How Aaron Sorkin Beats Writer’s Block

Aaron Sorkin, the writer of A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and The Trial of the Chicago 7, is one of the greatest screenwriters of our generation. Best known for his snappy, fast-paced dialogue, Sorkin treats conversations like musical arrangements. Yet, today, we’re not talking about Sorkin’s writing style, today we’re talking about one of his funny writing quirks. 

Interviewed in 2014, during publicity for his upcoming movie Steve Jobs, he was asked a variation of the question that creatives are familiar with, “What do you do when you get stuck?” 

To the surprise of some, Sorkin gave a genuine answer, and said that in order to feel as though he was getting a fresh start, he would take a shower. On the more challenging days, he could end up taking six to eight showers. This might sound wild to some — perhaps even a little wasteful — but what Sorkin did was an effective way of clearing his mind and getting the creative juices flowing again. After all, don’t great ideas come in the shower? 

Because today, we’re writing everything digitally, the act of crumpling up a piece of paper and throwing it into the wastepaper basket no longer exists. We don’t get the gratifying feeling of resetting. We hit the backspace, continue to stare at that blinking vertical line, and wait in agony for the next word to materialize. It’s as painful as it sounds. 

Stop. Do what Aaron Sorkin does — it doesn’t have to be taking a shower — but do something that refreshes your mental state. Do something where your mind gets to settle down, focus on something else — or nothing at all — and wander. 

Physically remove yourself from the computer chair. Don’t just scroll Instagram or watch a YouTube video (unless it’s this video), actually get up and go to a different room. Go to the bathroom and splash some water on your face if you don’t want to take a shower — or if you don’t have the luxury of Aaron Sorkin, who has a shower installed in his office. Don’t want to splash water on your face? Maybe bring a change of clothes and change into something more comfortable, which is another one of Sorkin’s resetting tactics

One of the greatest screenwriters of our time admits to constantly being in a state of writer’s block. Yet, he is clearly still producing. The key is to recognize when is a good time to step aside and take a break, to rip the paper from the typewriter, crumple it up, and toss it into the trash. To take a hot shower and change into something comfortable. Don’t allow yourself to sit at your computer and continue feeling discouraged, draining yourself of your energy, trying to plow through only to then delete everything you wrote. When it feels futile, take a breather, change up your physical state and refresh your mindset, and return as if it’s a brand new opportunity to write something great without the baggage of the previous attempt. 

Confronting writer’s block is something every writer has to deal with, but confront you must! Don’t let the threat of writer’s block stop you from writing, instead, learn how to take it’s punches, regroup, and most importantly, come back fresh every time for another fight. 

Want to start a habit in writing? Here is a 30-day writing challenge that can get you going!

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How to Stay Motivated in Creative Projects (ft. Progress Bars)

If you’re a Millennial like me, you’d remember a time when downloading anything took forever. Downloading music, downloading tv shows, and downloading movies. Computers weren’t that powerful back then, the bandwidth — if it wasn’t still connected by dial up — was overall pretty weak. Occasionally, a large file, like an HD movie, would take hours if not days to complete. 

I would sit at the computer and stare at the progress bar and watch it slowly edge along, telling me how many percent was left and how many kilobytes it was receiving per second. Looking back, I wonder how many cumulative hours I’ve spent sitting there watching that bar. Now and then, it would move so slowly that I would have to put my mouse cursor right by the edge just so I could see if it was actually moving, even by a pixel. It’s an old technique, you can use it too. 

The most infirurating part, which happened more often than not, is when the download would be going really fast, reach 98% and then… stop… I felt so helpless. Still, I was always grateful for the existence of that progress bar, because even though it was sometimes glitchy and inaccurate, it kept me from canceling my download. 

A progress bar is a good design. It helps you see how much has been done and how much is left to do. It works brilliantly for downloading software, but progress bars work for other things in life too. If you are painting a room, the progress bar is the paint on your wall. When you are reading a book, it’s the proximity of your bookmark to the back cover. These are things that tell us, “Great job! You’re doing it! Keep going!” 

Progress bar

But what about things that don’t inherently have progress bars? For example, writing a book. Writing a book is a multi-step task that doesn’t have a clear progression. Is finishing the outline 1% or 2% of the project? Is finishing the first draft 50% done? You don’t know. With creative projects, you can often feel as though you — like my download — went really fast at the beginning and then got stuck at 98% complete. You’ve been at 98% complete for months now on that novel. What the hell!? 

While progress bars are great for measuring projects with completions, creative projects aren’t always clear, especially if they are more personal projects, so you as the creator gets to decide where the end is. And to avoid ending up stuck at 98% for infinity, it’s good to create this progress bar from the very start of your project. Actually draw out where the 25% line, where’s the 50% line and where is the finish line is. 

For example, let’s say you are working on a novel. Great! You could just start writing and see where it all ends up, but God knows where that will take you. Instead let’s break it down. We can even do that with the different stages. 

Outlining: Outline 1st act will get me to 25%, Outline 2nd act will get me to 50%, Outline 3rd act will get me to 75%, and reviewing it 3 times will allow me to complete the outlining stage. 

Progress bar for outlining is filled. Then we can move to Drafting. 

Drafting: Writing the 1st act will get me to 25%, act 2 will get me to 50% and so on like that. 

