Great Writing Advice Great Writers Ignore


If you are looking for tips to improve your writing you will find them here. But you will also discover that doing whatever the hell you want can work just as well too.

Gertrude Stein, the famous American novelist, poet, and playwright said –

Punctuation is necessary only for the feeble minded.

Before we venture into the spiralling madness of authors who go against the rules, I just discovered that the word “playwright” is written P L A Y W R I G H T . I assumed it would be spelled P L A Y W R I T E . Like someone who writes plays. Playwrite. This might be because I am a fool. It might also be because the English language is endlessly surprising. Etymologically speaking Playwright is similar to wheelwright. A wheelwright was someone who wrought wheels out of wood and iron. And so a playwright is someone who has wrought words into a dramatic form. Like the words have been hammered and bent into submission.

But this isn’t about playwrights. This is about rules god damn it, so let’s get to it.

There are hundreds of books about the rules of writing correctly. As authors we walk a tightrope of good grammar. At any moment we could fall into a pit of dangling participles, passive sentences, repetition, the much feared adverb that reveals the writers inability to show instead of tell, repetition, a misplaced comma, and god forbid; a rogue semi colon. And worst of all, repetition.

But how important are these rules and how much are they going to actually hinder your success?

Rule one

Only ever use he said or she said, and never follow it up with an adverb.

You don’t even need to use he asked, or she replied. He said is a tag to notify the reader who has spoken. They become invisible to the reader. We scan over them as we read.
Of course you can say, said Graham, or Susan said, but be warned; only do that if you have characters named Graham or Susan. If not, I would recommend using the names of your own characters. The key here is economy of words, and clarity. The reader wants to know who is speaking but nothing more. All the dramatic work should be done in the dialogue or the surrounding prose.

You might have a character at the breakfast table. His wife has prepared breakfast for him. And we get the following piece of dialogue. “I wanted my eggs runny, not raw,” said Graham, angrily.

Instead of using the word angrily, you would write something like, “I wanted my eggs runny, not raw,” said Graham, picking up his plate and throwing it at Susan.

You see, we have a vivid image, instead of “angrily”. There is no doubt that replacing the adverb is better.

Unless of course, you are one of the bestselling authors of all time.

Stephen King said about J. K. Rowling –

Ms Rowling seems to have never met an adverb she didn’t like.

It’s true. Her prose is littered with them.

I’m a sucker for this rule and I try to never use adverbs. But maybe I shouldn’t be afraid of throwing a few in every now and then. It hasn’t exactly hindered the success of Harry Potter.

Exclamation marks!

Avoid them. If you have more than three exclamation marks in your entire novel you have too many. It is lazy. It doing work that should be self-evident in the words being spoken, or the events that are unfolding. If you need to add a nudge at the end of sentence to let the reader know that THIS BIT IS REALLY SURPRISING then something is wrong.

Your words should speak for themselves without the fanfare to highlight how loud someone is shouting or that an explosion is really big. And just on an aesthetic level it makes the page look cluttered and messy.

Having said that, in Joe Hill’s hugely successful book, NOS4A2, there is an exclamation mark every time Charlie Manx, the bad guy in the story, speaks.

You will also find an excessive use of exclamation marks in the books of Tom Wolfe, F Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austin, and of course the biggest offender of all, James Joyce.

Some people think of those authors as being amongst the best literary writers in history. So maybe using more than three in a book won’t be so bad.

Speech Marks

Here’s a curious one; when writing dialogue should you use the double quotation mark or the single one? That has a straightforward answer.

The publishing standard in the UK is to use a single quotation mark. And in the US, they use the double quotation mark.

Unless of course you’re the bestselling author Roddy Doyle, who uses neither. He just starts each piece of dialogue with a dash.

Cormac McCarthy, author of No Country for Old Men, and The Road, didn’t believe in speech marks either, saying –

I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that’s it.

On the subject of basic punctuation, in the last twenty-four thousand words of James Joyce’s Ulysses there are only two full stops and one comma.

So what’s the point of all this? Well, simply, there is no right or wrong way to write well. You can do whatever the hell you like. The books that break through and become huge bestsellers are littered with broken rules. Nobody in the publishing industry can predict what makes a book become a bestseller. Writers have tried to hone their craft with best practices but, ultimately it’s for nothing.

My advice is that you should learn and understand all these things and then use them at your discretion. Be free to write the way you want to write.

Maybe you don’t need to polish your prose into a smooth perfectly formed generic thriller. Let it be a bit rugged around the edges. Let a bit of your voice come through.
Writing is like music. You can release a highly produced pop song that does well in the charts, and you will do well. For me, those songs are polished so smooth I bounce right off.

Or you can be like Bob Dylan. Sometimes he would screw up a word while singing and just say the word again. He didn’t even go back and rerecord it. It’s right there in the song. He might screw up twenty seconds in and just start eh song again, and it’s right there in the album. It’s those cracks in the perfection that let us in. It’s true for all art, and it’s especially true for writing.

That’s all from me!

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Nearly thirty years in the making, Cockerings is the new novel by Stevyn Colgan. I haven’t read it yet, because it’s not out yet, but I have read a few of his other books and I can attest that he is a thoroughly humourous and endlessy interesting bloke.

Cockerings is published by Unbound. Unbound is a publisher that works by crowdfunding. I think of it as pre-orders with perks. There is still a submission process for the author but, unlike traditional publishers, instead of paying the author an advance they leave it up to the readers to decide if the book will reach your bookshelf. Cockerings is currently 62% funded.

