Friday, November 26, 2021

Creating Character: Use the yearning and the fear


A Characters Heart

More from my book on writing, Be The Dog, available in the first week of December.

The way to a character’s heart (and isn’t that where we, as writers, are trying to get?) is through the things he or she wants/needs/desires and the things he or she fears or the things that get in the way of what he/she wants. The things that the character does in order to get what he or she wants and the things he or she avoids to be successful in getting what they want are at the heart of many stories.

Extra: Look at fear. The character wants something. What he/she wants comes with a fear that he/she won’t get it. Say the character, male or female, wants to protect his/her family. That’s the driving force of the character. But there is a powerful enemy and by trying to save his/her town she/he is putting his/her family at risk. His/her greatest fear is he/she won’t be strong enough to protect her/his family and town. This gives you, as an author, a lot of possibilities. Maybe the enemy captures the child of our MC. They have to make a choice: save the town or save his/her child. That’s just one way this could go. You can spin out a lot of possibilities from a powerful fear.

Friday, November 19, 2021


   My dog, full grown. More from the my book on writing coming out in the first week of December.


Extra: One bit of starting advice: Don’t let that voice of doubt stop you from writing. It will try. You aren’t smart enough. Who do you think you are, trying to write a novel? You don’t have a story to tell and you don’t have any art in telling a story. You aren’t special. You will never be a writer. Almost every writer hears this crap from themselves. I know I have. You have to quiet this voice and in the quiet that follows you begin.






                                    Write In The Moment: Be The Dog

Let me elaborate on writing in the moment a little more. One thing that was important for me to learn is that writing fiction is juggling many things at once and not thinking about any of them while you’re in the act of writing. There are just so many areas of concern: voice, character, plot, setting, language, and on and on. If we think about them while we’re writing, there’s a good chance we’ll freeze up or go into a kind of stiff, forced writing, or maybe make the wrong choices. And the wrong choices can be deadly in a novel. The wrong choices can lead you to other wrong choices and then you’re halfway through the novel and you’re thinking, HOW THE F**K DID I GET HERE? WHAT AM I DOING HERE? THIS ISN’T MY BEAUTIFUL NOVEL. THESE AREN’T MY BEAUTIFUL CHARACTERS (and before you know it you’re in a Talking Heads song—sorry, off topic). 

So--you can't think—not consciously--about writing while you're writing. You can think all around it, of course. When you're driving your car (this does raise safety concerns but we all must make sacrifices for our art), taking a shower, walking the dog (one of my favorites). I'm constantly turning over aspects of what I'm working on when I'm not actually working. However, when writing be in the moment.




Saturday, November 13, 2021


                        I will have a new book on writing out in a few weeks, first week of December. It will be on all the major online retailers. The book covers the topics I cover on this blog but in a more organized way. Some of the content even comes from this blog, revised and edited. But there's whole lot of new material and a lot of content from the class in Creative Writing I taught for many years.  Below is the book's introduction. That's my pup in the picture when he was just a pup. He's 125 pounds now.                                  

                                           BE THE DOG  



Welcome Reader, 

Dogs live in the moment. It’s one of the great things about dogs. They are Zen without knowing what Zen is. You have to Be The Dog when you’re writing the scenes of your novel; you have to live in the moment of your scenes. Like a martial artist or musician or painter, you can’t be thinking about all the art and craft you’ve learned when you’re doing what you do, but it all has to be there when you create. You need informed intuition. The informed part will be all the craft you can learn. There’s a ton of craft advice in this book.



The sections in this writer’s guide have titles like Story, Language, Characters, that sound convincingly practical, and they are in the sense that there is plenty of nuts and bolts craft talk and also some attempts at discussing the more airy aspects of artistic endeavor, but the information and advice are offered in bite-size segments rather than point-by-point instruction.

Additionally, there are Extra entries that offer commentary on my commentary, sort of a spoonful of meta.

Admittedly, this is not your typical writing manual. It is more like the disreputable cousin who sneaks his way into the family reunion uninvited. 

A little about me: I’ve written over a dozen novels. Five of them were published traditionally and two won awards from the Texas Institute of Letters. I’ve independently published three urban fantasy novels. I’ve had over a dozen stories published in magazines like Glimmer Train and Literal Latte. I also taught a college level creative writing class, off and on, for over a decade. 