Then there is Editing, Publishing, and Marketing. All these sections can have their own progress bars. So even when your larger progress bar feels like it’s stuck on 98%, you can look down at these smaller ones and see what actually needs to be done and work on it until you can reach the next milestones. 

Whenever you are stuck on a project or feel unmotivated to continue, think of your task in relation to a progress bar. If you at least know where you are going, then when your work and effort are only delivering minuscule improvements, 0.001% of progress each day, at least you know you are still on the right track and that, even though you may be stuck at 98%, you know you’re not completely frozen, and progress is still happening. 

We live in a time where a lot of things are instantaneous! Tv shows, movies, and music to name a few. I haven’t downloaded anything that took over a few minutes in years. Yet, creating meaningful work still takes time and the results might not be visible if you’ve been staring at the progress bar for so long. But as long as you keep moving towards the next percentage point, as long as you know where that is, then eventually, you will be done. 

Keep going! Before you hit cancel, look at the progress bar. It might not look like it each and every day, but you are making progress. 

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What Is The Difference Between Cheesy and Corny?

It’s comedy night at the Fridge, and you are ready to laugh. On the stage are two performers: Chester Cheeseman and Cornelius Cobbs — and they are in a comedy battle. 

Cheeseman opens with some crowd work. “A lot of beautiful people here tonight! Especially this lady here. Lady, if you were cheese you’d be GOUUUDA!” 

The crowd chuckles lightly. Your girlfriend, who kindly joined you for this evening of comedy, leans over and whispers, “Well, that was cheesy…” 

Then comes Cornelious Cobb to the mic. He pulls out a cue card and reads, “What does a corn say when it gets a compliment?” “What?” “Aw shucks!” 

Your girlfriend rolls her eyes and stares at you wondering if the two of you could sneak out of this disastrous show. “Let’s get out of here and away from the corny jokes.” 

While you stare into your girlfriend’s face one part of your brain contemplates sneaking out of the show, but another part is computing something quite complex: the two words she used to describe the comedians (Cheesy and Corny). 

You’ve heard these adjectives used before, but what are the differences between the two words? It’s true, the two comedians were not telling brilliantly clever jokes, but what about their jokes made them bad? And did being cheesy and corny have something to do with it? 

Let’s start with Chester and his cheesy pick-up-line-styled joke. The word cheesy is often used to describe something that is overly dramatic, exaggerated, or forced. In addition to pick up lines, songs can also be cheesy such as a love song that makes outrageous promises like “Never Gonna Give You Up, Never Gonna Let You Down!” 

The way Chester presents himself — a bombastic caricature, saying a line that was so clearly rehearsed in a tone that begged for attention — is undoubtedly cheesy.   

Then there is Cornelius Cobbs and his corny joke. Simply put, something is corny when it lacks creativity and originality, and feels as though it was taken from an overused source. Anyone who had ever thought of the phrase “Aw Shucks” had most likely associated it with the shucking of a corn. The mental leap taken for that joke is quite short. The cleverness of the joke is perhaps at a Grade 3 level, where one may be old enough to understand the concepts of corn, shucking, and the phrase evoking flattery. Any adult — you and your girlfriend included — would feel a little cheated when hearing that punchline. It was predictable. You could have told that joke yourself. It’s like going to a restaurant and knowing you can cook the food better than the chef. It’s disappointing. 

When using these two adjectives, at the core, what you are describing is something that is cliché, overly emotional, or sentimental. These are the traits that these two words share. They are both predictable and excessive to a point where it becomes boring, if not painful to endure. 

What a good story, song, or joke does is establish a pattern for your brain to follow, but if the pattern as it progresses is so predictable that you end up knowing who the killer is, or how the next rhythm goes, or how the punchline lands, you end up feeling robbed of a promise of entertainment, pleasure, and laughter. That’s the feeling you get after hearing or watching something cheesy or corny. You feel like a good feeling you should get from art was taken or blocked. You worry that you might never feel the feeling of being properly entertained again. It is this sudden pulse of panic that makes so many of us detest anything cheesy and corny. 

So to clarify, let’s draw a quick venn diagram: 

On the left we have Cheesy and on the right we have Corny, and in the middle we have similarities. 

Something that is Cheesy is exaggerated or forced and something that is Corny is boring. In the middle, we have cliche, unoriginal, and cloying. Cheesy is often seen as being more contrived and Corny is often seen as being more lazy. 

But what feedback can we give these two comedians? You wonder as your girlfriend is getting up from her seat. Perhaps their failing is that you didn’t get to know the true characters behind Chester Cheeseman and Cornelius Cobbs. They are just vessels for bad jokes and you don’t know what they love and fear, you don’t know how they actually see the world. You didn’t hear any raw stories or feel any strong emotions. They didn’t challenge your beliefs or make any stances. They are replaceable, interchangeable, and expendable. If you could give them one piece of feedback, you would tell them to say something real, say something true, and perhaps in the truth there would be originality and in the originality, there would be humour. 

“Can we go?” Your girlfriend asks, grabbing her bag off the back of the chair. You look at her and then once again to the two performers on stage. 

Chester says, “I’m on a new diet, you know what it’s called?”

“What?”

“Curds and weigh.” 

“Wow! It works, you look a-Maize-ing!” says Cornelius. 

You grab your girlfriend by the hand and rush out of the Fridge together. Once outside you exhale. All the way home, the two of you make jokes and laugh at Chester and Cornelius, and how horrible they were. A thought strikes you, perhaps there is some entertainment value in their performance after all. 

