Writing Experience

Back when I was a young lad growing up in Farmington, NM, I read a lot of books. It was a way of escaping a system that rewarded jocks for being jock assholes and didn’t care for creativity. I wasn’t a jock, although I did go out for basketball in the 6th grade (didn’t get to play in the one game we won) and track & field in High School (okay at shot put, miserable at discus). Personally, I didn’t care too much for either. I guess I’m not much of a team sports guy.

This was when Stephen King was doing his meteoric rise to, well, where he is now. I didn’t read a whole lot of horror – I was mostly into SciFi – but, of course I read King’s early works just like everyone else. It was required reading in the 80s, just like it was expected that you listened to Oingo Boingo. He did some pretty clever horror stories back in the day. Christine, Pet Sematary, Misery, It. He also did a great co-authoring work with Peter Straub called The Talisman which was pretty awesome.

I could usually be found with my nose in a book, listening to Iron Maiden or any number of 80s heavy metal bands and doing my best to avoid the multitude of bullies and assholes that thrived in an environment where athletic prowess was valued more than anything else. I also worked on the yearbook and that probably didn’t help my social standing.

Quick funny story for you: Our senior year yearbook has a strange aberration on the cover. If you look on the back there’s a piece of the wall that’s a different color from the rest. The reason that’s there is because it’s covering an anarchy symbol. We put the anarchy symbol on the cover because we thought it was cool. The school brass nearly had a heart attack over it and ordered it covered. I still think we should have kept it intact.

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ANARCHY!

Now, what’s funny is at this time, a lot of people thought Stephen King was a hack. Nowadays, he’s considered one of the greats, but in the early 80s, he didn’t have such high regard. Nevertheless, he sold books like a mad motherfucker and everyone was reading him no matter what the critics had to say.

King was making money and doing what he loved. While all the critics were going to sleep in their one-room flophouses and fighting cockroaches the size of Panzer tanks, Stephen King was sleeping on a huge pile of money, surrounded by many beautiful ladies.

He kept going and he kept doing things his way and now very few people consider him a hack. And he’s not the only one, either. Science Fiction as a genre was long considered the repository for people who couldn’t write good stories. Bradbury, Williamson, Heinlein, Asimov, and many others were looked down upon, not because of what they were writing, but because of their genres.

In Kenpo, we line up in class according to rank. During one of my first classes my teacher made an interesting point. “The difference,” he said, “between being at the front of the class and the back of the class is simply a matter of time.” If you stuck with it, you got better. It was that simple.

Writing seems to be no different in that respect. Keep practicing and you’ll get better. At least I like to think I’ve gotten better at it.

Of course, I’m still working at that “world thinks he’s a hack” level of popularity, but perhaps it will come in time. If it does, and I still get a bunch of reviews calling me a hack, hell, that’s a bunch of people that read that book and cared enough to leave a comment. I’m cool with that.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: if you’re struggling with something – anything, really – keep at it if you love it. Keep trying to make it better, keep trying new things, keep trying in general. There was a time when even Stephen King was an unknown tacking rejection notices to his wall.

140 Characters of Madness

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Twitter, in addition to being the US President’s defacto choice of late-night communication, is rife with all manner of interesting information. Once you scrape past the people that all repost the exact same click-bait news stories (5 reasons why this post is awesome, you’ll never believe number 3!) and ass-random posts about how terrible the last Ghostbusters movie was, you’ll find a vibrant writing community.

I’m sure this is probably true of everything from programming to HR, but it’s the writers I tend to look to. In particular, I’ve started playing some of the Twitter writing games. There are scads of them out there, but I only follow a few of them because I like to at least attempt to do them justice.

Writing on Twitter isn’t always about getting the snappiest line together – although, choose a good one – it’s more about seeing what other people are writing. Each day I take a bit of time to find a few lines from whatever I’m writing and post it. Of course, lots of other people are doing the same thing, so it gives me a chance to see how other writers are putting things together. Think of it as an amuse-bouche for words.

Anyway, if you’d like to join up, it’s as simple as posting something with the appropriate hashtag and reading what others are doing. Beyond that, there aren’t any requirements. Other than don’t be a dick, but that kind of goes without saying.

