump (“Acres of Perhaps”)
  • A quick joke tweet that I quickly deleted (“Night Fever”)

By themselves, those glimmers of interest weren’t super useful, though early in my writing practice, I tried to spread concepts like them very thinly over the forced structure of a story. Which inevitably failed.

Why? Because ideas, like you, are always collisions of at least two things that only you can reconcile.

That’s why it doesn’t do much good to wait for ideas or dwell on them too long: you are already a teeming cauldron of unique things only you can write about, if you’re brave enough to combine the easy superficial ideas with the tougher personal ones.  

My story “The Leaning Lincoln” is a collision of these things:

  • I really liked action figures as a kid.
  • My father was an abusive asshole, losing control of himself as our fortunes faded.
  • My father’s friend gave me a lead figurine of Abraham Lincoln that had cooled too quickly and was stooped.
  • A lot of weird bad luck happened after I got it.
  • That guy later murdered his attorney.

That’s pretty dramatic, I grant, and it feels inevitable now as a story. But when I started, all I knew was I wanted to write about a cursed lead figure. I had to force myself to connect that idea more deeply to my own experiences.

I had to wait to submit that story until my father died because I was legitimately concerned he would sue me.

I’ll write in the next column about how to turn those glimmers into stories, but in this one about actually hearing the ideas, my advice is to go wide and deep:

  • Wide to encounter a lot of different things that amaze, anger, and otherwise stimulate you.  
  • Deep to connect those things as metaphors to what you love and hate and fear inside yourself (experiences, passions, regrets, mistakes, triumphs).

In preparation for that future column, here’s an exercise I’ve used from time to time to nudge my brain into action.

  1. Grab as many blank index cards as you can.
  2. As quickly as you can, write one thing you love or hate or find interesting on as many of them as you can. For example, my deck includes cards that say, “Twin Peaks” and “Zodiac” and “Vintage Computers” and “Cthulhu” and “Ghosts” and “Porsche 914” and “Running” and “UFOs” and “Gone Girl” and “True Crime” and “Gay Culture Folkways” and “Journalism.”  
  3. Then on other index cards, write a series of times and/or places that you have either experienced or find interesting. Some of mine are, “1970s New York” and “1980s Florida” and “1960s California” and “Ainger Creek” and “Marston Science Library.”
  4. Shuffle those decks either together or separately.
  5. If you kept them separate, pull ONE time/place and TWO love/hate cards. Otherwise, just pick three cards.
  6. Write down the equation that results.
    • Boy Scout Camp + Zodiac + 1980s Florida
    • Gay culture folkways + psychic children + 19th Century Norway
    • Giant Squids + Kennedy Assassination + Shenandoah Valley

You’re going to get a lot of weird shit, and that’s the point. You are using these cards not to tell you what to write about but to get you thinking of what flows BETWEEN them. Don’t take them too literally.

Okay, they won’t all be gold. But give them a chance.

I can guarantee at least a few will excite you with a shiver of recognition as though they have existed inside you for years.

That’s because they have. And now we’re cracking them out to set them free.

I’ll tell you how to do that next time.  

The Will Ludwigsen Broke-Ass Writer’s MFA Program

Quote Too Broke: I’m a pretty disciplined guy and I do some writing before or after work almost every day, but I feel like I’m missing something that maybe I could get from a workshop or MFA. The problem is that I can’t afford either one. What do you suggest for people kind of striking out on their own?

As much as I enjoyed getting my MFA and meeting a lot of great mentors and peers, you definitely don’t need one to write well or even to make connections in publishing. In fact, you may have a slight advantage as an autodidact, approaching this world with a sense of blue-collar work ethic instead of pretentiously like I did.

Stonecoast MFA Program
I mean, I got my MFA in a drafty old house in the woods. You can easily find one of your own!

(Really, anything that puts you in the way of writing and getting feedback and then adjusting your work is fine.)

If I were to assign myself what I really needed to learn, this is the program I would follow:  

Your Textbooks

I know you don’t have a lot of money to spare, so we’ll keep this to the essentials:

  • The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, by Stephen Koch. You could probably just get away with this one if that’s all you can afford, and it is absolutely the best writing handbook I’ve ever found with all the essentials you need.
  • Dreyer’s English, by Benjamin Dryer, can fill in any gaps you’re feeling in your grammar and usage education.
  • A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders, could easily be an MFA in itself with some excellent close readings of the Russian masters like Tolstoy that he turns into very practical and useful advice.
  • Working Days, by John Steinbeck, is his journal from writing The Grapes of Wrath. It’s the best book I’ve seen showing the actual feeling and practice of writing.
  • Story First: The Writer as Insider, by Kit Reed, isn’t easy to find but it’s worth the search. Reed’s idea of storytelling as a kind of performance from the inside of a character’s head will revolutionize your work.

That’s it? No, I could list another five or six, but these are what you need to get an intuitive sense of writing one interesting sentence after another. Everything else is great for tips and inspiration, but you can go a long way with these.

Your Assignments

I don’t have a finite length for my ad hoc MFA program, but you should probably count on doing most of this for, well, the rest of your career if you want to keep sharp and on top of it.