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The Key to Succeeding in a Bureaucracy: Dealing with Boredom

Whatever you want to do in life, if you want to make money from it, you will need to jump through some hoops. That’s adult life. That’s how it’s different from a movie. There is no way to cut out the boring parts: the parts where we’re in line, on hold with customer service, or waiting for a form to come in the mail. Taxes! Let’s not forget about taxes. Life is filled with these little hurdles that don’t define a life outright, but if you allow yourself to trip over enough, discouraging you from continuing, then ultimately, it will. 

If you want anything, say… to write a best selling book. What you are really saying is, “I want to start a business.” And with all businesses, there is bureaucracy involved. 

One doesn’t write a book or start a blog and earn instant fame and wealth. It takes work, it takes time — and strict adherence to the rules of money. 

And what is money but a game with many players. 

You need to access platforms, request different assets, and perform administrative tasks. You’ll feel like you are going in circles, wasting time doing things that aren’t “important.” After all, if you’re a professional writer, you should be writing, not messing with some sales page or negotiating with contractors. 

This always reminded me of the game Zelda, where you need to accomplish minor tasks, talk to characters you have no desire to talk to, buy material you don’t really want, smash open a few pots here and there so that you can reach your real goal, which is to save the princess or something. When you have a professional pursuit, you will find these mini-tasks at every stage. 

It’s tricky, because these hoops and hurdles make you want to stop and say, “I don’t need to do this for work, I can just do this for fun.” But that’s just an impatient part of you talking. Writing is fun. Creating your art is fun. Jumping through hoops and dealing with beaurcratic bull shit is not. But great things happen when you are able to support yourself and reach more people. 

A lot can be done alone in your office as a writer, but as soon as you need to reach a wider audience — and you want to make money from them — you’ll need to interact with people and be a part of society, the same way plumbers, bakers, and teachers are. Unfortunately, society operates like an old clunky machine, it’s slow, it malfunctions, it jams and freezes. It’s frustrating. But that’s the way it is, and a little surprising that it even works at all. Even if you repair one part, there are so many others on the verge of breaking. Attempting to fix this machine will only distract you from your purpose, and so we must learn to live with it. 

There is this great passage from David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel, The Pale King that has helped me a lot whenever I was stuck behind a hurdle, too drained and impatient to jump over. It goes like this: 

“I learned that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering.

“But moreover, I discovered, in the only way that a man ever really learns anything important, the real skill that is required to succeed in a bureaucracy. I mean really succeed: do good, make a difference, serve. I discovered the key. This key is not efficiency, or probity, or insight, or wisdom. It is not political cunning, interpersonal skills, raw IQ, loyalty, vision, or any of the qualities that the bureaucratic world calls virtues, and tests for. The key is a certain capacity that underlies all these qualities, rather the way that an ability to breathe and pump blood underlies all thought and action.

“The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.  

“The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable.

“It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

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Why “Lemon of Troy” Is The Best Episode of The Simpsons

Lemon of Troy, episode 24 of season 6 of The Simpsons, written by Brent Forrester is a masterpiece in storytelling, joke delivery, and cultural criticism. While it’s debatable which episode of The Simpsons is the best — you can leave your pick in the comments — I would say that Lemon of Troy would have to be in consideration just for its writing alone. 

As a writer, I look to this episode often when I consider how I introduce conflict and establish the structure of a story. This episode is loaded with literary devices and while it still follows the traditional 3-act structure, it is so concise, and the jokes are so economical and funny, that it should be shown to anyone who aspires to write a story of any length. 

While I’m passionate about this episode, I often have a hard time communicating everything I love about it. There is just so much! I get overwhelmed and I trip myself up. This episode links so perfectly that one thing I like immediately connects to another. So I decided to make it easier for all of us and break it down to 10 aspects that make this episode great — and it’s also something writers can acknowledge and perhaps even gain some inspiration from. 

Okay, so 10 things that make Lemon of Troy the best episode of The Simpsons: 

1) The MacGuffin: Lemon Tree 

Let’s start by talking about the MacGuffin. Is it a Scottish person? No, well — it could be — but not really. A MacGuffin — a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock —  is often an object, device, or event that acts as the motivation for the characters but is typically simplistic in and of itself. For example, The Maltese Falcon, the suitcase from Pulp Fiction, or the jade sword from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, are all MacGuffins. 

The lemon tree itself has no significance, it’s not magical or anything, but it is the importance that the people of Springfield puts on it that gives the story stakes when it is stolen by Shelbyville. 

2) The Catalyst: Marge’s Speech

While the lemon tree is important, what actually slingshots the story forward is Marge’s passionate speech about being proud of Springfield.

“This town is a part of who you are. This is a Springfield Isotopes cap.  When you wear it, you’re wearing Springfield.  When you eat a fish from our river, you’re eating Springfield.  When you make lemonade from  our tree, you’re drinking Springfield.

A catalyst, or an inciting incident, can sometimes be a major event, but sometimes it’s as simple as a character being influenced to evoke change. Without this speech, Bart wouldn’t have the desire to protect the lemon tree. He wouldn’t have pride that sustains itself for the full duration of the episode. Thinking about it as a chemical reaction, Marge had mixed her ideology with Bart’s spontaneity, which in less that a few minutes of screentime, we already get. All we need now… is something bad to happen to the lemon tree. 

