Saturday, December 22, 2012

Character and Connections

Characters are the heart of fiction. If they aren't breathing, people can't connect to your writing. So how do you get them to breathe? That's the problem and the struggle. There are plenty of books that will talk about creating elaborate character sketches or filling out this form or that questionaire about your characters. These may, in fact, help some people come to know their characters better and so help them breathe life into them. But by themselves they aren't enough to create living, breathing characters. Why not? Because they are working from the outside. They're trying to force the character to move and act from a set of characteristics the author has created. But unless the author can use these methods to actually create a character who is living in the story the character will make the wrong choices and she won't come to life.

What the writer has to do is find a way to be inside his character and move the character forward with the story. To do that the writer needs to create a kind of circulation connecting the character with the other elements of writing fiction: setting, plot and subplot, narrative drive, language, other characters etc...all of these need to work together, each scene adding to what was before it and connecting to what will come after. It's helpful when writing to keep thinking about making connections. Characters do things for reasons. Sometimes the writer doesn't see these clearly. Fortunately, unlike life, writers get to revise their work. In the revisions the connections will become clearer and clearer and by working to discover these reasons and linking them to the other characters and the story, the characters will begin to breathe.

Or so I think today.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Just Begin It

You have to start a manuscript to finish one. And, as I've said before, finishing a first rough draft is how I begin to really see the structure of my novel and understand what it's about. But before that I have to stumble through rough territory. A lot of that first draft my characters are the walking dead, but I keep pounding away on the keyboard and trying to give them life. A lot of the story is clumsy as a drunk trying to walk a straight line but... And the language--painful to look at in places. BUT there are moments of joy and enjoyment in all this and some good writing, too.



You have to get through that first draft though. Enjoy the discovery moments and force yourself to write even if you know it's not that good. You have to finish that first draft to have a second and third. Not all of you will work this way but many of you will; I do. You can go back while you're writing the first draft and improve sections and tinker with ideas and plot and make that first draft a little better. I do. BUT don't allow yourself to do this INSTEAD of pushing on. Your goal each day should be to push on and move the story and characters forward so that you can get to the moment where you type THE END. Keep thinking about making connections in the work to help you keep it on track but know that you will wander off sometimes.

I think there is nothing more important for an inexperienced writer than finishing work.  Know that the first few months of writing something new are maybe the toughest because the writing is so rough and you're discovering your way. Force yourself through it.

Allow yourself to write badly in order that you may write better.

Saturday, November 17, 2012


     I had a student ask me how to begin her novel. She kept trying to begin it in different places and it wasn’t working. She’d tried and tried and tried.  She was discouraged. She felt lost.
     “Just end it,” I said.
     “It’s not as bad as all that,” she said.
     “You have to just end it,” I insisted.
     “No really. I’d prefer not to. I’m only nineteen.”
     “You have to it.”
     “I could always be a lawyer, ” she said.  “A lot of my friends are going to be lawyers.”
     “You can do this.”
     “I don’t want to die.”
     “The book,” I said.
     The above is a fictional dramatization, of course, because I’m a fiction writer and sometimes it’s just more fun to write the scene you want than what really happened. But the gist is there. Like a lot of writers this writer keeps starting over because she knows the beginning isn’t right and she’s worried about starting in the wrong place. But here ‘s the thing. We mostly start in the wrong place. It might be almost right or it might be very wrong. We can’t know until we get to the end. You have to just write it and then see what you have-- in my humble opinion.
     Here’s something else I’ve noticed being around writers and it is also something true of myself. Most writers write for years and years before they’re published. Most writers have written two or three or five or six unpublished manuscripts. Maybe you’ll be lucky and find your way faster. Maybe not. You learn how to write by writing and paying attention to what works and what doesn’t and doing more of the former and less of the later . YOU HAVE TO FINISH A NOVEL to finish a novel and learn from it and go on to the next. So don’t worry so much about the beginning. Worry about the end. You can do many things to improve your writing, but nothing will improve it more than finishing your work. End it.
     Or so I think today.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

What's in a name?

