Category Archives: Thoughts on Writing

How to Screw Everything and Just Write

With so many many hats and masks and roles, life is complicated. There are responsibilities. There are expectations. There are even expectations of the expectations.

We writers take on an extra set of burdens by hitching ourselves to the multiverse inside our heads. We scribble and plot. We create whole civilizations. We illustrate the fine details of lives of those who have never existed; will never exist, except in our own minds.

And yet, the one thing we probably do more than anything else is futz about with trying to justify our writing in the face of life’s other responsibilities.

Here’s how the process often works:

  1. Writer has an idea.
  2. Write can’t stop thinking about the idea.
  3. Writer messes about sketching or perhaps doing some actual writing.
  4. Writer tell lots of people they are writing.
  5. They politely ask about the subject or the story.
  6. Writer then hisses like a scalded cat exclaiming that They could never understand.1
  7. Writer is filled with self-doubt and reminded of their deep reserves of self-loathing.
  8. Writer stops writing altogether.
  9. Writer expends considerable effort justifying or explaining not writing.
  10. The formerly polite They now lose all interest because the only thing more boring to listening to someone talk about the writing they are going to do is listening them blame everything under the sun for not writing at all (including the They).
  11. Writer takes the ambivalence of They as proof of disapproval and lack of support for the writer’s “writing”. This judgement also serves as a fine side dish to another heaping serving of self-loathing.
  12. Writer decides that taking over the world is really the only option to find the time to write. Plans begin to take shape.
  13. GOTO 1

[1] Step 5 usually takes place entirely inside the writer’s mind. In reality, they fumble about with some explanation (usually boring) to which the polite person replies, “That’s nice.” This is the cue for the aforementioned hissing.

After a lifetime of doing this myself, I have a simple bit of advice: Don’t do it.

Don’t defend your right to write. Don’t explain why you need to write. Don’t even both to justify the amount of time you’re going to spend writing. It is a futile effort. As you can see above, you’re mostly fighting against yourself, and that fight takes precious energy and resolve away from the act of writing itself and feeds it to the ever-hungry and impatient Imp of Self-Loathing embedded deep within your writer’s brain. Ultimately, the defense of writing is really your own inability to come to grips with the fact that you are the one who controls what you do. Any argument to the contrary is bullshit and part of #9 above.

I don’t need to point out that is is much easier said than done. Also, if I start to list the reasons why I’m actually gearing up to serve some tasty vittles to the Imp of Self-Loathing.

Really, don’t do it. Just know that life is complicated. It’s complicated for everyone, not just you, but you have choices. Some may say it takes courage to write in the face of this truth, but it really takes something else…

Which is Writing

My least productive writing years (which I would argue that I’m living through right now) were the years where I spent incredible mental energy trying to justify the time I spent sitting in the sun with my laptop or a notebook and a pen, utterly failing, and doing whatever was “expected” of me.

In other words, I was not writing, and this is not how one becomes a writer.

One becomes a writer by writing and one does that by actually writing. If you took my list of steps above and stopped at #3 and looped around and around and around again, you’d eventually find that a sizable amount of writing would pile up. Some of it would be good and some of it would be shit, but that’s the way it works.

I can say that this works because I’ve done it. My most productive writing years have been those where I basically told everyone to fuck off (including myself), that it was none of their business when or how long I spent writing, or even why or what I was writing in the first place. I didn’t think about any of that crap. I just put my butt in the chair, my fingers on the keys, and I wrote. Some days it was good and some days it was shit, but that’s the way it works.

How to Screw Everything and Just Write

I’m going to remind you of one of the most important lessons in writing:

Show Don’t Tell

This is the thing we’ve all heard a hundred times and while the reference is usually about the style of our writing, this time I’m making it about the act of writing itself.

