How to Write Better

Someone asked me for some tips on being a better writer.  I’ve not been asked this question before.  How do you plot a story?  Where do your characters come from?  What is your process?  Okay, sure.  But how to write better?

I had to think about it.  I thought about it much, and then on and off.  Then I forgot about it a while, and after, I remembered I was supposed to be thinking about it.  I was in my car driving somewhere and I remembered this damned question and that I’d said I’d try to answer it.  But I had to stop thinking about it right then because I was in my car and couldn’t get to a place to write my thoughts down.  And if you have a thought with no way to write it down, there it goes.  You don’t get it back.  You can’t think it over again, ever.

So then I tried to think about it when I wasn’t driving, and I still wasn’t getting anywhere.  This fucking question.  Fuck this question; it makes no sense.  How do you write better?  I don’t know.  Just write the son of a bitch, and leave me out of it.

I think maybe he was asking about tips on technique or some sort of bulleted list.  Open a scene in such and such a way, or here’s how you present a dialog.  I don’t know.  I hope that wasn’t what he meant.  It’s all wrong.  He’s worrying about the wrong thing, if that’s what he meant, and it’s all wrong.  It’s a confusion between technique and writing.  Technique is easy.  That’s the thing you consolidate into lists.  Technique is the thing you work over time, you refine it, you hold onto the things that you like and that others like and that work for you, and you throw the rest of it out.  You throw all of it out, if you have to.  You look at the words and search for the ones to get rid of.  Don’t take many words to say a thing when one will do.  Throw the rest out.

But that’s just technique.  Technique is bullshit.  It isn’t writing.  It’s technique.  It’s window dressing.  It’s the fat and the sugar and the salty water they inject into your food to give it body and heft and false flavor.  It is not the food.  The technique is not the fucking food.

How do you write better?  I don’t know.  What the hell do I know?  What makes you sure I’m such a great writer, smart guy?

I can’t tell you what to do, not for writing.  Go figure it out.  Go skin your own knuckles and bleed and sweat, then you come back and tell me.

Here’s a thing I’ll tell you: don’t ever ask a writer how to write better.  Any answer you get from us is bullshit.  We’re all bullshit.  Capital B.  We don’t know.  Even when we think we do, when the confidence comes and money starts happening, we don’t.  We don’t know a fucking thing.  Don’t ask us.  We’ll steer you wrong every time.

Every time.

Here’s what you do.  Right now in your pocket I bet you have a leash.  You don’t call it a leash but that’s what it is.  It has a processor inside and a colorful touch screen, accelerometers, wifi and cellular transmitters.  Take it out of your pocket.

Now throw that fucking thing across the room.  Get away from it.  Unshackle.  It’s poison.  You’re living your life through a tiny little screen.  You’re sanitizing the world around you through a tiny little screen.  You are making it all, everything, all of it, you’re making it all comfortable through a tiny little screen.

You’re strangling yourself through a tiny little screen.

Get up.  Leave the house.  Go outside somewhere, go somewhere you can find a tree.  Sit under it and feel the wetness of the grass seep in through your pants and chill your ass.  Put your hand in the grass and feel it.  Feel every blade.  Breathe.

Taste.

Go find a soup kitchen and volunteer there for the day.  When you’re done handing out the slop, go sit at a table with the vagrants and ask them to tell you where they came from.  Ask them where they plan to be tomorrow, in a week, in a year.  They’ll tell you, believe me, they will.  If you get a lunatic, don’t get up and leave for somewhere safe.  Listen to him.  Listen to her.  Listen.

Experience discomfort, wherever it is.  It needn’t be the life of a druggy, a pimp or a whore.  Do something you don’t like.  Do something that scares you, if only a little.  Go sing in front of strangers in a bar.  Go begin something you don’t know you can finish, and then go all in without a goddamned net.

Hate baseball?  Go to a ball game.  Go to the game and drink the overpriced piss water and ignore the fucking game all together.  Go be there, with everyone.  Go be uncomfortable.  Like baseball?  Go to a hockey match.  Go to a town hall meeting.  Watch how the citizens rail and how the officials yawn.  Go look.

See.  Listen.

Hear.

Have a set of balls?  Use them.  Have a cunt instead?  Use that.  There isn’t any difference between them, though if it helps you to believe there is, go ahead and believe.

Not your brain; the brain is useless.  Be in your guts.  Be in your bones.  Be in your sex.  Not fucking; your sex.  The experience of being your sex.

Feel.  Taste.  See.  Hear.  Smell.

Then go home.  Get out whatever unnecessary tools you have, and write.  Write the truth.  Write the truest thing you can.  Even if you write bullshit, write it true.  Fiction is bullshit on its face, but write it true.

