On Being a (Better) Writer In Three Easyish Steps

We authors, who trade in fictions for a living, are a continuum of all we have seen and heard and, most importantly, all that we have read.
–Neil Gaiman, Trigger Warning

I woke up at 4 a.m. with the end of this piece clear in my mind. I made myself get up and write it down because I liked it. While I was up, I might as well write down the beginning I thought of earlier. Except… I wish I had written that down.

Our lives are full of wishes like that. Yes, most of the time it’s the time of our dentist appointment. (When was that?) But sometimes it’s an amusing anecdote from work. Sometimes it’s a story or recipe from your grandma. Sometimes it’s an award-winning novel that will be read by millions. No matter the topic, no matter the audience, it’s your story. Write it.

I have been fortunate enough to have Angela in my life for inspiration and encouragement. Together we have written three nonfiction books that I think are quite good.

What I haven’t done is write fiction. Angela has and does. I love her stories and am so proud to watch her getting better and better. What I haven’t done is write. Anything. Lately. This is an exhortation to myself as well as to you. Just write.

In that spirit, here are my musings on being a better writer in three easy (some easier than others) steps, as inspired by the stellar Neil Gaiman. Originally, these were my thoughts on writing fiction, but they apply to any type of writing. After all, Neil began as a journalist, and as with all great writers, often his fiction is more true than truth. Now read this. Then write.

Step One: Read

Homework: Read the introduction to at least one of Neil Gaiman’s short story collections. (Extra credit: Visit Neil’s blog and Tumblr.) You will notice a pattern. Neil frequently says something like, “I read STORY by AUTHOR. I liked how AUTHOR wrote STORY. One or more of my stories is inspired by how STORY was told by AUTHOR.”

You’re not out to copy another author’s style, but look how that person tells a story. What do you like? Word choices? Rhythm? Dialog? Description? Read a lot and learn what you like. Turn that into your own style.

Sheer conjecture: I like to think the primary benefit of having a creative writing class is not having a roomful of people telling you their opinions of your story, but having the opportunity to hear how a roomful of people tell a story.

Step Two: Live

Homework: Read the stories from at least one of Neil Gaiman’s short story collections.

Honestly, it takes more than one book, but you start to see the clues. In most (all, I’m quite sure) of Neil’s stories, there is a tiny grain of experience from his life.

Of course there are the tropes common to all of us: love, loss, hope. There are other things, still general, but things that bring the reader a bit closer, things like pubs and private drinking clubs and lonely trips to LA. Then there are things that are singularly Neil — a large house torn down to make room for a cluster of smaller ones, an ominous lamppost on the lane.

To try to dissect a story to understand the author’s inspiration is to rob the story of the sheer joy of reading it. Neil does talk about some of these things, but not to encourage you to go looking for them. Instead, think about how the tiniest thing can become a story.

That trip to the Grand Canyon as a kid? Burst dam epic or Wild West saga? The shock of coming home to find your first pet goldfish dead? A murder mystery or an eco-thriller? A Spanish language billboard in the Vietnamese part of town? A collection of oral histories on food (now available in paperback wherever books are sold)?

Be open to life — cliched message about gifts and blessings here.

Step Three: Write

I warned you that some of the steps are easier than, well, than this one. The first two steps are going to help you do this one better but not more easily.

Better, not well. No doubt, there are prodigies out there who write brilliantly the first time they put pen to paper. I am not one of these people. Let’s assume you aren’t either. (If you are, reading the rest of this won’t take much of your time, and it gives you an excuse to ridicule my advice later.)

Write something. Put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, voice to microphone, brainwaves to cranial implant. (I’m going to assume this advice has staying power.)

Now the important part — Neil says this, so believe it — finish what you start. Saying “meh” and quitting doesn’t make you a writer. Writers don’t create bits and pieces. Writers creates works — works of art.

Art? Most first time writer stuff you’ve seen is crap. Yes, yours; certainly mine. Again, virtually no one is good immediately in their chosen field. None of us are going to run a marathon or dice an onion rapidly or play Chopin flawlessly without a lot of practice first.

Write that first piece, the second, maybe the third. Now put them in a drawer and forget them. Just don’t forget the lessons you learned while writing them. Think about what you would do differently, and do it.

(In these technological times, the above mentioned drawer is likely to be figurative rather than literal. Regardless, don’t shred these early works. If you become famous, your heirs may be able to make a fortune foisting them off on unsuspecting fans. And congratulations on earning your cynic badge.)

Do what though? What do I write? Harry Crews, who lived a life as powerful as his fiction, once said (forgive the paraphrase; this was 25+ years ago): “When I started, I wanted to be a poet, but writing poetry was hard. So I tried short stories – too hard. So I wrote novels. That’s how most of us end up writing novels. That’s just easier.”

Right now, many of you are thinking about a delightful Neil Gaiman sestina and thinking “Wait…”

I’m not saying you’ll Peter Principle your way into your niche; I’m saying you’ll find your groove. Groove — not rut. You’ll hustle through a novel, then electric slide into something else.

With practice, you’ll learn what you like. And by practice, I mean writing and finishing what you start.

Homework: Visit the blog of Chuck Wendig.
If Neil Gaiman is the wise man atop the mountain, Chuck Wendig is the Olympic athlete who drops by the gym to help you with your form. In addition to being a fine writer (and by “fine writer,” I mean “bad-ass mofo.” Hi, Chuck!), Chuck dispenses excellent advice. Like: “Write, Penmonkey, write.” Like stories that move you, Chuck can move you to write with intensely focused words of wisdom.

It’s your life. They’re your stories. Who better to write them? Just write.

If you have fear, you have at least as much bravery. Write it.

If you’re hurting or scared, it won’t last. Write it.

If you’re happy, that won’t last either. Sorry. Write it.

Your stories are worth it. Write them.

And remember, no matter what you write, or who you show it to, we’re with you. We love you.

Your gold star!

It is said that your life flashes before your eyes just before you die. That is true, it’s called Life.
― Terry Pratchett, The Last Continent

My gold star!!!!!

Five exclamation marks, the sure sign of an insane mind.
― Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man

Remember. We love you.

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