Don’t expect a lot of feedback, but do expect to find some interesting new writers and see what they’re up to. Here’s my daily routine:

Sunday

Monday

  • #MuseMon – Theme-based and hosted by Claribel Ortega.
  • #MartialMonday – Theme-based, usually revolves around fights. Hosted by Ellis Logan

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Friday

  • #FictFri – Optional themed, hosted by Gracie Mae DeLunac
  • #FriDare – Usually themed, often involves captioning pictures or similar. This one is pretty fun. Hosted by Mica Scotti Kole

Saturday

Go forth and check these out; there are good times ahead and you’re likely to meet someone interesting. To play, all you have to do is either write something up or pull something from your work in progress, tweet it, and make sure to add the appropriate hashtag for the day. Then, kick back and see what everyone else has written. It’s great fun and it exposes you to writers you might not have come across before.

Got any other games you like? Leave ’em in the comments!

 

PMRC And Writing

Back in 1985, a group known as The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) dropped a bomb on musicians. That bomb was set off (or so the story goes) when Tipper Gore walked in on her daughter listening to W.A.S.P. album and the detonation is still felt today, albeit less seismically than back in 1985.

The bomb was the idea that some music (namely W.A.S.P. albums) needed some kind of mechanism to inform parents that the albums they were buying for their kids might be less than vanilla. As if any parent picking up Inside The Electric Circus would think they were getting savory easy listening.

After months of Senate hearings and Dee Snyder folding like an amateur poker player at pro night, a mighty black and white sticker started appearing on music deemed inappropriate for kids. You still it sometimes today, for those of you that actually look at CDs rather than ripping them to MP3 and tossing the disc.

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The sticker that guaranteed a good album

Now, the funny thing about all this – at least in hindsight – was all the hysteria on both sides. Tipper Gore and her Washington Wives Club were absolutely terrified that heavy metal music would turn kids into Satanists, which was largely unfounded. Sure Blackie Lawless is on the cover of a W.A.S.P. album wearing nothing but body paint and fake nails, but the album itself wasn’t bad. Especially once you got the image of Blackie Lawless wearing nothing but body paint and fake nails out of your head.

On the other side of the spectrum, artists were apoplectic that they were being censored and, like many other things, the move would destroy freedom of expression. Again, this was largely unfounded. Although, to be fair, after the PMRC bombshell, W.A.S.P.’s next album – The Headless Children – was surprisingly tame. Whether that was due to the efforts of the PMRC or the band simply got older and ran out of alcohol and floozies is a question for the ages.

But remember, this was all going on in 1985. It was in 1986 that the Beastie Boys taught us how to party with License to Ill, 1989 saw 2 Live Crew releasing As Nasty As They Wanna Be, and Body Count dropped Cop Killer on us in 1992. Any one of those would likely have caused Tipper & crew to seize and shake violently.

Music went on. It’s still going on. In the end, all the PMRC did was give a bunch of bands free advertising and cost record labels extra money.

So, what does all this have to do with writing?

Well, I was reading blogs this morning and came across an interesting entry by A.A. Frias titled “Should Books Come With Content Warnings?” My first, immediate reaction was “Not only no, but hell no.” Fortunately, I’ve been living up to a promise to myself to listen not only to what people have to say, but why they’re saying it, so I read the whole piece with an open mind. Or at least a mostly open mind. It was early and I hadn’t finished my coffee.

Especially after I read the whole post and realized she wasn’t advocating content warnings, just trigger warnings.

She makes some interesting points and does a great job of differentiating between Content Warnings and Trigger Warnings, and establishes a case for why trigger labels could come in handy for some people. It’s a thought-out post and I suggest you read it, especially if you don’t really get the difference between content that offends and content that can trigger.

Now, her post was on the net benefit of trigger warnings and I’m not in any position to debate that. She also doesn’t agree with content warnings on books. So, essentially, we’re on the same page.

But it got me thinking. We have warnings on all sorts of media. Movies get MPAA ratings. TV shows get ratings and warnings. Music has warnings. Guess what doesn’t have warnings?

I will pretty much guarantee there is someone out there right now, sick to death of seeing 50 Shades of Grey at Target and wondering what can be done about this awful, awful thing. To some people, that book is the literary equivalent of walking in on your child listening to W.A.S.P. So, the question of the day is, should there be, or will there be content warnings on books? After all, it happened in music, movies, and TV, what makes us think it can’t happen in books, too?

