William Strunk, Jr. said, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

And I agree, so I’ll try to make this as concise as possible. Hopefully.

I learned to not only write with conciseness, but to edit without mercy when I was writing on a Brother word processor that printed, not with ink, but ribbon like a typewriter. Unfortunately, unlike a typewriter ribbon, my word processor ribbon was good for one use only. As it printed the letters on the page, it wound out from one end of the ribbon to the other, and once I reached the end, I’d reached the end. And back then a new ribbon was like $10 at a time when minimum wage was under $3 an hour, and I was making minimum wage. I think I was able to get maybe 20 pages out of each ribbon.

So I had to learn to write concisely, and edit mercilessly, so that when I was ready to print, I was only printing the most important words of the story.

Write as if each word is costing you money, and you’ll soon figure out which words you need and which ones you can lose and still get the point of the story across.

This will be a short one because there isn’t much to say on the subject. In a nutshell, to use a cliché, avoid using clichés.

You know how clichés become clichés? Through use. When you’ve read a dozen haunted house novels that start with a family moving into a new house in a new town, you’re reading a cliché, because so many haunted house stories start that way. And we all do it; my novel THE THIRD FLOOR starts with a family moving into a new house in a new town. But at the end of the day, to use a cliché, we really should strive to be better.

And when you think about it, there’s no need for clichés when you can say the exact same thing with a different words and turn the cliché “on its head”, to use a cliché.

I know sometimes it feels like an uphill battle, and you think if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, but two wrongs don’t make a right and, hey, CDM, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

I’m not saying I’ll never use another cliché. Phrases and story tropes become clichés because they work so damn well. But can we all agree, when we come across them in our writing, to at least try to find a different set of words to say the same thing?

It ain’t rocket science.

(thanks to skillsyouneed.com for the excellent list of clichés in writing)

When we write, what’s the most important quality a story needs to have? Conflict? Sure. Good characters? Obviously. Sex and violence? Well, I don’t want to tell anyone how to live their life. But what good is conflict, interesting characters, or even sex and violence if the reader doesn’t understand you?

For me, CLARITY is more important than anything.

I was once part of a two-author short story collection, paired by the publisher with this other writer I’d never heard of, but I liked and respected the publisher, and I was young and desperate for the publication, so I said hell yes, happy to be on board.

They suggested this other writer and I collaborate on a story to go in the middle of the book and separate his section from mine, or mine from his, I don’t know who was going to be first in the book. Anyway, so this writer and I emailed back and forth a bit, trying to get to know each other, and we were tossing around ideas for what this collaboration could be.

He sent me the opening to this story he’d written and, at this point, I hadn’t read any of his work, so I wasn’t familiar with his style or anything. I didn’t even know he’d already started a story, but whatever. The thing didn’t make a lick of sense to me.

We struggled through that first draft together and eventually he had to spell out in English exactly what the plot was and what was going on. Now if he could do it there in an email, why couldn’t he just write like that all the time?

Dude was an “artist”, one of those writers who says “Stephen King is a hack”–he actually said that to me. Well, Stephen King can write a story readers can follow, because Stephen King understands the importance of CLARITY.

I’m currently reading the latest Stephen King novel. This guy, though, the one I was paired with? I googled his name, but he’s not even showing up on there, so, you know…

There is absolutely no reason you can’t write with clarity. I’m not saying avoid purple prose or fancy flourishes, if they fit the style and theme, but just make the thing clear. Be as fancy and pretty with your words as you feel you have to be in order to express your artistry, just MAKE THE THING CLEAR.

I eventually pulled out of that collab-collection; no fault of anyone’s, things were just taking way longer to progress than they were supposed to, meanwhile I had a dozen or so stories tied up, unable to submit elsewhere or do anything with. So I contacted the publisher and kindly asked for my stories back. They were very understanding and didn’t blame me.

The other dude, however, emailed me the next day with a simple message: “Why?”

Once I explained my position, he said okay, good, he understood too but now he had to email the publishers back and make sure they didn’t try to steal his copyrighted material. Dude, NO ONE wants your “copyrighted material”. And if I’m being honest, when I said no fault of anyone’s? That might not be entirely true; this guy was one big factor in convincing me that wasn’t the book for me; two so vastly different styles did not belong in the same book together. I like to think I write with clarity while his stuff needed a roadmap and the rosetta stone to understand in the end.