  • Read a lot of the kind of work you want to write, and most importantly, notice things about it. Watch how paragraphs are structured, dialogue punctuated, scenes set up, and chapters divided.
  • Read books from time to time that you DON’T think you’d like or want to write. This is one of the best effects of an MFA: finding connections in things you wouldn’t normally seek out.
  • Outline several of your favorite stories or books on both a chapter and scene level. This sounds tedious, but you’ll get a good sense of structure from doing it. Notice what happens in the first third of a work, the middle third, and the final third. Look for the break points between them.
  • Pick several of your favorite stories (up to novella length) and type them in.

    Yes, I said type them in. This is the equivalent of playing piano etudes, making your fingers move in the same way as an author’s. Yes, it’s true that you’re typing in their fifth or tenth draft, but you have to slow down from reading for entertainment and start noticing things like:
    • How do scenes start? What do you need to describe? How do you downshift from general time (“We lived in the Adirondacks for ten years”) to performed time (“One day in August of 1960, I think it was…”)?
    • How are characters introduced and described? How do they sound different?
    • How are paragraphs structured? Is there a main sentence and then supporting ones afterward with more detail?
    • How detailed are the descriptions? Are there a lot of adjectives and adverbs?
    • What do characters DO while they’re talking? What expressions do they make? Do they move and emote as much as you thought they would?
    • How is action handled? What happens during a fight?
    • How much do characters think (internal dialogue)? How much do they act?
    • How do scenes end? What kind of paragraph brings a scene in for a landing?
  • Assign yourself exercises every so often, like:
    • Describe a character in a paragraph.
    • Write a scene opening.
    • Write a chapter opening.
    • Write a perfectly structured paragraph (topic sentence with supporting details).
    • Write a moment of tense dialogue between two people.
    • Write a moment of action.
    • Write a scene or chapter closing.
    • Write as many first lines for random stories as you can in fifteen minutes.
  • Write and complete as many works as you can as intuitively as you can.
    • Plot and plan only as much as necessary.
    • Stick with them to the end, even if you’re worried they are failures.
    • Notice what doesn’t feel right. Talk to yourself in writing about the problem and work it out as best you can.
    • Move on to the next one as quickly as possible.
  • Get feedback for your stories from people who aren’t idiots.
    • Though even an idiot is somewhat useful for pointing out places where you failed to lull them out of noticing any flaws in the story.
    • You can join a writing group, but know that 90% of them are absolute shitshows full of people who will likely quit and who are more interested in you reading their work than in giving you good feedback for yours.
  • Meet other writers and try not to be a dick.
    • You can go a long way with a genuine curiosity and beginner’s mind when you begin to dip your toe into the writing world.
    • You’re going to meet a lot of desperate neurotic people who, like survivors bobbing in the water near the sinking Titanic, will be flailing so hard that they may drown you by accident. Stay away.
    • You will also meet a small number of wonderful people…but unfortunately you won’t know that until you give them a chance.
  • Submit your work to editors.
    • Don’t take their generalized comments (“I didn’t like the beginning”) too seriously.
    • Only accept advice that energizes you with a thrill of recognition.

That may sound like a lot, perhaps more than you’d imagine from a workshop or MFA. There are a lot fewer parties and gatherings for sure, and a lot less entertaining drama about who is falling in love or hate with one another.

It can also be tough to carve out the time to do all of this, but honestly, you have your whole life to do it, right? I mean, yeah, gather ye rosebuds while ye may and all, but there’s nothing to say this has to get done in a year or two years or even ten.

Your Graduation

Live the kind of perceptive and interested life that gives you something to write about.

One enormous advantage of self-education is that you can grab it from anywhere, and if there’s one thing I regret from my lifetime of studying writing is that it feels sometimes like that’s all I really know.

To write well, you have to be the kind of person who notices more than most people and then can package those experiences for others. Part of your job is to be an “alternate seer” and a “life transmitter,” and that means getting your nose out of a book every now and then.

(It doesn’t mean you have to die in an abandoned bus in the woods or go missing with Pancho Villa’s army in Mexico necessarily, either.)

Learn how to cook a meal or fire a gun or sew a quilt. Walk a dog. Talk to weird old men playing checkers and then their smarter wives. Pretend to be a conservative (or a liberal) during a conversation. Believe crazy things long enough to play with them in your head and then let them go.

Be as awake as you can be as often as you can, and never forget that writing is a road, not a destination.  

Shouldn’t This Be…Fun?

Quoth Not Having Fun: A lot of the time, I find the act of writing to be pretty much agonizing. I mean, not like “severe acid burn” agonizing, but at least unpleasant enough to make me not want to do it. I know we’re all told that good things are difficult and work is work, but shouldn’t writing be…more fun than this?

As a person who hasn’t felt like writing this site in over a month, I feel your question all the way to my lazy, duplicitous heart that prefers napping to artistic expression.

I distrust writers who claim to love 100% of their working process, largely because anybody that happy about anything is clearly delusional. I distrust them, but I also envy them for the same reason I envy those animal people in the Richard Scarry books, just showing the fuck up to their jobs all cheerful and shit.

