Chris Peruzzi loves to write short stories and articles. He has written "The Little Push", "Degrees", and "The Undead Rose".
I would like to start this piece with an apology.
You see every pissant prairie punk who thinks they can write a piece of anything usually comes off as a colossal douche bag. This is also the reason behind why I titled this piece as “My Process on Writing” as opposed to the universal brand of conceit of “How to Write a (fill in the blank)”.
I’m going to write some suggestions that have worked for me in the past as well as some good advice I’ve gleaned from other writers on how they attack their craft. In this way, I may lessen the degree in which you may see me as a know-it-all asshole that does nothing except bleed pretentiousness.
That’s my hope anyway.
It’s still quite probable that I may rip off my Mission: Impossible latex mask and you will see me for the living breathing asshole that I really am instead of the normal everyday person that I’m trying to be. With luck, I’ll come off as the guy you’d like to have a beer with – or some kind of nonsense like that.
However, at this juncture in time, I am sincerely apologizing to you for my very probable sin of coming off as a pretentious jerk who thinks the sun rises and falls at his whim and thinks you should mail me accolades just for breathing.
One can only hope.
If you are an aspiring writer, you will come across all kinds of discouraging idiot-professionals that will say things that “only writers write”. I am here to tell you that opinion is currently "under review".
Here’s the deal. Whether you are a writer or not is a question that you need to ask yourself. Only you can answer that.
You will know you’re a writer if you like to write. Now, other writers whose opinion of themselves and their own work fall somewhere between “gifted genius” and “writing god who walks the earth” and truly believe that their own farts are a rare aphrodisiac when sniffed, will say that writing is something that cannot be learned. You are either born a writer or you are not.
The technical term for this opinion is “fetid horseshit”.
I didn’t think I was a writer until I got to college.
Tell me if this sounds familiar. You were asked to write something in grade school for homework. Then, after using your creativity to write something, your teacher, a sexually-frustrated Hun who had this conception of good writing as something that only Shakespeare or Hemingway could do properly told you your work wasn’t good.
Maybe it was bad writing, but it probably wasn’t. Teachers like that should be flayed alive. I am convinced that more creative minds have been destroyed by bitter frustrated no-talent educators than any other source.
It certainly affected me (although my friends enjoyed my writing).
I am telling you that if you could dream and wanted to tell a story with style, that burning desire to do that makes you a writer.
Congratulations. You’ve now stepped into a larger world.
Bad teachers as well as others who wouldn’t know a well-constructed sentence if it had been shouted into their ears can kill dreams. Some would call them well-meaning idiots.
I was lucky to have a good college professor for both Introduction to Public Speaking and Writing for Business and Industry. He knew a few things about making writers. Now, I don’t want you to think that this man read my deathless prose and declared to the world “This boy is a GENIUS!!”
No, that did not happen.
What he did was assign a project to every class and, for homework, we wrote that prompt. He did the same for the public speaking class. The next day, when we completed our assignments, he would ask two anonymous volunteers to write their work on the blackboard while he was out of the room. When he returned, he'd take chalk and “correct it”.
Let me ask you - did you have teachers who corrected papers with red ink? What this man could do with chalk most teachers cannot do with a red pen.
It was brutal. But, it was never personal.
Then he passed out rules on how to write clearly and concisely. The same thing happened with the next class. By the end of the semester, I could write a well-crafted piece. To this day, I can’t write an email without thinking of him.
My point to this is that kids went into that class without writing skills and came out as competent writers. It is one of the two most useful skills from an education – how to write.
The other is how to speak.
Everyone can learn to write. Whether you have a writing passion determines whether you’re a writer or not.
Back in 2000 I had a desire to write my own version of Robert Fulghum’s All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I was a web designer for a Fortune 500 company and I had my own ideas of building a website containing my essays and jokes I’d heard around the office.
I felt I could write a clear essay on what was going on in my head. This was the birth of my first blog. I wrote everything out in HTML and published it when I wanted.
I found my style and voice through a remarkably simple technique. It is one that I continue to use, and in all truth, I am using now.
I write like I’m having a one-way conversation with my best friend. The words I use and the jokes I crack are made to make that guy laugh. When I can picture the conversation in my mind, things just come to me. The way I speak, the cadence I use, and the logical order in how I make my points come through that way.
I have a different technique when I write short stories, though. That’s a process.
The process I use is still in development. Sometimes I hear a writer suggest something that will make me more productive. Such are seeds on a fertile mind. Here are some of the points you need to recognize in writing.
- Time – When you should write.
- Commitment – How often you should write and for how long.
