“Front-rank characters should have some defect, some conflicting inner polarity, some real or imagined inadequacy.” –Barnaby Conrad

Okay, this is going to be 95% preamble with a strong point made at the end:

There’s a reason some characters go on to become legendary while others fade away. Think of all the Marvel Comics characters you can name and then tell me which one stands out most in your mind. In that top two or three, I guarantee Spider-Man is named.

Here’s a high school kid from Queens, a shy nerd who got picked on by the school bully, who struggles to pay his rent, lives in dump after dump, when he’s not couch surfing. He doesn’t have the best luck in the world with work or women, but everyday he puts on that red and blue costume and, through a series of being in the wrong place at the right time, fights villain after villain in an attempt to save all the lives. On top of that, he blames himself for his uncle’s death, and he’s not entirely wrong on that score.

He’s no billionaire genius inventor, he’s not a national symbol, frozen in ice for decades. The reason Spider-Man is one of, if not THE most popular Marvel character is because, since his introduction in August 1962, he has represented the kids reading his comics. Most of us aren’t as smart as him, for sure, but when a passing car splashes water all over us, or we drop our pizza on the way home, we trip and fall in front of our secret crush, or we lock ourselves out of our house or car, we can feel pretty certain Peter Parker has gone through the same thing. We feel a kinship with Spider-Man because, unlike the other brilliant scientists of the Marvel universe, Tony Stark, Reed Richards, Bruce Banner, all celebrated for their intellect and all heroes of their own making, Peter goes unnoticed among the wider world. He gained his powers completely by accident, that Parker luck, and so far they haven’t done a single thing to make his life better. He is still put down by his boss, he still rents, he still faces all the struggles we face every day.

He is us. And that’s why we love him. He’s not perfect, his life isn’t perfect, and we can too easily see ourselves in him.

By contrast, let’s look at some of the biggest DC heroes. Superman? Last son of a dead planet, sure, but he’s got all the power in the world, he had a great childhood with loving parents, he’s got the talented, ambitious, smart as hell wife with a Pulitzer, he’s well-known in both super- and secret-identities, has a high-profile job.

Batman, yeah his parents were killed in front of him, and while his BILLIONS of dollars don’t change that, he’s got the resources to get the best therapy in the world. Bruce Wayne, with all his money, could hole up in his mansion and do nothing but read and watch Netflix. He CHOOSES to go out into the world.

Wonder Woman is a goddess. We like her books, but does anyone really RELATE to her?

This is a lesson all writers have to learn if they hope to connect with readers on any level. Unless you’re writing about Jesus, your characters have to be flawed. Not deeply, not completely, but if we write about the perfect character with the perfect life, no one’s going to care. As readers, we feel the tension of a story when we can imagine ourselves in the main character’s place, and if we’re reading about a character for whom everything always goes right, who’s never faced a hardship in their life, we just don’t care.

And if we don’t care, why are we reading it?

“They can’t yank a novelist like that can a pitcher. A novelist has to go the full nine, even if it kills him.”
–Ernest Hemingway

Let’s talk about dedication and what a pain in the ass it can be.

Being a success at anything takes dedication. It takes getting up every day and doing it, even, and especially, when you don’t want to. It’s so easy to take a day off, but it’s even easier to take that second day, and that third day, and by that point you might as well just take a week off, a little vacation from the thing that’s giving you so much trouble, and by God you can come back to it next Monday well-rested and with fresh eyes.

But then something comes up Monday morning and you didn’t get started as early as you wanted to, and by Tuesday you’ve lost the train of thought you had two weeks ago and you think maybe what I need is to just work on something else, something small and simple, just to get the gears moving again. Maybe instead of writing new words, I’ll just take today and PLOT, so that tomorrow the words will come even easier because the story is already there in rough outline.

And then the next day comes and you stayed up too late and kept hitting the snooze button, or your kid has something at school or a doctor’s appointment you forgot about and you say well, that’s okay, I’ll just get the words done later, after dinner.

But then tonight’s the Survivor season finale and you have to know who won, you can’t wait and be behind the rest of the world; you’d have to avoid Twitter and Instagram for the next few days until you can finally catch up. Besides, it’s one TV show, it’s not like they announce a new winner every week!

Do you see a pattern here? Life happens, there’s nothing we can do about that, but what we CAN control is our own actions and our own level of dedication.

If you want to be a writer, there’s only one thing to do: WRITE. Write every day, especially on the days you don’t want to, because those are the days your dedication comes through, the days you can show yourself just how badly you want this.

It’s so easy to get bogged down and burned out, but when you’ve dedicated yourself to something, it’s easier to fight through the exhaustion and do it anyway.

And for some of us that dedication isn’t even a question, because for some of us, this life, this creative drive, is all we’ve got. I’ve had day jobs my entire adult life, but I still got up every day and wrote because writing is my dedication, my day job is … just a job. I’m not dedicated to my day job the way I am to my writing and I’ve taken way more days off from that job than I have from writing. I’ve never taken a vacation from writing, and when I have a vacation from my day job, that just gives me more time to write. My dedication to writing has never been in question. It’s why I get up in the morning; the words aren’t going to write themselves.

This applies to everything. Whatever you want to be good at, whatever you want to succeed at, you HAVE to dedicate the time and attention to it, otherwise you’re just indulging in an occasional diversion from real life.

“Life can’t ever really defeat a writer who is in love with writing, for like itself is a writer’s lover until death–fascinating, cruel, lavish, warm, cold, treacherous, constant.”
–Edna Ferber

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.