I’ve Been Working on The Writing

So it occurs to me we’re always giving you people advise like: if you work at it and keep improving, you’ll be fine.  Or “as long as you keep growing as a writer.”  Or a hundred other such helpful tasks.

And if you’re like me, you sit there and go “How do I know I’m working?”  And “How do I know if it’s improving?” and “how do I work on what I know to be week?”

When I went through the Kris and Dean workshop by kept baffling me by saying things like “trust the process” and “in two years you’ll be able to do this.”

I don’t know about you guys, but my process, mostly, is I write, and if I’m writing mostly to myself, I am pretty comfortable with how I write and I WILL NEVER CHANGE.  You only think I’m joking.

What’s worse, what I like and work at in writing is not necessarily what anyone else likes or even notices. I spent years studying how to drop info in the Heinlein way, and not only do people not notice it, but the master himself had some big honking infodumps.

The kicker is that Kris and Dean are largely right.  If you keep writing, and listening to critique, or trying to improve, you’ll eventually get there.  Sometimes sideways and upside down, if you’re me, but you’ll get there.

But it’s not DIRECTED writing, and if you’re like me, you will have a never ending talent for experiencing all the byways and sideways of how not to do it, before you figure out how to do it.  Let’s suppose you’re also like me and don’t want to spend the next 20 years improving.  Here are a few tricks to work on your writing in a more directed manner that will get you there faster.

1- Read.  Yeah, this seems easy, but it really is not.  Tons of people think they can’t read while they’re writing because it will “taint” them.

Does it?  A little.  If you’re reading something really out of the ordinary, it will come back in your writing.  I remember when I spent two weeks reading the musketeers back to back and all the papers I turned in at school had this… picaresque feel to them.

So? Use it.  You know different books call for a different voice.  While you’re writing, read the voice you’d like.  It’s not even always in the same genre but it helps.

But also, the effect gets less and less as you get older as a writer.  You start mostly writing like yourself.

And reading stocks your subconscious not just with what can be done, but with the current voice (if you’re reading at least some contemporary books.)  What we read now is not what would have made you rich in the 19th century. You need to know what people want now.  (And for this Indie is great, btw.)


2- Diagram what you read.  I have before given an explanation of how to diagram a novel, it’s around here somewhere.  But it’s not just a novel.  You can also diagram a short story or even a scene to see how an effect was achieved.

All of these are better done after you read the piece a couple of times.

To diagram a novel, you go by chapter and strip it of all ornament.  Chapter by chapter, you take out all the incidentals, the description, the fun stuff and look at “What happened in this chapter to advance the plot?”  You write that down with the chapter number.  After you’re done you look at it again and draw the lines that connect it.  Say chapter 2, they got a lead about the missing parrot, chapter fourteen they found colorful feathers, chapter 20 they heard a parrot behind closed doors, etc. till that thread ends.  If you’re visual use different color markers.

This will allow you to see when subplots are developed, and what the rhythm is.

You can do it with a short story or even with a scene, by just stripping the extraneous and putting in the “movements” then doing the same.

3- Read how to write books.

Most writing books are hokum.  They’re not really designed to write GOOD stuff, they’re designed to write stuff that sells to the publishers.  Beware when they talk of “big” books, etc, because if you’re a political/social naif you might not spot that they’re saying “these are pet causes that will stand you in big with publishers.”

There are exceptions.  Of course there are. I always recommend Dwight Swain.  He teach you HOW TO WRITE.  There are others.  Every course I’ve taken from Kris and Dean (WMG Publishing) has been a great course.  There are otehrs that are horrendous for everything but little bits of info.  Used judiciously, they can get you a ways towards your goal.  Just remember at first at least these bits you acquire are to be used in the REVISION phase.  It takes a while to integrate them in the writing phase.

If it strikes your fancy and you think you can learn from it, buy it (or borrow it) and take the parts you can use and ignore the rest.

4- Do exercises.  These are things you write with no expectation of their becoming novels or shorts (but save them, because you never know.)

Even if you’re a gateway writer, and things pour into your head fully formed, unless you’re John Ringo, there will be gaps in the transmission, and places where the static overwhelms the signal, so you need to have the chops to make do in between.

What are writing exercises?

