Burn through the Words is a series of posts suggesting strategies you can use to hit your writing goals. Feel free to use, abuse, or disregard entirely; writing is a strange and personal beast and all advice herein should be taken on the rocks with a nice rim of salt.

Stephen King taught me this one. Not personally. Lord, I wish. It’s in his book On Writing, and it’s something every writer should practice.

You. Are ready. To write. You’ve got your lucky Pickard/Spock mug full of steaming hot caffeine, your bedroom/office/basement door locked, and your document open, cursor blinking away. You sit down in the chair, pound out a paragraph, and then — you hit a snag. Maybe it’s some scientific theorem you aren’t clear on but wanted to use. Maybe you don’t know the name of a city, even though it’s your imaginary city on your imaginary world, because you straight just haven’t made it up yet. Maybe you want to mention the smell of a specific, real world plant. Whatever. Whatever you do, don’t go off on a Wikipedia wormhole.


Write, “the air was redolent of PLANT SMELL” and move on. Later, after you’ve hit your goals for the day and are mindlessly half-watching Sherlock for the umpteenth time while simultaneously browsing the internet, that is the time to spend 45 minutes figuring out if it was tulips or tuberose wafting through the air. Not while you are in the hot seat. Never while you are in the hot seat. And, because you put that PLANT SMELL or THEOREM or CITY in CAPS, it will be darn easy to find again, and plug in what you meant all along.

JUST. CAPS. IT. And hit those daily word counts!

Burn through the Words is a series of posts suggesting strategies you can use to hit your writing goals. Feel free to use, abuse, or disregard entirely; writing is a strange and personal beast and all advice herein should be taken on the rocks with a nice rim of salt.

I mentioned in my last post that I have to write 714 words a day to hit my goal of 30,000 words for Clarion. But do I write 714 words a day?

No. I do not.

714 words is my rock-bottom limit.  I usually write a little over 1,000 words a day. Why do I do more than what I need to?

Because you never know what life is going to throw at you. There have already been two days since the write-a-thon began that I couldn’t make it to the keyboard. I’m sure there will be more. So I write ahead, so I don’t have the guilt and pressure of trying to play catch-up later.

Sure, I can get way behind and beg my family to give me a Saturday off so I can lock myself in the office and indulge in a marathon, but having done one Nanowrimo, I’m not all that eager to do another. For one thing, I don’t have a lot of fun that way, for another thing, most of what I write during those grim dashes is not very useful; often it’s just words for wordcount’s sake.

Do you want to write six stories, or six good stories you might sell somewhere? Set the bite-sized goals you’ve created as the bottom end of your expectations. Plan ahead, and when the race is over and the dust clears, you’ll have some writing to be proud of, rather than … some writing. Which, don’t get me wrong, is miles better than nothing at all, but why not try to do it right the first time, rather than making more work for yourself later?

Burn through the Words is a series of posts suggesting strategies you can use to hit your writing goals. Feel free to use, abuse, or disregard entirely; writing is a strange and personal beast and all advice herein should be taken on the rocks with a nice rim of salt.

This tip is fairly common-sensical, I think, but it bears repeating, just in case you’ve fallen prey to a terrible case of procrastination.

You’ve set your big goal, and now it looms over you like K2. If you want to summit that goal and raise as much money as possible for Clarion, you’ve got to break your mountain into a series of small, manageable molehills.

This is pretty easy with word count — for example, I’ve got a goal of 30,000 words. This breaks down to 714 words a day. I know that whatever else I do today, I’ve got to write at least 714 words. It’s a heck of a lot easier to wrap my brain around than writing 30,000 words, and then the end result is the same. 

If you’ve chosen a certain amount of short stories, then for goodness sake, don’t wait until week five for inspiration to strike.

Saturday is your deadline: if you haven’t got your week’s story done, get it done, and use the pressure of the deadline to squeeze those words out. If you’re in a group, have them hold you accountable, and deliver those stories to them by uploading them to the forum every Saturday night. If you’re not in a group, deliver those stories to a supportive friend or family member instead. They don’t have to critique them, they just need to receive them.

Break it down and you’ll see success.

Ah, writing books. With a few exceptions, authors of said books like to hold you gently by the hand and lead you down the path of writing philosophies, rules (which, as they say, can always be broken if you know what you’re doing), and sometimes exercises. Some go so far as to repeat aphorisms and affirmations.

Not so with Nick Mamatas’ Starve Better, which I think of as belonging to the extreme end of the writing school of hard knocks. Mainly about the art of the short story (and general writing principles that hold up anywhere you end up writing), he pulls no punches, even questioning your need to write stories in the first place—for instance, short stories and novels don’t really lead from one to the other, novels have better bang for the buck if you manage to sell, and a lot of book writers end up letting stories fall by the wayside for some reason. He of course also talks about the merits of writing short stories—as well as an allusion to the real reason to engage in this not-very-high-paying area. “Why Write What Nobody Reads”, indeed.

Starve Better is a collection of essays rather than a write-by-numbers book, organized by subject matter. My favorite piece of advice comes from the introduction, “All Advice is Terrible Advice, Plus Other Useful Advice”:

There are no rules. Only the results matter; the process of shoving the kindhearted zombie mortician into the rented coffin is irrelevant. The problem is that when people can’t get results they want, they become obsessed with process.

He doesn’t pull punches even on his own advice. That’s cojones as far as writing books go.

Some interesting Mamatas advice (and possibly terrible advice, depending on your situation—it’s a hard thing, but sooner or later you have to fess up to the fact that you need to know, or at least get a feel for, what you need to do with your work):

  • Short stories can’t do everything, so it’s best, like a photographer, to focus on certain elements—in particular your strengths. Like everything on this list, he expands on the subject and gives examples.