What’s in a name? A lot. The names we give our characters mean a great deal. I saw two short youtubes while searching for some back up on this topic. One was Keith Gray who gave the great example of Luke Skywalker, which is a great name for a savior of the universe.  The guy can walk on the sky. You feel immediately that this guy is destined for great things. He also brought up Harry Potter and how Harry is supposed to be a kind of everyman or, in this case, everyboy. All around him are characters with exotic and striking names. Lord Voldemort, Sirus Black, etc… but Harry is the perfect name for our hero. It makes the reader identify with the average side of him, the vulnerable side. He has an extraordinary past already. It’s very helpful for him to have this ordinary name .
The second youtube I saw was from Michael Connelly and he was talking about the character Harry  (Harry short for Hieronymus) Bosch.  He got the name from the painter  whose work is  complex, convoluted and disturbing and unforgivingly distinct.

By giving the name to this detective who works the streets of LA he not only makes him stand out but he gives the impression of complexity of both character and setting.  Even if the reader doesn’t get this, MC does and it becomes part of how he thinks about the character and inspires him to write a more complex and layered hero.
A lot is in a name.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


All a writer can do is work on the various aspects of craft and write a prodigious number of words, struggling (because without the struggle the writing is as useless as recitation) to find the right words to be used in the exact right way. And the rest, as the great Henry James wrote, “is the madness of art.”

But showing up and giving honest effort, dreaming big when you can, gives the writer the opportunity to write well, the chance to be in the right place at the right time. Randall Jarrell, the poet, once compared writing poetry to standing out in the rain, hoping to be struck by lightening. Sounds a bit ominous, but you get the idea. Maybe it happens, maybe it doesn’t, but if you’re never out in that rain, you will never be struck by lightning. Okay, Jarrell’s quote. Good for poets. They’re notorious street-corner and outdoor cafĂ© loungers. But what about novelists? We’re the grunts, the worker-bees of literature.  We need things to happen. We can’t simply stand out in the rain and hope for the best; we need plot. We need to go places, do things, MAKE things happen. We need to move! And you can bet a lot of our traveling will be to far away places. It will not only be soggy but treacherous and unforgiving and very, very hard. 

Read, of course.
Work on craft, of course.
But above all write. You become a better writer by writing. You can't learn it any other way. The people who become writers aren't necessarily the ones with the most talent or best connections--they're the ones who keep at it.

Or so I think today.

Friday, September 21, 2012


If you’re looking for a warm-up exercise here’s a good one that I use to get my creative writing class started sometimes. I think I got it from Pamela Painter’s book WHAT IF. Start with a sentence that begins with A. Then make the next sentence begin with B. Work your way through the alphabet. Sometimes this kind of forced writing path will give  interesting results. At any rate, fun warm-up.
Some thoughts about Show and Tell:
 Novels are made of scene and summary. If you think about a novel in this way, simple though it is, you see that it is the interplay of showing and telling that gives your novel its rhythm and structure at both the local level of a scene and the global structure that begins with word one and ends with THE END. There is summary between scenes and summary within scenes. So it’s complete nonsense to say a writer must always show.  A writer must show and tell and it’s the choices the writer makes—when to show and when to tell that contribute to the work’s success or failure.
Show the interesting moments, the dramatic ones, the ones that reveal character and push plot along in a dynamic way. Show what needs to be shown. Good. Show the boring, show too much. Not so good.
Tell character back-story or summarize some bit of action that isn’t important and so on. Often in first drafts I summarize too much. I'm telling because I'm trying to figure out bits of my novel. I try to be aware of this so I can cut in revision. 
Picking the right time to show and the right time to tell is essential to pacing and rhythm and many other aspects of writing a good story.
Or so I think today.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