3) The Perfect 3-Act Structure

Writing a three-act structure story sounds easy to anyone who’d never tried it, but it can actually get messy. Certain events need to happen at certain times and — in this case, if we are talking about a televised sitcom — we need to do it all in approximately 22 pages. But Lemon of Troy does it so effectively that if you ever get assigned with a task to write a three-act television show, you can literally use this episode as a template. 

Act One: The Lemon Tree

In the first act, we get to know all the characters involved and most importantly, we understand the significance of the lemon tree. It’s not only a metaphor about what life gives you, we also know what it represents to the protagonist, Bart. With that, we are also introduced to the antagonists, the kids of Shelbyville. We know who the heroes are and who the enemies are. The stage is set. 

Act Two: Entering Shelbyville

Here is where it gets exciting, as the characters cross the threshold, or as Bart intrepidly announces: 

“And now, the time has come to cross this line into mystery and danger — to step out of childhood and become men.”

It’s the progression of danger that makes the second act so effective. The deeper and deeper Bart and his crew get into Shelbyville, and closer they get to the Shelbyville kids, the more risky the venture becomes, until eventually it turns into a mission not to find the lemon tree, but just to merely survive. 

Act Three: Escaping Shelbyville

To conclude the third act and wrap up the story in a satisfying way is not an easy trick to land. But what Lemon of Troy does — that makes it so great — is capture moments that tied back to earlier in the episode: from the Roman Numerals joke to the Milhouses finding common ground to the RV gags that don’t disappoint to the cheeky line by Homer “Hee hee hee, no one in history has ever done anything this clever,” a line that makes the title “Lemon of Troy” just another joke in an already multi-layered episode. 

Not only does the third act conclude with Bart and Homer “saving” the lemon tree, it ends with the lore of what the episode was — another nod to the legacy of how stories and misinformation passes through time, and instead of wrapping it up completely, it opens the discussion to what will happen between Springfield and Shelbyville in the future as the next generation matures. 

4) Genre: Capers/Heist

Familiarity and originality. When a story can give us a good balance of both then it becomes a novel experience for the audience while still being approachable, and Lemon of Troy does this by grounding the story in a specific genre which is the capers/heist genre. 

I often think of this genre as The Reservoir Dogs or Ocean’s 11 genre, because there is this ragtag crew where each member with their own unique set of skills — “I’m the leader, Milhouse is my loyal sidekick, Nelson’s the tough guy, Martin’s the smart guy, and Todd’s the quiet religious guy who ends up going crazy.” — will trespass, break in, infiltrate, and eventually steal (what is often money) but in this case the lemon tree.

5) Types of Jokes:

When you watch other sitcoms on television — I won’t name any names —, or even later seasons of this one, you’ll often find that the writers would get lazy and reuse the same joke styles and structures in the same episode. For smart audiences, this can get repetitive and predictable, and result in fewer lols. 

Lemon of Troy, in just over 20 minutes, delivers such a wide range of jokes that even after all these years, having seen this episode so many times, the humour still remains fresh. The variety in what the set ups are, which characters are delivering the jokes, diversity of what the joke is referencing, and when the punchline actually hits in the story keeps the pacing and the energy of the episode going the way a song with a really good beat does, where you can play it back and it just doesn’t get old. 

It wasn’t easy categorizing the jokes or even qualifying what a joke was, and in respect for your time and for fear of potentially ruining the jokes, I’ll just highlight a few that I think are notable. 

  • Instant Payoffs:  
    • A part of us all… repeating in Bart’s head immediately after the speech. 
  • Call Backs: 
    • Roman numerals 
    • Flying motor cycle
  • Recurring Jokes: 
    • Milhouse thinking he’s being copied
    • Shelbyville citizens finding their cousins attractive
  • Sight Gags and Audible Gags: 
    • The lemon shaped rock
    • Homer cooking multiple turkeys and showering in the RV
    • Milhouse’s camo outfit
    • The fire hydrant is yellow. 
  • Pop Culture and Historical References: 
    • Rocky Movies
    • Trojan Horse
  • Irony: 
    • Lisa being sarcastic when explaining to Marge where Bart is, and she believing every word. 
  • Madcap: 
    • All this talking had made me hungry. 
    • Shake harder boy

If you are writing comedy, take this lesson from Lemon of Troy, don’t just keep throwing right hooks, you gotta jab, you gotta throw some kicks, you gotta have some headlocks, that way, when you get to the punchline it won’t be predictable because anything prior could’ve been a setup. 

6) Character Arcs: Bart/Milhouse 

It’s hard to believe that there are any character arcs in this jam-packed episode, but two characters actually go on a profound journey. 

Bart goes through a somewhat conventional hero’s journey. He gets a call to adventure from his mother, he crosses the threshold into Shelbyville, he encounters challenges (friends, allies, and temptations) along the way, faces tremendous turmoil and defeat, but refuses to quit — and in the end, returns to Springfeild not only as a proud member of the town, as his mother had wanted, but as a hero. 

Milhouse, insecure and lacking a sense of self, is the deuteragonist, a confidant to the protagonist, but with a different character arc. Milhouse’s character arc is more personal. He is self conscious when he sees the Shelbyville kid copying the way he’s holding his backpack or when he says “Radical”, it becomes this possessive thing he struggles with for the whole episode.

