How to Succeed in Writing IX: The Influential Writers, and other influences


Like any other person that has attempted to create something artistic, an artist’s appreciation of another’s work is limited and unique.  An artist’s appreciation of another’s work is similar to an athlete studying game film on a future opponent.  After repeated viewings, you understand their modus operandi.  You are able to pinpoint what they do well, and their failings, and you’re able to learn from all of them.  One author’s ability to characterize may impress another artist in one reading, and another may impress them with their particular brand of engaging dialogue.  After another artist gets it, they’re usually bored with it, and they move onto another author.  To use the sports analogy once again, the artist can usually spot the stitches on another’s fastball long before the casual observer can.  This isn’t what artists are trying to do, it’s who they are.  They would love to simply read another’s work and appreciate it in the same manner a casual reader would, but they can’t turn that portion of their brain off.  An artist reading another’s work can get so hypercritical and appreciative of the little things another author does to move a story along, or characterize, that they can’t enjoy that simple, little story in total until they have thoroughly explored, and drained, whatever value they believe another’s work has for them.

Most writers will claim that their writing is now entirely free of influence once they’ve found their voice.  Some would judge this self-promotion, and others would say it’s just impossible to believe.  As any writer that’s written a great deal knows, it’s almost impossible to escape influence.  Whenever a writer turns a phrase, completes a block or dialogue, or characterizes, there was some influence there.  If it wasn’t Chaucer, or Hemingway, that influenced the writer in this manner, it may have been their freshman Composition 101 teacher.  If it wasn’t Stephen King, or Faulkner, that taught them how characterize, it may have been a movie or a television show that embedded that particular brand of characterizing deep in their brain.  Something, somewhere influenced them in some way they may not know now that they’ve reached their twentieth year of writing, where their writing material that is so fresh, and unique, that they can’t even spot the influence anymore.  They may have worked so hard, for so long to achieve a unique voice that they feel they’ve achieved it, and they may have to some degree, but there was a starting point that formed a foundation that is now so embedded in the manner in which they write that they can’t see the influence anymore.

If you belong to the latter group that believes you have reached the pinnacle of individualistic style, that contains no influence, you may dismiss this article as nothing but a point of curiosity, but if you are a new writer that wants to learn how one writer got to point D in the process, the following is a list of those influences that lubricated the slide:

10) Brevity. If “Brevity is the soul of wit” no one was funnier than Ernest Hemingway.  An economist of words, Hemingway avoided complicated syntax, and it has been determined that seventy percent of his sentences were short, simple sentences.{1}  Hemingway was the anti-Joyce (James Joyce) in this regard.  Whereas Hemingway “KISSed” us (keeping it simple for we stupid people) with his prose, Joyce dangled complicated, multisyllabic, and invented words before us, and he often teased us with a carrot on the stick of his words’ meaning.  Whereas this may have made Joyce’s fiction wonderful, historic, and transcendent, most of us didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.  Whereas most readers need translation, transportations in time via a well-written guide, and a degree in Joyceisms to understand Finnegan’s Wake, Old Man and the Sea can be enjoyed in an otherwise carefree afternoon. This isn’t to say that Hemingway’s prose is not complicated and carefully structured for meaning, but with Hemingway’s fiction, meaning is derived upon reflection and through personal interpretation.  The meaning of Hemingway’s prose is established through dialogue, action, and silences —a fiction in which nothing crucial or at least very little— is stated explicitly.  He purposely avoided outright symbolism in what he called “the theory of the iceberg”.  This theory stated that facts float above water, and the supporting structure and symbolism operate out of sight.

Hemingway“No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in,” says Hemingway. “That kind of symbol sticks out like raisins in raisin bread. Raisin bread is all right, but plain bread is better.” He opens two bottles of beer and continues: “I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks.  But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.  The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true.”

Hemingway was more of a storyteller than he was a writer.  The interested reader, that doesn’t have a whole lot of time on their hands, may want to consider reading either the short book Old Man and the Sea or The Short and Happy life of Francis Macomber.  The latter is a short story that captures the essence of Ernest Hemingway, and it teaches every writer the greatest principle every writer should employ in their daily activities: Story is sacred and flowery prose is largely self-indulgence.

Carver9) Images. Raymond Carver was also a minimalist.  Most of my favorite writers were.  Carver employed evocative and provocative images to tell a story.  Short stories were his forte.  The short story Feathers captures the essence of Raymond Carver, better than any of his other stories in my humble opinion.

Carver’s stories, and poems, focused on misery and dirty realism.  His characters are low class, beer drinking, hardworking, slobs that readers can’t help but picture in stained tank-tops.  Carver claimed that he was inclined toward brevity and intensity.  His writing focused on sadness, loss, and alcohol in the everyday lives of ordinary people —often lower-middle class or isolated and marginalized people.