character as plot

You’ve probably heard this before but I’ll say it again:
     The way to a character’s heart (and isn’t that where we, as writers, are trying to get?) is through the things he or she wants/needs/desires and the things he or she fears. The acts that the character does in order to get what he or she wants and to avoid what he or she fears create character. These acts in the main characters also often drive the story.
     Kind of a big deal, really.
     Throw in an antagonist or two, mix well, and you’ve got a story.
     Thinking about this in early drafts might help you decide what happens next or how a scene should work.  SO you focus on character desire as a way of moving plot and not just as a way of developing character. Thinking about this in later drafts might help you select what should stay and what should go. You can see where you wander away from the struggle and need to cut.
     Another huge advantage to this approach is the story evolves from the inside out and you aren’t looking at it from outside and trying to make it fit some outline or formula, which never works for me. The story evolves organically. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Some days it’s not about how many words you write but about what you figure out about a character or a story. You have some new twist to the story that comes out of what you’ve been writing or you discover an aspect of your character you hadn’t seen before, something that seems to open up other possibilities. This is a good day.

I think writers sometimes get too caught up in word count. I don’t ever count the words. I do write every morning at roughly the same time. I try to write for a few hours but some days that’s not possible. Other days, especially in the summer when I’m off from teaching, I may write for more than a few hours. That daily habit has been really important to me. It keeps me involved in the story and it keeps the story moving forward. Some days I write crap and some days I write very little and some days it goes so well it’s hard to stop. But I’m there ever day regardless of how it goes.  That’s what works for me.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

E.M. Forester School of Writing

I'm of the E.M. Forester, "How can I know what I mean until I see what I say?" school of writing.  Sometimes it sucks but I can’t write any other way. One discovery leads to another discovery leads to another and I have to trust that these will lead me, eventually, to a story. Of course, I’m thinking about structure as I do it. I’m thinking about characters desires and I’m thinking about how all the various elements fit together, but I’m always trying to be open to any and every possibility that comes into my mind. Especially when I’m writing a first draft.
I’m discovering my story. I get immense satisfaction from this struggle to discover my story.
And this is why I find outlining and, particularly outlining that involves formulas ( a lot of these out there) for writing ineffectual.  They do work for some writers. There is no one way to write, of course. But for me when I try to fit my writing into some preconceived structure, I limit it. I force my story and my imagination to conform to a certain path and this limits the possibilities of my story. I diminish my story.
I need to think it all out on paper.  Discover the story and the characters as I go and allow that first draft to wander aimlessly in places. This means a lot of wrong turns and a lot—a lot—of rewriting.  I look at my first drafts with suspicion and embarrassment, but that is my process and the more I revise the closer I get to the real story I’m trying to tell.  I need that embarrassing first draft to get to my story.
It’s messy. I abandon manuscripts after thirty or forty pages sometimes because I can see that my story doesn’t have the spark that draws new discoveries. But once I get going, once I make discoveries that lead to other discoveries, the errors, the wrong turns, the wanderings, eventually reveal my story to me.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Three secrets--also pub. on my agent's, Sara Crowe's blog

W. Somerset Maugham once wrote, “There are three secrets to writing a novel. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are.” Right. Thanks for nothing, Somerset.
Sometimes I really, really want to know what those fricking three secrets are.  I want it to be easy. I want to live my adolescent vision of writerdom.  Wild parties full of interesting people, travel around the world, days in the sun and maybe surf or climbing mountains, and somewhere in there a quick coffee while I pound out five or ten pages. Of course, being older, I might skip the all-night parties etc… but the quick pounding out of wonderfully astute and insightful pages using powerful and arresting language that perfectly expresses what I’m trying to say—yeah, that sounds pretty good. If I just knew those three secrets, I think, wouldn’t life be great.
But here’s my reality. I’ve written many novels and every time I sit down to start a new novel I feel a wave a panic. What do I do now? How do I get going? Why is all that white starring back at me? I start to sweat. I sigh. I grumble. I have a kind of amnesia.  Not like Gregory Peck in MIRAGE, not  the “who am I and what have I done?” kind of amnesia, 

