Writing Well

WishingWellAdvice I’m following to write well

My writing stinks.

That’s what the negative voice inside my head tells me as I struggle to compose these blog posts.

Writing is such hard work. Having an angry, hypercritical perfectionist perched like a vulture in my brain doesn’t make it any easier. “You’re too boring and stupid to write,” the voice assures me. “No one wants to read your crap.”

Flinching from vicious self-criticism, I struggle to find my way, trip over tangled thoughts, stumble on senseless sentences, frantically toss words in and just as frantically toss them out.

I’m never happy with the results. “Proof you’re an idiot,” sneers my harsh Inner Critic, whom I imagine looks like Simon Cowell.

Simon Cowell

Steve, this post is idiotic 

You’re not a writer, never will be

Give up!

Just as I’m about to give up, conceding that my Inner Critic is right: I have absolutely no talent at all for writing, I come across wonderful examples of truly bad writing, and from people actually paid to write!

plan plan plan


Bad writers lift me up. To my abusive Inner Critic, that unrelenting voice in my head that delights in crushing any creative effort I attempt, I can smile and say, “See? I’m not that bad!”

The late Carlos Fuentes, Mexico’s most celebrated novelist, said that writing is a struggle against silence. I say writing is a struggle against my Inner Critic.

Where to get help if your Inner Critic won’t shut up…

Four Ways to Silence Your Inner Critic
by Marelisa Fabrega
“Our inner critic develops early in our lives, absorbing what we hear from others and what society expects from us. It’s not a voice that’s meant to go unchallenged, but rather a part of ourselves, which we can choose to ignore or confront. In addition, we can choose to listen to our inner critic only at the appropriate stage of the creative process.”

Writing A Draft? Silence That Inner Critic!
“Every writer I know or have ever heard of has an inner critic or inner editor that, if not silenced, at least while they are working on a rough draft, means nothing gets done. We need that voice that helps us edit our work, but not until we’ve got some work to edit.”

Why Your Inner Critic Is Your Best Friend
by Mark McGuinness
“If you think about it, you’d be in big trouble without an Inner Critic. Without some kind of internal quality filter, you’d be happy to churn out any old rubbish – and join the ranks of mediocrities. A finely honed critical faculty is one of the things that separates a creative professional from the legions of amateurs.”
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The Lazy Writer’s Way To Riches

Hey! I found a way to become a successful published author without having to knock my brains out writing or ever hear a peep from my caustic Inner Critic. My computer will do all the dirty work; I’ll rake in the cash and glory!

Patented Book Writing System Creates, Sells Hundreds of Thousands of Books On Amazon
A computer programmer has “written” 800,000 books using an algorithm, reports David J. Hill in this eye-opening post on SingularityHUB.com. Here’s an excerpt…

“Philip M. Parker, Professor of Marketing at INSEAD Business School, has had a side project for over 10 years. He’s created a computer system that can write books about specific subjects in about 20 minutes. The patented algorithm has so far generated hundreds of thousands of books. In fact, Amazon lists over 100,000 books attributed to Parker and over 700,000 works listed for his company, ICON Group International, Inc.

“Now these books aren’t your typical reading material. Common categories include specialized technical and business reports, language dictionaries bearing the “Webster’s” moniker (which is in the public domain), rare disease overviews, and even crossword puzzle books for learning foreign languages, but they all have the same thing in common: they are automatically generated by software.”

“Because digital ebooks and print-on-demand services have become commonplace, topics can be listed in Amazon without even being “written” yet.

“To be clear, this isn’t just software alone but a computer system designated to write for a specific genre. The system’s database is filled with genre-relevant content and specific templates coded to reflect domain knowledge, that is, to be written according to an expert in that particular field/genre. To avoid copyright infringement, the system is designed to avoid plagiarism, but the patent aims to create original but not necessarily creative works. In other words, if any kind of content can be broken down into a formula, then the system could package related, but different content in that same formula repeatedly ad infinitum.”