I’m pretty dismissive of the idea of warning labels ever showing up on books. Frankly, I’m dismissive of warning labels in general. But remember Rule 34: if it exists, there’s porn of it. The explosion of erotica might just be what’s needed to jump-start someone’s campaign and once that happens, it’s a forgone conclusion that we’ll all (well, at least me) be putting warning labels on our books.

Did you know there’s Trump/Putin erotica out there? I’d heard the rumors and, yes, they are true. No, I haven’t read any, but I can imagine coming across the following line when it wasn’t expected (consider yourself warned):

“His tiny hands searched in the darkness, desperately seeking a way to make his own perestroika from a tower of glasnost.”

Go ahead, get that one out of your head. I dare you. I double dog dare you. BTW, I totally made that up.

Also by the way, the cover of that book should be content warning enough for anyone. Yeesh.

So, would I freak the heck out if I read that line? Not gonna lie here,  I’d probably laugh my ass off. But, yeah, it’d be unpleasant and leave me wondering what kind of book I picked up and how to get my money back.

But does it warrant a warning label on the book? No, not really. After reading the blurb, and the title, and looking at the cover I really should expect lines like that and know to leave that book alone. If, perchance, you happen to have written that book, you’re welcome for the free publicity.

Because of all that, and the fact that the PMRC’s warning labels accomplished diddly squat, I don’t think we really need content labels. Just like Blackie Lawless on the cover of Inside the Electric Circus (and song titles like “95-N.A.S.T.Y.” and “King of Sodom and Gammorah”) gave listeners a pretty good idea of what to expect, a book cover and blurb should give readers a pretty good idea of what to expect.

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This looks like wholesome, family music. Besides, wasps are neat bugs.

A title like Putin on the Trump: A Vladimir Putin Donald Trump erotic journey helps give the reader insight into what they’re in for, too. And let me just say, um, yuck.

But just because I don’t think we need content warning labels on books doesn’t mean someone out there isn’t looking to kick start their career by going after books they don’t like. We’ve seen plenty of times where books were burned (by the way, never burn a Kindle, the smoke is lethal), so it’s not too much of a stretch that we’ll see warnings at some point in the future.

Should it happen, should the stark fist of government intervention find its way into the literary world, there will likely be much wailing and gnashing of teeth along with wails of 1st Amendment violations and stifling of creativity. But I have a feeling the literary world would soldier on just like the musicians of the 1980s. We’ll just have warning stickers on our book covers and, just like the music warning stickers, they’ll guarantee a good time.

What do you think? Are warning labels a good idea or a bad idea? Do you think we’ll see a time when they’re mandated? I’m not in any way, shape, or form informed enough to debate trigger warnings, but feel free to weigh in on those, too.

 

Conflict

Way back when I was in high school and getting regularly busted for insisting on writing my papers with a turquoise pen (it was a kind of blue!), my 11th grade English teacher gave us the usual discussion on conflict and had us write up examples.

At the time, conflict was broken into three major categories and she was adamant that all forms of literary conflict can lumped into one of them. Just in case you (like me) weren’t paying attention at the time (totally not my fault the girl next to me was so cute), here’s what we were taught were the only categories in 1988:

  • Man versus man
  • Man versus nature
  • Man versus himself

Just as a side note, we weren’t totally into gender equality in Farmington back in the day, but this was always meant to mean mankind – as in all of us hairless apes – not just men. Although, even a quick glance at Wikipedia and the various nooks and crannies of the Internet this morning confirmed it’s still man versus stuff, so whatevs.

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Knows a thing or two about conflict.

Anyway, my teacher insisted all forms of literary conflict would fit into one of those categories. She likely still does, even though the literary world has moved on and learned there are some other categories that should be added. For instance, a cartoon rabbit chasing down a cartoon Martian is obviously conflict, but what kind? Neither of them is a human, so that conflict would have to be shoehorned into one of the aforementioned categories. Probably man versus man.

At some point, someone realized trying to plug hot rabbit on Martian action into one of three categories was problematic. Rather than do the logical thing and realize no one really cared, they created more categories. Thus, the original three I was taught have been expanded into more.