Well, there are books of writing prompts, but you can make them yourself too.  Open the dictionary in three places, and pick three words, then write something involving three words.

Open whatever you use for news, take an article.  Now project that same issue into the future or another world.

Take something you do every day and apply “what if” to it.

Set yourself at least 1000 words.  If it ends up being a short story, great, but even if it’s just an opening, or a scene, if it gives you that practice is worth it.

Do something like this every week for a couple of hours.  Professional artists and pianists practice.  We’re the only art where practice is not supposed to be needed.

I’m here to tell you that’s wrong.  The more you practice, the better you get.

Now stop reading this and go practice.



  1. Very helpful. Confirms my previous suspicions about what works and has what are called “actionable takeaways” in the B2B writing world I currently inhabit.
    Any further suggestions on good books about writing? (directed at Sarah or my fellow commenteers)

    1. As Dwight Swain being already mentioned, here’s a few more that I’ve found very helpful among the authors I know:

      Self Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Brown and Dave King
      Characters and Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card
      The Emotion Thesaurus, by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi
      Take off your Pants! Outlining your books for faster, better writing, by Libbie Hawker
      2K to 10K: Writing Faster, Better, and more of what you love, by Rachel Aaron
      and, on the non-outlining end:
      Writing Into the Dark, by Dean Wesley Smith

      1. I use all of those, and more, and especially like Orson Scott Card’s techniques for writing third-person pov, and varying the depth from almost cinematic/omniscient distance to a very intense, right behind the eyeballs sense of the character – as necessary. It’s one of those things I probably would never have figured out on my own – and use all the time.

        When I started, I devoured new writing books. Some had good ideas – but I don’t need to go back to, so I passed them on. Others were so bad I’ve finally just dumped them.

        I use Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction almost every day when I’m writing. I use Dramatica, the Save the Cat books, and The Key (myth) of James N. Frey when plotting.

        1. Yes to the above, plus I would add “Don’t Murder Your Mystery” which is really about line editing, and applies to all writing, not just mystery writing.

    2. The Orson Scott Card book on how to write science fiction and fantasy is one of my favorites, because it showed me what I was doing wrong.
      There is also a book just called ‘Dialogue’ from the ‘concepts of writing fiction’ series that was useful.
      Most of the rest of the books I have on writing (and I have a few) I didn’t read that much of, and usually found to not be all that worthwhile for me.

      All arts require you to learn by doing, to find your own voice, your own style -first-. If you only look at how everyone else ever did it, you’ll never be any different. I learned this last lesson from my bass teacher. I’ve studied many instruments over the years and every teacher was always quick to teach me their style or the ‘correct’ style. My bass teacher (who was a recording artist in an original band) refused to do that. He said that he wanted me to have my ‘own’ style first, before teaching me any of the ‘right’ ways of playing. So I could develop my own unique ‘sound’.

      Writing is very much the same way. Yes, you have to learn the rules (so you can learn how to break them), but I honestly believe you’ll be a better and more interesting writer if you learn how to do it your own way first, and -then- learn how to make it fit in and ‘follow the rules’ because that will give you your own unique style.

      1. I second both the OSC sci-fi writing book and the characters-viewpoint book. I’ve been re-reading the characters book because I got a sense that I’m getting sloppy and lazy with some character things. And I third Swain. Swain is what kicked my novels into working, even though they were (are) rough in spots.

  2. I also suggest reading something badly written. You will know you are making progress when your fingers cramp from the effort of NOT correcting the subject/verb disagreement, or the blatant telling-not-showing. You don’t know what you know, until you see someone else do it wrong.

    True story–I did not fully understand the caution against head-hopping until I read a beginning writer. I knew civilized people didn’t do it, or if they did they did so in private with the blinds down and washed their hands afterwards. But with this person–it was clear it was done because he didn’t know how to indicate unspoken thoughts and feelings. The only way for him to do it was to take up residence in the reacting character’s head and TELL us.

    Which leads to the exercise. Have a scene where one character doesn’t talk, just react, and stay in the talking character’s head throughout. Hand finished product to innocent bystander, and ask them to tell you what the silent character feels at the end.

    1. Was reading a fanfiction world building exercise that’d inspired a fair amount of better told expansions. Very disappointed in what it didn’t have. Wanted a patch for certain apparent flaws enough to start developing one myself.

