A hundred thousand gurus offer contradictory writing secrets. You must outline! You must free write! You must write at a standing desk with your bare feet in cold oatmeal!
The gurus are all correct—and all wrong.
Domesticate Your Baders demonstrates building a personalized plan to transform yourself into the best author you can be. Writing is a set of skills, and deliberately stocking your tool chest makes each piece you write better than the last. Want to be a pro? Use the same techniques pros use.
No badgers were harmed in the writing of this book.
Contains no badger or badger by-products.
Regulations on badger domestication vary by location.
So much advice on writing is contradictory or difficult or just plain silly. Michael W. Lucas takes decades of experience as a professional writer and boils down all the advice into a simple, clearheaded approach to this most unusual of professions. Lots of wisdom here! – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"I took down the book whole in one afternoon, and actually resented being called away to make dinner instead of reading straight through. I think it's going to do a lot of good and help a lot of new writers, and that, as Miracle Max says, is a Noble Cause."– Lilith Saintcrow, author of the Dante Valentine series
"This book is the mentor you've been looking for. Lucas shares writing advice like a good friend who's a few years further down the publishing path. His tips are clear, unvarnished, and incredibly useful for writers and badgers at all levels."– Laura Bickle, author of the Wildlands Series
"Domesticate Your Badgers is an excellent and entertaining writing resource that encourages you to keep growing as a writer and provides advice and practical exercises in writing more thoughtfully and purposefully that fit easily inside existing writing habits. If you want to improve (and we all ought to) while you write what you want to write, I don't think you can do better than to take advantage of Lucas' wealth of experience and domesticate your personal badgers."– Victoria Corva, author of Books and Bone and Non-Player Character
"Lucas's book isn't the typical list of tactical writing strategies, wordplay tricks, or storytelling techniques. Instead, it is a uniquely positioned treatise on the mindset of an author and their journey into and through the profession. Lucas has masterfully identified many vital facets of the professional writer's mindset and behavior."– Chris Sanders, author of Practical Packet Analysis, Intrusion Detection Honeypots, and Applied Network Security Monitoring
Chapter 1: What Are We Doing?
Learning to write well is hard.
It shouldn't be this difficult. You speak this language, right? Why can't you just put the words coming out of your mouth down on the paper? Try it sometime. You'll discover that it's a miracle anyone understands anything you say.
It doesn't help that our languages are a mess. While English is a notorious scavenger that lurks in parking garages to mug other tongues and rummage through their pockets for fencible vocabulary, every natural human language evolved over centuries or millennia. You know how sediment and detritus settling on the ocean floor eventually becomes metamorphic rock full of weird fossils? Language accretes exactly like that, leaving its speakers wondering about their, there, and they're, and demanding that the responsible parties be criminally charged. It's nobody's fault. The language grew up that way. It takes a good decade-plus of formal education to teach our children how to cope with their native language well enough to write simple business letters and five-paragraph essays.
For many of us, even most of us, that's enough.
Some of us need more.
Some lucky people find reading to be one of life's great pleasures. No matter if they go through three books a year or three hundred, reading a good book delights them. Maybe they're after knowledge, or wisdom. Perhaps they want the fluttering thrill of a romance novel's happily-ever-after, or the machine-gun shocks of a thriller, or a horror story's macabre delights. Movies, plays, lectures, paintings, and television can't provide the same spark of emotion and inspiration as a good book. None of them inspires the same disappointment as a bad book that they quit reading ten pages in, and nothing in the entire cosmos inspires the same rage as a book they finish reading and throw across the room with a shriek of you're horrible why did you make me read you? The next great read makes all that worthwhile.
Those are the lucky people.
Some of us read a book and think, "I want to do that." As the aging champion gunfighter said when the youngster beat him to the draw: "Welcome to hell, kid."
