Category Archives: Writing Rules

A Curmudgeon’s Guide to

Or, Yet Another Story Telling You How to Write Stories

There. I’ve gone and admitted it: I’m a curmudgeon.

Definition of curmudgeon

1: a crusty, ill-tempered, and usually old man

2 archaic : miser

— curmudgeonliness play \(ˌ)kər-ˈmə-jən-lē-nəs\ noun

— curmudgeonly play \(ˌ)kər-ˈmə-jən-lē\ adjective

But here’s the thing: I’m 68 years old and so burnt out by modern life that I am proud to be, indeed, deserve to be crusty and ill-tempered.

“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” Attributed to Ernest Hemingway

I was like you once. I’d read article after article in books and magazines and on the internet all pretending to teach me how to become a gazillionaire best-selling author overnight.

Eventually, I saw the irony: none of those articles were actually written by best-selling authors.

They reminded me of the Creative Writing class I took my first year at uni. “I’m going to need your help,” said the professor. “The thing is, I’ve never taught creative writing before, and I don’t know just how the hell I’m supposed to put an academic grade on a creative effort.”

This, from an Oxford-educated Ph.D.

Nevertheless, I persisted. ( See what I did there? That’s called a trope, or for you younger whippersnappers, a meme.) I read and studied and studied and read for years, all the while filling copious notebooks with my writing. Notebooks I would routinely burn,not yet having learned the value of the history of my development as a writer.

My Epiphany

But no matter how many real authors I read–Hemingway, Stein, Corso, Ferlinghetti–I never achieved enlightenment, satori, or whatever you want to call it, until I had my epiphany whilst watching “Throw Momma From the Train.” The blinding revelation came when the Billy Crystal character uttered these profound words: “A writer writes.”

And reads. Now I can honestly claim that all those hours I spent in the library at Brooks Air Field in San Antonio during my high school years were preparing me to be a writer…although my inner curmudgeon insists on honesty, and so I have to admit that wasn’t why I was doing it.

I was avoiding my depression. That’s what 50 years of hindsight—which is always 20/20—shows me. It was something I had been struggling with since birth. I just didn’t understand what was going on until I was in my mid-30’s, when I started on my first antidepressant medication. Later, through years of therapy, I was finally able to see what I had really been going through whilst hiding in the library.

Still, one of the benefits of being me is that I have always been blessed (or cursed, depending on your point of view) with an excellent memory. How excellent? I still remember things that happened to me when I couldn’t have been much more than 2 years old. And while everyone of my generation can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was shot, I can recall the same details about standing in the street in front of my grandparents house on Kingsland Avenue in the Bronx, where we all gathered to watch Sputnik fly overhead.

And while I recall all of the adults being terrified, had I had the vocabulary at the time, I would have said, “Most excellent! Far fucking out!”

It was one of those days in the library when I first devoured Martin Caidin’s Cyborg, which would one day become the basis for television’s Six Million Dollar Man. It was also when I discovered the collected works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and in them, Sherlock Holmes.

My Emergence as a Writer

I never consciously thought of myself as an author; that title seemed too exalted for my scribblings. But here I am, 50 years later, and I’ve come to realize that that’s exactly what I am, for good or for bad.

So when other people ask me for My Secrets to Becoming an Author™, I can come up with no better suggestion than what Billy Crystal said: “A writer writes.”

Even when you have no idea what to write. Again, quoting Hemingway, “Write one true sentence.” It will all flow from there. Write.

And read: you can’t become a great (or even a mediocre) writer unless you read a lot of books. I don’t care what the subject is: just read. Study the author’s technique and language. It sounds easy, but for me, reading as an author is one of the hardest things I ever do.

Harder, because while I’m reading for enjoyment, maybe even trying to figure out whodunit, I’m also trying to see how it is written, how the author is using her command of language and technique to tell her story.

Ultimately, then, writing is a skill or an art. And like any other skill or art, it takes practice.

So stop reading what this curmudgeon has to say, and go write something!

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An Open Letter to H.P. Lovecraft

And Anyone Else Who Thinks They Know the Rules of Writing

Dear Mr. Lovecraft,

“At night, when the objective world has slunk back into its cavern and left dreamers to their own, there come inspirations and capabilities impossible at any less magical and quiet hour. No one knows whether or not he is a writer unless he has tried writing at night.”

Do you mind if I call you Herb? That is, after all, your name: Herbert Phillips Lovecraft.

