Let’s get real about the hot mess of spell-check, grammar and editing tools

Listen–whether you write for fun or to pay the rent, and whether it’s (a) screenplays about mafia members dumb enough to kill Keanu’s puppy or (b) novels featuring elves with lightsabers and the robot ninja pirates who love them, one thing is constant: editing is everything.

Editing and rewriting is where the magic happens.

Magic because the first draft of anything is a warm bucket of spit.

And magic because a great editor can polish your text until it’s a shiny diamond made of words.

Related posts:

The evil secret to ALL WRITING – editing is everything

Why are all writers lazy bums?

The secret truth about writing

HOWEVER: Despite my love for skilled, professional and fully human editors, I do believe in using whatever tool you can.

Is this sacrilege?

Will they kick me out of the writing temple?

No. It’s good manners to clean up your text. That lets your human editor focus on kicking butt instead of chasing down typos, split infinitives and dangling modifiers.

Here’s the problem: just about all the non-human editing tools stink worse than a corpse flower, you know, the one that only blooms every 10 years because smelling it once every decade is torture enough for any soul.

You won’t notice how badly these editing tools stink when you edit small projects. 

Spend the entire month of December editing 74,000 words, though, and all of these flaws become insanely clear.

Problem No. 1: Spell-check has transmogrified into a Grammar Nazi that’s terrible at his job

So you want to hunt down typos, do you? Good luck.

Standard spell-check in Word doesn’t want to let you do that job. It wants you to swan dive into a lava pit full of demons with pitchforks labeled Punctuation, Usage and Grammar, all of which are typically blinder than the referees at an NFC championship game.

Come on, man. Let’s hunt down typos. Nobody likes them, nobody needs them and we all want to squash them like cockroaches hiding under your kitchen cabinets.

The workaround solution: Turn off grammar checking entirely in Word, and if you can, kill it with fire. Nuke it from orbit. Go with old-fashioned spelling only.

A better solution: Separate spell-check from grammar, usage and punctuation entirely. Don’t even give people the option of combining them all, seeing how that idea is an achy breaky bad mistakey.

Problem No. 2: Grammar checkers tend to be stubborn beasts

Grammarly is a decent spell-checker and far, far better than Word at pure grammar, which shouldn’t be shocking since the word “grammar” is in the tool’s name.  

The trouble with Grammarly is I couldn’t find a way to tweak settings, so 80 percent of the errors it found were…missing Oxford commas.

Want to take a guess on how many missing Oxford commas you might find in a ginormous document that purposefully didn’t include a single one?

Yeah. It was a fiery train wreck.

I don’t believe in Oxford commas, though I’m agnostic about the matter and have no quarrel with my brothers and sisters who adore them. God be with you.

Wading through five bazillion false positives, though, got old in a hurry. And yes, I tried everything possible to find a way to toggle Oxford commas on or off.

There are other style choices that would be super useful to turn on or off. I simply couldn’t find a way to toggle them.

The workaround: I have no idea. Help me, Obi-Wan.

A better solution: Grammarly and similar tools need to give users more options, so we don’t waste crazy amounts of time catching errors that are actually style choices.

Problem No. 3: Online-only tools aren’t super useful for anything large

Autocrit is an app full of good ideas and features. It catches all kinds of things spellcheck and apps like Grammarly don’t even touch, like over-used words and phrases, which is beautiful. I like it, I love it, I want some more of it.

Here’s the deal-breaker: you have to paste your text into online apps like Autocrit, do your business, then paste your text back into Word (or whatever final shebang you use). 

Most online apps like Autocrit have upper limits on how much text they can digest at a time. This can be an explicit limit or one that you find out when you cram enough words in there and watch it jam up.

I’ve subscribed to Autocrit a couple different times and had to stop using it for that reason. It chocked on the text, every time, and feeding it bits and pieces just wasn’t practical.

The workaround: It is possible to help apps like this handle big meals by predigesting your words and turning them into plain text. However: Even if these online-only tools cranked through 74k or more with ease, the trouble is you have to then paste it back into Word and REFORMAT THE WHOLE MSS AGAIN. No. Just no.

A better solution: Not sure. Unless online apps can fix the reformatting problem, there’s no way I’m going back to them for anything large and important.

How we can do better

I wound up only using things that worked within Word, to avoid the whole cut-and-paste then reformat-an-entire-novel dance. Because it takes more than one pass to edit things right.

What worked for me this time? (1) plain old spell-check in Word with grammar turned off, (2) Grammarly for actual grammar and punctuation and (3) SmartEditPro for the tougher stuff like over-used words and phrases. It’s similar to Autocrit but works inside Word.

I believe, deep in my soul, two things would make the life of writers far, far easier:

First, having every writing app and tool work inside your doc as a plug-in vs. a separate app or web page.

Second, focusing on doing one thing well. One thing, not three or five. Because that’s how writers tend to edit, in phases.

What do you think?

Tell me your editing horror stories. Whisper the names of apps I’ve never heard about and reveal the secret ways you’ve tweaked Grammarly to ignore missing Oxford commas and such. I would offer a reward for that.

Why heavy writing requires heavy equipment

Firing up Word is fine for writing anything short. For anything big–novels, screenplays and such–you need specialized tools. 

Believe me. I’ve done it both ways, and trying to do something large and important on a word processor will drive you to drink.

Word processors don’t cut it 

Writing a big project is like building a house. To keep on track and make sure the thing doesn’t fall down, you need (a) solid blueprints and (b) heavy equipment.