Lots of people try writing and give up. It's work. It sucks time away from friends and family and hobbies and, worst of all, reading. Our paid and unpaid jobs demand time and energy and creativity and attention. When you've dragged yourself home from that fifty- or sixty- or seventy-hour workweek, flopping on the couch and reading a guaranteed-happy romance novel comes easy. I've had that job. I worked that job for years. There's nothing immoral about deciding in favor of the couch and a favorite novel—just be honest that you've made that choice.
A handful of us carve out the time and attention to try to become a "real writer." And that is when everything goes wrong.
You write something and show it to friends. Maybe they don't read it. Perhaps they say it's "okay," or start avoiding you on the street. You discover that the writing skills you picked up in school aren't enough, or aren't right, or aren't suited to what you want to write. You got As in senior year English composition, but the talent your teachers praised isn't sufficient. While sitting in a room and making stuff up sounds like the easiest job in the world, learning to do that job makes your brain churn like an overheated steam locomotive. It's indoor labor that won't give you a hernia, but it's definitely labor.
Many of us work for years without reward. You cover the wall with rejection letters. You self-publish a book, and it's purchased only by your sweet aunt who's never understood anything you do but has wholeheartedly supported you for decades and you adore her for it even though you desperately hope she doesn't actually read said book. Publishers return your latest piece with "close, but not quite," which is a notable step up from that first submission's "have you considered burning your thesaurus?"
If you've been there and are still burning time trying to become a top writer, this book is for you.
Who Am I?
My forty-fifth book just came out, but more will probably escape before this gets published. I pay the bills by writing books published both traditionally and independently. I don't teach. I don't consult. I can't be bothered to lecture or give talks, because they interrupt my writing time. Rarely, I must find where I abandoned my pants and leave the house.
That is all true. None of it is notable.
The important thing is that I started off as a terrible writer and an appalling student. I failed more than one semester of middle school English. Today, my books get critical acclaim and reviews that are so positive I'm embarrassed to use them in advertising. The path between these points took decades, and went down many dead ends.
You cannot follow my path. No one writer's path works for another writer. But you can avoid my dead ends and chart your own quickest route to competence.
I also hang around with other writers. Some of them regularly top the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists, while others have never been published despite the brilliance of their work. A few have received so many literary awards that they use the heavier ones as doorstops, and some write in areas so specialized that the publisher only runs two hundred copies of each book. I listen when they talk. I've seen what works, what doesn't, and how writers change over decades.
I also love artists and creators. I hang around with soap makers and guitarists. I don't care if you make clay figurines or scribble fan art or blow glass, I'll spend time with you. If I've been sentenced to a party, I'll seek out any available artist and ask them to explain how they do their thing. My idea of the perfect social gathering is one where I can find two creators who practice the same art and get them to talk between themselves, freeing me from any responsibility more onerous than smiling and nodding. Writing is an art, exactly like music or woodworking, and a surprising amount of experience in other arts is relevant to writing.
Writing isn't my only art. I spent ten years playing brass in school bands, the instruments growing larger as I did. For over twenty years I've practiced martial arts (which is very different from "fighting").
I'm also a slow learner. If I had realized early on that much of "how to become a better tuba player" applied to writing, by now I would have published far more than those paltry forty-five books.
If I can do this, I'm sure you can too.
What is this "deliberate practice" thing in the title?
Deliberate practice is consciously practicing one specific, named skill with each piece you create.
Like many writing rules, it's a short and pithy statement that represents a complex body of knowledge. Specifically, it doesn't mean that you can become a better writer by just producing a whole bunch of material. Producing a bunch of material is powerful, but only if done in a way that improves your writing.
Applying deliberate practice demands you understand a whole bunch of things that you didn't learn in school. You need a different mental model of writing than what your schoolteachers taught you, exactly like a surgeon needs a different understanding of the human body than a high school graduate.
What You Need to Use This Book
You must be a writer.
