Friday, December 17, 2010

Do What You Do Well

On the other hand, continuing with my last post about story being the poor cousin to other elements of fiction and beautiful prose being sort of the prince or princess among them, if I could write beautiful prose, I would. I think I can write clever prose. There are many excellent writers who write great and powerful books whose language is not extraordinary. It’s always good, mind you, but not the main way they get their power. I would say that’s true of most writers really.

I think what you have to do is figure out what you do well and make that work for you. I think what bothered me in graduate school was how many of my classmates focused on language to the neglect of story and other elements of fiction. The truth was maybe one or two could write beautiful prose (and this was in a large group of talented writers). Most just didn’t have that gift. But instead of struggling to develop what gifts they did have they got caught up on language because that was what all the teachers praised most.

I was lucky. I got more than my share of praise and attention in my MFA program. But I think sometimes teachers and others might actually slow down development. Yes, we always have to try new things as writers. Yes we have to push ourselves. But we are what we are, too. Whatever talents or skills we can use to make our writing powerful and entertaining should be used.

And with that I wish you good writing and a happy holiday. I’m taking a little blog break until after New Years.

If you’re bored and looking for some writer talk, here’s a new page on my website with blog interviews I’ve done recently on Aliens and Writing. http://www.brianyansky.comblog-tour2010.html

Finally, I thought I’d try asking if any of you have questions or topics you’d like me to write about. I’d be happy to give my two cents on any topic I’ve got two cents worth of comments to make. Leave a comment here or at any future post or email me at if any topics or questions come to mind.

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, December 11, 2010


In Austin, Texas, it gets hot in the summer. You can fry an egg on the pavement. You can cook a whole five-course meal. If you stand in one place too long, you start smoking. Hot.

How do you get that heat in writing? Everything has to be working in your writing and that includes the oft maligned element, story.

Story isn’t easy. People realize it’s hard to write well, to use language well. It’s hard to develop character, create an interesting setting, etc.. But story doesn’t really get its due. It lives in the worst fictional neighborhood and isn’t invited to the fictional elements’ parties. Its job is undesirable. It’s the garbage collector of fiction.

Story is, in fact, seriously undervalued, particularly in MFA programs (at least that was my experience and seems to be the experience of many others). A lot of writers who write beautifully fail miserably because they have no story to tell or what faint story they do have to tell isn’t told well. They expect us to read their work because they write pretty sentences.

I’m here to tell you—pretty sentences aren’t enough( even though I love beautiful writing). You need all the elements of fiction, including story, to be working. I need them anyway—I need all the help I can get.

Saturday, December 4, 2010


Technique is important. Learning craft is important. But it isn’t enough. Of course you have to learn what you can, and then you have to bury it in your subconscious and find a way to get to that place when you’re writing. But there are times when you should ignore technique, ignore your hard won techniques of craft, in favor of intuition.

Intuition is highly undervalued in our culture. We want to know the steps to accomplishing a goal. We want to reason our way to success. It just doesn’t work that way in writing. Prescriptions for success in writing are published all the time, so why don’t we have more great books? Successful people in many other fields, very smart people sometimes, who read these prescriptions for success, try writing fiction and are surprised and disappointed they don’t work. Why aren’t more of these people who are accomplished in other fields published? Why aren’t more of them writing spectacular fiction?

Because there is no formula for writing a good novel.


Writing is intuitive in many ways. You find what works for you through trial and error, study of craft, hard work, luck, but there is always an aspect of writing that remains mysterious. Sometimes you have to take chances. Sometimes you just have to trust your intuition.

Or so I think today.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

So You Want to Write a Novel

Got this from David Kazzie's blog. I think it's pretty funny. Take a look.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

writing advice

Here’s my best advice about writing. Don’t take anyone’s advice about writing.

Not without the proverbial grain of salt or maybe a hundred grains anyway.

I love Robert Olen Butler’s book about writing FROM WHERE WE DREAM. I think it is one of the best books about writing I’ve read (there are a lot of bad ones out there it has to be said) but there are many things in that book I don’t agree with and can’t use.

Why? All writers are unique. Writing is one of the most personal, idiosyncratic activities around. What works for one writer might take the life out of another writer’s writing or at least lead them to do things that weaken some aspect of their writing.

Each writer has to find his or her way and take what he or she can from every source and leave the rest. It’s hard but finding your own way requires going the wrong way a lot.

So should you take my advice about writing to not take anyone’s advice about writing?

Saturday, November 20, 2010


Forgive me. I’m in a ranting mood today.

I’ve been out and about more lately because my book just came out. I’ve heard various versions of this a lot lately, “I’ve written an awesome novel. I’ve been writing for six months or a year or two. No one will publish it because I don’t know anyone. You know, it’s the gatekeepers. It’s a great book that would be a bestseller but I can’t get past those gatekeepers.” They go on to say everyone else is getting a big deal (but if you ask them who they know that got a big deal they will say they don’t actually know anyone but they’ve heard, they’ve read someplace—big deals, everywhere). Why not them? Why not them? I think we all do the “why not me?” thing sometimes, so I sympathize, but I also think that media attention to a few big deals skews new writers notions about publishing.

I’ve got a few things to add to that.

The first is that I read an article not that long ago that said the average published writer wrote a little over ten years before he/she published his/her novel. Now, of course that’s the average. You might do much better than that. I hope you do, but I didn’t. And it says something, doesn’t it, that it takes most writers that much time working on their craft before they publish. So, that’s one thing. Learning to write well is a slow process. If you’ve written for a year or two, even if you’ve written some good work, maybe your work isn’t quite ready to be published. Some writers do get to writing well very quickly but if you're not one of those writers, and obviously most of us aren't, you will get there if you keep writing with passion and a desire to improve.

Another thing: these deals people keep reading about are few and far between. People think there are deals being made all over the place and they’re missing out. They read about the big deals online every week or two so it seems like they’re the tip of iceberg, like there are many of these deals being made, but they’re, um, actually the whole iceberg. Those few big deals every month are in the news because they are so few. The much, much more common small deasl aren’t made a big deal about (ha) and the thousands of manuscripts that are rejected every week—you already know this—are not mentioned at all. I heard an agent speak recently. He said he got 5000-6000 queries a year. Last year he took on two new clients. I think that’s about the number of queries my agent got last year, too. Now, to put things in perspective that agent said about 90% of the manuscripts he got, he could dismiss right away for various reasons, but still. Lots of rejection out there and very few acceptances. That’s the norm. The big deal happens to someone, of course, and maybe you’ll be that person but it’s always a matter of luck and skill and the luck part, I’m afraid, is out of your control. Working hard to improve your skills though—that you can do.

Finally—are the best books always published and the others rejected? No. You may look at a published novel and think your manuscript is better than that. Maybe you’re right. (Of course, it has to be said that writers are not always the best judges of their own work). However, a number of other factors are always involved in publication besides quality. And also we all view “quality” subjectively so it’s a little hard to measure. For example, a person who hates all romance novels isn’t going to be able to judge a good one from a bad one. BUT all of that aside, I think some bad books or so-so books get published and I’m sure a lot of very good manuscripts get rejected. It’s the nature of publishing that manuscripts get overlooked and that some very good works that would only appeal to a small audience might not be published for that reason. That sucks.

BUT here’s the thing. If you let yourself get too distracted by dreams of being published to acclaim and big checks, you’ll miss out on what is most fun, most satisfying, most rewarding about writing-- the writing itself. And I believe that every writer with just a bit of talent can eventually, through hard work, through fighting to grow as a writer and writing a lot of words and reading, become a writer that agents and editors can’t ignore.

Or so I think today.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The End

I think that writers sometimes go on too long after the denouement of a story. They want to explain things and tie things up and there’s a temptation to have this go on for a few chapters beyond the point where the story has reached its true conclusion. If it’s over, it’s over. I know I’ve done this before in early drafts and had to figure out where the true ending should be. I think it’s worth being aware of this temptation to go beyond the true ending and wrap things up more neatly than they maybe should be wrapped up. Your true THE END probably comes pretty quickly after the resolution of the story.

OR so I think today.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

dream analysis

One of the things I always say about writing and remind myself when I write is not to think, not to force it, to try to find the place in myself and in the story where it unfolds as it would if I were in the story. I want to get in the zone or what Robert Olen Butler says is the “place we dream”, a kind of dream state. I go there every day when I write and I try to live moment to moment in my story. I do all that. Yes.

BUT there comes a time in revision when thinking is required, when you must puzzle over every aspect of a scene, a chapter, a section, the whole. You have to use your mind in a different way to analyze whether something is working or not working or how you might make it work better. How is what’s happening significant? How does it fit with the rest of the story? Why is it necessary? These are some questions that come to mind but there are many more and there are always those that are idiosyncratic to the manuscript I’m working on. Main point: you need that analytical and evaluative side to step in at some point and chide, advise, and order the more dreamy side that has, with luck, made the story and characters vivid and alive.

Or so I think today.

