Category Archives: Writing Craft

How to Jump Start Your Writing

I recently taught a two-hour session on how to jump start your writing.  In preparing for this, I put together a one-page handout of all the best writing advice I know in a collection of bullet points under the acronym WRITE.  (Yeah, I know it’s corny.)

In any case, I thought  others might find this list helpful, so here it is.

If you use it, great!  We need better writing in the world.  If you share it, just give me credit.  Thanks!

How to Get It Done: WRITE

By Chuck Caruso

“W” is for Writing

  • “Vomit in the morning and clean up at noon.” –Ray Bradbury
  • Find the tools and the location that work best for you so you can focus on being productive.  Consider longhand versus typing and home versus writing in cafes — your tone and style will change with each of these.
  • Start with action and always use action to reveal character.
  • Show; don’t tell!  If you have to give background information, at least hide your exposition in action scenes.

“R” is for Reading and Research

  • Read a lot!  You need to see how other people do it in order to get the voices going inside your own head and practice verbalizing.
  • Read broadly but make sure at least some of your reading is in the genre and sub-genre you want to write.
  • Pick apart books you like to see how they work.  Then steal their plotting structures, character development tricks, and pacing devices.  No, don’t plagiarize, but borrow the tools that work.
  • Readers keep turning pages for three reasons:
  1. Human interest.  Because they like the characters.
  2. Suspense.  Because they want to find out what happens next.
  3. Puzzles.  Because they want to know the solution.
  • Most successful novels combine only two of the above elements, using on as primary and another as secondary.  Don’t mess with the mix during your novel or your story will seem to sag in the middle and the reader will lose interest.

“I” is for Ideas

  • Develop your ideas on paper.  Thinking about your ideas is valuable, but at the end of the day it doesn’t count.  Get a notebook and start jotting things down.
  • Outline!  Make a list of chapters and write down the two or three things that need to happen in each chapter to advance your plot.
  • Remember that you need to know how the story ends before you start writing it.  Otherwise you can’t plant clues or build up to the finish.

“T” is for Tenacity

  • To make yourself write, commit to writing for at least 15 minutes every day.  Of course you’ll need to do more in the long run, but this will help you build the habit.
  • Don’t believe in writer’s block.
  • Once you start, don’t circle back and revise until you have a full draft.  Most unfinished novels die at about page 50.  An outline and good writing habits will help you push past this common breaking point.
  • You can’t finish your novel if you’re not getting your butt into the chair and doing it.
  • Don’t give up!

“E” is for Editing

  • Once you finish your first draft, let it sit for a while.  In the meantime, start outlining and doing character sketches for your next novel.
  • After a few weeks or a month, go back and clean up your draft.  When you’ve gotten rid of the typos and the “embarrassing” missteps, have a trusted friend or two read it for you and give you feedback.
  • Listen to your readers and don’t defend yourself.  If you have to explain what you meant to do, then you didn’t do it well enough.  Take note of what you need to change to make things clearer for the reader when you’re not there to explain it.

Finding Time

Last time I wrote about overcoming writer’s block and learning to “vomit in the morning and clean up at noon.”  If you missed this post, scroll on down and find “On Writing the Bradbury Way.”  Or you if you click on my name to the left under the heading “Sort by Posts” you can find that and everything else I’ve written for Portland Mayhem Company.  That sort feature is a new one for us, by the way.  We’re still making improvements to the blog, so we welcome any feedback you have.  We’re also happy to tackle whatever topics you might be interest in, so send us a comment and we’ll see what we can do.

This time around, I thought I should discuss the other big problem that seems to plague most aspiring writers – finding time.

Believe me, I grapple with this one too.  Since I’m currently working three different gigs – as cubicle-jockey from Monday to Thursday, as an adjunct professor one night a week, and as a clerk at an indie bookstore just for the love of it one weekend afternoon – my time is always at a premium.  Besides earning my daily bread, I’m married and like to spend quality time with my wife.  And we’ve got two high-energy herding dogs that need frequent exercise.  Add in the two or three TV shows I follow (Castle, Sherlock, and the Thursday night comedy line-up on NBC – except for Outsourced which I find racist and offensively un-funny) and whatever the latest hot videogame title is this month (CoD: Black Ops).  Oh, yeah, and I’m always in the middle of reading a book or two because I love reading and I need to keep up on what other people are writing and what’s getting published and because, you know, I’m trying to make it as a writer.

