The One Time You Should Avoid Writing Advice – A Ramble

Well, I thought that I’d talk about writing advice today (shocking, I know!). In particular, the one time when you should avoid it like the plague. Yes, you heard me correctly.

A couple of days before I prepared this article, I’d just finished writing a chapter of the first draft of a longer writing project I’d been experimenting with. So, I relaxed by watching random Youtube videos. To my surprise, one of the videos that appeared on the front page of the site was an intriguingly-titled advice video about common writing mistakes. I clicked on it. Then I clicked on a few other writing advice videos. Big mistake.

After about four of these videos, I found myself so racked with worries about the quality of my unfinished first draft that I almost felt like abandoning it. My mind reeled with nightmarish visions of reams of rejections. Of unreachably high standards that only other people can even dream of achieving. To say that I felt dejected, dispirited and disillusioned would be an understatement.

Then, after several minutes of angst about the subject, I remembered that I was writing a first draft. First drafts are never perfect. If they were, then they wouldn’t be first drafts. And, luckily, my motivation to write returned once again 🙂

Of course, this made me think about writing advice. In particular, when to seek it out and/or listen to it.

The very best time to look for writing advice is before you start a writing project. If you go into your story knowing what mistakes to avoid and knowing the techniques for writing a good story, you’ll feel more confident and you’ll also end up with a better (but not perfect) first draft too.

The other good time to look for writing advice is after you’ve finished your first draft. This time round, the advice can help you to edit your draft by showing you the kinds of things that you need to change and improve in order to turn your draft into something better.

But, the one time you should never ever look at writing advice is when you are actually writing your first draft. When you are writing your first draft, the important thing is to keep writing and to finish it. It doesn’t matter too much whether literally every technical element of your first draft is perfect or not. The important thing is to get words onto the page and finish the story. Even if you’re just writing 500 words a day – then keep doing this.

Remember, it is a first draft. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be improved when it is finished.

Or, to put it another way, an imperfect, but finished, draft is a hundred times better than an absolutely perfect, but unfinished, one. Too much perfectionism during the actual writing phase can slow down your story, drain your motivation, give you writer’s block and/or shake your confidence.

So, avoid writing advice like the plague when you’re in the middle of writing a first draft. Your first draft will be a bit “badly-written” and this is all part of the process. But, the most important part of a first draft is actually finishing it. Remember, writing advice is useful before and after writing your first draft, but not during.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three More Tips About When To Abandon A Short Story Project

Abandoning a short story project is a difficult decision, especially if you’ve already written quite a bit of it. But, sometimes, it is the best decision to make.

So, since this happened to me the day before I wrote this article (eg: to a comedy/ literary fiction story about late ’00s Aberystwyth that I’d written about 3400 words of), I thought that I’d offer a few tips about when and why to abandon a short story project.

1) Think of your readers: First and foremost, think of the reader. Unless you’re just writing for personal enjoyment, it is important to remember that there will be a reader for your short story and, if it seems like your story might not be that much fun to read, then this is one possible sign that it might be better to write something else.

This is also where reading regularly comes in handy, since having direct experience of being a reader can help you to put yourself in the shoes of your own potential readers. To give you an example, my abandoned story project was written in the present tense. This was initially a fairly spur-of-the-moment thing that just happened when I started writing it. At the time, I thought that it added an intriguing level of unpredictability and immediacy to the story.

But, then, I had to choose the next book I wanted to read. There were two books by the same author – one was written in the past tense and the other was written in the present tense. I read the first chapters of both and then rushed towards the past tense one. It just seemed a lot easier and more “natural” to read. So, naturally, this made me think about the present tense narration in the short story I was writing at the time. I realised that it would probably be really annoying to read, so it was one reason why I abandoned the story a day or two later.

So, think about your readers!

2) When it starts to put you off of writing: Writer’s block isn’t always a good reason to abandon a story project. Sometimes, you need to take time to think about what to write next or to just power through your writer’s block by just writing (and then editing later). Sometimes, writer’s block is merely a small everyday hurdle that can be dealt with without abandoning your story.

But, when even the idea of writing any more of your story feels like a chore and you find yourself racked with guilt about not writing any of it over the past few days, then this is sometimes a sign that you need to cut your losses and write something else.