8) Characterization. John Irving does engage in the flowery prose of his mentor Charles Dickens, but he does so (for the most part) effortlessly.  Irving is not a minimalist in other words.  Irving’s John_Irvingworks teach us, more than any of the author’s listed here, to work your tail off to hide your effort.  One read through his magnum opus The World According to Garp teaches us that it shouldn’t be a chore to read through one’s work.  No other authors listed here, save for maybe Hemingway, hides his brilliance better than Irving.  The reader gets to know Irving’s characters in what I call a “Holy Crap!” manner.  Irving doesn’t use physical characteristics to describe characters, and he doesn’t use the inner voice techniques that most of us do, yet you learn their characteristics in a story after story and a passage after passage manner, until you know them so completely that you say, “Holy crap, this author’s brilliant.”  I realize this methodology is borne of the “show don’t tell” basic of storytelling, but in my humble opinion, no one does it better than Irving.

Irving has chapters of setting, primarily in the Northeast, and his settings can appear a bit laborious at times.  Unlike all of the authors on this list, there can be large chunks of Irving’s narrative where nothing happens, as he frames you up for what’s about to happen.  Irving does “a story within the story” as well as anyone in the business.  As I said, though, Irving achieves his stature in the world of literature through effortless characterization.

It appears, unfortunately, that the drive to tell a story no longer drives Mr. Irving.  His more recent books have become more and more political.  Some could say that Mr. Irving has always been political, and if you read A Prayer for Owen Meany and Garp again, you’ll see that.  If that’s true, he used to be a lot more subtle.  Story used to be sacred to him, and politics used to be a secondary concern to him.

It’s almost become a cliché that writers of my generation claim Irving as a primary influence.  Like most clichés though, there’s a reason claiming Irving as an influence has become so prevalent among those in my generation.  It’s because he has achieved the bestseller list through almost effortless, beautiful writing, and by not conforming to current norms.  Irving just does what he does, and we have all accepted this to a degree that he can do whatever he wants, and we’ll all greet him with open arms.  Claim King or Koontz as an influence, and artistic writers will dismiss you with a yawn; claim John Grisham, and they’ll dismiss you with a laugh; but Irving has managed to keep a foot in both the literary and best-selling world, and he does it with rich, rewarding, and effortless characterization.

7) Asides.  Some may dismiss Chuck Palahniuk as a splatterpunk writer that engages in shocking prose that grosses out and titillates the reader.  It is true that Palahniuk goes for the jugular in much of his writing, and some may say too often, but anyone that has read, or seen, Fight Club (they’re strikingly similar) knows that Palahniuk (almost) always has a story to tell amid the chaos in his works.

PalahniukPalahniuk may have some of the best, most interesting vignettes and asides in the business today.   He is heavily influenced by Stephen King, as evidenced by his heavy use of refrain style use of repetition, but one should not mistake this influence as outright mimicry.  Palahniuk has carved himself quite a niche in the literary world, with works like Fight Club, Choke, and RantRant proved to be especially valuable to those writers on the lookout for a new way of telling a story.  While the style is not unprecedented, Palahniuk used it in such a unique manner that those that have read the story considered it revolutionary.

Chuck describes his style of writing as “transgressive” fiction.  Transgressive fiction, as defined by Wikipedia, “is a writing style that focuses on characters who feel confined by the norms and expectations of society and who break free of those confines in unusual and/or illicit ways.”

After the novel Lullaby, Palahniuk began writing satirical, horror stories.  His work is big on unusually dark and absurd philosophical asides that are so farcical that the reader can help but think of them as true.  These asides are non-fiction factoids within his fictional works that, according to the author, “Are included in order to further immerse the reader in my work”.” {2} This author hates metaphors and similes.  This author loves to mess around with the traditional styles of storytelling to presumably keep it interesting for him and us.  Some of the times this methodology works, as it did in Rant, and some of the times it doesn’t, as it didn’t in Pygmy and Tell All.  His forays into illogical, but fun, splatterpunk writing, works in most of his books, but anytime a writer puts their stock in shock they are going to try outdo themselves every time out, until they produce a book like Snuff in which the novelty of the over-the-top shock wears thin quickly.

6) Pace. No writer, in modern fiction, displays the virtues of pace better than Dean Koontz.  I challenge anyone to read the first half of his book Intensity and say that this man is not in the upper echelon of thriller writers today.  Koontz knows all he needs to know about architecture, gardening, and all the other minutiae of his Southern Californian locale to make his setting interesting, but Mr. Koontz can get you flipping pages on pace with any of the great suspense/thriller writers of our day. He may also be the safest writer on this list.

