Press "Enter" to skip to content

30 search results for “better writer”

How to be a Better Writer

centaur 0

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 ( tries 20 minute writing challenges; Shut Up and Write ( ) tries (I think) an hour; National Novel Writing Month ( 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. :-D
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

How to Be a Better Writer (the Short Version)

centaur 0


Recently a colleague asked me if I had any advice on being a better writer. I thought I’d posted about that, but it appears that I hadn’t, so I tried writing up my thoughts. That was too much, so I summarized. That was too much, so I summarized it AGAIN. And then it was short enough to share with you:

The super short version is to be a better writer, just write!

I often recommend morning pages - writing three pages about random topics at the start of your day, even "bla bla bla" if you have to - you'll get tired of writing “bla bla bla" quickly, and this will help cure you of the feeling you need to wait for your muse.

This advice comes from the book The Artist's Way, which is a great course to take; I also recommend Strunk and White's The Elements of Style and Brooks Landon's Building Great Sentences on grammar and style, Ayn Rand's The Art of Fiction and The Art of Nonfiction on writing and structure, and The Elements of Editing and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers on editing.

I also recommend that you read a lot more than you write, especially writing of the kind you want to emulate; take a look at it and see what makes it tick.

For fiction and other similar writing I recommend finding a writing group first, not a critique group; there are several good ones in the Bay Area including Write to the End and Shut Up and Write.

For the kind of internal communications you're talking about, you might try looking at marketing and documentation literature or the great writers internally that you admire - also popular writers, technical and nontechnical, in the computer field.

As for blogging, my recommendation is to just blog - try to do it regularly, at least once a week or so, about whatever comes to your mind, so that you create both a growing store of content - and again, a habit that helps you just write.


I’ll try to expand on these recommendations, but if I had to boil it down even further, I’d say: just write!

-the Centaur

Overcoming Writer’s Block

centaur 0


(Self-deprecating note: this blogpost is a rough draft of an essay that I’m later planning to refine for the Write to the End site, but I’ve been asked to share it, so I finished it up and am sharing it as is. When the full article is cleaned up, I’ll link to it … but in the meantime, enjoy, and try not to wince too much).

So for way of introduction to the Write to the End group, I’ve been asked by a lot of people recently “How can I become a better writer?” — a question for which I’ve generated a bit of stock advice I frequently sum up as, “Just Write!” But, when I dug a little deeper, I found almost half of the people asking me that question were really asking the question, “How can I overcome Writer’s Block?” Well, I have some theories. And I’m going to tell you about them. But more importantly, I’ve got some techniques which I’m going to share with you, and even better, I’m using one of them right now: if you sit down to write and get writer’s block, then write down very explicitly why you sat down to write, and what kind of writing you hope to have produced when you get up again. If you don’t know why you want to write, and you don’t know what you hope to produce before you get up again, congratulations! You’re done. Get up from the page and go have a soda, something really nice, not diet, like with Italian flavoring or an ice cream float. If you do know what you want to write, or what you want to have written, congratulations! Actually writing that down can get you … um … on the order of 227 words, according to Scrivener’s count, probably 300 by the time you’re done. The hope is that getting yourself writing ANYTHING will get your pen moving, and saying what you want to write will get you rolling in the right direction; however, if you finish saying what you want to write and remain stuck, then be really explicit about what you want to say next and what you feel is your barrier to writing more. That’s the big thing I want to leave with you: if you have writer’s block trying to write something, you can overcome it by either describing what you want to write, or why you want to write it, and springboarding off that with more questions and answers, until, in the end, you’re just writing.

Huh. A notch over 350 words. I underestimated.

Now, I know some of the people who are reading this are technical writers, and so I want to warn you up front that there’s a problem with my approach that doesn’t apply to fiction writers: describing what you want to write is not a substitute for the thought that needs to go into the technical meat of whatever it is you’re writing. For example, if you’re trying to, say, write a design doc for your teammates, you may think that outlining the project, its goals, its problems, and its possible solutions is enough to make a design doc—but it’s not. That’s what a fiction writer calls an outline. While there are fiction stories that are essentially nothing but outlines, and even more that are outlines in narrative, fiction generally isn’t an outline, but is instead people in places, talking and doing things, told in a particular way — or what we technically call character and setting, dialogue and action, and scene and narration wrapped in that stylistic veneer we call voice. But technical writers, we can get tricked by outlines of technical items into thinking we’ve said something about a problem — so it is really critical that after you get a rough outline down that you go back over it, extract the important ideas, to think about they fit together, and to identify the key ideas that are not obvious about the problem — and those key ideas are what should go into your design doc or project proposal or product requirements document or launch announcement or marketing communication or scientific paper or anything else. The value of your document is not the structure of the problem, which is often well known, but the original thought that you bring to the table.

And that brings us to the primary reason for writer’s block, at least for experienced writers, that is: not having thought clearly enough about what comes next.

But wait! Because I’m writing this extemporaneously — a big-ass word for saying I’m pulling this out of my orifice — I’ve forgotten to tell you about the other kinds of writer’s block, which is somewhat important in case you’re possibly getting bored and want a quick way to figure whether slogging on through the desert of this essay in search of water that will quench your particular search is a vain hope or not, but which is actually far more important because some of those kinds of writer’s block can KILL YOU. Well, actually, no, that’s not very likely, but they can get you to kill your story and end up back at stage one.