  • Hooks should not be thrown carelessly at the reader.

  • Breaking scenes is like ringing a gong; do it with care.

  • Ending a story meaningfully.

  • The four elements to a good piece of dialogue.

  • What I’ll call anti-patterns to avoid in your writing (threaded throughout all his essays).

  • And more!

On the practical, fast survival money side of things, hence the title of the book, he also talks about freelancing, something not covered in other artsy books about writing.

The appendix and the introduction are important and not to be skipped.

Will you like Mamatas’ style? If you’ve never read his essays before, you can start with his blog. A few posts focused on writing, at his blog and Salon:

Ah, man, I wish I still had access to my old LiveJournal favorites, so I can dredge up some of his older posts, when he was an editor for Clarkesworld. (I can’t even figure out where that is anymore, but it was another account in another time.)

Looking for acerbic amusement? Looking for a frank accounting of the hazardous-to-your-checkbook nature of taking on a full-time writing career? In particular, looking for advice on short stories?

Starve Better is your book.

I admit it: I used to not see the point of outlining a story, much less a novel. Shouldn’t real writers leap full into the fray with teeth bared, ready to shred writer’s block into little bloody shreds?

Then I discovered that, hey, plotting is hard. So I did try outlining—you know, the kind you get taught in school, with the I… A… a)… i)… and so on. I soon discovered that the format drove me crazy, and the outline would get tangled up when the actual writing came into play.

Finally, at wit’s end, I saw K.M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success in the Kindle store for $5, and after reading through the sampler, I decided to chance the money.

Was it worth it? You bet it was.

For a “pantser” (that is, writing by the seat of your pants) such as myself, I didn’t understand the viewpoint of the plotter (unsurprisingly, a writer who plots ahead of time) all that well. Other writing books merely allude to outlining as a possible methodology for Getting It Written; but Weiland’s is entirely tailored to the art of the fiction writer’s outline—which, as it turns out, is pretty loose and free-form, not at all like what we generated in high school.

Indeed, while Weiland is a hard-core outliner, she discusses the different ways and depths to which one can outline, and offers guidance towards constructing the building blocks—always one of the hardest places to begin whether writing or outlining. As I read the book, I was left with an impression of outlining rather akin to that of a painter beginning with a quick sketch, then filling out the picture in gradual layers. Methodical, yes, but watch an artist painting some time—it’s a combination of method and inspiration that leads to shades of sunsets, rippling waters, lit forest clearings, and so on.

Ultimately, here’s the key to understanding the outlining mindset: outlining is writing. Writing is primarily about problem-solving, and outlining is a way to take the structures circulating in the nebulous understanding of your brain and transcribe them into concrete form. Something concrete (especially if you can manipulate it, via index cards, mind map bubbles, or plain old Word) is leagues easier to reason about in the end than something that’s just in your head.

Of course, “concrete” is misleading here; an outline is rarely set in stone. Having the flexibility to deal with changes is vital, particularly as you begin to write out full scenes. I feel that this is where the book, which hitherto had wended into such glorious detail about outlining, left things dangling. The idea is that if you plan enough ahead of time, derailings should be minor—and I suspect as one gets more experience writing, that this theory eventually holds up. But what do you do about major derailings?

Sometimes, as painful as it is, you gotta go back to the drawing board.

I highly recommend this book to the impromptu writer looking for another technique to add to their toolbox.

Burn through the Words is a series of posts suggesting strategies you can use to hit your writing goals. Feel free to use, abuse, or disregard entirely; writing is a strange and personal beast and all advice herein should be taken on the rocks with a nice rim of salt.

Where ARE we going?

Lots of writers advocate the outline, and it seems like just as many freeze up at the very notion. I have to let the story tell me where it wants to go, says the non-plotter. And I dig that, non-plotter, I honestly do. But.

Let me tell you, non-outliners and general rebels a very exciting secret I discovered, one that transformed me from anti-outline to pro-outline.

An outline is something you write. It is creative. It is something you imagine, something you dream up. And it is just as organic and alive as everything else you write. You can change it. You don’t have to follow it. It is not a detainment center for your characters to be trapped in; it’s a road map for them to follow, or not follow, whatever they want, because really, we all know who’s in charge, don’t we? It’s not us. It’s our characters. And if you tell one to zig and he wants to zag, for God’s sake let him zag. Trust him. You can always change your outline.

The other thing about writing an outline for your novel (or story) is that it forces you to think about where you’ve been and where you’re going. It forces you to fill in that vast, murky middle with something. It might not be that brilliant of a something, but it’s a lot better than getting 25,000 words in, and then just having no clue what happens next. I have been there, oh boy have I been there, and honestly nothing kills a good writing streak like not knowing what happens next.

So outline! Try it! Write down a sentence or two for each major scene in your story. Make sure your tension is rising towards a terrible disaster, bust out that climax, and wrap that puppy up. Yep, you’ve got holes, I know you do. Look at the holes, and spend a few days mulling over what to plug into them. Don’t wait until you’re stuck in a hole to figure that out. It can be really hard to see a solution once you’re down in the muck.

And in the end, if you don’t like your outline, you can always scrap it and try something else. It’s a much more flexible document than it seems, and it just might be the key to your success.

Our team name comes from the novel China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh. Here’s the Wikipedia entry. Yup, it’s a book good enough to get a Wikipedia entry. I do recommend it if you haven’t read it.

So far we’re a 4-person team, though that may increase as we go along.

You’ll be able to check here for updates on our writing progress and to cheer us on.

The Write-a-Thon runs from June 24-August 4, the same 6 weeks that Clarion is running in San Diego. We’ll be writing in just five days’ time, but you can sponsor us at anytime.

Here’s a link to the main Write-a-Thon page.

Wish us luck as we WRITE ALL THE THINGS!