Writing is a practice, like medicine or yoga. It is not a one-time achievement, like winning the Olympic gold medal for badger-wrestling. Your life routine includes putting words in a row. Maybe they're on paper, or on a computer. Maybe the words are consumed from your blog or social media. Perhaps your masterpieces lurk in a locked filing cabinet labeled Fourth Seal of the Alpacalypse, Do Not Open Until Llamageddon. Maybe you write every morning, or you only get a jealously guarded half hour every Sunday afternoon. If you routinely descend into the word mines, delve for nouns and verbs, and smelt your treasures into sentences and paragraphs, you're a writer.
Perhaps you're a long-time practicing writer, but your life has been upended and you're reading this while moving or recovering from surgery or figuring out how to breastfeed newborn triplets without anyone releasing that soul-shredding shriek produced only by hungry babes. Life gives everyone wedgies. Stick around and absorb what you can. When you have time to work on your writing, come back and do the exercises.
Each chapter of this book ends in exercises to help you focus your efforts. They start off general and become more advanced. You must be willing to take a good hard look at yourself and your writing practice. Improvement starts with acknowledging weakness. Self-assessment won't harm you, but many people dislike looking too closely at their selfies.
The exercises are for you. Don't share your answers with your peers, your friends, or—worst of all—me. Sit down with pen and paper and do them, but also keep the questions in the back of your mind. When you're in the shower and your brain dribbles out more responses, dry off and add them to your notes.
All writers, in any field, can benefit from this book. Most of the examples in this book come from fiction and narrative non-fiction, because that's what most writers want to write. The techniques apply to all sorts of writing, however—even the five-paragraph essay, sales copy, and cereal boxes.
Language and Scope
No, this isn't another rant about why English is a poor world citizen. It's about the language used in this book.
When a group of professional writers talk about writing, the discussion might range across topics from the proper use of outlines to dealing with publishers. Some topics, like plotting versus pantsing, are more entertaining than productive. Others, like coping with the latest industry foul-up, are about survival. If we're going to productively discuss any topic in writing, we have to agree on a common set of terms and set boundaries on the discussion. For this book, I break writing up into craft, art, and trade.
Craft is the hammer and nails of how you write. It's storytelling skills, characterization and cliffhangers, when to use present tense second person and why you should avoid it in the presence of any other options.
Art, as a verb, is how you express yourself through your craft. A writer's job is to dig deep beneath that mental foundation, extract a truth, and show it to the reader. Danielle Steele and Jonathan Franzen both use the same craft, but write very different pieces. I've seen physically gorgeous books that qualify as a piece of art, but that's using the word as a noun.
Finally, trade is the business of writing. It includes contracts, negotiations, supply chains, and all the other stuff that makes a writer a professional.
This is not merely a pure craft book, it's a book about the skills of the craft. Maybe that makes it meta. We won't talk about art, except as it illuminates the craft. Trade is right out. Never worry about the trade when you're practicing your craft and creating art. Considering the trade while you write poisons your art and craft alike.
All these are vital and interrelated aspects of writing, so sometimes this book brushes up against art or trade. I won't hesitate to declare such meanderings off-topic and move on, except when the topic compels me.
I will use the word book or tale as a generic reference for the combination of story and manuscript. It might be a story or a novel or a nonfiction article or blog post or anything. I can't list all the options, and me repeating whatever thing you are writing every few paragraphs would irritate you. When I say "book," feel free to substitute whatever word describes your work.
Finally, I need to describe you, the reader, and what you're trying to do. Maybe you're already a successful writer looking to jump up a notch. Maybe you're a raw beginner who has just picked up a pen. Maybe you're a high school student who wants to be a writer and some well-intentioned adult gave you this book and said good luck. A writer who is trying to get better is different from a writer who is chugging along, content in their skills. I can't call you authors—an "author" is someone who has been published, not necessarily someone who currently writes. No writer is so advanced that they cannot further develop, so I'll refer to you as developing writers.
The Goal of this Book
"To become the best-selling writer in the world, obviously!"
