How to be a Better Writer

A notebook in a bookstore coffeehouse, with coffe.

About four years ago, one of my colleagues at work found out I was a writer and asked, “So, tell me Anthony, how can I be a better writer?”

I don’t claim any special wisdom in this department, but I do claim two things: first, that I have opinions about the matter, and second, that I wrote a long email to my friend about it, an email which I thought I’d posted on my blog. Unfortunately, after an extensive search, I wasn’t able to find the post.

Now, I could attempt to clean this email up prior to posting it here, but I’m afraid that if I do that, I’ll just end up going several years without posting it.

SO! Here’s that email, largely unedited, on “How to be a better writer!”

Sorry it took so long to respond to your question about how to be a better writer – I thought I wrote an article on this on my blog, or perhaps in an email to a friend, but if so, I couldn’t find it. Then I tried to write a long response, but that turned into something book length. So let me give you the short version.

  • First, just write! That’s the best thing anyone can do to become a better writer. Ten thousand hours of practice can build mastery in almost any skill, so the first thing you can do to help yourself is to write regularly – preferably, about whatever comes to mind, so you’re not trying to practice when you’re on the spot.
  • Try morning pages. The best tool I know to help people get into the habit of writing is to write morning pages – writing, each day, ideally when you get up, three pages in a notebook. Write bla bla bla if you have to – you’ll get bored of it quickly, and will write what comes to mind.
  • Take a creativity course. The book The Artist’s Way is one of the most famous of these, and it’s what inspires me to suggest morning pages. Actually, I’ve never finished this course – I always get so energized just trying it that I get sucked off into my own projects. Try one that works for you.
  • Read more than you write. You can’t consciously choose the words that come out as you write them; they come from your subconscious. So it’s important to feed your subconscious with a lot of interesting material to help you generate a lot of interesting material of your own.
  • Read great writing of the type you want to create. What you enjoy reading most might not be the writing you want to emulate most, so hunt down the great writers of the type of writing you’re aiming for, read them, and try to figure out what you like about them – and what makes them tick.
  • Read great books on writing. The first two I always recommend to people are Ayn Rand’s (yes, that Ayn Rand) The Art of Fiction and The Art of Nonfiction. More than any book I’ve ever read, the Art of Fiction boils down what makes good fiction writing. John Gardner’s On Being a Novelist is another great, but there are so many of these it’s hard to pick one.
  • Read great books on style. The two I recommend to people the most are The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon. Strunk and White is the classic, and Building Great Sentences is its antidote. If you have to pick one, pick Building Great Sentences – hands down.
  • Do writing exercises. There are many, many of these – The Artist’s Way has some, at Barnes and Noble you can find dozens of books like 500 Writing Prompts or Creativity Bootcamp that have others; the important thing is to try different writing styles on.
  • Try timed challenges. Write to the End (writetotheend.com) tries 20 minute writing challenges; Shut Up and Write ( meetup.com/shutupandwritesfo ) tries (I think) an hour; National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo.org) tries 50,000 words in a month. These cure you of the notion you need to wait for your muse.
  • Join a writing group. Not a critique group – those are dangerous until you get more confidence in and acceptance of your own writing (and a thicker skin). I already mentioned Write to the End and Shut Up and Write, but there are many more (even some at Google, such as the Creative Writing Lunch).
  • Take on writing projects. Write novels, write stories, write essays, write memoirs, write documentation, write songs, write plays, write poetry, write haiku, write impenetrable postmodern explorations of what it means for something to be writing – but take on a writing project that has a beginning, middle, and end …
  • Finish what you write! This is so important I wanted to write this earlier, but the problem is, it depends on what you’re writing for. If you just want to improve your skill, reading Strunk and White might do it – but if you want your writing to go further, you need to finish what you write.
  • Don’t edit while you write! Some people do this very well, but most people have two modes: producing text, and refining text. Unless you’re very confident in your ability to not rework the first paragraph of something forever, make sure you first finish, then edit. But before you do that …