I’ve written a lot of words and I plan on writing a lot more because I love to write and I love to have written. It took me a long time to get published. I hope I can shorten your road to whatever your goals are as a writer by using my mistakes and my experiences writing and rewriting novels to help you along your journey. To do something you love (sometimes even be paid pretty well for doing it) is a gift. I’m lucky to have found it. I hope I communicate my absolute and unconditional joy for the art and craft of writing. Maybe you will be lucky, too, and discover you have a similar passion. Good writing.

Thanks for reading.


Saturday, October 30, 2021

How do you get to those two words every novelist loves to write, THE END? I'll tell you...


Are you sitting down? You have to be sitting down to write a novel so that's step 1. Step 2—the blank page is waiting. Start filling it up. HOWEVER, if you think, "OMG, I've got to write hundreds of pages and how will I ever, ever do that when I've got nothing but...almost nothing...maybe a tiny idea, maybe a vague character? This is impossible." If you think this or something like this, it might be impossible. Think smaller steps... Whether you begin with an outline or you just start writing, don't focus on writing a novel. Don't even focus on writing a chapter because what a chapter is, that's vague. What you want is a step that you can easily climb up. What you need is a clear goal. THINK scene. Think of a scene you want to write. My advice is even if you're not an outliner, you write a little one paragraph note to yourself about what happens in this scene you're going to write and what you want the reader to feel or maybe think and what happens and something about the people involved in the scene. Then write that one scene as best you can. Then go on to the next scene. Often a scene will be a chapter but not always. That doesn't matter. Just keep moving from scene to scene. My advice is that you keep trying to give yourself a foot up in the scene by writing a quick paragraph about each scene before you write it. Then write the scene. Then move on to the next.

Step by step, scene by scene, you'll reach where you want to go which is that final page with that final sentence and the words THE END.

Friday, October 1, 2021

What do you start with? Character, plot, setting?

For me the three main legs of a novel are character, story and language. Often , since I write speculative fiction, I'd add a fourth: setting. This can still be true for other types of fiction, too, but most true for fiction that uses world-building.

Some people start with a character. A character comes to them when they're out on a walk or in the shower and they want to write a story using that character. Some people start with plot. They have an idea for a story. Some do start with a setting and that setting is where their kernel for a novel comes from (1984 maybe). Consider To Kill A Mockingbird. I've never talked this over with Harper Lee but I can imagine her starting with a character (a young girl in a small town with a unique voice) or a plot (a story about a black man falsely accused of rape in a small, racist town) or setting (a small town that has many good people and good qualities but is racist and a situation exposes that and creates a tragedy).

When you're trying to get started, start with whatever kernel comes to you. NOW FOR THE IMPORTANT PART: you need to recognize that whatever you start with you will need the other elements to develop your story. If you start with an interesting character you need to be aware that he needs a story that will develop him in an interesting way and give him a sense of progress toward some goal or toward getting what he needs. If you have a plot that's about a journey or surviving an event you need the right characters for the specific journey. A girl from Kansas going to the OZ worked out pretty well for that particular story.

You have to do the work on this. You have to be aware that if you just try to write a character sketch your novel will likely die. If you have a plot but your characters are stick figures you move to make your plot work, your novel will not be read. Readers want characters they can identify with and care about. They won't keep reading if they don't have that.

My advice, fellow writers, pay attention to these aspects of fiction. Make them work together from the start and keep trying, as you move through your manuscript, to develop them. Your work will improve

Or so I think today. 

Monday, September 20, 2021

How to Write a Novel: Part 1: How to get started

page1image45450672 I'm going to write a series of posts on how to write a novel from beginning to the final revision and try to give some tips on how to keep going. I'll try to keep the entries fairly short. Hope at least some of these tips will be helpful. Brian

There are three secrets to writing a novel. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are.” ― W. Somerset Maugham


Martial Art of Writing

  • Similarities to martial arts and writing: both require skills and art. Training is similar.

  • Break-down movements to understand what you’re trying to do. Then practice. Then put movements together. Then practice. Repetition will build muscle memory. Same in writing. You will learn habits (through reading a lot and writing a lot) that will help you write without thinking about how you’re doing what you’re doing.

  • You have to get to a place where you are writing without thinking about writing. You’re just trying to live within the scene. You’ll have revision to be more analytical.


