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By Scott Nicholson

Maybe you've been wanting someone to learn you how to write good. Don't listen to all those crusty old salts whose brains are addled by the constant clack of falling typewriter keys. They will tell you to write and rewrite and then repeat as needed for at least ten years. Well, who's got time for that? There are a lot of shortcuts to the bestseller list. Some people will try to sell you books on the subject. But the best things in life are free, and worth what you pay for them. Let me learn you how.

Start by throwing away the rules of thumb. Every person who ever facilitated a writing workshop has echoed the mantra, "Write what you know." That is the worst piece of advice possible in a field where any advice is dubious except mine. I say, write what you DON'T know.

Let's face it. If you're spending two to four hours a day at your word processor, you can't have much of a life to share with you readers. Plus, if your highway of life is like mine, it's pretty boring to everyone but the person in the driver's seat. So the best angle is to lie like the devil and his Hollywood agents.

Only by repeating the lies of others can you become a big-time writer. Just go down to the supermarket and look at the paperback rack. Read the jacket copy. If you find a single original work of fiction on the top shelf, let me know so that I can be the third person to borrow the plot.

You'll have to steal in other areas as well. There's no copyright on stock characters, whether they be spies, glamorous heiresses, or well-meaning lawyers who have a penchant for being swept into widespread conspiracies. Lasso yourself one of them leather-faced hombres in the white hats for your western. Team a wise-cracking dweeb with a tough dame who looks good in suits and have them hunt aliens for the FBI. And there's always that tried-and-true favorite, the ex-cop who finds himself drawn into a perplexing case after bumping into an old love interest who just happens to be a forensic psychologist.

So much for ideas. Now for the nuts and bolts. The last sentence in the preceding paragraph is a run-on sentence. That means you just keep throwing words out there in no order whatsoever but if you're lucky they will fill up the page and maybe the next one and before you know it, you've thrown in a punctuation mark which gives you an excuse to stretch the sentence out a wee bit longer as Hemingway rolls over in his grave until finally you are reluctantly forced to stop and figure out what you just said. Because somewhere, sometime, some editor is going to ask for a rewrite.

My next advice: never rewrite. What the heck do editors know about writing, anyway? They're readers, for the most part. And if you think of all the slush that has flooded their mailboxes, you know their reading experiences haven't always been growth-inspiring. Multiply your own rejections by those of the 100,000 or so other writers, and you'll see why the editor is a gibbering imbecile who long ago lost all grasp of coherent English. In fact, she would quit right now, except she has a three o'clock appointment with her marketing department to explain why publishing a self-help book by Dr. Kevorkian was not an error in editorial judgment.

(I'm disorganizing this article in a precisely illogical order so that some editor's blood pressure will rise ever so slightly. And I know you're still reading, Ms./Mr. Editor, because I am a writer of about 400 words so far, and you probably have a meager 30 years' worth of publishing experience. Plus, because I am a writer, my time is more valuable than yours.)

Another nut (or nougat, if you prefer): Extend those metaphors. This gives the same effect as the run-on sentence. If you have feinted, parried, and thrust with your reader over the course of many pages, you have succeeded in sinking the foil as if it were a hook. You may be out standing in your field of rye. A man may try to catch a fish. With any luck, your words will be pondered over in literary circles. If it is confusing enough, your work may be anointed as "required reading," which promises steady sales at least throughout the tenure of the current crop of English professors. Astute writers will cleverly pre-anoint their own manuscripts until the pages are downright unctuous.

The mixed metaphor is also a useful weapon in making readers think you are a literary genius. Make your buxom heroine passionately pant like a locomotive in an elevator. Dare to let your steely-eyed detective exhale his cigarette smoke as if he were panting like a passionate heroine. Have your writer-protagonist drink like a preacher on shore leave while desperately decrying the stereotyping of both.

Don't you just feel yourself becoming a better writer as your steely eyes scan the page as if it were a horizon? Can't you just see your horizons expanding on out there, just like the unforgettable who's-it-face in LOST HORIZON? (Literary allusion is also a good device. It gives you all the anointment of famous literature with none of the messy bother of having to get out the oil.)

Now you're ready for the next bold step, as I walk you down the plank over the sea of clichés. A good cliché is worth its weight in return postage. Let your misunderstood monster nibble on bones of contention. A character's knock at death's door may be answered by a man named Death. No romance writer worth her salt will pass up an opportunity to have bosoms heaving and manhoods swelling at every turn of the hands of time.

But nothing wows 'em like style. Style is what separates Joe Bricklayer from W. Wallace Wordsmith. Don't spend years at the craft trying to develop a style. Good style is like good breeding: somebody has it, and it ain't you. The secret to style is PRETENDING like you have it. The best trick is to use all three or four of your names as a byline, and toss in a couple of gold-plated initials. If that fails, a juicy nom de plume is inexpensive and sometimes serves as an effective tax dodge.

Uh-oh. I see I've learned you how to write good already. And I ain't even done no double negatives nor dangled a participle out to the edge contemporaneously, or shown you how to have your character's flesh described as being the color of a flesh-colored crayon. Or how to make the gun so small in the criminal's large hand that it seems like a slightly smaller gun.

I know I promised you 50 words or less, but writing good is no piece of cake that you can also eat. Most editors pay by the word, anyway. So take this advice all the way to the bank. If the editor doesn't commit suicide before signing your check, that is.

"Wait a minute," I hear you say. "Is it really this simple? I can pretend just like you do, and call myself a writer?"

I'm afraid so.

-Copyright 1998  by Scott Nicholson. Contact for reprint permission.

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