Dean-KoontzWhy is Koontz safe?  He strives for the mainstream.  His books have mass appeal to most age groups and both genders.  He is a publisher’s dream in that he knows how to knock out a best-seller on an annual basis without offending anyone.  If you’re a writer that seeks the formula to mass appeal, and the bestseller list, I can think of no better author to read … this side of James Patterson.  That having been said, there is a formula to Koontz’s writing.  How can there not be in a catalogue that lists 112 titles, with twenty-eight bestsellers among them, without an inoffensive formula?  A formula is good to some degree.  To some degree, a formula will provide a reader a solid foundation of comfort that the author can shatter in the pages that follow.  There is a formula, and a relative level of comfort that Koontz readers have come to expect, and while we should try hard not to dismiss Koontz on this basis alone, it’s difficult not to do so.  All of his characters are much too safe.  His female characters are safely intelligent, and his male characters are safely reliant on their intelligence and ingenuity … Even his bad guys are safely bad.  Then, Koontz exasperates whatever problems his works have in this regard by trying to be funny.  His humor is so safe, conformist, and pedantic that it almost seems to be self-effacing, nerdy humor, until one reads enough Koontz to realize that this is simply this man’s sense of humor.

If you’re looking for edgy, offensive, different material that most people are uncomfortable reading, Koontz probably isn’t your guy.  He does write some edgy material, but he doesn’t do so on a consistent enough basis.  If one were to gauge mental health by a writer’s fiction, Koontz would likely score higher than any of the authors listed here, but that has resulted in less dangerous, less angst-ridden material.  He’s mainstream, and there’s nothing wrong with that if you’re looking to write mainstream fiction.  One of the other exceptions to this rule, aside from Intensity, was the novel Life Expectancy.  These two books are the must reads in Koontz’s catalogue for any writer seeking the edgy and different.

5) Writing fiction. What can be written about Stephen King that hasn’t already been written?  If you are a writer that hasn’t read King yet, you’ll probably want to get on the train.  He’ll teach you the good, the bad, and the ugly of writing.  While it’s almost impossible to read everything he’s done, most writers have an extensive King library.  If they don’t, they should probably have at least ten of his books.

KingKing has it all, and most honest, seasoned writers will begrudgingly admit that he has had an influence on them at one point in their process.  If The Stand is too long for you, then the writing community will require you to read Misery, Gerald’s Game, It, or any of his classic, early works like The Shining.  Some artistic writers may scrunch their nose at King, because he is so ubiquitous, but his influence on modern fiction cannot be denied in just about every novel written after 1990.

Some say that King invented the common man horror, but many say that almost every piece of fictional horror involves the common man.  King did work the working joe into his fiction more than most however.  As stated earlier, King builds horror through repetition.  He usually has a nickname for his monster that gets repeated often enough that the reader feels a horrified endearment to the monster.  He also may have not been the first to work music into his horror, most notably nursery rhymes, but he did it more often and with more mastery than most, and it influenced a generation of horror writers.

4) Hodge Podge. As written in the introduction of this piece, writers read other writers in a unique manner.  There are so many varied ways that a writer can reach point D in the process that attempting to catalogue all of the influential writers, and their influential moments in fiction, would be book length, and very few readers would be interested in all of the ways in which this writer achieved that point.  So in the interest of interest, we will try to whittle these moments down to a few of the most prominent.  In the area of the influentially absurd humor, there have been few that captured it as well as Robert McCammon did in Gone South, or Gary Shteyngart in his work Absurdistan a book that was heavily influenced by the monumentally influential book A Confederacy of Dunces John Kennedy O’Toole.

As for horror, there have been few, this side of King, that have been able to capture common man, suspenseful horror as adeptly as Scott Smith did in A Simple Plan and Ruins.  Smith’s ability to build to horror in a casually sequential manner is almost unprecedented.  The only problem with Smith is that he has only written two books in twenty years, and while there is nothing wrong with the man’s quality, his fans would love a little more quantity.  Although Thomas M. Disch’s M.D. was not the greatest horror book ever written, and it ebbed and flowed more than the other books on this list, the work provided moments that have influenced this writer as much as any of the pieces described previously.  Some of the imagery Thomas Harris created in the Red Dragon book, and in Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (not a horror but just as laden with images), have led many writers to pound the table in frustration with their attempts to duplicate their provocative imagery.  For various reasons, and in various ways, all of these authors had a huge influence on this writer’s attempt to get to point D.

3) Mood. Nothing influences mood better than music.  Listening to music gives the writer a certain setting from which “different” fiction can be achieved.  If a writer wants to write a period piece, for example, they can select the music from that era, and attempt to achieve that mindset.  This is similar to the attempts that the main character in Richard Matheson’s Somewhere in Time to achieve time travel.  In this story, the main character wanted to go back to the year 1912 so badly that he attempted to hypnotize himself into the belief that he was.  He surrounded himself with 1912 in his hotel room, and he wore 1912 clothes, listened to 1912 songs, and ended up believing he was in 1912.  Music affects me in the same manner.  I prefer non-traditional, non-linear music to shake my brain out of the patterns it might fall into in long settings, until I can convince myself that I am non-traditional and non-linear.  I, of course, do not make the conscious efforts to do this in the manner Matheson’s character did, but through repetitive listening of certain music, I have been able to achieve something “different” on a number of occasions.