Sampling of books attributed to Parker:

– Webster’s Slovak – English Thesaurus Dictionary for $28.95

– The 2007-2012 World Outlook for Wood Toilet Seats for $795

– The World Market for Rubber Sheath Contraceptives (Condoms): A 2007 Global Trade Perspective for $325

– Ellis-van Creveld Syndrome – A Bibliography and Dictionary for Physicians, Patients, and Genome Researchers for $28.95

– Webster’s English to Haitian Creole Crossword Puzzles: Level 1 for $14.95

So if it cost Parker, say, fifty cents to generate a book, even if he sells only a handful of copies, that’s a great profit! Parker and his company have more than 800,000 titles on Amazon… you do the math.

Here I am dreaming of writing a book that sells lots and lots of copies (“Never happen,” snaps my Inner Critic) while Phil Parker makes big bucks “writing” lots and lots of books and selling, at best, a few copies of each.

But it’s the last part of the article that really set my head spinning:

“So, what’s the next book genre Parker is targeting to have software produce? Romance novels.

“Although a novel is a work of fiction, it’s no secret that certain genres lend themselves to formulas, such as romance novels. That may not make these works rank high for their literary value, but they certainly do well for their entertainment value. Somewhat surprisingly, romance fiction has the largest share of the consumer book market with revenue of nearly $1.37 billion in 2011.”

Read the entire article here. Includes video of Parker explaining his process. 

I’ve heard about artificial intelligence, but artificial creativity? Artificial imagination? I doubt it.

Could Parker’s software really produce a novel in twenty minutes? Damn! I’ve been working on my mystery novel for seven years (thanks to the discouragement of my Inner Critic).

I can’t imagine the reading experience with a computer-generated novel. I could never get lost in the story. I’d always be aware that a non-human — a computer system – “wrote” what I’m reading.

Readers feel a close relationship with the author of a book they enjoy. You can’t have that warm, human connection with a cold, impersonal computer system. Author appearances? Autographed copies? Forget about it.

But I think I figured out how this could work.

Parker’s success is that he can compile, or customize, a book that fills a specific audience’s need or desire and do it super fast and super cheap. Doesn’t matter if that audience is really tiny – it could be just one person.

Parker could write  hundreds of thousands of custom romance novels.

Romance Novel CoverA reader who loves romance novels could customize a novel. She could pick the novel’s time period and location from a pull-down menu – medieval Britain,  Antebellum South, a modern-day village on the coast of Maine.  She could pick scorching sex (as in Fifty Shades of Gray), soft porn, or G-rated everyone-keeps-their-clothes-on (for the Christian evangelical market). Pick everything she enjoys in her romance novels. Even pick the central character’s name, which could be her name.

Parker’s program could generate a novel packed with the reader’s favorite elements and based on the tried-and-true formula all romance novels follow.  She’d have her customized romance novel e-book in less than half an hour.

Imagine ordering a novel as you would a pizza with your choice of toppings!

Up till now, Parker has been happy to go after tiny, underserved audiences (how many people want a English-to-Haitian Creole crossword puzzle book?). How his system will work in the highly competitive, billion-dollar-plus romance novel market is anyone’s guess.

Oh, the first novel written by a computer was published in Russia five years ago. And Parker himself has written three books the old-fashion way.
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Seven Writing Tips for Better Writing

from Stephen King’s On Writing

  • Get to the point
  • Write a draft. Then let it rest
  • Cut down your text
  • Be relatable and honest
  • Don´t care too much what others may think
  • Read a lot
  • Write a lot

I’d like to say I have these writing tips from Stephen King taped to my computer monitor or that I religiously follow them, but I don’t. As Mark Twain said, “The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on.”

“Here’s some good advice,” snarls my Inner Critic, “don’t publish this post. You’ll just embarrass yourself if you do.”
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Where I go for inspiration and to learn the mechanics of writing well 

See all my Writing Well posts. I’d love to hear your comments, unless you echo my Inner Critic.

Steve's Romance NovelNow, excuse me, I’m working on a list of what I want to see in the first romance novel I order from Phil Parker as soon as he has his system up and running.

Here’s my dream cover. I want a story where the hero — a young, handsome, talented writer named Steve — is persecuted by a sadistic critic but saved by the love of a beautiful, sex-starved blonde.

Unbelievable, Steve. You're hopeless!