but the  “how did I ever write a novel?” kind. How could I manage to bang out so many pages, keep characters straight, make it all go together—mostly anyway? What have I forgotten?
Time to walk the dog. This is not code for some memorization technique or therapy. No, I mean when I feel this way I always think it’s time to walk the dog, watch a TV program, pick up a familiar book,  check my email, facebook, twitter (thank you social media) or do anything to put off facing the blank page that is as blank as my mind. Anything not to face the fact that I have lost whatever it was that made it possible for me to write a novel the last time I wrote a novel.
I always feel this way when I start a new manuscript. Every time.
Maybe if I were an outliner type of writer the panic would be less. Maybe. Though the outliner types that I  know seem to suffer from the same problem. They just suffer when they’re trying to get to their outline
If I knew the three secrets though. If only.
In spite of this initial panic, I do, eventually, get started. I write the only way I know how. One word after another. Sometimes the words fall out of me and sometimes I have to pull them out. Usually they make sentences as awkward as a middle school dance. But eventually one paragraph is made and then another and another. I tell myself that I’m writing a first draft and I need to let it be ugly and let myself think that I can make it more beautiful in revision. I urge myself on. Slowly, a story starts to emerge and once that happens the panic fades and I’m writing. I’m just telling a story, struggling with tone and character and setting and plot and all the things I struggle with as I try to become the story, try to be there in what’s happening moment to moment.
It’s this struggle that makes writing so exciting to me. It’s the struggle that makes it one of the great passions and wonders of my life.
I taught a workshop last week and a participant stayed after to talk to me. He was a businessman who had an MBA but had started writing fiction. He didn’t even know why exactly, but he’d written and written and now he’d finished a novel, and he said it made him feel something he’d never felt before. He couldn’t talk to his business colleagues about it. He’d had a hard time expressing what he felt to anyone.
He said, “It gives me a sense of fulfillment. More than getting my MBA, more than business. It’s hard to explain. It makes me feel alive.”
I offered him my sympathies. “You sound as if you might be a writer,” I said.
And I offered him congratulations, too. Unlucky lucky guy.
Maybe it’s not unfortunate after all that I don’t know what those three secrets are.  If it was easy, if there weren’t the moments of doubt and desperate struggle then there wouldn’t be the moments of elation and discovery.  I’m an unlucky lucky guy, too. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

My ideas, after the first idea—often situational—come out of character. So I had an idea that began my novel ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES. I wanted to write an alien invasion novel, but the situation I saw was a story about the survivors. So I made the invasion take ten seconds. A radical departure from most alien movies and stories. And then I started thinking about European countries that arrived in places where native populations were primitive. For example, Cortez landed in Mexico with something like 150 men and a couple of cannons. He conquered the Aztec empire—over a million people—because he had guns. What must it have been like to the indigenous population? At first they thought the Spaniards were gods.
So, let’s say we’re on the loosing end this time. The invasion takes ten seconds. That’s how I started my novel. “It takes less time for them to conquer the earth than it takes for me to brush my teeth.” The second line just came to me and it creates tone. “That’s pretty disappointing.” Is tone an idea? I don’t think of it that way but my tendency is to write serious humor stories, so this tone fits.
         Okay, so that’s the start of the my novel. But then what? If that’s all I’ve got, then I’ve really just got a few lines.
         Ideas have to grow out of that first idea. Or as Patrick _Ness said, if you prefer to see it this way, an idea has to attract others. So I have my main character and he survives the initial invasion. He becomes a slave. But what are the particulars of this? These big ideas are good for situations and setting up story but we need details to develop the story. So for that I’m going to my character. I need to start figuring out what he wants and desires to help find my way to the story.
         What does someone who has lost his freedom want? One thing, of course, is he wants that freedom back. But the situation in the beginning is dire. The world has been taken and people killed and the alien masters threaten at every turn. So freedom isn’t really an option yet. Revenge? Not possible. Survival? That’s the first thing. He wants to survive and he wants to, even if he doesn’t know it, somehow start the process of rebuilding his life. To do that he needs friends, allies.
         Okay, so I didn’t think about all this as I was writing. I’m analyzing it now. When I’m writing I’m just thinking about character and situation and pushing that character to develop to create new situations which in turn create scenes. But this is the way I begin to build a story.