I listen to a wide variety of music when I write, always switching to keep it fresh, but some of my favorites are Mike Patton, John Zorn, and Trey Spruance’s Secret Chiefs.  These musicians (not rock stars) create an aura I find conducive to writing edgy, “different” material.  These artists, like so many of the authors described above, created something that that seemed impossible before they did it.  They are truly skilled in making the listener feel different, and that anything can be accomplished in a certain setting.  Miles Davis creates an aura that allows you to focus at times, but his music can be a little too aural at times, and David Bowie’s music can be a little too focused, and this causes me to be distracted when I listen to what his music is doing.  The band Pavement can create some chaos in your mind and shake you out of your doldrums, but they, too, can be a little too focused at times for that atmosphere writers need to create.

Everyone’s mom told them that distraction-free silence was conducive to concentration.  Yet, every mind works differently, and I have found —much too late for success in school— that I need distraction to achieve focus.  It may not make sense to those blessed with normal brains, but I need a Goldilocks amount of distraction —not too hard and not to soft, and not too aural and not too structured— for me to concentrate and focus.

2) Movies.  Most of the best storytelling being done today, we have to face it, is being done in the movies.  If a Quentin Tarantino were born in the late nineteenth century, he probably would’ve been a novel writer.  He, like all great movie makers of this era, has the storyteller’s bug, but he doesn’t have the patience to sit behind a typewriter/keyboard and compose prose that can take months and years to produce.  These storytellers of our era are taking advantage of the technology offered them and telling their stories on screen.  One thing movie makers can teach aspiring writers, that reading the Russian authors won’t, is to get to the point.  Their audience, our audience, and the audience doesn’t have as much patience for brilliant prose as previous generations.  We have a short attention span, and with a few exceptions (David Lynch, Wes Anderson, and Tarantino of late) most movie makers whittle their scripts down to the germane.

1) My writing.  Most readers would consider it egotistical to list “my writing” as the greatest influence on my writing, but that is not the intent.  It is only added, because I hold my best writing out as beacons in my career that I want to smash the next time I write something new.  It is important that every writer examine what they’ve written on a consistent enough basis that they always try to write better, and different, stories every time they sit behind their keyboard.

{1}http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Hemingway

{2}http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chuck_Palahniuk

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How to Succeed in Writing III: Are you Intelligent Enough to Write a Novel?


I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of (poor fiction),” –Hemingway confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. “I try to put the (poor fiction) in the wastebasket.”

The key to writing great fiction is streamlining your story. Cut the fat! Some of the greatest authors of all time have admitted that the best additions they made to their novel were the parts they deleted. Somewhere along the line, in their writing career, they achieved objectivity. Somewhere along the line, they arrived at the idea that not all of their words were golden. Somewhere along the line, they realized that some of their words, sentences, paragraphs, and even some of their chapters were quite simply self-indulgent, wastebasket material. These self-indulgent portions, or the “ninety-one pages of (poor fiction),” of any novel are usually found in the asides.

But asides are what we enjoy in a novel you say. Asides can provide setting, pace, and drama. Asides can also build suspense and fortify the characteristics of a character, but they can also kill your novel. Most asides are unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. As anyone who has read a novel can attest, most novels could be written in forty pages, but that’s a short story, and short stories don’t sell as well as novels. They don’t sell as well, because readers want involvement. Readers don’t usually want snapshot stories. They want a world. They not only want to know the humans that they are reading about, they want to be involved with them. They want to see them breathe, they want to hear them talk to an employee at a Kwik Shop, and they want to feel the steps these characters take from place to place. They want to know these people, so when something happens to them, they can care about them.  They want to know the minutiae of the human they’re reading about, but they don’t want to get so caught up in the minutiae that they’re taken off pace, and they don’t want to read a self-absorbed writer that thinks it’s all about them.  Cut the fat!  Get to the point already!

“I’ve met a number of intelligent people throughout my life, and I’ve met a number of people I consider brilliant. I’ve met very few that were able to combine the two.” –Unknown.

This desire to be perceived as intelligent is a strong, driving force in all of us. How many stupid and overly analytical things do we say in one day to try to get one person to think that we’re not a total idiot? This desire to prove intelligence is right up there with the drive to be perceived as beautiful and likeable. It’s right up there with the desire to be seen as strong, athletic, independent, and mechanically inclined. We spend our whole lives trying to impress people. Even those that say that they don’t care what others think are trying to impress us with the fact that they don’t care.

