Write Evey Day? Naah!

IMG_0352If you haven’t heard successful writers preach to you about how you absolutely MUST write for a specific amount of time (or some word count) EVERY darn day, then you’re lucky. But it’s the law of the land.

I’m saying it’s not a well-thought-through law. The fact that I’m not a published writer (statistics show I probably never will be) might give you reason to ignore the golden perspective I’m about to unload, but it’s always good to listen to both sides of the big issues, even the stupid side across the aisle.

You’ve heard that practice makes perfect. Nothing could be further from the truth. As my quadriplegic day-trader friend, Mike Reed at http://www.tradestalker.com, says: “Practice does not make perfect.  Only perfect practice makes perfect.” He should know. The Dodgers were very interested in him before the accident that caused his paralysis. He played catcher in those days and had legs like tree-trunks. Now he trades for a living and has done remarkably well for over 25 years.

If you practice cavalierly you are practicing mistakes. If your goal is to get in an hour of casual writing every day, you are practicing mistakes.  When you practice doing things wrong, you’re going to do things wrong in the game.

Worse yet, take it from me, it’s twice as difficult to “unlearn” hack writing than it is to learn to do things decently the first time.

How can you practice writing without practicing the natural mistakes of hack writers?

First, reading books about fiction writing is NOT the key. It’s like taking voice lessons without listening to great singers. I did that.

Launching into a five-year story-writing binge and neglecting all those essential zombie hours with the TV and kids doesn’t help your writing much either. I tried it. Great fun, though! Writing fiction is like a drug.

Writing endless long emails arguing politics across the aisle?  That doesn’t help much, either.  You could lose a life-long friend.  I did.

Keeping a journal? Not too sure, I never stuck with it.

Reading the type of book you’re writing? Yeah, that helped me more than anything else, by three orders of magnitude.

I don’t know about this next thing, but… I think a fast reader can read a ton of fiction and not allow it improve his/her/its writing.

I think it’s like singing. You listen to Pavarotti for a while, turn him off, get on the piano and vocalize, try to break into your upper range using his tone quality… Then you go back and try to sing along with him. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you might take some voice lessons or read a book about singing.  The key is listening to a great singer, not a guy who’s charging you 75 bucks an hour to sing art songs that make you want to barf.

The fiction reading that helps me is like this:  I read a little in the first chapter or two, try to remember what’s going on with the mechanics of the story, try to “hear” the way this author puts words together, and then sit down immediately at the keyboard to “vocalize.”  I’m not copying the author.  Strike that.  I’m subconsciously copying the hecque out of her techniques, her flow of words, her range of vocabulary, her use of suspense, surprise, backstory, dialogue, and everything else my tiny mind can absorb. It’s not deliberate copying, of course, it’s the kind of thing you could honestly not realize you’re doing at all. It’s what toddlers do when they learn their native tongue: absorbing the gestalt of adult professionals.

There’s no shame in learning a new language or skill the way children do. Wisdom, yeah, but no shame.

One time I took some notes out of Collin’s book, “The Hunger Games,” and posted them on this blog. (They’re still here.) They were notes to myself, but later I edited them a little to make things slightly less unreadable – just in case someone might ever read them.

Analyzing and breathing in a published author’s story, writing down the thoughts, and reviewing them before writing my own stuff helped me more than anything – in terms of fiction writing. Watching “Predator” helped me more in personal relationships.

Should you write every day?


Not unless you can’t help it. I write pretty much every day, but it’s an unhealthy obsession, not a duty. And I try hard not to practice mistakes. But I’d be better off writing fewer hours at a time and doing a lot less editing.

Whether you write every day or not, I hope you take my priceless and infallible advice: thoughtfully read some good fiction before you start writing – every time, if possible.

If you have enough self-discipline, limit yourself to “perfect” practice… writing as well as the professional whose influence you cherish, whose books you can’t put down. Just five minutes of that is invaluable. Five years of daily re-enforcing hack mistakes while reading books about avoiding hack mistakes doesn’t get you far. Trust me, I’ve tried it.

M. Talmage Moorehead

Words versus Story


I do not have OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder)! <== Denial – not just a river in Egypt.

First draft: I had a girlfriend in college who, I’m sure, had OCD because[.] [S]she had all the symptoms this shrink dude listed on the board during a his lecture.

Second draft: I had a girlfriend who, I’m sure, had OCD. She had all the symptoms that a psychologist listed during a lecture.

Third draft: I once had a girlfriend who had OCD for sure. When we were dating I happened to hear a psychologist lecturing on [obsessive compulsive disorder.]the subject, and Hhe listed a half a dozen quirks that this girls carried around with her had. It was something of a revelation to me.