So, to recap, just in case I haven’t made myself clear: write with clarity!

Never underestimate the power of chance.

Several times over the years when I was younger, I wanted to write. Wanted to. Had no idea how to, and no one to teach me, so I just didn’t do it. One day I was out buying comics and I saw a new Stephen King paperback, THE DARK HALF.

Man, I hadn’t read a King novel in years. Paperbacks back then were $5, so I picked it up along with my comics, and I probably started reading it as soon as I got home. The story of writer Thad Beaumont had me entranced, and although King had been using writers as his main characters for years, he’d never written about them like THIS before.

He made the act of writing, the ritual of it, the business of it, seem almost FUN. And in such an ugly story about such a vile antagonist, that’s saying something.

But, man, did he make writing seem like a blast. And I HAD wanted to write for so long.

You know what, screw it, I’m gonna write something.

I had an idea floating around in my head for weeks. But it took a Stephen King novel about a writer being tormented by his pseudonym to make me actually take that first step and WRITE it. And I never stopped. I finished that story (The Man in the Window), then wrote another one. And another one. And a few more after that. Then several more over the years.

I’ve been writing since 1991, and I sometimes wonder what I would be doing almost 30 years later, today, if I hadn’t read that King novel when I did. If I’d read it five years down the road, would I have started writing? I don’t know. Because I started at a very critical time. I was a few months away from graduating high school and just happened to be in a composition class that year, and that was only because I’d heard it was good prep for college English courses and of course I was going to college, everyone goes to college, right?

I never went to college. But I did keep writing, and I passed that composition class with so much extra credit from WRITING, that taking the final was optional.

But I digress. What would I be doing now, today, if I hadn’t read that book when I did? Because it was a combination of things that happened in the right place at the right time. Not only did that book inspire me to start writing, it was my high school composition teacher who encouraged me to keep going.

Unsure of what I was doing, I asked her to look over it. She liked what I had so far and offered extra credit if I finished it and turned it in. And it was on that story that I fell in love with the process.

While I’ve always believed in free will, I have also always said “the universe is right on schedule”, which I realize is a contradiction to free will, but I believe some things are just meant to be.

But are they meant to be no matter what, or does it take a chance encounter with a random paperback (I could have seen ANY King paperback I hadn’t read yet that day, but I saw the one that inspired me to take the first step and WRITE something) to set me on the course I was supposed to be on? Or is chance an illusion and there was no way I wasn’t going to find that book on that day?

I don’t know. That’s a question for people much smarter than me.

All I know is, I was out buying comics, I saw this King novel I hadn’t read yet, I bought it, read it, it inspired me, and here I am almost 30 years later, still sitting down at my desk every day, making things up. And I still find myself wondering sometimes, what if I hadn’t bought that book that day. What are the chances I’d be here today, doing this, talking to you? It’s a trippy thought, and one I’m glad I don’t know the answer to, because I honestly can’t see myself being happy doing anything other than writing. No matter what day job I’ve had over the years, and there have been a few, none of them have ever fulfilled me as much as writing. Hail to the King.

Remember in FIGHT CLUB when Brad Pitt (let’s face it, more of you have seen the movie than read the book) asked How much can you really know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight? I’m may be paraphrasing, but you remember the line.

Well, the same goes for artists. I’m not saying whack someone across the face with your keyboard, but I am saying you need to challenge yourself. All artists do. It’s where we find out exactly what we’re really capable of, and where we’re able to raise our standards and our skill level.

Because how much can you really know about yourself as an artist if you never challenge yourself?

What I used to do, back in the days of snail mail submissions with self-addressed stamped envelopes and cover letters was, every so often I’d scour the upcoming anthologies that were taking submissions, many of them themed anthologies, and I’d write a short story to those specific guidelines. And the guidelines were always vague enough they left it open to many different interpretations, but just specific enough you knew pretty much what they were looking for.

Personally, I think some of my best short stories came from these writing challenges. “Working for the Fat Man”, “Maggie Andrews Gets the Facts” and “Terrible Thrills” to name just a few.

One of my earliest writing challenges came after I’d already written the first draft. It was a short, simple, somber story about a man gaining closure after visiting his wife’s grave. The story was called, aptly enough, “Closure”. But I always knew the story was no big deal, would maybe never be published, but that was no reason not to try to make it the best it could be. And with a story this short and simple, well simple was the key word. So I went back and challenged myself to make it as simple as possible. And the best way I knew to do that, with this story, was to eliminate every multi-syllabic word I found. What resulted was an even SIMPLER story that didn’t lose any of the detail or emotion, and told itself in nothing but single syllable words. It’s a detail I doubt many readers would pick up on, but it’s one that stands out to me.

