How to Write Like a Serial Killer

WritingI love that title. It would make a good book title. But then I started thinking about what I would write, and it was mostly about what a fool the reader was for buying a book on writing. Don’t get me wrong. I love books on the finer points of writing. But I hate books about how to write in a general sense: “How to Write a Best Selling Mystery.” That stuff just disgusts me. The best writing advice is to stop reading whatever writing advice you are reading and go out and write!

Just the same, I think that the art of writing is fundamentally the art of reading. What writers most often lack is a sense of what is good and what is not. I remember many years ago, I wrote a short screenplay — for what would be maybe a 20-minute film. It was about this guy who was addicted to messing with telemarketers. I loved it. It was very funny with a great denouement. But a writing friend of mine hated it. I forget exactly what she didn’t like about it, but I am convinced that it was nonsense — something about realism, as though that matters in the least.

But as an insecure writer, I took the advice and wrote draft after draft. And with each draft, it got worse and worse. And my friend never liked it because she just didn’t like the whole idea of it. By the end, it was a mess with far too much motivation and far too little fun. But it is a good example of the life cycle of a piece of writing. There were many drafts before I showed it to my friend. And that was the point at which it was as good as it would ever be. The problem with the following rewriting was that it was at base about making the screenplay into something it wasn’t.

This bit of it really struck me, “Contrary to mythology, it is not high intelligence that makes serial killers successful. Instead, it is obsession, meticulous planning…” Ah, I think I understand that! This is what writers need!

Knowing when to stop is critical to the writing process. You must know when something works. New writers tend to think that everything they write is golden. There is rarely any point in rewriting because they can’t tell what crap they are writing — even though they can often tell this in other people’s writing. This is what we can probably call “kiddie writing.” There’s an obvious solution to this: read a lot more great writing and write a lot more of whatever it is you are capable of.

But not knowing when to stop can also mean endless revisions — never stopping. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t tell what good writing is; it often means you can tell, but you just aren’t a good enough writer (Yet!) to accomplish the kind of work that you know is possible. This we can probably call “middling writing.” And I don’t mean to disparage it, because it is usually pretty good. It’s always important to read great writers, but clearly the issue here is to keep writing. But that means different writing projects, not beating a work to death trying to perfect it. If you find you are in your sixtieth rewrite, it is time to set it aside and try something new.

And that brings us to serial killers. I read an article the other day, 5 Myths about Serial Killers and Why They Persist. This bit of it really struck me, “Contrary to mythology, it is not high intelligence that makes serial killers successful. Instead, it is obsession, meticulous planning…” Ah, I think I understand that! This is what writers need!

In as much as I can write, it is because I have been writing like a serial killer for decades. I’m obsessed with it. I know lots of people who used to be far better writers than I was and now they have nowhere near my skill. It’s because they don’t care about writing like I do. And they are better off for it! But if you want to write, you need to write. And you need to write a lot.

In 1985, Frank Gilroy (father of Tony, Dan, and John) made a film called The Gig. It’s really good. Yet it is totally wrong about the way that expertise works. In particular, there is a trumpet player who has a nice cushy life. He’s a professional-level player, but he’s not interested in being a professional musician, because it sucks as a lifestyle. Then there is a clarinet player who practices and practices but will never play at a professional level. And there is a great line in the film, said by the one professional musician in the film to the clarinet player, “It’s not religion — devotion isn’t enough.”

This is a common idea that has been beaten to death by writers who really should know better. Now it is true that there are limits. Regardless of how hard I work, I will never be David Foster Wallace. But anyone can become a professional writer. You just have to be like a serial killer. It really has to matter to you. Being a natural doesn’t take you very far at all. But it might make you more inclined to do all the work that you need to do to become something really worthwhile.


I always feel a little weird talking about this kind of stuff on Frankly Curious because the writing here is pretty much all first draft. This is stuff that I knock off without much thought. I usually have only the vaguest of ideas about what I’m going to write before I start. And if things go sideways, I usually let them. I’m actually a much better writer than any article here would indicate. But I’m not a great writer. What I am is a garden-variety professional writer. But people have been paying me to write for almost 25 years now — back in the days when I couldn’t write nearly as well as I do now — when my final drafts were worse than my first drafts today. It doesn’t take much to be a professional writer.