Funny how in life, just as in the preceding paragraph, being a writer always seems to come last.  And I think that may be the crux of the problem.  Making time for all those other things seems to happen as a matter of course, but carving out an hour or so for my creative work remains a daily struggle, and one I don’t always win.

But there’s hope.  There must be.

Considering that most successful writers also have families and full-time day jobs and other outside interests, clearly the challenge to find time to write while having a busy life is one that can be conquered.

Here are the five things I’ve found to be most helpful:

Books – Specifically, reading them.  If you want to write, you should read as much and as broadly as you can.  Okay, I know I mentioned reading above as one of the things that can seem to limit the time you have available for writing, but the more you read the more you will write.  If you want to write, presumably the thing that sparked that desire inside you was a love of the books and stories you read.  Reading continues to fuel that fire.  What’s more, you need to live in the world of words, constantly thinking of how to phrase things and describe actions.  The world of writing is like a giant conversation.  Imagine yourself sitting at a giant table with all the other authors who have ever lived.  In order to have something meaningful to say to this table filled with all the people you admire (and even those you don’t), you need to first get up to speed with the conversation.  That means reading books and lots of them.

Deadlines – Sad but true (cue the Metallica).  Nothing gets me to leave dishes unwashed and errands un-run like the pending deadline for some anthology or other.  While I have (mostly) taken to heart Lawrence Block’s injunction to write novels instead of short stories, I still love the form and will jump at any opportunity to find a home for some pet idea I’ve had collecting dust in a notebook.  And this works!  Just this month I’ve placed two recent works – a brief piece called “Awakened by the Taste of Blood” in an anthology of flash horror and a short story called “Everybody, Do the Apocalypse” in a collection of post-apocalyptic science fiction.  Seriously, there’s nothing like a narrowly-focused call for submissions to provide a prompt and get you writing to a deadline.  You won’t make much money doing this, but it’s pretty easy to see things into print and every short piece you sell also finds a home on the happily growing list of your writing credits.  For more on this idea, see Jim Ehmann’s excellent posts (“Duotrope is Your New Best Friend” and “The Anthology Game”) about websites that can help you find markets for your work.

Habits – Some habits aren’t your friends.  Smoking cigarettes, shooting heroin, hitting on other men’s wives – none of these things are likely to improve your life.  On the other hand, good writing habits can make a huge positive impact on your career as a writer.  Whether your goal is the merely-mortal 500 words, the industry-standard 1000 words, or the truly masterful 2500 words that Jack London claimed, writing every day will keep your mind nimble and strong and ensure that the words are flowing well enough that you’re getting something accomplished and you’re in shape enough to ramp up your output when you learn of a deadline just a few days out (see above).  If you’ve read Stephen King’s On Writing, you know that he claims the secret to his success is writing every day.  King writes every every day – birthdays, holidays, days when it’s a family vacation at the beach, every day.  Yeah, I know he’s Stephen King, one of the most successful and prolific writers in the entire history of writing, and neither of us is Stephen King.  But riddle me this… how do you think he got to be Stephen King?  Set yourself a word-count goal and write every day.  As a side note, emails to friends, posts to your Facebook account, and entries in your journal do not count towards your daily word total.

Rewards – Want to dive into that fat new tome by your favorite author or treat yourself to a big slice of chocolate cake covered in vanilla ice cream?  Do your daily writing first.  Your personal budget and your waistline are your own concerns, but I’m here to tell you that you’ll be able to enjoy both that delicious novel and the thrilling dessert a lot more when you can come to them with a prior sense of accomplishment.  Another little trick in the rewards category that you might find useful is to reward yourself while you do your writing.  Pick up that new music CD you’ve been wanting on the way to your favorite café and order yourself a decaf non-fat mocha.  Then do your daily 1000 words while you’re grooving to the new tunes and sipping your tasty beverage.  This one really works, but remember to use it in reverse as well.  Deny yourself rewards when you haven’t been doing your writing.  No ice cream for you till you’ve done 1000 words every day for the next week.  See how fast you grab that laptop and find yourself a chair.  Speaking of chairs, that brings us to our last help in finding time to write.

