Category Archives: Great Writers

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Writing Description the John Updike Way

Show, don’t tell

Perhaps the most important piece of advice a book editor or book editing service can give is “show, don’t tell.” Often, as writers, we have a very clear idea in mind of who is saying what where when something is happening. However, creating that same image in our reader’s mind is the challenge we face. For best effect, don’t tell your reader that the sunrise was “beautiful” or even “spectacular”; instead, show that the sunrise “streaked the still gray sky with rosy pillars, illuminating the tops of the heavy clouds.” Allow your reader to see it and come to his or her own conclusion that it is beautiful. For example, John Updike, in his A&P, carefully describes the girls, but in Sammy’s words:

She had on a kind of dirty-pink – – beige maybe, I don’t know — bathing suit with a little nubble all over it and, what got me, the straps were down. They were off her shoulders looped loose around the cool tops of her arms, and I guess as a result the suit had slipped a little on her, so all around the top of the cloth there was this shining rim. If it hadn’t been there you wouldn’t have known there could have been anything whiter than those shoulders. With the straps pushed off, there was nothing between the top of the suit and the top of her head except just her, this clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light. I mean, it was more than pretty.

Updike (or Sammy) could have told us that “Queenie” was pretty, but he chooses to focus on the details of her clothing.

Make a scene

We’ll talk more about scenes in regards to plot, but, like what’s onstage in a drama, what surrounds your characters will only add to their development and the reality of what’s happening. In this, appeal to all the senses, not just sight:

  • What kind of light is there? Natural? Fluorescent? Are there colors?
  • Describe a scent. Perfume/cologne? Flowers? New paint? Has someone just popped a breath mint?
  • Besides the characters’ speech, is there a sound? Background conversation? Crickets? The creak of a rocking chair?
  • Is there something notable about how it feels? Is there a draft? Has it become uncomfortably warm right when all eyes have turned to our hero?

Of course, not all of this needs to be included at all times. But the right kind of description can heighten the effect of a scene. For example, note how Updike brings in Sammy’s surroundings to emphasize the sudden discomfort:

All this while, the customers had been showing up with their carts but, you know, sheep, seeing a scene, they had all bunched up on Stokesie, who shook open a paper bag as gently as peeling a peach, not wanting to miss a word. I could feel in the silence everybody getting nervous, most of all Lengel, who asks me, “Sammy, have you rung up this purchase?”

Visualize your characters as actors

Shaping a good character should take care of this issue, but it’s worth a second look. While good description can help us to visualize the character as a figure (i.e., looks, clothing etc.), good description can also help us to visualize the character as a person. For example, what does the character look like when angry? Does he or she have a nervous habit that might come out in an uncomfortable situation?

Queenie’s blush is no sunburn now, and the plump one in plaid, that I liked better from the back — a really sweet can — pipes up, “We weren’t doing any shopping. We just came in for the one thing.”

“That makes no difference,” Lengel tells her, and I could see from the way his eyes went that he hadn’t noticed she was wearing a two-piece before. “We want you decently dressed when you come in here.”

Here, we can see Updike drawing our attention to how people look—Queenie’s blush and Lengel’s eyes—to suggest emotion rather than attempting to tell us directly. Besides being a great writer, Updike was one of the greatest book editors of all time.

–Dr. Dan,, Inc.

Designing Dialogue: Real Words for Real People

Good dialogue is vital to good writing for a number of reasons:

  • It shapes character without an intrusive narrator telling the reader.
  • The conflict between the speakers can move the plot along.
  • It can provide vital exposition for a reader’s understanding of backstory.

Because a character’s speech is such an important part of developing depth, it’s very important to do it well. Here are some hints to follow when performing your book editing:

  • Pay attention to mannerisms in speech. A person who is uncertain might open a statements with “Well,” as a matter of course. A more extroverted person might use “I” often, signaling his/her sense of importance.
  • Pay attention to dialect, especially regional. This can be like Twain’s Huck Finn, or merely the use of contractions (can’t instead of cannot) or even a general dropping of the “g” at the end in such words as tryin’ or callin’. Sometimes this can indicate a sense of class or education, so make use of what it suggests.

There are some caveats, though, about dialogue:

  • When trying to capture speech, sometimes too much reality can be distracting. A modern teenagers really does use you know or like a great deal in a given line of dialogue. While this should be represented, too much can suggest a lack of eloquence and draws attention from the speech to its problems (unless, of course, this is your intention).
  • Again, dialogue can be great exposition, but make sure it’s natural. For example, the following is slightly clunky:

“Hi,” said Rachel.

“Hello,” said Jason.

“You must be Jason,” she said, “Sarah’s friend, the one who works for a Wall Street firm and volunteers at a homeless shelter on the weekends.”

There are a few issues here. First, while this is important information about Jason, Rachel mentioning it seems forced. Such detail might be teased out later in conversation. So resist the urge to tell what can be shown. Also, be wary of repeating “said” too often. Instead:

  • Use more descriptive words. Perhaps Jason whispered or muttered “hello,” depending on his mood and character. While this can be overdone, if you find yourself writing “said” over and over again, variety can save the prose.
  • If there are only two speakers and they are alternating lines naturally, it’s possible to leave out the “said” altogether. So:

“Hello,” said Rachel.

“Hello?” Jason’s head jerked around.

“Jason? Sarah’s friend?”


“I’m Rachel. Sarah’s roommate. I saw you at the shelter yesterday, remember?”

“Oh, right,” Jason responded, still hesitant.

This dialogue is more natural: brief questions and even briefer, halting answers as people first meeting each other might use; no need to use “said” when “ventured” suggests a bit more abouthow Rachel speaks; and leaving out the speakers’ names since it’s clear who is saying what and this focused our attention on the dialogue rather than on names.

Dialogue format:

Formatting dialogue is relatively simple. Indent as you would for a paragraph each time there is a shift in speaker. Also, use a comma before the closing quotation mark and the verb: so, note the commas in the example above before “ventured” and “Jason responded.”

Indirect Discourse:

A neat way of avoiding too much dialogue is the use of indirect discourse. This is when one character (or the narrator) relates in a summarized fashion what another character has said or is saying. For example,

“I’m Rachel. Sarah’s roommate. I saw you at the shelter yesterday, remember?”

“Oh, right,” Jason responded, still hesitant.

Jason politely nodded as Rachel began to confide in him about why she hated being late for work, the laziness of the super, and Sarah’s surprising choice of turning down the role.

It’s not necessary to relate all the dialogue, and we get a sense of the character through this as well. Think like a book editor and experiment with your own dialogue.

–Dr. Dan,

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.

Pragmatism & Belief: Where’d You Get Those Ideas Anyhow?

Before we inflict our writing on the world, it might be nice if we examined our ideas and opinions. Where’d they come from, exactly—our beliefs?  Some people are locked-in on and even obsessed with their own point of view, positions, and dispositions. As if they can’t be wrong and you can’t be right. Maybe, just sometimes anyway, we’re both right or wrong, or partially so at least.


Pragmatism is a pretty cool philosophy—especially if you like to keep morality and questions of right and wrong out of the way you look at things. If you have a strict moral code and look at things through right-vs.-wrong lenses, then you likely despise pragmatism. Don’t get me wrong: morality’s a good thing. But various religions conflict so radically on some issues of moral behavior that it aids communication to leave morality aside when first analyzing certain subjects. You can always overlay a moral analysis once the terms have been defined and the perspectives understood, if not aligned.

What’s It All About, Alfie?

So, how do people get and keep their ideas or beliefs? One of the two Fathers of Pragmatism—if you will—is Charles Sanders Pierce (the other is William James, brother of Henry, Daisy Miller’s creator). He noted that people affect a “settlement of opinion” or a “fixation of belief”. Great phrases! People settle on opinions—like settlers or homesteaders building their thought-houses and moving in for a lifetime. They fixate on their beliefs, seeing little else through the haze of their own thoughts but their own dim reflections. One whose own fixated beliefs so easily please him is easily pleased indeed.

Four Ways of Settling & Fixating

People perform this settling and fixating in four basic ways:

1)      Sheer tenacity: they just have that opinion and cling to it, rigidly and stubbornly, like a bulldog clamping down on a pants’ leg, or a drunk shouting in a bar. You can’t talk to them. Can’t reason with them. They’re beyond hope.

2)      Because some authority figure sold them on it. Their parents, their pastor or rabbi, their teacher, their favorite celebrity, or someone they “looked up to” said to them “This is a fact” and they’ve carried that opinion with them ever since, unblinking, unquestioning. They can be swayed, but only if they accept that there are, indeed, other viewpoints that just might have some credence if only given a chance.

3)      A priori, from Latin, meaning “existing in the mind prior to experience.” Essentially, a priori means that some belief just seems right or natural or true. We look at a situation or issue and decide what to think about it based on common sense or how we feel, not on experience, evidence, or facts. It works pretty well if you’re fairly smart, informed, and well-balanced. If you’re a bit dim, uninformed, or treading a thin bipolar line, forget it.

4)      Evidence derived from experience, investigation, or scientific study. The first three ways for having opinions are touchy-feely and may be enough for some people, but they’re not solid methods upon which to construct a convincing argument, let alone communicate effectively with your fellow human. Going by the facts of life, by what really takes place and what has been “proven”—to some quantifiable and/or qualifiable degree, anyway—is profoundly more defensible and supportable than the alternative ways and means.

What we all need is a good brain editing service: cutting the crap and cleaning up our thought processes. Guess what? We can be both pragmatic and ethical by deconstructing our own ideas before presuming to judge those of others.

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?