Believe in the one, perfect word.  You’ll never find it, but believe in it anyway.  Every sentence.  Every line must move with energy.  Don’t waste a single phrase.  You will fail, but try.

The one word.  Not the three lovely adjectives, nor the most appropriate metaphor.  A single word.  Find it.  You won’t find it, but search anyway.  Believe.  Words are only symbols, and if we had something better than words, we’d use that, but words are what we have, so search.

Do it.  Go do it now.  Stop reading this and go do it; this is bullshit, anyway.  Don’t ask a writer, not ever.  We don’t know.  Some of us will claim to.  Don’t trust them.  They are worse than ignorant.  They believe their own press.  Run from them like a fucking brush fire.

Go.  Go out and find it.  Go out there, look very hard, and find it.

When you figure it out, come back and explain it to us.

On Shifting Perspectives…

InfinityMirrors


Infinity Mirror Room–Phalli’s Field
Credit Parker Miles Blohm

As a writer, they tell you not to read your reviews.  Once your work gets some traction and a broader audience, what happens is people come across it that turn out to not like it.  And they like to let you know, sometimes in perplexing ways.  This is the internet, after all.  Thankfully, I have yet to be sent a picture of a gaping anus.

Yet.

I go through periods of reading my reviews and then stepping away from them, not so much because I can’t take the criticism but because when I start nearing the end of a current work in progress (as I am with Commune 4 right now), I tend to go into lurk mode and focus hard on the finish line.  When the end is in sight, I start charging for the barn like a tired, old horse.

So yeah.  Periods of reading reviews and periods of reading nothing at all.  They tell you not to read them, mostly out of some fear that the budding author will see either criticism or praise for a given narrative “thingy” and start to second guess themselves regarding the direction of their story, especially if that direction is a bold departure.

Unless you’re a guy like me, and you tend to read the negative reviews for a laugh.

And I don’t mean the well thought-out critiques – those I read just to learn from.  A well written, educated criticism is fucking gold if you have the brains to see it that way.  Nah, I’m talking about the other stuff.  You know what I mean.  This is the internet, after all.

I never respond to this latter form of…oh, let’s call it feedback.  Until now.  But I’m not doing so for the person who left it – that would be a waste of both my time and the “critic’s”.  Given the wording, I’m fairly certain my response would fall on deaf ears.

But I figure I’d better explain myself to you guys – the ones coming along for the ride, and enjoying yourselves along the way (thank you).  Mostly, because there are no small amount of you who have pointed out explicitly that one of the things you’ve loved about these books thus far is the interview format in which they’re presented.  That the first-person delivery allows you to feel as though your seeing the world through the characters’ eyes.

I’ll post an excerpt of the criticism to which I refer regarding Commune: Book Three here:

For a series that’s supposed to be the history of a commune transcribed from interviews with it’s [SIC] members the switch to third person narrative was a terrible idea.

Firstly, I can tell you guys that I, as the author of this series, was thoroughly astonished to learn that I had so totally misunderstood what these books were supposed to be.  All I can really say is: where the hell was this guy to guide me when I was writing the damned thing?  I feel like had I just had access to his clear expertise earlier in the process, we could have avoided this critical blunder; assuming, as I am, that he knows how the story is going to end, the overall plan, etc…

Joking aside, I don’t really care that this guy took issue with C3 – it seems he read the book and ended up with a sour face because he wanted more of book two.  That’s cool.  I’m glad he liked C2 and a little apologetic (but only barely) that the 3rd didn’t live up to his specific expectations.

Barely.

But I did want to let the rest of you know what’s going on and why things have to shift the way they do.  Yeah, the third book isn’t told in an interview format.  It’s third-person, past tense all the way, with excerpts from Brian Chamber’s journals scattered throughout to kind of ween you folks off the old formula.  There were a few reasons why it had to be this way, as I hope you’ll agree:

