Tag Archives: writing advice

Variations on a Theme

If you’ve been a writer for any length of time at all, you’ve had this happen to you.

You tell someone “I’m a writer.”

That someone says, “Oh yeah? What are you writing?”

So you tell them about your story. But about halfway through your synopsis it dawns on you. This story sounds frighteningly familiar. Why if you didn’t know better…but no. No, this is your story. You didn’t steal it from anyone else. You certainly didn’t steal if from that award winning movie that approximately everyone has seen.

Only now that you think about it you story about the girl with the magical ring who trains a dragon and falls in love with a vampire? It sounds just like that other story.

So what do you do? Naturally you go into full panic mode. You shout out “Heavens to Betsy, it’s all in ruination!” and run away from that slack jawed stranger as fast as you can. Or maybe that was just me.

Okay. Calm down. Just…deep breaths. That’s right…in…out…in…you can do this.

Alright, back with us again? Here’s the thing. Originality is a myth. Seriously.

Try to think up a story no one has ever thought of before. Go ahead, think. Come up with something completely original.

Nope, been done. I don’t care what it was you thought of it’s been done somewhere somewhen before.

The truth is you’re never going to make up an original story. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be creative. And it certainly doesn’t mean you should throw up your hands in disgust and start cribbing directly from someone else’s narrative.

But what it does mean is that you can’t let that fear of being unoriginal stop your progress.

The first story I ever wrote was about a girl who finds a magical ring and is chased by an evil presence who’s very existence is linked to the ring. And when you boil it all down like that it sure sounds a whole lot like Lord of the Rings which is pretty much the greatest fantasy story ever written.

That used to bother me a lot. But it doesn’t bother me so much any more. For one thing I know much of the rest of the book is nothing like Lord of the Rings. The rest of the book involves a group of rebels striking from a hidden base against the oppression of an evil empire, and that doesn’t remind me of anything else at all.

So what’s a writer to do? The bottom line is balance.

“Balance again?” you say.

Yes, balance again.

On the one hand you really may have created a story which is too similar to another more famous story. That isn’t wrong persay, but it might very well mean you’ll have a hard time getting it published.

On the other hand, stories are all connected to each other in weird and wonderful ways. Let’s face it, without other stories to inspire us we’d be in a sorry state as writers. We can’t work in a vacuum. And that means that no matter how hard we try some elements of our story are going to line up with other elements in other stories.

It’s okay. It’s not plagiarism. Let’s call it…inspiration.

So if your story ends up sounding like something someone else has already written, take heart. Chances are they were inspired by someone else too. And that’s completely okay with me.

Plotting for People Who Hate Plotting

For most of my writing career I’ve fallen firmly on the “pantster” side of the writing world. For those of you who have been living in a cave without wifi access for the last five years (All the best caves have wifi now. Haven’t you heard?) a pantster is a writer who never outlines his stories ahead of time and just writes “by the seat of his pants”. I tried outlining when I first started writing, but it all felt so mechanical and forced that I just hated it, and by the time I finished writing the book I had pretty well run off the rails of what I had planned anyway.

I’ve spent the rest of my writing life just winging it, making up my plot as I go along. Sure, I’d give the my story a lot of thought beforehand, and I’d try to have a general goal of what I wanted to accomplish in the story mapped out in my head, but for the most part I never wrote anything down.

But life as a pantster can be hard. I’m getting ready to go into my final set of revisions for my story The Mulch Pile next month, and I’m already dreading the changes I’m going to have to make. Why? Because about two thirds of the way through writing the story I realized something vitally important about my main character that completely changed the way I looked at the first part of the story. I tried to go in and tweak things at the beginning so that they’d work with my new understanding of my character, but the truth is its going to take a lot more work to fix it.

The problem is this: if I’d made an outline and followed the outline, I never would have had the incredible breakthrough that’s making me go back and revisit all of my early scenes. The rigid form of outlining would have never allowed me to think about the story in such a different way. But yesterday I discovered a technique that combines the best of both worlds. The muntant hybrid of plotting, and winging it. And it was awesome.