I’m guessing Sergeant Murphy here isn’t on his way to bag and tag a torso in the farmer’s field.

On the other hand, I also distrust (and pity) writers who claim to hate most of their writing process, or who brag that they like “having written” more than writing, or who crow that old canard about cutting open a vein to bleed on their typewriters. They remind me of the blowhards in the office who work on Sundays pretending to save the world.

If I had to guess at a healthy percentage of enthusiasm versus despair in writing, I’d guess that anything less than 70%/30% is edging into the territory where it’s tempting to ask just why the fuck you’re doing it.

You really have two basic options for why you’re writing:

  • You’re doing it BECAUSE you genuinely enjoy the act of writing (playing with language, performing characters, capturing vision and experience), but you’re just stuck on this particular work or in a generalized funk of depression.

OR

  • You’re doing it DESPITE hating writing because the result you are working toward (sharing a vision with the world, telling a hard-won truth, awakening the proletariat) usually makes that hatred worth enduring. Except right now.

In both cases, the issue is often that you have lost contact with why you want to write in GENERAL, or why you want to write this SPECIFIC thing.

Here are two refocusing exercises that I do sometimes to remember what I’m writing for.

Why Are You Writing at All?

  • Think back to when you first had an interest in writing, back when it was “fun.” What made it fun? What were the pleasures you found in it? What reasons brought you back to the page?
  • Find three to five of your OWN favorite works. What did you enjoy about writing each one? What drew you through when they got tricky?
  • What can you do differently to make your work these days more enjoyable? What do you need to remind yourself of each time you write? What do you need to forget or ignore?
  • Are you overly fixated on your slim odds of success in writing? Welcome to the club. Those odds aren’t going to go up by hating it.  

Why Are You Writing This Thing?

Consider the project you’re working on.

  • What drew you to write it in the first place?
  • What does it have in common with some other work that you love? Does it share a style, a setting, a voice, a genre, a structure with something else? Are you experimenting with that?  
  • Who do you want to read and enjoy it (or at least find it provocative)? What feeling do you want to evoke in them?
  • Will it have some impact in the world? Does that matter to you?

(I hasten to point out that the answers to these questions do NOT have to be artistic or noble in any way. You can say, “I want people to laugh so hard at my story that they shit their pants” or “I’m in this to get laid and paid, either order,” and that’s wonderful. Have at it.)

The issue, Not Having Fun, isn’t that writing (like all human effort) can’t always be a frolic in the fields. The issue is that you’re NOTICING and DWELLING on it right now. You’re letting outside factors like fear and doubt and economics overwhelm the tiny spark that got you started in the first place.

Most of writing is a cultivated delusion that your work will matter to someone. If all else fails, you can at least do your best to make sure it matters to you by either enjoying the act or enjoying the possible result.

How Do I Stay Edgy But Keep Readers?

Quoth ANONYMOUS: PHENOMENAL WEBSITE. PHENOMENAL. I WORRY SOMETIMES THAT MY PURSUIT OF THE VIOLENT AND NUMINOUS MYSTERIES OF THE SHADOW-SICK HUMAN HEART MAY ALIENATE MAINSTREAM AUDIENCES. HOW DO I WRITE MORE APPROACHABLY WITHOUT FEEDING PABLUM TO THE MASSES? I’LL TAKE MY ANSWER OFF THE AIR.

Thank you for the insightful question. I think that’s something we all worry about, except maybe the people who sell pablum.

You seem to feel strongly about your artistic vision, which I’m guessing is a largely intuitive one with which you improvise to create stories. You see something, it glimmers at you, and you integrate it in your story because you trust your mind’s eye.

To me, that’s probably the purest way to create art, and I admire it deeply.

For a variety of neurotic reasons, however, I’m someone who is driven to entertain people…which makes me either the worst person to answer your question or the best.

I’m nominally a horror writer in that my work tends to include people with fractured perceptions coping with a universe that seems eerily tuned to their exact emotional weaknesses. My work sometimes includes violence, rarely gory or sexual but usually a more internal kind, a personal kind.

For example, a ghost story to me is the gossip of the dead, and the way a spirit haunts a person’s mind is far more interesting to me than the mechanics of how it’s anchored to an old fucked up house.

Most of my stories are experiments, both on the people living inside the story and the ones reading it. I just…like that. The instrument I’m playing with my fiction is the people, not the phenomena or the objects.

You might start somewhere else, perhaps with visual and auditory imagery. You see a curtain of trees or a crumbled factory, and they hint at something deeper than what they are. Some people might want to define and confine that meaning, to explain it, but I suspect you’re more of the “hey, look at this crazy shit” school of artistic expression.

Moment from Twin Peaks S3, Episode 8 with a creature entering a woman's mouth.
You know, like this guy does.

Which I would never talk you out of. In fact, I could use more of that in my own work; I’m tempted too often to explain the mysterious…which ruins it.

To make your work marginally more approachable without sacrificing your vision, I would suggest creating a lens character: someone with whom we travel through these liminal spaces who can perceive (unreliably, of course) the terrible, wondrous things you are showing us.

