Shiny Treasures Plundered from Better Writers

I’ve been busy lately. My book The Wax Bullet War is through the developmental edits, the line edit is starting, the marketing plan is coming together, and the cover is being designed. I am currently reading submissions for Spilt Infinitive, our amazing new literary magazine. I’m also going through a series of one-act plays for a summer project. I have a few stories coming out soon: one in Nailed Literary Magazine and another in Split Lip Magazine. All of this and I’ve made a real effort to reach out into the Portland, Oregon, literary community. There are so many talented writers in Portland right now and with a real sense of mutual support.

I have read so many amazing stories so far. Keep them coming. I’m one of two fiction editors at Spilt Infinitive and I also run the Hubris Press website so if I really love your story I will make a strong case for it with the other editors of the lit mag or I will slap it up on the Hubris Press site.

It would be pretentious of me to tell anyone how to write and I’m not saying the literary world is full of pretention but there is a reason we named it Hubris Press. There are hundreds of writing programs and a million how-to-write books out there. I read even E.L. James is writing one. Yikes. Instead I will tell you what I love to read and give a few tips from a few of my writing heroes.

There is nothing that gets me hooked into a story more than a great first line. If there’s a fantastic first line then I give the first two pages a chance no matter what. I understand stories are hard as hell to write and sometimes that white page won’t let you do anything but stare at it so we start our stories anyway we can. Once we get that first paragraph down the rest of it flows, but make sure you go back and spend time editing that first paragraph, and especially that first line. Think about some of the best first lines out there. They can foreshadow, they can be witty, intriguing, or even experimental, but all the good ones intrigue the reader. Every great first line makes the reader want more. My favorite first line from our inaugural issue of Spilt Infinitive: Taking the acid from the bus boy had been a dumb idea.

This sentence does a few great things for me; it tells me something bad is going to happen, it starts to develop the character of the protagonist, and it gives me a good idea of the time and place.

Voice, voice, voice. This is probably what I love best about any story. One of Vonnegut’s rules: Sound like yourself. I believe this is because sounding like yourself gives you the most authenticity and credibility to the reader. This said, I believe if you want to be a nine-year-old transvestite, Tibetan circus juggler with a lisp I think you should go for it. Just don’t let the fact your not that kid show through in your writing.

My favorite rule from Vonnegut: Have guts to cut out.  Elmore Leonard meant the same thing pretty much when he said, “Try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip.” In my favorite pieces every sentence moves the story, adds to the subject, theme, or develops character, every sentence uses words wisely. One of my biggest problems early on was that I didn’t care about every word. When I worked with Brady Udall he saw this right away. Early on Brady asked me, “You’re more of an idea guy, huh?” He helped me begin to see how important every word is to the story but it was my writing hero and mentor Mike Magnuson who pounded it into my head. He explained it to me like this:

Don’t have some mope in your story go to the fridge and open a beer. That’s stage direction. Tell the reader how the guy walked to the fridge. Did he stomp, glide, shamble, or what? Then show the reader how he opened the beer. Just about everyone opens a beer differently. A lighter, a tourist bottle opener the guy got from visiting the Grand Canyon, hell, you open your beer with your ring. I saw you do it. All that shit adds to your story.

Of course I’m paraphrasing, but Mag’s right. Avoid stage direction and when you are describing how a character moves or acts while telling the reader he is moving and acting that’s called descriptive narration and it works. Go through your story and find a lifeless sentence. We all have them in our first drafts. I found one in the chapter I’m working on for my writing group:

Draft: I’m sitting in front of my bosses desk listening to him go on about something.      

            First Edit: I’m sitting in a little cushioned chair in front of Rusty’s desk looking at the gray clouds through the window with my Moleskin on my knee, nodding absently in agreement to anything he says.

            It will probably change another five times, but the point is I have a little Mag on my shoulder who calls me bad names in a thick Wisconsin accent when I send a boring sentence into the big game.

Okay, it’s important to note that descriptive narration doesn’t mean load every sentence up until it’s about ready to pop. You have to think about pacing, tone, voice, adding tension, and a ton of other stuff. Remember, have guts to cut out.

I can go on and on not telling you how to write, but kind of doing it anyway. It’s really not my advice but little things I’ve stolen from better writers that really work. The only advice I will give is that if you’re serious about writing start a writing group. It may take a few times before you find the right group of people, but a writing group motivates, helps you develop ideas, and gives you deadlines.

For more nuggets of wisdom search the web for How to Write With Style by Vonnegut. It’s a short essay with seven great rules. Then search for Elmore Leonard’s rules, or really whatever writer you love because they pretty much all have rules and advice. Get the rules that work best for you, print them out, and post them above your writing station to refer to while punching up your next chapter for your writing group. Get that story polished up and send it to me:

Mag's Reaction
Mag’s Reaction

By Sean Davis

Sean Davis is the author of The Wax Bullet War, a Purple Heart Iraq War veteran, and the winner of the Legionnaire of the Year Award from the American Legion in 2015 and the recipient of the Emily Gottfried Emerging Leader, Human Rights award for 2016. His stories, essays, and articles have appeared in the the Ted Talk Book The Misfit’s Manifesto (Simon and Schuster), Forest Avenue Press anthology City of Weird, Sixty Minutes, Story Corps, Flaunt Magazine, The Big Smoke, Human the movie, and much more.


  1. Yes. I’ve seen that reaction more than once, and every time I saw it I wanted to strangle the fucker because I knew what was coming, and I also knew he would most likely be right.

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