The important thing to remember here is that you need to keep writing. If a half-finished story is standing in your way and, more importantly, sapping your enthusiasm for writing itself, then you need to write something that makes you feel enthusiastic again before you lose interest in writing altogether.

3) Think of your story as a whole: Following on from the first point on this list, having direct experience of being a reader can also help you to notice when your story is becoming less about the story you’re telling and more about other things.

In other words, when you are devoting more effort to things like showing off, avant-garde gimmicks, personal nostalgia etc… than you are to the characters and plot, then the story might not work out. Again, remember that your story will have a reader.

For example, here’s an extract from my abandoned short story: ‘Beneath the glow of the front window, she can just about make out the scuffed stairs driving down into the darkness below. She has only walked down them once, on a cold October night when the club’s cavernous crypts had been decked out in cotton wool cobwebs and styrofoam tombstones. When the lights were as lush and vivid as a heavy metal music video and no-name goth bands wailed in the corner.

Although this one little extract might sound good on it’s own, imagine a whole story filled with these slow-paced and alliteration-filled passages of purple prose. Imagine a whole story where these are the main point of interest, with not much of a plot, lots of rather corny “comedic” dialogue and not that much actual characterisation.

Each of these individual descriptions were fun to write and I felt pretty clever every time I came up with a contrived way to use alliteration and/or rhyme during the narration. But, when I stepped back and looked at the story as a whole, I didn’t see that much of an actual story (that people would want to read), just lots of pretentious prose poetry.

So, think about your story as a whole. If, when you take a step back, it looks less like a story than you expect, then try writing something else.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Tips For Finding A Short Story Idea

Well, I thought that I’d talk about how to come up with ideas for short stories today. This is mostly because the types of ideas that really work for short stories are at least slightly different to those that work for novellas, novels and other longer projects.

When short stories are at their best, they will often focus on one core idea, event or theme. The difference between a novel’s storyline and a short story’s storyline is kind of like the difference between a comic book (containing lots of pictures) and a single, detailed painting.

So, how can you find an idea for your short story?

1) Background: Start by focusing on the things that interest you. Watch films or TV shows in your favourite genres, read novels that interest you and/or spend some time randomly researching whatever fascinates you on the internet. Whatever you do, try to expose yourself to as many things as possible that make you feel fascinated or curious.

Then, after you’ve done this for a while, ask yourself what fascinates you about these things. Try to work out why they are so fascinating. If possible, try to distil your answers into a few short descriptions.

For example, if you love the movie “Blade Runner” or if you love modern Youtube footage of people exploring old abandoned shopping centres, then your answers would be something like: “The contrast between old and new”, “mysterious places”, “decaying civilisations”, “1980s/90s nostalgia” etc…

Once you’ve got your list of answers, you’ve got what will become the core of your short story. This will be the central theme or idea that your short story focuses on.

2) The plot: As counter-intuitive as it sounds, the plot shouldn’t be too complex. In short, you need a basic single-sentence plot idea which you can use as a skeleton for adding lots of extra depth, character and complexity to when you start writing. Something like “Two washed-up rock musicians have a conversation”, “Someone finds a secret page on a website” or “A criminal is on the run from the police.”

Just come up with a single, short idea. It doesn’t even have to be anything particularly spectacular or groundbreaking. If you’re really stuck for an idea, just go for something really basic like – someone finding something strange, a contest between two rivals, someone encountering a monster etc….

The thing that really makes short stories distinctive isn’t the plot, it’s how the plot is handled. Since you’ve only got a small number of words to work with, it’s usually better to add lots of creativity to a fairly basic and simple plot than trying to cram a complex, multi-layered storyline into just a few thousand words.

Plus, of course, having a basic, simple idea means that you can get on with writing a lot more quickly than you would if you try to think up something too complex.

3) Characters and locations: In short, you want to keep the number of characters and locations in your story reasonably small. This means that you’ll have more space to really add some depth to them. So, you might only have to think of, for example, 1-5 main characters and maybe 2-3 main locations.

This means that each character and location matters a lot more than it might do in a novel. However, if you’re stuck with one element of your story, then you can always get around this by compensating for it by focusing on the other elements.