Friday, June 8, 2012

major/minor characters

"Major characters emerge; minor ones may be photographed."-Graham Greene
         I think this is an important point. I also think this is something we all struggle with. We try to get everything about a major character out right away and the result is the beginning of our manuscript becomes summary rather than scene. Too much of a rush. The major characters should be revealed little by little, as fits with the story, and they should slowly emerge into complex rounded characters. This is where SHOW instead of TELL does apply.
         Minor characters are often snapshots. They may not evolve except in a way that promotes the advancement of story. They might just be a quick sketch that is useful to develop main characters or story. 
         Beware the manuscript that has no minor characters. If all you have are major characters then most likely something is wrong.  I’m a big believer in equality but not in fiction. If all your characters are equal then something is probably wrong. The reader needs main characters to focus on and identify with.
         Character is everything. If a reader identifies with a character she will

  excuse a lot. But one aspect of this is understanding that a major character 

will emerge through the engagement of that character with the story.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Roughly three years ago I started blogging. Here is my first blog reprinted. In that time I've had one novel published and two others accepted--all by Candlewick.  Not bad.

Last week (three years ago) 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.

Friday, May 18, 2012

all manuscripts start as ugly ducklings

Today was one of those drivel writing days. I was decrying this on facebook. You know, poor me. I’m writing drivel. My sentences are drivel and my paragraphs are drivel and I’m beginning to feel as if the whole new manuscript is drivel. Well, I didn’t go that far on facebook but I will here. I fell into that place of self-loathing where I considered select-all, highlight, delete and…….good-bye cruel drivel.
BUT I didn’t. Sometimes we should but most times when we’re writing early drafts we’re writing a lot of drivel. I reminded myself that all novels start as ugly ducklings. Of course not all will become swans but that’s not really the point. You have to believe and you have to keep on as if everything you write will make that miraculous transformation.
Give your manuscript a chance. Keep going and believing and don’t be discouraged by drivel. A little or sometimes a lot of drivel must fall into every manuscript. Revision, rewriting, editing…we have lots of chances to make our ugly ducklings swans.
Or so I think today. 

Monday, May 7, 2012


I  think you need time between drafts but maybe just a few days UNTIL you are absolutely sick of writing the manuscript or until you're certain you've revised as much as you can. Then I think you need to let the manuscript set  for a much longer period--a month. You aren't seeing it anymore. You're in love with certain sentences or paragraphs or even chapters and you've gotten attached to them.  You've become close to your characters. Too close. They're real now. They're like real people. You've been with them for months and months. How can you cut them or even radically change them? They're yours. It would be betrayal. What kind of a person are you?You admit-- a word here and there in the manuscript can be changed. Fine. Tighten the language. Sure.  At this point even if your critique group says there's something wrong, you're going to secretly think the something that is wrong is THEM.

You have manuscript blindness.

The good news is it's not a permanent condition.

It's a point we all reach. I read something by Stephen King where he was saying that when he gives his manuscripts a big rest between drafting and revision, like five weeks, he always find something big he's missed. Something big. Even Stephen King, writer of a million novels, is susceptible to manuscript blindness.

At some point, when you've lived in the world of your novel for a long time, you just can't see what might not be working. You need the distance of time. You need fresh eyes. On that first time back to your manuscript it's important that you be brutally honest with yourself. You won't see the manuscript that freshly again until it's been accepted and you're working with an editor. Go into revision being open to major changes and you will improve your manuscript.

Or so I think today.