I’d make this character somewhat more sensitive than an ordinary person so we can see and feel more of what he or she is experiencing, and I’d provide him or her a deep personal history so there are lots of hooks you can use for making the horrors more directly damaging. I’ve written before that weird is normal and normal is cliché, and this person should have plenty of weird.

I think you’ll do okay with that.

One thing you’ll have to keep in mind, especially as a creator more accustomed to manipulating mood and setting than characters, is that your readers are probably going to like this character. We’re going to feel their hurts more because we’re wired that way in our monkey minds.

That means that whatever you do to this character will have a higher impact on an audience. A muted note of horror will sound like a tuba blast when it happens to them, and that’s worth keeping in mind as you control the tone of your story.

That character is the audience’s raw nerve, and whatever you do with that access should probably be more deliberate than your strictly intuitive approach. You may have to consider a second or third idea for their fate instead of leaping on the first. That’s not compromising your vision…it’s just understanding the tool you’re using to express it.  

Now it’s entirely possible that you want to express the nihilistic emptiness of all existence and the hopelessness of love and the futility of evolution. That’s fine; stomp on that raw nerve, put that character’s arm in a blender, throw them through a windshield, kill them off and damn them to hell.

But accept that the work won’t be “approachable” and be cool with that.

What this all means is that characters aren’t just objects in a story like sofas or forests or bloody hatchets…at least not to readers. They suffer, yes. They don’t all get happy endings. Maybe none of them do, if that’s your model of the universe.

But in a work that’s otherwise subtle, you need to remember the power you wield through them.

For me, that risk is worth the huge benefit of audience sympathy. Not all my stories have happy endings, but I try to make them interesting endings: moments of realization or transformation, even if they’re short-lived and wrong.

I don’t think I feed people pablum, but I try not to feed them flaming aircraft fuel, either.

The good news is that we don’t have to choose one or the other.

I hope that helps!

How Can I Level Up in My Work?

Quoth Anonymous: Sometimes people refer to “turning a corner” in the writing of their fiction, like they’re leveling up. What does that mean and how do I do it on purpose?

Wow, Anonymous, you’ve eerily picked the exact best moment to ask this question because fifteen years ago on this very day, I submitted a story that was the beginning of my OWN turning point.

What a coincidence!

“Turning a corner” is when your skill takes a significant leap forward that feels sudden but almost certainly isn’t. It means that you’ve realized something about how you work and learned to apply it in a way that produces a noticeable increase in “quality,” whatever that means.

Maybe the work is simply better written or easier to follow or more personal or filled with deeper feeling.

With luck, you’ll turn corners several times in your writing career or at the very least, you’ll make a long slow arc toward improving with every new work. But sometimes it feels like it comes suddenly, and that’s what we’re talking about today.

What’s required for a turn? Let me share my experience:

A punch in the face that destroys your creative complacency…

On the first day of critiquing manuscripts at my six-week Clarion experience in 2006, one of my submission stories was among the first we discussed. We hadn’t had time yet to write onsite, so this was one that had gotten me ACCEPTED to Clarion in the first place.

That story received a critical curb-stomping so savage that its broken teeth are still probably lodged in the carpet of that room at Michigan State. I’d like to think it had a little to do with nervous people trying to show their editing chops, but my story may well have been the cosmic affront to all literature as everyone said it was.

Enter the Hexagon! Twenty writers enter…and twenty writers leave, slightly less happy.

After my twenty-one peers had each had their say, all I could do was thank them in a warbling voice and say that I was here at Clarion exactly to write better stories.

That night, I walked around campus embarrassed and angry. For the previous decades, I’d been told by dozens of teachers that I was a good writer, not because I was a good writer but because I was a better writer than their many students who didn’t give a shit about writing. I’d taken their praise literally and managed to learn nothing to improve.

I’d needed more punches in the face and fewer pats on the back.

(Not literally. I got plenty from my father.)

…followed by a dark night of the soul…

This step may be optional if, unlike me, you’re not a neurotic mess trying to justify his existence on the Earth by entertaining other people.

I spent time in the MSU library writing in my journal about whether I was meant to write or whether I should take the hint and go on to something I was better at. Unfortunately, years of caring mostly about writing meant this was probably the best bet I had.

Unsure what to do, I called my friend Jason to give him an update on how Clarion was going. On my way to Michigan, I’d stopped to see him and some other friends in South Carolina and showed them some photos of an abandoned mental asylum I’d broken into earlier in the year. It had been a creepy place.

Yes, that’s an actual picture.

Jason listened to my dilemma and said, “Next time those people give you shit, look around that room and ask yourself which of them has the sack to break into an abandoned fucking mental asylum. Then consider THEIR advice.”

Which, yeah, put some things in context for me. No, not to ignore them…just to remember that I was the one with skin in this game, and I had to choose what I took on as criticism.

Really, this phase of your turn is figuring out if you’re willing to commit to doing what it will take to improve your work.

…and then an honest assessment of what you’re doing badly…

I suspect a lot of new writers get so hung up on whether they’re “good” or “bad” at writing in general that they don’t consider the many gradations between. It’s easier to throw up our hands and say we suck than to look at our work page by page to see exactly how.