  • Let your manuscripts cool off. It’s hard to have perspective right after you’ve finished something. At least sleep on it, if you have time; ideally, come back to a story after a week or two and see if what you wrote before still makes sense to you and does what you wanted it to. In the meantime …
  • Work on something else. Start something new. Creating a new work has an almost magical way of solving problems you have in the work you have cooling on the back burner. Your skills improve, you’re not invested in your old ideas, and you come back with a fresh start.
  • Revise your work! Give your manuscript at least a once over. I guarantee, it’s not perfect. The books Self Editing for Fiction Writers or The Elements of Editing can help you with this task. It’s worth working on something a bit until you can’t see anything obviously wrong to it.
  • Share your work with a friendly audience. You’re not ready for a critique group yet; they’re often way too harsh. What you want are three friendly reviewers: a coach to help with your skills, a critic to help find flaws, and a cheerleader to praise goodness – and if the cheerleader complains, listen very closely to them.
  • Revise your work again before sending it out. Listen to your friendly critics. Revise your work. Make it the best it can be. Then you’re ready to send it out – to a critique group if you have to and if you have one, but ideally, to where you want the work received or published.
  • Keep your work circulating until sold. This may not apply to bloggers, writers of memoirs, and internal communications, but if you’ve got something you want to send to an external audience, send it to as many places as you can. Some great books went to dozens of publishers before getting accepted.
  • Don’t argue with your critics. Whether it’s a friend, a critique group, or an editor, they’re not critiquing you to hurt your feelings. Listen carefully, and perhaps if there’s some small misconception, feel free to clear it up, but ask yourself – why wasn’t your story so clear that they got it the first time?
  • Solve the problems your critics raise, but don’t feel compelled to use their solutions. Humans are great at confabulating fake reasons for the feelings they have. Don’t feel the need to use every suggestion your critics raise – but if two or more have problems at the same spot, listen closely.
  • Learn from your genre. Whether it’s writing a thesis, writing documentation, or writing science fiction stories, there are documents out there on the pitfalls of the genre and the techniques from success, from How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation to the Evil Overlord List.
  • Learn from the style guide. If you’re aimed at a particular market, whether it’s a science fiction magazine accepting William Shunn’s document format, or a book publisher who wants the Chicago Manual of Style, or it’s the American Psychological Association, read the style book. With a grain of salt, of course.
  • Learn from publication. Once something is published, take a look at the published work. I can guarantee you, you’ll find something about it you’d do differently now, whether it’s a typo or a new way to phrase things. Think carefully about this difference and what it can teach you.
  • Find a great critique group. By this point, you’ve been exposed to enough information to have your own opinions and to make up your own mind – and that’s the right time to engage a whole bunch of other opinionated, thoughtful people to get their ideas of how to improve your work.
  • Find a great workshop. These are harder to get into, but put you in touch with great writers of your particular genre or style and can really take you to the next level, if that’s what you want.
  • Find a great program – or embark on a great project. If you really want to be a writer, some people suggest a MFA program or other longer-term, intensive course. I simply prefer to take on little projects like 21 book urban fantasy series; these force you to learn some of the same things. 😀
Well, that’s about it for the short version. As I said … the long version’s probably a book. 🙂 I hope this helps! Please feel free to ask me more questions!
And there you have it. I hope that’s not a repeat!
-the Centaur

FROST MOON eBook on Sale

Good news, Edgeworlders! FROST MOON is on sale through the 15th!

The Cover to FROST MOON

FROST MOON is my first novel, the tale of Dakota Frost, a woman who can bring her tattoos to life, and her very first encounter with the sharp edges of the Edgeworld she’s been dancing around all her adult life. She meets vampires and werewolves, weretigers and faerie, and soon is on the ride of her life when the police warn her about a serial killer attacking the magically tattooed near the full moon … right when a werewolf asks her to tattoo a design on him. Is he the killer … or the next victim?