Unbelievable.  You’re pathetic, Steve.


Writing Well

Advice I’m following to write well   

    If you’ve read my blog and thought, “Boy, that Steve is such an inept writer,” you should have read my stuff before I subscribed to Mark Nichol’s Daily Writing Tips email newsletter.

Thanks to Mark, my writing ability has risen from the bottom of the barrel to the top of the dregs.

Each day in my email inbox I get tips about writing basics,  grammar, misused words, punctuation, reviews of books about writing — just about anything I should know about putting words together to effectively communicate.

The Daily Writing Tips website is packed with resources for writers. Drop by and subscribe to Mark’s newsletter.

Here’s a recent Daily Writing Tips email newsletter you may find useful:

7 Great Websites for Writers

by Mark Nichol

From usual suspects to obscure gems, from grammar guides to usage resources, here are some websites of great value to writers:

1. Amazon.com 
You may have heard of this website — a good place, I understand, to find books (or anything else manufactured). But what I appreciate even more is the “Search inside this book” link under the image of the book cover on most pages in the Books section.
No longer does one need to own a book or go to a bookstore or a library to thumb through it in search of that name or bon mot or expression you can’t quite remember. And even if you do have access to the book in question, it’s easier to search online (assuming you have a keyword in mind that’s proximal in location or locution to your evasive prey) than to try to remember on what part of what page in what part of the book you remember seeing something last week or last month or years ago.
And then, of course, there are the site’s “Frequently Bought Together” and “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” features — but the book search can be a writer’s salvation.

2. Banned for Life 
Newspaper editor Tom Mangan’s site lists reader contributions of clichés and redundancies.

3. The Chicago Manual of Style Online
My review on this site of The Chicago Manual of Style notes that buying the bulky book, despite its abundance of useful information, is overkill for writers (but not editors), but editorial professionals of all kinds will benefit from the CMOS website’s Style Q&A feature, which responds authoritatively, sensibly, and often humorously to visitors’ queries.

4. GrammarBook.com 
The late Jane Straus, author of The Blue Book on Grammar and Punctuation, created this site to promote her book, but it also features many simple grammar lessons (with quizzes), as well as video lessons, an e-newsletter, and blog entries that discuss various grammar topics.

5. The Phrase Finder 
A useful key to proverbs, phrases from the Bible and Shakespeare, nautical expressions, and American idiom (the site originates in the United Kingdom), plus a feature called “Famous Last Words” and, for about $50 a year, subscription to a phrase thesaurus. (Subscribers include many well-known media companies and other businesses as well as universities.)

6. The Vocabula Review 
The Principal Web Destination for Anyone Interested in Words and Language Essays about language and usage; $25 per year by email, $35 for the print version.

7. The Word Detective 
Words and Language in a Humorous Vein on the Web Since 1995. This online version of Evan Morris’s newspaper column of the same name (some were also published in the book The Word Detective) features humorous Q&A entries about word origins.


Remember Cracked magazine?

OK, you’re way too young (above, cover to Sept. 1962 issue), but back in the day Cracked was the magazine you bought when MAD magazine was all sold out. I was so loyal to MAD that I never bought Cracked.

Well, today Cracked no longer publishes a print magazine, but they do have a hugely popular website, scoring about 300 million monthly page views.

I find Cracked consistently fun and informative. Never lets me down. Always surprises me. How many websites can you say that about? I mean, besides Steve of Upland? And Cracked is headquartered right here in Los Angeles!

“We write funny, fact-based list articles about science, history, bad-asses and pop culture,” Cracked’s senior writer Daniel O’Brien explains.

As of this writing, the Cracked website features …

  • The 5 Most Ingenious Worlds Ever Invented by Science Fiction
  • 4 Video Game Complaints We’re Just Going to Have to Get Over
  • 8 Prehistoric Creatures Ripped Directly from Your Nightmares
  • 7 Phrases That Are Great Signs It’s Time to Stop Talking

The reason I’m bringing up Cracked in my Writing Well post is that, well, Cracked is looking for writers. Cracked helps talented new writers build a portfolio and find an audience.

That could be YOU.

