3 Ways Not to Stink at Writing

3 Tips on How Not to Stink at Writing

Do you write as a hobby? Do you never have worries about how not to stink at writing? Do you belly up to the keyboard just to dip into your brain’s well of dopamine and enjoy the warm fuzzy buzz of creating something you can later read? You have zero ambitions for publication? You’ve burnt at least one of your journals? Then this post is not for you.

I write for the ambitious scribe who splashes and thrashes to the point of choking in a tsunami of toner, trying to tame that big rogue breaker into smaller waves an actual readership might want to surf with you. Here are three tips on how not to stink at writing.

How Not to Stink at Writing Tip #1: Shun Clichés

First, avoid clichés. There was that bad, sad day I was handed a manuscript written by a very earnest lady. Her work was grammatical. She was a fine typist. And yet her work was dull to the point it almost set me weeping. Upon laying the bloodless manuscript down (after being sapped of the will to live by just a few of its soporific pages), the only things I could remember were the clichés.

This person’s study of fiction writing amounted to little more than building an extensive collection of commonplace phrases tacked together in a non-story. Her touchstone for good work was offering an inoffensive, bland discourse of familiarity. For shame. I felt like a guy in Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, in which the main character intentionally tortured and bewildered his acquaintances by hiding his true nature behind a slurry of clichés.

The-Killer-inside-me-smoke Casey Affleck

What was this lady hiding? The real story; her real self, perhaps. Please for your sake and for ours, reach deep inside yourself and conjure a radical bigotry against clichés.

But you like clichés? Okay, I guess, but then try to do something different with them. Express them in a quirky way that tells us your work is unique. If you find a cliché in your work, dig deeper into the idea behind it, and relate that idea back to your story. A cliché is a shortcut. I read books for the long journey. I will not take that journey with you and your characters if I have seen the countryside and heard its people before. I wager half the unfinished manuscripts in the world died because the writers themselves became bored with their own work. Clichés can contribute to that self-vitiating ennui. “It was not writer’s block that killed the project. It was a stubborn plug of word-poo.”

How Not to Stink at Writing Tip #2: Realize You Are Not Your Hero’s Best Friend

If you are writing a work you hope will hackle your readers into a perpetual state of goosebumps, you cannot be your hero’s pal. Your job as writer is to make an alliance with your hero’s enemies, empowering them to do everything they can to destroy your main man or woman.

Do we like your hero because of physical beauty, honed wit, and uncanny skills? Perhaps. I venture we truly align with him because of the utter monstrosity of the story’s antagonist. Would we like Hercules because he conquered a kitten? No way. He is heroic because he defies gods, and performs daunting feats that would kill the rest of us.

Dwayne-Johnson-Hercules

We want to empathize with a hero who might flag, who might even fail, but who rallies against Homeric forces not just to survive, but to vanquish every opponent, one by one, or by the regiment, even if they have the numbers, the guns, the dark magic, or whatever makes the hero (and the reader) think more than once that carrying on is hopeless.

How Not to Stink at Writing Tip #3: Don’t Let Your Mom Do Your Editing

You have reached the end of your rough draft. To whom will you show it? Family and most friends will not help you discover the flaws in the work. Your story, like your hero, needs the benefit of a superior enemy, someone who will pull the work down one brick at a time and complain about the very clay from which those bricks were fired.

And that editor might cost you money. Real money. If you don’t have it on hand, start saving up when you start writing your story. You’re a professional, not a hobbyist. It will take another professional to help shape your work. If you are independently putting out your work, a freelance editor with major publishing house experience can run you $15 a page. There are many who will work for less. Find them if you need to. Offer up your work like a sacrificial animal, and know that on the other side of that terrifying act lies the real goal: a great manuscript.

Hey, you had your shot at writing it your way. It’s called the rough draft. You didn’t really think it was going to survive to publication without any changes, did you? That is a dilletante’s dream.

Good luck with your work. You are more like your hero than you realize.

Tell me your opinion: What do you think is the most important tip for figuring out how not to stink at writing?

3 Ways Not to Stink at Writing

 

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About Robert Blake Whitehill | @RBWhitehill

Robert Blake Whitehill is a classically trained actor, a critically acclaimed novelist, and an award-winning screenwriter. He is the author of The Ben Blackshaw Series, which will total ten books and has been optioned by Hatline Productions for adaptation into major motion pictures.

Comments

  1. Excellent points! All three were good and #2 was a particularly pertinent reminder to me today — a reminder to be quite ruthless when it comes to my protagonist… It’s what’ll give him room to be strong. 🙂 So great post. Thanks so much!

  2. Agreed about #2. I have to align myself with the enemy. Gotta change my thinking! I can do it.

    • Dear Linda Anderson, I think you’ll be able to do it. Perpetual doldrums never make a sailor, as the saying goes. Your most diabolical confections will endear your readers to your protagonist all the more when victory is finally theirs. Best luck (to you, not your protagonist!) RBW

  3. Rick Musick says:

    I have discovered that as much as I try not to stink, sometimes I do. Thank you for the writing tips. I need them. I will be an accomplished writer. With the help of teachers like you I can write a very good book, that smells of lavender and not poo.