In all your attempts to explain your writing (the work, the need, etc), you are telling. You are not showing. If you kept your mouth shut, sat down, and actually wrote, you’d be writing. If you did that, you’d find that it’s pretty obvious to everyone what you are doing and they couldn’t refute that you are doing it. If you did that, you’d find that your work would begin to pile up. If you did that, you’d find that you were spending a lot of time writing.

If you spent a lot of time writing, you’d be screwing everything else and writing.

This is writing, and writing is not complicated. In fact, writing is utterly ridiculous. It defies logic and all sensible thought. It is wasteful and inefficient. It is impractical and insane. And yet, writing is essential because it produces the bedrock of the human experience.

The product of writing encapsulates ideas and gives meaning to otherwise meaningless drudgery. It is entertainment. It is escape. It is religion and war. It is truth and lies. The product of writing is chronicle of the human race devised one word at a time by untold minds separated by time and space. It is a magical beast and it is yours and mine.

So I’m not going to give you permission to write. You don’t need that. You don’t need courage or the faith of others. You don’t need a reason or any other validation. What you need is to focus on the work and let the rest sort itself out.

Now, show yourself what you’ve got.

When the Hero is Wrong the Story is Right

I’ve had characters who seemed to know exactly which way to turn or just the right thing to say at precisely the right moment. To some of you, this may seem like a blessing, but in fact it is a curse.

When the hero of your story knows all the angles, that’s when the story’s taken a turn for the worse.

It starts small. Maybe some insight that only you (the author) should really know. This minor indiscretion like this may not seem like a big deal. You probably don’t even notice it.

You keep going along on your merry way, writing the scene and unfolding the tale. It all becomes so easy. You’re practically whipping through the pages, and that’s when you notice that it has indeed become all to easy. Your hero is no longer in danger, not really. They’re no longer making mistakes or taking the wrong turn. They read each situation so perfectly they never misstep.

Stories that fall into this pattern become predictable. The next turn of the plot is already on the lips of the main characters and even worse the crime (if there is a crime) has already been solved. There’s no reason to proceed. You might as well close up shop and head home because the crisis/trouble/what-have-you is all over.

The story, ladies and gentlemen, has become boring.

The Hero Must Be Wrong

To be fair, as the writer you should have an inkling of what’s coming up in the story unless you’re one of those terribly lucky savants who just writes and writes what they see and never have a clue of what’s around the next bend. There is another word for this type of writer: liar.

Honestly, if you don’t realize what’s coming up you’re only fooling yourself. You most certainly know what’s coming and you must always be on guard to make sure that your characters never get wind of it.

The hero who is wrong has so much to learn. The hero who is wrong gets into trouble, becomes trouble, creates tension and crisis. The hero who is wrong is the tension at the very center of your story, and it is the unraveling of this tension which fixes the problem.

By the end, the hero turns out to be right but only after seeing exactly how wrong they have been. This is how they grow, and it is usually painful. Much more painful than we experience in our own lives, which is why we read in the first place.

So if you’re struggling with a story that’s become dull, take a look and see just when the hero was last wrong. Look for the place where the hero does something right or has a good hunch. Ask yourself if this is really the right time and what might have happened if in fact the hero had been wrong.

Do People Die When the Hero is Wrong?

God I hope so, and so should you.

There are few events (if any) that lead to the sort of crisis that befalls a hero when another character dies. This is especially true if that death was caused by some error or miscalculation on the part of the hero.

Certainly, this doesn’t mean that characters should be dropping like flies (unless you’re George RR Martin), but you shouldn’t be afraid to kill off someone and place the fault of that death squarely on the shoulders of your hero. It’s the ultimately wrong, which makes it the ultimate right in terms of the development of your story.

We Can’t Take Our Eyes Off of the Wrong-Headed Hero

And here we come to the real reason for being wrong: it’s irresistible.

What I’d like you to do now is go back and think about the stories you love and consider all the points in which the hero was “wrong”. How did you feel? Were you frustrated because you could see the error of their ways when they could not? Were you angry because something bad happened?