Go check it out on Amazon, Kobo, Nook or wherever fine ebooks are sold!

-the Centaur

Jeremiah Willstone on Sale

Jeremiah Willstone and the Clockwork Time Machine is on sale!

Hail fellow adventurers! My first steampunk novel, Jeremiah Willstone and the Clockwork Time Machine, is on sale through the end of the month! The Ebook is only $0.99, so now’s a great time to instantly gift yourself with a trip to Victoriana! You can find it at Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Apple, Google Books, or wherever fine books are sold. If you like action, adventure, corsets, rayguns, or a peek at an alternate history where women’s liberation happened a century early, check it out!

SHATTERED SKY Released

Hail fellow adventurers! As a member of Thinking Ink Press, I’m proud to announce the release of David Colby’s new novel, SHATTERED SKY, featuring a cover painted by my wife, Sandi Billingsley!

SHATTERED SKY Cover by Sandi Billingsley.

This has been a great team effort between David the writer, Sandi the artist, and the team at Thinking Ink – Betsy, Liza and Keiko. I was the editor for this project – making SHATTERED SKY the first novel that I edited. Neat!

Personally, I’d describe the series as THE HUNGER GAMES meets GRAVITY for the LGBTQ set, but from our announcement: “The second book in the Lunar Cycle trilogy, SHATTERED SKY is the sequel to DEBRIS DREAMS. In DEBRIS DREAMS, lunar separatists attack the space elevator above the Earth, forcing offworlder Drusilla Zhao into wartime military service.

In SHATTERED SKY, Dru is honored as a hero and joins her girlfriend Sara on Earth. As Dru begins her new life, she struggles to adapt to a different culture while suffering from PTSD. When Sara’s home is threatened, and the military demand that Dru return to service, she must fight to defend the Alliance while battling enemies inside her own head.

Author David Colby combines hard science details with page-turning action and a diverse cast of characters for a unique science fiction experience that you won’t soon forget.”

Get SHATTERED SKY wherever fine books are sold!

-The Centaur

Back to Dragon Con!

Hail, fellow adventurers! If you want to experience our world the way Jeremiah Willstone and her friends first experienced it, there’s no better way than to come to Dragon Con in Atlanta! I’ve been going to Dragon Con longer than almost any con – certainly longer than any still-running con – and after enough time here they put me on panels! And here they are:

  • Practical Time Travel for the Storyteller
    Sat 05:30 pm / Athens – Sheraton
    Panelists: Darin M. Bush, Michael J. Martinez, S.M. Stirling, Anthony Francis, Jack Campbell
    This panel discusses the real science behind time travel, as well as how these scientific theories can place both challenging and rewarding demands on the stories we tell. Time dilation, the grandfather paradox, and more will be explained as we discuss the stories that reference these theories.
  • Partners: Collaborating on Your Novel
    Sun 11:30 am / Embassy CD – Hyatt
    Panelists: Nancy Knight, Janny Wurts, Anthony Francis, Clay and Susan Griffith, Gordon Andrews, Ilona Andrews
    When writers collaborate, the results can be great–or horrible. How do you insure that your collaboration turns out well?
  • Plotting or Plodding?
    Sun 02:30 pm / Embassy CD – Hyatt
    Panelists: Janny Wurts, Anthony Francis, Lee Martindale, Richard Kadrey, Laura Anne Gilman, Melissa F Olson
    It’s the story, stupid! Everybody loves a great story. This panel discusses how to create that unforgettable story roiling within you.
  • Magic Practitioners in Urban Fantasy: Witches and Warlocks
    Mon 10:00 am / Chastain 1-2 – Westin
    Panelists: Jeanne P Adams, David B. Coe, Linda Robertson, Kevin O. McLaughlin, Anthony Francis, Melissa F Olson
    Witches and warlocks in the genre range from being an accepted part of their communities to the most feared. Our panel of authors will discuss the characteristics of those in their works.
  • Write a Damn Good Book
    Mon 11:30 am / Embassy CD – Hyatt
    Panelists: Bill Fawcett, Peter David, E.K. Johnston, Diana Peterfreund, Anthony Francis

    Writers worry about all sorts of things, but the first thing to worry about is writing a great book. Here’s how.