Or there’s the challenges my ex-wife used to hand me, when we were married. Sometimes she would come up with an idea she thought would make an interesting story, a twist on a familiar theme, and I’d write a story from that. Stories like “Birth Day”, “Family Name” and “Luck of the Draw” came about this way.

Now, I know some people are intimidated by the word “challenge”. So let’s change our vocabulary. Instead of a challenge, consider it a mere prompt. And everyone likes a good writing prompt, right?

Writing challenges, or prompts, are an excellent way to motivate yourself when you want to create but have no idea where to start. They’re great exercise in flexing your creative muscles, and a sure way to keep your mind and your creative skills in top form, and every worthwhile artist I know uses them. So the next time you sit down to write, or paint, or whatever, and the drive is there but the ideas are not, try a challenge, a prompt, whatever you want to call it.

Some of my favorites are to write a sequel to your favorite story (book or movie doesn’t matter). If you listen to music while you create, write a story using the same title of the first song you hear, or one using a random lyric from the last song you heard. Rewrite a familiar story from a different perspective. Write a story using only 100 words.

There are any number of challenges and prompts out there, and plenty more you’ll come up with yourself as you get more practice using them. I’m curious to see what you can come up with. Now go out there and make some art.

People often underestimate the value in brainstorming. You don’t have to sit down to work every day, ready to fire away and write full steam ahead. Sometimes the words just aren’t there. This is when brainstorming comes in handy.

Despite many people thinking brainstorming is a group activity, you can in fact brainstorm on your own. The goal in brainstorming is just to toss ideas into the air and see which ones land as you work to sort out a particular problem.

For example, I had this really long short story call “Blue Moon Story” that had a good IDEA, but the execution never excited me all that much. I knew the idea behind the story was worth pursuing, I just knew I’d gone about it all wrong the first time.

So on the drive home from work one night, I started throwing ideas out, talking to myself out loud. I had a character and an opening, but nowhere to go from there. What if this happens, I said? Where does the story go from there? Where do I want it to go? Okay, I know how I want it to end, but how do I get there?

I brainstormed ideas and directions for this story on the full 15 minute ride home and by the time I pulled up, I had the story ready to go and I tackled it the next morning, finishing a first draft in only a couple of days.

That’s not to say every brainstorming session ends with similar results, but at least you can walk away with a list of ideas that don’t work and directions you know not to take.

I’ve done this with titles dozens of times. Not every story has a title built into it. My STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE sequel short, “The Dichotomy of Monsters” went through a handful of possible titles before settling on that one, and each one was CLOSE, but not THE title. I used a brainstorming session one morning on the way to work to get that one.

Hell, even the name Midwest Creativity Control was the result of a brainstorming session with my team, everyone throwing out ideas in a group email and discussing each one until we finally came up with the right one, complete with rationale on why it’s the perfect name for our organization.

Brainstorming sessions can be a lifesaver to a creative, especially when you have a group of people involved, but even when it’s just you throwing ideas around yourself. I talk story ideas and details out with myself all the time, and they always bear fruit for whatever I’m working on.

Don’t feel pressured every day if you don’t know what you want to write about or which direction a story needs to take. The possibilities are nearly endless and you’ll find the right one with a quick brainstorming session.

You ever get halfway through a particularly long and challenging manuscript only to realize you’re bored? Not bored with the story or the process, just … your mind needs something else to ponder for a minute. Not a week, this isn’t one of those times where you need to take a week off and work on something else. Just a day. Maybe an hour so you can recharge. You don’t want to stop writing for the day, though, you just want to work on something different.

Diversity is important. Variety, as Morris Day said, is the spice of life. At these times I have a list of alternative things I could work on just for a minute, something to kick start my brain, put me into writing mode, but not bog me down in the same thing I’ve been working on for the past three months.

Reviews. I love writing movie and book reviews. They’re a quick way to force you to organize your thoughts, you’re getting to praise something you love, or learn from something that didn’t quite work, and you’re getting your fingers limbered up and your mind focused, ready to get back to work. Sometimes writing something that isn’t the thing you’ve been working on, even for an hour, is enough to make you miss the real work.