Luckily, this guy was around to tell me EXACTLY what was wrong with my work.

When you refocus from yourself as the problem (“I don’t deserve to be a writer”) toward the story as the problem (“What can I fix here?”), that’s when a turn can happen.

For me, the issues my peers detected (and that I agreed with) seemed to be that I was too quick to avoid feelings with humor, my narration was too cold and mean, there wasn’t enough detail to feel like a story, and I couldn’t plot to save my life.

That sounded about right to me.

…and what you’re doing well…

In my journal at the library, I grudgingly allowed that I was pretty good at dialogue and at imitating people’s voices. Oh, and insinuating stories for readers out of fake found documents.

…so you can consciously practice to improve.

I call this stage “Fix It or Fuck It”: are you going to make changes to your technique, or are you going to write around them?

I did a little of both. I began to emphasize emotion, perception, detail, and experience in my stories, and I also experimented with voices that weren’t exactly like mine to tell them idiosyncratically.

Plotting…I let that ship sail. But not immediately, because I wrote four more terrible stories at Clarion where I tried to follow the advice we were getting about structure. For my last story, I just gave up and submitted a fake set of theater reviews for the apocalypse written by Dorothy Parker.

The feeling when I submitted that story was, “Fuck it. I’m going to keep doing what I do, only better each time,” which was Kelly Link’s advice to me during the last two weeks of the workshop.

It helped, too, that I wrote the story for a very specific audience, taking on the empathy to entertain her specifically. That became another principle in my new practice: imagining what an audience would find interesting or pleasurable or scary.

On a thunderstorm-y afternoon, my story was the last for critique…and almost everyone seemed to love it. Perhaps that had less to do with the quality of the story than their relief that I hadn’t wasted six weeks of our time, but I was happy either way.

That was the story that started the turn. I mean “started” very slightly, like maybe 5 degrees. But after that, I sold every story I wrote forever and ever.

No, alas, I didn’t. It took some more experimenting, and eventually there were two other stories as part of that turn toward what a “Will Ludwigsen story” would look and sound like. Some would call that “finding a voice,” which is not a term I like to use because each story has its own voice.

What I say instead is that sooner or later, we each find the kind of story that we can pull off semi-reliably because we’ve found ways to accentuate what we’re good at and to fake what we’re not.

That’s what a turn is: realizing that you can control what you write and then finding the next level of faking how to do it.

Why Do My Stories Feel All Out of Balance?

Quoth Anonymous: How do I balance the amount of description and dialogue and thoughts and things in my fiction? I feel like I go on a tear and overdo one way over the others for long passages.

You know how after a plane crashes, the National Transportation Safety Board assembles whatever pieces they recover in a hangar somewhere to see what happened? Sometimes you have to do that with your fiction, understanding its individual parts to see how they’re working (or not working) together.

Photo by Matheus Bertelli on Pexels.com

The parts you’re asking about here are sentences, and each one in your fiction is primarily doing one of these things:

  • Dialogue, for performing a character’s speech: “Holy shit,” he said. “Bayonets really hurt when they past your skin.”
  • Action, for performing a character’s motions in real time: Timothy lifted himself with shaking arms from the slick and spreading pool of blood beneath his open chest wound. 
  • Thoughts/Feelings, for conveying how a character is reacting to the situation: There was no way he’d make it to spaghetti night at the VFW by six, which was just one more reason for Ingrid to be pissed at him. 
  • Description, for focusing on an interesting or important element of the setting: He’d never noticed it before, but the linoleum floor in his grandmother’s kitchen wasn’t uniformly a shade of gastric green but also speckled with squares of a rancid mustard hue. He sniffed, wondering if they were actually mustard, but they reeked more like a half century of Grammy’s sour feet.
  • Summary, for conveying what happened without performing it: For the next several hours, Timothy dozed and woke and dozed again. He enjoyed the dozing more because his brain was trying to entertain him with the all-star hits of his life: winning the intramural pennant, that kiss under the pier on prom night, finding that issue of Hustler in the woods.   

Now this model is very general, of course, and it’s more descriptive than prescriptive: you shouldn’t be precisely planning the function of each sentence before you write it (though hey, why not if you want to try?).

The best-case scenario is to develop an ear for the way sentences sound as you write them so they’ll naturally balance, but that’s not an instinct we dropped down out of the trees with.

You’ll have to learn it somewhere, mostly by reading works like the one you want to write and noticing the balance that author strikes between each type of sentence. You can try to do that intuitively, or you can try something more structured like this:

  1. Pick up a book in the genre in which you’re writing. Preferably, it should be one that you actually enjoyed reading.
  2. Take out five highlighters.
  3. On the first page, draw one line with each color and label them DIALOGUE, THOUGHTS, SUMMARY, ACTION, and DESCRIPTION.
  4. Now start with a passage you admire and start highlighting based on what you think the primary purpose of each sentence happens to be. You’ll see very quickly how the author is (or isn’t) balancing each of these elements.