Monday, November 1, 2010


Can you select the right things to be in the foreground and the right things to be in the background? Can you focus on the important parts of the story? Can you make the less important parts but necessary parts pass at an appropriate pace, one that will make them present but not distracting?

Novels work and don’t work for many reasons. But this seeing what’s important and giving it dramatic focus and expression in scenes, and summarizing the less important, and leaving out the unimportant, is a critical aspect of structure.

Or so I think today.

Also, in case you live in Austin, I'm doing a book celebration/signing with these two lovely ladies:

Mark your calendars to Holler Loudly about Alien Invasions and Truth with a Capital T!

Authors Bethany Hegedus, Brian Yansky and Cynthia Leitich Smith will celebrate their latest books at 2 p.m. Nov. 14 at BookPeople in Austin, Texas.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Beware the false beginning. It’s easy to start in the wrong place. A lot of times we authors even need to start in the wrong place. We need to get out some ideas or ground ourselves in the story or think to the tap tap tap of our fingers hitting the keyboard. We need to find out who are characters are and what they’re doing. So we write a lot of back-story in our beginnings.

What we need to do later is look to see if we really began the story where it should begin or are the first few or ten or twenty pages really just a dump of information or a stumble in the dark? Always be a little suspicious of your beginning. Not necessarily the first line or two which might be perfect, but the first ten pages where your story is trying to get started. You want to jump into your real story as quickly as you can. You want to start your story as close to the heart of the story as possible.

For example, you don’t want to tell all about Bubba’s troubling childhood and fights he had and the wins and losses and his fascination with Sumo Wrestling (a sport he has always loved even though no one in Cowtown, West Texas, knew anything about it) for the first fifty pages if your real story is about Bubba opening a flower shop and meeting Wild Wanda, the woman of his dreams, when he turned fifty. Maybe you want to work in the Sumo Wrestling (who wouldn’t?) but the reader should feel momentum in the beginning and confidence that the writer is taking them someplace. Most of the time this means starting the novel as close to the heart of story as possible.

Or so I think today.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Showing Up

I was at the Texas Book Festival this past weekend. I was lucky enough to be on two panels. One of them, in the picture above, was a panel with fantasy writers called Portals to Imagined Worlds. It had Ingrid Law, Cinda Williams Chima, Carolyn Cohagan, myself, and was moderated by another accomplished writer, Greg Leitich Smith.

It was a fun panel. One of the questions was about where we got our inspiration. The others on the panel gave thoughtful, wise answers and I said I bought my inspiration out in a small town in West Texas. I didn't mention that it came in small tins and looked a lot like Altoids but I'll tell you. Very tasty.

I wish.

No, the truth is, in my humble opinion, that while inspiration is very real it seldom just appears out of nowhere. It usually comes to someone who is working every day. That is, you have to be engaged in writing your novel, struggling with each problem, trying to work it out, get the story out, get it right, even on those days you can't actually get to your computer. That's when inspiration comes. It comes because you're in a place where it can come to you. And I believe the way you put yourself in that place is by showing up.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Writing Alien

This is a reprint of a post I wrote for Cynsations yesterday. If you've somehow missed this blog, you should check it out. It is full of writerly information and insight.

I’ve written elsewhere that my first short-story, “Santa Claus and the Twenty-seven Bad Boys,” which was written in the first grade, neatly outlined my material for a lifetime of fiction writing: it had a stubborn fascination in the mythological and supernatural creatures that haunt and enliven our culture, an affection for odd and strange characters, and a desire to be both comic and serious. While this is surely true, I don’t think I found the complete expression of it until I wrote ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENINCES.

What I mean is this: though writing quirky novels was nothing new to me, the fantastical elements in those novels were never central to them. The novels were rooted in realism and the fantastical events were appendages added to them in various ways for various purposes. I’d published two of these novels. Both of them had received mostly good reviews and one had won a prestigious award, but neither had sold particularly well.

After those, I’d written my next novel and that novel had been rejected by my editor and several other editors. After those rejections I have to admit, rightly or wrongly, to a feeling that I was doing something wrong. And I have to admit I had no reason to believe there would be a line of publishers interested in my next manuscript if it were like the others. So what I thought at that point was I needed to try writing a more conventional novel. I needed to reel in my quirky characters and mute the fantasy element. I needed to try something different.

With this in mind, I started a novel. It died after twenty or thirty pages. I started another and same thing happened. This went on for a while. I did what writers in a bad place must do, I kept writing. Eventually I started one that began, “It takes less time for them to conquer the world than it takes me to brush my teeth.” Okay, I thought. Kind of funny. Kind of weird.

But not more conventional.

Not following the plan.

I was about to erase the line when another came. “That’s pretty disappointing.”

I had a voice. I couldn’t deny it. Every writer loves when they feel they have a voice, a narrator who speaks distinctly. BUT this was still not the novel I had planned. This was definitely not that novel. My finger hovered over the DELETE key.

But, come on, I had a voice.

I remember thinking to myself, “Really? You’re really going to write this novel? This totally unsellable even-weirder-than-usual novel? Really?”

Be reasonable, I thought. A novel takes a year. Maybe more. No on gets that many of those.

But I had a voice. I had a character. What could I do? (Let me interject here that there are many wonderful conventional novels but that for me writing a conventional novel is like trying to write in a strait jacket. I couldn’t do it if I tried. I did try. I couldn’t.)

This novel that I wrote thinking no one would buy is the novel that sold to one of the best publisher’s around, Candlewick. If I’d listened to the voice of reason, I wouldn’t have written it. Sometimes we writers have to be unreasonable. Sometimes, even though there are many good reasons not to, we have to write what we have to write. And, for me, the writing of ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES taught me a lot about what I want to write and how to write it. So that leap in the dark, that to “hell with it,” that unreasonable act, made, as Mr. Frost once said about a certain less-traveled road, all the difference.

Monday, October 11, 2010


So this past weekend I was invited to The Southern Festival of Books In Nashville. Thank you SFB. Nashville’s a wonderful town. I was on a panel with Palo Bacigalupi and I got to have dinner with Louis Sachar (okay, it wasn’t just he and I; there were a few hundred other people there, but we sat at the same table) and it was interesting and fun.

He had a lot to say about writing and bridge. Maybe more about bridge to be honest. The guy is a total bridge fanatic. I am blissfully ignorant when it comes to bridge but he made it interesting. He actually has a new YA novel out that is just about bridge called THE CARDTURNER.

Anyway, he said he always just writes out a rough, rough first draft of his novels and never outlines. That is interesting to me because HOLES is one of those novels whose structure seems perfect. If you’re looking for a novel to study structure, that’s one I would look at.

Not outlined. He found the shape of the novel in rewrites.

I know everyone works differently, but I’m a big believer in writing a quick first draft because so much will change in the novel anyway. As long as I have my first few sentences and feel like I know where I’m going, I’m ready to write fast and just try to get black on white. The “knowing where I’m going” part is an illusion of course. I don’t have a clue. And in the end I will have one big mess, but it will be my mess. It will be my beginning. For a lot of people just getting that first draft down is the hardest part of the process.

Another thing he said was that he always came, in all of his novels, to a point where he thought the whole piece of work sucked (not his words exactly but…) and he felt like throwing it out. I come to that point too and don’t be surprised if you do. You just have to keep going and work through it.

Or so I think today.

In ALIEN news:
I was interviewed here today:

Monday, October 4, 2010

What's it mean?

What does my sheepdog mean when he puts his head in my lap and stares up at me? He might mean he loves me—really, really, really. He might mean he wants me to pet him. Please. Please. Please. He might mean that he’s feeling a little low and he would like to be told how good he is, preferably for the rest of his waking life. Good dog. Good dog. Good dog. Maybe he means something else I haven’t thought about. He could, for all I know, be telling me that he’s sorry for eating my tennis shoe, which by the way wasn’t nearly as good as he thought it would be. Do I always have to buy Converse?

SHOW DON’T TELL. Yes, but. Some gestures aren’t clear. They need context to make showing them add to the story. And sometimes they need more than that. Sometimes it’s more important to tell and violate the rule (this one is definitely made to be broken on numerous occasions) and be more specific. Expressing with precision the experience of the character—how they’re affected by what’s happening or how they affect another and the way it fits with the rest of the story—is vital. The reader has to be in on what’s going on in order to share the character’s experience. Show. Tell. It doesn’t matter how you do that. It just matters that you do.

Or so I think today.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

See It From Their POV

See it from their point-of-view.

It’s easy, as a writer, to let our own POV direct our characters in a scene. Maybe some of this is inevitable. But I think good writing demands that we see from our character’s points-of-view as they’re living the story. What I mean is that sometimes I find myself being overbearing and forcing my characters to do or say things. It’s easy, when struggling, to fall into this and it almost always, at least for me, leads to inauthentic moments. Things will happen more organically and more right choices will be made if the writer can get inside his character and see the world/story from his/her POV.

Or so I think today.