For example, if you’re stuck for character ideas, then just use the old trick of writing a first-person perspective story using a nameless narrator and focus more on things like the settings, the atmosphere or the themes of your story. If you can’t think of an interesting setting, then just choose a fairly “ordinary” one and make sure that the characters are really interesting. I’m sure you get the idea….

Yes, you should ideally pay equal attention to the characters and the settings. But, if you’ve got writer’s block and just need a way to start writing, then don’t be afraid to focus more on one than the other.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Tips For Finding Topics For Short Stories

One of the most annoying types of writer’s block is when you can’t think of a topic for a short story. When you’re faced with a blank page and all you can think about is “what the hell do I write about?“.

When I was writing short stories last February, I worried about this problem. After all, most of the short online collections (like this one or this one) that I’d written during the previous couple of years had a single over-arching theme. I’d write them at Christmas or Halloween, which gave me an excuse to write several stories that were related to these occasions. But, of course, I ended up writing stories at other times of the year too. And I needed ideas.

Surprisingly, it only took me a couple of weeks to get good at finding ideas – something probably helped by my regular art practice (eg: thinking of things to paint on a regular basis). But, finding ideas for short stories is different from finding ideas for paintings. So, I thought that I’d offer a few tips.

1) Intelligent procrastination: Procrastination gets a bad reputation. The best kinds of procrastination can ensure that you’re never stuck for ideas again.

Although I’m not a lawyer and this isn’t legal advice, a bit of research will show you that copyright generally doesn’t cover facts and ideas. The only thing that copyright covers is highly-specific expressions of these things. For example, the idea of a bald spaceship captain can’t be copyrighted – but “Star Trek: The Next Generation’s” Captain Picard character can be copyrighted.

In other words, provided that you do something different with a pre-existing idea, theme, fact etc.. then you’ve got a story idea. And this is where procrastination helps.

If you can procrastinate by looking at something you find interesting – such as Youtube channels filled with random facts , if you read a variety of interesting novels, if you listen to interesting music, if you play interesting videogames etc… Then these things will help provide you with topics, themes and ideas that you can do your own thing with and turn into stories.

2) Experience: Although there is the old advice that you should “write from experience”, it is often misunderstood. Unless you’ve lived a fascinatingly exciting life, you might find this advice to be depressingly annoying. Likewise, you might find the idea of writing an autobiogrpahy to be awkward or embarassing. But, don’t worry, this isn’t what the “write from experience” advice is all about.

What it means is to find some theme, emotion or event from your life and then use your imagination to turn it into a fictional story with fictional characters. You can also add elements from other inspirations too. For example, this sci-fi comedy story was partially inspired by the fact that I hadn’t played one of my favourite computer games for a while and found that I was out of practice.

So, you don’t have to have had a spectacularly exciting life to write from experience. You just need to know how to turn mundane experiences into dramatic fiction.

3) Sequels: If you’ve written short stories before, then one way to shake yourself out of writer’s block is just to write a sequel or prequel to an interesting story that you’ve already written. After all, you’ve already got the characters and you’ve already got the basic idea. So, all you’ve got to worry about is the writing.

This is what I did with this “1990s America” story (which is a sequel to this one). However, I probably made a mistake that you shouldn’t. I didn’t really include that much in the way of recaps in my sequel (although I included a link to the previous story, it isn’t really the same as a recap).

If you’re writing a sequel to a short story, then you need to remember that new readers might read your sequel first. As such, it should seamlessly include a few short, quick recaps of anything relevant from the previous story. In other words, your sequel still needs to be a self-contained story.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Using Connections To Beat Writer’s Block- A Ramble

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk quickly about one rather interesting way to get past writer’s block that I discovered whilst writing a couple of the short stories that appeared here last March.

Simply put, I was able to feel inspired whilst writing both stories because I tried to connect two (or more) seemingly different inspirations in each one.

For example, one story called “Common Factor” was inspired by the fact that the story was originally written whilst I was reading the cyberpunk novel (“Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson) that I’ll hopefully review tomorrow and after finding several interesting Youtube videos on a channel about an instrument called the hurdy gurdy.

So, not having any better ideas, I tried to cram “Snow Crash”-style cyberpunk and something to do with a hurdy gurdy into the same story. And, surprisingly, it worked. I looked at some of the themes in “Snow Crash” (eg: futuristic technology, social fragmentation etc..) and I remembered how I was fascinated by the hurdy gurdy videos even though I’m terrible at playing instruments.