Blog posts are another alternative. Sometimes I’ll take a minute to post something quick, like what I’m currently reading, or the posters to any movies I’ve recently watched. I actually haven’t done this in a while, but once upon a time it was a regular thing. Back when I had more time to watch a lot of movies and whatnot. Or you can talk briefly about what you’re working on. No details, but a few words on what research you find yourself doing, just enough to tease.

Have you updated the CTAs (calls to action) in your books lately? This is another quick little job you can do when you need to get your mind on something else for a minute.

Something I love to do when I’m bored looking at the same page for the past two days is CLEAN MY DESK. You know your desk is the messiest part of your house, admit it. And it’s much easier to work on a clean desk. If you’re bored with your current work in progress, take the day off from it and clean your desk. And your office while you’re at it. And your inbox.

Sometimes I’m not bored, I’m just tired. I need to step back, take 20 minutes and rest. I often find when I do that, I can come back to it, maybe not wide awake, but not dozing off mid-sentence, either. Set a timer and close your eyes, the world isn’t going to end. And if it does, at least you didn’t have to see it coming.

And the last suggestion for when you’re bored working on the same manuscript every day: work on it anyway. Seriously, sometimes the best work I do on something is when I really don’t want to and I make myself get the words down anyway. I don’t know where the reluctance to work comes from, maybe I’m only bored with it because I know what comes later and I want to hurry up and get to a particular scene. But that’s not going to happen if you don’t write the damn thing. So the only thing to do is shut up, put my head down, and power through whatever downtime scene I’m on so I can get to the fun, exciting one behind it.

There you go, 6 tips to help fight boredom when you want to be productive but just can’t face that same story AGAIN. A quick diversion will keep you working, keep you productive, but give your brain and eyes the break it needs without convincing you that abandoning it altogether is the only option.

Now stop reading blog posts and get back to work. Slacker.

What do you like better, writing, or having written?

Me too.

Having written something is always so much more enjoyable than actually writing it. The work is hard, the after is the reward, and are we not a reward-based culture?

So having written is always favorable to writing.

But we can’t have written without doing the writing. So we have to get started. And I don’t know about you, but for me it’s always the beginning that’s toughest.

There are so many possible ways to start any and every story, it’s like a kid in a candy story lined wall to wall with all the best chocolates and gummies and whatever you like, but you’re told you can only pick ONE.

So that one has to be just perfect, doesn’t it?

Welllllllll. See, this is the nice thing about beginnings in writing. They’re just a starting point, but 9 times out of 10, that beginning is going to change by the time the story sees publication. NO beginning is ever perfect the first time through, because at that point we’ve only got the vaguest idea what direction or tone the story is going to take.

I can’t tell you the last story I wrote that didn’t have at least one or two false starts attached to it. Sometimes you just need to work your way through the story and see where it leads, then go back afterward and make adjustments to the beginning so it falls in line with the rest of the work.

There’s no shame in it; sometimes going back and re-working the beginning is a vital part of the process, especially in a longer work where the distance between the beginning and ending is greater.

But sometimes that false start is all kinds of wrong and doesn’t even convey the story you want to tell. That’s fine, too. My short story, “The Foodies of Mars,” I started writing that with only the vaguest notion of what the story was about, and for several days I wrote a solid beginning before trashing it the next day and starting over, because while those false starts could have worked okay, they weren’t the story I wanted to tell.

So I started over, with a completely different angle, point of view and main character, a different location, trying out story openings like school clothes, just waiting til I found the right combination that made the perfect first day of school impression.

Every story has to start somewhere, but don’t feel bad if you don’t nail it right out of the gate. That’s natural and doesn’t reflect on you as a writer at all. It’s much easier to go back after and fix a beginning than it is to keep working the front end of the story and never even getting to the back half.

Just GET STARTED and KEEP WRITING.

When it comes to audience, there are as many opinions as there are people offering them. William Zinsser, journalist and teacher, says, “‘Who am I writing for?’ It’s a fundamental question and it has a fundamental answer: You are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience–every reader is a different person. Don’t try to guess what sort of thing editors want to publish or what you think the country is in a mood to read. Editors and readers don’t know what they want to read until they read it. Besides, they’re always looking for something new.”

John Steinbeck has a slightly different approach with, “Your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person–a real person you know, or an imagined person, and write to that one.”