Friday, September 24, 2010

grammar moment:sv agreement

Forgive me for using the G. word. Just the mention of it can clear a room but I’m here to tell you, brothers and sisters on the long and twisty road of the writing life, it’s just another part of writing. It’s helpful to know it well enough so you don’t have to think about it. So here’s a little grammar moment.

I am not myself a grammarian and I do not worship at the altar of the Grammar God. Fortunately, I have a friend who I will call the Grammar Guru (to protect the guilty) who does. He lives nearby. He is very tall. He has green hair. He knows grammar.

The first time I visited him to ask a question about grammar I was na├»ve and impressionable. Along the way the spirit of an undiscovered—during and after his lifetime-- writer genius ( self-proclaimed, of course) named Hal stopped me to ask why I would waste my time on grammar when I wanted to be a Writer—that’s with a capital W in case you missed it.

Good question, I thought.

Spirit Hal made me think about writers I’d known who were crappy at grammar but had something more important—voice and soul and power in their words. Hal also made me think of people who were excellent with grammar and crappy writers anyway. They were stiff and had no heart to their writing and not much to say. Grammar wasn’t going to help that.

And yet. And yet. Wasn’t grammar just one more part of writing? Wasn’t it worth knowing well enough you weren’t bothered by not knowing it? I thought so.

“Get thee behind me, Hal,” I said and continued on the road to the Grammar Guru’s house.

Hal did get behind me but he kept talking. He kept saying things like, “A real Writer needs grammar like a fish needs a boat.”

I had to admit that was pretty good, but I stayed my course.

I knocked on the Grammar Guru’s door. He opened it. He was taller than the doorway. I told you he was tall.

“Ah,” he said. “Greetings fellow traveler.”

He always greeted me this way. He always greeted everyone this way. Probably it had something to do with his being a guru.

“I can see you’ve come with a question. Tea first.”

He always gave me tea first. He drank a lot of tea. He also commented on the state of the world like it was the stock market.

“The world is up today,” he said. “Good news in the trenches.”

I had no idea what he was talking about.

“I have a question about subjects and verbs,” I said when we’d finished our tea. “What do people mean when they say subjects and verbs have to agree? I mean do they sometimes disagree? How do they disagree? Is it like, the verb says, ‘ hey subject, I don’t think you understand why I think dogs are better pets than cats.’ And subject says to verb, ‘I understand, but I know cats are better. More personality. Less care.’ What does disagree mean oh grammar guru?”

“I’m glad you asked me that,” he said. He always said that. He was glad about most things. I guess that was part of being a guru.

Here was his answer:

Subjects and verbs have to agree in sentences. This usually isn’t a problem in future and past tense. There are a few exceptions (like was/were, the past tense of is/are) but mostly there won’t be a verb choice between a singular subject and a plural subject in the past. For example:
Jack walked up the hill.
Jack and Jill walked up the hill.
Walked is the same whether the subject is singular (Jack) or plural (Jack and Jill).
The problem with agreement comes with singular and plural subjects in the present tense and in the third person. For example,
Jack walks up the hill
Jack and Jill walk up the hill.
A regular verb will have an “s” on it when the subject is singular. No “s” when the subject is plural.
(To be continued)

Monday, September 20, 2010


Characters need to be put at risk and they need to risk things to keep the reader involved. I’ve said before that you have to be cruel to your characters, make bad things happen to them, which will delight your reader or at least fascinate them (who can’t help looking at a train wreck?). But I would add that these bad things often come out of the characters’ acts. The characters’ mistakes are part of what keep us involved in her story.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Pushing on and BookTrailer

There comes a point in almost everything I work on when I want to give up. I want to quit. I think to myself, this will never work. I think to myself, what is wrong with you? I think to myself, start over you fool. Quit wasting time.

Actually, this isn’t something I just think about writing. I’ve thought it at other times, too. We all do. But with writing—it happens with nearly every novel I try to write. I’ll be writing a first draft in all of its unwieldy and maddeningly imprecise glory and I’ll feel I’m on the wrong road. I came to a split in the road somewhere earlier in the draft and I took the less traveled road and look what happened? I’m hopelessly lost.

Most of the time I struggle through. Most of the time I push on and it’s the right decision. Writing a novel is a messy business. Sometimes you just have to get messy.
Or so I think today.
In Alien News: Here’s my book trailer--

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Seeing Your Fiction

I think this has to do with the author’s vision. Whatever your skills with the various aspects of writing a novel, whatever your talents, you have a unique way of looking at the world. Everyone does. If you can imbue your work with the unique vision, find the voice for it, then you’ve done something. Something for you. Something for the person reading.

I know when I start reading certain books I feel an immediate rapport with the voice of the novel, an immediate interest, because it feels authentic. I get really excited if it also feels different. Your way of seeing the world is what makes your writing yours.

So all the talk about craft and all the various aspects of writing fiction and yadda yadda yadda—all important and all not worth much if the writer doesn’t have something to say, a unique—in the sense that every person is unique—way of seeing, and can’t put that something into words.

Or so I think today.

Also, in ALIEN INVASION news: I'm giving away my last two unspoken for ARCs on Goodreads for anyone who is interested.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

blocked writers

Writers do get blocked. It happens all the time. Some people call that writer’s block. But unless you have some physical problem or some serious mental problem, the way around it, I believe, is to keep writing. Anyone able to put their fingers on a keyboard or pick up a pen can write. The blocked writer can write. They just can’t write well. I think this is what happens to writers who get stuck. They’re disappointed in the writing so they think/feel they can’t go on. They stop writing. This leads to longer and longer stretches of not writing. Not writing begets not writing.

Sometimes you have to write badly in order to find your way back to writing well. During those times you’re like someone walking through a desert. It will be hot, dry, and you’ll be thirsty and all alone. You have to just keep moving. A lot of other writers have gone through that same desert before if that helps any. Eventually, step by step, you’ll make it to the other side.

Writers write. They don’t always write well. That’s an important point, I think. People who get writer’s block can still write; they just think they can’t write anything well. If you should find yourself in that place you just have to force yourself to write on—even if it’s bad.

Or so I think today.

Monday, August 30, 2010

physical gestures

Along the same lines as the last entry—thinking about being specific. Avoid generic physical gestures. We need physical description to make a scene real but having someone drink a glass of wine or light a smoke, say, during dialogue just to get some physical gestures into the manuscript won’t do much to improve it. It might even work against the scene’s momentum and undercut the reader’s confidence in the writer.

Just as the description needs to communicate something more than generic, paint-by-number scenery, physical gestures need to communicate more. Everything has to be loaded with the expression of the moment-by-moment life of a scene.

This is hard to do and, if you’re like me, it will take many revisions to get past the generic to the particular.

Or so I think today.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


I was working through a revision of my new manuscript and I realized that sometimes my language wasn’t as precise as it could be because I wasn’t showing or telling the reader what was going on in my character’s mind. Also in description, I wasn’t always putting the reader there by being there with my character. What did the way he saw his surroundings mean to how he was experiencing what was happening? This is at a language level; it’s so important to making a connection with the reader.

Here’s an example of what I’m thinking.

"The trees were green. "

(Very generic. Okay, they’re green. It tells the reader just that much).

"The thick green of the trees closed around him."

Okay, not great but that gives a sense of how the character feels. You have the adjective "thick" which gives a certain feeling to the green. You have the “closed around him” to give a sense of claustrophobia. It charges the sentence with something troubling, even vaguely threatening. OR

"The sun slipped through the thick, leafy trees and warmed his face as he made his way up the path."

VERY different feel. Leafy gives an entirely different feeling than the “thick” in green but objectively the thing being described, a dense woods, is similar. The “sun slipped through “makes the reader imagine patches of light which is a good feeling. Then “warmed his face” is pleasant and comforting.

Same place but different choices make the reader experience it differently.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Onward Through the Fog

You can quit.

You can always quit.

Writing is tough and you’ll have some days when you want to give up either because of rejection or some other disappointment or maybe because the words won’t come at all or maybe because only the wrong words or the almost right ones will come. A disappointment as thick as a London fog will set in around you.

You can always quit.

But what if Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn had said to hell with it in the African Queen (I’m a fan of old movies) and given up pulling that wreck of a boat through the swampy jungle? How many times could either or both of them have given up on that difficult journey? Once Bogart comes out of the water where he’s been pulling the boat and leaches cover his body. Perhaps metaphorically you feel like leaches are covering your body some days when you write but…It would have been easy for Humphrey and Kate to give up then. Oh yeah. They would have died ( well, their characters) in the middle of no-where which is certainly no place to die. But Kate forced them on. Humphrey forced them on. You have to do the same. So, push on campers. Plenty before us have faced much worse than a little literary disappointment. Finish your manuscripts. Suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Write on.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Getting Help

When I let others read my work-- my wife, my critique group, my agent, my editor-- I am always as open as I can be. I always listen to their thoughts and criticisms. I reread comments several times. People can help you make a better manuscript and I try not to let my ego get in the way of that. I want the best manuscript I can create and I’ll take help wherever I can get it. Readers help. Good readers can really help.