Good! This is exactly how you should feel. In fact, feeling is the whole point.

When we feel for the characters, we care about them. We worry about them. We can’t stop reading about them. Feeling is the whole point because it’s the reason we actually finish books (unless we’re reading them for spite or because they’ve been assigned).

Of course, I could be totally wrong about all this, but I don’t think so. 🙂

Writing is a Superpower

I’m sitting at the cafe right now. The place is packed, even for a Saturday.

This is about the time I’d normally feel like escaping the joint, getting back up to my studio and focusing on a story. This is when the second espresso would kick in and I would feel my writing superpowers activate.

If I look into this memory, I can see the soft glow of the lamp waiting for me. I can see the desk I no longer own. I can see the ancient dining table to one side of the room covered in books and drawings, the pale light of a gray day filtering in through the gauzy curtains. I can look around this room and see all the art tacked to the walls. I can hear the raw silence of the dance hall of the dead all around me.

Yes, it was pretty awesome, but I don’t have that studio anymore. I don’t even live in this town. In fact, I live in a completely different world… It’s so easy to slip into a new reality. It happens before you even know you’ve left.

Recent studies show that we are always forgetting. Memories are not permanent structures. They’re recreated from scratch every time we exercise the power of recollection, and the perceptions of experience change with each etching.

Of course, we writers already knew it was possible to change memories. They can be short-circuited or supercharged, removing pain or energizing their intensity. After all, this is basically how stories are written. This is our superpower.

A writer takes a memory (real or imagined) and builds out from this, creating a reality which exists entirely within their own head. Over time, and with effort, that reality becomes more and more intense. Depending on the depth of writer’s determination, this story may even become a reality which others are willing to experience.

At the center of this concept is one of the most important questions a writer needs to ask:

Am I willing to live in this world? Is there enough here for me to revisit it over and over again, draw out characters and their lives, wander the streets, chronicle the battles and muddle through the boring bits between? (hopefully leaving the last on the cutting room floor so that others will be willing to live in the world as well)

What is interesting is that even though I’ve lived through many different realities I’ve never stopped being a writer. I’ve never stopped viewing the world through the eyes of a novelist, imaging dialogue for every face I’ve seen, histories for every every object I’ve touched, and futures for every place I’ve been.

I’ve often felt that this ability to reshape reality, this otherness, is a curse or a defect, but I know that it is also a gift, and as with all gifts there are responsibilities and obligations, which is mutually exclusive of the responsibility to edit Proustian paragraph-length sentences which stretch on through multiple commas and semicolons (and parenthetical diversions disguised as cleverness).

In the end, most people have to live with the reality they are given, but as a writers we can change ours whenever we like. Don’t forget this. Strengthen that memory through practice and your superpowers will only increase.

Intervention by Post

A letter I received today.

Dear Jamie,

We’ve decided to hold an intervention.

I’ve been rummaging around in your head for the last decade and I’ve gotten to know a lot of people you’ve left here. Some of them are good people. Some of them are bastards like me and some of them just wish they were. There are a few who go on for pages yet still feel like shadows. There are some, no longer than a few words, who I know better than I know myself. There are some you ought to have killed off early, and some you didn’t keep around long enough…

Ok, I can only take so much of that crap. Let’s cut the flowery lead and get right to the point, shall we?

We want you to write. All of us.

We don’t really give a damn how you do it. You can write it in blood if you want, or you can be a bit more practical and use the keyboard. You can write about any one of us or pluck someone new out of the slush and give them the run of the stage. It really doesn’t matter.

Just sit down and bang something out. It’s what you want to do anyway. Really. I’m the one on the inside, so I know what I’m talking about.