In my first era of writing, I wrote a lot of these self-indulgent asides that contributed little to the story. I was a new student to the world of politics, and I was anxious to prove to the world that I was one smart cookie. I also wanted to show that half of the world that disagreed with my politics how wrong they were. So, I put my main character through an incident, and they came out of it enlightened by a political philosophy that agreed with mine. In various other pieces, I wanted to inform the world of all of this great underground music I was experiencing. My thought process at the time was: “Hey, if Stephen King can get away with telling us about tired rockers that we’ve all heard a thousand times. Why can’t I tell a few readers about a group they’ve never heard before?” Copy the masters right?  I wanted the world to know both sides of my brain in the same artistic piece. After taking a step back, and rereading these novels, I achieved enough objectivity to realize that it was all a big ball of mess.

If I was going to clean this mess up and start writing decent stories, I was going to have to divide my desires up.  I was going to have to cut the fat.  I was going to have to discipline myself to the creed that should be recited nightly by all aspiring storytellers: Story is sacred. I was going to have to learn to channel my desire to be perceived as smart into political and philosophical blogs. I was going to have to channel my desires to have people listen to my “discovered” music into Amazon.com reviews, and my stories, my novels, and my short stories would be left pure, untarnished stories with no agendas.  By dividing these desires up, I would be able to proselytize on the role of the Puggle in our society today, and the absolute beauty of Mr. Bungle’s music, without damaging my stories or boring the readers of my stories. I learned the principle the esteemed rock band Offspring tried to teach the world when they sang: “You gotta keep ‘em separated.”

There’s one writer, he-who-must-not-be-named, that never learned this principle. This author presumably got tired of being seen as just a storyteller. This author knew he was intelligent, and all of his friends and family knew he was intelligent, but the world didn’t know. The world only knew that he was a gifted storyteller, and they proved this by purchasing his books by the millions, but they didn’t know that he was so much more. This author achieved as much in the industry, if not more, as any other writer alive or dead (It’s Not King!), but he remained unsatisfied with that status. He needed the world to know that he wasn’t just a master of fiction. He needed the world to know he was as intelligent as he was brilliant, and he wrote the book that he hoped would prove it. It resulted in him ticking off 50% of his audience. 50% of his audience disagreed with him, and his politics, and they (we!) vowed to never read another one of his novels again. This is the risk you run when you seek to be perceived as intelligent and brilliant in the same work.

thomas-mannBut politics makes for such great filler, and to quote the great Thomas Mann: “Everything is political.” Well, there’s politics, and then there’s politics. If you’re one of those that doesn’t know the difference, and you don’t think your politics is politics, you should probably be writing something political. If you’re one of those who wants to write politics into your novel simply because it makes for such great filler, however, then you should try to avoid the self-indulgent conceit that ticks off that half of the population that disagrees with your politics. You’ll anger some with this, you’ll bore others, and the rest of us won’t care that you think it’s vital that your main character expresses something in some way that validates your way of thinking. We will just think it’s boring proselytizing from an insecure writer who needs validation from their peers. Stick to the story, we will scream, as we skip those passages or put your book down to never read anything you’ve ever written again.

You will need to be somewhat intelligent though. You’ll need enough to know your punctuation and grammar rules, you will need to know when and where to make paragraph breaks, and you will need to know how to edit your story for pace, but these aspects of storytelling can be learned.

“I am not adept at using punctuation and/or grammar in general…” A caller to a radio show once informed author Clive Barker. She said that she enjoyed writing, but it was the mechanics of writing that prevented her from delving into it whole hog. “Are you a clever story teller?” Clive asked her. “Do you enjoy telling stories, and do you entertain your friends with your tales?” The woman said yes to all of the above. “Well, you can learn the mechanics, and I encourage you to do so, but you cannot learn the art of storytelling. This ability to tell a story is, largely, a gift. Either you have it or you don’t.”

Be brilliant first, in other words, and if you can achieve brilliance, you can learn the rest. You can gain the intelligence necessary to get a thumbs up from a publisher, an agent, and eventually a reader, but you cannot learn brilliance. You cannot gain artistic creativity, and it’s hard enough to prove artistic brilliance. Why would you want to further burden yourself by going overboard in trying to also prove intelligence, and thus be everything to all people?

Let the people see how brilliant you are first! Gain a following. Once you have achieved that pied piper Wildeplateau, you can then attempt to display your intelligence. The preferred method of achieving all of your goals is to ‘keep ‘em separated’, but there are always going to be some who need to prove their intelligence and brilliance in the same Great American Novel. Those people are going to say Stephen King is a much better example to follow to the best-seller list than I am, and he achieved his plateau with a little bit of this and a little bit of that sprinkled in his prose. The question you have to ask yourself is, is he the rule or the exception to the rule? If Stephen King’s model is your preferred model, and these political and music parts are so germane, so golden, and so uniquely special to your story, keep them in.  As Oscar Wilde says, “You might as well be yourself, everyone else is taken.”