So how can you get blocked? Let’s tick a few of these off so we can hold your interest while I drag out the big red warning sign. First, sometimes writer’s block is caused because you just don’t want to write — Ayn Rand used to call this “white sneakers disease” because she knew a writer who’d’ve rather cleaned their sneakers than write. Ayn Rand thought that, technically speaking, this wasn’t a block, but nevermind, since people have developed a good technique for resolving “white sneaker’s disease,” and that technique is called BIC — Butt In Chair. If you think you want to write, and you are not writing, then stop whatever you are doing, go put your butt in chair in front of a pen, piece of paper and writing surface, and sit there until you get bored enough to write something, or find that you cannot and AHA NOW this is writer’s block, congratulations, move on to the techniques for tackling writer’s block proper.

Second, as I said earlier, experienced writers can have writer’s block because they haven’t thought through what comes next. Third, inexperienced writers can have writer’s block because they’re cognitively overwhelmed — which is the real point of this essay, and which is why I started the essay off with one paragraph specifically tackling this problem in case that was all that you read, but, don’t fear, if “inexperienced writer staring at a blank page feeling just that, a blank” describes you, then hang in there, I’m writing this essay specifically for you and will come back to this in detail.

But the fourth kind is the real dangerous kind of writer’s block, a particular kind of voluntary writer’s block which can hit writers of any stripe, both unmotivated and motivated, inexperienced and experienced; in fact, it almost hit me writing the second section of this essay, and if I’d given into it, I never would have written the words you’re reading right now — because I would have spent the same time editing the first section of this essay, and that right there is Writer’s Block of the Fourth Kind: editing while you write.

Trying to edit while you write is particularly dangerous for reasons I’ll get back to when I explain Why Novices Feel Fear At The Dreaded Blank Page, but the more immediate reason is that you can spend arbitrary amounts of time editing without adding to your draft. Now, there are some writers who edit while they write all the time — especially poets, who may spend as much time working over ten words as it takes me to write a thousand words —but right there that shows you that if you’re trying to cough up a ten thousand word story, it doesn’t behoove you to drill down on a perfect first sentence. There’s a reason we call our writing group Write to the End: it’s because we believe you should finish what you start before you try to edit it, or you will never finish anything at all.

Okay, that’s a first pass at why Writer’s Block of the Fourth Kind is dangerous: it can stall you out, and worse, trick you into thinking you’re actually writing. But what if you don’t have anything to edit? What if you’re suffering from Writer’s Block of the Third Kind, the Dreaded Fear of the Blank Page? This feeling of blankness is the feeling you get when you’re cognitively overwhelmed, and to understand the reasons I separate it out from Writer’s Block of the Second Kind, AKA Not Thinking Through Your Shit, we need to talk a little bit about cognitive psychology — specifically, working memory and cognitive skill acquisition.

You see, when a writer sits down at the page, we may imagine we’re creating worlds — but we’re not gods, and can hold only a finite amount of information in our heads at one time. Our working memories can only manipulate a handful of chunks of discrete information at a time — famously estimated in cognitive psychology as a short term memory holding roughly seven plus or minus two items. Of course, it ain’t that simple when you dig into the details, but as a rough rule of thumb, it holds — and that explains both writer’s block for experienced writers and the Dreaded Fear of the Blank Page for inexperienced ones.

When faced with a blank page, you can easily see how you could get blocked not knowing why you want to write, or what you want to write about, or what’s the meat behind the structure of the idea — there’s just nothing in your short term memory to put on the page. But why do so many inexperienced writers who know the answers to all these questions nevertheless come to me complaining that they feel a blank when sitting down at the page? Well, that’s easy: I’m a psychic magnet for those kinds of problems — just kidding. The real reason is that inexperienced writers have, by definition, a set of skills which are not fully developed — and we don’t actually have short term memories that hold information, we have working memories which are both the product of and are used by our skills.

Yes, that’s right — I tricked you! I started talking about working memory, then smoothly slipped to talking about short term memory in the same sentence, because for a long time cognitive psychologists made the same mistake. We imagined that humans had a short term memory like a buffer that passively held information, like a briefcase, but when you carry through the implications that model breaks down, and that’s not really how the cortex of the brain is organized anyway. It’s better to think of the brain’s fixed storage capacity as less a passive buffer and more of an active internal dashboard reporting the state all the brain’s cognitive systems. Now, there are no photogenic cartoon characters monitoring that dashboard like in Inside Out—in part because of licensing issues with Pixar, but mostly because it would involve an infinite regress—if there’s a little character monitoring your internal dashboard, who’s monitoring their internal dashboards? Cognitive psychologists call that homunculus fallacy, and so a better image of the mental stage of the mind is an empty spherical cockpit filled with instruments projecting their findings to each other. Your consciousness is just the part of your mind that is easily accessible to other parts of your mind. For example, you can recognize a person’s face, but unless there are really obvious features, like Salvador Dali’s mustache that points all the way up to your eyeballs, you can’t describe a face in sufficient detail for someone else to recognize it, because the details of your facial recognition system aren’t accessible to conscious awareness.

