What Makes Us Better Writers

Knight wielding a pen

When I first started writing, there was already a writer in the family.  Where other people had House Beautiful as coffee table magazines, he had The Writer.  With those digest style covers that The Writer had for many years, and finally had to change because it was too old-fashioned.

Things have changed so much since those days.  We can find writing advice really, pretty much, everywhere.  But should we follow it?  Will it make us better writers?

Not Everyone is an Expert—But They Think They Are

The more I write, the more I realize how little I actually know.  I’ve been taking a workshop called Plotting with Depth and learning about tags (which is not what you think they are) and am astounded at what I’m learning.  All I need to do is pick up a book like the latest Jack Reacher one and I can start finding examples.  I’ve been trying to incorporate what I’m learning in my current project, and it’s challenging.  But it’s a fun challenge.

Meanwhile, there’s a writer who I know from a blogging class way back at least seven years ago.  She’s teaching online classes on how to write fiction.  So I wandered onto Amazon to check out how many novels she had written.

None.  Zero.  Zip.

But she had written a whole lot of non-fiction books on how to write fiction.


For a while I made the circuits of the various cheapie writing classes that are all over the place.  They were $30 and about 4-6 weeks.  Usually had 20-30 people in the class.

I tried to screen them.  I checked the writer background to see if they wrote fiction.  Yes.  As a pantser, I also asked if they taught to pantsers.  I was always told “Sure!  I teach pantsers and outliners.”

That turned out to be code for, “I have no idea what to do with a pantser.  I was expecting you to outline.”  There was one horrifying class that I almost quit four times (and should have.  The Army soldier kicked in and said, “Accomplish the mission” when I should have just blown up the bridge and been done with it.).  I did not understand at all what was being taught.  The instructor kept telling me I was doing it wrong and explaining the same thing, really, like I was stupid for not getting it.  The problem was that it required outlining to understand, and I was never going to understand it that way.

Teacher in front of complicated diagram.

Being Vigilant With Learning

But those classes taught me to be vigilant and selective with what I was learning:

  • To make sure that what I did do was a good use my time.  Way too many writers don’t think that their is valuable, or perhaps a better phrase is they’re not even aware it is valuable.
  • To always ask questions about what’s being taught, and if I don’t like the answers I’m coming up with, then to walk away.

And probably the most important thing of all: Push the skills.  Always push the skills.  It’s hard and can be painful. I spent almost three years trying to get setting into my books, and now I don’t have to think as much about it.  But part of being a better writer is wanting it.

And earning it.

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Perfectionism and Reading Fiction

Overhead shot of a boy sitting on the carpet in a library, reading a book.

I’ve taken a few writing workshops lately that teach craft by having me read books to figure out how the writer did something cool.  It’s been a fun and interesting experience.  Writers always get told to read fiction to learn from other writers.  Normally, no one ever explains this, other than treating it like we were in a college class getting graded, then complain when a writer tries to imitated a best selling writer.

I was in a monthly writing call and was reminded of this because the topic was on studying books.  One of the questions was “What writer weaknesses do you identify and how do you use it to improve?”

One of the writers said that she didn’t read for pleasure any more—only for study.  That’s a terrible!

The reason I became a writer is because I had all these wonderful books I was reading and I wanted to do books like that.  I wanted to go on adventures even if I really couldn’t go on adventures and besides, fictional adventures are fun.  Real adventures are quite a bit more dangerous.  Ahem.

Woman in a bikini surfing on a green and purple surfboard

But I got stuck into the critical analysis, too.  By 2003, I thought that the new releases I was reading were terrible!

I thought books had gone downhill from what I remembered reading when I was growing up.  So one day at work, someone had left out a bunch of freebies on the break tables: Mack Bolan, the Executioner.  That was a men’s adventure series, written by many different writers.  I’d read that during the those years, along with Nick Carter, so I snatched those bad boys up.

Man in suit fighting with a man in a yellow hat and red jumpsuit.


They weren’t as good as I remembered.

Could it be me?

I thought about how much I looked for what was wrong in books.  Sure, I did run into ones that had geniune problems, like the one that ended on a cliffhanger.  Man!  That was an annoying book.

But I also went into a book as I was reading and looked for flaws.

And, as I thought about it, I really wasn’t learning anything from doing it.  At least other than hating books.  I was expecting perfection as a writer and lost my pleasure as a reader.

So I went cold turkey.  I decided that I was going to stop critiquing published books and work on enjoying them.  That next book was I read was The Da Vinci Code.