Sunday, April 29, 2012


I was dreaming last night about my WIP, which woke me, which made me think about my dream, which had my characters in it talking about something that had nothing to do with my manuscript.  But then that got thinking about a scene and anyone who has insomnia from time to time knows that once you start thinking in this way sleep is not coming back.
     I blame it on the characters
     Our creations can be quite vocal sometimes.  You can hear them grumbling and moaning and laughing. I’m just glad they can’t talk to us directly or I would get no sleep at all. I can imagine many conversations:
     “Dude, are you going to leave me there with this guy talking about Forest Gump? Just kill me.”
     Or someone else would complain about how they’re not getting enough page time. Or someone else would complain about how I’d made him or her less kind, more kind, weaker, less intelligent, mean, not mean enough.
     Characters are demanding. A writer has a hard time getting them out of his mind when they start making noise.  They’re the life of the story. I suppose they have the right.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Excited to post the Publisher's Marketplace announcement of the selling of my new novel, Utopia. Nothing against dystopia but I'm going another way this time. Unfortunately, everything isn't idyllic in Utopia either. That's life in a novel. Sh*t happens. 

ALIEN INVASION author Brian Yansky's UTOPIA, set in a quirky small Iowa town where the strange is normal, about a 17-year-old who has the gift or curse, depending on how you look at it, of being able to talk to dead people, and finds himself caught up in the mystery of two murdered girls, murders that lead him to town secrets long buried, again to Kaylan Adair at Candlewick, by Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger (world English).

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

grammar and fiction

One day I was out with everyone from my Extreme Birding Club. In this club we not only spot the birds, but we capture them and make them tell us a secret. The more rare the bird, the more rare the secret. As everyone knows, at least where I live, birds are stubborn about revealing secrets. They know a lot of them. I won’t say we’re above pulling out a feather or two in order to get the bird to spill. Still, we don’t kill them. We don’t eat them. You could say it’s kinder than buying a chicken at the grocery store and pretending it just appeared there out of thin air. You buy the chicken. You’re part of the chain of events that causes the chicken to be born for his solitary purpose of being consumed by humans You eat the chicken bought from the store. Me, too. I’m not criticizing—just saying. Don’t judge me.
Extreme Birding isn’t for the faint of heart.
After we get our secret we always give the birds some food and send them on their way.

Extreme Birding will make you thirsty and so the group often goes out for a beer. While having a drink someone said, “I just called my wife and told her ‘the whole group of birders drink Shiner Bock' and she corrected me and said it should be ‘the whole group of birders drinks Shiner Bock.’ Who is right?”

I decided to give the Grammar Guru a call right then and there. It turned out he was in the middle of chanting. Gurus chant a lot.

“What were you chanting?”
“Old Marx brothers quotes.”
“What’s one?”
“Outside of a dog a man’s best friend is a book. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”
“Good one.”
“What is your question grasshopper?”
“I wish you wouldn’t call me that.”
“Another Marx brother quote is ‘wishes are like buttocks. Everyone has one.”
“That’s not a Marx brothers quote.”
“Ask your question.”
I asked: Is it “the whole group of birders drink” OR “the whole group of birders drinks.”

“Ah, he said, "Group noun problem. A group is considered singular. It’s like a class or a flock or a committee. If it is considered one, it’s singular. What’s confusing here is that the writer added the “of birders’ which made the writer think the subject was birders (plural) which would mean the noun would have no “s” on it. (They drink/ It drinks). However, since the subject is group, it’s singular (it drinks) so the sentence should be ‘the whole group of birders drinks.’”

Here are more examples:
The class learns.
The class of students learns.
The flock flies overhead.
The flock of birds flies overhead.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Branding--just say no?