Types of Conflict
People love to categorize things.

Now, in the global scheme of things, what category of conflict something fits into is completely unimportant. This is one of those things academics fret about while the rest of us are busy playing Xbox. That doesn’t make conflict an uninteresting field of study, though. Conflict is at the very heart of storytelling. A perfectly happy tale may be heartwarming, but it’s going to be boring. Yay! They’re still happy. Wonderful. Where’s the Xbox controller?

What is important, though, is some level of conflict in a story. It can be internal or external, but it needs to be there. Personally, I think external conflict is more interesting, but your mileage may vary. Stories with conflict – especially when that conflict is resolved by pushing the bad guy out of the top floor of the Nakatomi Plaza – are much more engaging than stories about someone brushing their teeth.

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Or, you know, when the good guys on flying motorcycles foil the bad guys in Russian tanks. That’s some good conflict resolution right there, especially when you end it with “The good guys always win. Even in the 80s.”

Back when my high school English teacher told us to come up with examples of conflict, I went out of my way to find conflicts that couldn’t fit neatly into any one category. Irking my teachers was just one of the many useful services I provided. Her response, while I was busy arguing that you couldn’t really categorize Cthulhu as a man, was simple: rewrite the damned thing or fail the assignment.

Conflict and conflict resolution in tidy package.

I don’t mean to imply that I didn’t like my 11th grade English teacher. She was a nice person (unlike the ones from tenth and twelfth grade. Those people were unspeakable swine), I just enjoyed seeing if I could push her buttons. It was childish, but I was young and needed the money.

In the end, I relented and came up with some lame conflicts that salved her bruised ego and let me pass the class. Not any more, though. Personally – and this is just me, mind you – I think the whole idea of categorizing conflicts is a huge waste of time. Conflict doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective. It doesn’t need to fit neatly into a categorized box. “X versus Y” sums it all up nicely. Conflict just has to exist to be effective in a story and a good story can have lots of varying types of conflict. As long as those conflicts get some resolution that involves flying motorcycles, you’re all good.

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Talking cars work, too.

Toss away the idea of what kind of conflict you’re writing and just write some conflict. Make it nasty or make it subtle. Make it involve chainsaws or flowers in rifle barrels. One side of the conflict doesn’t even have to show up until late in the story because the conflict could consist of “I want to find this person or thing and it doesn’t want to be found.”

Just make sure there’s some conflict.

Fantastical Worlds, Fantastical Writing. And Rules.

I think I’ve said it before, but I didn’t get into writing to follow rules. Unfortunately, even if I ignore the rules, there are usually some guidelines that need to be followed if a book is going to be read by anyone but my dog.

I’m working on my first foray into a couple shifts in my writing. My tense use and POV has shifted. Henchmen was first person, present tense. I still love the way I can get into the character’s head with that model, but it makes complex stories with a lot of characters tricky. Plus, when something happens off-page, someone has to take the time to explain it to everyone else. I’m also writing the next book in past tense. Because reasons.

The biggest change is a shift from the real world – well, New Mexico, anyway – into a full-on fantasy world. For those who’ve read The Clock Man, this is the much anticipated full-length novel sequel to that novella. It keeps the story on Aluna – a world I’d already created some rules for – and keeps the major players in place. The difference is, this is fully realized story that loops in a lot more of the world. Since I’ve never written off-world stuff, that meant thinking more about how that world operates. In other words, Greetings From Sunny Aluna is as much a fantasy novel as it is a detective noir story and a wuxia novel.

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Google Image Search for Fantasy might not have been my best choice.

I was never into the swords and sorcerers thing when I was growing up; my head was in the stars. I think the last true fantasy book I read was Susan Faw’s Seer of Souls. Prior to that it was Terry Brooks’ Elfstones of Shannara back when it came out. In 1983.

Neither of those are bad books by any stretch of the imagination and both were excellent resources, but I figured I’d better brush up a bit on the rules. Or, at the very least, the guidelines. Thankfully, Google was there for me with both some fantasy pictures (better than the one above) and a wealth of information.

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There you go, fantasy. If your fantasy is bewbs, look a couple paragraphs up. If your fantasy is a very slow-moving mobile home, you’re welcome.