- Fighting Procrastination – This goes with commitment, but because it’s such a large part of what keeps a good writer from getting the stuff out of his head, it’s worth mentioning by itself.
- Technique – The actual craft of writing. These are the tools. How to write a sentence. How to write dialogue. What words to use. Plotting. And let’s not forget editing and polishing.
- Reading – All writers read. You need to feed your head a good diet of things. It will directly affect your writing and how you use that knowledge will affect your readers.
- Ritual – Wrap up everything I just said and make everything into a habit for success.
There are other things, too. But start with these. How you work as a writer will boil down to “what works best for you.”
I mentioned before that my process is still in development. That said, I experiment.
The process I use when I’m writing a blog differs from the one I use for short stories and essays. When I write articles, I type it directly onto the keyboard from my head and then I edit it later.
It’s a very organic process. From my head to the keyboard and then I reread and rewrite for style and voice.
The process I have for writing fiction is a little different. Before I explain what it is, let me just say it happened by accident.
I am a member of a writer’s group. A mutual blogger friend of mine, who I knew from the defunct website Echobase, invited me to come along.
I brought my laptop – a dinosaur in a modern age. It’s big and clunky. I was mainly using it for graphics work. I still use it. However, I bought this HP back in 2012. It’s old and works like a cranky old woman. It must warm-up before it wakes up. I also brought a composition notebook. Because you never know.
It took forever to boot up when I got there. And as I was waiting, the writing prompt started and I had 15 minutes to write about the topic. The words were forming in my head but I couldn’t write. My keyboard was frozen and it frustrated me.
When the next prompt came, I wrote it out in my notebook.
With only fifteen minutes to write, my brain went into creative mode immediately. My pen flew across the pages and I wrote incredibly inspired stuff. Soon after that, I began writing a short story entitled Degrees. I wrote it all in my notebook and I transcribed it later to my computer.
So, my writing process evolved in two ways.
First, when writing, set up a time for writing. Make it finite. This is the time for writing and this will be all the time there is. That pressure forces imagination to work on command.
Second, during the transcription process from my notebook to my computer, it gives me the opportunity to edit. Any missing words or better phrases come with the transcription.
Lastly, composition books are cheap. Some cost less than a dollar. If you have a pen that you feel comfortable with, your words creep onto the page easily. Plus, it makes everything portable. You can write anyplace at any time. I once wrote in a laundromat and still made good copy.
Neil Gaiman has a similar process. Only he works with a better grade of paper and uses a fountain pen for his work. Pens do make a difference. Be comfortable with whatever you use. His rationale is the same as mine – edit during transcription.
Polish on the computer.
I quote Ray Bradbury a lot. Watch his Youtube videos on writing. They are invaluable.
Bradbury suggested this for new writers. Start with short stories. They give a sense of structure and pacing. A short story between 3,000 and 7,000 words will get you thinking in the right ways.
But that’s not all. He suggests real writers do the following every night:
Before going to bed read a short story. Read it in one sitting. It won’t take long. Then read a poem of your choice. Any poem. Lastly, read an essay. All before bed.
It will incubate in your mind.
Then, while you're doing this, write one short story a week for a year. You heard me. One short story a week for a year. After a year, you’ll have fifty-two. This hones you. Plus, with fifty-two short stories written in a year, a few of them must be good.
The two key things are to feed your head and to get used to writing. Write something every day. It’s like sharpening a saw. Learn to write 1,600 words a day. At first, it will be a challenge, but once you get into a good groove, you may find yourself writing 5,000 or 8,000 words in a sitting.
You never know.
Ian Flemming who wrote all of the original James Bond books hated his process. He, like most writers, procrastinated.
His process was to go to a hotel in a scary city – one where going out and walking around are bad ideas. Second, check into a mediocre hotel room. It should not be too nice, or you might enjoy yourself there and not work. Stay away from comfort. The one purpose of this is work. The object is to finish the piece. He would write a Bond Story in a week just to get out of the hotel room.
You have to admire a man with that kind of commitment.
Ernest Hemingway, who started his career as a reporter, believed in using short succinct sentences to keep readers engaged. His writing style is a departure from classical writers like Charles Dickens, James Joyce, and Oscar Wilde. These are his four cardinal rules for writing.
- Use short sentences.
- User short first paragraphs.
- Use vigorous English. (Revise and cut on your re-write.)
- Be positive, not negative. (Write what something is, not what something is not.)
Fans of Douglas Adams would disagree with that last one. Adams' description of Vogon ships was they float in the air precisely how bricks don’t.