In most animals, the instruments of the cockpit are fixed by the design of the system, like the gas gauge on your car, which reports the status of your fuel tank, or the flashing light on the fast return switch of your TARDIS, which shows that the Ship is trying to return to its previous destination.What distinguishes humans is that many of its screens are programmable, the same way your car’s GPS can update itself when the manufacturer pushes an update, or the way your TARDIS reconfigures its controls to match your personality every time you regenerate. Over time, the systems of the cockpit collect information, slowly improving over time with respect to the problems for which they were designed, like a GPS picking up new roads. But the human mind isn’t a car, with an army of of engineers designing updates that get pushed to it over a wireless network, or a TARDIS, with a billion years of engineering designed into its architectural reconfiguration system to help it adapt. No, the human mind has to update itself from scratch, often adapting to skills for which it has no evolutionary precedent — like, for example, writing.

You’ve got dials on your dashboard for hunger, sound, even speech, but writing is something humans made up from whole cloth. And when you’ve got to learn a skill for which you’ve got no precedent, no inbuilt system that can just pick up new roads, your mind has to fall back on more powerful general problem solving techniques. These techniques involve representing the information we know about a problem explicitly, collecting the implications of that knowledge from our long term memory, and putting all that data together into new conclusions. Once again, the components of your dashboard notice these leaps from information to conclusion, storing it to make it available to solve new problems. This process is called automatization, and it’s called that because it’s transforming explicit information that you’re representing in your conscious dashboard into skilled knowledge you can use automatically without conscious awareness.

You’d think that automatization wouldn’t help you, since you’re trying to store new information, but all you have are existing systems - but one of the fundamental tricks of computing is that any sufficiently powerful process can simulate just about any other process, and the cockpit of your glorious machine—in which all the systems you’ve accumulated over a billion years of evolution can talk to each other—certainly qualifies as a very powerful process that can simulate almost anything. SO, if you keep learning basic facts about a new skill, and keep storing them in whatever systems you have that are even remotely compatible, over time, your overall cognitive system will learn a new, automatic skill—but hang on. To represent the information about a problem, to dredge up its implications, and draw conclusions, your mind needs scratchspace—temporary storage to hold this information so your general problem solving processes can work it over, and that information must be accessible your conscious awareness. Learning a new cognitive skill needs your dashboard. It needs your highly limited working memory.

But wait! Weren’t we using that to hold what we wanted to write about?

Exactly. Now you’re starting to see the problem.

As a novice writer, you may know how to physically write—how to generate words on the page in response to prompts, like writing down items for a grocery list for your spouse in response to spoken requests, or writing down the contents of a shipment from the Queen of Sheba as it comes off the boat—but when you’re writing an article or story, what you’re actually doing is the separate and more complex task of composition — the task of creating new sequences of words. Take a simple example, composing your Captain’s Log. You can’t just hit a button on the Captain’s Chair and start jabbering about what happened on the planet: the task involves creating a specific set of words in a specific sequence which is stereotyped. You start with “Captain’s Log”, followed by the stardate, followed by a sentence reporting the location or situation, followed by one or two more sentences discussing the key questions of the mission and whatever red-shirted disposable crewmembers were eaten by the monster of the week. That structure itself is information, information which you need to call to mind, somehow, in order to organize the words that you speak, and if you’ve been rattled by a bunch of red-shirted disposable crewmembers being eaten by the monster of the week, you might have trouble gathering your thoughts. An experienced Starfleet captain like Picard or Kirk, however, will have no trouble—because for them, the structure of the log is automatic.

The way that cognitive skill learning works is through the transformation of declarative knowledge to procedural knowledge: that is, the process of automatization takes information you express explicitly and turns it into information that’s the output of a skill. That means if you are skilled at a task, you don’t need to pay attention to it: the actions of the task will happen, well, automatically; but that also means that if you are not skilled at a task, you’re relying on your general purpose processing power to perform it—and that the information you need to perform the task will compete with what you know about the task.

The problem is even worse because the act of writing relies on many sources of knowledge. Let’s review for a moment what some of those are, and I’ll throw in some you may have not thought of yet:

  • Purpose: Why you’re writing (for creative expression, because your boss asked you)
  • Goal: What you want your writing to do (to be fun, to help your teammates, etc)
  • Content: What you want to write about (the specific information you contribute)
  • Form: What kind of thing you’re writing (a story, an article, a blogpost)
  • Style: What tone of voice you want to use (lighthearted, formal, quirky)

Each of these is better thought of as a skill for generating answers to questions, rather than a source for information—and if you’re not practiced at the skill, you’ll have to store information about it in working memory, competing—but wait a minute, let’s go back to content for a moment. Think about it. To answer the question about what you want to write, you need to generate several pieces of information:

  • Content: What you want to write about
  • Structure: What topics do you need to cover?
  • Questions: What questions should your piece answer?
  • Ideas: What do you think about the questions?
  • Answers: How does that translate into answers?

I’m not trying to be pedantic here—I’m making an important point, or I think I am. What you want to say involves several kinds of information: the general topic of your piece, the specific issues you want to address, whatever thoughts you have, and how to express them—but each of these types of information is, itself, a skill, which, if it is not practiced, will compete with whatever it is you have to say.