That said, some people will try to make specific suggestions for changes. They will try to tell you HOW to revise. What I mean is they might say that X in a certain scene bothers them. They might suggest that you do Y instead and give you a detailed explanation of Y, of what you should do to fix a scene. It is very, very helpful to know where people feel something is wrong in a manuscript. What I listen to less (very little, in truth) are the specific suggestions about how I should fix a scene. Usually they just won’t work. Usually, these need to come from me. My advice is to listen carefully to X and be grateful but be suspicious of Y.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


(Double posting: also on my agent, Sara Crowe's, blog)

My answer

I have a book coming out in about two months, ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES. My first two novels were somewhat realistic and I got the usual questions about whether I was my character and if my story was real. I gave the usual answer. Some of the story and characters, in a very changed form, have elements of autobiography but most is made up. In this new novel, aliens invade the world and conquer it in ten seconds and enslave the survivors. This time I have to admit it’s all real. Every word of the story is true. Also, I’m all the characters.

I’m the aliens who come to earth to colonize. Back in our solar system the sun burned out so we had to hit the road, ride the solar winds, find new worlds. Yadda. Yadda. Fortunately for us there are a lot of worlds out there. Unfortunately, for the inhabitants of those worlds we are quite advanced and think that primitive beings really don’t matter so we put most of them “to sleep” in a humane manner and enslave the rest to help our civilization, which is really, really great, move forward.

I’m also, as it turns out, the enslaved who are mostly young (*author’s note—I killed off most of the older people because, hey, most of them don’t read young adult fiction.) and who must find a way to adapt in order to survive. We’re not happy about this. Each one of us is unhappy in his or her own way. It’s never been all that easy to be a human but being enslaved by aliens (basically little green men whose power comes from their mind and telepathic abilities and not brawn and technology which is very confusing and certainly un-civilized by civilized Earthling standards) really sucks. We’ve lost our parents, our brothers and sisters and friends and dogs and cats. We’ve had a very bad time.

My main character is named Jesse and he is me. He’s only seventeen and I am, well, not. He’s a slave and I am, well, not. His father was in the military for twenty years and mine was in for three. Okay, some similarity there. He has a black belt in TaeKwonDo and so do I, but he’s much more advanced in martial arts than I will ever be. His mother was a teacher and mine was not. He grew up in Houston and I did not. But other than these differences we’re alike. Except in the ways we aren’t.

I guess, in the end, my answer to “is your story real and are you your characters?” , whether writing speculative fiction or somewhat realistic fiction, remains the same. I write what I know and what I know is that any story I write will have parts that are taken from real life and put into the Crazy Imagination Blender™ and used in the construction of character and story along with totally made up parts. In the end, they’ll be blended together in such a way that I won’t always be sure where something came from and what % of it happened and what % of it is made up. It’s all real though—to me—in a purely fictitious way. And thanks for giving me the chance to clear that up.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


I think one thing to consider when you get to rewriting is that nearly everyone has big holes in their manuscript. No use getting depressed about this unfortunate aspect of writing. No matter how long you’ve been writing, no matter how much you think things out, there will be problems that you didn’t see, couldn’t see, until you’ve finished the whole manuscript and gone over it a couple of times. Usually, along with a lot of small problems, they’ll be at least one big thing that feels wrong. Pay attention to that. It probably feels wrong for a reason.

I love Robert Olen Butler’s great book about the writing process FROM WHERE I DREAM. I love his idea of entering a dream state and trying to experience the manuscript moment by moment. Great stuff. One of the areas I disagree with him is revision. He thinks you can and should enter the dream state to revise. I don’t. I think you have to be more analytical in revision (once you have a real draft down which will probably take several runs at the manuscript).

In revision, you need to keep getting to that place in you, the dream zone place, to revise at the scene level…but you also need to step back and analyze how the various aspects of story are working in your manuscript. For big picture, especially, you need to be analytical. You are creating a story. You have characters doing things for certain reasons. You didn’t know that when you were writing. You had glimpses here and there but you didn’t know in the same way you do once you can see the WHOLE story. Now, you need to revise in a way that manipulates your characters and what happens so that it all enhances your story. Also, stories are bigger than just what happens—they’re about something—and that may become clear in this revision in such a way you can enhance that, too.

Revision is the time to be brutal. You need to cut/add and do whatever is necessary to make everything fit.

Or so I think today.

MY Book News: a signed ARC of ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES is available in a giveaway over at Goodreads. If anyone is interested go to to enter.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


Another thing I work on in revision, maybe after the first couple passes, is adding physical details. I’m a writer who underwrites in the early stages of my work, so what I do at some point in the revision process is look for windows or doors, places where the manuscript needs or can benefit from more details, places I can enter to add these details. I want to slow things down and I want to make the reader more involved in the scenes.

Overwriters should go through the manuscript looking for places to cut. They’ll be trying to recognize the excesses of writing in scenes, the repetition.

I think it’s worth going through a revision focusing on one or two things. I’m never entirely successful at this. I always get sidetracked by other problems, but even just the effort of focusing will make a writer more aware of a weakness.
Anyone else have a weakness in their writing they’re aware of?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

It's not enough to write well

I was reading this interview with several editors and they were talking about how they pick books for their list. We’ve all heard the “I just don’t feel like I would be the best editor for this book” and “I just wasn’t excited enough to take this one” etc. etc… But what the he#* does that mean? Basically it means that, for whatever reason, the editor can’t see himself or herself married to this book for a year or more. The commitment is huge. They have to be able to read the book a dozen times without pulling out their hair, and they have to be able to convince others in the house to agree it’s a good buy and they have to be so excited about it that they’ll stay excited for over the year it will take to publish. They have to, in short, love the book.

Almost all the editors said most of the manuscripts submitted to them were fairly well written. Editors, unlike agents, have, in most cases, someone between them and the writers who submit to them. Agents. (Only a few houses will take submissions directly from writers). So I guess it makes sense that most of what editors read is mostly well written. But it got me thinking; it’s not enough just to write well.

I know there are other factors besides the writing. There’s the fashion of publishing—what’s hot, what’s not, for example. Luck. Connections. Also simply the personal taste of the editor, and also whether they had to wait too long in line that morning for their Double Soy Latte, are having bad hair day, had their foot stomped on in the subway, but I think it’s worth noting that a lot of people WRITE WELL.

I’m talking, as I think these editors were, not only about being able to use language well, but also understanding the basics of fiction: characterization, plot, setting etc…How to move characters around and tell a story. I think these editors were saying most of the manuscripts they read could do these things. (That’s quite an accomplishment in and of itself. That puts a writer in the top few percentile maybe. Let me give you some totally unreliable numbers. I’ve heard two agents say they get around 4000-5000 queries in a year. One agent who said this said he took on two clients out of that 4000-5000. It makes sense that agents have to be picky. How many clients can they represent? But those numbers amazed me. Jennifer Jackson, an agent that blogs, gives a tally of queries she receives and each week and how many partial or whole manuscripts she asks to read. OF COURSE THIS DOES NOT MEAN SHE AGREES TO REPRESENT THE WRITERS, but they make it to level two where she’ll read the full manuscript. Here’s the last two weeks:
92 read queries, 0 requests for manuscripts
153 read queries, 1 request for manuscript.
My point is that with all this rejection going on it does make sense that what editors see will be more polished than most writers are able to do. )

So what does it take then to get a novel published? Love. An editor can’t just think to themselves, “This person writes a pretty sentence” or “Interesting characters in this chapter” or “I love the description of the world these characters are in. Not bad at all on the characters either. Not bad. ” EVERYTHING has to work in such a way that an editor can’t stop themselves from loving it.

For me, a unique way of looking at the world and a unique voice (and just about every editor mentioned the need for a unique voice to attract their attention) will go a long way toward my buying and loving a book.

It may not be enough to write well, but you have to do that first. It’s just that you have to do everything else well too. Writing and reading will certainly help you get there. But consider your weaknesses in writing when you’re doing all this writing. Just writing a lot of words will improve your writing but if you keep making the same mistakes over and over again the improvement will be slow. I know some of my weaknesses in writing and I struggle to make them stronger every time I write. You should, too. And find your voice and your particular way of looking at the world and don't let yourself be persuaded to make your writing more like what's popular or more mainstream. What's most unique about your writing is what's most unique about you: the way you look at the world.

Or so I think today.

Monday, July 19, 2010

What's a writer?

When people ask me why I write I have to say it’s because I can’t help myself. That’s the way it is now. I love it. I’m addicted to it. I need to do it. But, of course, that wasn’t always my answer. I started out writing because it was fun and I secretly hoped it would make me rich and famous and able to work in my pajamas all day. Unless I was traveling the world, of course, in which case I would gladly wear clothes.

I did love to read.

I did love stories.