18 thoughts on “How to Write Like a Serial Killer

  1. I have a terrible confession to make….

    I don’t like David Foster Wallace’s work. I feel awful he died the way he did but I never was particularly enthralled with his writing. I don’t know why, I know it is good lit because I can recognize it when I see it but otherwise, meh.

    Then again, I like genre fiction so I am sure that has something to do with it.

    • It’s okay. I’m not a big Faulkner fan myself, even though I’ve read a lot of his work and I think he’s one of the best English language writers ever. Wallace’s fiction can be difficult. What about his nonfiction?

      • I never got around to it. To me it was about approachability. Your stuff is always approachable. I can read it without thinking “This is Great Writing.” There is no, I guess I would say, pressure to admire it while reading, I can just enjoy.

        It is the same with Mozart. In both situations I am feeling pressured about liking it and therefore I don’t like it.

        I don’t know how to describe it since to me it is like trying to describe the noise the color orange makes.

            • I’m just not fond of orange. I like red, black, grey. Really: the Nazis were horrible but they had a good sense of colors!

              • Those tend to be masculine colours. I find it interesting to see what colours people prefer-like how I like cool colours like blues, greens and purples.

                • I like red because it is the best color. I like black because it goes with everything.

                  Since when are you from Britain?

                  • It took me way too long to figure out what the dickens you meant. I grew up reading English history and some of the spelling remains with me from the books I read.

                    Green is the best colour in my never humble opinion so you can keep all the red. I see enough of it out here in the desert.

                    • Green is a hard color to talk about because some shades are glorious and others horrible. Like most men, I don’t have the vocabulary to talk about colors. The same is true of blue. But the truth is that I’m most attracted to the colors that 3-year-olds like. I know because I see their toys. There is a divide in me. The kid likes bright, clear colors. The adult likes grey. Depends on my mood.

                    • I know Michael Floyd’s work. He’s a freak. And he is amazingly good. But I’d never seen him do anything as amazing as that. I think the one who needs to sleep with the lights on is his wife!

                    • *looks at him again* What is so scary about that? Oh wait, I grew up watching movies like Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th so I suppose I don’t scare the same way.

  2. I enjoyed this article and I agree with you about too many drafts being problematic. After a certain point, you do need to just stop, and allow the piece of writing to be complete, if imperfect. The other problem I see with writing is this obsession writers have with feedback and “critique groups”. Writing is a lonely pursuit and I totally understand the desire to share your work with those who understand that, but so much good work has been completely obliterated by having too many cooks in the kitchen. Insecure writers who have not developed confidence yet should not be running out soliciting the opinions of multiple people. I would suggest just writing in solitude at first, or at most, finding *one* experienced and trusted person to share your work with in a structured way. And making sure that person isn’t someone who gets a charge out being mean to new writers–they are a lot of jerks out there.

    A very good poet I knew once kept running around the city soliciting critiques on her work from these other, more established poets. And it slowed her down and muffled her unique voice. She had a very special voice and talent, all that missing was her confidence. Her work wasn’t improved by anyone’s feedback; it was just muddled.

    • Yes, I was a little worried about you regarding your proposal. Of course, you are an extremely experienced writer. But it’s really hard to resist listening to all that advice. I’m glad you broke through. I think this article was inspired by your recent post about your 8-hour marathon and your breakthrough.

      I’ve long made a distinction between perfect and great art. There are things where I think the artist rendered the work perfectly. But that doesn’t necessarily make it great. Don Quixote is a great example: not at all perfect — a mess in fact. But great. I think the crowd can help you write perfect things. But in doing so, they can (often do) destroy what is great and unique about you.

      It’s always been nice to have you around because you can tell me when something isn’t working without it seeming like criticism. Also, you are good at meeting work on its own terms. That’s an amazingly rare quality. If you become a best selling novelist, you must leverage it into teaching. I know you already do some of that. But the world needs more!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *