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The Conan O’Brien School of Creative Writing: 7 Comedic Ideas to Break Writer’s Block

Do you ever watch a comedian and wonder where he gets his inspiration for comedy? The answer may surprise you … and the creativity involved is just the type of thing to break any writer’s block.

7. Robert DeNiro: Who knew someone like Robert DeNiro could be a comedian? Isn’t he a serious actor? He broke the mold with Analyze This and Analyze and has never looked back! We’re glad he took the skills he learned as a dramatic actor and ventured into the world of comedy. Apply what you have learned from other fields of study to give a fresh take on a subject. A lot of comedy does this very thing. Women are like computers because … . Men are like dogs because …. It opens an entire new way of thinking about a subject that just seems old.

6. David Letterman: Will it float? Letterman’s famous bit is also something most realists ask about any new venture: Will it stay afloat? Does it hold water? Try out any good idea just like a comedian does his jokes. They never get it right the first time either!

5. Jerry Seinfeld: Take the everyday and turn it on its head. Jerry Seinfeld was the master of doing this. He took common everyday events and people and made us laugh about them. He noticed people who stood too close, talked too low, walked with their arms by their sides, etc. You might find inspiration in your everyday life, just by intentionally thinking about the everyday all around you.

4. Gallagher: Sometimes you just need to take Gallagher’s approach and get out the sledgehammer.  Bust things up. Think outside the box? No, smash it instead! Sometimes you may need to just toss out an old idea and start over. Don’t be afraid to use File 13!

3. George Carlin: Take the George Carlin approach. His famous bit was about the words you can’t say on TV. Sometimes you need to purposefully go the places others say you can’t go. Don’t be afraid to take risks and push the limits! Risks lead to success. Ask the tough questions. Write about unmentionable subjects. You may find opposition, but you will break new ground.

2. Jay Leno: Sometimes you need to revisit the ideas you threw away before! Ask Jay Leno if it is OK to say, “I made a mistake!” Old ideas come around again. An idea has its time. Knowing when that is takes real talent! —even if it means taking back something you didn’t want.

1. Conan O’Brien: Think about the opposite extreme. Conan O’Brien has mastered the art of spoofing characters who are the most unlikely or undesirable you can imagine. Remember the bear? I’m embarrassed just thinking about it. All good brainstorming sessions take off this way too. Put the craziest ideas out there first. Sometimes you have to go through 15-20 ideas before you get to a real winner. Don’t be afraid to think of the wild, stupid ideas. They lead to creative, innovative ones.

7 Fiction Writing Strategies of Ernest Hemingway

A giant among novelists, Ernest Hemingway can teach all writers many excellent lessons on how to write fiction. Here are 7 tried and true Hemingway techniques and strategies that you can apply to your own writing. I’m not suggesting that you try to write just like Hemingway. That would be impossible, derivative, and get you nowhere since he’s already written in his own style better than anyone else can. But you can consider his methods and see how they might help you become a better writer in your own style, your own voice.

1) Make your writing the embodiment of your life Few writers have ever made better use of their own life experiences than Hemingway. He drank, he fought, he hunted, he fished, he partied, he worked hard, he was wounded, and he wounded others. And it’s all in his books and stories in one way or another. He took his life and turned it into art. As Hemingway advised: “Write the truest sentence that you know.”

2) Be as honest and accurate as you can with your pain and wounds “You have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously,” he said. “But when you get the damned hurt, use it…don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist.” Truth truly is stranger and more powerful than fiction. As the great critic Malcolm Cowley noted, Hemingway was like Poe, Hawthorne and Melville before him—writers who were “haunted and nocturnal.” Interestingly enough, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a better foursome of American authors than this one.

3) Utilize the Iceberg Principle Just as an iceberg is 7/8ths hidden, beneath the surface, Hemingway’s stories all have rich and complex backstories—just like our own lives. So much is left unsaid or assumed because it happened and they don’t talk about it. “Whatever you know, leave out,” he said. To affect this sense of an iceberg, of real lives having been led by your characters before your story begins, try these two methods:

–          Begin “in medias res”, in the middle of things. Start your story in the middle, get immediately into the action, the conflict. Don’t have a long windup. Pitch the ball fast.

–          Write detailed character bios for yourself. Even if none of what you write makes it into the actual story, write pages and pages of biographical information about each main character. Get to really know who your characters are. Give them lives and experiences before the story starts.