Sorry, no. Goals are things you control. "I will write one thousand words a day this month" and "When a story rejection comes in, I will get it back on submission within twenty-four hours" are goals. A dream, on the other hand, is something you don't control. "I will be the best-selling writer in the world" is a dream, because it requires other people to act on your behalf. "I will write one million words this month," is technically achievable, but at 2,688 words an hour for twelve hours a day, thirty-one days in a row: it's a dream.
"Become a better writer" can be called a goal, but it's nebulous. For the purposes of this book, here's a more specific version.
I want to learn to write things that suck readers in, make them feel, pull them through to the end, and compel them to get my next thing.
It doesn't matter if you write fiction or nonfiction. We all want to be read. We want our books to be devoured. We want readers to desire our artisanal arrangements of words over anybody else's. We want to write things that readers love or hate—indifference is failure. A good first three chapters can sell your book to a publisher or a person who samples your ebook, but a great book drags people to the store to buy everything you've ever written. And if you can write cereal box copy that compels people to buy another box of that cereal, you can auction your services to food companies.
Suck readers in. Make them feel. Pull them through. Compel them.
Learning the Practice
"Practice" is one of those nifty words with multiple meanings, and more than one meaning applies to writing. One meaning is to mindfully perform a task so that you become better at it. A pianist practices difficult passages this way. Another definition is how a professional works their career. Lawyers and doctors practice.
Both these definitions apply to writers, simultaneously.
Every time we write something, we want it to be the best of its kind we've ever written. We bring in every lesson we have ever learned and try to focus them all into the tip of the pen. We're working on making our craft better. It's no different than the baseball player who spends hours in the batting cage. The words keep coming, and we keep trying to knock them over the fence. This kind of practice is invaluable, and will build your skills.
On a larger scale, writers have a writing practice the same as a lawyer has a legal practice. It might or might not be profitable, and we spend less time in court, but if you want to become a better writer you need to treat that practice seriously. "Seriously" doesn't mean "humorless." Laughter and joy are vital to a writer, exactly like any other artist. Dedicating attention, time, and focus to the joy of practice is serious.
Most of all, practice is a mindset. It's how you approach your craft, both in the long and short term. The manufacturing industry has taken the innocent phrase "continuous improvement" and burdened it with thick heavy treatises full of obtuse language, but making every piece better than the last is a developing writer's goal. That, most of all, is what this book discusses.
Chapter 2, Keep Your Whee, discusses the vital importance of keeping joy in your work. People who want to be writers find it very easy to take their craft seriously, then more seriously, and eventually squeeze all the joy out of what should be fun. As you develop a practice, you must understand why you enjoy the craft and why you write.
Chapter 3—What Is Writing?—breaks down some of the ideas we'll use to discuss the practice, and establishes the common language and approaches the long-term professionals use.
Chapter 4, Learning Gone Wrong, discusses the traditional approaches to becoming a better writer. They're all good methods. They all get misused. Some have sharp edges that will harm your practice. Using each of these properly, and understanding which to use, will boost you as a writer.
Chapter 5, Brains are the Worst, covers the mental process of writing. The act of putting words in a row is a mind game, and your own brain is both your greatest ally and a serious roadblock. Putting those competing forces to work for you is an important step to building a long-term writing practice.
Chapter 6, Your Practice Plan, combines all the above to build an actionable plan for becoming a better writer. Every writer is different, with our own unique weaknesses and strengths. Our plans must be just as unique as we are, customized exactly to the type of writer we want to be and our understanding of the craft.
Once you have your plan, look at the Story to Manuscript appendix. The seven-point plot is the most powerful writing technique I know for getting the words onto the paper, and underlies everything from romance novels to historical nonfiction to you-name-it. The rest of this book applies to the art of writing literature across the world, but if you're writing in the Western tradition understanding and practicing the seven-point plot will rocket your skills and your career forward.