Other fun things at the con are the Parade, the Masquerade, performances by the Atlanta Radio Theater Company, and, of course, The Cruxshadows. So come on down and hang out with 80,000 fans of fantasy and science fiction! Some of them may become your new best friends.

-The Centaur

Gettin’ a Move On

Well, the Nano climb is starting off great, for a switch! Fourth of July, and I’m already 800 words ahead of what my goal is for this time of the month.

Not bad, but then, I am on vacation. 🙂 An excerpt:

On our way out, I sighs. “That went … well—”

“It so very did not,” Karoo says, bouncing from rock to rock.

“What?” I says. “We learned a lot—”

“We learned nothing but that this so-called Huntswoman wants the Ere Mother dead—or worse!” Karoo snarls. “You learned nothing from the Huntswoman about the Ere Mother herself that I could not have told you, had you only asked—”

“Was she wrong about the spell that’s killing her?” I asks, and Karoo says nothing. “If you knew that, why didn’t you tell me?”

“You didn’t ask,” Karoo says.

“Well, maybe I should change that,” I says, “startin’ now. But I learned a lot—”

“A faerie queen flattered you by putting you through paces that would not have fazed the most junior adept in medieval times, when training meant something,” Karoo said. “You learned what you should have learned months or years ago in your training—”

“I have not been wand training for years,” I says. “Graffiti magic, three years, wand magic, more like one and a half. Actually, a bit closer to one—”

“So you’re hungry and she fed you,” Karoo says huffily. “One way and one way alone this creature is like the Li’ía Ní’qua I remember. You heard her banish me from her court, me, her consort? I loved her once, with all my heart. Now I hate her with equal fervor—”

“Don’t say that,” I says. “She’ll … she’ll eventually remember you—”

“Li’ía Ní’qua is dead,” Karoo says. “I never want to come back to this place again!”

Ouch, Karoo, that’s harsh! Especially coming from a cute glowing anthropmorphic fox.

-the Centaur

Viiictory the Twentieth!

Hail, fellow adventurers! And now you know why you haven’t heard from me for a while: I was heads down finishing my wordcount for Camp Nanowrimo! And this is a very special one, because it marks the twentieth time I have won a National Novel Writing Month style challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel in a month! Woohoo! When I started, I never thought I’d finish this many!

This was a difficult month for it. Sure, I just finished early, but that final push involved locking me in a downstairs room with my laptop until I finished so I could enjoy the rest of my vacation with my wife. And the push up to this point has been hard: my wife returning from vacation, with me scrambling to finish a spring cleaning gone awry before she got home. A cat being treated for cancer. An organization I’m volunteering with had an emergency that involved multiple meetings over the month. Major shifts and dustups at work. Robots, on the loose, being chased down the corridors. Ok, that last one isn’t real. Well, actually, it was, but it was much, much, much more prosaic than it sounds.

The upshot, seen above, is blood on the water (behind on my wordcount) for most of the month. And with the very last weekend of the month being my long-planned vacation in Monterey with my wife before she flies out on her next business trip, there was a very real danger that I wouldn’t make it. But my wife is awesome, and tolerated me taking out this first evening to do a massive push to get all my words done!