4) Use understatement and irony Nothing’s more boring than a person or writer who tells you everything and does so with no subtlety or indirection whatsoever. Personality in characters, as in real people, resides to a large degree in what they say and how they say it. In your own narration and dialogue, don’t tell us everything. Hold back. Tone down. Be understated. Be ironic. Leave things out. Embrace the silences. Hemingway learned from the Impressionist painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries the paradoxical lesson that what’s left out of the picture makes it stronger and more vivid.

5) Don’t talk about it Whatever it is—death, war, violence, sex—don’t talk about it, show it. Don’t fall into your own voice going on and on about how tragic, painful, awful or wonderful something is. Describe it in such a way that readers actually feel and understand the emotion you want to evoke. T.S. Eliot called this the “objective correlative: A set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”

6) Shape your plots in a 3 stage quest: from innocence, to alienation, then aspiration; or from departure, to initiation, to return; or from rejection, to avoidance, to the quest for something new. This 3 stage plot structure is mythically appealing to a reader. It’s the stuff of epics, bestsellers, and blockbuster movies.

7) Violently edit your writing Take an axe and chop off all sentimentality, discussion, explanation, extraneous words, hello’s, goodbye’s (unless they’re a profound part of the plot), he said’s, she said’s, adjectives, clichés, and definitely any metaphors that aren’t as fresh as tomorrow’s Tweet. Aim for a direct cinematic contact between the eye and the object. As Chekov pointed out, the colder and harder a writer writes, the more deeply and movingly emotional the result is likely to be.

5 Ways to Write Like a Modernist

Modernism was an artistic, cultural, and even philosophical period from approximately 1885-1935 or so.  Why should that matter to a writer? How could knowing a little bit about Modernism help you write a better novel or story? Because knowing the history and lessons learned and imparted by those who came before us in any discipline or field can only make us better at what we do. The application of knowledge and education works cumulatively and synergistically. The more we know, the better we are at what we do. Does anything make more sense than that?

#1 Foster and express a rebellious spirit

The Victorian world was no longer. The old values were gone or exposed as false or hypocritical; the feeling was that new values must be created. The philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche had a profound influence, scorning the idea of getting at truth, believing that there is no truth, no reality, no absolute. All is relative and a matter of individual perception.

He believed in “undecidables”—in life, language, and art. Writers who rebel, creating new ways of writing or thinking about things, are always in demand. Risk takers win big. Writers who play it safe lose.

#2 Understand, recognize, and shun decadence

When a form of something (art, lifestyle, fashion, culture, civilization, government, etc.) has gone as far as it can and no one can think of another direction for it, that’s decadence. So much writing today is decadent. It’s so derivative and redundant. Do we really need another wizard, vampire, or dragon fantasy novel? Decadence stresses the invalidity of structure, believing that there can be no such thing as a coherent, truly workable design in nature or society. Revolt by writing something absolutely fresh and radical. Don’t be an imitator; be an innovator.


#3 Think and write like a Romantic

The Modernists loved Romanticism. Study it as they did, to learn its lessons and borrow its timeless aspects for your own writing. Self-consciousness, self-reliance, and the imagination’s power to create are almost obsessions of Romanticism. Though concerned with the commonplace—what’s natural, simple, real—Romantics sought the absolute by transcending the actual. It’s ironic that the Modernists, like the Romanticists, searched for the “Ideal.” Lace your story together with that paradoxical thread—characters realistically seeking what’s idealistic—and you’ll have a winner that will captivate readers.

#4 Experiment with what were then new notions of the nature of consciousness

Freud and Jung were Modernists who posited that consciousness is multiple; that the past is always present and coloring one’s present reaction; and that people are their memories. In literature, these ideas were manifested in Faulkner’s “stream of consciousness” style and Hemingway’s “iceberg principle.” Writers developed a new kind of reality, one preoccupied with the inner life, the subjective.

#5 Play with the then new views of time itself

Thanks to the Modernists Einstein and Bergson [there sure were a lot of monumentally great Modernists, weren’t there?], time was beginning to be seen not as a series of chronological moments in sequence, but as a continuous flow in the consciousness of the individual, with the ‘already’ merging into the ‘not yet.’ Read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying andSlaughterhouse-5 by Kurt Vonnegut (a 60’s post-Modernist) for what can be done with time-out-of-joint writing. You do not have to write in a chronological order.