I know many writers worry about branding, which I understand as promoting your fiction in a certain way so readers can think of it as a brand. Should we worry? It may be helpful in the sale of fiction but I wonder if we, as writers, should allow ourselves to think of our work as a certain brand. I mean, I'd hate to feel that I have to write a certain way in a certain genre just because someone has said my brand is X. What if I want to write Brand Y or Brand Z this time around? As a reader, I like to read science fiction, fantasy, realistic fiction, magical realism, and all kinds of fiction that mixes these and other genres. I am often drawn to fiction that is genre bending, in fact. So as a writer I'm going to write different kinds of fiction. I love the feeling of starting a new novel and not knowing exactly where it will go. I love trying different things. I realize the idea of branding is just a way to attract readers and, lord knows, there's nothing wrong with that. However, as a writer, I don't want to get too cozy with the idea that my work fits neatly into a "brand". I want to be open to write what excites me. Or so I think today.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012



What does it mean to be a failure at writing fiction? To me it means you’ve said you want to be a writer and you don’t write. You give up on writing. That’s the only way you can fail to be a writer. A writer writes. He writes well. He writes badly. He writes in-between the two.

There are setbacks, like writing and rewriting a work and still knowing deep down it doesn’t work. There’s writing and rewriting and sending a work off again and again and getting rejected. There is writing a book, getting an agent, selling the book to a publisher, seeing it go to bookstores, seeing it disappear from bookstores a few months later, and looking at less that stellar sales. None of these are failures. They’re difficult and they’re things that most writers go through, but they aren’t failure.
Failure, to me, is one thing. It’s giving up. Whether this happens before you finish your first novel or after your third or fourth manuscript. The only way you can truly fail as a writer is by stopping writing. Some do. The rejection gets too much for them or they realize they don’t love writing enough. There are a lot of highs and lows in writing. Some people can’t tolerate these. There are many reasons to give up, I suppose.

But there’s one compelling reason not to. If you’re doing something you love, you’re very, very lucky. It’s hard to find things you love. It’s hard to find work you love. If you love to write, it’s something you can do your entire life. We’re lucky.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

talent--who needs it?

Talent: How Important is it?

Let’s leave out the most important thing, far more important than talent, which is drive. Drive to actually write and drive to learn from mistakes and failures is far more important than talent. But I'll come back to that.

As far as talent goes in the great community of writers, if you take all the writers who are really writing and not just talking about writing, probably forms something like a bell curve. There are some who have very little talent with language. They’re tone deaf. They don’t have any stories to tell. They don’t really SEE and you have to be able to see to be a writer. If you’ve ever watched the first days of American Idol, you know these people. They think they’re great singers (why or how this is possible is another post) and they are truly terrible. Not just not good--terrible. There are a few would-be writers like this. On the other end, there are a few who have amazing talent. They can see. They can make language do amazing things. They have an immediate sense of story. They have amazing talent and a good education. They’re in a great position to write wonderful things. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t.

Beyond these extremes are most of us, the great middle. It has a range of course. Some are at the low end of middle and some at the high. It’s my contention that with perseverance, hard work, and determination most people in this middle will eventually be published—if they keep at it long enough.

If you have some talent, you have to turn that into more by struggling through the process of learning to write, learning the basics first and then the intricacies of plotting and character and language. Only through this lengthy struggle can you do more and more of what you want WITHOUT thinking about it when you’re doing it. That’s essential when writing. You have to do without thinking about it or you will freeze some part of you and your characters will act in untrue ways. You’re like the batter at bat. You can’t think, ah here comes the pitch and now I will swing and… If you do that, the ball is long gone. But to get to this point you have to have learned all the things that go into hitting the ball. Same with writing.

But my main point here is just this: most of the writers you read are from the great middle. Sometimes writers with great talent never go anywhere because they don’t have drive and a love for the process of making stories. A lot of writers in the middle have those things and they simply refuse to give up. They compensate for weaknesses. Maybe they can’t write really beautiful or strong or clever sentences but they can tell a story and they get better at their sentences and they really work on their story-telling ability. They become writers, writing pages upon pages every week. Like everyone they make the same mistakes over and over again, but they don’t allow themselves to be satisfied with merely turning out pages. They find ways to get around those mistakes.
It’s hard. It’s hard.

But I believe most writers who keep at it will be published and will write good work.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

doors and windows

It’s important to figure out your strengths as a writer.