Here’s how it happened. I got an idea for a short story while I was fighting off a terrible bought of hives (Yeah, my ideas come from the weirdest places). While I sat in front of my computer thinking about the story, I opened Notepad at a whim and just started typing stuff. Plot points, character details, whatever came to my mind, whenever it came to my mind. It looked something like this:

The itch




Older vs Younger

mother’s affections

mother a witch

sister’s learning to follow in her footsteps

younger sister not as good at potions as older sister

older sister plays potion trick on younger sister.

younger sister decides she wants revenge

gathers wrong kind of mushroom/at wrong time of day (forshadow)

tricks older sister into drinking it.

itch intensifies to the point that old sister is cutting off skin with a knife

older sister dies from her injuries.

mother comes home and finds the carnage

Younger sister take shapeshifter potion to make herself look like her older sister using bits of her sisters blood

It ain’t pretty, I know, but it worked. Because that line at the end there, the one where the younger sister becomes the thing she hates to escape the consequences of her actions? That idea wasn’t in my head before. It came from the process of writing down all my conceptions about the story on paper. This way, instead of getting all the way through writing the story and discovering that I needed to go back and change something to fit the ending, I can write it with all the ideas I would have found through the writing process in my head already.

I know this approach to brainstorming is nothing new, but it was new to me, and I have a feeling it’s going to be a powerful weapon in my arsenal. Maybe it could help you too. If you’re an incurable pantster like me, and you hate the rigid confines of the outline, then give this free-writing exercise a try. The great thing about it is there’s no pressure. It doesn’t have to look like anything. It doesn’t even have to make sense. After all you’re not going to show it to anyone. (Unless you’re a total doofus and post it to your blog for the whole world to see.) And it might make a tremendous difference and save you a lot of rewrites.

If you’ve got a different way, let me know about it in the comments. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing it’s this: there’s always something else to learn about writing.

Tear Down Your Idols

I’ve been reading most of my life.  I remember back before my family had television that I would go to the library and come out with a stack of books up to my chin, and when the week was over mom would have to drive me back and we’d pick up another load.  I remember getting to the point when I looked at the YA books and said, “I think I’ve read every single one of these that I’m interested in reading.”

I’m not saying this so you’ll be impressed with me (okay maybe just the teeniest bit), I’m just saying that by the time I was a teenager I had a pretty good understanding of how prose was supposed to flow as well as the building blocks of basic narrative structure.  So it often happened that I would be reading through a book and think, “This is pretty bad. I think I could do better than this.”

But for the longest time I never did.  Why?  Because I had tricked myself into a dangerous delusion.  I had allowed myself to believe that published authors were special.

I mean, they must be right?  They’ve got their books on the shelves for sale at bookstores.  Not just anyone can do that.  They must be special people.  And if I didn’t like their book, well, obviously I’m just not getting it.  It’s probably because it’s difficult for me to understand the thought patterns of someone living on such an exalted plane of existence.

Of course, I wouldn’t have spelled it out exactly that way, but in the back of my mind, that’s exactly what I thought.

Authors are special.  I am not.

And even after I started writing I couldn’t quite think of myself as one of them.  After all, I was only a junior college student pounding out his little story between classes.  I wasn’t really a writer.  I would have to settle for aspiring.  And maybe, one day, if I was really lucky, the book gods would look down upon my trite efforts with favor and invite me up into their club.

And then one day I had something of an epiphany.  I realized that writers were people just like me.

Shocking right?  And yet, I bet you’ve been there before too.  It’s easy enough to do.  It doesn’t even have to be someone with a big name.  I’ve caught myself doing it with other bloggers recently.  I’d look at their following with wonder and awe and say, “They must be something special.  I could only dream of having a blog like that.”

I’m not saying this to cut anyone down, but those people aren’t special.  They’re just successful.

This is good news for you and here’s why: if they’re not special you can do it too.

Seriously.  I mean it.  Stephen King? Stephanie Meyers?  J. K. Rowling?  They’re all just people like us.  They don’t have some writer gene woven into their DNA.  All they have is hard work, a little luck, and even more hard work.  We can do what they do.  It won’t be easy, but then it wasn’t easy for them either.  It’s time to stop letting our idols have so much power over us.

BUT.  Here’s why this is bad news for you: if they’re not special you can do it too.

No, you’re not experiencing deja vu.  See, once you’ve gotten rid of the idea that famous writers are somehow special, and you realize that with a lot of hard work you can write just as well as they can, then the burden to become a better writer has suddenly fallen squarely on your shoulders. You can’t hide beneath the shadow of your idol any more, and the sun of truth is bright and harsh.  If they are nothing more than mortals just like you, then you have a responsibility, and obligation even to follow in their footsteps, to work your craft until you know it inside and out, to polish your style until it shines.

