Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Here’s something that I don’t think is often talked about in writing books or writing magazines. I can’t recall it being mentioned in the writing classes I’ve taken, including the MFA workshops I was in when I was getting my Masters in Writing. I think there’s a certain atmosphere in most MFA programs that brands any talk about story as belonging to popular fiction and so from the wrong side of the tracks.

I don’t believe that. All kinds of fiction need story. The great writers of the past, with notable exceptions of course because great means doing uniquely powerful work and that breaks all rules, have also been good storytellers.

Anyway, be that as it may, I think the topic of INVENTION isn’t talked about much. Invention though can make a huge difference in the quality of work.

Now maybe at the sentence and language level invention is talked about. Inventive style and use of language is applauded. What I’m talking about though is coming up with inventive twists and turns of a story or inventive ideas that propel scenes or give characters a compelling otherness that’s hard to resist as a reader.

Maybe one difficulty of talking about it is that inventiveness seems to belong more on the side of talent than craft. To my mind though, like the use of language, while certainly partly innate to the writer, aspects of it can be encouraged.

Don’t be satisfied with obvious actions. Looks for places where characters might act in less obvious ways.

Allow yourself the freedom to wander wildly in a first draft when it comes to plot direction. You will, of course, go in many wrong directions and need to REVISE and REWRITE. Invention, by its nature, carries with it many failures. Ask any inventor. You will pay for your attempts, but those attempts may be the very thing that makes your story unique.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

forget the formula

Bad Writing Advice #9: Write using a formula.

There are a lot of people out there who have story formulas they're trying to sell. And maybe they do work for some though I don't personally know any writer they work for. In most cases, I don't believe they work because writing is an organic act. You make a story come to life. Having to do X by page 49 and Y by page 61 and so on strangles the life out of your writing. This is not to say a writer shouldn't outline. Some do very well with an outline. It's not to say a writer can't plot and plan, but adherence to any formula throughout a manuscript robs it of the kind of spontaneity it needs to come to life.

You need, as a writer, to come upon surprises while you write and engage in those surprises in a way that they lead you to interesting shifts in story and character. You have to get down deep in yourself when you're writing and make connections between all the elements in your story. This requires intuitive leaps. Forget the formula.

Or so I think today.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Einstein said something like make things as simple as possible but not simpler. Plot is rudimentary. It's what happens in a story. That's the simple version.

Jack and Jill go up the hill. Jack fetches a pail of water. On his way back to Jill he comes upon Sleeping Beauty and can't help kissing her. Jill catches them in the act. All the king's horses and all the king's men can't put Jack back together again.

I think you could complicate plot by adding that beyond what happens in the story there is what happens inside a character. The development of the character, her reaction to what happens in the story, is also a kind of internal plot, but if you want to keep it simple when trying to get into writing a story go back to the simple stories and ask what happens.

Thursday, January 5, 2012


Recently I was reading Laura Ruby’s blog. Her novel, LILY’S GHOST, did very well when it came out six or seven years ago. But, as happens, it is now out of print. So she got her rights back and self-published the book (an e-book version) herself so the book lives on. That’s an example, I think, of how the new world of publishing can be a good thing for writers. I know there are other writers who are having success self-publishing after being traditionally published, too. They have an audience. I think this has happened in music. Many well-known musicians who aren’t “hot” enough for the big labels anymore do very well putting out their own songs or having a small recording company put them out.

Another example that I’ve seen discussed on-line in a few places is this situation: a first novel of a trilogy or series does pretty well but the publisher decides not to publish the second or third book because it didn’t do well enough for them. It may have less to do with the quality of the new manuscript than sales and perception of the potential sales at the publisher. Why shouldn’t the author publish the book if they still believe in it? The series probably already has some readers waiting for the next novel and it will be easier to publicize for this reason. Let the readers decide if it’s as good as the first book or other books in the series. So in this case, self e-publishing makes sense.

And I should add I’m for anything that gives writers more power and choices. E books definitely give writers more options. However, I think a lot of writers will self-publish and find disappointment. It’s hard, even with the backing of a publisher, for a book to get attention, get reviewed, and find readers. It will be even harder for new writers without any help.

And though we writers all complain about the lack of publisher support, publishers DO help every book. And they take care of all those little details and a lot of difficult non-writing work for the writer. I, for one, don’t want to devote my time to the whole publishing business. I want to devote my time to writing new stories.

I don’t really have any big insights. I just think it’s an interesting time. Though I’m aware of the Chinese curse, “May you be born in interesting times” I think all this change is kind of exciting. Will there be more good books out there? Hard to say. For example, someone who is good at sales and publicity has a great advantage in self-publishing over someone who isn’t. Their writing might not be very good but they get attention because they’re good salespeople while better work goes unnoticed. So someone skilled at selling sells their book well and gets noticed and someone who isn’t won’t. Fair? I suppose in a business sense yes but not an artistic one. A lot of good books will still go unnoticed.

At any rate, good or bad, changes are coming. There will be some opportunities in those changes, and some disappointments. We,as writers, just have to stay most focused on writing, on the thing we love.
Or so I think today.