Category Archives: Others Not Writing

How to Write a Book and Why I Write About Writing

Even though I’ve written two novels, I’m amazed when people write and ask me about writing. After all, my is site called How Not to Write and both of the aforementioned novels were absolutely dreadful. Still, I’m flattered and I think it’s fun to connect with other writers. I also enjoy sharing what I’ve learned pecking around these last 20 years or so (even if it’s not worth all that much).

But last week something odd happened… A famous, or rather infamous, blogging entity wrote and asked my advice about writing.

Anyway, as I would with anyone, I decided to answer the query as best as I could. After sending my reply, I found out that the entity is not infamous as a joke. It’s a professional vocation.

I’ve been sitting on this for awhile, letting the whole thing settle. I’m not going to name names, but I liked my email so much I thought I’d share it with everyone (after making it anonymous and doing a little formatting).

It’s a little sassy, because the entity is sassy. Hopefully someone will actually get some use out of this.

How to Write a Book… Or Not


Dear […]:

No imposition at all. I’m happy to help…

Writing a book isn’t all that different from blogging. Each day you piece a little bit together. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but either way wanting to do it doesn’t get the posts up. Wanting to write a book doesn’t get it written.

So the first thing is in order to write a book you need to write the book. I like Charlie Stross’ thought on this:

“You eat or starve on the basis of your ability to put your bum in a
chair and write. BIC or die, that’s the first rule. Lifestyle issues
come a distant second.”

Of course, this doesn’t tell you how to start, so it has the distinct advantage of being both profound and shitty advice.

Amazing how often the words “profound” and “shitty” go together, isn’t it?

What I’ve learned by observing other writers is that no one has a clue how to do this thing called writing a book. Everyone is winging it. There are formulas of course and if you’re going for formula fiction you just pull one off the shelf and start filling in the gaps. But you’re not doing formula fiction, right?

Of course not. You already have the story and you already have the name. So let’s begin again…

The first rule of writing a book is to have fun, and I don’t mean having fun like riding ponies at your fifth birthday party. I mean having fun like flirting with someone at a bar or skiing down a black diamond run. Writing a book is a tough slog day in and out. You’d better make sure it’s fun for you or you’ll burn out.

The second rule of writing a book is to have a plan. I just knocked the formula thing, but in truth you need a plan. Some writers like to plan out every little bush and shrub. To me, that’s boring as hell. I like the idea of a rough sketch, just big blocks of, “This happens, then this happens, and oh, this happens next.”

The point is to get the big ideas down in a way that you can shuffle them about until they look right. After that you go back and start tidying up. Some writers use index cards to do it. That’s how Nabokov did it, and things worked out pretty good for him.

The third rule of writing a book is to keep it to yourself. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve killed perfectly good stories and novels by showing them off too soon. Even worse is talking about the damned things. Once you’ve let the cat out of the bag, you’d rather kill it than try to get it back in. Part of the thrill of writing a book (see fun back at #1) is knowing you have something that no one else has seen yet. This is what will keep you going.

Finally, the fourth rule of writing a book is to sit down and write. Even if all you do is write nonsense to begin with, just keep going. Write faster if you can. Will Self is an advocate of this method. I’ve found that if I stop looking at the screen and just focus on the keys that my fingers eventually find the groove and I write some amazing stuff or at least I stop being so self-conscious, which may be all you really need).

Ok, I could probably write another half dozen rules here, but this is a good start. Don’t let doubt get in the way. (rule 5?).

I hope this has been of some help. Write back if you need more. I find that swift kicks and kind words are good for writing books if doled out in equal measure.


Why Bother? Because This Isn’t About Me.

As is par for the course, the entity sent me a rather patronizing note. No biggie, since I have no real idea of what I’m doing. I’m very up front about that. Again, why else would I have a site called How Not To Write?

So why bother with the cranks? Because this site isn’t all about me. It’s about helping others by sharing what I know.

I received an email from an interesting fellow not long ago. He promised a sort of writing elixir (I’m not making this up), not the sort you drink with the mouth but with the mind. I told him to bring it on and he did. Some people I know thought he was crazy, a loon. And they were right…

Yet, as it turns out, I’ve enjoyed his work and look forward to the next installment. I learned the hard way that crazy is sometimes where the greatest truths lie though you might need to dig through the weeds a bit.

We’re all working to do the best we can. I’m no different from anyone else in this regard. I write because I enjoy writing. I share what I’ve learned during the process because that’s all that I have if nothing else.

An Ode to Good King James Chartrand

Those of you who follow me on Twitter, may know that I promised to write an ode to the magnificence of Good King James Chartrand of Men with Pens.

So, without further ado, here is my song. Make of it what you will. I hope you enjoy it.


An Ode to Good King James Chartrand

– with apologies to Harry, Harrison MacLeod and to poetry in general.

Samuel de Champlain, Father of New France
Samuel de Champlain, Father of New France [not Good King James Chartrand]

At crack-a-dawn
from old Quebec,
missives begin to fly.
Betwixt the bits
to far and wide,
the ink-fueled reign
of Good King James Chartrand
continues on in style.

The kingdom of
our Good King James Chartrand
begins with Men with Pens [dot-ca if you please not com]
and stretches to the niebu hordes
who dwell in twitterdom.
And let’s not forget
his generous
contributions across the Net,
like copyblogger and the rest
I would have shared
had rhyme and meter
not failed the test.

But Lo! [You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to say that in a post.]