You know the really cool thing? Everyone who buys the novel at this early stage gets their name printed in the front of the book in recognition for helping to make it happen. I’ve got my name in the back of books by Stephen Fry and Terry Jones through Unbound. They are among my most treasured books.

I’ll be supporting Stevyn just as soon as payday comes around.

Check it out by following this link – 9

I think it’s a book that is well worth your support. Let curiousity get the better of you.

(If you pay a little extra you get to go to the launch party. Pay a lot more and he’ll name a character after you! Unbound make publishing just a little bit more interesting).

The Accidental Scoundrel – the book launch and trailer

They said it would never happen. But nobody knows who They are and so it happened anyway. The Accidental Scoundrel is finally coming out. And everybody screamed with delight.

Mark it in your diary, send postcards to your family, rethink your will, giggle in front of your friends, and high five yourself. In the face.

On the 3rd of November a book, that has sold under a million copies worldwide already, needs your help. A few weeks ago I saw it crying in a gutter and I said, “What’s wrong book?” and the book said, “I think everyone should buy me,” and I cried too. So I’m sure you can understand how important this is to me. No one wants to see a funny book cry. Charities are there for a reason.

My best advice for anyone who has been moved by this story is to buy The Accidental Scoundrel and then review it with many many stars so that it doesn’t have to be sad again.

Now, I realise that I may come across as bias in this case but I should reassure you that it is only because I am trying to sell as many copies as possible. And that’s ok because I want to sell books.

What you are reading now is a few paragraphs that people in the business call “promotional material.” In this promotional material I should be telling you about the book. About the story. But the plot is not important. It is only important that you laugh. It has a horse in it. And a street urchin. There’s some old conniving aristocrats. They steal whiskey together. It’s all really very riveting.

You know what you need to do. Pre-order it now from Amazon (it’s already out in paperback, but you can pre-order the kindle book now) –

Invite your friends to this event, share it on Facebook, Reblog it, tweet about it, grafiti the streets, whisper secretivly about it to your pets. There is a facebook group for the launch here –

Or if you scan this QR code it will take you straight to the page.


Tom Waits – Small Change

2137239Tom Waits was a man with a voice like burnt gravel and the mannerisms of Heath Ledger’s Joker. He sounded like Louis Armstrong when he sang. You don’t expect that voice to come out of him when you first glimpse this thin, junky like, haggard man on the album cover of Small Change. That voice comes out like a parody of Armstrong. So strange to hear it from this thin white tramp, stinking of booze and cigarettes.

In interviews his wit was so quick you wondered if it was planned ahead of time. The man was just sharp. One interviewer said to him, after Tom pulled a bottle of wine from nowhere and started drinking, “It’s kinda strange to have a guy sitting here with a bottle in front of him.” And without pause Tom said, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” This man was quick. That same wit, that odd poetic sense of humour, finds its way into his lyrics.

Small Change came out in 1976. You can put that record on and immediately find yourself transported to a world that maybe never even existed outside of fiction. A world of Beat Poets. Smokey bars. Dimly lit stages. You’re at a small table near the front of the stage. You can see your own distorted reflection in the side of the grand piano. Hunched over the keys, with smoke drifting up from his cigarette, is Tom Waits. His slow ragged voice singing, “The piano has been drinking…”

TomWaits1Normally artists easily find themselves categorised away in your mind with similar artists. But Tom Waits doesn’t fall in with Bob Dylan, or Leonard Cohen, as you might expect. He’s on the pile with Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs. All writers. And his influences are as deeply bound with comedians like Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley as they are with the jazz that feeds his music. Tom Waits was a wit-inflicted Beat Poet with a piano.

Small Change was his fourth album. The opening track, Tom Traubert’s Blues, is a twisted version of Waltzing Matilda. Although Written in London while on tour there the song is about an earlier time. The songs subtitle, Three Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen, sums up the nature of the narrative.

But track two, Step Right Up, is where the album kicks off. Tom takes old clichéd advertising slogans and stitches them together in this humorous musical rant. “Step right up. You got it buddy: the large print giveth, and the small print taketh away.”

Every track has something worth hearing, a great lyric or grim scene (like, “Crawling on her belly, and shaking like jelly, and I’m getting harder than Chinese algebra.” From the dirty but brilliant song, Pasties and a G-String), but the stand-out track is My Piano Has Been Drinking (not me). A nonsense song about a singer in a bar. A drunkard passing blame to his instrument and voicing distain at everything around him. The piano is played with disregard. It’s like an act. Tom Wait’s playing the drunk. While drunk. As for the words, there will be no lyrical spoilers here, it’s worth waiting for.

I won’t go into the rest of the album, some things are worth discovering for yourself.

Is it all just Cock Soup?

It was a quiet Thursday afternoon. My television had mysteriously stopped working several weeks earlier. One day it was blazing its glorious bullshit into my mind the next minute the only thing on the screen was a rectangular box with the words “No Signal” in it. I am yet to establish a reason for my television’s sudden unwillingness to broadcast and am unlikely to find the energy to do so anytime soon.

Now I just sit there. Sometimes I read. Sometimes I just sit, staring at the blank screen, thinking about all the possibilities in the world, letting my mind slip into some kind of quiet hysteria. Somewhere in the silence, between my ears, was a deep truth. The whole universe was spread out before me. A meaning was within grasp. I pondered. I hypothesised and cogitated. I questioned and conjectured. I reached a deepness I didn’t know I had.

I went to Tesco. I found a product that would bring everything together in one great moment of enlightenment. I was giggling at the checkout.

This video is the sum total of all the wisdom I have gained from my weeks of thought and solitude. It shows me at my very deepest.

The video is called Cock Soup.