How to Succeed in Writing Part II: The Search for the Great Story


Being Entertaining is More Important Than Being Honest

Do you have a great story to tell? Is it good? Is it great? Do your friends find your stories mildly amusing, somewhat clever, a little sad, and really good in parts, or do they find them great? Most aspiring writers don’t write great stories right out of the gate, and aspiring writers are a dime a dozen. Great stories litter our libraries and bookstores. Do you have a great story to tell? Most people do. There’s nothing special about you, or your “great American” story, not yet.

“I hear you want to be a writer,” a friend of mine said. “One thing about young writers (which I was at the time) is that they have not accumulated interesting stories. I don’t mean to be insulting, but at your age you just haven’t lived enough life to have interesting stories.” After a back and forth in which he asked me to tell him one of my stories, he offered me his own. His story was “part John Grisham and part Ludlum”. The story was not as great as he thought, but the two points he made about material stuck with me.  

The first was his point that the continental divide between great writers and great storytellers is entertaining material. A writer can craft a fine tale, but if it’s not entertaining, it may not make it past the sites that adore a great story. The second point he made, perhaps incidentally, was that there’s nothing wrong with embellishing, if it makes the story better.

But you are a great writer with excellent material. Your Aunt Clara told you so. You have a gift for storytelling that crushes those around you. You get reactions and laughter that others don’t and amazement is directed at your storytelling aptitude. The only problem is you may have enough material to entertain your Aunt Clara, because she knows you and she knows the characters in your life, but you don’t have the type of material that will entertain a wider audience. That’s a problem, but it’s a problem that has haunted storytellers all across the spectrum from the aspiring storyteller to the legend.

It is a fact of life though that some of us are just better at telling stories than others. It’s a fact of life similar to the fact that some people have natural gifts that lead them to be better at basketball and football than others. Some would say that the ability to tell a story is a gift, but I’m more inclined to believe that some people just enjoy it more, and when one enjoys something more, they work harder at it. The fascinated storyteller studies it, finesses it, and learns from those around them who do it better. Even in its most primitive form, such as the sharing of memories with friends and relatives, some of us learn how to tell a story better than others, because we want to tell a story better. We mimic those that tell stories better than us, and we correct the mistakes we see in others’ attempts.

One thing I learned, through the course of my life, was to trim the fat. I used to believe that my audience needed all of the details to appreciate a story. I then learned that all of those details harmed the most crucial element of storytelling, pace. Pace is crucial for we must treat our audience as if they have a five-year-old’s attention span. Storytellers then learn, through trial and error, that if we focus on pace too much, we leave crucial nuggets out. Achieving the hybrid involved a never-ending learning process.

Before entering into these stories we tell our relatives and friends, however, we must make time for the obligatory kid and pet stories. It never ceases to amaze me that when a room full of highly-evolved, well-educated adults gather they spend so much time obsessing over pets and children. When we’re done obsessing over our kids and pets, we share memories. It’s in these moments that a true storyteller is separated from those who struggle with  details, timing, the proper emphasis, and the number of syllables to use to  punctuate a punch line. It’s in these moments that we learn the art of presentation.

Lan 1283On the art of presentation, comedian Steve Martin once compared comedy to  music: “There is a harmony to comedy,” he said, “in that three beats are always funnier than two and four beats is a bit too much.” Only someone that gets off on telling stories, and trying to make people laugh, would focus on the minutiae of presentation so much that he focuses on beats. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve changed a word, a phrase, or a paragraph to get the rhythm right, or the beat down. I can’t tell you how often I’ve changed an infinitive in a sentence because the alternative just didn’t feel right to the harmony of a paragraph. It’s that attention to detail, that Martin alluded to, that makes storytelling an art form we all enjoy so much.

Once we gain a feel for presentation, and all of the related and inter-related minutiae, the next question is how do we come up with that material that reaches that wider audience and eventually lands you on the best-seller list? Having never achieved the best-seller list, I must admit I have only one super secret, decoder ring answer to all that: hard work. Unless you find a genie in a bottle, or steal an idea from someone else, I can think of no better way to give birth to an idea than through writing a ton of material.

Creative Writing teachers say, “write what you know”, and that is an essential activity in getting us to point A. How many of us have written those “What I did on my summer vacation” stories for our English Composition teachers? How many of those of us who wanted to write the next Crime and Punishment considered these exercises pointless? “Get me to the meat!” we mentally scream. I want it all, and I want it now! Those exercises weren’t entirely pointless, however, they got us thinking, writing, and spring boarding to that something something we considered magic.