We get some back story for why Milhouse may react this way and it’s perhaps his parents — his mother actually being from Shelbyville — that cause some self-hate that lingers inside of him and it comes to the surface when he sees the Shelbyville kid doing what he’s doing. What annoys us the most are often the same things we do that are done by others. For example, if we commonly forget people’s names, what might annoy us most is when other people forget our names. Yet, in the end, Milhouse and the Shelbyville Milhouse find common ground; they can open up and be vulnerable for the first time. 

Bart and Milhouse went on the same journey but went through two different changes to their characters. 

7) Character Relationships: Martin and Nelson

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this entire episode is none other than the relationship between Martin and Nelson. These two when partnered together act as a contrasting comedic pair, Martin playing the stooge and Nelson the straight man. From “Team Discover Channel” “Your wussiness better come in handy” to “Spring forth burly protector and save me”, their chemistry is so delightful that it simply adds another flavour to the already diverse combinations of jokes. 

8) Antagonists: Shelbyville 

Every good story could use a good antagonist that is both despicable and empathetic. The Shelbyville kids are clearly bullies and we have no problems cheering against them, but it’s their lack of better judgement, wasting their energy stealing a lemon tree with little but bragging rights to gain, we understand that they live in a community that is suffering as much as Milhouse is emotionally. 

They live in a taboo place, after all, where it’s cool to marry your cousins. As messed up as that is, you kind of feel bad for them, because these kids didn’t choose to live there. They were just born there, it was the luck of the draw, the lemons they were given. The Simpsons could have as easily been living in Shelbyville. And because of that — and their taboo culture — no wonder they feel so insecure. But even with all that empathy, at the end, we can’t help laughing as they shook their fist harder to no avail. 

9) B-Story: The Parents: 

In some episodes of The Simpsons, the A story and B story are completely different, but in Lemon of Troy, they aren’t. The A story is the kids entering Shelbyville to find the lemon tree and the B story is the parents going after them. Only when the parents find the kids do their storylines converge, which is what a good A and B story should do, it should link together in the end in a cohesive way. 

While the B story isn’t a particularly significant aspect of the episode, it is that restraint that is worth commending because the danger of writing a B story so similar to the A story is that the B story can easily become the A story. 

Whenever we focus on the parents in this episode, it never overshadows what Bart and the kids are doing, it only increases the stakes and supplies some backstory. It’s not repetitive even when Homer, like his son, takes initiative by volunteering Flander’s RV. When you need to jump between characters from A story to B story, you don’t need to think of them as different tracks, but instead as an expansion of the A story, supplying the details necessary for the characters to eventually connect in the third act. 

10) Theme: Tribalism and how history can be misinterpreted

Lastly, Lemon of Troy is a brilliant observation of societal behaviour between neighbouring communities and how tribalism can both unite and divide us. This episode addresses how natural resources, historical events, and cultural rituals can create animosity that drives two groups to engage aggressively to one another. 

Tribal wars have existed since the beginning of human history and Springfield and Shelbyville are no exemptions. But what this episode highlights is how pride can turn into radicalism and how the two sides — regardless of the facts — can tell their own separate stories, casting themselves in a better light, both manipulating their youth and continuing a tradition of disdain. This type of behaviour is of course still happening today, whether it’s neighbouring countries or roommates in a two-bedroom apartment. 

There are many things that make Lemon of Troy great, but it’s the theme that seals it for me, because it reminds us of the importance to respect those around us and to acknowledge what’s causing the negative emotions to rise to the surface. Are we like Marge simply encouraging town pride to prevent our children from vandalizing? Or are we telling our children stories of glory that didn’t happen to harbour a sense of superiority? 

If you think Lemon of Troy is the best episode of The Simpsons let me know, it’ll be nice to know that other people out there feel the same way, but if you have another favorite, please let me know as well!

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Kurt Vonnegut’s 10 Best Writing Quotes

Kurt Vonnegut, author of SlaughterHouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, and Cat’s Cradle, is a master of using humor to make sense of this crazy world. He takes complex subject matters — that are often grim and hopeless — and interprets them in his writing with a style that is concise, conversational, and witty. 

As writers navigating our own absurd world, there is a lot we can learn from Vonnegut. Here are 10 writing quotes from the author that had made us laugh at the bleakness of reality. 

1. “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

2. “When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaningless of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”

3. “Jokes are efficient things and they must be as carefully constructed as mouse traps. And so for me to write a page of a novel is a very slow business, because the whole thing has to be rigged in order to snap at the end. My books are essentially mosaics, thousands and thousands of tiny little chips all glued together, and each chip is this thing I learned to do—this thing I learned to make as a child—which is a little joke.”

4. “Novel writing doesn’t breed serenity. It is lying, you know, and the novelist has to spend a lot of time during the course of his writing worrying about whether he is going to get away with his lies. If he fails to, his novel isn’t going to work.”

5. “I get up at 7:30 and work four hours a day. Nine to twelve in the morning, five to six in the evening. Businessmen would achieve better results if they studied human metabolism. No one works well eight hours a day. No one ought to work more than four hours.”

6. “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they’re made of.”

7. “Novelists have, on the average, about the same IQs as the cosmetic consultants at Bloomingdale’s department store. Our power is patience. We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time.”

8. “I’m simply interested in what is going to happen next. I don’t think I can control my life or my writing. Every other writer I know feels he is steering himself, and I don’t have that feeling. I don’t have that sort of control. I’m simply becoming. I’m startled that I became a writer.”