Anyway, Herb, I tried your advice about writing at night, and it sucked. See, I’m a morning person. Always have been, always will be. I guess it’s just encoded in my genes that I’m at my most productive around 8 in the morning.

But just for shits & giggles, I tried your way — and gave up after 3 days. First, I could barely stay awake past 10 pm. Second, I still woke up at 8 the next morning, even after forcing myself to stay up until midnight — when I was far too tired to even have an idea, much less write it down.

The about writing is this, Herb: nobody can tell anyone else the “right” or “wrong” way to do it. Writing is communication, and the method is unique to all of us. I tried writing at night, and it doesn’t work for me. Does that mean I’m not a writer? Or — and this is, I suspect, more likely the truth — that I’m not a writer by your standards.

Here are some other ways I don’t write:

  1. With a quill pen, which I understand was once quite fashionable
  2. Standing up and leaning on my mantel
  3. With a typewriter
  4. With a pencil or a pen

All of these were once “rules” of writing for certain specific authors, and which have never worked for me. I grew up with typewriters, first manual and later electric. And while I used to love my IBM Selectric typewriter, and later, my IBM Displaywriter, I’m now perfectly content with my laptop, iPad, and iPhone.

The only hard and fast rule I have consistently adhered to for the past 50 years of writing was one taught by Dr. Louis Bittrich in my advance-placement college Freshman Composition class: “You can’t break the rules until you know them and understand why they’re there. Only then can you deliberately violate them, if it helps get your message across.”

So Herb, this is where you and I part company. I really love a lot of your work, but I’m afraid your opinion on writing at night will, for me, remain just that: an opinion. I tried it, it didn’t work, so I’m going back to writing in the morning, over a steaming mug of strong black tea.


A Fan

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Revisiting An Older Topic

Why I Compose Blog Entries Off-Line… And Why You Should, Too!

This morning, as I was enjoying my first cup of the day—a nice Kalami Assam—I did something I’ve never done before: I had an idea for a new post, and so I opened my WordPress editor and started writing. I am a firm believer that absolutely nothing should interrupt the first cup of the day, but it was a pretty messed up morning.

To begin with, I didn’t wake up until 10:30, as opposed to my usual 09:00. So I didn’t drink my first cup until 11:00 a.m. Which is fine, if you believe in the tradition of “elevensies” (or Second Breakfast, as our Hobbit friends call it).

As I’ve mentioned earlier, my first cup is a meditation, a short period of mindfulness when I concentrate on the act of drinking the tea. With practice, I’ve managed to block out most distractions for this short time of experiencing the tea. But as I said, this was a messed-up morning, and so I wasn’t at my best.

I normally write my blog entries on my laptop, in Open Live Writer. But I also keep the WordPress app and a couple of others on both my iPhone and my iPad, in case I get an idea when I’m away from the computer. I learned long ago that I’m lying to myself when I say, “I don’t need to write it down—I’ll remember it.”

And so it was this morning: I had such a brilliant idea for an entry that I opened the WordPress app on my iPhone and spent the next 20 minutes or so composing an absolutely brilliant article, between sips of my cooling tea, and saving it as a draft.

After a wonderful fry-up breakfast—eggs, sausage, hash browns, beans, and toast(1)—I sat down at my laptop and proceeded to edit the draft.

Only to find it didn’t seem to exist. Anywhere. Not on my phone, not on my laptop—nowhere.

I had violated my own Robyn’s First Rule of Computing, which states:

Be Paranoid And Compulsive!

It’s not a matter of if you’re going lose files, but when.

My new practice in light of all of the above is to make notes in several places, or rather in several applications on whatever device I happen to be using at the time.

Yes, it’s more work. Yes, it’s a pain in the you-know-where. But not nearly as painful as losing a good idea.

(1) At this time of the month, money is scarce, and so my fry-up was lacking the beans. And the sausage. And the hash browns. Okay, so I had 2 eggs on toast.

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Hold The Phone!

Ignore my previous post. My banking issues have been resolved, I’ve paid my bill, and the domain is saved! That almost sounds like the plot for a fairy tale: the princess paid her taxes, thus saving her domain.

If I haven’t done so already, allow me to share Robyn’s First Rule of Computing with you:


I devised this rule back in the ‘70s, during the heyday of MS-DOS, as a reminder to always make several copies of your important data. The corollary to the First Rule is this:


At the time, I worked in a state government office where personal computers were just beginning to make an appearance. Since I was one of only two people in our entire division who knew anything about them, I was tasked (along with my regular duties) with the additional responsibility with making sure that everything functioned smoothly.