  • TELL A STORY/ USE LANGUAGE WELL. Be a story teller and a good writer and you’ll write novels and stories people want to read. These do work together, of course, but you need to understand that the skills come from different places in your mind. You have to see with different eyes.(Need specifics for this to be clear but step 1 is realizing these two essential skills come from different places)

  • Language—tone, pacing, dialogue, character building, especially through dialogue.

  • Story: plot, structure: various layers of plot and structure. These can be sentence level sometimes but are definitely: scene, chapter, complete novel. Character development as linked to story

  • Theme is important: you need to figure out what you’re writing about but it’s not something you have to know right away.

And also

  • Language and story are partners.

  • Language usage can create emotions by the choice of words and by creating word images (like the camera does in film) for the reader. They see what’s happening and become involved with it. Characters become real.

  • Story-plot and structure-hacks the mind of the reader to pull them along with action that keeps them turning the page but also involves them in the bigger story that makes for a satisfying read. Your reader needs to have a strong narrative and feel a sense of progression toward the end.

Excellent short short example

page6image39072320 page6image39073472

Why is this short-short good?

  • Boy kicks dog...conflict established...

  • Audience sympathetic for puppy—engaged because of this sympathy and how the boy is treating him.

  • The puppy keeps trying in DIFFERENT ways. The boy keeps resisting. Engages the reader with a question. Will the boy give in?

  • We’re still pissed and irritated by boy (I’m a dog lover)

  • BUT we want the boy to be won over by the puppy. We want it for the puppy but we also sort of want it for the boy, hope that it might make him less of a punk.

  • Then we see the boy. The twist/surprise/changes the story that makes us see everything we’ve already seen in a different way.

  • As the British says, Brilliant.

ALAS, FIRST DRAFTS SUCK. BE READY FOR IT. I ADVISE, LOW EXPECTATIONS. Keep writing your way through good and bad days.


  • Character in a situation...and the situation must have potential for CONFLICT

  • A boy and a girl from warring families fall in love. (this may have been done once or twice)

  • A boy’s father dies and he suspects it’s murder— worse that his uncle is involved and maybe his mother.

A girl wakesonashipthatseemstobeonthesea but realizes that she is dead. (Zevin, Elsewhere)

TO OUTLINE OR NOT TO OUTLINE: Are you a discovery writer or an outliner or a little of both? Most people are probably a little of both. 

John Irving is the ultimate outliner. Brandon Sanderson is also a big outliner. Stephen King is a discovery writer.  There is no one way to work. You have to find out what works for you. Experiment. 

  • A character in a situation is how I usually begin. This may include a setting idea along with story. This will get you started but you need more to keep going. If all I have is a cool situation, it’s hard to move past the opening.

  • I do one page of outlining to have a very general idea of what might happen in the novel. At least this way I can move beyond just the first twenty/ thirty pages.

  • Then I do a POINTS ON THE MAP—four or five points—from beginning to end that will help me move from point to point. Next step, I’ll try one sentence summary of some scenes in-between the points. All of the above will change in revision

  • I do outlining as I go along.

  • Sometimes I will try to just write what I want to do in a scene and write some dialogue as a way to get started on a difficult scene

  • I try to follow my own advice and keep writing and not let myself be stopped by the messy and ugly first draft.


  • Do an outline-–a points on a map outline for a story you’re working on (at least five points). Or if you don’t have a story, do an outline for one of the following:

  • A girl volunteering in an assisted living community notices that people die when they’re befriended by one of the women who lives there.

  • A policeman owns ten cats and comes home one night and they’re all gone.

  • A boy and his girlfriend (who cheated on him) meet at a party.

  • A father and his son, who have never gotten along, have to learn to live together after the boy’s mother/father’s wife dies. One scene that shows them trying to cope together—maybe after the funeral.

  • A boy suddenly realizes he has some kind of supernatural ability. Maybe he can read minds. He talks to his parents about it. They reveal a secret.


Wednesday, September 8, 2021

 I like dogs and I have a lot of dogs in the Poe Detective Agency novels. I made a little book of them, seventeen pages with pictures and descriptions, for my email list. Sign up if you're interested. Here's a sample—Charlie, Boss Dog, and Hamlet.

Writing tip of the day: Write what you care about. Find something to care about—small things, big things, tiny things, gigantic things—and you will be fine. You will be happy even if the story doesn't sell (and it is more likely to sell if you can communicate your love or disgust or joy or even, alas, your hate) because you care about the story and probably will have fun writing it.