The Key to Good Writing

Like all of us these days, I get too much email. I sign up for something and emails from a dozen purveyors of similar somethings invade my inbox. So I find myself depending upon headlines, which I know very well is an unsound practice given that charlatans are often the best headline writers.

I got a memorable lesson in headlines from The National Enquirer when they ran one stating “Secret of Eternal Life Found”. I paused at the magazine rack long enough to thumb through the rag and discovered not a word about that claim other than the headline.

Last week I came across the headline “The Key to Good Writing”, and clicked the link. The article told me that the key to making a piece of writing good was getting rid of the bad writing in it.

Now, being a teacher of writing, which often requires me to be a teacher of revising, I know very well that bad writing is a killer. But to say that getting rid of what’s bad makes something good is a classic logical fallacy akin to “ducks are birds and chickens are birds so chickens are ducks.”

Ridding our work of bad writing may make it technically competent but certainly doesn’t make it good, because the word bad in this context essentially means ineffective while good implies both effective and in some way valuable, worth reading.

University Creative Writing programs send legions of technically competent writers into the world but not nearly so many good writers.

When asked to judge a competition for an Arizona Commission on the Arts fellowship, I was given a hundred stories to read. Ninety of them I judged as competent. Five left me feeling pleased I had read them.

Making an article, story or poem good requires a whole complex of elements which I won’t list here as I don’t intend to make this post into a book. But I will suggest a way to know if you have written something good; put it aside for a month or so, then read it. If at the conclusion you think “I wish I had written that,” it’s probably good.

If you’re still not sure, consider the Writing and the Spirit degree program at Perelandra College.

What Keeps Me Writing

A Perelandra College student who, though mighty serious about writing, can’t often make herself sit down and write, wrote and asked me some questions. In case my answers might help others, here they are:

How have you been able to write so many books?

I’ve noticed that among naturally creative people, the ones who have chosen a certain vocation are usually the most contented.

If I’m not creating something, I sink into a state of moderate to severe melancholy. My best creative outlet, the one at which I’m most likely to succeed, is writing stories. So I write them, and rewrite them, and generally keep working on them until I have something about which I feel proud.

Meantime, I read stories that give me ideas and insights about how to make my own stories better.

Novelist Don Winslow gave a talk in which he asked, “What could be more fun than going to your writing place every morning and asking yourself, ‘What if …’?”

Sure, writing is hard, but it can also be lots of fun.

Do you just write a certain amount of words a day?

I try to write at least three or four pages, about a thousand words, but if life (usually my daughter) doesn’t get in the way I may keep going for another page or so. And if I don’t write my quota, I don’t let myself worry about it. Usually, the pace picks up the farther I get into a novel.

One thing I love about writing novels is, if the part I’m working on feels too hard to tackle on a certain day, I can make notes or write a rough scene that will come later and which I feel ready to tackle.

If I feel stuck on a certain scene, I might sketch it and then move on, come back to it later.

Now, all the above is only about writing first drafts. If I’m revising, I might go through ten pages a day, or twenty or more, which is one of the reasons I enjoy revising.

Writing first drafts tries my patience.

And, no matter if I’m writing or revising, if I miss a day, or a week, or a month, I don’t kick myself but simply notice how much more alive I feel once I start writing (or revising) again.

How do you keep going when you feel self-doubt?

Everybody has self-doubt. If I start cooking a meal from a new recipe, I worry nobody but me will care to eat it. If I decide to run a race, I sure as heck doubt about my ability to win. If I get married, I doubt about whether I can keep this person in love with me.

Etc. Etc. Etc.

So I just try to do my best.

In Tae Kwon Do, the master simply tells us, “Do your best.” He doesn’t expect perfection. In traditional Tae Kwon Do, no one ever reaches tenth degree (perfection).

When you sit down to write, just do your best. And if it sucks, work on it, revise until it doesn’t suck. Then revise until it’s great. Then, in some cases, when inspiration has delivered something wonderful, revise until it’s a masterpiece.

By the way, learning to revise is what writing classes like Perelandra College’s are mostly about.

If I pass into eternity having written just one masterpiece, I will consider all that writing worthwhile.

And, most importantly, there’s the story itself.

Some stories that come to us simply deserve to be told, and if we are so lucky or blessed to have been given them, we’re obligated, I believe.

We need to tell the stories that are in our hearts, the ones we believe in and want to share, no matter the obstacles.

If we don’t, shame on us.

Cal-exit vs. Cal-utopia

When I began to read of a movement to secede California from the United States, I considered the idea somewhat worthy, being rather concerned about mental health of our nation.

But then, I am such an American at heart, if we seceded I might move to Arizona. So my counterproposal is that we should remain with these United States and should use the prosperity of our state to create a California utopia. If other states follow our lead, all the better.

Most admittedly, I am a dreamer. I have no claim to being practical or deeply analytical. What I have to offer are ideas, in this case principles based upon observations.

So I am considering a run for a seat in the California State Assembly, with a platform based upon the following principles:

1. Everyone in our state should have access to education through at least a four-year college degree or vocational program without going into debt.