This is why inexperienced writers dread The Blank Page: because they’re actually drawing on half a dozen skills, none of which are practiced, and those are driving their ideas straight out of their head. This is why my wife, who’s a great artist but not an experienced writer, a woman who’s put a great deal of thought into eco-friendly art, who knows why she wants to write, what she wants to accomplish, and can easily spend forty-five minutes talking to me about her ideas, can nonetheless get totally stymied when she sits down to write, staring at the blank page. And this is why I separate the Writer’s Block of the Third Kind—the inexperienced author’s Dread of the Blank Page—from the simpler Writer’s Block of the Second Kind—the experienced author’s Lack of Shit Together—because if an experienced author is willing to sit down and think hard about their problem, once they get their ideas, their skills will take straight over—but if an inexperienced author tries the same thing, their very skills may drive their ideas right out their heads.

That’s why inexperienced writers may need different tools to write other than “Just Write” or “Butt in Chair” or “Stop and Think”. In cognitive skills acquisition, one way you can teach a complicated skill is to teach it in parts—we call this scaffolding. Rather than try to become a great basketball player all at once, you instead practice dribbling, taking shots, holding the ball, playing one-on-one, then pickup games—slowly building up a body of skills that eventually become the foundation for real mastery. Writing is the same way; if you’re having trouble getting started, focusing on sub-skills and developing them can give you the scaffolding you need to get started.

One scaffolding technique I’ve recommended to people is morning pages—a technique recommended in The Artist’s Way to write three pages longhand the first thing in the morning. There are a lot of reasons to do this beyond scaffolding, but it gets you past the problem of composition by giving you a safe environment to write, and it can also help you express your ideas. If even this is too hard, you may be blocked on the simple act of writing, and I recommend you try writing “bla bla bla” until you get bored with it. This doesn’t work for everyone, but you could also try the “Finding Forrester” technique of taking an existing story and typing it in until you get tired of their words and start writing your own.

Another scaffolding technique is what I call the inventory method. I hinted at this at the start of the article: ask yourself explicitly the questions you need to perform the task of composition:

  • Why do you want to write?
  • What do you want your writing to accomplish?
  • What should people learn or feel after reading your article or story?
  • What is the most important specific idea that you contribute to this topic?

And so on, and so on, with the whole list of questions that I had earlier.

If even this is too hard, there’s another method I call the one page assessment. Get a piece of lined composition paper—and I mean this literally, this is for totally blocked people, so I want you to literally do these steps physically—and draw a line down its center so it has two columns. On the left, write out, one per line, the numbers one through ten, and then the words “Who what when where why how;” on the right, write out the days of the week and the months of the year. Now, for the numbers one through ten, write the top ten most important thing about your project—these can be single words or sentences, but rack your brain until you can get ten single words—and then write brief answers to each of the “Who what why …” questions below. When you’re done with that, for each day of the week or month of the year, write something significant about your project—either in the story you’re telling, or about when you as a person can work on it, or whatever (you can also do this with other breakdowns, like states or countries or oceans or planets—whatever categories work for you). When you’ve filled the sheet, pick the five things most important from the page, flip it over, write down these five as your headings, and try to write at least one sentence about each of the five things you picked.

The purpose of this exercise is to take away the need to do composition AND the need to generate questions, just focusing you in a very general, nonthreatening way on properties that affect your problem. If you make it through the page, consider doing it again, with your own headings this time. Process repeats, until you’re generating full outlines.

On the note of outlines, the technique I used for my first novel was what I called a recursive hierarchical outline. I knew I wanted to write a novel about a genetically engineered centaur, so I wrote that sentence down in a Microsoft Word document. Then I copied that sentence, italicized it, and wrote a paragraph about that sentence detailing the plot. Then I copied that paragraph, italicized it, broke it into sentences as new headings, and expanded each of those sentences into a paragraph. I repeated the process until I had a good outline; then I expanded it further until I had sections and finally paragraphs—at which point, I just started writing.

Another way to get at this information that’s locked in your head is the interview method—having a trusted friend ask you questions, and either writing down your answers or recording it for transcription later.

Finally, Bjarne Stroustrup, the creator of C++, recommends the template method—if you want to write an article on a topic, find a similar article to use as a template, and use that to help establish your questions and find the rough structure of your outline. Since he built a whole career around basically doing that to C by turning it into C++, and since he’s done it with several books and articles since then to great effect, I guess this approach has worked well for him.

The point of giving all these potential scaffolding techniques is that each writer is different, and no technique is guaranteed to work for you. We can see why this is—everyone has a slightly different set of internal equipment, and even for equipment that’s the same, everyone has a different history of learning and a different set of skills that work with facility, or not, on any given problem.