Identifying the functions of each sentence like this is more for debugging your work, discovering the specific reason(s) it doesn’t feel or sound right. Nobody’s life depends upon the accuracy of your assessment, so if you’re not sure what a sentence is doing, take your best guess.

We’re looking at ratios here, not landing a guy on the Moon.

Some of the books you highlight may be heavy on description, striving to provide an experience for the readers. Others may be heavy in dialogue, moving the story along quickly perhaps at the risk of losing a sense of living the story. Maybe there are lots of thoughts and feelings, an interiority for a narrator’s inner landscape like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.

Another debugging (or educational) trick to try is the squint test: peer at a page at a distance where you can’t make out the individual words, just looking at the blocks. Are they big blocks, signifying a slower and more contemplative pace? Or are they small blocks, hinting that this is a section of quick action and reaction?

(By the way, going slow isn’t bad at all. Going slow is what gives people a sense of experiencing this story as real, and it’s a necessary for lulling people into what John Gardner called the ‘fictive dream.’)

The last suggestion I’ll offer is that it’s okay to take your time. When you’re drafting a story, you’re in a hurry to get it done. You’re framing the house. In subsequent drafts, you’re adding the details…and you shouldn’t be afraid to take a whole paragraph (Or two! Or three!) to set the scene or tell us what a character is feeling.

The writing goes slower than the reading, so your sense of pace is going to be off until you read it aloud. Most people I know (including me) start thin and have to bulk out the story so it feels real.

That may feel like a lot of work for something that felt like a simple question. The truest answer is that you’ll get a feel for that over time, especially if you’re perceptive with other people’s work and honest about your own.

But that answer sucks in the short term when you don’t have those instincts yet. Identifying the sentences may be a good way to develop them.  

What Do You Do with Rejected Stories?

Quoth Don: How often do you approach the box where you keep your past works (I can hear the creaking of the chest as you open it) and revisit writing that was rejected to improve your writing now?

Good question, Don!

My general feeling with rejected stories is that once they’re gone, they’re gone.

By the time I’ve written something, sent it into the world, and received rejections for it, the emotional connection I had to it in the first place has long faded. Sometimes elements of that work sneak their way subconsciously into other stories, but I seldom reach into the trunk and try to resurrect them entirely.

As any good crime scene investigator will tell you, once there’s maggots, you ain’t bringing that one back.

I don’t really keep my rejected stories in trunks. Barrels work better.

I have only a few basic reactions to a story rejection:

  • Relief, because I’ve since realized that the story (at least that draft) deserved to be rejected and the editor saved me some embarrassment.
  • Chagrin, because I’d submitted it in the vague hope that I was wrong about how mediocre it was but the editor caught me.
  • Disappointment, because that story actually felt right and obviously didn’t connect with that particular editor or venue at this particular time.

Technically, you can choose to fix a story in any of those three scenarios but first, you need to ask yourself:

  • Do I want to? Is there something about this story that I still feel compelled to express? Does it still spark something in me? Do I still believe in it?
  • Is it worth fixing? By “worth,” I mean whether you think that you have the skill to fix it and a good place to sell it after you do.
  • Do I know how to fix it? Sometimes, you know exactly what’s wrong. Other times, you have no idea. Sometimes, a fix means changing a few words or a scene. Other times, it means starting a whole new document and salvaging the twenty good words from the last one.

For me personally, it’s fairly rare that a story meets all three of those criteria. A notable exception is the novella I just finished that started as a short story, became a novel draft, became an MFA thesis, became another novel draft, and finally became a novella after I started over from scratch.

In that case, I felt the idea was special to me and my experiences, and it seemed a waste to let it go for someone else to write.

(I have a suspicion that stories float around and find people to write them. If you let one pass by, it goes to someone else. I swear to God I was writing a short story about FBI agents investigating strange phenomena the year before The X-Files came out.)

The risk of picking over your rejected stories is that you’ll never stop. There’s a certain fantasy in refining a work over and over again that you can finally get it “right.” This fantasy is even stronger if a rejecting editor or workshop group gave you some vague and well-meaning advice on how to fix it. You can chase that around and around forever.

You make up for feeling bad about losing a single story by writing a lot more to take its place. Your chance to get it right comes with whatever’s next, not what came before.

Unless, of course, there’s that nagging idea that won’t let you go…

Why Hooman Love Write More than Me?

Quoth Tyler: My hooman is normally quite considerate. But there are these times when he begins writing and forgets it is treat time! I stride into the room and he ignores my efforts to remind him of his sacred duty–I bump his leg, I stretch up to tap his arm, I even mew, but the end result is rarely a full belly. Please help!

Thank you for your question, Tyler. I’m going to assume that you’re a cat and not a severely mentally-ill child, but really, the advice would be exactly the same so you do you.

Let me answer your question this way.

Think about your good standard Stare, right? Once or twice a week, you sit down or crouch while watching a section of wall or corner or ceiling without blinking for half an hour. The work is extremely necessary for the fate of all mankind, but it’s not completely visible to the hoomans around you so they don’t know that.

Yes, exactly like that.