Chairs – Yes, chairs.  As in somewhere to park your busy posterior so it won’t be moving around town while you’re supposed to be getting your daily writing done.  Seriously, you need to just sit in a chair and let yourself write.  It’s not always about being inspired or having the muse whisper sweet nothings in your ear.  But it is always about getting the work done.  The very successful mystery writer Craig Johnson, a much droller man than I, says he doesn’t believe in writer’s block because he treats his writing like digging a ditch and he’s never heard of anybody suffering from digger’s block and complaining, “You know, I’m just not feeling the ditch today.”  When Johnson’s non-writing workday on the ranch is done, he sits himself down and does his daily writing.  Oh, and another good thing about chairs is that when you’re sitting down, it’s much harder for someone who knows you’re supposed to be writing to come along and kick you in the ass.

On Writing the Bradbury Way

While attending school in Los Angeles some years ago, I was blessed with the amazing opportunity to spend an entire afternoon with one of my writer heroes, Ray Bradbury, author of The Illustrated Man, The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine, and Fahrenheit 451.  If you don’t know Bradbury’s work, you’re really missing out.  I would suggest that immediately upon reading this post you rush out and buy at least two of the books I named – you won’t be sorry.  You may also want to pick up a copy of his book Zen and the Art of Writing, which contains some of the writing advice I’ll be discussing here (and much more).  Along with Stephen King’s On Writing, Bradbury’s book is one of the best books about writing that I know.  Both of these prolific authors have a knack for stoking the fires of inspiration when your passion for the work has been reduced to smoldering embers.  So if you need a serious kick in the pants to get you back into your home office (or wherever you write), you need look no further than these two.  In the meantime, I’ll do what I can here to get you past that slow patch, or what sometimes gets referred to as the dreaded “writer’s block.”

After showing me and my friend Zac around his office, pointing out memorabilia and knick-knacks from all aspects of his amazing writing career, Bradbury sat us down in his writing space and waved his hands significantly over the IBM Selectric II typewriter that had served as his workhorse through many books and countless short stories.  He told us he’d never used a computer and didn’t imagine he ever would.  His typewriter did the job for him because he knew the one essential secret to being a successful writer.  We scooted forward to the edge of our chairs, eager to hear the secret.  Here’s what he told us:  “Vomit in the morning and clean up at noon.”

There’s a bit more to it than that, obviously, but basically this means that when you sit down to write you need to get out of your own way and let the writing flow out of you as quickly and as naturally as it can.  Don’t worry if it’s not perfect.  Hell, don’t even worry if it’s coherent.  Yeah, it might suck.  It might be embarrassing stuff you don’t want your Aunt Ethel to read.  It might not be something you can ever sell to a publisher.  That doesn’t matter.  You can’t worry about any of those things when you’re in the creative mode.  Just write.  Vomit the words out on to the page (or the screen).  Later you can go back and clean it up, re-crafting into whatever your conscious mind thinks it ought to be.  But when you’re in the mode of drafting something for the first time, you need to get out of your own way and let the magic happen.

Stephen J. Cannell, another hugely successful author best known for his creation of The Rockford Files and many other TV detective series, puts it this way, “Writer’s block comes from the desire to be perfect.”  It’s another angle at the same central principle.  Creativity happens best when you just let it happen.  At its best, writing is more play than work.

When Bradbury started his career and hit upon his vomit method, his goal was to write a short story a week.  He figured that if he wrote 52 stories a year, at least a few of them would have to be good.  No kidding.  He turned out to be Ray Bradbury, one of the best and most respected science fiction writers of the twentieth-century.  But when he started, he was just a kid with thick glasses, unruly hair, and a big dream.  Putting himself in the chair and making himself vomit words on the page over and over again is what made his dreams come true.

This is the method.  Bradbury gave it to me and Zac, and we’ve followed it as our holy gospel ever since.  Now I’m passing it on to you.

Follow this advice and you’ll never go wrong.  Vomit in the morning and clean up at noon.

As a footnote to this story, I’d like to add that a few years later, shortly after my first professional sale to a national magazine, I got a postcard in the mail from Ray.  It said simply, “Congratulations!  You’re on your way.”  God bless you, Mr. Bradbury.