And now, sleep. But first, an excerpt:

“The Ere Mother is … not the most dangerous enemy I’ve ever faced,” I says. “Actually, she doesn’t rate really highly compared to the thing we found in the Vault of Nightmares, which was the real source of the magic that tried to burn down this city, Lady Scara—not me. But the Ere Mother is terribly dangerous, that I admit, Magus Meredith, Elder Jackson-Monarch. She’s terribly dangerous. But I did not ‘unleash’ her on the city. I went where my leadership told me to go and did what they told me to do, and the bottom dropped out under me. Yes, she came to life when I fell into the chambers of her court, but I strongly doubt that she was brought to life by a magic tiger butt. As unstable as that structure was—and it was still subsiding from time to time—the Ere Mother could have been unleashed at anytime, and we’d know even less about her than we do because I was down there investigatin’—as you all asked me to.”

I stands there, quietly.

“OH!” I says. “Um, yeah. That’s … that’s my report.”

“Well,” Mom says. “Thank you, First Mage, for your testimony—”

“Chair Frost?” Meredith says, raising his hand politely. “Are questions allowed?”

Mom blinks. “Always, as long as we maintain order. You have the floor.”

“Shoot,” I says. “Not literally—”

“How do you know the structure was still subsiding?” asked Meredith.

I stares at him. The hair rises on the back of my head. I thinks very, very fast.

“I heard it from the remaining member of the Dire Court,” I says. “A fox changeling, er, proto-fox changeling, at least I assume it was a changeling—er, anyway, we spoke, briefly, before the Ere Mother attacked. He mentioned a subsidence that, um.”

“Yes?” Meredith says, eyes gleaming.

“That, ah, uncovered his eye, so he wasn’t stuck in the dark anymore,” I says quietly. Meredith’s face falls, with true horror. “There was light down there, from runes. But after the Ere Mother’s attack … I don’t think there’s anything left of the fox fae anymore.”

“That’s … horrible,” Meredith says. “Do you remember what else you spoke about?”

“I will try to reconstruct a transcript. Mostly, he said shit like, ‘Oh, God’, and ‘Don’t hurt me.’” Somebody laughs, and I idly turns towards them and says, “Hey, I was pretty scared. You wanna be pretty scared to, I can always Change into what I looked like down there.”

“Cinnamon Stray Foundling Frost,” Mom says sternly, “if you eat anyone at this Council, you’re grounded!”

“Yes, Mom,” I says.

Ah, Cinnamon. You and your wacky hijinks with ancient faerie changelings!

Now … zzzzz…

-the Centaur

Camp Nanowrimo – Spellpunk: ROOT USER

Um, so, hi! I’m Cinnamon! (That’s me, below!)

And I’m supposed to tell you that my biographer, Anthony Francis, is working on my third book, ROOT USER, for Camp Nanowrimo! Camp is the sister challenge to the November challenge to write 50,000 words in a month, and that sounds crazy unless you are my brother and love writing words, and are not dyslexic and ADD and whatever, and what was I saying? SO! Anyway. My biographer’s busy writing, or something. So you get me! Except, um, I gots nothin’, except, hey, I’m a teenage weretiger, and this is my third book! The first two ain’t out yet, but this one has monsters and high school and kids straight out of Harry Potter and yummy yummy wereguys fightin’ over the me. Choice! I am awesome, if I do say so myself about myself. Hee hee!

What? Oh! Ok. My biographer is askin’ me to post an excerpt or somethin’, so, here goes:

I glowers. “Fine,” I says.

We steps up to the blockhouse surroundin’ the base of the mineshaft. Nri nods to the guard, makes a funny hand sign. The guard nods, opens the chain, lets us in—but as he puts the chain back, he flips down a sign that says, MAINTENANCE—OUT OF ORDER.

“This elevator seems to be out of order a lot lately,” I mutters. “Your doin?”

“Yes, but why do you care?” Nri asks, pullin’ out a key. “You have a teleporter—”

“Common knowledge, thanks to you,” I grumbles, and it’s true: Nri has no respect for my secrets, none at all, but he’s cagey as a wolf. “Now everyone wants to pop out in my den, every time you’re doin’ whatever you’re doin’—what are you doin’ down here, anyway?”