Burt Thompson

On behalf of:

Paul, Renee, Kyle, and that squinty kid I shot
John Skelton, Lydia, and Kitty
The Entire Snarkie Family and the City of Swellington
Duane and Rosa
Simeon Drake
YASBN and Mia
Barbara, Ali, and Ella Schilling
Lenny and Anders, Dragon Bob, and that bitch Sharon
Martin Ustoff
20Chan and bad_karma
Jeremy Shade, Count Spatula, and everyone at dinner
Brian and Rachel
Dick Branford, Davis and Shirley Watson
Charlie D, Dolly, and Lu
Clay and Roy and whatever got hold of them way out in space
Liz, Prometheus, and all the goats who had to die
Julian and Cleopatra
Walter, Katia, and Hans-Joerg
Azul Flores and Hawaii Jumbo
Dmitri and General Tanaka
Joe and Kleiner, Seamus Reilly, John Doe, and Gracie
Carl, Tom, Grandfather Henry, and the Albany Cutter
Eleia and Quitoxyl
Phineas Orleans, Ben Shoals, Miss Chaldea, Old Joad, and Truman

P. S. Kip Frazier wants me to remind you, “You promised all of us something if we danced our dances. Now it’s time to pay up, Mister Writer Man.”

How strange is that?

Not Writing Is Like A Warm Bath

I don’t really want to go back and look at how long it’s been since I sat down to Write (yes with a pretentious capital ‘W’). I know it’s been months, but to be fair it’s really been years. Sometimes I look back to my best writing days and see it as another lifetime. A human life is made of many little lifetimes, overlapping yet often so distinct as to be held as a perfect memory separate from the whole.

For me, the little lifetime was six years. I locked myself in a room nearly each and every day and wrote for several hours. I wrote two novels, several stories, a few stubs of tales as yet untold. And yet, millions of words are not enough to be a writer.

It’s true that writing is hard work. Frankly, it is impossible to come day after day to the page and expect to release your best work. You must take what the writing gives and be happy that it gives at all. You must also show up.

Some writers, when faced with the prospect of not writing, will say things like:

“I would rather stop breathing than stop writing.”

“I would die if I wasn’t writing.”

“I cannot live without writing.”

But the reality is that you will not die nor will you stop breathing. You won’t stop living or stop feeling alive. You will still be a writer, you will simply not be writing.

This may sound sad and depressing but not as bad as you might think. In fact, it becomes rather pleasant after awhile because you stop worrying about all those things which only exist in your mind. You stop tending the universes there and the characters and the stories.

Not writing, after a time, is as pleasant as a warm bath.

As I said above, I’ve been in the tub a long while now. My skin is well past pruning. It’s withered and white. Soft and rubbery. My muscles are weak from buoyant caresses. My bones do not feel capable of holding my weight, and oh how that weight has grown.

Yes, it is pleasant in the bath. Pleasant and dreadfully dull.

Getting out of the tub, especially after you’ve been in it for awhile, is a painful experience. First, you must gird yourself against the atmospheric effects. Then you heave yourself out of the water, for there is really no graceful way to exit a bath. Even though you have prepared yourself mentally, you’ll find that your limbs have forgotten how to support your weight. A curse for the chill that wasn’t in the air five seconds before and a hustle for the towel. You’re focus is entirely on the goal of drying off quickly all sense of relaxation gone.

If you think about this, you’ll stay in the tub a bit longer. You’ll use your toes to fiddle with the nobs and eek out that last bit of hot water from the tank. You’ll sink below the water till it nearly touches the edge of your nose, knowing that if you fully submerge you’ll be freezing when you come up for air.

This is what the latter stages of not writing feel like. You know the chill is spreading. The water has long since stopped steaming. You wouldn’t be surprised if ice began to form near the edges of the tub, slowly closing in on you, forcing you to pull yourself into a tight embrace around your fear of emerging.

But like the warm bath, you know that even your fear cannot last. The water will be flat and cold as the grave. Your eyes, held shut against the inevitable, will open wide and you will clamber from the tub like a scalded monkey. Teeth chattering, you’ll wonder why the hell you ever got in there in the first place.

And maybe, if you’re smart, you’ll get back to work.