Those bonhomie sites
know who they are
and swell with pride to serve
the legend of Good King James Chartrand
who shines on them
in return…

As if this were not enough, [and apparently isn’t…]
the Royal hands
of Good King James Chartrand
are blessed with magic skills.
Measuring his posts alone
and the rate at which
they suddenly appear,
we watch in awe
then cheer the King
as he somehow finds more time
for comments, quips, and tweets.

Yet still the saga does not end! [I know. I know. I know.]

For what wisdom flows
between the banks
of the King’s precious prose!
Honest views!
Suggestions bold and true!
The oldest writing lore made new!
All from the desk of Good King James Chartrand,
the source that knows no end!

So rejoice with me! [Yes, I’m almost done.]

To scribblers one and all!
Raise your pens
with this poor bard,
and swear this oath
to our Good King James Chartrand!

“Never shall we unsubscribe
from the feed of Good King James Chartrand.

Nor link to him by rel nofollow,
or by any means that’s hollow.

And always shall we spread his word
by Digg and Sphinn and Stumble!”


Happy Niebuday! :)

How to Use Writer's Block to Fuel Your Writing

For those of you following the saga of my long bout with a old story, I’m pleased to announce that I’ve finished said story and it’s ready for a final proof.

The Six Reasons to Finish My Story really helped me get focused on pushing to the finish line and putting the tale to rest. I have no idea if it’s a good story, but it’s done and I’m happy.

Now, if you thought I was having a hard time of it, you should check out this post by Crawford Kilian about Getting Over Writer’s Block:

Well, I’ve certainly written myself into some blind alleys. About 40 years ago I was on fire to write an SF novel. I bashed out about 100 pages and stopped dead. It took me almost a decade to get a grip and finish the novel, which was published in 1978.

Kilian’s recommendation are fantastic. I highly recommend that folks drop by and take a look. Here are several ways I try to use writer’s block to fuel my work.

How I Use Writers Block

1. I get angry.

Not finishing something is incredibly frustrating. I usually go through stages of denial, anger, acceptance, anger… Did I say anger?

Anger seems to be the one emotion that really pushes me over the edge and forces me back to the keyboard. Writing angry gets me to toss out all of the garbage between me and the story. Eventually, I run out of steam and then the story becomes quite clear. The stuff that comes out of angry writing sessions is hardly usable, but that’s not the point. The point is that I get past whatever it is that is holding me back.

2. I write another story.

Technically, this is still writer’s block. However, the block that occurs on story A may open up a new angle on story B. If I can’t get angry about a story that’s stalled, I set it aside and try to keep moving forward.

3. I open up to others.

Writer’s block tends to be a lonely affair, but there is nothing wrong with asking for help. The opinions of others can be very useful in working through the block. They may not lead me in the right direction but often I get to talking about the story in an objective manner and suddenly I’m at the same place I would have gone if I’d gotten angry.

4. I write blog posts like this one.

Again, trying to get past a block is often about losing yourself in some activity or another. I’ve found that dropping out to write posts is helpful. At the moment, I’m not really suffering a true block on anything in particular…

“Oh, that really isn’t true. Is it?”
[sigh] No, I’m afraid it isn’t true. I’m blocked on something I really want to get back to and finish. It’s a YA novel I started in 2006. I was writing this book for my son and I ended up writing myself into a bit of a corner. Rather than work through it, I set it aside and haven’t gone back. Beating the crap out of myself hasn’t helped much on this one and neither has working on other stories.

5. I learn to love what I write.

While forcing myself through a block often gets the work done, the best route through the block is and has always been embracing stories with my entire being. I can’t be afraid of how good the story might be or how much it means to me. I have to love the story as one would love a child. And just like raising children, I have to accept that my role is getting the story to the point where it can stand on its own and I, like a proud parent, can marvel at the direction the story goes on its own.

HNTW Roundup – April 11

In my ever-expanding quest to keep myself so busy that I can’t work on my next story, I present to you the writerly musings of others from around the web this week (or so):

[P.S. Interested in getting into my feed reader? Put a comment on this post along with your URL. I’ll add the lot and look for writerly goodness on your site!]

Over on Susan Henderson’s LitPark, Anthony Miller went crazy and posted a massive interview with Steve Erickson.

Dustin gave HNTW a plug on The Writer’s Technology Companion. I feel like I’m in some pretty illustrious company. Check it out! 22 Blogs Every Writer Should Read. Thanks, Dustin! More feeds for the mill!

Interesting list of notable books from the New York Public Library on the new Poets & Writer’s site. What’s interesting though is that I haven’t read a single book on the list (it’s all about me, right)… What have I been reading?

Need a name for a new character? John August points us toward unled, a no frills name generator that uses U.S. Census Data. Very cool and kinda scary. (p.s. John got the link from kottke)

Nalo Hopkinson gave us these words of wisdom about getting the story DOWN:

Writing words is just writing words. Once I have it written, I can ask a few patient somebodies to read it and tell me what doesn’t ring true for them.

Jeff VanderMeer Matt Staggs interviews Ann VanderMeer. I am really excited about the release of STEAMPUNK! Have you checked out Weird Tales lately? Ann is the fiction editor.

For the “grammarians,” we have The Blog of Unnecessary Quotation Marks. Super funny. Thanks, Irreverent Freelancer!

The Writing Journey has two three good posts on the difference between writing for the Internet and writing for print. Very active comments too:

Bridging the Great Divide Between Print and Internet Writing
Why Real Writers Don’t Write on the Internet
Why the Internet is the Perfect Market for Writers