But, like many people, I had crazy ideas about what writers did. I thought they worked a few hours a day and the rest of the time they did whatever they wanted. Hung out by the pool, discussed writerly things over drinks, etc... Now, that’s an absurd notion, but as I’ve grown older it’s also one that I would hate to be true. One of the joys of life is doing work you love, whatever that work is. Being passionate about it, struggling with it, these are the things that bring real satisfactions. People who love their work are the lucky ones.

What I’m getting at is unrealistic expectations aren’t always bad. Sometimes you start in that place and as you begin to make your way your ideas about what you want change. You end up in a different place.

Or so I think today.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


The old “to outline or not to outline” question came up at a recent writerly social event I was at. I’ve heard many writers on this subject. Sometimes writers get very adamant about their position. They point their pens menacingly and say, OF COURSE YOU SHOULD OUTLINE. OR--OF COUSE YOU SHOULDN’T OUTLINE.

There are various degrees of outliners. Some say they just put down some vague notions about plot and character knowing they will change as they write. Just having them down somehow makes them more confident though. Some writers write long outlines, ten or twenty pages, and make them very detailed.

Other writers, the majority I believe, take a more iintuitivel approach to writing. They try to get in the flow of their story and push it forward in what they feel is a more organic way. While the outliners may get confidence from a sense of where they’re going, the writer who doesn’t outline feels he or she will be more likely to breathe life into his or her characters by allowing them to lead—in the sense that the story flows out of what they do and don’t do, want and are forced to face to get what they want etc…

Like most writers, my methods vary somewhat from manuscript to manuscript. I’ve never been successful at outlining a novel though and always begin first drafts in the stumbling way of the intuitive writer, living in uncertainty from day to day as I create a story, characters, world. But lately, though I can’t outline when I’m doing initial drafts, I have come to outlining after those initial drafts and one revision.

I think the intuitive approach and outlining aren’t mutually exclusive. I do feel that the intuitive approach in early drafts gives the writer a better chance at breathing life into his characters and stories. But I also think that sticking to this intuitive approach through revision may not serve the story, particularly structurally. So I think a more analytical approach, one that might include outlining and definitely includes chapter summaries, can make writers see weaknesses that they might be blind to. It is also possible that the intuitive writer might use outlining earlier in the evolution of a manuscript to analyze certain sections that are giving him or her trouble.

Or so I think today.

Friday, July 9, 2010


POSTED (Albert Einstein was definitely a big brain kind of guy but as a young man he responded so slowly to questions that his parents and teachers suspected he was mentally disabled. Also, he did poorly in school and failed his college entrance exams the first time. Go figure.)
Most writers are smart. Yes. But how smart? Are they, for instance, the smartest person in a room of people? Depends on the room, I suppose. If the room is The Poodle Dog Lounge on an all-you-can-drink-for-ten-dollars night, the writer’s chances are pretty good. On the other hand, if it’s a room full of, say, astrophysicists, rocket scientists, and brain surgeons, I’d have to say probably not.

Most writers, in a crowded room of intelligent people, probably won’t be the smartest (in an IQ kind of way) person. Writers are smart, but there are other qualities that count for as much or more than IQ. Creativity, of course, is the big one. This isn’t measured in IQ tests. The whole intimate relationship with language etc…etc… And, of course, there’s the desire and determination thing, which can take a person a long way no matter where they begin. Here’s my point: you don’t have to be brilliant to be a writer. Oh, don’t worry, big brains, you can still be a writer. But if you look at the tribe of successful writers you’ll find a lot of smart, very creative, very determined people. You probably won’t find any more brilliant people than you’d find working at the post-office.

I feel the need to say this because I’ve had people say to me before that they worried if they were smart enough to be a writer. That’s the wrong worry, I think. Worrying about finding a particular voice and style, the right rhythm for the language of a WIP, these are good things to focus on. Maybe there is such a thing as Writers' Intelligence, but luckily for most us only a small fraction of it is innate talent; the rest can be learned.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Wolves and Sheep

My sheepdog is 105 pounds but looks even larger because of all the hair. In the winter, we let it grow long, let him get back to his primitive self. That hair was supposed to help protect sheepdogs from the inevitable wolf bites when they protected sheep. Naturally, when you’re protecting sheep, you have to expect to meet some wolves.

This makes me think about the wolves and sheep we contend with in our fiction. What I notice some writers doing and what I’ve done myself is sometimes allow a character’s negative qualities to be smoothed over because—no good reason. Maybe it’s because our job as writers is to know all our characters, and so we begin to identify with all of them, and we have an urge to make them stronger and wiser and kinder than they are. This has several negative effects on a manuscript. One major negative is that it weakens conflict in any number of ways.

I think this problem is something a writer can watch out for, particularly in revision, and try to correct. Let your characters be as bad as they need to be, as whatever they need to be, and allow this to lead them to conflict with other characters. It’s conflict that forces the writer into situations that build story, character, etc… as well as tension.

Or so I think today.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Sometimes it’s helpful to listen to other people’s conversations. Of course, you’re not going to try to transcribe them. You’re going to listen and mark interesting phrases or turns of phrase or parts of conversation and use them sometime down the writing road when you’re in a scene. Most likely you’ll use a reasonable facsimile of them. I heard two teenage boys talking at the pool the other day. Not that I was purposely listening, but there I hanging onto the edge of the pool and they were talking loudly and what could I do? My ears were open. (I should mention I live in Austin, Texas.)

“It’s totally illegal to bury ashes on a mountain in Alaska,” one of the boys said.


“Illegal, Dude. I’m just saying.”

“Travis said throw his ashes off the mountain. That’s what he said. He said he wants his parents or someone to throw his ashes off a mountain in Alaska when he dies. ”

“Totally lame.”

“He didn’t say bury.”

“I’m pretty sure you can’t throw them off a mountain either. I'm pretty sure there’s a law against it.”

“Oh, come on.”

“There’s a lot of things you can’t do up there. Like you can’t throw a Moose out of a plane. You’d probably get like a huge fine for it.”


“What about Caribou?”

“I think Caribou are okay.”

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Happy World UFO Day


According to Wikepedia: June 24th was selected as World UFO Day because the first UFO report that was widely reported took place on June 24, 1947. This UFO sighting was reported by Kenneth Arnold. He spotted nine unusual objects flying in a chain near Mount Rainier on that day.

I begin some novels with characters and some novels with situations and some novels with voice. I began ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES with a situation. I decided that I wanted to have a vastly superior race invade earth for labor and settlement. I didn’t want this to be a story of invasion though. I wanted the invasion to take about ten seconds. (the novel begins like this: It took them less time to conquer the world than it takes me to brush my teeth. ) I wanted the story to be about what happened afterward, and I wanted to work on the theme of how power makes people arrogant. Our history is littered with examples of powerful nations treating weaker peoples as if they aren’t human at all. Slavery is just one of the consequences of this way of thinking. These aliens in my novel sure don’t treat humans as if they’re worth anything. They make them slaves. They think of them as product. So this novel began with a situation and the characters and voice and tone of the novel (kind of comic and kind of serious) came out of that.

Every novel, for me, begins differently. I think you have to be flexible because each novel begins in a different place and requires different things from you.

BACK TO UFO DAY and my novel:
In honor of WORLD UFO DAY, Candlewick, my publisher, is giving away ARCs of ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES on twitter. If anyone is interested, go to Candlewick on twitter and do this (and I have to admit to being twitter and tweeting illiterate so I’m not sure what this means exactly)--- Follow+RT today, June 24, for chance at 1 of 5 Alien Invasion & Other Inconveniences ARCs.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

why write?

This is from an interview over at Editorial Anonymous If you’ve never looked at this blog, you should. This anonymous editor has some interesting things to say about the business of publishing and writing. Sometimes she has interviews. She had one recently with Adam Rex whose new YA novel—coming out this summer—is titled FAT VAMPIRE. I haven’t read it yet, but it sounds great.

Anyway, towards the end of the interview, E.A. asks him if he has any advice for writers or vampires. He responds:

ADAM REX: “There's a joke in there somewhere: What's the difference between a writer and a vampire? One of them leads a pallid, lonely existence, sucking dry both loved ones and strangers alike in his ghoulish quest for immortality, and the other one is a vampire. Ha ha.”

Uncomfortable twinge, right?

Why do we want to be writers at all? What drives us to do what we do? It’s different for everyone, I guess. I love the process, the making of a story, but sometimes I think it’s a ridiculous way to live: sitting around making up stories while life goes on all around me. But, for me, making up stories is one way that I do live. It’s one of the things that makes me feel alive. So, I say, suck away.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Sometimes it feels like we walk through life half-asleep much of the time and then something reminds us we’re alive. What wakes us up?

What wakes you up?

For me it’s all kinds of things. Sometimes it’s just a sentence I’ve written or one I've read. Sometimes something someone says. Martial Arts did when I was doing those. Various passions. Issues I care about sometimes will wake me up. People wake me up ETC…

When it comes to fiction, I come back to an idea I’ve heard expressed different ways but one that Robert Olen Butler expressed most succinctly for me: the moment to moment experience of our characters, if expressed with specificity and detail, makes the reader experience that moment. SO we, as authors, must be awake to the moment our characters are living through and express that. Those moments, linked together, will give our reader an experience.