  1. Foremost, the world had to expand in this book.  I needed to get into the concept of factions (large groups of people aligning against each other) and there really wasn’t any good way to stick to the first person narrative style while realizing this goal.  I mean, I guess I could have done, but you would have been left with complete strangers just showing up out of nowhere with zero explanation, wondering why you should care at all about anything that happens to them.  Lame.  The third book jumps between several different geographic locations and, as the author, I needed a little more narrative freedom to shift from place to place and group to group.  Trying to make this work while maintaining the interview format felt, to me, like those shaky-cam found footage movies.  You always get to a point about halfway through where the heroes are running away from the monster or the asteroid or the ghost, or whatever the hell it is, and you begin to wonder, “Why the fuck is that guy still carrying the camera around?!  Just drop the goddamned thing and run!  Get the gun!  Drop the camera and get the Christing gun!!!”  Well, me maintaining the interview mechanic into the third book felt like the asshole holding onto the camera while the monster was busy eating me from the legs up.  It’s kind of idiotic when you think about it.  I had to drop the camera and run my ass off.
  2. Books One and Two happened in the past, so it made sense to do them in the manner I chose.  Starting at book Three, things are happening NOW.  This is the present.  This was always the plan.  The only way I could have made it more NOW would have been to write the story in present tense, which I goddamn refuse to do; I hate present tense narrative more than butt-chugging college douche-bags.  Call it a personal taste.  Like butt-chugging.
  3. And this is just a minor one, though still significant: you eagle-eyed so-and-sos were starting to use the mechanic to figure out who lives and who dies.  Pretty simple: if a person has a POV chapter, they pretty obviously survived long enough to tell their story.  Yeah, I’m on to you, buster.  I’m not that bent out of shape over it but…sorry.  You don’t have that hint anymore.  All of the time spent with people sitting down with Brian and relating their tales?  That’s in the past.  That happened in the before.  Nothing’s set in stone from this point forward.  Buckle up.

So hopefully this will serve as a reasonable explanation as to why I’m shifting from a narrative style that so many of you seem to have fallen in love with.  I get it, man, new shit is uncomfortable.  But we have to go explore the new shit, guys, I’m sorry.  If I keep doing the same old thing over and over again, this is going to get stale really fast.  And then we’ll be here after the twenty third book or whatever, nothing at all will have been resolved within the story, and we’ll all be discussing how tired my writing has gotten and how things just feel like they’re drudging on with no end in sight.

Repetition is no good.  The formulae that worked yesterday needs to be burned to the ground on the day after, such that you’ve good fertilizer for the new.  It’s that or the story turns into that one joke you’ve heard for the fifteenth time, probably from a precocious kid who fucked up the punchline.  We tell ourselves we want more of the same thing, but you know what happens when you actually get it?

Jaws 3D, man.

Screw.  That.

– Josh

Facebook Live Event with R. C. Bray!

Good friend and narrator/performer of my books R. C. Bray will be hosting a Facebook Live event on December 27th at 8pm EST.  I intend to be there if at all possible (I’ll be driving home from visiting family on that day) as a spectator.  If you’d like to ask questions of a major audio book industry icon, this would be your chance.

Click the picture!

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Commune Book Three Cover Reveal – Coming Very Soon!

We’re 130K words into the book 3 manuscript, my lovelies.  Now with the decision to split the final book into two novels, my adjusted best guess at word count is in the 160K-ish range, plus or minus.  Those of you who know how I write are aware that a 5K word session is pretty easy to achieve without much effort, so…I’ll say that we’re pretty close on this project.  So much so, in fact, that I’ve begun the process on the covers: ebook, print, and audio.

I’ll be sharing it with you all very soon 🙂

Commune Book Three is Probably Going to End Up Being Books Three and Four…

So I had myself completely locked into this idea that these books would be a trilogy, and I intended to hold to that come hell or high water.  So much so, in fact, that I had myself twisted around into knots while I was writing this bastard, worrying that it was ballooning out of control.

In the meantime, my wife has been telling me to quit limiting things to artificial numbers, as I would be likely to end up shooting myself in the foot by rushing the story.

As usual, it seems she’s going to be right.  Damn it.

The more I write, the more it looks like it makes sense to break this puppy up into two volumes.  I’ll have to shift some things around, I reckon, but the good news is that I’m coming to terms with this on the early side of things, such that I don’t have to go back and do a bunch of rewriting.  The main thing is that I promised myself at the outset of this whole mess that I was going to give myself the time I needed to spread out in this world and explore it as much as I wanted to before moving on.  I suppose that means four books in the end.  And really, this is what happened when I started writing the series in the first place.

The story of the third book is really what I set out tell when I started writing, before I realized I had some world building to do in order to get everything set up.  Books 1 and 2 are the result of that world building effort.  Now comes the big payoff, and I want to make sure the proper time is taken to do it right.

So I figure book 3 is probably going to be done this year and I’ll start 2018 off diving into four.  Hell with it; I need a drink.

In the meantime, the numbers on the first audio book are shooting through the damned roof.  The thing is climbing the Post Apocalyptic best sellers list on Audible, advancing a few more slots every day.  If this keeps up, we’ll be seeing it in Audible’s top 100 Sci-Fi soon, which would just about blow my undies off.

I can’t thank all you readers enough for the incredible support and phenomenal response you’ve shown for the books so far.  I never imagined it was going to take off like this.