The Modernists were a great bunch of artists and personalities. Writers would do well to consider how to incorporate or use for inspiration these five aspects of Modernism in their own work.

Writing Tips by William Faulkner — 4 Big Ideas for Creating a Fictional World

William Faulkner created a massive body of work, distinguished not only for its literary qualities, but for the breadth and depth of its engagement with the human condition. Perhaps his most impressive achievement is that he created an entire world or what Balzac called “a cosmos in miniature.”

1) Set all your stories and novels in one city, county, or state populated by a recurring cast of characters.

Constructing one archetypal county in the American South from the days of Indian possession, through the Civil War to the early 20th century, Faulkner populated it with over 1100 characters who mix and mingle throughout all of his stories.

Think about that for a minute. Pick the city, county, or even state you know best. Stick to it.  Start by writing a series of short stories, all with different main characters who reappear as minor characters in other stories. Then write a novel. As the years go by, you’ll have a growing body of work that’s integrated, fascinating, and a world unto itself.

One great advantage of this approach is that you’ll really know your characters. Not knowing one’s own characters is the major downfall of 75% of fiction writers. Their characters just don’t come to life. Yours will if you live with them and write them for years.

Taken altogether, Faulkner’s novels and stories transcend literature and rise to the level of cultural artifact—a living, breathing chronicle of the South’s soul and soil, its socio-historical reality. Mere history books pale in comparison to the authentic flavor and feel of Faulkner’s moving, soaring saga.

So think big. Enlarge your scope. Write and keep writing. Ten years from now, you will have created your own world if you follow Faulkner’s formula.

2) Infuse your fictional world with cultural depth and insight.

Faulkner was born in the Bible belt, into segregated white society. The tenets of his strict Calvinist-directed Christian faith were strained and twisted by the racism all around him. He knew this world, this culture, this heritage. He investigated it deeply and used it richly in his fiction.

What’s your world like? Your culture? Your family and hood, your experiences and heritage? Write about it. Bring it to life. Explore its traditions, discourse, attitudes, and socio-economic limits, limitations, virtues, vices, and values. Build them into your stories, plots, conflicts, and characters.

It’s what you know and who you are. It’s the real world—according to you. Readers might find it strange and interesting, new and unusual—which will keep them turning pages because they’re fascinated by what you know that they don’t.

Write about what you know and who you are. It’s your best material by far.

3) Think thematically and make your story mean something.

Some of the same themes that infuse Faulkner’s work with such power, feeling and depth—themes which are timeless and universal—can be your themes as well. Think again about your world and your cultural universe—the people, places and experiences that have made your life your life. What do they all mean? How are they manifestations of these themes?

  • Man’s Capacity for Evil This Calvinistic position holds that man is evil.   Look around you at the images of collapse and disintegration, of moral paralysis and spiritual desolation. Capture it in stark depictions and dark descriptions.
  • “The human heart in conflict with itself” As Faulkner put it in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he is concerned mainly with “the human heart in conflict with itself¼.The writer’s duty is to write about man’s soul and his capacity for endurance and compassion and sacrifice.” What a profound statement and guiding principle for any fiction writer to follow.
    • Show your characters engaged in a constant struggle against defeatism, negativism, cynicism, and pessimism.
    • Stress faith in the human heart’s ability to triumph over the failings of the modern human condition: greed, injustice, fear, cowardice, and duplicity.
    • After all, how someone reacts to the negative forces of life is how she should be measured.
  • Primitivism vs. civilization Do you hate or love modern civilization? Has technology distanced us or brought us closer together? Does social media makes us less social? Have the mechanistic forces of modern technology helped destroy the environment and dehumanize the individual?  Are your characters “primitive” or “civilized”?  Can you see, depict, and dissect the hypocrisies of so-called civilized people? For example, are you writing an urban novel? If so, this should be a major theme. Who’s really more “civilized”: the well-to-do or the barely getting by?

4) Try on Faulkner’s Writing Style for Size.

I’m not saying you should try to write like Faulkner. You can’t. No one can. And why try? It’s been done by Faulkner better than anyone else could do it. But, maybe you can learn a few tricks and licks from him, just as young guitarists learn from Hendrix, Van Halen, The Edge, and Clapton.