I did  enjoy reading it. I also thought, after I read it, about why it might have been such a runaway best seller.  I think the answer was timing, because it came out about the time we had all the scandals and cover-ups in the Catholic church.  The book provided escapism, and yet, played right into the headlines.

Writers on the message boards I was on nitpicked the words and the sentences as not being “perfect,” whatever that means.

No one asked what this runaway best selling writer did right.

This is what negativity does.  It holds people back.

Respecting the Writing, Respecting Yourself

Man screams as UFO beams up another person

It’s hard to believe that about 2010, I was thinking I was never going to be able to write a novel.  My process of writing because a source of great frustration.

The more I revised something, the more broken it got.  It went from a two car accident to a spaceship crashes and destroys an entire city.

I remember one writer offering to look at what I’d written to see if she could see what was wrong and I was embarrassed to let her see it.  I knew I was a better writer than what I was producing.

So I attended a lot of classes, searching for answers.  One was with Bob Meyer, one of the earlier indie successes.  I was so frustrated that I described my writing as a “screwy way of writing.”

He said “Never put down your writing.  There will be someone else who will be happy to do that for you.”

A lot of the starts with respecting the writing, not treating it like a weird thing from outer space.

Men in spacesuits approach computer keyboard

There’s a hella out there that does the opposite. (That’s California slang, by the way).

The writing community, craft books, and even writing magazines are rife with put downs.  Some of it is quite subtle.  Some of it is blatant.  Some of it you may be saying yourself.

  • “My writing is crap.”
  • “My first drafts are shitty.”
  • “All first drafts are terrible.”

So you’ve just said you can’t write.  What the heck does that do to the little kid in you who is doing the writing?!!

What does that do in how you write that story?!!

Some people think their first draft is so crappy that they race through it so they can get to the revision.  Contrary to popular believe, revision isn’t where the real writing happens–it’s the first draft.

And that first draft is being labeled as crap.  That’s a lonely place for the muse to be.

Silhouette of lonely man, the universe above him

We’re constantly bombarded by advice that we’re not “good enough.” The writing magazines have what amounts to diet advice, that there’s something we’re not doing right, something that we should be checking the box on that is keeping from getting us published (rather than another skill level of writing).

I used to be on a message board where anyone experimenting was told, “Most writers screw it up anyway, so don’t even bother.”

This stuff is TOXIC.

Bottle of green goo with a skull and crossbones.


Our words have power.  Just read a book that makes you want to re-read it all over again once you’ve finished it.

If we say put downs to ourselves and repeat them, how can they NOT have that power?





First job (and no, it wasn’t the Army)

I’m starting the New Year with what my first job was.  And no, it wasn’t the military.  I enlisted at 25, so I already had some jobs behind me.

But my first job was stuffing the Sunday newspapers for the Los Angeles Times, which is called a newspaper inserter.  I helped out a woman named Mrs. Fisher to prepare the Sunday papers.

Mrs. Fisher was probably in her late fifties or sixties (hard to tell now; people looked older then).  She was a victim of the Flying Tiger disaster in 1962.  A plane crashed on a street (and was depicted in an episode of Emergency, with a plane crashing into an apartment complex).  She had just grounded her son and sent him to his room, but he sneaked out.  Turned out to be good timing because the plane’s engine came down his room!

Mrs. Fisher picked me up at school every Friday and took me to a building a building on Ventura Boulevard that went for $1,000 a month (in the 1970s!).  It was a grungy building, always caked with paper dust and smelling of ink.  The bathroom was grubby from all the dust, too.

One wall had a bench that ran along the length of it, and that was where we stuffed the newspapers.  The Sunday came disassembled, the print run of each part in a bundle.  So it was the front page, entertainment, sports, and the ad package.

We’d go down that line and pick up each section and then stuff inside the front page. The constant contact with the newspaper left my hands nearly black with the ink, and we’d sometimes find pinch bugs crawling around the papers.

The completed newspaper was stacked up against the wall on the benches, to the ceiling, where it would be picked up Saturday morning.

The problem came with that ad section.  We dreaded spaghetti day.  There was a company that periodically included a sample of instant spaghetti mix.  That made the newspapers lopsided.  Remember, we were stacking to the ceiling, and during spaghetti day, the stacks would sometimes tip over.

It made getting the newspapers done twice as hard, and those were often the late nights when I got out at 11:00!

Mrs. Fisher usually took me home, but 11:00 was the cut-off.  If we were running late, my father came to pick me up.  He was astounded one night to find a traffic jam at that time nearby…johns picking up hookers.

I don’t actually remember the job formally ending like others.  This seemed to be one that just evolved away.  Now the want ads advertise for inserters.  A very different time.

What was your first job?