So, to sum up, the ways of tackling writer’s block are:

  • Writer’s Block of the First Kind: What We Have Here is a Failure to Motivate.
    Solution: Butt In Chair
  • Writer’s Block of the Second Kind: Not Thinking Through Your Shit.
    Solution: Stop and Think
  • Writer’s Block of the Third Kind: The Dreaded Blank Page.
    Solution: Cognitive Scaffolding
  • Writer’s Block of the Fourth Kind: Editing While You Write.
    Solution: Write to the End, then Edit

So now you see why I sum up my writing advice as “Just write—bla bla bla if you have to so your pen’s moving—because the more you write, the easier it gets, and the better you get; but if you sit down to write and get writer’s block, then write down very explicitly why you sat down to write, and what kind of writing you hope to have produced when you get up again, and then you’ll know how to proceed.” This sums up all of the problems in one Butt in Chair, provides a Cognitive Scaffold, incorporates Stop and Think—in fact, it tackles just about everything except the editing bit, which might be summed up as “Don’t critique yourself, finish your damn story!” And as for that bit …

That’s why I go to a writing group called Write to the End.

—The Centaur


It’s Better to Be Done

centaur 1


I am very interested in promoting creation. I think the world would be a better place if more people wrote, drew, painted, sculpted, danced, programmed, philosophized, or just came up with ideas. Not all ideas are great, and it's important to throw away the bad and keep the good - but the more ideas we can generate, the more we can test.

One of the biggest problems I see in unprofessional, unpublished or just unhappy creators is not finishing. It's very easy to start work on an idea - a painting, a novel, a sculpture, a program, a philosophy of life. But no matter how much you love what you do, there's always a point in creating a work where the act of creating transforms from play to work.

Whether you stall out because the work gets hard or because you get distracted by a new idea, it's important to realize the value of finishing. An unfinished idea can be scooped, or become stale, or disconnected from your inspiration. If you don't finish something, the work you did on it is wasted. More half finished ideas pile up. Your studio or notebook becomes a mess.

If you don't finish, you never learn to finish. You're learning to fail repeatedly. The act of finishing teaches you how to finish. You learn valuable skills you can apply to new works - or even to a new drafts. I know an author who was perpetually stalled out on a problematic story - until one day she made herself hit the end. Now it's on it's fourth draft and is really becoming something.

The tricky thing is you have got to put the cart before the horse: you've got to finish before you know whether it was worth finishing. This does not apply to experienced authors in a given genre, but if you're new to a genre, you have to finish something before you worry about whether you can sell it or even if it is any good.

You don't need for something to be perfect to finish it. I know too many amateurs who don't want to put out the effort to finish things because they don't know whether they can sell it. No. You've got a hundred bad programs in you, a thousand bad paintings, a million bad words, before you get to the good stuff. Suck it up, finish it, and move on.

Procrastination is a danger. This is the point in the article that I got distracted and wrote a quick email to a few other creators about ideas this (unfinished) article had inspired. Then I got back to it. Then I got distracted again doing the bullet list below and went back and injected this paragraph. The point is, it's OK to get distracted - just use that time wisely, then get back to it.

Finally, sometimes you just need help to finish the first time. The biggest thing is to find a tool which can help you over that hump when it stops being fun and starts being work - some challenge or group or idea that helps you get that much closer to done. To help people finish, I'm involved with or follow a variety of challenges and resources to help people finish:

  • Write to the End: It's not a critique group; it's a writing group. We meet almost every Tuesday at a local coffee house and write for 20 minutes, read what we wrote, and repeat until they kick us out. We normally hit three sessions, so I usually get an hour of writing in every night - and hear a half dozen to a dozen other writers. Inspirational. Our web site contains articles on writing, including my new column The Centaur's Pen.
  • National Novel Writing Month: A challenge to write 50,000 words of a new novel in the month of November. This seems daunting, but Nanowrimo has a truly spectacular support group and social system which really helps people succeed at the challenge. Even if you don't "win" the first time, keep at it, you will succeed eventually!
  • Script Frenzy: Write 100 pages of a script (play, screenplay, or comic script) in the month of April - another event sponsored by the creators of Nanowrimo. This is an event I haven't yet tried, but am planning to tackle this year to get back into screenwriting (as part of my 20-year plan to get into directing movies).
  • 24 Hour Comics Day: It's a challenge to produce a 24 page comic in 24 hours, usually held the first weekend of October. I've tried this 3 times and succeeded once. It's taught me immense amounts about comic structure and general story structure and even improved my prose writing.
  • Blitz Comics: Because I failed at 24 Hour Comics Day, me and my buddy Nathan Vargas decided to "fake it until we make it" and to put on a boot camp about how to succeed at 24 Hour Comics Day. We produced a Boot Camp tutorial, a 24 Hour Comics Day Survival Kit - and along the way taught ourselves how to succeed at 24 Hour Comics Day.
  • Other Challenges: There are a couple of events out there to create graphic novels in a month - NaGraNoWriMo and NaCoWriMo - though both of these are 2010 and I don't know if either one is live. (If they're not active, maybe I'll start one). There's also a 30 Character Challenge for graphic artists to create 30 new characters in a month.


Finally, I want to finish with what inspired this post: the Cult of Done. I won't go too deeply into the Done Manifesto, but from my perspective it can be summed up in two ideas: posting an idea on the Internet counts as a ghost of done, and done is the engine of more. Get your stuff done, finish it, and if it's still half baked, post it to force yourself to move on to newer and better things.

The plane is landing. Time to get it done.

-the Centaur

Credits: The BlitzComics guy is penciled, inked and colored by me and post-processed by Nathan Vargas. Joshua Rothass did the Cult of Done poster and distributed it under a Creative Commons license. This blog post was uploaded by Ecto, which is doing well (other than an upload problem) and is probably going to get my money.