    • Dear Rick Musick, With grit such as your post demonstrates, I have every confidence in your success as an excellent writer. And I appreciate your kind compliment. Please keep us all posted on your progress. RBW

  4. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Robert!

  5. Steve Mathisen says:

    Great stuff, Robert!! Don’t forget the proofreader once the author and editor have both had their way with the manuscript. That final set of eyes can save some major embarrassment with your readers.

  6. thomas h cullen says:

    Just earlier today, for a separate post of this site, I spoke of good writing being just having something to say, and saying it correctly…

    How can a sentence read better? How can this protagonist be made better? Why should this scene, or sequence of events even be shown?

    The truth to these questions (and to so many more), is that all their answers are subjective; the only useful, I believe constructive answer to so many of these questions, is what’s resonant with the majority.

    People bash Fifty Shades of Grey, attacking its prose; James actually wrote very soulfully, regardless of my opinion of the merits of her characters and their identities..

    Quality, and Popularity. Keep the two distinct!

    • I can appreciate your astute observations, Thomas Cullen. I would like to add that popularity might, for some authors, be slow to build in the beginning. Immediate break-out success is elusive, though those are the stories that make headlines. Clancy had his moment when Ronald Reagan held up his copy of The Hunt for Red October in front of the massed press. That is an uncommon event. And today, there is no single market, but instead, ten thousand small markets to reach. I would be saddened if popularity were the only determining factor of a book’s, or a writer’s value. Many great writers would be lost to us if sales were the only determining factor for continuing to write and to publish. Of course these considerations are important. And yet, this is the age of the niche for books, as long has been the case for films. One must find one’s audience, starting with the first reader, and growing, with patient persistence, from there. RBW

  7. YoungAuthor says:

    Okay, I’m only thirteen, so I admit that my judgments about money are probably pretty terrible.

    But I just reached the 25% marker in my current WIP. I did some math, and my work will end up to be about 296 Microsoft-word sized pages, obviously give or take some. But if you can get edited by one of the mainstream publishing companies for $15, it would cost $4,440 for me to get this book published! And this is book 1 out of 5! I had never thought book publishing was that expensive! Does an author just have to make sure they get all that money back through sales?

    And by the way, you are definitely right about tip #3. I’ve had my older sister edit some stuff-she’s a totally amazing and skilled writer, but she’s definitely not hard enough on me.

    • thomas h cullen says:

      Self-publishing’s an option. It’s far cheaper, and you can still get a pile of bloggers to review your book for free.

    • Do not fret, Thomas! There are editors and proofers who will work for much less than the $ I mention! A nearby college English department might have a professor ready to go to bat for your for a bargain, like, lawn mowing, gutter cleaning, barter ! Be creative! And I wish you every success! RBW

  8. This is pretty much the best blog post title ever!

  9. Tip 3 erked me. I am well aware I need professional editors. But my dad is all I need for now. I’m trying to help him with his writing dream as well, and BELIEVE ME, we can get pretty hard on each other. It is NOT worth the money to hire an editor who will not understand what I’m going for with my work, why I don’t connect my scenes hardly at all, and how I went from an awesomely fantastic epic to a lame adventure novel in a single draft.
    TIP 3 is correct; but please, wait until you have cohesive chapters before getting a professional. Sometimes, asking your parents is all you can do.

  10. Robert Blake Whitehill’s blog and subsequent comments opened windows for me into the thoughts of novelists. I’ve been surrounded all my life with family and friends who cherish reaching new heights of clarity and tension in their uses of language, but have not seen “inside” their thoughts until recently — had a glimpse at where debates are rife on the merits of tools at hand that will make your stories grab and grip us. I am seeing how much gratitude I owe to authors who want me to love their stories — and who succeed in winning my appreciation. What intricacies and worlds you create and manage to lay on our tables for our delectation! Thank you! Mom…

  11. Good points all but I find that point #2 is especially salient for most of the Indie work that I’ve read out there and, quite frankly, for my own work. I’m just about finished with the second novel in a mystery series now and, after thinking about your point, I find that my heroine is borderline boring. I’ve been focusing more on a developing relationship with another character for her and not letting the protagonist cause her near enough angst. I’ve got a little re-writing to do this weekend!

    • Hi Anne, Your subsequent drafts are just as important to good work as the rough or first draft. Don’t feel awkward about focusing on one aspect, like relationships, in the early drafts. This is good, meaningful stuff. Writing is rewriting, as they say. You can fold in critical ingredients at a later stage in the process, as is often the case in cooking an elaborate recipe, raising a child, all those wonderful processes that take time. That opening at the top of a Cuisinart food processor is for adding later ingredients as you discover they are necessary. You cap off that opening in writing only after all the ingredients are added, and blended, in just the right ways. RBW

  12. I had to laugh: my mom and dad are always the first to see my rough drafts. They are ruthless, so my second (or 3rd or 4th) draft is always better for it. When my work is seen my non-relatives, it’s my best.