The thing about a good and important Stare, of course, is that the first five or ten minutes of it produce no apparent results but are nonetheless crucial for the rest of the Stare. Without that seemingly fruitless groundwork, you can’t ascend to the state of transcendent perception required for the ghost or trans-dimensional portal or past-life flashback to manifest. 

That’s why it’s especially frustrating when a hooman trips over you at those moments or snaps, “What the fuck are you staring at?”

The answer which you cannot give is, “the dream-state beyond time.” Nor can you add, “And now I’ve lost it, asshole.”

Here’s where I blow your mind:

Your hooman ALSO gazes into the dream-state beyond time.

He too needs those minutes of seemingly fruitless meditation to shut out the chattering of the world and his own brain. Instead of staring at a wall, though, he’s staring at a white light box or a sheet of paper you’d rather use for ass-blotting.

Now it’s tempting to leap in and fuck up your hooman’s dream state in revenge for all the times he’s done it to you, but I beg you to consider this: you’re better than that.

In your heart are the memories of a thousand lifetimes on this and other worlds, and you know how fragile they can be. Your hooman can’t access them as easily as you can, but he’s trying, and there’s a certain nobility in that. Not your level of nobility, but still.

You’re lucky that he even wants to try. So few hoomans have a Thing beyond themselves to which they’re looking, something they can take an active part in making real. As you know, that’s fragile because everything on Earth wants to stop that kind of connection to the universe. That’s why there are cars and volcanoes and fleas, to make it all the harder to focus on what’s real.

A man named Edgar Allan Poe once wrote a poem with the line, “Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.” You, of course, are one of those who dream by day. So is your hooman.

My advice to you, then, is this: let your hooman stare as much as you can. Yes, sometimes treats take precedence. Yes, sometimes the litter box is a little too thick for comfort. But as much as you can, as often as you can, grant your hooman the chance to glimpse but one thousandth of the visions you see every day.

But if you jump on his shoulder and see pictures of fur-less hoomans wrestling on a bed or in a rest stop bathroom instead of lines of text, go ahead and interrupt.

Should I Major in English?

Quoth at least five students from every semester I taught: I want to be a writer. Should I major in English?

(Or, the heartbreaking variant, “I switched my major to English because of you!”)

Despite what generations of angry blue-collar fathers have told their first-generation college children, a degree in English isn’t necessarily a vow of poverty. I’m doing okay with mine (though I supplement it with skills in programming and design), and I know plenty of people with STEM degrees who are struggling to find work because physics is even less relevant than literature for most businesses.

The days of a one-to-one correspondence between a degree and a job (with a few exceptions like medicine, law, and accounting) are long gone, if they ever existed. Now your main hope is to convince a potential employer that you chose your degree intentionally to train yourself for a grand, specific, and most importantly profitable purpose.

“Yes, I selected my major in English because I’ve dreamed all my life about writing mortgage software documentation, and my ability to parse The Faerie Queene serves only the purpose of better understanding Truth-in-Lending statements.”

(I think English majors are better at that because they’ve read and written a lot more bullshit. STEM people are all hung up on the truth.)

But 99% of the students who asked me this question didn’t care if the degree would make them attractive to employers. They wanted to know if it would make them better writers.

And the answer is it probably won’t.

What will make you a better writer:

  • Writing a lot, particularly on demand without waiting for inspiration or even something to say.
  • Receiving feedback from competent people.
  • Deliberately analyzing your own writing weaknesses and correcting them with practice.
  • Reading the kind of books or stories you want to write. Not, as in my case, 17th century Restoration drama, which I somehow took two courses in at UF.
  • Demystifying writing as something that is made by deliberate action, something that can be practiced and hacked, not granted by the gods or solely the result of “talent.”

Whatever you study (either formally or not) needs to put you in the way of writing…but not just any writing.

You have to be careful with studying English because often, you’re learning about literature instead of writing, studying the circumstances in which it was made or the socioeconomic conditions it represents or the psychological issues it shows or the vagaries of accidental meaning it performs.

You can’t, alas, take apart a story and learn to write it by analyzing its conditions of creation any more than you can reverse-engineer a Porsche by studying Weimar Germany.

Even if your literature degree requires tons and tons of writing as many do, the type of writing is very different than what people ordinarily want to read. A well-written academic paper (probably 10%) is structured more like a legal argument, providing evidence and drawing conclusions from the text instead of using the text to prove some pet theory of culture.

If you like to approach literature with a scientific curiosity and open-mindedness without an ax to grind, then the academy definitely needs you.

It’s possible, of course, to major in creative writing. That will put you in the way of writing things that are closer to an audience, but even then, many programs and professors make writing into something precious and dramatic and important, which is the last thing you need.

What you need, more likely, is a cigar-chomping editor who thinks that all words can be summoned and rewritten nearly on demand. You’re more likely to meet that kind of person in a journalism or communications program.

You have to make writing something that isn’t mysterious and strange to you. It has to lose a little of its magic so you can imbue it with your own. That’s the tightrope you’ll walk, taking it seriously but not too seriously, loving your words but not too much.

Many of the English majors in my classes were too paralyzed by creating LITERATURE to be loose enough to get conversational on the page; they knew too much about how hard it is and how much every word means…all things you shouldn’t think about until later.