The truth is scary.  I can’t blame you if you want to go back into the comforting shadows of self-deception.  But if you’re going to do something important with your life and with your writing you’re going to have to come out into the light.  Only there will you see that your idols are nothing more than empty stone.

Step 1. Learn the Rules. Step 2. Forget the Rules.

When I was sixteen I received a wonderful piece of literature, a book which has inspired literally millions of young readers, a book which has been the key which has opened the door to boundless possibility in my life and the lives of others.  The name of this book? The Florida Driver’s Handbook.

The Florida Driver’s Handbook was a book of with instructions for new drivers as well as lists of many wonderful rules concocted by the government to keep me from dashing my young brains out on the dashboard of my car.

Hey, I wonder if that’s why they call it a dashboard?  Because people dash their brains out on it? Man that’s pretty gruesome and [tangent alert, tangent alert, please correct course]

Oh, right.  Where was I?  Oh, yeah.  The handbook.  I studied those rules hard, because I knew if I was going to get my driver’s license I would have to pass a rigorous test of my knowledge of those rules.  Eventually I did pass that test, and after a shaky jaunt through the tiny oval-shaped course behind the DMV I walked out the proud owner of a shiny new drivers license.

Fast forward ten years.  I can’t tell you a single thing I remember out of that book.  Except for the rule about not using your turn signal to let someone know it’s okay to pass.  That one stuck with me for some reason.  But everything else is gone.  And yet, I’d say I’m still a passable driver.  Not a great driver, as my wife will tell you as we skid to a halt behind a car that has been stopped at a red light for approximated forty years before hand, but I do get by, and so far haven’t been in any major accidents.

So what’s the verdict?  Where the rules useless?  Did I waste my time learning something that ultimately didn’t matter?

Well, yes and no.  I can tell you that if I tried to drive by the rules now, I’d be so distracted trying to remember all of them that I’d run up on the sidewalk and mow down a bunch of power walkers.  But there was a time when the rules played an important role in my life.

When I was a new driver, I knew literally nothing.  I had to be told to only use one foot instead of two, I had to constantly check myself to make sure I wasn’t wandering out of my lane, I had to consciously calculate how soon I need to start breaking to come to a successful stop.  If I hadn’t had the rules back then, I would have likely killed myself.

What does this have to do with all of you wonderful writers out there?  Well in a way, writing is like driving a car.  See, when you’re a freshly minted writer you go out and buy all the writing books that tell you how to craft good prose and write gripping scenes.  They’re full of advice like “show, don’t tell” and “use active verbs instead of ‘be’ verbs” and a whole host of other tips to keep you on the writing road.  And all of those rules are good for you.

But here’s the rub.  You don’t learn to drive by reading the Driver’s Handbook.  You learn to drive, by driving.  Writing is the same way.  Memorizing all the rules in the world won’t make you a great writer without practice.

When you’re driving they give you something called a learners permit.  And when you’re writing you get the infamous First Novel.

Now I know you’re the exception to the rule.  I know you’re going to write that puppy straight and edit it hard, and then come back and edit it again, and when finally you send it off to the publisher’s you’ll have a world-wide best seller on your hands.

But let me tell you about an author who didn’t sell the first book he ever wrote right off the bat.  No, it isn’t me.  It’s Steven King.  Everyone probably knows that his first published work was Carrie.  What you may not know is that the first book he wrote was called The Long Walk.  And yes, he did eventually get it published, but not until after he got some experience under his belt.

Why? Because Steven King had to learn just like the rest of us.  He had to start somewhere.  He had to figure out how to let go of the rule book and start writing.  It didn’t happen all at once for him, and it won’t happen all at once for you either.  Call yourself a writer?  Then know you’re in this for the long haul my friends.

And that isn’t a bad thing.  I know I sound like I’m being negative here, but really I’m trying to encourage you.  See, if you let yourself get into that “my first book will sell and I will be famous” mindset you’re hurting yourself more than you know. Writing, like driving, is a lifestyle, and you’ll cripple yourself if you forget that.  Because when that first book is done and you don’t sell it you’re going to get super depressed.  You’ll think to yourself, “I’m really just a terrible writer.  I don’t know why I thought I could do this in the first place.  Nobody wants to read my crap.”  And you’ll give up.

But the truth is you were just on the verge of something greater.  So sit back down in your chair and keep writing.  You’ll notice that you start to feel a little more comfortable letting go of the rulebook every day.  And before you know it, you’ll be soaring along like an uncaged canary tracing your own rules in the skies of possibility.