Here’s what they say:

We want you

You can write and make stuff for Cracked.com, today

If you are a funny/smart/creative person, Cracked.com is the single best opportunity you will ever come across in your life.

No experience necessary. We will pay you if it’s good. You talk directly to the editors — no form letter rejections.

Your work could be seen by millions of people. We need articlesphotoshopsinfographics and videos. Take your pick.

If you want to write the list-style feature articles that Cracked.com is famous for (like 26 Sexy Halloween Costumes That Shouldn’t Exist or 6 Books Everyone (Including Your English Teacher) Got Wrong) you simply need to sign up for our writer’s forum.

The only thing we require is that you’re passionate, creative, and respectful of the other writers. It takes zero effort to join.

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

But before you submit something, please read Dan’s article The 4 Worst Things About Writing for the Internet. It’s a must read for any writer about to venture out into the big, bad Internet.

What’s that? Why don’t I write for Cracked?

I could, if I wanted to.

Listen, I have better things to do with my time. I have some great inventions I’m working on. Like my Briefcase Chair …


Where I go for inspiration and to learn the mechanics of writing well . . .

Writing Well


Advice I’m following to write well

Seven Bad Writing Habits You Learned in School

by Jon Morrow, Associate Editor of Copyblogger 

Jon says a well-meaning but flawed academic system has taught students a lot of bad writing habits.

Oh, if only forty years ago, when I first fancied myself a writer, I’d come across Jon’s advice: Don’t write to please the Writing Police (English teachers, academics, Strunk & White, grammar nazis). Write what you want to write. Write what you know people want to read.

Jon’s post on the WordPress Copyblogger explains why each of his Seven Bad Habits contributes to writing “people would rather chew off their own eyelids than read.”

1. Trying to sound like dead people

2. Expecting someone to hand you a writing prompt

3. Writing long paragraphs

4. Avoiding profanity at all costs

5. Leaning on sources

6. Staying detached

7. Listening to “authorities” more than yourself

Jon says, “Great writers don’t learn how to write by sitting in writing courses, reading writing blogs, or browsing Barnes & Noble for yet more books on writing.

“They learn how to write by coming to a blank page, writing something down, and then asking themselves if it works … The truth is that you’re in charge. You. The blank page is sitting there, and you can fill it up with whatever the hell you want.”

Now that’s liberating for a repressed writer, full of fear and self-doubt, struggling to write to someone else’s standard of what constitutes good writing.

You too can escape the Writing Police. Read Jon’s revolutionary post here. After you’ve read the rest of my post, of course.

How you comin’ on that novel you’re working on, huh?

We creative types – writers & artists – take a lot of crap from the heartless, unimaginative Philistines who surround us.

I once made the mistake of mentioning to a co-worker that I was working on a novel. He didn’t say anything, just gave me a mischievous smile.

The next time I stopped by his desk, he was ready. “Steve, check this out.”

On his computer screen appeared a notorious segment of Family Guy. Stewie Griffin, the three-year-old-going-on-forty diaper-wearing cynic,  needles Brian, the hipster-alcoholic-Mensa-member talking dog, about Brian’s progress as a novelist.

Stewie mocks Brian's novel

Click on Stewie to see the video. Pay attention to Brian as Stewie rattles on. Brian is impassive to Stewie's merciless mockery. Until enough is enough, and Brian strikes a blow for all us unappreciated artists.

“How you, ah, how you comin’ on that novel you’re working on? Huh? Gotta big, ah, big stack of papers there? Gotta, gotta nice little story you’re working on there? Your big novel you’ve been working on for 3 years? Huh? Gotta, gotta compelling protagonist? Yeah? Gotta obstacle for him to overcome? Huh? Gotta story brewing there? Working on, working on that for quite some time? Huh? Yeah, talking about that 3 years ago. Been working on that the whole time? Huh? Nice little narrative? Beginning, middle, and end? Some friends become enemies, some enemies become friends? At the end your main character is richer from the experience? Yeah? Yeah? No, no, you deserve some time off.”

Ouch! That hurt. I happened to be three years into my novel (now six years), a murder mystery titled Baby Doll Go To Heaven. Three years and I had the title (noted), a story outline, and the names for the main characters. That’s it.

