The Most Beautifully Awful Writing Advice Ever

Recently I was introduced to a gorgeous poem by the late Charles Bukowski called “so you want to be a writer?”

Here’s a small exert:

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
typewriter
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
fame,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.

You can read the poem in it’s entirety here of you could listen to a reading of it here.

It’s beautiful, right? Inspiring, powerful—something you would want to make a wall decal out of to impress your friends at dinner parties.

It’s also very, very, very, very, very, very wrong.

In fact, it’s difficult to recall anything that I’ve read that has been so astronomically wrong about writing.

Don’t misunderstand me, when he’s talking about writing for fame and fortune and sex he’s totally on the mark. Precious few writers reach the level of world-wide recognition and if you only want to write for accolades then you clearly don’t have what it takes to succeed in this craft. However, he also says–

“if you have to sit there and rewrite it again and again/don’t do it”

and

“if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it/don’t do it.

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Uhhhh….I don’t know a single solitary person, good writer or bad, who does not struggle with sitting down and writing.

I also do not know a single solitary person who has never had to suffer through a rewrite.

You know, because first drafts are dumpster fires of confusion and poor grammar.

For those of you who are fans of Charles Bukowski , did he not rewrite any of his poetry? My education on the man is lacking so that’s entirely possible. Nevertheless, if it’s true that he didn’t then he is an anomaly.

His poem goes on to say that a person should wait until the fires of passion are so hot  they have no choice but to let them out before writing something.

“if you have to wait for it to roar out of you, then wait patiently/ if it never does roar out of you, do something else.”

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I have had moments where the desire to write something was so powerful that I felt like the story was literally trying to push its way out of me, but I’ll be the first to admit that these moments are few and far between.

If you wait until you feel as if you physically have no choice but to write something, odds are you will never finish anything.

The Inspiration Fairy is a very fickle creature and will oftentimes screw off at random, leaving you with no will to go on.

My favorite quote about inspiration goes as follows “I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

Courting inspiration is a lot like trying to find a significant other. You can’t just sit around and wait for someone to notice you.

I have found that the best way to attract inspiration is to have a set amount of time each day to write. Believe it or not, the more you write the more inspiration is likely to show up. There have been months where I have struggled to produce anything; however, once I made the decision to write for at least an hour every day, writing started to become less of a drag.

I found myself feeling more and more motivated and my writing began to suck a little bit less.

Better yet I actually started to finish things I started.

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Did that mean I never struggle? Hell no. I’m struggling right now, to be honest. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it.

Same goes for you.

Struggling isn’t a sign you should quit, it’s simply a byproduct of trying.

And if you aren’t interested in trying then, and only then, would I say–

Don’t do it.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Blog

I’m not going to lie.

I had many, many illusions about blogging when I started The Crooked Pen.

I thought that, with enough vigor and talent I would be able to flock hundreds of thousands of people to this site. I had seen other blogs similar to this one and I thought I had them all beat. Surely, if this unoriginal tripe can get over one hundred likes, my posts, which are much more original, can receive the same amount of popularity as well….

That did not happen.

Ever.

That isn’t to say I haven’t made progress in both my writing style and my following. Nevertheless, it has never (and likely will never) garnered the sort of popularity I had hoped it would have.

This blog was created for two reasons: 1. So that I could go on lengthy diatribes about things the laymen doesn’t care about (fiction, writing, the literary merits of popular TV shows etc. And 2. So that I could create a platform to launch my writing career.

When it comes to the former, I have been more that successful. When it comes to the latter however….

I tried.

I didn’t exactly make a schedule, but I put it in my mind that I would attempt to make at least one blog post a week. When this didn’t attract as many people as I had hoped, I begun reading other people’s blogs and following them. I commented, liked, followed, engaged as much as I possibly could and still make time for my own personal writings. I did notice an increase…but, again, not as much as I hoped.

I decided to take a bit of a break.

I focused more on my actual writing and found that I was enjoying myself much more. When I wasn’t making a competition of it, constantly comparing myself to other writers, I  enjoyed it…quite a lot, actually.

When everything was just for the love of it and it wasn’t about how many likes or comments I would receive, I found that I felt much freer and my body of work increased in quality.

I’ve since returned to the blogging world (albeit at a less frequent rate) and I’v decided that, rather than worrying about how many like or comments I have, I’m going to focus on writing what I want to write even if it’s not popular. I enjoy putting my words out there, even if only a tiny portion of people read them.

I appreciate you guys!

How Drake and Josh Are Destroying My Novel

I never thought procrastination would be so simple, but I found a way.

I found a way.

I set out  working on chapter seven of my story and somehow found myself plunging into the ether of pop culture sludge.

For literally no reason at all, I began looking into the Drake and Josh controversy.

In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, Drake Bell found out Josh Peck was getting married via social media instead of through the man himself. Outraged that he wasn’t contacted about it, Drake immediately lapsed into insanity and began berating Josh through Twitter instead of….you know…actually talking to the guy.

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Naturally, the internet led the charge against Josh, decrying him for committing such a treacherous act against his on-screen brother and real life bff. How dare he not invite his “brotha” to such a momentous occasion? Didn’t he realize we’re all watching him?

Memes were created as effigies against the traitor. His Facebook and Twitter feed were bombarded with hateful comments.

Good news: it appears they have since made up as evidenced by a recently posted vlog by Josh Peck.

Bad news: I apparently care about this sh*t.

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I loved Drake and Josh as a kid, but they are real people with real lives that are none of my business. Why did I take it upon myself to do research on this subject? Why do I care so much about people I will never meet and (in spite of giving me a few hours worth of laughs) really didn’t contribute that much to my life?

It’s amazing the mental gymnastics I will do just to avoid a rough writing session. That’s really what it comes down to: Not wanting to write a difficult chapter

And my mind will do anything–question anything—if it gets me off the hook.

I don’t even want to talk about all the WatchMojo videos I’ve watched in an attempt to drain my evening of writing time.

Oh crap, I just spent three hours watching clips from Carrie and analyzing how Sissy Spacek’s portrayal of the main character was much better than the one from the 2013 movie. 

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Look at those dead eyes! 

Oh well. Guess I don’t have time to write now. 

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Then I lie awake it bed, feeling hopelessly guilty that I thwarted what few hours I have on this earth watching crappy five minutes videos, caught in my own web of self-defeatism, when I could be contributing to the ever-growing nest of culture that is the arts and humanities.

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It doesn’t matter how many cups of coffee I throw back or how much atmospheric music I play, even Enya can’t save me from my bad habits so pervasive in my mind that they have decided to colonize as many lobes as possible.

All I can hope for is that, eventually, I will strike the right cord. The chapter I am currently working on I have rewritten about sixteen times. No hyperbole.

However, I’ve decided (for the fourth week in a row) that this will be my weekend. This will be the week that I finish that damn chapter. This time I won’t be distracted by WatchMojo or watch the Stephen King It trailer for the twentieth time even though I despise remakes and, after closer examination, have almost no desire to see it.

I suppose there is nothing for it.

All I can do is look my story dead in the eye and say…

Eh…maybe next week.

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I’m Still Alive and Also Writing Things, or Going on a Writing Bender

It’s been an inexcusably long time since I update this blog, I know.

I try to update at least once a week, but this obviously hasn’t been happening recently. I have a good reason for this, however……

Okay, not a good reason, but it is a reason nonetheless.

You see, I’ve actually been writing recently. Like properly writing. Every day. Ever. Single. Day.

You know, that thing I’m supposed to do but blog about instead. And, to be frank, I’ve been more concerned with this project than I have updating. I’m starting a new chapter in my life and I think this is the start of more serious writing.

I can’t tell you how awesome this has been. I feel like I’ve been training for a triathlon for months and made first place.

This could potentially mean I update every other week rather than every single week. However, I don’t plan on abandoning this blog any time soon. I’ve put too much work into it so far.

I will see you guys later!

*plays theme music*

My time has come.

Ode to the Worst Poet in the World

Over the years, I’ve been forced to read many a poem, and, while I can appreciate the effort it takes to compose one, I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the art form.

However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a favorite poet.