    2. I joined an on-line critique site (Critique Circle, which I recommend), in order to get crits on my stuff, but yeah, I found I learned far more from critting other people’s stuff, good or bad, than I learned from any crits I received. (BTW, advantage of a large crit site over a small group is you can work on attracting the right audience for your book).

  3. The best book about writing that I have read is Donald Westlake’s “Adios Scheherazade”.

    It’s not intended as a manual or textbook on the subject, it’s actually metafiction about a writer. Ed Topliss writes porn for a living and realizes that he can’t do it any more, and he can’t really do anything else, either. The novel is his ramblings about his life and his career as both fall apart around him.

    That sounds really depressing and totally navel-gazing, but it’s actually full of humor and some very solid advice about the craft of writing. Ed talks a great deal about what he admires in the writing of his friends who have moved from porn to “real books” and muses about why he can’t seem to do it himself–while the text itself provides examples by contrasting examples of Ed’s work when he is trying to write vs. Ed as a character just telling his story.

    It really made me think about voice and tone in fiction and how to bring a reader into the life of a character, rather than just reporting what is happening.

    1. Dunno if this is gonna be proper place to ask or not, but right now I’m trying to work on both erotic writing (plotted porn) and working on sff (urban fantasy atm that I swear I wrote before I read mhi). Any major pitfalls or concerns I should watch for?

      1. NO. There is a book on writing erotica that taught me a lot, (shush, I mean about showing emotions, etc. but I’m not sure of the title. Amanda Green might remember. I recommended it to her.)

        1. Alright. Thanks. Wasn’t looking for anything nsfw, more just genre differences between romance/erotica and fantasy and what mindsets to avoid. But I’ll keep looking around.

            1. Thanks. If it’s ok I’ll send you an email some point this weekend. I want to better corral my thoughts.

      2. Years’n’years ago someone loaned me a book called How to Write Erotica by Valerie Kelly, and it was a pretty good treatment of the topic. What it taught me is that I wasn’t cut out for that sort of thing. That was worth the price of admission all by itself.

        1. THAT.
          What it taught ME is that I wasn’t getting in enough tactile/visual/etc. information in my NON-erotica books.
          Oh, I also found I wasn’t cut out for it. All the stories I tried to start people turned into giant spiders or something like that. … I was SO bored.

          1. My problem (and I’ll admit that I tried it and threw the material away) is that literal descriptions of sex start sounding silly after a (short) while, and eventually make me laugh, even when they’re supposed to be Serious Litratchoor. I was making fun of textporn when I wrote a menage a trois involving three AIs in Ten Gentle Opportunities. My point was that sex happens in your head, and if you’re all head (an AI) there’s no need for naughty bits. I think it worked, though it probably blew past a lot of readers.

  4. I need to get the chance to sit down and finish this weekend. Then get back into the 1hr per day habit editing and rewriting.

  5. I realize this is off topic. I’ll keep it short.

    Does anyone here do **technical** writing, or know someone who does? I need to set down some of the things I’ve learned about my field. I’m pretty sure I suck at writing “accurately and completely without running on”. Looking for podcasts/books on the subject, or even a useful Google/Amazon search to turn stuff up.


    1. There is a book called ‘Technical Writing’ by Mills and Walter that was teh college textbook I learned from when I got me engineering degree. I’ve had to do quite a bit of technical writing as an engineer, and I’d say see if you can find a used copy of that.
      Technical writing is pretty dry, and properly describing some things can lead to rather long sentences. The hardest part is not leaving anything up to interpretation. If it’s really important to you, you can probably find a tech writer who will do the work for you online, just not sure what they charge.

    2. I hate outlines because they immediately drop me into technical writing mode. So my suggestion is to start by outlining what you need to talk about, because you’ll suddenly realize that in one particular process, you forgot the critically important steps in the middle, or the closely related information.

      Another suggestion is that if there are processes involved, go through the process as you take notes. When I was preparing a how-to manual before taking maternity leave, I would go through each of my common tasks and explain them as though it were to be used by someone who had never encountered Photoshop before. (They didn’t find a good hire until after I left, so that was a necessary thing.)