The other majors tended to approach fiction with a beginner’s mind, sort of flouncing through on a lark.

Personally, if I had it to do over again, I might consider studying advertising or marketing because those are forms of writing that require an awareness of audience that I think is lacking in most writing and literature programs. Say what you will about the ethics of those professions, but they are certainly focused on obtaining an effect from people.

Which at the end of the day is what writing is all about, even at its most self-expressive.

My English degrees taught me a lot about Gothic literature, the 18th century, the 19th century, critical theory, Edgar Allan Poe, the Harlem Renaissance, and Oscar Wilde…all of which I’m deeply grateful for, though I didn’t have to pay for those experiences. My friend William has read more Shakespeare than I have (almost all of it) and he works in a convenience store.

The real risk of an English degree is knowing more about the documenting of life than the living of it. With the right attitude, you can graduate knowing both, but you have to be the captain of your own education.

Which you’d have to do with any other degree.

Seriously, just major in whatever you want, write what you want, read a bunch of it, and sometimes type in a chapter from a book you love and notice how it works.

That’ll put you ahead of 90% of English majors, including me.

How Do I Stick with a Story Even When It Seems to Suck?

Quoth “Serling”: I have long struggled with committing myself to any one idea. I’ve finished some stories but most were long ago. Ideas are not a problem; but as soon as I start working on one my enthusiasm dwindles and I abandon the tale for another. So I never accomplish much. How can I remain devoted to seeing a story through from start to finish?

Oh, Serling. Any writer who DOESN’T have a folder of abandoned titles, first lines, character sketches, first chapters, half-starts, or entire works is a sociopath. Perhaps a literal one, someone who thinks their every word is gold because they have no empathy for an audience.

The likely source of your problem is that you have an excess of this empathy, a sense of literary taste, which you are applying too early and too broadly.

To diagnose what’s going on here, I think you have to listen for the cause of your dwindling enthusiasm, which will likely be different by story. My dwindlers tend to be these:

  • I have no idea what to do next in this thing” is the most common for me because I’m an exploratory writer. My remedy is usually to write “What would be the next interesting thing that could happen in this story?” and talk myself through the plausible possibilities.
  • This story has gotten boring to write” is the second most common issue I have personally, and it usually comes when I forget (or lose touch with) what interested me in writing the story in the first place. This, too, I tend to solve with talking to myself in a journal, asking “What was the original appeal of this idea? A character? A situation? A setting? A feeling? How can I put more of that into the work?”
  • Something doesn’t feel right” is another thought that haunts me, and usually I track that down to fearing the inevitable stage of any creative work where it feels thin and flimsy, like only the skeleton of an idea. That’s a completely natural feeling, and it can only be cured by continuing to throw words at the story until you reach a critical mass of detail and feeling.
  • This story won’t be any good so to continue is a waste of time” comes up less often than it used to because of four quasi-Zen ideas I’ve been clinging to lately in my work:
    • This story will only suck if I decide to quit while it still does. I can fix almost anything, even if it means deleting everything but the three good words out of 10,000 that I’ve written so far.
    • Every story feels like a mess until a sudden shiver of recognition about 98% of the way through writing it.
    • My professional judgment about the whole story is suspect because I don’t have a whole story yet to judge. I just need to do the next good thing and rip out the previous bad one.
    • Who cares if I “waste” my time writing a story that doesn’t sell? It’s not like I’m neglecting dying children in my charity pediatric cancer practice for my writing.

There’s a lot of self-talk and journaling here, and I’m sure some tougher-minded professionals would scoff at that. They get their feedback from their peers or editors or agents or a bottle of gin, and I get some of mine from there, too.

(Not gin because I’m not an elderly man in the 1920s. Jameson’s.)

But when something goes wrong in my work, it is almost always a deviation from MY original intention or love, and another person can’t really help me with that. I have to go back to the source, spelunking down to the shriveled little weirdo in the center of my heart who sent this idea up to my brain in the first place.

To do this kind of inner dialogue means being a good writing friend to yourself. It means going from “This sucks and I’m a terrible writer” to “Huh. I wonder why this sucks and what we can do about it.” It means not taking any particular sentence or paragraph or even scene too seriously. It means seeing your work as an experiment you’re running instead of your last chance to be loved.

It means, most of all, telling yourself that the only way to fail at writing is to browbeat yourself out of doing it. 

One last idea I’ll leave you with is that all art in process makes a tremendous and terrifying mess. Go into any sculptor’s studio or baker’s kitchen and witness the excess required to make something beautiful.

This computer was designed by a genius and is the prototype of some of the most elegant machines ever invented. It’s in the Smithsonian now.

Writing is no different, and I would estimate that I’ve written about 10,000 earnest words of fiction for every one that’s been published. That’s not counting logs, journals, essays, blogs, letters, and hoaxed emails at work.

The novella I just finished is in its eighth version, counting a short story, a novel, a Master’s thesis, a revised novel, and a complete reboot. 

That’s just the cost of doing business. There are always second and third and fourth chances, and nobody has to see them until the one you like.

You just have to lessen the pressure on yourself until you get there.