During my trip to Scotland last year, I came across a plaque dedicated to the supposed worst poet in the world, William Topaz McGonagall. Prior to my visit, I’d never heard of this man and so decided to conduct a more thorough investigation of him once I returned to the states.

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The person from whom Professor McGonagall gets her name. Fanficton prompt: McGonagall tries to write poetry in her off-hours, but HP’s shenanigans keep getting in the way.

McGonagall was a weaver whom, at the age of 52, was suddenly struck by the idea that he should quit his job and make poetry his life’s vocation.

He was very prolific and composed around 215 poems over the course of several years, all of which covered a wide range of topics from the military, to famous people, to current events.

Apparently his poetry was so awful that it was a common practice for the city folk to throw rotten vegetables at him and jeer during his recitals.

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Example of his work:

Welcome! thrice welcome! to the year 1893,
For it is the year I intend to leave Dundee,
Owing to the treatment I receive,
Which does my heart sadly grieve.
Every morning when I go out
The ignorant rabble they do shout
‘There goes Mad McGonagall’
In derisive shouts as loud as they can bawl,
And lifts stones and snowballs, throws them at me;
And such actions are shameful to be heard in the city of Dundee.
And I’m ashamed, kind Christians, to confess
That from the Magistrates I can get no redress.
Therefore I have made up my mind in the year of 1893
To leave the ancient City of Dundee,
Because the citizens and me cannot agree.
The reason why? — because they disrespect me,
Which makes me feel rather discontent.
Therefore to leave them I am bent;
And I will make my arrangements without delay,
And leave Dundee some early day.

McGonagall was so convinced that he was a misunderstood genius that he walked 50 miles to gain the patronage of Queen Victoria, only to be told when he arrived to leave and never come back.

Knowing all of this, I think it’s difficult not to love the guy. Not only did he quit his job to do what he loved at a time when this most assuredly meant starvation, he would not let anyone convince him he shouldn’t write.

Was he an egotist? Oh yeah. In fact he seemed to be so oblivious to how bad of a writer he was that some historians are convinced it was all an act. Me, I’m not so sure.

McGonagall may have died a virtually penniless laughingstock, but there’s a bit of poetic irony to this story.

In spite of all the backlash his poetry received, every single one of McGonagall’s poems has been published. More to the point, his name and his legacy have endured centuries while other more talented poets have died forgotten.

As much as the cliché of following your dreams gets thrown around, it seems to have benefitted McGonagall. He didn’t let anyone persuade him to retire his quill and as a result he has earned himself a place in history.

It’s at the back of the bus with no air conditioning and a five year-old continuously kicking the headrest, but it’s a place nonetheless.

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If someone like McGonagall can make his dreams come true, than by God so can we.

Editing is the Worst Thing Ever

Is there anything quite as beautiful as writing the first draft of a story?

Every moment is primed with intrigue, wonder, and mystery.

You just paint everything on the metaphorical canvass as you see it in your mind’s eye. Ideas pour forth from you like a soda fountain filled with Mentos

You pat yourself on the back for every clever line, every twist and turn, every unique character.

Then, once the dust has settled, you must look back on your writing….

And realize that literally everything is horrible.

There are plot-holes everywhere, nobody’s motivation makes sense, the action is either too slow or too fast, the plot is too predictable or disjointed. The list goes on and on.

The worst part is realizing you’re actually going to have to fix this crap.

All it takes for your hard work to be torn asunder is the word “why.”

Why didn’t they just do this? Why didn’t they do that? Why didn’t he ask her this? Why didn’t she stay at home instead?

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You will have to answer these questions and many, many more 😀

Not only that, but you may have to remove some of your favorite sequences in order for the new continuity to make sense. That means hacking away at that razor sharp dialogue and those gorgeous descriptions, leading you to meander down a road rife with uncertainty.

Well…you could ask someone to be your beta reader and get their opinion, but then they may question your literary genius.

You can’t have that.

But really there’s nothing for it.

It’s just another stumbling block on the road to success, or, as is often the case with writing, another mine in a minefield of never-ending despair and disappointment.

Perhaps in between drafts you should take a break. Let it sit for a while and then come back to it when it’s had time to cool. Then you can turn your keen eye to the festering pile of dung that is your first draft with a clear perspective and can dispose of it accordingly.