Then, somehow, the two things coalesced into the idea that geekiness/fascination is a common trait that finds many different expressions. And, suddenly, I had a theme and an idea for my story. After that, the rest of the story appeared reasonably easily.

Likewise, I was still reading “Snow Crash” before I wrote another story called “Rusty“, so I was still in the mood for cyberpunk fiction. However, the bulk of the inspiration from this story came from two rather different sources.

The first was the experience of playing the fan-made “Doom II” level that I reviewed yesterday. I hadn’t played the game for a while and, to my surprise, I found myself playing a little bit more clumsily than I expected. Likewise, the game seemed a little bit more difficult than usual. As soon as I started feeling surprised and regretful about getting so out of practice, I realised “This would be a perfect theme for a story!” But I didn’t know quite how to put this idea into a story.

Then, later that evening, I found the hilarious pirate-themed music video (Explicit lyrics) for “Drink The Rum” by Lagerstein and suddenly it all came together. A cyberpunk story about someone being out of practice with a pirate-themed virtual reality videogame.

So, yes, one way to beat writer’s block is to look around for a few things – the more different the better – that interest or fascinate you in some way, and then try to find some way to fit the basic underlying themes of these things into the same story.

This works because it forces you to think about things on a thematic level, it gives you the basic building blocks for a narrative and it changes the focus from “what do I write about?” to “how can I cram these two awesome things into one story?“. This change in focus might sound trivial but it turns the process of trying to write a story into an intriguingly puzzle-like exercise, rather than a frustrating search for ideas.

Best of all, it can also result in some gloriously bizarre stories too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Unusual Things To Do If You Write Yourself Into A Corner

Well, at the time of preparing this article, I was also busy preparing last year’s Christmas stories. In particular, I’d just written the fourth one. This one was a bit more of a challenge than usual since, thanks to what I’d thought was a clever plot twist at the end of the third story, I had placed my main character in a seemingly unwinnable situation. I’d written myself into a corner.

If you take a slightly more laid-back approach to planning your stories, then this can allow you to surprise yourself in all sorts of cool ways whilst writing. But, it can also sometimes lead to situations like the one I mentioned earlier.

So, what can you do if you’ve written yourself into a corner?

1) Think it all through: As counterintuitive as it might sound, look closely at the “impossible” direction your story is going in. Think about it in as much depth as you can and look for any small flaws or gaps. Once you find one of these, exploit it for all you can!

For example, I’d ended the third story in my Christmas collection by showing the main character – a private detective – almost being put out of business by a trendy new start-up company (which was meant to be a parody of “disruptive” crowd-sourced companies). It seemed like a really clever modern twist on an old plot device.

But I suddenly realised that there was no way that, if I wanted to keep the story vaguely realistic, my main character could actually “win” against a company like that. My main character also didn’t seem like the kind of person who would want to join such a company either. But, of course, I’d planned to write six or seven more stories. What could I do?

Simply put, I thought about the idea in more depth. One of the problems with crowd-sourced companies is that the “staff” aren’t always as experienced or qualified as those in more traditional occupations. As such, with something like private detection, they might find themselves “out of their depth” fairly quickly. What does someone do when they find themselves in this situation? They find an expert.

As soon as I had this thought (from thinking about my “unwinnable” story situation in more depth), the blockage cleared. The direction seemed obvious. My main character could become a Sherlock Holmes-like consulting detective! A detective for other detectives.

So, if you want the solution to an “unwinnable” situation in your story to fit in with your story, then just think the situation through from every possible angle until you find a flaw that you can exploit ruthlessly.

2) Look back: Look at the earlier parts of your story and see if there’s anything there that you can use to solve your current problem. It could be some background element or a throwaway line of dialogue or something like that. This isn’t always the case, but sometimes a possible solution to your problem can actually be hiding in an earlier part of your story.

For example, when I started writing the troublesome fourth story in my collection, I’d started it with a cynical piece of narration about how Sherlock Holmes made everyone want to be a detective. This was a brilliantly cynical opening line.

It also, perhaps subconsciously, helped me come up with a solution to the writing dilemma I found myself in about two paragraphs later. After all, Sherlock Holmes is a “consulting detective”. But, surprisingly, I didn’t consciously realise this until I’d gone through the thought process I mentioned earlier in this article.

Again, this doesn’t always work with every story, but sometimes you can use something you’ve included earlier in your story to solve your problem.

3) There are no unwinnable situations: Simply put, the best attitude to take to these situations is simply to remember that there is always a solution. It just involves determination and a willingness to think outside the box.

If it helps, think of your story like a challenging computer game. A computer game may contain difficult situations, but no game is intentionally designed to be unwinnable – however it may appear to the player. In other words, there’s usually a solution. It may be hidden or it may involve the player having to do something that the designers hadn’t planned for (eg: exploiting a glitch in the game’s code in order to defeat a challenging level boss etc..), but it’s there.

If you take an attitude like this, then it will put you in a much better frame of mind for dealing with the times when you’ve written yourself into a corner.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Tips For How To Look For Inspiration

Although I’ve written about how to deal with writer’s block and artist’s block more times than I can remember, I thought that I’d do something very slightly different in this article and talk about how to look for inspiration. Because, yes, sometimes you actively have to look for inspiration – rather than waiting for it to come to you.

So, here are a few tips and/or reminders that will help you search for inspiration.

1) Know how to take inspiration: I’ve written a more detailed article about this subject but, in short, taking inspiration properly means looking at the underlying concept/idea behind something and then doing something at least slightly different with that idea.

Although I’m not a copyright lawyer (and this isn’t legal advice), my reading on the subject seems to show that most types of copyright law are explicitly designed to promote this type of inspiration. In short, copyright laws usually protect the exact way that a particular concept or idea is expressed, but not the underlying idea/concept itself.

For example, both “Babylon 5” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” are science fiction TV shows about everyday life on a space station far from Earth, with a focus on the military-like officers who run the station. This basic concept probably cannot be copyrighted. However, the specific characters, alien designs, set designs etc.. in each show are copyrighted because they are a highly-specific interpretation of this general idea.

Once you know how to take inspiration properly, then the number of inspirations available to you will expand rapidly. Plus, if you’re worried that this means that your art or fiction won’t be completely “original”, then don’t worry. All that these feelings mean is that you need to find more inspirations. Basically, the more different inspirations you have, the more original your creations will be. Plus, it’s important to remember that there’s no such thing as a “100% original” creative work. Everything is inspired by something.

2) Learn to think like a critic: Although there’s the famous saying that a critic is just a failed artist/writer, there’s a lot to be said for thinking like a critic if you’re an artist or a writer. You can learn how to do this by reading and/or watching as many reviews as you can find, in addition to possibly trying to write reviews yourself.

But what does any of this have to do with looking for inspiration? Simply put, a critic’s job is to study and analyse creative works and then write a brief description of how the creative work in question “works”.

A critic has to look at, say, how a director uses lighting to create a particular atmosphere or how a thriller writer uses sentence and chapter length to ramp up the tension. Not only does a critic have to be able to “reverse-engineer” creative works in order to see what techniques have been used, they also have to judge whether these techniques work… and why.

In other words, being a critic forces you to take a more scientific and scholarly approach to films, games, novels etc… Although this might sound like it would take the fun out of these things and turn you into an insufferable snob, this is only a potential problem if you aren’t a creative person.

If you’re a creative person, then thinking like a critic just means that everything you see could potentially teach you a new technique that you’ll probably want to try out. And, well, wanting to try something out is usually a good sign of being inspired.

3) Look everywhere: Simply put, there are no dividing lines when it comes to inspirations. Writers don’t only have to be inspired by other writers. Painters don’t only have to be inspired by other painters etc..

For example, the largest influences on my art include things like: a film called “Blade Runner“, the use of colours in a set of fan-made “Doom II” levels, various heavy metal/punk album covers, the 1990s, Youtube videos of abandoned shopping centres, manga/anime, the film noir genre, old horror novel covers, old “survival horror” videogames etc…. Very few of these things are paintings. Yet, I can use the techniques and ideas I’ve learnt from them to create art that looks like this:

“Scaffolding” By C. A. Brown

“Derelict Sector” By C. A. Brown

“Vehicles” By C. A. Brown

So, the important thing to remember here is that good sources of inspiration can be found anywhere. Inspiration is everywhere. Just remember that you don’t only have to be inspired by things in the genre that you’re working in.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