I like Erica Jong’s response to the question of audience: “Writing is one of the few professions left where you take all the responsibility for what you do. It’s really dangerous and ultimately destroys you as a writer if you start thinking about responses to your work or what your audience needs.”

Look, the audience will appear if the work warrants it, but thinking about them before you’ve even figured out what kind of artist you are is only going to keep you from developing anything even close to a voice that’s yours. Speaks the bitter voice of experience.

For the first … I don’t even know how many years I was writing, I was writing to one particular audience: Stephen King’s audience. Because I wanted his career. It took a while but eventually I realized I’m not going to be Stephen King, he and I are two totally different writers. And once I realized that, it made writing so much easier, and it made finding my own voice so much easier too.

To me, the answer to the question of audience changes as you move through the stages of your career and expertise, as you become more comfortable with who you are as a creative person. In the beginning, you HAVE to write for yourself, otherwise you’ll never find a voice that belongs to YOU.

Once you find that voice, once you’re comfortable enough in that skin, it won’t hurt to find that one other person you can write to. But at the end of the day, the only person you HAVE to please is yourself.

I’ve run into this a time or two as well. You write something you love, but with an eye toward making that one other person happy too, and if they give it back and say “Meh, it could be better,” hear them out. They may have some good ideas, things you never thought of. Outside opinions are always helpful, but opinions are all they are. Take them in, digest and turn them over and, if you think they’ll make the work stronger, excellent. But if those opinions are going to lead to you compromising the story to please someone else … well, that’s something only you can decide.

Ultimately the question of audience is one you have to answer for yourself. All I can do is give you what I’ve learned from my experience with it over the years. For me, I have to like it first. And then, once I like it, I can take those bones and shape them into something other people will like too, while also maintaining the heart of it that I loved enough to bring to fruition in the world.

Or just remember Cyril Connolly’s words, “Better to write or yourself and have no public, than write for the public and have no self.”

So here’s a question. When you sit down at your desk, or wherever you write, what’s the attitude with which you approach the work?

Are you coming at the day’s words as one who really doesn’t want to be here, but knows they need to get something done, so you show up begrudgingly and jot down a hundred words just to say you did it? Or do you attack the page, firing off a thousand words in thirty minutes?

Margot Fonteyn said, “My attitude has never changed. I cannot imagine feeling lackadaisical about a performance. I treat each encounter as a matter of life and death.”

Now, I’m not saying you should go to THAT extreme when you come to work every day, but whether you realize it or not, your attitude when you sit down to do that day’s work has a huge affect.

I’ve got this day job–night job, really–that I hate. And it shows every day when I get there. I’m always in a grouchy mood, wanting to be anywhere but there, and the waves of disgruntlement and discontent radiate off me. I get my work done, but that’s all I do. If the line is down for a minute, there’s just as much chance I’m standing there, silently waiting for it to start up again as there is I’m doing something productive like cleaning my area or changing the trash. Because I just don’t care. I want to care, I’ve tried to care, but I just don’t. And that attitude comes through loud and clear.

But when it’s time to write every morning, man I’m ready to go. I’m smiling inwardly, my spirits are high no matter how exhausted I am from the night before at work, and I know I’m right where I’m supposed to be. That love for the work, that fire to get started, it comes through loud and clear as well.

And that carries over to every part of the process. No matter how slowly a story is coming along, or how mangled I feel the plot is, whatever the problem that’s keeping me from finishing this damned story already, my attitude is always positive because I know that, eventually, the plot will reveal itself, the twist will untangle itself, and no matter how stubborn a character or situation can be, there’s nothing better in the world than sitting at my computer, writing fiction. Even on a bad writing day, that’s still better than anything else I had planned for that day.

And on the good writing days … ho boy, that’s when the clouds part, and God smiles down on me. And I really feel a lot of that is due to my attitude about the work. At my old fast food job almost 30 years ago, they used to tell us to smile, even if we were taking an order through the drive-thru speaker, because the customer outside could hear your smile. At the time I thought it was a bunch of crap, but time, and doing work I love doing, has shown me that, yes, your attitude about the work comes through in the end product.

So when you sit down to get started every day, don’t let the bills, the spouse, the kids, the day job, the everything else get to you. Shrug it all off and just do the work you were meant to be doing, the only work you ever truly loved doing, and do it with a positive attitude knowing that, at least for these couple of hours, or however long, all is right with the world.