  • Don’t narrate or report a scene; render it in an impressionistic fashion. Often referred to as “stream of consciousness,” Faulkner’s style is a barrage of long sentences and abstract words, illogically constructed by a free association of images and the projection of events through the memory or consciousness of characters in the form of interior monologue.
  • Faulkner’s vocabulary strains the bounds of the ornate Romanticism to which it constantly alludes.
  • Like life, his prose is paradoxical, appearing at first glance to be rambling and unsettling—a flood of adjectives, two words merged into one, a series of negatives followed by a positive, numerous synonyms for repetition.
  • But if you think about it, his style makes perfect sense as a way to represent in writing the chaotic reality of life’s multiple perspectives, interminable ironies, and incorrigible resistance to simplistic terms.
  • Perhaps paramount and yet rarely mentioned is Faulkner’s mastery of suspense through style: he narrates effects in a dizzying flow of details, invariably suspending the reader’s recognition and the plot’s resolution through a seemingly endless chain of signifying clues dropped almost randomly by various voices from various times and places.

It’s all a matter of practice. In teaching my 6 year old baseball, I’m encouraging him to study all the players’ various batting stances. When he’s in the cage or up to bat in practice, I remind him to try Crawford’s stance and then Damon’s, Longoria’s and Pedroia’s. See what works for him. Ways and means vary; execution is everything.

5 Moby Dick Ways to Write BIG Novels

Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick. Think we can learn something about writing from him? May-be.

If you fancy yourself a novelist and haven’t read Moby Dick, that’s like a drummer never having listened to Keith Moon or Travis Barker, or an artist never having gazed at a Picasso or a Monet. Suck it up and pick up, Nook, or Kindle that Top 5 all-time classic novel. Easily Top 5. Maybe Top 2.

And that’s just the big Moby. Melville wrote lots of great fiction.

Here’s a short list of some takeaways from Melville for you to dwell on. Deep stuff.

Eschatology never had a better frontman

It’s all about radicality. You like radical, right? Who doesn’t? Everybody does. If they say they don’t, they don’t know what it means.

Life, death, God. Beginnings, endings, eternity, infinity, everything, nothing. That’s eschatology. That’s Melville.

Only the biggest themes and subjects for him:

  • A great white whale with at least 25 possible meanings (read the chapter specifically devoted to him).
  • “The universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.”
  • A megalomaniacal Faustian Ahab, who pursues and attacks the baddest creature on earth because he’d “strike the sun if it insulted him.”

Look around you. Find the big subjects. Match them with big characters, big action, big settings. Make your protagonist a cosmic seeker, for whom “Failure is the true test of greatness,” said Melville. “Think big,” as Donald Trump advises. Write big like Melville does.

Plot stories around the “inscrutable alternatives.”

Oppositions, ambiguities, ironies, and multiple undecidable choices make for great conflicts.

Who do you know that’s a big personality or has done big, crazy things? Who is that person’s opposite, foil, enemy, or antagonist? Pit them against each other on a sprawling, stage; a set with no boundaries.

In Typee, one of his novels before Moby Dick, Melville painted a vivid picture of the savage cannibals on a South Sea island. He’d actually been there. So he knew what he was talking about when he depicted them as virtuous and happy. As far better people than the “civilized” explorers who landed on their island and got themselves eaten alive. Talk about an “inscrutable alternative.”

Where have you been? There’s 8 million stories in your own naked city. What have you done? Plenty. But you don’t want to write about it. Why not? Afraid of spilling the beans on yourself? Spill the damn beans.

Empty your secret closets. Just change the names. Tweak the jobs, the setting, little details. You’ll be all right. Everybody’s a fine young (or old) cannibal, in one way or another.

We all have stories we don’t want to tell. And those are the exact ones we should tell. Because they’re damn good stories.

There’s no better story than good guys vs. bad guys

In Billy Budd, Melville pits the innocent Billy against the evil Claggert, who wants Billy dead just because everybody likes him.

Doesn’t that ring a bell? I can barely estimate how many twisted demons disguised as human beings that I’ve run up against in my life who wanted me dead just because someone else liked me.

Queequeg, a tattooed from head to toe (he makes Jesse James look like a Baptist preacher) cannibal harpooner in Moby Dick is the nicest guy in the book. Even nicer than the innocent white boy Ishmael, who becomes his best bud on the whaling ship.