I do think a lot of times that denouement is our characters coming awake in a manuscript, being aware of something in such a way that it brings their story to a natural conclusion.

Friday, June 11, 2010

kill your darlings

When you’re deep into a manuscript, maybe working through it the first time after the initial draft, there are scenes you love and points of character and plot that must change even though you don’t want them to. A first draft is going to be full of wrong turns.

What I found myself doing as I was reworking a manuscript, or I should say caught myself doing, was trying to keep something that happened to a character and that revealed character because I liked it. I think I knew, deep down, it was wrong but I wanted to keep it so I wrote another scene and another scene to justify its place in the manuscript. BUT all I was doing was taking myself further and further off-course.

So here’s my point: the old Faulkner advice, “Kill your darlings” is sometimes true. I think you have to pay attention to your feeling that a manuscript might be heading in the wrong direction or that a scene you really love might be distorting some aspect of a story and even leading you in the wrong direction. A novel, to get where it’s going, needs to be heading down the right roads. I don’t know that I would agree with Faulkner but I would, at least, say BE AWARE or BEWARE of your darlings.

Or so I think today.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

writing and canine criticism--year one

In honor of my first year of blogging. Here's my first post.

Last week my Old English Sheepdog, Merlin, pulled some of the manuscript pages of my latest WIP from my desk and began to eat them. Merlin, like most dogs, is adept at non-verbal communication. Of course he is also, another noble trait of the canine, notoriously good-natured and non-judgmental. I wondered what could have driven him to such uncharacteristic and extreme criticism.

After I managed to wrench the somewhat chewed but readable manuscript pages out of Merlin’s toothy grip, I started to read them. A growing uneasiness began at the nape of my neck and spread and that uneasiness became queasiness and that queasiness became despair. It was, alas, all wrong. Started in the wrong place. Went on too long here and not long enough there. Most importantly the life, somehow, had been squeezed out of it and the characters moved as if they were clueless stick figures rather than living creatures.

Merlin was right.

So though I am going to write about writing in this blog, and though I’ve written a lot of words and sentences and pages and have learned, maybe, a few things that might be of some small use to beginners, the truth is no writer, on any given day, really knows more than a sheepdog happily chewing away on a manuscript. And what we know on any given day is sort of a stab at the truth. Another day we might feel differently. I should probably end everything I say about writing with—Or so I think today.

That’s a good idea.

Or so I think today.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

revision--chapter summaries

In my last manuscript, Alien Invasion & Other Inconviences, I struggled with several plot points. My editor did something I’d only tried once. That time it hadn’t really worked for me. This time it helped a lot.

She did an outline of each chapter of the novel (there are about fifty so this was no small thing). It wasn’t a detailed outline. She just wrote a few sentences explaining what each chapter was about, the major points. (It really needs to just be about two or three sentences for each chapter, I think, so you can keep it focused.)

The chapter summaries helped me see structural problems in a way I couldn’t see them before. I realized I needed to do some rearranging, which meant being open to moving chapters around. I think this chapter by chapter summary can be very useful for the big picture revision that every writer should face at some point (a good time might be after letting the manuscript sit for a while to get a little distance). Anyway, it was really helpful to me to do a rewrite just focusing on story points and using the summaries as helpful signs to guide me. It became easier to cut whole chapters or move them and I did both. It was hard but I think it made the manuscript better.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

wear a helmet & kneepads

“You’ve got to jump off cliffs and build your wings on the way down.” Annie Dillard.

Sometimes you have to do this in writing. You can plan all you want but if you’re writing from the place I believe you should be writing from-- that place deep within you and below your conscious mind which is all too interfering in the intuitive connections stories require—then you will be jumping off some cliffs and building your wings on the way down.

Good luck.

Wear a helmet and kneepads.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


What makes people tense? Lots of things. But what makes them most tense is when they’re unsure about something. For example, they think they might know that their boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife is having an affair, but they aren’t sure. Once they’re sure, one way or another, they might feel a lot of things but the tension is different. I could be wrong about this but I think the peak of the tension is not knowing.

When your goal is to intensify tension one of the best ways to do that is to put your character in this place of not-knowing and carefully describe what he or she goes through when they’re there.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Along with this notion of the necessity of writing nearly every day for some length of time should be my confession that, however long I sit at my desk, I am writing during much of the day when I am away from it.

It’s a kind of disease or illness that can certainly lead to trouble for the writer. I’ve got a name for this disease. I call it WADD: Writers' Attention Deficit Disorder. How many of my brother and sister writers out there suffer from it? Very many. Perhaps most.

Here are some signs. You appear to be listening to someone talking to you—friend, spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, family member. You nod your head and smile (somewhat vaguely it’s true if one were to look closely) when you are actually thinking about what your character did that morning when you wrote or will do tomorrow or should do or shouldn’t do. There eventually comes the moment when the person talking to you says, “What do you think?” Naturally, you will be forced to say something broad and indefinite like “I think you should do what you think best” to avoid hurting the person’s feelings. WADD once again has reared its ugly head.

Here’s another example: let’s say you’re driving. You get in the car. You turn on the radio and start thinking about a plot point in your story. Somehow you arrive at your destination with no clear recollection of having driven there. You’ve been so lost in thinking about your work that you haven’t paid any attention to the road. You’re fairly certain you haven’t hit anyone, but you aren’t entirely sure. You take a guilty look at your car for dents or scratches.

I could go on. There’s no real cure for WADD. Writers simply have to live with the fact that their minds will often wander out of the moment. They have to try to control it so that they don’t agree to things they don’t mean to agree to. For example, you might not be listening and someone might ask you to marry them or move to Portugal and you might say, “Sure, whatever, “ when you really mean, “He** no.” We, sufferers of WADD, must be careful given the sometimes devastating consequences of this disease. Still just admitting we have it will help. Knowledge is power.

Friday, May 14, 2010


I read Stephen King's book on writing not too long ago. I admire his work ethic as a writer and his struggle to write the best he can. He says a writer should find three or four hours a day to do some combination of reading and writing. Of course, he doesn’t have a day job, so it may be that your job stops you from finding that much time. Some days mine does.

But you do need to find time to write. In my opinion it needs to be almost every day, even if you only find thirty minutes to write. Even if you only write a few good sentences. Notice, I say write. That has to come first. I write and read most days, but if I don’t have time for both, it’s the reading that I don't get to. You have to read, yes, but you shouldn’t allow reading to take the place of writing.

What I’m getting at it is there’s a trap with reading. Sometimes a writer will read a couple of hours and manage to convince himself that he’s done his writing work for that day by reading. He counts the reading as writing since he knows it makes him a better writer. But reading won’t fill pages. It will raise the quality of your work, but only writing fills pages. It’s great if you read a hundred books in a year, but if you want to be a writer the real goal is that you write one .

My other point about writing is that getting to the “writing place” where you can pour out words is easier if you open that door every day. The door begins to stick for me after only one or two days of not opening it. After a week, it can be a real struggle. Two weeks and I might need a chainsaw to get through it. Write and read fiction. It's simple in a way. Nothing will make you a better writer than to write and read fiction. Ultimately, though a writer is a writer because he or she writes. In my humble opinion, writing nearly every day not only leads to a finished manuscript it makes writing itself, getting to that place where writing comes from, easier.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Sooner is Better

One thing that my last manuscript taught me is something I had heard Kurt Vonnegut say and something I’m trying to do in my new WIP.

Tell everything you can as soon as you can. Don’t hold back. Don’t try to keep things hidden in the hopes of adding suspense. Okay, there are plot points you may eventually realize can be hidden and their press against the story will help in terms of tension BUT too often we withhold because we think something is cool and needs to be set up with a lot of events that will lead to it. Often though, putting it earlier will force the story to push deeper earlier. You’re building a story. You need to throw everything in as early as possible and then, in revision, make decisions about pacing.

In my new manuscript I was going to withhold an important piece of information one character knew about another. I thought this would add tension. BUT my choice to put it in now, get it out there, makes me see where the story should go. This point is going to allow me to get on to more important things (I hope). If I’d withheld it, I’d still be focusing on building toward it and that would put a drag on my story. I’m sure there are exceptions to this idea of not saving information for later in the story, but it’s at least something to consider as you build story. In a first draft, sooner is better unless you have a very good reason for saving it.

Monday, May 3, 2010


Delusion can be a good thing for a writer.

You have to fool yourself into writing. If we didn’t fool ourselves, we would never start in the first place. You have to fool yourself when you’re a novice that you’re writing good fiction when, most likely, you’re struggling to find your way, learn technique, learn what works for you and what doesn’t. And every first draft, whether it’s the writer's first novel or fifth or beyond, requires that the writer fool himself into pushing on. In a first draft you have to feel your sentences are doing the job, you have to imagine that the (if you’re like me) fuzzy mess is actually insightful and has enough right words that it can be made, through revision, into something worth your time.