Well, how long did it take James Joyce to write Ulysses? Great literature doesn’t just appear overnight.

I admit I’ve spent far more time fantasizing about my life after the inevitable publication of Baby Doll Go To Heaven than actually writing the story.

Baby Doll Go To Heaven will be the first in a series of my New York Times bestsellers. More bestsellers than Stephen King. My books made into blockbuster movies. Fame. Fortune. Women, liquor and fast cars.

The lesson here is: Never tell anyone you’re working on a novel. Not even your mom. Especially your mom.

Wait until you can say, “I’ve just finished a novel, you know. Been shopping it around. My agent’s already had a few nibbles. You know what? Soon you can say, ‘I knew [your name here] when.’ How about that? Can you loan me twenty dollars?”

Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, offers this advice to stalled, would-be novelists:

There is a romantic notion to writing a novel, especially when you are starting it. You are embarking on this incredibly exciting journey, and you’re going to write your first novel, you’re going to write a book. Until you’re about 50 pages into it, and that romance wears off, and then you’re left with a very stark reality of having to write the rest of this thing. […] A lot of 50-page unfinished novels are sitting in a lot of drawers across this country. Well, what it takes at that point is discipline …You have to be more stubborn than the manuscript, and you have to punch in and punch out every day, regardless of whether it’s going well, regardless of whether it’s going badly. […] It’s largely an act of perseverance […] The story really wants to defeat you, and you just have to be more mulish than the story.


Where I go for inspiration and to learn the mechanics of writing well

Writing Well

Advice I’m following to write well      

The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.
Samuel Johnson


Kurt Vonnegut Explains the Shapes of Stories

Do you want to write a screenplay to a blockbuster movie? Or NY Times bestseller?

In less than five minutes, Kurt Vonnegut shows you how to connect to the widest possible audience.

In this 2005 video at kotke.org, the late author of Slaughterhouse Five, uses a chalkboard and a simple graphical axis to reveal the system behind great storytelling.

Profound. Original. Straightforward.

And because it’s Kurt Vonnuegut, mixed with humor and biting satire.

Here’s a taste from the video’s transcript:

I want to share with you something I’ve learned. I’ll draw it on the blackboard behind me so you can follow more easily [draws a vertical line on the blackboard]. This is the G – I axis: good fortune – ill fortune. Death and terrible poverty, sickness down here – great prosperity, wonderful health up there.

Your average state of affairs here, in the middle [points to bottom, top, and middle of line respectively].

This is the B – E axis. B for beginning, E for entropy. Okay. Not every story has that very simple, very pretty shape that even a computer can understand [draws horizontal line extending from middle of G – I axis].

Now let me give you a marketing tip. The people who can afford to buy books and magazines and go to the movies don’t like to hear about people who are poor or sick, so start your story up here [indicates top of the G – I axis].

You will see this story over and over again. People love it, and it is not copyrighted. The story is “Man in Hole,” but the story needn’t be about a man or a hole.

It’s somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again [draws line A]. It is not accidental that the line ends up higher than where it began. This is encouraging to readers.

Another is called “Boy Meets Girl,” but this needn’t be about a boy meeting a girl [begins drawing line B].

It’s somebody, an ordinary person, on a day like any other day, comes across something perfectly wonderful: “Oh boy, this is my lucky day!” … [draws line downward]. “Shit!” … [draws line back up again]. And gets back up again.

How many movies can you think of that fit the first two graphs of Vonnuegut’s presentation? Every Disney movie ever made uses one of these two graphs.

It’s easier to think of movies that don’t fit those broad storylines.

Vonnuegut applies his system to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

You’ll never guess what the graph looks like.

People have been puzzling over Hamlet for more than 400 years. Vonnuegut nails it, at least for me he does. Can’t wait to reread the play.

And get back to that novel I’ve been writing the last six years. Maybe I should turn it into a movie script. Sell it to Disney. Thanks, Kurt!

Watch Kurt Vonnegut Explains the Shapes of Stories


Writing ain't easy!

Where I go for inspiration and to learn the mechanics of writing well