When one after another “civilized” Christian insults, rejects, and condemns him, Ishmael defends him. But Queequeg’s above and beyond their pathetic bigotry: he reacts to every curse with calm aplomb.

See, he can throw a harpoon 40 feet into a whale’s eye. And kill that badass whale. Don’t mess with nice guys. Or their friends. The Big Q’s got Ishmael’s back.

Couple casting. That’s what a novelist does. Cast inscrutable opposites together. Lethal WeaponButch Cassidy & the Sundance KidMidnight Cowboy, Mutt & Jeff, Thelma & Louise, Huck & Jim, Jack & Rose, Bonnie & Clyde. The list is endless…

Make your characters allegorical

Again, think big. Create characters that stand for more than just themselves. Symbolize them.

Take Ahab. He’s Faust. Who was Faust? Dante’s dude who sold his soul to the devil for 24 years of power, fame, fortune, women, and fun. He wanted to be God.

Ahab played God. He went out way too far, all around the world, into unfamiliar oceans, chasing the glory and revenge of killing the whale that had bitten off his leg. Crazy dude. Just like the crazy parts in you and me—the blind pride, the utter foolishness, the inflamed desire for revenge.

Ishmael is Everyman. Not bad, not perfect, no genius, no great shakes, but not a waste of space either.

He’s drifting through life like his namesake in the Old Testament: the son of Abraham and Hagar who was driven from his home and wandered in barren lands. Not so sure of things; a little bit lost; a little of everything but not a lot of anything.

And then there’s Queequeg—the Noble Savage. The personification of the question: just what is a “civilized” human being, anyway? Tell me you don’t know some noble savages. If you don’t, you haven’t been around much. And if you haven’t been around much, exactly what do you think you can write about? Not having been around much? That’s exciting.

Here’s a plan: Write about spiritualism vs. materialism

We’re not talking religion or going to church vs. making money and living the high life, necessarily. It’s beyond that.

It’s eschatological: all matter exists to represent some idea. Like Plato in the cave seeing his shadow from the fire light cast upon the wall, Ahab knows that everything’s an illusion, really.

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks….Who’s over me? Truth has no confines.”

Even people who haven’t been around much, have at least been around their own minds. It’s a cosmos in there.

And when you use that cosmos and really look for stories to tell, first do this: turn your back to the fire. Turn away from the light. You might the real truth, the deep meaning, in darkness, in the shadowland that lies behind the story, the people, the events.

Look at it this way: everything’s a re-presentation of the ideal. What ‘s real and what have you just made up in that mind of yours? Can you put your typing finger smack dab in the middle of truth? Nail it? Rip off people’s masks? Expose them for what they are?

If you can, you’ve got yourself a novel.

4 Ways to Deconstruct Writing: Are Your Words Yours or Are You Theirs?

Deconstruction is a radical critical theory popularized by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. He and others after him took the analysis of language and communication deeper than it had ever gone before. In essence, they tore apart words, sentences, pieces of writing—deconstructing them—showing how all of our efforts to communicate with each other are constructions. We build narratives and dialogue, erecting buildings of words. Deconstructionists delight in making all articles, arguments or novels—just to name a few word buildings–come tumbling down like a house of cards. How do they do that? Why do they do that? I’ll discuss their methods and motives in another article. First, let’s discuss their tenets, their 4 main suppositions about language. Learning some deconstructive theory could help you become a better writer. You can never know too much critical theory.


1) Realize that there’s nothing certain in language

  • All words have radically unstable histories and meanings. Visit the dictionary and you’ll see at least a few definitions—known as denotations—for every word in there. How can that be? Then if you trace the words in each definition, you’ll find that they have several definitions, too. And if you follow their historical trail back as far as you can go, you’ll find they all started with words from other languages that themselves had many definitions. So what can truly be determined by any word? You say one thing and I hear another.
  • Words are signifiers that have no solid signified, no essential meaning. There is no right interpretation; there’s always more, an infinite loop. Think of great lawyers or politicians. They’re consummate deconstructionists. You can’t ever pin them down because they’re champions at using slippery words.
  • Our ideas, stories and articles can never be truly “original.” But our construction of those ideas, stories, and articles can be.

