Tag Archives: process

On writing what you know

Dismiss that woefully misguided maxim ‘Write What You Know.’ Instead, and I emphatically believe this, write what you don’t know. Write about what confuses, enrages, haunts and confounds you. The writer who has the answers is penning propaganda; the writer on a quest for them is the one I’d rather read.

Apparently this is from a speech by playwright Doug Wright, though I can’t find a source. Whether he said it or not, he’s absolutely correct.

From a good thread on r/writing about dodgy advice for writers.

(I also weighed in with my least favourite, but almost ubiquitous, writing advice too.)

Lester Dent’s Master Plot Formula

Lester Dent was a pulp fiction writer in the first half of the 20th century. He was insanely prolific, typically writing 200,000 paid words per month. He seemed to have this whole writing thing all figured out. Dent’s master plot formula (later used and endorsed by Michael Moorcock) is probably his best-known work in the modern writing world. On the starting point for a story:

Here’s how it starts:


The rest is well worth reading, but Moorcock sums it up very nicely:

Part one, hit your hero with a heap of trouble. Part two, double it. Part three, put him in so much trouble there’s no way he could ever possibly get out of it. Then — now this could be Lester Dent or it could be what I learnt when I was on Sexton Blake Library, I forget — you must never have a revelation of something that wasn’t already established; so, you couldn’t unmask a murderer who wasn’t a character established already. All your main characters have to be in the first third. All you main themes and everything else has to be established in the first third, devloped in the second third, and resolved in the last third.

Dent’s “formula” doesn’t work unless you’re a pretty competent writer already; it’s more about organizing your work rather than actually writing the story. But it’s good stuff, and I’ll be referring back to it the next time I start an outline.


Guest Post: Writing Coach Suzanne Harris

I invited my good friend and personal cheering section Suzanne Harris to write a guest post for me. Suzanne is an accomplished writer and poet, and has a thriving clientèle as a writing coach. Check out her website here.

Finding Time to Write

I thought twice about calling this post “Finding time to write.” I worried about setting up false expectations; maybe you’d think there was a simple solution you had overlooked. But I’m willing to bet that if you’ve been writing or wanting to write for any length of time, you already know the truth: deciding to write when you find time guarantees you won’t write much of anything at all.

You need to take the time.

When people come to me for writing coaching, one of the first things we do together is get clear about what their goals are, what they intend to achieve. Are they working their way through a novel? Dreaming of a collection of poems? Trying to get writing, period?

The next thing we do is look for time they can take for writing. Of course we check the obvious places to start: small pockets of ‘free’ time and inefficiencies—the loose change of the daily schedule—and maybe we’ll come up with lunch breaks or morning commutes on public transit.

But the reality is most people these days lead crazy-busy lives. We are over-allocated. We fill time, like our homes, with a lot of stuff. We want it all: work time, family time, social time, gym time, TV time, online time, email time, coffee time, volunteer time, reading time, play time, sleep time, down time AND writing time. We are busy busy busy, and that’s fine…except if you really, really want to write.

Ultimately, if you want to make progress toward your writing goals you have to take time from the activities that fill your days and re-allocate it to writing. A lot of writers make a habit of getting up early or staying up late to write. Yep, they shave time off sleeping.

Look at how you spend your days. Do you really need to watch Jeopardy? Play that video game? Answer email? Dip into Facebook? Chat your friends? Okay, maybe sometimes, but right now? (If you say yes, I’m going to be forced to ask you how serious you are about your writing!) Take an hour. Take thirty minutes. Take fifteen.

Writers write. Decide that writing is a priority and take time for it.

Our lives are full of obligations and distractions, but people are still cranking out novels, stories, poems and memoirs. They have jobs. And families. Their only secret is that they make a commitment and they sit down and do it. They take the time. And they keep at it. Ask Matt. He just finished his fourth novel a couple of weeks ago.

What is your goal? What would you like to write today?

Take the time.

Do it.

Suzanne Harris is a writing coach living and writing in Edmonton, Alberta. When she has a work in progress her mornings are dedicated, sacred time. No emails, no Facebook, no meetings, no coffee dates, no appointments, no errands, no laundry. Life and things like it are put off until after noon. She won’t even answer the phone. Her friends know this and support her by not even bothering to try to reach her until she surfaces later in the day. You can contact her through www.suzanneharris.ca any time you like, just don’t expect her to answer until after lunch.

Finishing a book

I last finished a book just over three years ago, in spring of ’07. I was down in the Dominican Republic for a week, and spent every afternoon and evening in the bar, writing, fuelled by a constant stream of gin and tonics (which was itself fuelled by some careful tipping of, and friendly conversation with, the wait staff all week).