9. “I believe that reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found. By reading the writings of the most interesting minds in history, we meditate with our own minds and theirs as well. This to me is a miracle.”

10. “The proper ending for any story about people it seems to me, since life is now a polymer in which the Earth is wrapped so tightly, should be the same abbreviation, which I now write large because I feel like it, which is this one: ETC.”

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Five Must-Read Books for Writers

If you want to be a writer, you must read. But there are so many books! What should I read? Well, anything… but today, I want to share five books that I feel every writer — or creative person — should prioritize. These are non-fiction books that are more general to the craft of writing and the creative process as opposed to being books that are great stories, although some of these books do contain stories that certainly any writer can relate to such as writer’s block and the frustration of editing the first draft. 

I recommended these books because writing is such a lonely, laborious task, and these five books do a good job sympathizing with that, but what they also do, is not let us get consumed by our excuses to not write, these books are from people who have accomplished the task many times before, and in it there are some wisdom for writers who are currently struggling. 

So, if that’s interesting, let’s continue. 

Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday 

Ryan Holiday is one of my favorite non-fiction writers, and Perennial Seller is one of my favorite books from him, because it concisely breaks down the missteps us writers often make when we set off on our journey to create works that last. 

When we take a walk through a library, we see hundreds and thousands of books, books that we’ve never heard about, books that we’ll never pick up to read. How can we avoid having our hard work end up like one of those books? How do we create work that stands the test of time? 

In Perennial Seller, Ryan Holiday warns us of the lure of a meteoric rise and then an equally quick fade into obscurity, and explains how the work of a writer is more than just creating quality work, it’s communicating that work to a group of people who will then share it and nurture it and develop a deeper relationship with it. 

Therefore, he explains, that writing goes beyond writing, it requires research before you start and marketing when you finish. It’s not one marathon, it’s a marathon after a marathon after a marathon. 

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott 

Perhaps my favorite book on the process of writing, the iconic memoir by Anne Lamott, is the one I pick up whenever I need a boost of inspiration when I feel like my story isn’t going anywhere, when I feel disappointed, tired, and hopeless. 

Anne Lamott reminds us of the importance of taming the critic in our head, the traps of wanting to simply be published, and the power of putting one word after the next — bird by bird. 

Not only that, Bird by Bird is such a funny, witty, comforting read that whenever I dip into it, I feel like I’m getting reacquainted with an old friend, and the old friend will ask me, “how’s the work going?” and I’ll answer, “it’s going…” If nothing more, Bird by Bird is a reminder to writers why they got into this lonely pursuit in the first place, and I love it for that. 

The Dip by Seth Godin 

The Dip is the sobering book that us creatives need whenever we reach the part in our process where we’re struggling, where we’re complacent, where we’re no longer excited about what we are working on. 

Seth Godin encourages us to stop dreaming, and really confront the obstacle in our way — the dip — and offers us the option: “if you really want to quit, you should quit now, because if you’re going to quit a month from now, that’s a month wasted. So what’s it going to be?” 

Quitting or continuing is not only about the overall pursuit of being a writer, it’s also about individual projects. When should we stop working on this and start working on something else? When do we eat our sunk cost and count it as a learning experience instead of having it be a self-inflicted life sentence? 

The thesis of The Dip is that winners quit all the time, so don’t feel bad for quitting. The thing is, if you are going to quit, quit earlier than later. This book is a splash of reality that us creative writers need and it helps us reframe what we’re actually doing and decide whether it is worth pushing forward until the end

On Writing by Stephen King 

There is nothing like hearing someone at the top of their game share stories and advice about something they are truly passionate in, and Stephen King couldn’t be more passionate about writing. I mean, think of all the books he’d written. 

While On Writing does offer some tactical tips, such as King’s English “toolbox” and how to edit your first draft, what I love most about On Writing is how King goes into his own works and the lifestyle that most of us writers dream about, and understanding that real life still interferes even when we achieve that goal. Achieving our dreams still means we have to live in reality, unfortunately. 

There is probably no writer more successful than Stephen King, but this memoir feels so down to earth. There is this belief that whatever King writes publishers will publish, but this book proves that he actually knows what he’s doing and that he’s more than a bankable brand. 

King explains that writing could be the craft that brings us fortune and fame, but writing might also be the thing we live for — especially after his car accident. Writing can be the thing that pushes us to get better, to understand more, and even without all the success, it is still this beautiful thing we are lucky enough to do. And that’s pretty inspiring.  

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami 

One area I think people make a mistake in whenever they pursue something big, like writing a novel, is that they often feel like they need to shut themselves off from the world, stop doing everything else, and write. But What Haurki Murakami talks about when he talks about running, is that being a writer is so much more than just writing, and that in order for us to actually acquire the stories worth sharing, we must live a life outside of our words on paper. 

Writing is one of those activities where we bring who we are into, therefore, other things we do in our lives can be materials we add to our stories, like new ingredients for a meal. Writing becomes the intersection for all the different activities in our lives, it doesn’t have to be running, it could be cooking, it could be photography, it could be kite flying. Writing allows us to bring all of that into one place. 

Find the passions in your life for those moments when you are not writing, you’ll discover that it’s in fact a healthier balance. You’ll also find that one activity can actually support the other, allowing you to improve gradually in both. 

Those are five books that I really enjoyed and have inspired me when I was feeling stuck. If there are other books that you think writers — or creative types should read — please feel free to share it in the comments, I’m always looking for recommendations.

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Haruki Murakami’s 10 Best Writing Quotes

Haruki Murakami is a best-selling Japanese writer known for his novels: Norwegian Wood, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and Kafka on the Shore. Murakami’s stories are described as dream-like fantasies, where ordinary people face extraordinary scenarios, where magic and nostalgia blur the lines of reality. 

In times of turmoil and political chaos, when confusion clouds our judgements, books that delve in surrealism offer peculiar comfort. For writers creating works during these strange times — uncertain how to make sense of the world around us — we can turn to Murakami for a bit of guidance.  

Here are the top 10 quotes on writing from the author who shows us that enchantments are hiding in the everyday shadows. 

1) It’s a dark, cool, quiet place. A basement in your soul. And that place can sometimes be dangerous to the human mind. I can open the door and enter that darkness, but I have to be very careful. I can find my story there. Then I bring that thing to the surface, into the real world. 

2) There’s no such thing as perfect writing, just like there’s no such thing as perfect despair.

3) I often recall these words when I am writing, and I think to myself, ‘It’s true. There aren’t any new words. Our job is to give new meanings and special overtones to absolutely ordinary words.’ I find the thought reassuring. It means that vast, unknown stretches still lie before us, fertile territories just waiting for us to cultivate them.

4) When I start to write, I don’t have any plan at all. I just wait for the story to come. I don’t choose what kind of story it is or what’s going to happen.

5) Dreaming is the day job of novelists, but sharing our dreams is a still more important task for us. We cannot be novelists without this sense of sharing something.

6) Good style happens in one of two ways: the writer either has an inborn talent or is willing to work herself to death to get it.

7) I think memory is the most important asset of human beings. It’s a kind of fuel; it burns and it warms you. My memory is like a chest: There are so many drawers in that chest, and when I want to be a fifteen-year-old boy, I open up a certain drawer and I find the scenery I saw when I was a boy in Kobe. I can smell the air, and I can touch the ground, and I can see the green of the trees. That’s why I want to write a book.

8) The good thing about writing books is that you can dream while you are awake. If it’s a real dream, you cannot control it. When writing the book, you are awake; you can choose the time, the length, everything. I write for four or five hours in the morning and when the time comes, I stop. I can continue the next day. If it’s a real dream, you can’t do that.

9) Which is why I am writing this book. To think. To understand. It just happens to be the way I’m made. I have to write things down to feel I fully comprehend them.

10) I know how fiction matters to me, because if I want to express myself, I have to make up a story. Some people call it imagination. To me, it’s not imagination. It’s just a way of watching.

Do you like reading fantasy? Check out my review of 10 books from 10 different fantasy sub-genres.

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What is a Didactic Story?

Benita hates talking to her aunt Chloe, if you could even call what they do talking. Mostly Benita listens. Aunt Chloe has stories — stories about her life — story about her childhood, stories about her marriage, stories about her children, sometimes about work she did, sometimes about people she knew, other times about a trip she took. Always, she ends with this phrase: “And that’s why we [fill in the blank] and you should too.” 

Benita waits for that finishing remark so she can nod and agree. It always comes, all she had to do was wait. And when it does, it punches her in the gut. It doesn’t allow her to enjoy the story, because in the end, she knows that Aunt Chloe isn’t telling a fun story, she’s lecturing. 

You could say that Aunt Chloe’s stories are didactic. 

But is that not good? Why is it bad to tell didactic stories? Shouldn’t you want your listeners to leave with some wisdom like a nice souvenir that they can take with them into the future? Telling didactic stories seem like giving your audience the most bang for their buck — the best use of their time. 

There was a time long ago when didactic stories were popular. Religious sermons, ancient texts, stories that teach ethics such as Aesop’s Fables, are examples of didactic stories that have favourable reputations, because they taught people how to be civil as they learned to live with each other. 

From the stories of Christ to Siddhartha, people have relied on didactic stories to learn how to confront the obstacles of life and participate in a society of many. 

The word didactic itself comes from Ancient Greece, which means “relating to teaching, education, and wisdom.” Ancient Greece, of course, being a key time and place for great philosophical teachers and thinkers, all telling didactic stories to get their ideas across. The importance for the general public to receive moral guidance couldn’t be more important back then when communication and entertainment were not as easily accessible as it is today. 

Yet, Aunt Chloe had a story — one that she thought was worth telling — should she not share her story the way she felt it should be told? What was Benita’s problem? She should be appreciative of a free lesson from someone of experience. Not that Aunt Chloe was Christ or Siddhartha, but she certainly had a point of view. 

Every storyteller has a perspective and it’s from there that they decide which stories are worth telling and which aren’t. Obviously they would want to tell a story that gives their audience the most value. 

But Value is an interesting word, often used to market something that is of quality but is cheaply sold. 

What didactic stories are — are simple answers. Without understanding the complexities of an audience member’s life, it aims to give directions and solutions as though every problem or pursuit can be resolved by obediently following what the story has to offer. Didactic stories make blunt assumptions, just like what Aunt Chloe does when she sees Benita. She assumes that she has the answers for her, even though Benita wasn’t asking. 