The funny thing about fantasy is it really isn’t all that different from science fiction once you strip away the skin. As others have pointed out, fantasy is about things that likely can’t happen, while science fiction about things that haven’t happened yet. Both involve a lot of the same elements, though. Different races and non-Earth locales are common in both sci-fi and fantasy. The key difference lies not in who is wearing the wizard hat or the flight helmet, it’s all about the explanation of things.

Arthur C. Clarke once famously said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Sci-fi writers, and Star Trek is notorious for this, will use science-y sounding explanations for why things happen. “The quantum carburetor broke down, we’re stuck in this microverse!” or “The warp nacelles can’t handle anything above warp factor 10!” Why? Because they can’t, that’s why. And that science-y sounding explanation is all you need to know.

Similar things happen in the fantasy genres, except instead of science-y sounding explanations, you get magic-y explanations. “When she touched the staff of Jolan-Tru, the power of the universe flooded through her.” or “The Force is strong in this one.” Why? Because reasons, that’s why. And that magic-y explanation is all you need to know.

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Magic, sci-fi, or run-of-the-mill awesome?

The trick to writing fantasy is the same as the trick to writing sci-fi: keep things seeming real even when they’re completely fantastic. That means the world has to have rules and they have to be immutable. Nothing kills a story quicker than some deus ex machina nonsense or a sudden, rapid shift in the way that world works. Aluna, for instance, doesn’t have any mammals aside from the humans that wound up there. To them, something with fur is freaky. That was a minor detail in The Clock Man, and one that nearly sunk me since I described a bit of cat graffiti early on. A quick fix before I hit publish quashed that. Minor details like that can add a lot to a story and when they break down, the story goes along with them.

The bigger problem is dealing with magic. It’s tough to have a fantasy novel without at least touching upon some kind of magic or another. The Clock Man established the basic rules of Alunan magic and, in the interest of keeping things the same, I actually had to go back and re-read it to see what I’d said a couple years ago. It’s better than I remember, so I had that going for me.

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Magic, by its very nature, doesn’t adhere very well to rules. Trying to apply real-world logic to magic is like to trying to nothing but pork rinds and stay healthy. So, we may not be able to say definitively “Magic cannot do that!”, but we can establish through the narrative what magic is in the context of the story and how it works. One character may have no magical capabilities whatsoever, while another might have mad phat skillz at tossing magic around. Why? Because the story said so, that’s why.

In the end, I came back around to my one and only hard and fast rule of writing: Don’t confuse the reader. The Clock Man built a lot of the groundwork for the world and people of Aluna; Greetings From Sunny Aluna takes that groundwork and expands on it. Sure, there are rules in writing fantasy to keep things consistent, but beyond that there are no limits.

 

An Exercise In Silliness

 

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I would actually love to hear this on vinyl. It seems so appropriate.

I was driving to work this morning when Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz” popped up on my playlist. For some reason, one of the lines stuck in my head as something other than the usual bubblegum pop-metal Sweet is known for and I started building a scene in my head based on the lyrics to the song. That started me down the dark path of thinking about how other songs could show scenes that they weren’t necessarily intending to show. Some songs are pretty obvious: Bowie’s Major Tom and all the variants and songs about him tell a story of an astronaut slipping the surly bonds of Earth. Mike + The Mechanics did similar stuff with “Silent Running”, telling a story of a world falling to dictatorship. Roger Waters has made a career out telling a story through an entire album. But it was a particular line in “Ballroom Blitz” that built a much darker scene than Chinn and Chapman likely had in mind when they wrote the song.

So, as an exercise, I decided to see if I could take some other songs and build new scenes off the lyrics. Not all of ’em are winners, but there are a few gems scattered here and there. Most of ’em should be pretty obvious, but there might be a couple you haven’t come across.

The Marine lay dying on the floor. Blood leaked from his torn parade uniform and pooled on the floor under his prone body.

“What happened, son?” General Modine asked as he applied pressure to the young man’s chest.

“It was a trap sir,” the young Marine replied. He turned his head and winced as he coughed up a spray of blood. “The man in the back said, ‘Everyone attack!’. It turned into a ballroom blitz.”

