Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step into any bookstore or library and you’re bound to discover at least one book professing to be capital-t the underscored book to learn how to write a book that publishers and agents and readers and Hollywood producers and the Dalai Lama and maybe the Pope or some low-rent Mafioso will recognize and idolize and adore. Fiction, according to the reality in which these writers write, is an algorithm. Replace variables with values and, viola, book is done. Sale is imminent.
And that might work for some people. But if you have integrity, then you should buy or borrow that book, tear out each and every page, and use those pages to roll cigarettes or joints or to wipe your ass.
Inhale the words fermenting on the pages.
Or cover them with shit and piss.
Those rules are better to inhale and exhale, they’re better as permanent scars on your lungs, than they are to absorb and incorporate into your writing.
Now let’s make a distinction. Some rules are useful, such as word economics or showing in lieu of telling.
I’m talking about structure.
I’m talking about form.
I’m talking about what information is necessary, what isn’t—but I’m modifying it: ambiguity and disconnection constitute important information as well.
I’m talking about the algorithms writers and agents and editors and authors of ‘How-to’ books drill into your head.
The algorithm of fiction is what we want to avoid.
How else are we going to invent new ways of telling stories—and new ways of seeing ourselves—if we stick to the same tired rules?
Which leads to a question: How do we invent new forms of storytelling?
Which leads to Step #1:
Experiment. Break the mold. Try to write in new ways, try to shake things up—to use a cliché—try to change how sentences and paragraphs and chapters flow. Try to alter what information you find necessary and what information you don’t find necessary.
Which leads to Step #2:
Embrace irrational and illogical thinking.
Eschew aesthetic considerations.
Beauty is easy.
Ugliness is harder.
To break aesthetics, you must deprogram yourself, you must write in a way that allows the automatic process of writing—or typing—to take over, what psychologists and the surrealists call a dissociative state or automatic writing, respectively. See what’s in that skull of yours, unhindered, uncensored.
And don’t disregard it if it’s ugly.
An uninhibited person is the most interesting exemplar of the subset of humans we call writers.
Allow your mind to break itself while you’re writing.
Embrace a form of self-induced madness.
The end result may shock you, the end result may frighten you, the end result may make those close to you wonder if you suffer from some terrifying mental illness, such as schizophrenia.
But who cares?
The point is to try something new, and often—because the more you experiment, the more you’ll stumble onto useful bits.
Which leads to Step #3:
Not every experiment will yield results. Most experiments will produce shite.
It’s like the old cliché of searching for a needle in a haystack, only we’re taking a fucking torch to the haystack, and we’ll melt the needle down when we find it and bend it into different shapes.
So if your first few experiments fail to yield something useful, then don’t surrender and slip back into the algorithm of fiction; instead, keep writing.
To find your voice, your true voice, the voice belonging solely to you, you must metaphorically murder your influences and shred the foundations on which their books are built.
Which leads to Step #4:
Abandon your influences and seek new ones. Seek out new books, book which excite you, books which force the true you out of its slumber.
Which leads to a Strange Interlude:
I’m sitting in a hall of mirrors, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of mes, all smoking, all staring ahead, all dead-eyed and tired and pushing smoke through their mouths and noses.
Across from me is the me staring back at me. He smokes when I smoke, inhales when I inhale, disappears for a nanosecond when I blink—but, presumably, he blinks, too.
He’s watching me, the smoker.
Mimicking and mocking me.
I wink, keep one eye closed.
He watches me, watches me.
With one eye closed, he opens his other eye as wide as he can—raising his eyebrow as he does so.
His eye pulses, then ripples, as if it’s a lake over which someone has skipped a rock.
And as his eye melts as it ripples: blood and vitreous gel drips out of his eye socket and pools on the floor.
This is what it’s like.
This is what madness must look like.
This is what madness must feel like.
I’ve been sitting here for hours, writing in my mind, without the aid of paper, taking the time only to smoke and to examine myself, and now that I watch the me staring back at me’s liquefied eyeball pooling in front of him, I get a sense of what it must feel like to shift your sense of self, to consciously alter it.
His eye socket is empty. He takes another drag from his cigarette and blows smoke out of his nose.
He’s sitting Lotus-Style, flicking the ashes at the floor. In front of him, near his left knee, the pool of liquefied eyeball ripples again.
Then it extrudes—outward, outward, assuming the shape of a fetus, then a child and toddler, then a teenager, now an adult.
But this isn’t a human, per se. It’s more like … It’s shaped like a human, and if you were to judge it based only on its shadow cast on a wall, you’d declare it human. But it’s different somehow, comforting somehow: an eyeball replaced its skin.
The eye-me swivels toward me—is it glancing at the mirror or is it glaring at me?—and raises its chin.
—Keep trying, keep trying, keep trying, it says, in my voice. —Keep experimenting, keep experimenting, keep experimenting, and keep shifting, shifting, shifting. You are not carved in stone. You’re more like a river than an object. So flow like one. Don’t try to find your way back to the old you. Remember what Heraclitus said: “You can’t step into the same river twice.”
Which leads to Step #5:
When you discover a useful bit through experimentation, allow it only into your literary tool box until you’ve exhausted it.
Then abandon it.
Which leads to Step #6:
Objectively, you are a human being; subjectively, a person; consciously, a writer; and as a writer you cannot remain stagnant.
You cannot remain a statue.
You cannot accept what tools work and make them permanent fixtures in your literary toolbox, which is against your nature
Remember: you are a river.
To change your habits, you must change who you are as a writer—and a person.
In a sense, you must alter your sense of self every time you embark on a new creative project.
Now, you may keep this sense of self intact over the course of a few books, but the minute your writing becomes mechanical and familiar, you must alter that sense of self in search of a new—or different—sense of self.
In short, creative acts shouldn’t express different facets of a single self; instead, they should constitute an intermittent yet continual metaphorical suicide—a means of killing an old sense of self yields a new sense of self, a new kind of writer who produces new kinds of stories.
Complacency in creative endeavors equals stagnation. Stagnation equals creative death.
Alter or kill your sense of self, but don’t succumb to creative death.
Now fuck off and try something new. Burn your favorite books. Destroy writings which induce a sense of pride. Fashion ugly sentences about ugly people doing ugly things in an ugly world.
Warp your mind.
(Note: This is a reprint, revised here. It was originally released a few years back.)
Daulton Dickey is a novelist, poet, and content creator currently living in Indiana with his wife and kids. He’s the author of A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: Stories, Still Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other stories, Elegiac Machinations: an experimental novella, and Bastard Virtues, a novel. Rooster Republic Press will publish his latest novel, Flesh Made World, later this year. Contact him at daultondickey[at]yahoo[dot]com.