Writing Advice in One Sentence: “Just Write”

centaur 0


Recently, someone asked me if I had any advice for young writers. I just had a minute, so I could only give them one sentence - and I so wanted to say “Just write!”

But that’s not fair. Writer’s block is the biggest problem people have when they ask me how to be a better writer - and so it’s not enough to say “Just write!”

So the sentence I gave was: “Just write - start with ‘bla bla bla’ if you have to, just to get your pen moving - because the more you write, the easier it gets, and the better you get!”

And that sums up what I think about writing - literally the most important things I think you need, in a single sentence. But if you gave me just two words, I’d say: “Just write!”

So just write!

-the Centaur

Drawing Every Day

centaur 0

Drawing Every Day Folder

tl;dr: to get good at something, you've got to put in a lot of practice

Hail, fellow adventurers! You may have been wondering what's up with the "Drawing Every Day" on this website. Or, hey, maybe you just got here. But I've gotten far enough into it that I feel comfortable taking a short break from developing this habit to tell you about this habit I'm trying to develop.

Fanu Fiku Page 49

I've loved comic books since I was a child. I've drawn since I was a young kid. I even started working on comics in graduate school, consciously refining my art until I was able to launch a webcomic, f@nu fiku, partially inspired by anime, manga, and the FLCL anime.

Then I broke my arm. And while I was recovering, someone stole my laptop. I took the opportunity to switch from Windows to Mac, and, as luck would have it, got my first book contract for FROST MOON. By the time I got enough free time from editing and book launches to go back to the webcomic and pick up where I left off, I found out my hand-crafted webcomic software wouldn't work on the Mac.

The real blow, however, was hidden: my confidence in my artwork had collapsed.

I went from fearlessly putting together two-page spreads way beyond my ability, doing bodies and perspective, and changing my layout theory at the drop of a hat, eventually producing pages that appeared in an art show - to being unable, or more precisely, unwilling to draw at all.

I had become intimidated by - embarrased by - my art. My wife is also an artist, and is familiar with the phenomenon. She and I talked about the reasons behind this at length, and like writer's block preventing writers from writers, one of the things that really affects artists is simply getting started.

If you've only done a handful of drawings, well, then, every one is super important, and there's pressure to make it perfect. But if you've done lots of drawings, then each one is an experiment, and if it doesn't turn out good, well, then, you can always draw another one.

the art studio

We moved recently, and I made it a priority to set up an art studio. But things by themselves don't create good habits - believe me, I know: purchasing a keyboard and bass guitar all those years ago didn't turn me into a musician, because I didn't build the proper habits around them.

But how do you build a habit if you're too intimidated to get started? At the Write to the End writing group, we tackle it by sitting down to write for 20 minutes, no excuses. At Taos Toolbox, Walter Jon Williams pointed out that this seemingly small amount of writing per day could produce a novel.

So I started to come around to the idea: what if I drew every day?

There's this theory in cognitive science that quantity begets quality. A famous example from the book Art and Fear alleges a ceramics professor graded half of a class on quality, the other half on quantity - but the students who produced more pieces also produced the better work.

There are no secrets: if you want to get good, you've got to put in the work. (Well, there are secrets, but the secret is, you have to put in a hell of a lot of work to take advantage of them). This is such a common thing in webcomics that it has its own TV Tropes page on Art Evolution.

I really want to draw again. I want to make science fiction webcomics like the ones I grew up loving in the 80s and 90s. But to do that, I've got to draw. So, once I finally got settled here and the holidays were in the taillights, once I finally got the Cintiq working ... I started drawing every day.

14 days running so far (counting complex drawings that took 2-3 sessions as 1 per session). How long does it take to cement a habit? 2-3 months, it sounds like from the online research; so, a good ways to go. If I keep at it, I'll have +70 more drawings, five times as many as I have so far.

I bet I'll see some changes.

Day 3 vs Day 13

I bet if you have something you want to change, start working on it every day, and keep it up for 2-3 months, you may see some changes too.

Best of luck with that! Wish me luck too.

-the Centaur

My Fiction

My first calling is to be a writer. I've published science fiction, urban fantasy, and steampunk, self-published some comics. I've stretched myself working on detective fiction, cosmic horror, and screenplays, though none of that has yet achieved escape velocity from the sock drawer. I write non-fiction too, mostly in my capacity as a scientist; and I enjoy promoting writing, particularly helping people overcome writer's block, though both of those are topics large enough for their own pages.

Science Fiction

I've written more science fiction than anything else, spinning a series of space opera stories filled with hard-science takes on ancient myths: alien dragons, genetically engineered centaurs, and nanotech vampires. Unfortunately, the Alliance Universe is some of my earliest work and little of it has been published (yet).

The first Alliance story published is "Sibling Rivalry", the story of a scientist fighting a computer gone mad realistically, where the computer has a real motivation to go amok and the scientist must fight it using real artificial intelligence concepts ... no talking it to death or improbable back doors are allowed. The next is "Stranded", the story of a young centauress from a supercivilization who finds herself forced to care for a fractious crew of crashlanded children on a world she had hoped to claim of her own.

Urban Fantasy

I am best known for writing the Dakota Frost urban fantasy series. Dakota is a Skindancer, a tattoo artist who can ink magic tattoos that come to life. Living in an alternate Atlanta filled with vampires, werewolves and men in black, Dakota applies equal parts skepticism, magic and attitude to navigate the Edgeworld where magic and reality meet.

The published books in the Dakota Frost series are FROST MOON (about magic tattooing and werewolves), BLOOD ROCK (about magic graffiti and vampires), and LIQUID FIRE (about magic firespinning and dragons). They're all available in print, ebook and audiobook wherever fine books are sold - go check them out!


One of the most enjoyable projects I work on is the Jeremiah Willstone steampunk universe, a world where women's liberation happened a century early and, with twice as many brains working on hard problems, they're more advanced in 1908 than we are today, with airships, rayguns and time machines. The first novel in this universe is JEREMIAH WILLSTONE AND THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE, but I've written a dozen more stories in the Jeremiah Willstone universe, which you can find on the Jeremiah Willstone site or wherever fine books are sold.


I also work with Thinking Ink Press, a small publisher focused on the love of the printed word. We've published an number of anthologies, novels, snapbooks, children's books and books about rare diseases; please go check us out on our website.


My fiction also includes webcomics, including f@nu fiku, the story of a young girl who can travel through all possible combinations of all possible stories. The comic is on hiatus right now - first I broke my arm, then someone stole my work laptop, then I sold my first novel - and I switched to working on my novels as my primary focus, but I do have about a half dozen pages on the comic to post, um, someday.

I've also worked on other comics, including 24 Hour Comic Day efforts for "Stranded" and for Cinnamon Frost, and also some unrelated ones set in the Alliance universe. Having learned my lesson with f@nu fiku, I hadn't posted any of these until I have enough material to know I can keep up a solid schedule. Stay tuned.

I also worked with my friend Nathan Vargas on the 24 Hour Comics Day Survival Guide, which you can find at the Bltiz Comics website , where we talk about techniques and strategies for getting through the challenge of writing and drawing 24 comic pages in 24 hours without failing to finish or keeling over during the process.

Back to Dragon Con!

centaur 0

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

The Saturday Currents, OR: Why Care?

centaur 0

I prefer pictures of food to pictures of myself, but, since my phone stopped charging and started shocking people (along with emitting a lovely BURNING smell) you get old stock footage or Photo Booth for the time being.

And now, the currents:

  • Currently Reading: Merida, Chasing Magic (because I want to understand children's books better, and I like the drawing of Merida's awesome red hair which is an inspiration for my drawings of Serendipity) and The Cognitive Neurosciences, Fifth Edition (because I am working on a project on the engineering applications of consciousness research, and research on the neural correlates of consciousness has exploded in the last twenty years).
  • Currently Rereading: The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (because Lent), Planning Algorithms by Lavalle and Reinforcement Learning by Sutton and Barto (because my robot navigation research is heating up and I want to understand the connections of reinforcement learning and classical planning, both of which have related but different ideas of value iteration; also because I'm planning on coding a small toy DQN to help me better understand the larger machinery I use at work).
  • Currently Dreading: Finishing my taxes, and finishing my edits on Shattered Sky by David Colby. Both so late! Sorry.
  • Currently Missing: My wife, on a business trip; my cats, at home waiting for me to finish up lunch, shift gears, and go home to go through The Tax Pile.

Why do these things matter? Why should you care? I know some people could care less about the incessant Facebook updates by people saying where they are and what they are doing. Some people I know even call sharing updates humblebragging as a way of shitshaming people into shutting up. (Hey guys! You know who you are. Message from me to you: Fuck off, kthanksbai.)

Not me. I like seeing people say what they're up to; I like the birthday wishes on Facebook or the posts by famous writers saying, "ugh, I can has no brain today, here is a picture of a cat". I still remember after my Aunt Kitty died sharing on Facebook my last picture of her, and all the people I knew who showed up at the funeral only because I had posted it.

It's human and natural to share with each other what we are doing. It lets each of us know that we aren't alone dealing with the good or bad. If status updates aren't the thing you're into, get off Facebook or Twitter. There's nothing wrong with that: I know many people have done it and have felt better for doing so.

For me, there are so many people I only stay connected to because we have that instant means of connection. And (ssh: between you and me) there's always my ulterior motive: the more I write, the better I get at writing, and the more I discover and perfect my own voice. And just about everyone I know who does that just gets more interesting the longer that they do it.

That's why I'm currently ... blogging.

Hit save, then publish.

-the Centaur

The Way to Succeed at Nano is to Put Nano First

centaur 0

Hey gang, now that I've succeeded at National Novel Writing Month nineteen times, I thought I'd take a little time out to tell you that my secret to National Novel Writing Month success is to put Nano first.

Now, that seems obvious - almost, like, too obvious to be advice - but I want to put it into perspective by first asking you a few questions.