When you’re working on a new novel, you have to believe it’s the best thing you’ve ever written. Though you know deep down writers don’t usually write from worst to best over a life; some books are just better and sometimes they’re book number three or five or eight. But you can’t think of that. You have to believe what you’re working on is the best, the very best, work you’ve ever done.

So celebrate your delusion. Probably best if you don’t celebrate it too loudly or allow it to press its way into other aspects of your life, but in writing it can allow you to move forward. Let it. We need all the help we can get.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Process 4--revision

After I’ve gotten through my drafting stage I get to my first revision (which most likely is the third or fourth time I’ve worked through the manuscript). It’s still messy but the main elements of the story are there: the characters are fleshed out, and the structure seems pretty sound. I may still move chapters or sections around a little, but I have a sense at this point that I might actually finish this novel. I have a pretty good idea of what the larger concern or concerns is or are in the story.

So at this point I get to think about other things. One of the things I think about is language. I tighten language every time I work on the manuscript, but once I get to the revision stages I can focus more on that since the larger structural issues aren’t so pressing. I turn to Mr. Mark Twain for inspiration here: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightening bug and the lightening.” It’s true. One wrong word can take all the raw force out of a sentence. I never want to take language for granted. I always want to struggle to write better sentences. And it is a struggle.

How many times do I revise? Sometimes three or four and sometimes more. A lot. There are always parts, sections, that I have to rewrite many, many times. The beginning chapter or chapters I might go over fifteen or twenty times. It’s ridiculous. I know it is, but I can’t help myself. I need to do that to get them to be the best I can make them.

Another thing I work on in revision is making sure each scene is important. I don’t want any throwaway scenes. I want each to be important. Passionate interaction between characters, passionate action, passionate language, I want the scene to have a purpose—whether it’s to advance the story or deepen the character—in the larger story.

Dialogue is action. Dialogue is showing. I love dialogue and I work hard to make it carry some scenes. People talking are always interesting to me as long as they don’t talk about the weather. Characters should be talking, however indirectly, about something important.

I try to be there in each scene, experiencing the scene with the characters and with the story. Back to passion. I’ve got to feel what the characters are experiencing. I’ve got to make the reader feel and understand why they feel that way. I also have to feel what’s happening beneath the action and how it’s essential to the story.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Making Connections

How do you get the reader to connect to your work? You make them feel involved. Sure, right, but how? One thing they must do is be involved in the story and one way you can get them involved is by not with-holding what is going on in the character. The character is constantly being affected by what is happening in each scene. He’s changing. OR he should be. If he’s not maybe something is wrong in your scene.

All these changes can be small ones that occur when he encounters something, well, small. He needs his new girlfriend to tell him why she’s been cold lately. They talk. She doesn’t tell him anything but that coldness increases, the room temperature drops another few degrees. So he finds out nothing directly but he is affected, he does change, and the reader should go through that with him.

I’m not saying inner dialogue here or tell us everything he’s thinking. The selection of detail still goes on obviously, but writer’s need to communicate their characters' little changes and these make the reader and characters closer and help create that connection every writer hopes for.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


For me, first revision isn’t really a revision. I call it drafting because for the first two or three drafts I’m still working on finding my way. I know that, in a way, until you get to the time of polishing the novel—the end stage—it’s all really finding your way, but in the first drafts I’m spending most of my time finding my way and I know I'm lost a lot.

In draft 1 I’m chopping my way through the wilderness. I don’t really know where I’ll end up. I’m not sure I’ll end up anywhere. Draft 2 is when I’ve gone all the way to the other side and now that I’ve made it there, I realize there were a lot of places where I went the wrong way back there in the wilderness. I see from a different place and seeing from there I realize some of the mistakes I made; I think a lot about structure in this draft since I SEE the whole thing. I go back and go through the novel again. It’s all much clearer now, but sometimes I need a third draft to really feel like I really have the basic shape of the novel.

Some other authors on first drafts: Sherman Alexie, who I once got to interview, told me that before he began a novel he had the last sentence in mind. So he wrote his novel to that last sentence. (Sounds good but I’d keep revising my last sentence, I bet.) E.L. Doctrow said writing a first draft was like driving across the country in the dark. You had the lights of your car showing you what was directly in front of you. Beyond that you just kept in mind a vague destination.

This past Friday I went to the Texas Library Association Conference just south of Austin in San Antonio. It’s a big deal. Lots of publishers and librarians etc… I heard a panel where Maureen Johnson compared writing to problem solving. I think she said this after Cory Doctrow said when he stalled he just made something bad happen to his characters. Another way of looking at a first draft is this idea of characters experiencing problems, small and large, and the story moving in such a way that they work them out. But bad things have to happen in order for this to work. As I’ve said before, bad things must happen to good characters. It’s unfortunate but necessary.

By the way, I went to TLA because my publisher had ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) of my novel ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES and wanted me to sign them. ARCs are free and come out before a novel is published. In case you haven’t heard of them, they’re what the publisher uses to advertise a book that will come out soon (relatively soon—Oct. for me). They give them out to reviewers and librarians and booksellers mostly. Anyway, when you’re getting published and they ask you to sign them, YOU SHOULD do it. I had so much fun. Because the ARCs are free, people really want them. I had a long line of people wanting me to sign copies of my book which was exciting. We ran out of copies fast. Of course I realize that the little word FREE made all the difference. People do like FREE things. If I could just convince my publisher to give my book away for FREE, I could probably be a big seller. Alas, I suppose there’s a problem or two with that.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Process2-first drafts

First drafts are messy. There’s no way around that. They’re infuriatingly messy. You can’t THINK too much when you’re in front of the computer screen or you will freeze up but you do think about the manuscript at other times. Compulsively, you wonder about this detail or choice or character. Especially the choices—these you wonder about a lot. You get lost. Your story zigs. It zags. It leads you through a wood so thick you have to hack your way out.

You will think, of course, but when you sit back in front of your computer to write, you have to silence all these voices and find that place where you can be in the story. John Gardner says you need to create a “continuous dream” for the reader and Robert Olen Butler says you need to enter a kind of dream to create the continuous dream. I think of it as an altered state. Now, of course, I don’t mean you won’t be thinking about your writing when you’re taking a shower, walking the dog, standing in line for lunch, not listening to your mother (oops, sorry mom), but when you’re writing—especially during this messy first draft--you have to let go and allow yourself to find your way. Your story, what happens, how characters act and react, will suggest certain ways ahead that you’ll intuitively pick up on if you’re THERE in the story. If you get stuck, think about the basics: what do your characters want, what’s in their way, what does the story want? A first draft needs to be done but it doesn’t need to be good or close to RIGHT. As I mentioned in the last post, for some it’s hardly more than an outline, a blueprint, of what’s to come. But almost without exception, it’s a rough sketch of a story. There’s a kind of freedom and comfort in accepting that—for me anyway.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Process 1

Trust your process.

You have to trust your process once you figure out what it is. It’s not easy to trust your process because every writer faces moments in a manuscript when process might be blamed for any number of unfortunate situations. You might claim, for instance, that it was process that led you right into a brick wall or off a cliff or into an imperfect storm, earthquake or any one of the many threatening, potentially fatal, disasters out there. “Trust my process?” You might scream. “Are you bleeping crazy?”

My first process was certainly untrustworthy in every sense. It was crazy. I’d write ninety or so pages and start over and then I’d write 180 pages and start over and then I’d write 270 pages and start over. This drafting my way to a longer and longer novel was the only way I could get a real draft done and it was ridiculous and painful and nerve-wracking but by its end I did have a draft and that draft could be rewritten and revised extensively and at the end of that I did have a book. (You think this sounds rough,I have a writer who writes a complete draft and throws the whole thing away and starts completely over without looking back at that first draft. For her, it works. It would drive me a little crazy, but you have to trust what works for you.)

My process now is less crazy for me: I draft for several drafts still, but I manage to finish a complete rough one ( with some chapters unfinished and others marked with outlines) before starting a second draft, third draft etc...

Still, I always hit that wall when it all seems wrong. I know I have to work through it now. I know I have to trust that this is how I write, and no matter how bad it seems at the time if I push through I can eventually make it to a place where I can rewrite and revise and eventually have a book.

A lot of people want to write, a lot start a novel. A lot of people. Only a few ever finish one. If you’ve finished a manuscript, congratulations because that’s a big accomplishment. You’re in the minority right there. Everyone who’s finished a manuscript knows there are times when it all seems wrong, when it seems best to start something new or burn the whole thing. But in most cases, if you can just see past those moments, keep pushing forward, eventually you will have pages that can be rewritten and revised into a finished manuscript. You have to trust your process.

Saturday, April 3, 2010


We need silence as writers.

I’m not talking about the silence of a room to work in or a space to work at though that’s certainly nice. Some people do need that, too. I’m not one of them. I can work anywhere: in an airport or coffee house or restaurant or hotel room –once driving down I-35 –pretty much anywhere. I prefer the relative silence of my house, but I don’t need it.