“Using the elevator’s special features,” Nri says, slidin’ the gate closed.

He inserts the key, turns it—and the elevator starts to go down.

“Hey!” I says, as the blockhouse recedes above us. “I thought this was ground zero!”

“Ground floor,” Nri corrects. “But no, it is not. The Werehold is a basement. This …”

“Sub-basement?” I asks hopefully, as the shaft recedes above us.

“I said I’d tell you on the surface,” Nri says. “I never said the surface of what.”

And then … the world turns upside down.

“Whooaoaaoaa!” I cries, as my feet lifts off the floor—and the elevator keeps descendin. Nri has moved to the side of the elevator, and grips the cage, turnin’ his body a hundred and eighty degrees, so his feet are pointin’ at the ceiling—and then I falls. Up! “Ow!”

Nri’s feet land on the ceilin’. I lands on my noggin.

Ow! Embarrasin’. Why’d you have to call up that bit, Mister Biographer, huh? Rip your face off, I oughtta. Grr. And stop calling me cute when I growl. A tiger, I am, not to be mocked by those who could be morsels—stop touslin’ my hair!

Grrrrr. Enjoy, or whatevers.

-Cinnamon, on behalf of the Centaur

Overcoming Writer’s Block in Two Pages

SO! I’ve written about overcoming writer’s block before, though that draft post never seems to have been finished, and, regardless, I couldn’t find it when I was generating handouts for my latest writer’s block class at Clockwork Alchemy. So I generated some ENTIRELY NEW HANDOUTS on Overcoming Writer’s Block, which I want to share with you today! The first advice, is, of course, just write!

Write! The first, best and last advice: Write. Just write! Write anything at all. Don’t wait for inspiration or the muse—just write! Don’t stop. Don’t think. Force yourself to write something. Put words on the page even if they are not the words you want. The cognitive skill of writing is so complicated that you need to get good enough at it that the act of writing doesn’t get in the way of the act of creating. Write “bla bla bla” if you have to. Trust me, you’ll get bored with that soon. Because the physical act of writing itself is has an almost magical effect of inspiring a new stream of words that you can put on the page. If you can’t think of anything, just write “I am blocked” and describe your feelings about it. That’s worth something. If you don’t know the answers, write the questions. Regardless of what you write, the answer to feeling blocked is to write. Just write!

Beyond the pep talk, I added some references to books on writer’s block – but also extracted some of the findings into a new acronym representing the way that writers who are blocked consciously can torpedo themselves: ERASED, because that’s what it feels like writer’s block is doing to your words!

  • Early Editing: Editing while writing can paralyze you.
    Write your draft first, edit it later!
  • Rigid Rules: “Rules” about composition are guidelines.
    Break the rules in your draft!
  • Awful Assumptions: We often assume writing must be perfect.
    Feel free to write your way!
  • Strategic Shortcomings: Complex projects can overwhelm us.
    Stretch your planning muscles!
  • Excessive Evaluation: Don’t grade our own writing too harshly.
    Finish your draft, then improve it!
  • Discordant Directives: Rules sometimes contradict each other.
    Be willing to make tradeoffs!

There are four interventions recommended for dealing with this kind of block; don’t try just one, try them all together:

  • Start Free Writing: Take on free writing like morning pages.
  • Develop a Writing Habit: Pick a regular day and time to write.
  • Stop Beating Yourself Up! Stop negative self-talk about writing!
  • Get Social Support: Find a writing group or writing buddy.

But all of those are symptoms of what’s essentially a block to the cognitive skill of writing. Sometimes writers face emotional trauma, and that’s OK: take the time you need to deal with your issues. And sometimes, actual chemical and neurological things interfere, so if you suspect deeper issues, please, feel free to recruit help to deal with whatever’s  the problem.

All of this and more are in the HANDOUTS on Overcoming Writer’s Block. Enjoy!

-the Centaur