2) Embrace the fact that all words are metaphors

  • Language doesn’t work the way we think it works. There is no essential entity, no origin, no point “A”. Our writing always arrives at the abyss. It’s bottomless. An endless chain of signification. You can always write more; always go in a different direction or tangent.
  • Your texts always leave a residue from the past, always connect to other texts, other writers, thinkers, sources. All of your words re-present things or feelings or events or experiences or ideas. Your words are not the things, feeling, events, experiences, or ideas themselves. They are metaphors.
  • You can never fully re-present those entities in words. Your words, your articles, your novels are floating, dying, ever changing before your eyes, like the night sky. What do we see in the heavens? Stars? No. We see ancient history. We see light that has travelled for millions of years from stars that could very well be burned out and gone. We see what isn’t there anymore.
  • Writing’s the same way. We write and what’s written down refers to what isn’t there anymore. It’s either different or gone entirely.

3) The author is irrelevant

  • Do you really think that some subjective, independent, fully autonomous you is in charge of your words? Your writing writes you. Words constitute your thoughts. Words existed before you did. You just entered the earth’s atmosphere and splashed down into a swirling soup of words. Those words you write exist independently from you, the author.
  • It’s a convention of grammar to write in the syntactical subject/verb/object order. This structure asserts the authority of the author, the subject, you and me. We’re in the first position in most of our sentences. This artificial construct is an ideological position we created. We humans put ourselves first: before action, before events, before statements, before ideas, before everything else in our spoken and written communication. Rather pompous and pathetically blind to reality, actually.
  • In reality, all else came before us. Before we ever existed, countless trillions of ideas and actions and events existed and occurred that are similar to those we have and experience in our own little lives. We are nothing but conduits—cables through which the collective unconscious and the continuum of history flows.

4) The “not-said” matters even more

  • When you’re with someone or talking with someone, are there ever thoughts in your head that you don’t express in words? Only a few million in your lifetime so far, right? The same goes for your writing. In fact, there are the things you intentionally don’t write, many more things you don’t even think of writing, and—here’s the kicker—many things in your writing that you didn’t even intend to say.
  • The reader reads into your words also, reading meaning you never consciously meant to convey.
  • There’s an unconscious text inside every text. It’s an ethics of the Other: what’s excluded from the text is still in the text. It’s there by the very act of being “not-there.” Your writing contains meanings and messages that your brain never processed. They reside in the cracks and gaps, in the connotations and traces—despite your delusion that you control the cognition and communication process.
  • Words have a life of their own—whether they’re written down or not. As Heidegger posited, all writing contains the seeds of its opposite; no concept can be understood except in relation to its opposite.

Pretty radical stuff, I know. You might be saying: “What a load of crap! Is that what they teach in college?” Listen, for the decons, it’s all fun and games. They love pulling the rug out from under any book, article, or conversation. But, hey: it’s fun to play along. Wii for the mind. Just for the heck of it, why not deconstruct some of your own writing? Give it go. Gaze warily at your own words. Consider alternative ways of seeing and saying what’s ostensibly the same thing. Trace your words’ etymological roots. Engage yourself with yourself. Wonder a while: Are your words yours or are you theirs?

4 Ways to Write Realistically—Whatever That Is

Realism Seems Simple enough, but…it’s not.

Everyone knows what’s real, right? So why have a movement over it? Why even wonder or discuss it? It’s just a natural thing, isn’t it? Realism. What’s the big mystery?

Well, the term Realism itself is problematic. It depends so much on your conception of what’s real. And that depends, as so much does, on how sane you are. And sanity is a slippery term too, isn’t it? Some people are so sane it drives them insane.

If you think too much about this crazy world, you’ll go nuts. Just look at some of the radio and TV commentators and talk show hosts. They’re so “sane,” so rooted and obsessed with the political “realities” of life—as defined by them—that they’ve become ranting lunatics. Thanks to such extremism, Realism has effectively lost its meaning.

Write down to earth

Back in the day, Realism was a revolutionary way of thinking, living, and writing. It developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries with America’s rise as a superpower, thanks in large part to capitalism and industrialization.

A rather well-off middle class loved their new prosperity and having more money. They no longer wanted to read fiction unrelated to real life.

So the fiction writers—all at once almost—turned from fanciful, Romantic plots and language, to real life material and words. Prior to Romanticism, most fiction writers tried their damndest to sound more educated, distant and aristocratic in their vocabularies and stories.

Realism made it okay to write about everyday people in everyday words. Truth be told, it’s my favorite way of writing.

Today’s generation of bloggers are Neo-Realists. The best ones write like people speak. They write about what exists in the world around them: work, social media, making money, being successful.

They’re fun and entertaining to read because they waste no words. Their writing is clean, clear, crisp. Right to the point. And often very funny. Brevity is, indeed, the soul of wit.

This same Neo-Realist style can apply to fiction. You want to write about dragons and vampires? Okay, fine. Some of the best stories are about real life fire-breathing “loved ones” and blood-sucking friends.

Whatever your subject, say it fast and sharp. For starters, ditch the adjectives and adverbs. Trash the hype. Respect every word and every second of your reader’s time.

Be objective, cool, detached

It might not be you. You might be highly subjective, emotional, and frantic. That’s fine, I guess. But try the opposite on for size.

Get yourself out of yourself. 30 minutes before you sit down to write, pop a Xanex if you have to. Frazzled fiction grates on the nerves after a few pages.

What’s really intriguing is a story that’s tense and roller-coaster wild, yet written in ice-cold, steely-eyed prose. Tell just the facts, ma’am. The remarkable, amazing facts. With no expression and no hyperbole. Like Trump negotiating a deal. Or Moneymaker over a $1m pot at the World Series of Poker.

Emotionless narration chills a reader to the bone.

Plot around complex ethical choices

One of the hardest parts of being human is making tough decisions. That’s reality on hyper drive. Do I do this? Do I do that? Geez. It’s gut-wrenching. And riveting reading.

  • Huck Finn was torn between helping Jim, his black slave friend, escape to freedom, or doing what Aunt Polly and the Widow Douglas would want him to—turn Jim in. After a prolonged, agonizing fight with himself, Huck decides to side with him Jim and help him escape from slavery. In his moment of decision, Huck says, “All right, I’ll go to hell then.”
  • Howells’ Silas Lapham, who’s broke and needs money, still refuses to sell the mills.
  • Earning his Red Badge of Courage, Crane’s Civil War soldier, Henry Fleming, despite formerly deserting, returns to his regiment and leads a triumphant charge against the enemy.

The real world—whatever that is—lies all around you. You’re in it, my friend. Your best stories are growing inside you right now, in the struggles you’re having with difficult choices, but you need to be grounded, objective, cool, and detached to write them into existence—before they write you out.

That’s right: the stakes are high. If you want to be a great novelist, you have to face the present reality: you’re not one yet. So get real before real gets you.

6 Writing Tips You Can Use from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899)

How great is Heart of Darkness?

I don’t ordinarily rate works of art. However, in my opinion, Heart is the greatest novella (short novel) ever written.

Conrad was inspired by his trip to the Congo (now known as Zaire). At the time, the Congo was a Belgian colony. Perhaps the greatest insight Conrad learned there was that the “civilized Europeans” were anything but that in their domination and enslavement of the natives.

#1: Write about Imperialism and Colonialism

You think you know nothing about those subjects? You think they’re irrelevant and absent in your life? Think again.

Heart is an expose into the Belgians’ exploitation of the “savage races.” One of its subjects is racism and the degradation and demoralization of one people at the hands of another. Ultimately, the exploiters and degraders themselves were destroyed by their own actions and attitudes.

Now…doesn’t that ring a bell?

  • Do you know anybody who acts domineering and tries to colonize people? How about your ex-boyfriend or ex-spouse? Or, worse yet, your current “love” partner? Feeling dominated, used, or abused?
  • Have you ever experienced or witnessed people or an institution wield its power and authority in a vicious, selfish, exploitative way?
  • Know any pimps?
  • Know any thugs?
  • Know any criminals?
  • Know any racists?
  • Know any hypocritical, unethical, or corrupt cops, politicians, teachers, leaders, pastors, or others in positions of authority?
  • Know any just plain old assholes?

If you haven’t experienced any of those things or known any of those types, you’ve lived a charmed life. Or you don’t get out much. Or maybe I’ve been out too much…I don’t know…but I do know that all those situations and people make for great plots and characters.

#2: Tap into your subconscious

Heart is a psychological masterpiece about the subconscious mind. Influenced by Dante, Conrad takes his readers on an Inferno-like descent into the underworld of human existence—searching for lost idealism, a center that holds, a meaning to life, and the essence of our existence.

Take your readers deep inside the underworld of your life. I’ve mentioned this before: the best stories are the ones you don’t want to tell about yourself. You don’t want anybody to know just how bad or twisted you really can be.

“I’m not bad or twisted,” you may be saying. Okay. Have it your way. You’re a veritable saint. You oughta be canonized.

Come off it. You lost your idealism somewhere along the way. Write about it.

  • Your center sometimes nearly rips to shreds and flies apart.
  • In your shadowy or shaddy moments, during your worst experiences, you’ve wondered if life is meaningless.
  • What’s the point of living?
  • Maybe writing about those darkest days is exactly what you need to do to achieve some self-awareness and a catharsis.

#3: Apply some epistemology

Conrad explored the boundaries and limits of epistemology: how it is that we know things. How do we know what we know is one of philosophy’s greatest unanswered questions.

What’s the exact mental and emotional process we undertake in learning and understanding “reality”?

  • You could have a character always questioning things.
  • A philosopher type playing off a foil—someone’s who’s the opposite, who questions nothing or disagrees with everything, or who answers with non-answers.
  • Epistemological dialogue can be extremely funny.
  • I’m not talking about having your characters go on and on like two boring know-it-alls.
  • Make it short, snappy, ridiculous even.

One of Conrad’s greatest achievements was his ability to write self-aware, meta-novels—stories that call attention to the art of story-telling itself. You could try that by having a character who declares that he knows he’s a character in a book, or in God’s story, or that he’s treated like he’s not even real. Maybe he questions whether he’s even alive or it’s all a dream.

  • Like Alice down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.
  • Or the Who’s calling out for help on their speck of dust world, and only Horton hears them.
  • Or “Young Goodman Brown” sneaking off into the woods late at night to consort with the devil and his crew.
  • Or the entire 6 seasons of LOST—lives in limbo. Limbo, purgatory, anywhere between two dimensions is a Twilight Zone popular plot.

#4: Tell a twice-told tale

Conrad’s stories are often told through other people’s accounts of them, which are themselves often twice-told tales passed down orally, from several conflicting viewpoints or perspectives.

Conrad employs narrators who confront themselves, both in other characters and in telling the story of their own pasts. The narrator of Heart, Marlow is on a spiritual voyage of self-discovery, where he meets up with his own flawed, fatalistic nature and discovers the darkness in his own heart.

Thus, the reader must take an active role in attempting to discern among the ambiguous and competing versions or accounts of unreliable narrators.

  • Making a reader wonder ‘What the heck is going on? Who are these people?’ creates great curiosity and suspense. If you want answers and you want them now, you’re hooked on sticking with it until you get them.
  • You might have a character tell a story to a group around a campfire, or stuck in an elevator, or, better yet, somewhere mysterious.
  • A vague and ambiguous setting. We’re not sure where they are. We don’t know who the group is, or who the story-teller is, or why he’s telling the story—until the end of the story.

The reader is hooked into hearing this story within a story. The outside story is just as mysterious and page-turning as the inside story. Both stories are meta-stories. And I’ve never met a reader yet who isn’t fascinated by meta-stories.

#5: Try writing an apocalyptic story—they’re always bestsellers and blockbusters

The end of the world. Earth invaded by aliens. A meteor striking New York City. Hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, tornados, tsunamis, riots, war. They never fail to attract an audience—provided you have characters caught in the middle of them.

Apocalypse Now, the extraordinary Francis Ford Coppola Vietnam War movie, is based, in part, on Heart. After reading Heart, watch the movie again, or for the first time, and you’ll have an insightful and fruitful intellectual experience noting the similarities (and differences) between Heart and Coppola’s masterpiece.

#6: Study and work hard like Conrad did

Conrad was born in Poland and didn’t learn English until he was 21 years old, which is a remarkable fact considering he’s one of the very finest prose stylists in the history of English literature. How did he pull that off? Hard work.


That’s the final point of this chapter: Read great books, watch great movies, and write every day.

Study the art of storytelling. Study like you’re studying for the most important final exam of your life. If you want to be a great writer, you’re taking a final exam every time you sit down to write.

And you should sit down to write at least 3-4 hours every single day. Not every other day. Every day.