2, Everyone in California must be equipped with free or affordable health insurance.

3. Our state should no longer suffer from outrageous vehicle traffic. Nor should anyone be absolutely dependent upon driving. (Read about the tragic election of 1926

4. No one in California should, except for egregious criminal or anti-social activity, be removed from his or her family through deportation.

5. Every worker in the state should receive a living wage.

6. No Californian should be without shelter or sustenance. Though we may not be able to afford mansions or feast for everyone, we can provide at minimum a roof to sleep under, walls to keep out the wind, and a nourishing meal at least twice a day.

By now you may ask, who is this strange fellow with the big dreams.

Well, my background includes the following.

• California native, second generation.

• Father of three, two grown and working in education, one attending Helix High School.

• Over fifty years living in Assembly District 79.

• As a writer, I have published over a dozen novels set in California and based on research into our state’s history, as well as dozens of feature articles in the San Diego Reader.

• As an educator I am associate professor emeritus in the California State University system and a founder of Perelandra College.

Should you care to learn more about me, click some of the links above. And please subscribe to this blog, on which I will explain the why and how of each of my utopian principles.

Novels Change Us

David Brooks of the New York Times wrote an editorial about racism and classism and what might be done to counter those attitudes. He commented: “Conversation can help, though I suspect novels … work better.”

I believe in reading and feel sure it is, for most people, the most effective path to many sorts of growth. The reading I find most valuable and enjoyable is fiction in general, novels in particular. Feodor Dostoyevski, Charles Dickens, Flannery O’Connor, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Mary Shelly, Graham Greene, John Le Carre, Raymond Chandler, Jane Austen, Malcolm Lowry and others have so informed my knowledge and attitudes, I can’t imagine myself without the experiences they gave me.

Neither can I imagine myself not writing. I consider writing both my vocation and something I need.

I’ve often been asked why I don’t write a bestseller. Here’s my answer: bestsellers usually follow certain formulas, and I’m no good at writing to a formula. When I write and ideas come, if I try to ignore or alter them to fit a formula, my interest wanes to the point where I would rather wash dishes or dig holes in a rocky yard than write anymore. Besides the fact that, if I bothered to get tested, I would probably be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, I’m reasonably sure that my need to follow the ideas that come rather than retreat into a formula is related to my hope of learning from what I write, as I have often learned from what I read.

One of my early stories — you can find it in my collection Cars: California Stories, is called “The Curse”. The curse it refers to is a wild imagination and the need to use imagination to make sense of the world. I suspect I’m hardly the only writer to be afflicted with that curse.

Please know I’m not suggesting that anyone should avoid trying to write a bestseller. If you can discover a formula and follow it to riches and fame, good for you, as long as you stay humble.


In a radio interview I heard Merle Streep say she was lucky because she knew pretty much how good she was or wasn’t at different skills. What a gift, I thought.

I was in Tucson when I heard that interview, and on the way home while crossing the desert, I got a profound realization: I’m no good at business.

This is a big issue to me, because my dad was a serious flop at business. I have plenty of reasons to suspect the sources of his failures were his willingness to trust partners and his emotional rather than practical choice of businesses. He opened a cabinet shop because he loved woodworking and a boat dealership because boating felt like adventure, and he partnered in a golf course because golf is fun (mostly).

I have long held onto a superstition that for me to succeed in a business venture would in some mystical way honor and redeem my father. But since the recent realization, I have come to believe that to honor my dad I should learn from the lesson he taught me – don’t waste your time on something at which you are lousy. The corollary, concentrate on what you are good at.

I am a good writer. Very good. Maybe not the best, but very good.

Which delivers me to the subject of us authors being called upon to become authorpreneurs, a term so new my spell check doesn’t know it.

From Nina Amir in The Book Designer blog: “If you want to make a living as an author, you need to think beyond writing and books. Consider yourself both an author and an entrepreneur—an authorpreneur.”

Which of course makes one into a business person, which as I have confessed I’m no good at. So what is a fellow such as I to do?

Here are the answers I have come up with:

I can try to live simply, cutting out many non-essentials, and live with modest writerly ambitions (meaning leave the bestseller lists to those who fervently care about them).

Also, I can and will consider what I am best at as my vocation and the pursuits I may need or want to do because of practical motives (the business part) as hobbies.

A vocation, I work at, dedicating the best of my time and energy, pressing myself to follow a schedule and tentative deadlines.

A hobby, I play at. Like crossword puzzles, I take it on as a challenge.

This new attitude is such as relief that when, usually at the end of the day, often over a glass of wine, I engage in posting something to Facebook or upgrading a website or reading an article by a marketing guru, I feel carefree as if I were lounging on the beach or playing ping pong.

What a relief.

Life is good (mostly).

Less is More, Right?

Last week I fielded some interview questions, one of which was “What are you working on now?”

That question threw me. Because it depended upon whether now meant today, this week, this month, this year, and whether working meant actively focusing on or keeping work in mind while looking for new insights and inspirations. Right now, even more than usual, so many projects are rambling through my mind, I thought, hmm, maybe I’m too scattered.