At this point I realize I’m focusing on words and not on story, so I get frustrated and something like this happens…

Fourth draft: I once had this girlfriend who drove me abso-blumin-lutely crazy with her antics. She couldn’t make decisions, she talked like as if she‘d could never [were incapable of] hurt[ing] a flea – always in this sing-songy voice that I was dumb enough to believe[d] – until the first time she [finally] exploded at me. After that, we fought every day over the smallest, stupidest little things. I‘d had never met anyone like her [in my life], but when this [a] psychiatrist came [happened to come] through and lectured our [my] class on OCD, I finally [immediately] understood [her] this girl. She had it all. E [e]very symptom on his the doc’s list[.] [It] sounded like as if he’d also dated her the girl.

See! Not a touch of OCD.

The big problem, even after I realize I’m getting bogged down with word editing and I’ve made a brand new (fourth) attempt to focus on the story rather than the words, I still wind up “word editing.”

Worshiping the words and neglecting the ideas, the content, the way the thing feels, the kind of person that seems to have written it (the voice)… this is my greatest sin as a fiction writer.

When my wife reads my stories, she says that she has to keep going back and re-reading awkward sentences.  OK, she doesn’t say “awkward,” but we know.

My daughter says, “You know how you always say that good lyrics shouldn’t be too concrete?  Well, it seems like you’re sort of writing that way in your stories… like you’re writing lyrics.”

So I write myself notes saying, “DO NOT EDIT TODAY!!!

And I write posts like this one, saying that you might want to learn from my bad example.

I really try.

Recently I was listening to an interview of some elite professor talking about literary fiction. He said, ahem, “one can teach a person anything” about writing fiction except “the voice.”  He said that writers are born with or without “the voice.”

I’m rolling my eyes.

“The voice” is the holy grail of writers who give up on themselves and the hard work of writing a meaningful page-turner.

But after sounding like a typical university elitist for most of the interview, the professor said something interesting. Basically this…

“As great writers develop, their writing style becomes simpler, less flowery, less filled with fancy verbs and clever twists of phrase.”

To me, this implies less self-consciousness. These great writers became more comfortable with themselves as their writing progressed from great to greater.

So why not start your writing career with simple sentences that don’t draw attention to themselves? Why not use verbs that come naturally to you? Why not give clever twists of phrase the same meager attention they get in your normal conversation?

I can imagine that if my own fiction were to improve, it would become easier to read because the sentence structure would be more natural, less self-conscious, less wanna-be clever and even further from poetic.

My stories would not be “well written” in the judgement of elites. But I’d be fine with that if only my wife and daughter sat spellbound from start to finish.

M. Talmage Moorehead

Read First Chapters – Only

aafterA meaningful page-turner develops that quality early on. It “hooks ’em in the first ten pages.”

The term, “hook” seems off-putting to me – like referring to the ecstatic magic of falling in love as, “bonding.”

But here’s a valuable suggestion from my sister-in-law. Go to Amazon and find a book that might be somewhat similar to a story you would write. Read the first few pages for free. See where they hook you and how. Take notes.

Buy the book only if you’re hooked.

Then go to the bottom of the page where they list similar books and do the same thing with those.  Read the first parts of every story you can.  I did this recently and it was an eye-opener that taught me a lot at the subconscious level.

It’s said that we will never become successful writers if we don’t read a lot of fiction.

I believe it, but still, I don’t personally enjoy reading fiction as much as I enjoy writing it. Reading fiction is a lot of work for slow readers like me. It seems overly time-consuming. And the more I love a story, the slower I read it for some dumb reason.

To my diseased mind, reading nonfiction is more fun than reading fiction! Ridiculous. And I want to be a fiction writer?

Yeah, I know. You read tons of fiction. You have since you were a kid. That’s great! Kudos. But one of your writer friends doesn’t. The quiet one. So hear me out.

A work of fiction has an infinite number of complex things going on simultaneously. The elements are too many, too subtle, and too complex to take into your mind cognitively, analyze and master without reading stories.

To become fluent in a new language, you have to move in with people who speak it exclusively. You have to be very young, too, if you want to avoid having an accent. Many of the important subtleties of connotation and the body language of the vocal apparatus cannot be taught, they can only be absorbed.

That’s like learning to write fiction.

Parts of it are beyond cognitive discussion. They’re machine level language to the mind. “Implied memory,” some call it.

Honestly, reading fiction kicks my butt.

I recently finished, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. As slowly as I read, it took forever to finish Green’s touching work of art. Of course, I couldn’t put it down, so that meant I was reading instead of doing a bunch of other things I “should” have been doing.