But I still need silence.

I need to find that place of calm within me. I have to silence all the voices. And there are a lot of them. Sometimes it’s voices telling me that I need to do this or that. I have so much to do and I shouldn’t be trying to squeeze in writing. Sometimes it’s a problem I’m worrying over. It could have to do with work or with a relationship or one of the animals or…you get the idea. A worry. Sometimes it’s critical voices saying I can’t write about this or a voice saying that no one will want to read my manuscript. Someone told me that 85% of what we worry about won’t ever be a problem. My answer to that was, “Yeah, but that other 15% will really mess you up.” I’m a glass half-empty optimist. I can be hopeful but I have to erode a lot of pessimism first.

But back to my point—there are voices that will interfere with your writing. Voices of doubt, voices of criticism, voices of everyday problems. You have to find a way to silence them before you can get to the place you need to go as a writer. It’s a place of silence within you where the voices of your stories can be heard and written.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Some Days

Like a lot of writers, some days I feel pretty good about my writing. I’m happy about it, content for little blocks of time. They always end, but they’re very nice. I walk around with a smile or I’m ready to smile very easily.Strangers seem kind. Everyone likes me immediately. Children are drawn to me. If I happen to pass a Jehovah's Witness on the street, he or she tells me I don't have to worry about going to hell. Something of my satisfaction radiates.

Other times a certain quote repeats itself relentlessly in my mind. It describes both me and my writing with cruel clarity. It’s from Shakespeare’s MACBETH.

“It is a tale told by an idiot
Full of Sound and Fury
Signifying Nothing.”

As you may imagine I walk around looking haunted because I am, well, haunted. People look the other way when I walk by them. Waiters bring my food late or give me the wrong orders, stores send me the wrong things, telemarketers call with annoying frequency, I drop things on my toe.

Some people bring their work home sometimes. Our work is always home, always wherever we are. Sometimes it’s distracting, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes irritating, sometimes depressing. It’s a great struggle. We’re lucky in that way.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

rejection of a rejection

I once heard an agent read a rejection he’d got from someone he rejected. The letter began with something like, “ Thank you so much for your rejection but I’m afraid I’m unable to use it at this time. For that reason I will have to reject your rejection. Please don’t take this personally. I receive many fine rejections every month, so I have be quite selective in the rejections I accept.” It went on for a full page like that. It was hilarious. The agent was obviously amused. Did it help the writer get a second look from the agent? Uh…no. In fact, this agent said that while he’d got a good laugh from the letter, he not only had no urge to look at the manuscript again but he would probably be wary of dealing with the writer as a client. He was worried he might be a problem.

I love the idea of responding to rejection with rejection. Who hasn’t wanted to do something like that every time they get one of those little notes? The rejection feels so personal. It is like they’re saying you’re a bad writer, but they aren’t saying you’re a bad writer. They’re just saying that a particular manuscript on a particular day didn’t make them go “wow”, didn’t make them fall in love with the manuscript. (Really, these days, editors, and even agents in most cases, need to fall in love with a manuscript to take it on).

We are writers and we are going to be rejected. We have to learn to live with that unpleasant fact and move on. One way to reduce the sting is to see it for what it is not—I repeat it is not someone saying you’re a bad writer.

And of course, they may be completely wrong about the manuscript you did send them. There’s always that. We’ve seen that many, many times (eat your heart out you twenty plus editors who rejected HARRY POTTER). But, right or wrong, that won’t matter to you at the moment you get the rejection. It will hurt. (Steinbeck called his many rejections “ each one a little death.” )You can write a rejection of a rejection. You can scream and shout and curse etc… But after all that what you have to do, what you must do, what you can do, is write on. Keep writing on. That’s what writers do. Eventually someone will say yes.

Friday, March 19, 2010

what's at stake?

Writing books and teachers and workshop leaders often get to this question about a manuscript: WHAT’S AT STAKE? What is your character risking to get what he wants? What is at stake in your story as a whole? For example, in Harry Potter there are always lots of minor things at stake in scenes (passing a test, getting in trouble with Snape etc...), and his life is often at stake and there’s also usually the threat against a friend or friends, the school, his whole world. The stakes are constantly raised as the story progresses. In Michael Chabon’s great novel WONDERBOYS what’s at stake are the careers of an older writer and a younger writer—at first. But as the characters are developed it becomes much more than that, it becomes each of their futures and what they will be as men and writers. The story twists around so the deepening of character occurs as the stakes are raised. In my novel ALIEN INVASION AND OTHER INCONVENIENCES the stakes begin with the survival of Jesse, my main character, but it’s obvious before long that the survival of all humans, except as alien slaves, is also at stake. Threats to that survival (both Jesse’s, his friends, and mankind, womankind, all kind) grow as various things happen in the book and the stakes are raised. Also, the characters develop, come to want more than just to survive, and this forces them to act in ways that the stakes are raised.

I think what’s at stake can be looked at scene by scene. A boy risks telling a girl he loves her; she says, “Don’t be a fool, Brandon. I think of you as a brother.” Then, of course, any number of reactions might occur. He decides to become an evil warlord and conquer the world so he can show her; that would be one oh-so-obvious one, but there are others. Not every scene needs to have something at stake. Some scenes will be devoted to developing characters in ways that aren’t about raising stakes, but there should be some arc, some structure in which stakes are raised as the novel moves toward its end.

Or so I think today.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Avoid summary

If you’re like me you want to understand what you write. You want to know what it’s all about. It’s your world after all. But we’re wrong. One of my favorite writers, Kurt Vonnegut, wrote that writers don't always understand what they write as they write. It was just a passing comment. He said that when writers are writing well, they’re writing about something they can almost grasp.

Sometimes I give into the sin of summary. I want to summarize what I’ve been trying to say in a story. I want to make it clear. Sometimes when I do this, I’m being reductive in a way that harms the story. It’s easy to want to sum up ideas and emotions and insights. We know our characters, right? We know our world. We have something we want to say and of course we want to say it as clearly as we can. But, in fiction, often what you’re writing about, since it is played out in a dramatic fashion, shouldn’t be explained. It is best to allow your story to do what it does and realize that sometimes even you won’t know exactly what you’re trying to get at. You’ll ALMOST know. You have to just let it be.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010



In most stories there comes a moment in the evolution of the plot and character, at or near the end, when the main character realizes something, has a moment of understanding. Everything should have been leading the reader to this moment. Things have happened and changes have occurred and now the payoff is a realization, an understanding, by our main character about some essential aspect of his story. For example, a man has desired a certain woman who has no desire to be desired. The man struggles to win her and once he understands he never will, never can, then he struggles to accept the fact she can’t love him. The moment of understanding in the story will be when he realizes this. Once a writer realizes that this understanding is what she’s been writing about all along, then she goes back and REWRITES to make everything fit into this story. That’s an essential part of rewriting to me. Everything has to fit. Every scene drives the reader to the moment when the elements of the story come together.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Why write?

Why do I write anyway?

There are lots of other things to do, after all. I could catch up on my TV watching for instance, learn to surf, teach my dog to do stupid tricks that might land him a sweet moment on David Letterman. I might go out more with my wife, friends, visit more places, seek out interesting hobbies like poker and needlepoint. Maybe I can sing, after all. I’ve never been able to carry a tune and the very idea of performing gives me hives (in a metaphorical sense), but American Idol here I come.

Or not.

All I’m saying is I’ve got other things I could be doing.

But nearly every day I wander, somewhat reluctantly now and then but mostly enthusiastically, back to my computer. After some starring out the window, I start the tap, tap, tap of the keys that has become one of the primary rhythms of my life. I make those little letters into words and then sentences and paragraphs and chapters and, eventually, books. It’s still a mystery to me how they can become a story but they do.

Maybe that’s it right there. It’s still a mystery to me. Maybe that’s why.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Taking Chances

Sometimes you just have to tell the story you have to tell. It may be way out here, like having a dog for a narrator (Who’s going to publish that?) or a story about a spider or one told by a dead girl.

You have to be brave. It’s hard. It’s very hard to write something that you know is pretty far out there. When I began my ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES novel about aliens landing and taking over the world and enslaving everyone, I thought—really? Am I really going to try to write this? It’s so, well, weird. Who will publish it? You don’t want to have these thoughts. You just want to write, but most novels take a year or more to finish. It’s a chunk of time and your life. But ultimately we’re writers and that’s what we do and part of that is taking chances, following your passion. I suppose this is the writer’s way of following Joseph Campbell’s advice: follow your bliss.

Every time you write it’s a kind of leap of faith. You have to be brave. If your story is a strange one and it’s going to be told in a strange way, it may be harder to sell to a publisher. That’s true. But who knows what will happen then? An author named Stein did write a book from a dog’s point of view called THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN. Great novel. Great reviews. Bestseller. And of course Charlotte’s Web is a great novel about a spider and ELSEWHERE and THE LOVELY BONES are novels with POV narrators who are dead girls. You just never know. You have to write what you have to write. You have to be brave.