Work Hard, But Don’t TRY So Hard. (Wait… What?)

stretch(Image credit:

Have you ever surprised yourself by half-assing a homework assignment, and getting an A on it? Or by posting something to social media you thought was dumb, but it really took off?

Sometimes, the amount of sweat you put into something is inversely proportional to how well it comes out, and how well people receive it. Weird, but true. The makers of Goat Simulator only spent 10 weeks on development, yet have sold 1.1 million copies. Meanwhile, that crappy Dungeons and Dragons movie from 2000 was in the works for 10 years.

Good writers constantly worry about whether they’re being profound/funny/original/smart/etc. enough. They want those golden, inspired words so badly that sometimes they’d rather write nothing at all than risk writing something they perceive is crap.

You’re not as bad as you think you are. When you find yourself having those doubts, let go and just focus on writing well enough to be understood.

Work hard and finish. Don’t try so hard that you sabotage yourself- or, worse- give up.

Most of the time, that’s really all you need. Reaching for “next-level” prose sometimes makes things worse than if you’d just gone with the simplest phrasing.

Let’s take a simple sentence that might show up in your first draft:

Tom picked up the ball.

Ugh! How boring! Anyone could write that! You’re a writer, you gotta do better! With considerable mental strain, you might come up with this instead:

Reaching down with deft and practiced fingers, Tom scooped aloft the rubber orb.

Stop. Is that really better? “Rubber orb” isn’t nearly as comprehensible as “ball.” Plus, the action is now secondary to a description that may be irrelevant. Unless Tom is a major character whose fingers are important to something he does in the story, the reader won’t give a damn how deft or practiced they are. As for the action, is it really significant enough to deserve this kind of attention? If not, then it may be perfectly OK just to tell us that Tom picked up the ball.

If you’re going to reach, do it where you really need it: at important plot events, character moments, the climax. Give the rest of the prose a break.

This is a lesson I needed a long time to internalize, especially with humor writing. My off-the-cuff prose is just not that funny, which is something I worried about when I first started writing for The Daily WTF. With my first several articles, I stretched and strained to manufacture jokes- and, it wasn’t terribly well received.

You know what? Humor’s a lot simpler than that.

Here are three of the best articles I’ve ever written for the site:

Are they the most stunning examples of humorous prose in the English language? Heck no- but they happen to be some of the most popular articles in the site’s history, as measured by web traffic and comments. What they all have in common is that they

  • tell a funny story
  • clearly.

There are no zany characters, running gags, or goofy side-plots. No cute dialogue or biting rejoinders. A sarcasm might pop up here and there in narration, but mainly, I’m focusing on what actually happened (according to the story’s submitter), and how the protagonist feels and reacts. I draw upon personal experience in similar situations, and use my own feelings and reactions as needed. (That’s especially true with Spool Me Once, because that was based entirely upon my own experiences! “Sara” is me, folks.)

The humor comes from the situation itself- the core WTF, if you will. If I tell it well, I don’t have to build jokes around it to make it funny.

Remember what Bob Ross liked to say: “Don’t fiddle it to death.” Don’t feel like you have to be the next Voltaire or Rembrandt. Once you have a funny article, or a happy tree, sit back and enjoy your accomplishment. You may be pleasantly surprised at how well your audience takes to it.

Do you have an example of a creative work that got better when you put less stress and strain into it? Let me know in the comments!

The Grand Experiment: 6 Months Since The Big Leap

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November 2014 is a big month for me. My spouse and I have been together for 10 years- and it’s now 6 months since I jumped ship to write full time!

I can’t believe how fast it’s gone. Am I glad I did it? 100%! Do I feel any yearn to go back to my old full-time schedule? Not at the moment. Though I do miss certain coworkers of mine, I’ve enjoyed a lot less anxiety since leaving, particularly since I no longer dread waking up in the morning.

I still do plenty of work, but it’s on my own projects, on my own terms. It’s not going as fast as I’d like, perhaps. Then again, if I had my druthers, I’d have ten bestsellers out by now, and would be typing this from a cozy London flat.

Anyway, here’s a little breakdown on what I’ve accomplished, fell short of, and what my financial status is like. I’m hoping it might help anyone else contemplating their own jump out of the workforce.


* I’ve set up a daily work routine that I’ve stuck to: waking up around the same time of day, writing until lunch, then usually writing a few more hours in the evening. I use the afternoon for exercise, chores, hobbies, and naps.

* A promotion to Assistant Editor at The Daily WTF. I now write a monthly feature, plus help with sorting and choosing submissions.

* Got through two big editing passes with my novel, and am currently on what I HOPE will be the last major rewrite. This sucker will expand the manuscript by as much as 50%! I think the book will end up being better this way than if I just rushed it out as-is. I also think I’ll be able to finish future books faster, as I’m learning a lot about the sort of thinking and planning I should’ve been more thorough about five years ago.

* Put together a more polished freebie for my mailing list subscribers. Retiring the Gods is a short story collection I’ll be adding to over time as inspiration strikes. Where can I send your copy? :)

* Kept up with weekly blog posts here- mostly about writing tricks, but sometimes straying into more general territory.

* Spruced up my website. Navigation is mostly the same, but everything is now in much niftier colors, and HTML5. Ooh!

* Got back into drawing. Using my discipline tricks, I started by forcing myself to work on a picture for half an hour at a time, gradually expanding to an hour. I’m reconnecting with that “flow” I once had that let me sit with a picture for hours at a stretch. My progress is slow as I relearn how to do things, but I’m having fun with it.

* Returned to martial arts after a long hiatus- something that had been completely off my radar! I’ve taken up German longsword with a local HEMA branch. It’s a lot of fun. A little more expensive than I’d prefer, given my reduced income, but hey, I was stashing away the bulk of every paycheck for years before this. Past-Self says to Present-Self, “Go out and have fun, you crazy kid. Just don’t get your bell rung.”  :)

Also, the swordfighting experience will undoubtedly come in handy as I write about knights spanning the galaxy in spaceships.


$140/month from TDWTF. That’s all right now, but I’ll take it.

To leave the rat race one day, you must save your pennies first! Obviously, I couldn’t live on this if I were alone and without significant savings. If you’re looking for ways to stretch your current income further, Mr. Money Mustache comes highly recommended.

Stuff I Still Want To Do

* Finish the novel, and start on the next one! LOL I’m hoping early next year.

* Find a way to stick with my floundering language study. I think the main problem is not having anything to study for– no people to talk to, no upcoming trips, etc. Also, I still can’t roll my double-Rs in Spanish!

Current languages (in order of strength): German, Spanish, Farsi, Japanese

Future languages: Dutch should be really easy to pick up, since I have German and English. However, I don’t have any use for it currently. Quick, someone send me to The Netherlands for an extended vacation!

* Learn to wake up earlier. 8:00 AM isn’t bad, but 7:30 or 7:00 might be better. I don’t know if it’s happening, given how late I like to stay up!

That’s all for now. Here’s to another fun 6 months! If you have any advice or encouragement, drop me a line in the comments :)

When Writing, Dread Is Your Friend


Help! There’s something I really need to write, but ugh! I just don’t want to!

Have you ever felt this way? Careful- your spider-sense is tingling!

Sit back for a moment and think about why. Your reluctance may just be pure procrastination, especially if it’s a homework or job assignment. To get past it, you’ll need to flex your discipline muscle, plunk your butt in front of the computer with minimal distractions, and after a few crappy sentences, you’ll be off to the races.

However, your dread may be a sign of something else- especially if this is writing you’re supposed to be excited about, like for a short story or novel.

Have you ever thought to yourself, I just gotta power through this crappy part, then I’ll be back to the good stuff?

Don’t do that! It should all be good stuff!

If you don’t want to write it, what makes you think anyone will want to read it?

Before writing anything that’s causing you dread, a time-wasting slog that’s painful for you and unsatisfying for readers, spend a minute to identify the specific source of your dread. What don’t you like about the section ahead of you? The scene structure? A lack of conflict? The characters involved? Then, either:

  • change things so that you do like them, and look forward to writing them, OR
  • summarize important details or transfer them elsewhere, so you don’t have to write this part at all.

I use my reluctance as a gauge of how good my ideas are. If I don’t like what’s ahead of me, then maybe there’s a character who bugs me, and I need to rethink him and his motivations. Maybe I need to work in tension and conflict to keep things interesting. Or, I may feel everything can just be summed up in a few sentences by the narrator, getting us to the next exciting scene faster.

I’m usually way happier with taking a moment to think and re-plan than if I’d put my head down and slogged onward. And believe me, readers know what parts you enjoyed working on versus what you skated past or hate-plowed through. Your voice leaks into your work. Make sure it’s the one you want readers to hear- not the one screaming, “I can’t wait to get this over with!”

Do you have any tips for punching up a dreaded scene? Let me know in the comments!

Ask Not Who Your Character IS, But What He DOES

kindergarten_copOr, ask both. (Image credit: Bill Main)

Now that it’s November, I’m aware many of you are involved in an obscure, little-talked-about, mass binge-writing event. If you number among the participants, best of luck to you! Let me offer some help with the planning stages, so you don’t throw down 15,000 words and then realize you don’t know where the hell you’re going with it.

Oh, you’re already at that point? No worries! I’ve got some rewrites of my own to work on. Let’s rewind to square one, and talk about characters!

When sketching out a character, the easiest thing to do is throw down traits:

  • loyal
  • smart
  • pretty
  • funny
  • etc.

Those descriptors are fine for initial note-making, but horrible as a full character profile. They don’t say as much as they seem to say.

Let’s take “loyal,” for instance. “Loyal” could apply to a noble paladin, or an evil minion who follows his master’s every command. Who/what is your character loyal to? How does their loyalty manifest? How far are they willing to take it? Do they draw a line somewhere to avoid becoming an accessory or a doormat, or do they let themselves become accessories/doormats?

For instance, what if you have a paladin whose friend falls on bad times, and cleans out a merchant’s till in order to feed his family? What if the friend is acting funny one night over beers, and suddenly confesses his crime to the paladin? Will your paladin be loyal to his friend (cover up the crime), or loyal to his ruler (haul his friend’s ass to ye olde gaol)? Once the paladin decides, how does he justify his actions to himself?

prisonSorry, family man. If that’s a standard paladin, it’s the Land of Striped Sunlight for you! (This is why I hate Lawful Goods.)

In the example above, we’re chiseling out a more defined character by taking an abstract trait and transforming it into concrete actions and thoughts. We’re figuring out what the character DOES, and what lines he won’t cross- or, perhaps might cross if pushed far enough.

This will help a lot with brainstorming the ways you might show character vs. telling it. As a reader, I’d rather you describe to me the scientist who goes missing for three days, only to be found tinkering in his lab, unwashed and fully absorbed in his work, than feed me a scene where two other characters discuss how “Professor Killtron is dedicated to the point of distraction.”

The limits and exceptions you define for your characters can also be leveraged against them. Show us the “baseline” characters, then show us what they do when when their buttons are pushed, when their feet are held to the fire, when they reach a moral crossroads. This is where they’re tested and, hopefully, learn and develop. This goes into defining a character arc– I might have more to say about that later.

How do you define your characters? What do you do when you have trouble “seeing” a character? Drop me a line in the comments and let me know!