  13. Great post. Thank you !

  14. I’m working on a personal learning project as to how to become a better writer, as eventually I do have the intent on being able to publish. I feel like all of these points I somehow managed to miss when trying to better myself, so I’m incredibly glad I managed to find your blog to follow it. I know that finding an editor is the best way to do it, but I would very much like to improve before I offer my sacrificial writing to the elder editing gods. What are your thoughts?

  15. I’ve never understood the massive amounts of writing advice to shun cliches, and I still don’t.

    Readers like to feel smart, and connected. I understand not basing your book on cliche. But what’s wrong with using 1-2 instances to illustrate a point throughout your book?

    If a reader has heard the cliche before — particularly if it’s a specific phrase rather than an opinion alone — they connect to that phrase when they see it in your book.

    For example:

    “But Mr. Klide said I need calculus no matter what career choice I pick.”

    “Think for yourself Mandy. Calculus won’t make you a better Ballerina.”

    As regards your second point. The thing I remember is my characters are my own. When I kill them off I know I can always bring them back in another book if I want to. I probably won’t; but I could.

    • Thank you for posting, Morgan. I think there is room for a new angle on a familiar cliche, but a string of them in original form would mean I still had some effort to invest to make the work my own in any genuine sense. What’s your take on adverbs? RBW

  16. Thanks for the insightful post, but it feels like I’m getting advice from my dad, who also happened to be named Robert Whitehill! (For good measure, also the name of my great grandfather and 3x great grandfather.) If you descend from the Newburgh, NY, branch, we’re not only fellow writers, but cousins.

    Regarding #3 above, try investing time instead of money. Participating in a good critique group can help you hone your manuscript. In addition to getting actionable feedback on your writing, critiquing other writers’ works teaches you how to spot foibles on your own pages.

    • Hi JWW, We no doubt have a common ancestor. Three Whitehill brothers arrived from Scotland by way of Ireland in the early 18th Century, and it is likely we bot hail from one of them. My particular branch settled in Pennsylvania, where a State legislator, Robert Whitehill craft a bill of rights, many points of which were cobbled into the Federal Bill of Rights. Email to me a few of your other Whitehill ancestors and I can delve into a genealogy book I’ve got, to better see how we are related. RBW

      • I agree, we’re likely related, but it probably goes back to Scotland. The patriarch of my branch (Robert Whitehill, 1791-1868) brought his family of 10 from Glasgow to New York in 1847 aboard the Brooksly. This included his son Hugh Whitehill (1822-1884) and grandson Robert Whitehill (1845-1893). In Scotland, they’d been a family of weavers. They all settled in Wappinger Falls, then Newburgh, NY. FYI, while on a visit to Glasgow in 2007, I discovered a whole section of the city now known as Dennistoun that was labeled on an 18th century map as “Whitehill Tract.” On foot that day, I traipsed past the following Whitehills: Pool, School, Street, Gardens, Place, and Court. And one last intriguing detail – I also hiked to “Whitehill Stone Circle” near a town called Whitehouse in the Grampian Highlands. Not much to look at, but at least I now know the origin of my penchant for collecting rocks.

Trackbacks

  1. […] I write for the ambitious scribe who splashes and thrashes to the point of choking in a tsunami of toner, trying to tame that big rogue breaker into smaller waves an actual readership might want to surf with you. Here are three tips on how not to stink at writing. READ MORE HERE 3 Tips On How Not To Stink At Writing by K.M. Weiland […]

  2. […] First, avoid clichés. There was that bad, sad day I was handed a manuscript written by a very earnest lady. Her work was grammatical. She was a fine typist. And yet her work was dull to the point it almost set me weeping. Upon laying the bloodless manuscript down (after being sapped of the will to …read more […]

  3. […] I write for the ambitious scribe who splashes and thrashes to the point of choking in a tsunami of toner, trying to tame that big rogue breaker into smaller waves an actual readership might want to surf with you. Here are three tips on how not to stink at writing. READ MORE HERE 3 Tips On How Not To Stink At Writing by K.M. Weiland […]

  4. […] 3 Tips on How Not to Stink at Writing – The title alone makes this article amazing. This is a fairly short but inspiring article from Robert Blake Whitehill about not totally sucking as a writer and a few ways to help yourself in that vein. Great gifs, too. […]

  5. […] Green shares 5 secrets she learned while waiting to be published, Robert Blake Whitehill gives us 3 tips on how not to stink at writing, and Henry Miller has 11 Commandments of writing and daily creative […]

  6. […] I write for the ambitious scribe who splashes and thrashes to the point of choking in a tsunami of toner, trying to tame that big rogue breaker into smaller waves an actual readership might want to surf with you. Here are three tips on how not to stink at writing. READ MORE HERE 3 Tips On How Not To Stink At Writing by K.M. Weiland […]

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