Didactic stories come across as preachy, or belittling, or having a hidden agenda. Didactic stories are not open ended. They have a very clear conclusion. Instead of allowing the audience to interpret what the story teaches, a didactic one outright tells them what to know. It is in that rushed method of communicating that the important lessons in the story are actually lost. Didactic stories end up being less effective in encouraging a certain behaviour as compared to telling a truly meaningful story with rich characters and an interesting plot. 

So, what can we do? How do we avoid telling stories like Aunt Chloe? 

First, understand that having a story with a message is not a bad thing. Every story should have a core theme worth sharing, however, one should avoid telling a story with the solitary goal of convincing the audience of an idea or a way of life. 

A good theme doesn’t make a good story. And a good story doesn’t need to do any convincing. By taking the audience through an emotional journey via the senses of the characters, we can actually get them invested in the exploration of the theme. The audience will come to the conclusion on their own or have a thought that opposes the meaning of the story. Either way, the audience is empowered to form their own opinions, even when it’s the storyteller that reaches the ending. And the ending certainly should not be how Aunt Chloe ends it, “And that’s why we [fill in the black], and you should too.” 

Secondly, didactic stories often lack the complexity and characteristics of real life events, and that’s why fairytales — which lessons of morals can come across as didactic — are often catered towards children as opposed to adults, who understand that a little girl being eaten by a wolf or pigs getting their houses blown down is just the beginning of the problem and not the end. Didactic stories, in order to keep their lessons clear, leave out the messiness that is reality. And what happens then is something that is more cliche than convincing. 

Lastly, to avoid telling didactic stories, we must understand that great stories don’t have easy answers. Great stories aren’t recipes or instruction manuals. Great stories are a mirror that forces us to confront the feelings inside ourselves. Great stories ask us what we think about this or that, but never telling us whether it’s right or wrong, for there are no right answers. Every audience member should be able to bring their own history, their own experiences, their own principles and values, and use those as the instruments to come up with their own conclusion

Therefore, a story that avoids being labelled as didactic allows for wondering and contemplation. 

And that is why we shouldn’t write didactic stories, and you shouldn’t either. 

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Writing Contests in 2021: Canada + International

Will 2021 be the year you write your best work?  

Whether you have a story you’re polishing up or 2021 is the year you’re clearing the table and starting anew, it’s good to give your writing projects some specific targets. Writing contests have always been a great motivator for me. It challenges me to put my best foot forward. It gives me a deadline.

Without much further ado, here are some prose contests in 2021.

(contest details are subject to change):  

The Jacob Zilber Prize for Short Fiction – PRISM

Prize: $1,500 grand prize

Deadline: January 15, 2021

Entry Fee:

  • Canadian: $35 CDN
  • USA: $40 USD
  • International: $45

Max Length: 4000 words

More details at PRISM international


 2021 Calibre Essay Prize

Grand Prize: $5,000 

Deadline: January 15, 2021

Entry Fee:

  • Online entry (current ABR subscriber) – $15
  • Online entry (full-time student) – $15
  • Online entry (standard/non subscriber) – $25*

Max Length: 5,000 words

More details at the Australian Book Review


CBC Literary Prizes – Nonfiction

Prize: $6,000

Deadline: February 28, 2021

Entry Fee: $25.00 (taxes included)

Length: 2,000 words

More details at CBC


The Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest – The New Quarterly

Prize: $1000

Deadline: March 28, 2021

Entry Fee: $40

Length: 2,000-5,000 words

More details at The New Quarterly


 Short Grain Contest

Prize: $1,000 and publication in Grain

Deadline: TBD (Usually in April)

Entry Fee: $40

Length: 2,500 words

More details at Grain Magazine


Far Horizons Award for Short Fiction – The Malahat Review

Prize: $CAN 1,000

Deadline: May 1, 2021

Entry Fee:

  • Canadian: $25 CDN
  • USA: $30 USD
  • International: $35

Max Length: 3,500 words

More details at The Malahat Review


The Peter Hinchcliffe Fiction Award

Prize: $1,000

Deadline: May 28, 2021

Entry Fee: $40 CAD

Length: 2,000-5,000 words

More details at The New Quarterly


Room Creative Non Fiction Contest

Prizes:

  • First: $1,000 + publication in Room
  • Second: $250 + publication in Room
  • Honourable mention: $50 publication on Room’s website

Open: June, 2021

Entry Fee:

  • Canadian: $35 CAD
  • USA: $42 USD

Length: TBD

Note: Open to women, trans, two-spirited, and genderqueer people.

More details at Room Magazine


Constance Rooke CNF Prize – The Malahat Review

Grand prize: $1,000

Deadline: August 1, 2021

Entry Fee:

  • Canadian: $35 CAD
  • USA: $40 USD
  • International: $45 USD

Length: 3,000 words

More details at The Malahat Review


CBC Short Story Prize 

Prize: $6000

Deadline: Oct 2021

Entry Fee: $25

Length: 2500 words

More details at CBC


The Breakwater Fiction Contest

Prize: $1000 and publication in our Winter issue

Deadline: December 1, 2021

Entry Fee: $10.00 USD

Length: 1,000-4,000 words

More details at Breakwater


Check back in soon for deadlines for:

SubTerrain Lush Triumphant Literary Awards (Usually in June)

Know of any other Canadian writing contest? Please share it in the comments.

For more writing and editing resources, please consider signing up for my mailing list. You won’t receive emails from me often, but when you do, it’ll include only work that I’m most proud of.