 

Noboru was proud warrior, the last of his line after the near disastrous rout at the hands of the Hakama clan’s dark wizards. He knelt in front of the supreme overlord, his head bent forward exposing his neck that he might be spared the dishonor he had brought up his clan. The overlord’s mechanicals clicked and whirred, a sure sign of his displeasure. Noboru only hoped it would end quickly.

“For your bravery,” the overlord intoned in a voice filled with the ticking of his gear-like body, “you are promoted to field marshal. You may see the fight as a failure, but you saved the lives of your comrades. Rise Marshal Noboru, that my realm may see what a warrior looks like.”

Noburu’s mind whirled as he stood. He had expected death, had convinced himself to welcome it. Instead, he had to learn to convince himself he hadn’t failed. The overlord’s glass eyes stared at him without emotion, but a hint of smile formed on his rubber lips.

Noboru bowed his head to hide both his shame and his relief. “Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto,” he whispered.

All around them the desert cracked and blew in waves of dust. Her lips were dry and cracked, eyes sunken in her head. She felt like she was inches from joining the sand. His smile was the last thing she expected to see.

His skin was little more than a thin parchment stretched over a skull, but even though his lips were split, he smiled and said, “You look like rain.”

“Good morning world! Well, what’s left of it, anyway. There are reports of mutants swarming Central, so be sure to avoid the university area this morning. Also, Drox says he has water, but he’s lied before. Let’s be careful out there today. This is the last radio station on Earth and we’re getting ready to play the complete Supersuckers catalog because, man, this sure does suck. You’re listening to the last bit of civilization on the planet and I’m coming at you live from a Mexican radio.”

Sergeant McClaine thought he’d seen it all, but this was horrifying. He couldn’t even tell where her body began and ended. As usual, he buried it deep in his psyche and fought to dig up a witty response. His normal flippancy fled when the bile rose in his stomach and all he could come up with was a lame play on words. “Well,” he said. “She was pretty. Now she’s just pretty fucked up.”

Your turn. Drop ’em in the comments. If anyone’s interested, I can put up a list of the songs I used.

Just Keep Writing, Just Keep Writing

Stephen King once said he told his wife he writes every day except Christmas and Thanksgiving. He went on to say he also writes on those days. I may be wrong about the days, but I do know he said he writes every day unless something really bad happens.

In the martial arts we have a philosophy of training every day. It doesn’t have to be much; practice a kata, do a few kicks, beat up someone that looked at you funny, that sort of thing. Okay, so I’m joking about beating people up for looking at me funny, but the remainder is true. A little practice every day is a good thing.

Most things we do – whether they be physical or mental activities – get better with practice. As long as the practice is good practice, anyway. I used to tell my students in Kenpo to practice their basics like they really meant them because in a stress situation, when your brain turns to mush, you’re going to fall back on what you’ve practiced. If you’ve practiced never kicking above the shins or putting your weight into your punches, guess what’s going to happen.

You’re going to get clobbered. And probably laughed at. And you will likely have brought dishonor on your dojo.

Writing works the same way: Practice will get you better at it. Or, at the very least, more efficient at it. The quality of your writing will only improve as you strive to improve it. Read a lot, write a lot. That’s Stephen King’s philosophy toward being a good writer. Just keep writing. It’s a job as much as it’s an art. Like any art, you’ll get better at it the more you do it.

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King knocks out about 2,000 words a day. If we follow the standard of 250 words to a page, that means he’s writing a 720 page novel every few months. Walter Gibson was known to write 6,000 to 10,000 words day. I’m nowhere near their league. My average is only 500-1000 words a day. Sometimes it drops lower, sometimes it goes higher, but it’s usually in that range.

So, why am I telling you this? In the realm of questions no one asked, “How many words does Eric Lahti write per day?” is probably toward the top of the list. Most people won’t find this information useful, but there’s someone out there right now wondering how many words a day you’re supposed to write to consider yourself a writer. The answer is as many as you feel like. Some people take a decade to write a book, others crank out a novel a month for decades (I’m looking at you Walter Gibson).

The goal isn’t to write the greatest prose on Earth, the goal is to write. Just like anything else out there, if you want to get good at writing, you need to write. If you want to get better at punching or kicking, go punch or kick things. And then write about that experience.

Maybe it’s just me, but if I don’t feel good if I haven’t written something every day.

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How much do you write a day?