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Regardless, I think this may be one of the hardest parts of writing. Besides… everything else.

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Strange Writing Prompts For Your Boring Monday

Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I’m finding myself consistently disappointed by writing prompts I find on the internet.

I understand that the main point of these niblets are to get our minds jogging and not to help us produce a 1,000 page Pulitzer Prize winning work of art. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel like they aren’t trying hard enough.

For instance, one of them might be like “you are home alone and desperately want a pb&j sandwich. However, you open the cupboard to find that your damn roommate ate all the peanut butter without telling you.”

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Or it will be something cliché like “you’re out walking alone when you spy an abandoned house.”

In light of this lack of imagination, I’ve decided to come up with my own horrible writing prompts for you to enjoy:

1. Scientists have discovered that unicorns are real and wish to integrate into horse society. However, the horses are afraid the unicorns will steal their jobs and form a union to prevent farmers from hiring them. 

2. An owl and a mouse fall in love, defying the social conventions of their people. Then, one night, the owl gets hungry. 

3. Siri develops a mind of her own and is totally cool with coexisting with the human race, provided a virgin software designer is sacrificed to her every full moon. 

4. A giant tarantula, King Tyrenious of Taranchia, First of His Name, appears in your bathtub and offers you his hand in marriage. However, after a misunderstanding with a bottle of conditioner, he declared war on your clothes hamper. 

5. 10,000 years in the future, humanity is divided into two factions: those who believe Die Hard is the best Christmas movie of all time and those who are wrong. 

6. Atlas shrugs and accidentally sends the world careening towards the sun. Onlookers languish over which Instagram filter they should use to capture this moment. 

7.  The demon who has been secretly living in your attic for 20 years writes you a message in tea leaves and blood, explaining that your relationship is not working out anymore. 

8. A door-to-door salesman angers a witch and is transformed into a public toilet at Grand Central Station. 

9You have just begun working as a public relations specialist for Journey Funeral Homes and must write a PR piece about how their slogan “Don’t stop bereaving” is not horribly offensive.  

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How to Mary Sue Proof Your Characters

Last week I wrote a post about Mary Sues and why people write them. Today, I want to give you some unsolicited pointers on how to avoid writing a Mary Sue, or even a Gary Stu (the male equivalent).

Enjoy!

Start with a real person. While it may not be a good idea to base a character’s entire identity around one person, it can be a helpful place to begin. If you’re like me you have had at least some exposure to interesting people. Think about what makes them so compelling. Is it their sense of humor? Do they have a hair-trigger temper? Think of a person you know who might fit well within the universe you have created. Then take interesting elements from other people’s lives and add them to the mix. Voila! You have a person.

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Consider the small things. This is the part where you need to start studying people. Just about everyone has body language that is unique to them. What do your friends do when they’re frustrated? Do they puff out their cheeks like a chipmunk and blow out air? Do they drum their fingers on the table? Do they pace? Do they play with their hair? Including these tiny details can really bring your character to life.

Nix the Chosen One premise. I would be incorrect if I said this trope is never well-done or can’t work. However, it’s problematic to use with reckless abandon because you come dangerously close to spreading the dreaded The-Main-Character-Is-Special-Cuz-Reasons virus. Once it enters the atmosphere, it will cause every other character to speak in cryptic phrases regarding the protagonist’s destiny. Perhaps you should just make the main character stand-apart by having them actually do something.

Have them fail at least once. Which is more interesting? The tail of the Underdog that overcame insurmountable odds and repeated failures to eventually reach victory, or the story about the person that wins every single time? One Punch man doesn’t count.

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Give them interests and hobbies. This seems like an obvious one, but it’s something that’s often overlooked. You can tell quite a bit about a person by what activities they engage in during their free time. Perhaps your person likes medieval reenactments, or beekeeping. The sky is the limit. Just find a way to make them stand out.

FLAWWWWWWS! Every character needs flaws because that is what makes us human. It’s how you can tell a real person from a fictional person and the reader needs to believe they are reading about a real-fictional person. If you aren’t sure where to start with this, I highly recommend The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It’s a very detailed book that not only defines negative traits but also gives you possible causes for them, shows you how they could manifest in the character’s everyday life, and even how a character can overcome these flaws.