So I felt a little guilty about that.

Plus, I cried my eyes out all over the place when I was reading it. Not just in one spot, but here, there and at the end. Huge sobs, I’m sorry! I was a basket case by the time I was done. But inspired. Perhaps a little discouraged, too, because Green is orders of magnitude better than I am as a storyteller and writer.

Basically, I was worthless after that powerful story. (You gotta read it!)

So for me, reading only the first chapters of books that I don’t own is a useful discipline. It keeps me from spending too many consecutive hours reading. It teaches me the unteachable subtleties of the most practical component of success: hooking the reader in the first ten pages. It improves my writing like nothing else on earth. And it spares me the painful tears that great stories wring out of me.

Give it a try, maybe. First chapters only.

I want to give my sister-in-law credit again for giving me this valuable learning technique. Thanks !!!

M. Talmage Moorehead

Slow Irony


Some minds kick out fresh ideas like machines. Some struggle for one thing new, but when it comes, it’s magic.

When I dream up something that excites me, I’m always away from my computer, usually in my car. And I usually forget what it was.

I tell myself to carry a pen and paper everywhere, or a recorder, or a cell phone to text myself.

But none of that works in a car.

So I collect my second best stuff in Google Docs and use it in new stories or any time I’m stuck.

I’m naturally disorganized, but I’ve spent my whole life fighting it, so now some things look pretty decent. On the outside.

So I’m trying to use an outline now.

I’ll organize a plot, but my characters don’t seem to like having their freedom taken away. They’ll follow my suggestions for a while, but always veer, usually way off track.

When I let them go too far, the story’s conflict dies because they don’t like fights. They want to chat about ideas.

Letting them go free improves their personalities. But I have to grab them by the ears and yank them back into the fray or it’s all too boring to read.

Having my second best ideas on hand opens many possibilities that wouldn’t occur to me if I didn’t have them.

Walking generates good things, too.

I read a book on writing years ago in which the famous fiction author said that her best ideas came when she was out walking slowly in the fresh air. She had walked too fast for years, thinking it was the exercise that she needed. But it wasn’t until she began walking slowly that new ideas flowed.

Slowing down is magic.

I know an amazing pianist with the fastest fingers I’ve seen. She teaches students to “play it in slow,” when they practice. This builds the neural connections faster and better than anything else. Playing slowly, pushing each key to the bottom with perfect technique, burns it in so you play with excellent technique up to speed. Not only do you play better, you play faster.

A lightening-fast jazz guitarist told me, “The slower you practice scales, the faster you’ll become.”


I’m always forgetting to deliberately put irony into my story, but it adds a lot. And it’s a big factor in life…

For instance, “less is more” seems to be a fundamental principle of copy-editing: Fewer words carry more power per square inch.

And “slow is fast” when you’re searching for plots, settings and characters. You’ll save time and gain quality if you slowly consider all the options before you write a word.

“Boring is exciting” when you’re creating scenes: If I write quickly through a scene, thinking only about plot and dialogue, slapping a wall here and a door there, it’s not a boring process for me, but it doesn’t cast the spell that excites readers.

Some writers easily bring objects into clarity with few words. I work at this because the less you have to say to describe something, the more clearly the reader will see it. Another irony, I guess: “Briefer descriptions bring sharper imagery.”

This irony sometimes makes me select objects based largely on how efficiently I can describe them.

I walk the scene and list things that add to the mood. Then sort of rank them as to how efficiently I can describe them.

A brick fireplace, for instance, brings a clear image. Mundane, but pow, two words and there it is.

A golden statue of a duck-billed platypus drinking a martini may fit your story, but what’s the value to work ratio? (The emotional value of the image weighed against the work of reading its description.)

Value is complex and subjective. But a valuable image may be able to foreshadow or make back-story feel organic. If so, maybe the platypus is worth the extra words.

An unavoidable story culmination may be more satisfying than a novel, unexpected one. Too much surprise can ruin the surprise. No one writing a mystery novel would introduce the killer a paragraph before the crime is solved.

If the final scenes don’t flow from the buildup, the reader has to work to suspend disbelief. If there’s too much complexity at the end, the work of comprehension crowds out the emotion.

When I write, I latch on to things that ultimately can’t be explained. Their novelty seduces me. I tell myself I can explain this batch of critters later, I’m keeping them, they’re so bizarre!

When later rolls around, I wish I’d stuck to the sanity of plot. I struggle at scenarios to explain the inexplicable. A rank waste of time.

Perhaps the irony is that a single somewhat unlikely object is more interesting than a room-full of shocking impossibilities.

And a simple explanation is better than an ingenious contrivance.


M. Talmage Moorehead