There is a lot of value in Stephen King’s book, On Writing. Though, one of the things that I disagree with is his shunning away from using index cards and small notebooks to jot down ideas. King’s attitude is that you’ll have a perfect log of a lot of bad ideas. I, as well as many writers I know, keep a notepad at my nightstand. When inspiration strikes (through dreams), it is better safe than sorry. Write ideas down while they are fresh in your head. Decide later if you’ll use them.
King is what we call in writing vernacular a pantser. He writes by the seat of his pants and does not bother with outlines for plotting. The other extreme outliners meticulously outline their plots before they write. Most writers fall somewhere in between and have broad outlines that allow them to be flexible in order to change certain aspects of the story when they write.
I urge writers to examine two types of story models. Using Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” allows for a three-act storytelling structure.
Act I is “The Departure Act” where the hero is in the mundane world.
Act II is “The Initiation Act” where the hero is off to the unknown and is challenged through trials to get to his goal.
Act III is “The Return Act” where the hero is triumphant.
There are twelve stages of the story:
- The Ordinary World
- The Call of Adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- Meeting the Mentor
- Crossing the First Threshold
- Tests, Allies, Enemies
- Approach to the Inmost Cave
- The Ordeal
- Reward (Seizing the Sword)
- The Road Back
- Return with the Elixir
The scope of this structure could be a writing course unto itself. It is beyond the parameters of this article. I urge you to visit the plethora of internet sites on this topic. Also, treat yourself to any of Joseph Campbell's Youtube videos of his lectures. They are fascinating.
Dan Harmon (of Rick and Morty and Community) uses a slightly more simplified process. Use these steps in his story circle (also known as his eight-step plot embryo). It is based on change and stasis as well as order and chaos. The process used is to show where the story will have the most change internally and externally for the main characters.
Here are the eight steps.
- A character is in a zone of comfort,
- But they want something.
- They enter an unfamiliar situation,
- Adapt to it,
- Get what they wanted,
- Pay a heavy price for it,
- Then return to their familiar situation,
- Having changed.
Both the Hero’s Journey and the eight-step plot embryo are tools for outlining stories. Strict pantsers don’t use it. However, there is a lot of value in exploring these structures. Once again, I urge you to do research on them as they are beyond the scope of this article.
My last bit of authorly advice comes from The Dresden Files author, Jim Butcher. It’s on dialogue. The majority of what your character says will be between five- and eight-word sentences.
I know you’re saying, “Bullshit.”
“No,” I say. “It is not bullshit.”
“You’re only saying that to prove a point.”
Seriously, it’s the way most of us speak. Rarely will you hear an Elizabethan-like soliloquy from the lawnmower guy or your grocer. Trust me on this.
Read and Feed Your Head
You know what? I’ve said this a gazillion times on Facebook and on writing forums.
Really. Read. Read a lot. Read for both enjoyment and enlightenment. Fiction, non-fiction, self-help books, and how-to books. Read whatever interests you. Read in and out of your comfort zone. Good writers read.
Here’s why. It will improve you in so many ways. When you read widely, deeply, and thoroughly, those thoughts nestle in your head and build your vocabulary arsenal. When explaining what you read through your own writing, you distill your thoughts so empathically to another that you choose your words with great consideration to have an impact.
See what works and use it.
See what doesn’t work and chuck it.
Build on things completely unrelated to your writing genre and find ideas. One of my best ideas came from a plumbing book on the concept of routing water to a faucet. Nuggets of inspiration are found in the darndest places.
Books influence people in their minds and hearts with the philosophies they impart to all of us.
Read. You’ll thank me later.
Write Every Day
I just finished reading a book called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
In this book, he talks about how habits are stored in the basal ganglia of the brain. It’s one of the reasons why some things work automatically without thinking about them. It’s because part of your brain is secretly being programmed and does things before you consciously tell yourself to do them. It’s fascinating.
Writing every day is a habit you’ll find gets easier as you do it more and more. You will have off-days. However, when it comes to putting pen to paper, that mental switch to start writing what you need to write goes on with ease.
If you’re typing, your fingers will fly across the keyboard. If you’re writing longhand, you’ll find that your thoughts might outrace your hands. And that’s kind of a good thing.
You’ll find when it comes time to be creative, your mind – which has been incubating ideas since last time you wrote will almost magically come up with some natural inspiration – especially if you’ve been reading.
Brains are amazing things. They tend to notice things and file them away until needed. You can always tell a writer is having a profound thought when he cocks his head to one side and goes “Hmm.”
That’s usually followed by a flurry of typing or scribbling.
Get into a writing habit until you find that the one day you skip will make you edgy.
Write. Just keep writing.
The Importance of Rewrites
Thinking your first draft is done is a common mistake for new writers.