      And don’t forget logical order. We once critiqued a so-called professional video to help train referees for rowing, and one of the highly laughable moments was how it dropped the information that a rower could pay a referee $25 after the race… and they gave no justification. (This would be a bond for challenging a call; if they’d added that, or even put it in the video at a point near the other duties, it might have made sense.)

    3. I’ve (mostly) made my living in technical writing for 35 years. (Search for my name on Amazon and you’ll see the books I’ve written.) I learned how by reading technical books that taught me something, and then reading them a second time to look at how they worked rather than what they taught. Basically, identify the books that did you the most good and then imitate the hell out of them.

    4. Plan.
      Define the problem: describe what you are trying to communicate to whom.
      Research what your audience already knows, and what reading material already works for them.
      Write. Forget. Read. Rewrite.
      Have readers in you audience tell you what they have learned.
      Address the bugs your readers have helped you identify.

      New skills take practice.
      Passive voice works.
      Condensing the core ideas when speaking to a general audience can help. There are organizations whose purpose is this.
      I’m still a novice. I rewrote this after scrapping the first effort, and giving up.

  6. Has anyone else here tried Holly Lisle’s How to Think Sideways course? Not necessarily recommending it (I keep starting it and getting bogged down by life), but was wondering if anyone else had and what did you think?

    1. I haven’t taken the actual course, but when she was selling the individual lessons on Amazon (they’re no longer available) I bought most of them. Based on what I learned working through them on my own, I’d say the course is definitely worthwhile. I did take her How To Revise Your Novel course, and highly recommend it. It’s five months of brain-and-gut-wrenching work, but it teaches you to dig down into your novel, take it apart, identify what works and what doesn’t and how to fix what doesn’t work, then put it all back together again. It was a game-changer for my writing, and the best $270 (think that’s what it costs now) you can spend on your writing. Though Dean Wesley Smith’s online courses may also be in that category; I haven’t taken any yet but I hear they’re excellent too.

  7. What if you sit down at the computer to find out what those pesky characters are doing today? Makes for an entertaining day for me, but the Writing Something part can become very slow.

  8. What strikes me most is the question of taxes. Is the advance considered income by the IRS (I would expect so), and how much tax was paid on it? Can that tax be gotten back (Hahahahahahahahahahaha) and how can the full 500K be returned?

    1. You’d file an amended return and wait a long time.
      It’s not all that unusual a situation.

      I had to bone up on basic accounting when I was fixing a client’s billing software. I bought a few introductory/basic accounting books.

      I had thought that accounting would be a cut-and-dried thing. Gazintas in one column, gazoutas at the other, a few shovelfuls of regulatory shuck and jive, but basically a by-the-numbers set procedure.

      Uh. No. Not even hell no. More like, “Hold off on the lawyers, shoot the accountants FIRST.”

  9. Years ago, before the World Wide Web existed, I used a simple text-mode program for netnews and mail. It was simple enough it didn’t even keep sent messages, so I tweaked it a bit to do so.

    Circa 1993-ish I was writing a bit under a megabyte a month, scattered across newsgroups and mailing lists. That’s not counting quoted text or mail headers.

    I’d already written and sold two books; *together* they weren’t that much text.

    I probably don’t write that much any more, but I’m sure I spend at least that much time on forums and blogs as I used to do on mail and news.

    I view this as “entertainment time.” But if I were to write another book that would have to be pared back to make from for “work time.”

    1. I bought a logicool keyboard for my iPad. Nice, easy to pack, and if I am doing any serious amount of typing, much easier to use. Look for Bluetooth keyboards in your local Amazon or electronics store.

      1. We’re getting close to buying me a new laptop. (It has to be powerful enough to run Photoshop so I can set it up to work from home; otherwise I would have gotten one months ago.) The old one fell victim to a five-year-old and a glass of water.

  10. If I’m doing something outside my usual wheelhouse, I’ll sometimes read an author who has done similar work, to see how they did things and get some pointers.

  11. Funny enough, I saw your “I always recommend Dwight Swain” comment and having been on a bit of a writing book kick recently thought, “I should go check him out!” So off to Amazon I traipsed. What do I find in the third listed review of the second title I checked by Swain? A 5-star review by Sarah from Colorado Springs whose writing and life seems suspiciously familiar…

    It’s too bad about the fryer which stopped working after two months back in 2013, but it appears they pulled the product from sale since then, so there’s that. 🙂

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