That springboard launched those of us that wanted it to take that pointless exercise to the idea that we could write something fantastic … if we honed that artistic muscle in our brain. If we wanted that something fantastic, we learned that the best way to springboard to it was to read some of the masters that sprang from their own springboards. If we wanted it bad enough, we learned that the best way to achieve it was to launch ourselves into more writing and reading, and even more writing and more reading, until we eventually and accidentally landed upon an idea. Some of us took that little springboard to greater heights and more material, and others considered it a pointless exercise required by a teacher who knew as much about achieving the best-seller list that we did.

This leads us to one of the most vital questions all fiction writers must ask themselves: “Will anyone care what I write?” The immediate answer to this question is no. Unless you’re already famous, people won’t care what you think, what happened in your daily life, or if you have a propensity for catching colds that your mom says is epic in proportions.

BullFrom  Ron Shelton’s script for Bull Durham:

“Your  shower shoes have fungus on them. You’ll never make it to the bigs (major  leagues in baseball) with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you’ll be classy. Win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press’ll think you’re colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it only means you are a slob.”

Until you get famous, and those who care about celebrities care about you, you’ll be a slob, until then you’ll need to write something that someone cares about. Nobody cares that your friend has a propensity for lying, for example, unless that characteristic can be added to one of your characters to make them more colorful. Nobody cares that your aunt is ultra-sensitive, even though everything she has in life has been given to her on a silver platter, unless you can infuse that characteristic into a character in a manner that is entertaining to a greater audience. Nobody cares, unless you can translate these characteristics in such a manner that reminds us of our lying friend, or our hyper-sensitive  aunt. Or, if you can’t make this crossover, then you must make that character so damned entertaining that we won’t care when we can’t relate.

SOLZHENITSYN“The key to convincing another person of your point of view,” Philosopher Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said. “Is to make them believe that they arrived at that answer themselves.”

Convincing someone that they’ve reached your point before you do, is called manipulation in the writer’s lexicon. When most people see the word manipulation, they think evil. They think of a totalitarian leader manipulating their citizens to think a certain way, but a writer can use their powers of manipulation for good, if they do it right.

How many of us have laughed at a funny book, cried during a dramatic one, or were scared by a horrific story? When a reader experiences emotions, after reading a series of words on a page, they were manipulated by the author. If a reader prefers to think of it in other terms, that is their option, but the vein remains the same. The reader was made to care about the central character in ways they considered endemic to the reader, when in all actuality it was the author’s skill to be universal that led them to that point. The author carefully crafted a visual portrait picture that trapped the reader into caring.

It’s the job of the writer to manipulate the reader into believing that they care. It’s the writer’s job to create an environment through which a reader is willing to suspend disbelief.

“If a writer can infuse a human interest and a semblance of truth into a fantastic tale,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested. “The reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative.”

In other words, an author could be the oddest, smartest, most sensitive storyteller that their friends have ever seen, but the reader don’t know them, and the reader won’t care about the author, or their wacky takes on life, until the reader can relate to the wacky world the author is in charge of creating.

This leads us to the next question: What kind of liar are you? When you were younger did your relatives and friends constantly accuse you of fudging the truth? If that’s the case, you may be a writer. Did they question everything you said, based upon your history of exaggeration and fabrication? If they did, you may be a writer. Were you so good at lying that they were willing to suspend disbelief for a moment, because some part of them wanted to believe your story? If that happened to you, you may be a writer. If you’re a born liar that needs some venue for channeling that inclination to exaggerate your truth to entertain those around you, welcome to the world of words. You can let your freak flag fly here, and we’ll welcome you with open arms. You can be crafty in our world. You can lie, embellish, and exaggerate to entertain. In the world of storytelling, story is sacred, as is the art of being true, even if the writer is being truer than true.

“The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true.” –Ernest Hemingway on symbolism.

“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.” 

When writing nonfiction, we hover over a fault line of true versus truer than true, and we should always side with true. For in most cases, nonfiction is far more entertaining than fiction. It’s a feel that the author shares with the reader, a seam that will tear with wild exaggeration. We need to be careful, in other words, to avoid some exaggerations we find entertaining, because the definition is entertainment is subjective. This is where the manipulative skill of the writer comes into play, for if the author can help the reader define subjectivity, they can both enjoy some exaggerations that prove truer than true for the purpose of entertainment.      

It takes a very steady hand, but those who have written as many stories as I have know what I’m talking about. The art of being true, without necessarily telling the truth, can be found in the art of creating creative non-fiction. If the author is true to the character, the pace, the layout, etc., a fudging of the details will be forgiven if, and I want that word italicized and emboldened, if the story is entertaining.

Being entertaining is far more important than being honest in our world. An author might have interesting stories that have occurred in their life, and they may be worth telling, but they may not be great without some lies, exaggeration, and embellishment. And we won’t care about any of that as long as the author doesn’t swear all the details are 100% true, because we want a great story, and we want to be entertained.