One of the first things I did as to enforce Robyn’s First Rule. I did this by location a free program to back up data. It worked like this:

  • On installation of the program, it added a line to the AUTOEXEC.BAT file. That displayed a text message that said “You last backed up your data x days ago. Do you want to back up now?”
  • If you answered yes, the program then prompted you to insert the data diskette marked “Backup Diskette n,” where n was the current disk number. It then copied to that disk any files that had been modified since the last backup.
  • Once the diskette was full, the program prompted you to remove the diskette and replace it with a new, formatted diskette to be labeled “Backup Diskette n + 1” and continued until all the files had been backed up.
  • If, however, you answered no, the rest of the instructions in AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS were executed and the system continued to boot up.

I can’t tell you the number of times I got a panicked call from someone who had lost a file and needed help. Invariably, when I’d check the backup log, I discovered that their system hadn’t been back up for weeks—meaning there was no way of recovering the file, except at the byte level with a disk editor, a slow and complicated process that was rarely successful.

All of the above is by way of explaining why I am going to continue cross-posting to both this site and the new blog on WordPress.

I just wanted you to know that.

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It’s such a weird beverage

Coffee. It’s the weirdest beverage I’ve ever had. Let me explain:

I can pour myself a cup of fresh-brewed, piping hot coffee, add a specific ratio of sweetener and creamer, take a few sips, and then set it down next to me, while I get so engrossed in my next blog post that I forget all about it for two hours. Then, when I finally remember it, if it’s not actually cold, it’s lukewarm. And it tastes terrible, so  toss it into the sink.

Now here’s the weird part: if I’ve brewed a pot and don’t finish it, I’ll put it in the refrigerator. After all, I don’t want to waste 3/4 of a pot, do I? And the next day, I’ll pour a glass, add the same ratio of sweetener and creamer, and it has been transformed magically into one of my absolute favorite things to drink on a warm day. So much so that I’ll drink the entire glass in about 2 minutes, and then make a second one to sip slowly so I can fully enjoy my homemade goblet of ambrosia.

Or maybe the weirdness isn’t in the coffee, but rather in me?

But that’s not what this post is about, except in a peripheral way.

  • Seven Ways to Write A Best-Selling Novel

  • Stop Procrastinating And Finally Finish Your Book!

  • How To Sell Your Novel

  • Best Ways To Become a Best-Selling Author

Ever get any of those emails? The ones that promise you fame and fortune if only you follow their guaranteed, fool-proof method…which only costs $19.95, plus shipping and handling?

I must get at least 3 of these emails a day.

I’ve even examined a few of them. And I’ve found they all have one thing in common: none of their highly-touted endorsements are from people; they’re all from organizations, such as IBM, General Motors, etc.

My Method

I’m going to share my secret method of writing, and it won’t cost you a penny! It’s a simple step-by step method which I have developed over a long period of writing. Ready? Here is is:

  1. Log out of Netflix
  2. Shut down Facebook>
  3. Put your cell phone on silent
  4. Close your email program
  5. Block out all other distractions
  6. Fire up your favorite writing program
  7. Set yourself a goal. Tell yourself I’m going to write x number of words, sentences, paragraphs, minutes, or hours today. Whatever your goal, make sure it’s a tangible and realistic one.
  8. Write. Type a word. Type another word. And another.
  9. Repeat Step 9 until you have reached the goal you set for yourself in Step 7.
  10. Save your work.
  11. Reward yourself for a job well done.

Billy Crystal said it nest in Throw Momma From The Train: “A writer writes!”

The truth is that there are no guaranteed methods to becoming a best- or even moderately-selling author except to WRITE.

Don’t believe me? Here are some uncomfortable truths from a few writers who have “hit the big-time:”

“If it sounds like writing … rewrite it.” Elmore Leonard

“Discipline allows magic. To be a writer is to be the very best of assassins. You do not sit down and write every day to force the Muse to show up. You get into the habit of writing every day so that when she shows up, you have the maximum chance of catching her, bashing her on the head, and squeezing every last drop out of that bitch.” Lili St. Crow

“Those who write are writers. Those who wait are waiters.” A. Lee Martinez

“Anyone who says writing is easy isn’t doing it right.” Amy Joy

“Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” Ernest Hemingway

Want some more quotes, try here.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a story I need to finish. Until next time,

Robyn Jane

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