It was a great feeling. I had been working on this book for two and a half years, and four months before our vacation, I had stopped dead around the two-thirds point in the book. I had no idea how to go on, no idea how to get to the end, only the very vaguest idea of what the ending would be. My wife provided the idea I would eventually use, but I still didn’t know what to do to get through the current spot.

Once I got down there and started writing, it flowed nicely. In the six days there, I wrote about 20,000 words, working six to eight hours a day. As I proceeded, page by page, it started really taking shape — then gathered momentum, and soon took off with an energy of its own. And on our last afternoon there, with an early shuttle to the airport the next morning, I was driving towards the end. Around six o’clock, I laid the pen down. Done.

I had to go for a walk to try to calm my nerves. I wouldn’t even be keeping the stuff I had just written; the last chapter I had to rewrite significantly to change the focus, and the epilogue has been tossed out and rewritten completely (as has the first chapter). But I was done. I could relax.

I’m getting close to the finish line on the next novel, the sequel to that one. I’ve only been working on it for a little over a year, but by my birthday (in less than two weeks), I intend to have it finished. I had originally planned to have it done by my birthday, then moved it up to July 1 and then June 1 — then slowly moved the target date back to its original place. I was originally trying to write 75,000 words, though, and am somewhere between 90,000 and 100,000 now, so it’s taken longer than expected.

I won’t be feeling so good when I get to the end of this one, unfortunately. I know that I have far, far more work to do once this one’s done than I did for the previous one in the series. But it will be a milestone, for sure. And it will be good news for my agent (who is busy trying to sell the first one in the series, and will be happy to be able to tell editors that the second book in the series is done), and good news for my wife (who will not have to hear me griping quite so much about how the book isn’t as good as I want it to be).

So mixed feelings. Plus I have to think about what I’m going to write next, while I work on whipping this one into shape. But a milestone is a milestone, and I’m going to have to find a good way to mark the end of the first draft. Maybe a good bottle of wine, to soften the blow of all the editing I’m in for as soon  as I finish typing this thing up…

How I Write

I spent an hour and a half or so in a Starbucks today, and got about 1200 words written. A pretty good output for such a short period of writing. I’m very happy with the scenes I wrote, too; they are dialogue-heavy, include a little humour, and set up a lot of plot and conflict. I’ve been wanting to write this kind of stuff for a while now — lately, after I finish writing I usually think, well, this is going to be cut when I edit the novel.

Not that anyone asked, but I thought I’d describe how I do the writing I do.

First, I write novels longhand. Something about the tactile experience of pen and paper gets the creative juices flowing for me. Usually I buy reasonably nice notebooks to write in, too — not cheap composition books or spiral-bound notebooks, but higher-quality journals, leather-bound with good-quality paper. A novel usually fills two or more notebooks, and I try to use the same notebook for each volume, so that the word count per page (and therefore per book) is approximately the same.

I also prefer pens that provide a thick stream of ink. It’s kind of a stupid preference, because I’m left-handed, and more ink means more smudges. But if the ink is too thin or too light, I start unconsciously pressing harder, which tires out my hand far too quickly. Recently I bought a Lamy Accent Matte Finish on sale at a stationery store that was going out of business, so it was $35 instead of $140. It writes really nicely — the ink flow is caused by gravity, not pressure (as with a ball pen).

So much for the accoutrements. The other thing that I need to write my best stuff is space in public.

It’s a little bit crazy — I’m really easily distracted and annoyed by extraneous sound, and the general public is known for its noise-making. But there’s something about the human energy that I get sitting in a busy coffee shop that really gets me focused and helps the ideas, and therefore the words, to flow.

The sounds are a problem, so I usually have the headphones in and an energetic mix of music playing while I work. Almost any music is fine, actually, as long as it drowns out the noise around me, but guitar-driven rock or punk songs are what I turn on to start.

One feature that has emerged lately, thanks to my iPhone, is that I find myself needing to complain about the people around me while I write. Coffee shops — Starbucks in particular — seem to attract a good mix of the annoying and the unaware; when something particularly offensive swims into view, I can’t help but report it somewhere. That somewhere used to be my Facebook status, but since people have started to comment on it more and more often, I’ve switched to a Twitter feed instead. I find the 140 character restriction a little difficult but economy is the soul of &c. &c.

Anyhow, that’s how these novels of mine get written. And tomorrow, some coffee purveyor will be a little richer, one of their seats will be a little warmer, and I’ll have another scene or two down on paper — I hope.