It’s important to figure out what you do well in writing and what you don’t do well. You’re not going to do everything well. No one does. If you can discover some of your strengths and weaknesses, you can emphasize the former and minimize the later.

So how do you do that? By writing. By paying attention to what the people who read your writing say. Not everything, of course, and not from everyone. Some people just won’t “get” your writing. Some people will focus in on certain aspects of your writing and not be able to help you with others. But if you keep hearing, again and again, from critique group members or other readers that they need more description of physical details in a scene you might start looking and focusing on that weakness of your writing in revision. You might look for places to add details and adding those details might actually help you in other ways, help you focus a scene etc… Sometimes working out one problem will have a larger effect on a manuscript that just the one problem because you’ll see the work itself in a new way.

I know one of my problems is not enough physical details in scenes. In revision I always look for places--I think of them as doors and windows--where I can add something that will bring a scene into focus.

Or so I think today

Friday, February 24, 2012

understanding character

Why are some actors not very good? Talent, of course, is part of any discussion about any art. But just setting aside talent for a second, when an actor isn’t truly in a scene I think it’s often because they don’t understand the character. Or they understand the character only in a surface way and so their lines and expressions and body language all seem untrue. I think this is what happens to writers. They force themselves along and a scene just gets less and less true. The reader feels it when reading the manuscript. The writer isn’ t there in the scene and the scene feels false.

How do you get there inside the character? I think writers find different ways. Some outline. Some journal. Some write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and so on. Thankfully, we have many chances. But one thing to consider is you have to try to see the scene unfold in a moment-to-moment way through the eyes of your narrator. When you’re actually writing the scene, you have to try to be there by living the scene. If you’re there in the scene, you’ll make the right decisions and the scene will be true. Of course, you should test and retest this in revision but being there in the scene will allow the fiction to move forward in an organic way so that the plot grows out of the situation and characters.

It’s a constant struggle and it isn’t easy but one thing I do always try to do is see the scene unfold through the character.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

student alien invasion video

Love this student video for ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES. It's for an English class.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Writing Badly

It’s good to write bad sometimes. It doesn’t seem good while you’re doing it. Annoying. Frightening. Irritating. Discouraging. It seems more along the lines of these words. It FEELS more like that. You want to be better. You want to write beautiful prose with depth and meaning and you want your characters to feel right and all that.

Sometimes you can’t.

In fact, in early drafts, you can’t a lot. You have to write badly in order to get to the good stuff. For me, I’m finding my way in early drafts and I have to accept the imprecision of language and plot and character. If I don’t accept these things, then I have to stop writing.

I don’t want to do that.

I write nearly every day because I love it and because I believe that’s how you keep the momentum of a manuscript. So I take the good with the bad and hope that in revision I can turn most of that bad into good.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Writing Isn't Baking a Pie

Writing isn’t baking a pie. I see recipes for writing all the time and I think how part of me wishes they worked so I could find the recipe and every time I’d make a very nice pie and that would be that. No more worrying and driving myself crazy about whether this or that works or doesn’t work or how to make a character really real instead of just a shadow of real. OR the big question—what am I missing in this manuscript? Parts of it sound right but parts of it don’t. I want to ignore this sense of missing but I just can’t quite fool myself into thinking it works and sometimes it haunts me.

If I had a recipe I could just put it all together, bake, and serve and people would eat (well, not literally) my book and they would say, “Pretty good.” Maybe there are writers who do this. A few—not many.

So, yes, I wish for this sometimes. BUT where’s the fun in that? Oh, maybe once or twice it would be fun, but without the struggle, the failures and the hard-earned victories, writing wouldn’t be the adventure that it is. I look at writers like Ray Bradbury and Elmore Leonard, writers in their 80s, who say they still love writing, it still gets them out of bed in the morning. That’s a wonderful thing. The act of writing enriches a life.

Recipes don’t work but maybe it’s a good thing they don’t

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 22, 2012

forget the formula

Bad Writing Advice #9: Write using a formula.

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

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

Or so I think today.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


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

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

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

Thursday, January 5, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

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