Why shouldn’t it be? After all, it’s much like giving birth. You’ve spent all this time in labor, and you’ve gotten to the last page, then the last paragraph, and then the last word. Then, in a Romancing the Stone Joan Wilder moment, you begin crying because your first magnum opus is done and into the world.
Only it isn’t.
Your beautiful child manuscript (or short story, article, or essay) is actually in its last trimester. While you can feel your baby kick, and you know the last sonogram is telling you that it’s definitely a “boy”, you need to open up that zero fund investment vehicle so that your baby can eventually go to college.
Okay, I don’t have kids, but it’s a solid analogy.
With the miracle of word processors, the opportunity to make your “perfect” work into something even better is so easy. The general rule on writing is that you should write your first draft without censoring yourself and then the second draft should be edited thoroughly.
A better word would be “mercilessly”.
Back to the birthing analogy, it’s like getting the sonogram of the child and then a genetic engineer comes in and says, “I know you think he’s beautiful, but there is so much room for improvement. Let’s make some changes before the poor thing gets into that nasty breathing habit.”
Make modifications. Cut, tighten, and go over every bit of your piece. Perhaps there are some better words or phrases you can use. Perhaps the plot would do better without the part with the evil twin. Perhaps your dialogue could be a bit snappier.
That last one is absolutely true. No one gets the right dialogue on the first try. Sometimes the joke sounds funny the first time, then it loses its charm upon review. Give yourself some time and consideration.
After that first round of edits is done, edit again. When you’re done, have someone else read it. Self-editing is problematic. Writers tend to read words they expect to be there when they're not. A fresh pair of eyes can be a godsend. If none are available, read your sentences slowly aloud and the sentences in reverse order.
What I recommend, especially if you’re looking to publish your work, is hiring a good editor. I repeat and stress “good editor”. I’ve been blessed with working with a few good editors and cursed with a few bad ones. A good editor can make your good piece great. A bad editor can take the shine off your story faster than turpentine. Do your research. I’ve heard that some writers thank their editors in the forwards of their books. You could do worse than to check some of the books you like for their names. Be sure before you spend any money on an untested editor. They need to be reputable.
The irony of calling this section “final words” is not lost on me.
None of this is final. This is just the beginning.
I have a few parting thoughts for you before I go and waste my own time doing something.
First, if you’re a writer, start writing. Start with a blog. Tell the world what you’re thinking. Tell the world a story about when you were a boy and found that weird looking ball that hatched into a million spiders and then you ran home screaming. Or how about the one where you had your first close dance with someone you wanted to know better and how nervous you were. Or how about the one when you got up in class unexpectedly and had to tell a story you had not prepared and got applause.
Write. Write for yourself. Then write what you like. Do it well. Learn the tools and find your voice.
Again, I tell a story about Ray Bradbury. He often recounts his real turning point in writing with a story he published in The October Country. He wrote a short story called “The Lake”. It was about a boy and a girl who used to make sandcastles every summer. He would build one half and she would build the other. One summer, she drowned in the lake. Many years later, he came back to the lake and built half a sandcastle and then went to bed. When he returned the next morning, he found the other half made with small footprints that trailed back into the lake.
When he read the story back to himself, he cried. He cried because he thought it was the first time he’d ever written something truly beautiful.
Write something beautiful. There is nothing like it. Writing something for someone other than yourself that impacts them in a meaningful way. That is what all this is about. Forget about the money. Forget about fame. Do it for you. Do it because there is something in you that is crying to be heard and acknowledged.
If you do it right, I promise you, it will be worth it.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Christopher Peruzzi
Christopher Peruzzi (author) from Freehold, NJ on September 05, 2020:
“Fetid horseshit” is in the back index of “The Writer’s Marketing Guide 2020 Edition”
Nikhil Sharma from India on September 04, 2020:
It's a big misconception that only writers can write. I was also not a "born writer" until one of my friends introduced me to blogging in the year 2017.
That was the year I officially started and developed the love of writing. The love of expressing my opinion, knowledge, and views on movies, smartphones, and anything that I want to talk to the world about.
If you're someone who is keen on describing a story or want to spit out your thoughts about an experience or product, writing can be a good option for you. However, if you have to write every day to become the so-called 'professional writer.' Thanks for this awesome piece, Christopher!
By the way, I Googled this term 'fetid horseshit' but didn't find any information about it.
Christopher Peruzzi (author) from Freehold, NJ on September 02, 2020:
You are quite welcome.
Sherry Hewins from Sierra Foothills, CA on August 31, 2020:
Interesting and informative. Thanks for this.