This search for the great and entertaining story has even plagued the masters. The young Ernest Hemingway couldn’t come up with a decent story for his first novel, so he decided to document his life in Paris, in his first novel The Sun Also Rises. How much of that book was actually based on fact is difficult to know. Was he merely documenting what took place, or was he engaged in creative non-fiction. Whatever the case was, he used it as a springboard for a career that many would say contained some of our finest novels. Hemingway would eventually reach a point where he could no longer come up with great stories, and some have suggested that this search was one of the contributing factors in his decision to take his own life. Before this tragic event occurred though, Hemingway said: “Everyone has one great story in them.  The trick is to have two.” An aspiring author can find that one great story that they have in them, but it’s going to take a lot of writing, and a lot of reading to eventually and accidentally make it happen.

How to Succeed in Writing part I: Answering Leonardo Da Vinci’s Questions


I would love to tell you that you have a lot to learn from me if you want to be a successful writer in one regard: I’ve never quit.  I would love to tell you that my passion for all forms of writing has overwhelmed all of the potholes I’ve run across in the road, and that I’ve always stood strong in the face of those negatives in order that I would one day become a successful writer.

Robert Hayes sweating in AirplaneI would love to have you picture me in a Gatorade commercial that depicts me writing with colored beads of sweat pouring down my face as a voiceover says: “Rilaly says never say die!”  I look to the camera at that point.  I look mean, I look mad, and I look driven. “Quit?  The word is not even in my vocabulary!” I would say with a look of disgust for you for even asking a question you haven’t asked, “I haven’t even quit smoking!”  I would love to present that image to you, but it’s not true.  I have quit.  I’ve quit more times than I care to discuss.

I’ve grown tired of writing fiction, and I’ve felt more dejected trying to succeed in this field than I have in any other areas of my life, including my dating life.  I’ve gone through bouts of insecurity that double those I’ve endured in any other areas of my life, and I’ve worked in numerous fast-paced, hyper-critical jobs.  If you ever met me, you would know that I’m a relatively confident guy, and I love my life.  Writing novels, short fiction, creative non-fiction, political blogs, and little entertaining, philosophical vignettes has made me happier, more miserable, more disgusted, more vulnerable to the smallest criticism, and more proud of myself than anything else I’ve tried in my life thus far.

If that’s the case you say, then why should I try it?  Why do I need the headache or heartache?  Why would I even entertain the idea of writing a novel?  How do I know if I’m good enough to even start?    I’ve never done anything like this before.  The very prospect of starting down such a road is a little scary to me.  Scary, you say, and a little exciting at the same time.

writing is hardWriting a novel is hard, don’t let anyone kid you.  I’ve written four novels, and three short story collections, and just about every one of them has been difficult to complete.  Very few of them have flowed so well that I thought I made it look easy.  George Kennedy star of Naked Gun, Cool Hand Luke, and over 200 films and television productions, wrote one book in 1983.  After writing this novel, called “Murder on Location”, Kennedy said it was the hardest thing he ever did.  “I do not envy those people who do it for a living,” he said.  “It’s the most trying thing I’ve ever done.”

Just because it’s hard, and just because it may be one of the most trying accomplishments you’ve ever attempted, does not mean it can’t be done.  The rewards for completion are satisfying, enriching, and in many ways therapeutic.  With that said, only you can know if this is the field for you.  Only you!  Only you can answer the mandatory questions that need to be asked in a manner that lets you know that you are a writer.

Leonardo da Vinci had a belief that the only method through which one could answer a question is by asking questions.  That may seem so obvious it’s laughable, but he asked himself hundreds of little questions on every project he pursued.  His goal was objectivity.  He wanted to look at every project from every angle he could imagine to see if he could enhance his view of the project or find it pointless to pursue.  Some of these questions were harsh, some were leading, and others seemed to have no pertinence at all, until he asked them and tried to answer them.  You cannot worry about hurting your feelings when you ask yourself these questions.  You cannot worry if these questions change your opinion of yourself one hundred and eighty degrees.  The questions must be asked.

Most of us ask ourselves questions all the time, but how probing are these questions?  Most of these questions reveal that we have little objectivity about ourselves.  Most of the questions we ask ourselves are leading questions.  Most of us ask ourselves the questions we enjoy answering.  “Do I really need to eat another piece of pie?”  Why, yes I do.  I need those endorphins racing around in my brain like they did on the first slice.  That was nirvana!  “I deserve a second slice.  I’ve been good!”  Then we eat that piece and realize it wasn’t nearly as rewarding as we thought it would be.  Then we pay the price in sluggishness from the sugar lows, in weight gain and its subsequent effect on our appearance, and we’re a little frustrated that we didn’t display more will power.  We know now that we obviously didn’t ask ourselves the right questions.

In the coming weeks, we will be asking you the questions about yourself that you may not want to ask about becoming a writer.  These questions may be a little harsh.  We may ask you to ask yourself some questions you don’t want to answer.  If you really want to become a writer, however, you will need to ask them.