That thought prompted me to recall something I had recently read, an article about Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. The book is apparently a treatise on a sort of minimalism. I haven’t read it yet, but I believe I will, as the article indicates that its theme recommends we should wage a battle against being scattered; we should, McKeown maintains, hold onto the stuff and occupations that matter greatly to us now, that we are currently passionate about, and let go what we don’t need or really, really, really want.

Okay, that sounds like a worthy plan. But here’s the rub, from my perspective. I am way overloaded because all the occupations that keep me overloaded are ones that I’m either passionate about or feel called to do.

Called by whom? you may ask. Good question, which I’m asking too. Maybe I can get some clues by reading that book.

Meanwhile, I answered the interview question What are you working on now? in the simplest way, by defining now as today. Most of that day, I had been recording and editing a podcast of my book Writing and the Spirit, which is all about living in such a way as to receive and respond to inspiration.

As I answered the interview question, an inspiration came: Here it is:

I should take my own advice, specifically the following, from Writing and the Spirit:

“One of my bad habits is assessing the value of each day as it passes by what tasks I’ve accomplished. Someday I may kick the habit entirely. For now, though, I’m going to alter it, on account of a realization.

“I realized that the tasks don’t matter so much as the good ideas that come.

“When we analyze stories, we’re wise to consider the climax as the turning point; not as an action but as the thought or decision that propels the character toward the actions that determine her fate.

“Likewise, no valuable accomplishment will happen unless a good idea sets it into motion.

“Now, a good idea isn’t worth much unless it’s somehow acted upon. Lots of folks are flooded with good ideas and intentions to bring the ideas to life but never find the motivation to proceed.

“But for those of us obsessed with carrying out what good ideas we’re given, if we don’t accomplish a single task during a given day, so what? The tasks will get done by and by.”

Or, if they don’t, maybe we’re learning to give up being quite so obsessed.

Here’s how I mean to live from now on, which of course doesn’t mean I will, only that I intend to (and we know what road is paved with good intentions):

I mean to do some writing work each day, say a couple hours, and take care of my homemaking and parenting chores as well as an absent-minded fellow can be expected to do. The remainder of my hours, I will devote to whatever is most likely to deliver inspiration.

Should you wonder what specifically I mean by that last sentence, here’s a wonderful guidebook.

The Most Valuable Degree

About a dozen years ago, several of us founded a small online college. As I’m not patient enough to write the whole story here, I’ll only give the plot points.

Perelandra College got licensed by the state of CA to offer degrees and subsequently approved by a national accreditor. After a few years, for financial reasons, we gave up the accreditation, without which the license wasn’t worth all the work and money it required, so we also gave that up. Which left us as simply a provider of knowledge and encouragement.

We innocently believed that enough people just wanted to learn the writer’s craft to keep us afloat and perhaps help us bank enough to once again get licensed and accredited. But a cottage industry had arisen, offering to teach would-be writers the necessary craft and marketing skills, and all of this online. By now we’re competing with a legion of providers from blatant hucksters to the tolerably legit, among them Stanford University and James Patterson, most if not all of them far more capable of marketing than we are.

The obvious next step is to write off the school as a flop and move on. But since one of my tragic flaws is persistence, I’m not willing to give up. Another solution is to find an angle. I chose to follow the example of W.C. Field on his deathbed when somebody caught him reading a Bible and asked if he’d been converted, and he replied, “I’m looking for a loophole.”

Our first step in founding a college was to apply for status as a tax-exempt corporation. One of our partners knew an attorney with expertise in processing such applications for churches. So, we became a tax-exempt religious corporation. Which I recently learned can also exempt us from the cumbersome and expensive task of licensure, as long as “the instruction is limited to the principles of that religious organization.”

The ruling principle of Perelandra College holds that if artists diligently seek the source of inspiration with an active, humble, and open heart and mind, they will find what they need to make their work not only entertaining but true and of genuinely valuable. We view the source of inspiration in Christian terms, as the Holy Spirit.

When I first began teaching college creative writing, many of my classes were for beginners. Early on, I realized that most of the students might never, after finishing the class, write another story. So, I wondered, except for the sake of the few who were serious about learning the craft, what good was the class anyway? And soon I recognized that my goal was to teach creative problem solving — the use of both reason and intuition, both sides of the brain if you will, in the attempt to find the best answers to artistic problems. And I began to see that this skill is helpful, if not critical, in contending with the perplexing daily lives of most anybody. Which is why I believe the degree program, a Master of Arts in Writing and the Spirit — which I will soon propose to our board of governors — could also be called the Master of Arts in How to Live.

I imagine our board will approve and soon the primary goal of every class will be to find and apply inspiration, the highest form of creativity.

We currently offer certificate programs. But degrees are more valuable than certificates, and rightly so. Certificates are limited to skills. Degrees are meant to also offer a context in which the skills are applied, a holistic and rounded education.

James Patterson can’t (yet) offer a degree. Stanford University can, for about ten times the money we ask. And neither of them, or any of the others providers I know, has the nerve to claim they can help people get inspired, like we claim.

For a preview of what the Perelandra College degree program will offer, read Writing and the Spirit, free as an ebook until June 1.