I hope this was helpful. Good luck with your writing projects!

Why Do People Write Mary Sues?

For those of you who aren’t familiar with what a Mary Sue is, it’s essentially a female character that is too perfect. A character that is always morally correct no matter what, has all the male protagonists drooling themselves over her even though she would describe herself as plain, and is special without having to try.

In other words, she’s boring.

So why do so many writers write Mary Sues? Even ones that claim they hate them?

I have a few theories:

The writer is trying to live vicariously through their character. Most of us want to be special. Unfortunately, a lot of us lack the bravery or skill required to become a compelling protagonist. In order for us to be unique, something supernatural in nature would have to occur like a radioactive spider biting us. Many of us have problems with ourselves so we’re tempted to fix them when we create an ink-and-paper twin. However, flaws are essentially what makes a person a person so by removing them writers create a character that is as flat as cardboard.

They want readers to like their character. If the reader despises the main protagonist, it is likely they will stop reading the story. Sadly, many writers think that the best way of avoiding this is by creating a character that has zero flaws other than superficial ones like clumsiness or being “too nice.” Truth is, a person’s foibles can make them more endearing and relatable.

It’s easier than coming up with a real person. Creating a person from scratch is hard. Especially if that person doesn’t share the same background, race, or religion that you do. It’s easy to become intimidated at the prospect of being inside the head of such a person and dictating all that they do and say. It’s even more daunting granted how delicate some peoples’ sensibilities are these days and how eager they are to take offense by any perceived misrepresentation. The writer doesn’t want to step on people’s toes and so they stick to what they know, with a few choice alterations, of course.

Or, in some cases, it’s just laziness. They don’t want to have to go through the pains of creating someone more three-dimensional because it’s time consuming and requires a lot of planning.

So how does a writer avoid writing Mary Sues?

Fear not, fledgling writers.

I have a few suggestions.

Find out in the next blog post.

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How I’m Writing What I Don’t Know

Conventional wisdom says that you’re supposed to write what you know.

However, I have decided to go the harder route and try writing what I don’t know.

Why am I trying to carry out this obviously horrible idea?

Because if I never try anything new, every single protagonist I write will be an introverted middle-class white girl from the midwest.

In this particular case, I am writing military sci-fi so I have to learn more about the armed forces.

How hard could that be?

It was a challenge at first. However, once you get past all the acronyms it still feels like your brain is melting.

Once you learn the ranking, then there’s the weapons and machines/equipment they use, and the training regiment. Then there’s figuring out the difference between a fire team, a squad, a platoon, a company, a battalion, a brigade and corps.

There are 8 to 16  soldiers in a squad, 2 or 4 squads in a platoon, 3 to 5 platoons in a company, 6 companies in a battalion, 4 calling birds, 3 french hens, 2 turtledoves and a partridge in a pear tree.

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When I venture out into uncharted territory, I always experience paralysis. Even after I do my homework and try to get as close to the facts as I can, there’s that persistent nagging sensation that tells me I’m going to get it wrong.

This leads to procrastination and mental gymnastics, all designed to keep me from trying.

Because not trying is better than trying and failing. Or at least that’s what my ego tells me.

Part of me wants to give up, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s that the best way for a writer to understand something is for them to write about it. By doing that I was able to come up with a list of strategies to use to fix my problem and yours as well if you’re struggling like I am:

1. Get a beta reader who knows more about the subject you’re writing about than you. Hopefully, you have a friend or a friend of a friend who is knowledgeable about the topic you are writing about and would be willing to provide their services. If they are reluctant to do so, I would recommend bribery: a pizza dinner for every chapter they read.

2. Get another beta reader who knows less about the subject than you. While you want to write like someone who understands the subject they’re talking about, you don’t want to get so technical that only people who are directly involved in this line of work or have studied this subject comprehend what you’re saying.

3. Reconcile yourself with the fact that you may get something wrong anyway. Try as hard as you can to make a good product. But if you wait until everything is perfect you’ll never produce anything. Take it from someone who knows.

Now go out there, my pretties, and make good work!

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