  1. Do you care about finishing what you write?
    If you don't, don't worry about the above advice. Write what you want, how you want it, when you want it. Again, this seems obvious, but I want to make sure you understand whether this advice applies to you. I started to write "Do you care about writing success?" but then I realized everyone has their own definition of writing success, whether they realize it or not. A beloved friend, Jan, just died, and I will never again hear her read her stories at our local writing group - and you're never likely to read them, as she was more into having fun writing than she ever was about getting her stories published. She was a success at writing without ever needing publication, or even necessarily to to finish everything she wrote. We'll miss you, Jan, but we'll never worry about whether you were having fun: that was obvious.
  2. Do you care about completing Nanowrimo?
    Again, I almost wrote "Do you care about succeeding at Nano" as I did in the title of this essay, but every word is a victory in National Novel Writing Month. It doesn't really matter whether you wrote one word or a hundred thousand if Nano helped you write it. But, again, if you don't care whether you hit that magic 50K, then don't worry about the advice in this article.
  3. Do you care more about finishing Nanowrimo than doing the comfortable things that you've always done?
    This is the most important part. Some people need to wait for their muse. Some need to plan ahead. Some need to do other things that seem so important to them. Maybe they are. But given my writing style, those things don't seem so important to me, and given my obsessive-compulsive personality, I'm not going to take on a challenge unless I intend to finish it. But maybe that's not you: you need your outline or your muse or your whatever in your life to make writing possible. That's OK! I know great writers like that. They don't generally take on Nanowrimo, that's all, as Nanowrimo doesn't work for them.

If you think it will work for you - if you want to finish what you write, and you want to take on the Nanowrimo challenge to write 50,000 words and you want to finish it, and you are willing to do things differently in order to make that success happen - then here's the secret:

Put completing National Novel Writing Month first.

Well, okay, yes, you gotta breathe, and you gotta eat, and don't get fired - however. There are a lot of things that creative people do, and if you want to succeed at National Novel Writing Month, you may need to change them. For example:

  • Turn off your Internet. Frequently when writing, I hit a speedbump, go look something up, and dig into Wikipedia or TV Tropes or (no joke) find myself reading the city planning documents of a harbor community in Newfoundland to carefully craft some details that will only appear in a paragraph or two of a whole novel. That's my process, and it's produced a number of well-received novels of which I'm proud. During National Novel Writing Month, however, I frequently turn off the Internet on my laptop until I've gotten my magic 1,666 words per day.
  • Put off your Blogging. I like to blog, but it seems I don't do a lot of it. The reason for this is that I've started doing Nano-like challenges three times per year - Camp Nano in April and July, plus Nano in November - and the rest of the time I focus on finishing manuscripts, editing them, or publishing other people's manuscripts. I have dozens upon dozens of notes for blogposts written on scraps, stored in Scrivener files, even half-finished in Ecto; but during Nano, I put Nano first.
  • Research after you Write. So many times this month, a pile like the below was on my table, awaiting my perusal, only to be put back into the bookbag or tote bag after I finish my writing. There's a problem in deep learning I'm trying to crack, and some mathematics I need to know to do it, and research for the Cinnamon Frost puzzle books; but I know from experience I can take my whole lunch break or even afternoon diving into mathematics or programming or research. During Nano,  I put the writing first. That forces me to go out into space in the story, even if sometimes I need reference when I edit the text.

  • Take Time off to Write. I am always an antisocial loner, having to force myself to go to lunch with my coworkers (rarely) or to dinner with my friends (equally rarely) or my writing peeps (less rarely, since I can excuse it to my brain as writing related). This isn't because I don't like the people that I like, but because I want to finish my books before I die. (I have a lot of books planned). During Nano, I'm even more jealous of my schedule, taking lunch breaks to write, sometimes bailing on group writing sessions to be alone, and, the big one, taking off Thanksgiving week to write. This year, for Night of Writing Dangerously, I got a hotel room, holed up in San Francisco after the Night, and wrote like mad. I almost finished BOT NET during this writing jag, and ended up finishing six days early because I took this time.
  • Reject your Comforting Illusions. This last one is the most dangerous advice which may not work for you or even apply to you, and it can be the hardest, but it is this: put getting the 1,666 words a day ahead of your imagination that you need to wait for your muse, or plot your story, or be in the mood, or anything else. Write crap if you have to. It counts (1 word). Write bla bla bla if you have to. It counts (3 words). 1,662 words to go. Feel that this isn't working for you? Write "Nanowrimo isn't working for me!" (5 words) or, even better, "National Novel Writing Month is not working for me!" (9 words). Feel this is a cheat and a sham? Write that down! (I guarantee explaining your feelings will get you  more than 9 words). Even better, write down what's wrong with your story and why you can't write any further and what you wish you were writing. That explanation in text will count as words ... and, more importantly, will probably start turning into text. Put another way, feel free to work out your frustrations and even to outline in your manuscript. It will become true words on the next pass ... and will put you ever closer to the end of your story. Once you have a path from beginning to end, believe me, you can revise it into a story that you will truly love.

So, that's it: if you want to succeed at Nano, put Nano first. Turn off your Internet, tune back your blogging, put off your research, and take time off to write. Most importantly, throw off your comforting illusions, feel free to outline or even to vent in your manuscript, knowing that each word you write isn't just getting you closer to success at Nanowrimo, it's getting you closer to having a beginning-to-end path through your story ... which you can then revise into a finished product.

And that's how I succeed at Nano. Try it. It could work for you too.

-the Centaur

Can't find what you're looking for? Try refining your search: