Tag Archives: tips

It’s All Subjective

Or “de gustibus non est disputandum.”

Recently, while I was talking with a few writers, the idea that there’s no such thing as “good” writing came up. It’s all subjective.

Why get critiques then? Shouldn’t one just trust one’s own subjective taste?

Well, no. If your goal is to be published and be read by others, you do have to see if your taste matches that of others. We assume that editors know the tastes of their readers, so this makes their opinions worthwhile if you want to reach their readers. But their opinions aren’t “right” in an objective sense, just in the sense that it might be a good explanation of their taste.

I see the merit of this view, and indeed, I think it’s helpful, in general, to be receptive to feedback without treating them as dictates for how things “must be done.” But it feels slightly unsatisfying.

I’ve been obsessed, for years, with the idea that our appreciation for art is tied to our biological machinery — to the way our brains are wired. What colors we find pleasing, what tones we love, what emotional arcs we yearn for — I think these are deeply embedded in our biological selves. Human biological diversity is limited, which limits the range of cultural diversity, which limits the range of artistic responses (or “tastes”).

If we could understand how art affects us at that deep biological level, might that not provide an “objective” way to measure what art is good? The story that moves the most people most deeply because it touches our shared biological urges in an effective way is better, artistically, than other works that don’t move as many people as much, is it not? The song that resonates the most with most brains’ innate yearning for symmetry, rhythm, novelty, and most bodies’ instinct for movement is better, artistically, than other songs that don’t, is it not?

It may be that by the time such fundamental biological signals are abstracted up to the level of “artistic appreciation” the system is so complex that analysis is impossible. It may be that even within the limited range of human diversity, the range of difference is so great that effectively there are no useful universals that can guide artists.

Still, I think such a way of approaching taste objectively would be very interesting.

Too Much Planning

I’ve been suffering from writer’s block on my latest project. For a whole month I couldn’t make any progress on it.

Turns out the problem was that I was trying something new for me: to not write a single word of the actual story until I’ve got the whole thing outlined so that all the beat work and all the character arcs make sense.

It was a miserable failure. Staring at the blank screen, I couldn’t think at all. I didn’t know the characters or the plot. I couldn’t see what they wanted or how they would go about getting it. I missed one self-imposed deadline after another.

For me, ideas have to come once I start writing. I have to get to know the characters and the story as I write them, not plot them out ahead of time.

As soon as I decided that I was okay with going off without a clear plan all in my head, ideas started to come. I guess I’m just not an outliner. I prefer writing a story without knowing exactly what the story is.

Too Close

It really is true that writers sometimes are too close to their own words.

I recently had a story rejected by a couple of markets, and the editors had the same reaction: the part of the story that felt the most pure to me, the part that I thought was the best and loved the most in writing, was the one part they singled out as not working for them.

They’re right. I just couldn’t see it. I fell in love with that one section so much that I couldn’t see what was wrong with it.

Always be very skeptical about the one part of the story that you think is particularly good — chances are, it is good, but not necessarily good for the story. “Murder your darlings” — that’s what this is about.

Save the Cat

My friend Georgia recommended this to me, and I’m really glad she did. It’s not the sort of book I would have picked up on my own, as I’m not a screenwriter. But as it turns out, Snyder’s tips are really great for any kind of fiction.

Snyder writes in a breezy, easy style that makes for quick reading. He has strong opinions and doesn’t back down from them. A lot of the things he says about how a story must be constructed will be controversial for short-story writers and novelists. But I think he provides a useful framework for thinking about how to make your story engaging and interesting — aspects that I need to work on more in my own fiction.

Very much recommended.

Collaborative Writing

Lisa and I just finished the first draft of a story we are writing together.

I’ve now written a few stories in collaboration with other authors. (One of them, “Saving Face”, co-written with Shelly Li, is up at Crossed Genres.) In general, it seems to work best if the story naturally requires more than one voice, and each author can take charge of crafting a separate one. It is a lot of fun to draft together.

Writing doesn’t have to be done alone.


Writers get rejected, a lot. Learning to deal with them is critical.

Tobia Buckell once wrote about the difference between goals and things you’d like to happen to you, and it stuck with me. Goals are things that you can control. Things you’d like to happen to you are not.

I used to get the two categories confused, and that made dealing with rejections harder. “Selling a story by the end of the year” is not a goal, it’s something you’d like to happen to you. But if you set a goal to “get ten submissions out by the end of the month,” then rejections will allow you to get more submissions out, thus accomplishing your goal faster.

I set a goal this year to get out more submissions than I’ve ever done, and I’ve accomplished that. I also set a goal to write more than I’ve ever done, and I’ve accomplished that. Along the way, I also collected more rejections than ever before — but I’m happy, because they are tangible signs that I worked towards my goal.

Incidentally, I also had more acceptances this year than ever before — definitely something I’m very happy to have happened to me. But the rejections, they made the acceptances possible.


It seems that a popular way to “win” an argument is to belittle your opponent by claiming that the person has lived a “sheltered life.” Because the other person has not lived as authentic and gritty a life as you, the theory goes, he cannot possibly understand all the experience/passion/feeling/moral force behind your position, which is drawn from the quintessence of life itself. Indeed, he has not even earned the right to debate you.

I do not think there is much to recommend this strategy — though I’ve often been tempted to yield to it myself. Each of us has lived an authentic life in our own way, and we have all been deprived of other experiences. We are all sheltered.


I was recently talking with my friend Erica about how much more difficult revising a novel is compared to writing the first draft.

I think it’s much harder to get into a “flow” when revising, and as a result, it tends to be more exhausting. I draft at least three times faster than I revise.

Some writers tell me that they prefer drafting so much more to revising that they’d rather write novels and forget about them to avoid the pain of revising.

I’m not quite there yet. But I do get tempted sometimes. It’s really hard to push yourself to stick to the task of making that string of words you felt so good about putting down on paper work as a story.


Priceless bit of parody of Information Architect’s Writer for iPad from Merlin Mann:

Because, ū— is the first app to remove every conceivable distraction from the drafting process—including cruft like paragraphs, lines, and words. This is why ū— only displays the bottom half of one letter at a time. Talk about focus.

— via Daring Fireball.

I’ve tried so many of these “distraction-free” writing environments over the years: WriteRoom, OmmWriter, full-screen mode in countless other apps. They’ve never worked for me.

I think the attraction of such software is the hope that with the right software you’ll turn into a magical version of yourself, the really great writer. Somehow, we tell ourselves, if I just get the right software, my sentences will flow, my plots will intrigue, and my characters will come to life. That’s certainly why I kept on trying these things.

But experience has shown me that, at least as far as my own work is concerned, the tool involved in writing makes zero difference. I’ve done good writing in Microsoft Word and in Google Docs, in Scrivener and Vim. I’ve even done some serious drafting in Simplenote and Pages on an iPad (with a bluetooth keyboard).

It’s a bit like reading. Despite all the debate over the Kindle vs. the iPad vs. paper books, what really matters for the reading experience is being able to forget about the device and sink into the book. Writing is similar. Forget about the software, just write.