Short writing projects are like the little bits you can tackle in your garage, with the tools sitting around and the scrap wood in the far corner. 

And sure, you can try to wrestle Word into doing heavy lifting by going wild with navigation options and headings. It’s sorta possible.


Yet no matter how hard you try to force Word into being able to handle a giant project, it’s like trying to excavate the foundation of your new house with a shovel instead of a bulldozer.

Even if you try to organize a single Word file that is organized enough to hold all three acts of a screenplay or all 100,000 words of your epic tale of when the elves rose up against the great tyrant, Santa the Claws, there’ll be all kinds of OTHER files hanging around.

A file about settings and another for characters. One for ideas and notes.

Another for loose text you cut out of a scene but might want to use elsewhere. You get the idea.

Switching between all those files is tough. Just getting a feel for things are is hard. How many words are all the chapters in Act 2 right now versus all of Act 1? Dunno. Get ready for a whole lot of highlighting and scrolling.

One tool to rule them all

I don’t care what you pick–Scrivener, yWriter, Manuskript, OneNote, Atomic Scribbler–as long as you test drive a bunch. For starving artists and writers out there, some of those choices are open source and free.

Try them all and pick one. You won’t go back.

There’s nothing like being able to see the whole project at a glance, then dive into different bits without digging around for which Word file or folder you put in all that stuff about pickpockets in Istanbul.

I just typed THE END on a novel written in Scrivener (yes! very excited about this one, and to beta readers, let’s chat). Am in the middle of transferring into Word for the final formatting and editing. Believe me, writing 80,000 words in Scrivener was a happy walk in the park compared to when I climbed that mountain using Word.

Haven’t used every single alternative, though I use OneNote at work and home and it’s both (a) pretty common and (b) pretty good. 

A few lessons learned from my own silly mistakes

First, don’t get in a hurry to export your screenplay, Great American Novel or picture book about knitting hats for cats from Scrivener into Word.

You don’t want to export the whole thing right off because there’s an excellent, excellent chance you’ll have to import it all back in, which is a massive pain. Because once you look at it all in Word, you’ll spot six zillion structural things to fix that are a sweaty endeavor in a word processor and far, far easier in something like Scrivener.

And yes, I’ve made this mistake. As in last week. 

Heavy equipment, right? If you’ve got a choice between hundreds of hours with a shovel versus two hours with a bulldozer, pick the dozer.

The second thing is don’t ever export the entire project.

Seriously. Do it in pieces.

Sure, every program out there has some kind of magical option on the menu tree that saves your entire creation as a .docx, PDF or whatever. Resist temptation.

Put the first few scenes of your screenplay or novel into Word for that final editing and polishing. Meanwhile, keep on doing heavier work on the later stuff of Act 2 and 3.

Only export scenes or chapters into that Word file when they’re truly, truly ready.

The third thing is that paragraphs that seem short and sweet in something like Scrivener–especially if you have a big screen–turn ginormous when you pop them into Word on double-spaced pages. 

Finally, get religious about making backups. OneNote, Scrivener and similar programs work their magic in mysterious ways, especially in how they save all those separate bits. It’s complicated. I believe quantum particles and gravitational waves are involved.

The way these beasts save their files is nothing like a Word doc, where you can see that solitary file and copy the thing to a thumbdrive or email it to yourself. OneNote in particular is tricky with saving. I’m still not sure where, exactly, it’s saving things half the time. Be careful out there. 

But those are little tips and tricks. There are no giant tradeoffs, like a choice between a moped and a pickup truck. The switch to heavy writing equipment is always worth it. The only real question is what type and brand of literary bulldozer you should drive. 

P.S. What heavy writing equipment do you use today–and what other ones have you dated or divorced? 

Epic haikus explaining all six parts of speech

This is brilliant. Don’t remember who showed me this, or where it came from–the googles have not helped me solve that mystery–so if somebody finds the source, please shout. Twitter? Reddit? Don’t know. What I do know is this: I could not love these haikus more. 


We start with the noun,

king of people, places, things and

the realm of ideas


Articles are kind.

They set up the noun for the

readers to enjoy


Interjections cruel,

the interrupters of all,

they exclaim loudly


The loud verb shouts out:

“Action, state of being, that is me!

Bow to your ruler!”


Modifying nouns,

the adjective hunts them all,

changing their meaning.


When the nouns are gone,

pronouns substitute for them,

however paler.

Fine, you maniac, no one can stop you from doing #NaNoWriMo

Hey, I get it: you want to write a book, a novel, and November is the month when everybody loses their mind and tries to crank one out in 30 days. Plus, #NaNoWriMo is a noble endeavor:

  • The world needs books and stories more than ever.
  • Any serious reader has a book in them, and nobody should die regretting the fact that they never tried to write it.
  • A novel is the most fun you can legally have as a writer.

So you’ve hopped on the train. It’s headed downhill, gathering speed, and nothing’s can stop it. You’re gonna do this thing, right? Oh, yeah. There are calendars marked out with expected word counts, 3×5 notecards with possible scenes, maybe even a corkboard with the major chapters mapped out. Characters have names, damn it. Settings are picked out, the climax is set in your head and Mrs. Peacock is DEFINITELY doing in Colonel Mustard in the billiard room with a lead pipe.

Because you’re jumping on that runaway train of writing glory, even if it’s destined to fly off a cliff, please take a few minutes to read this post.

Or bookmark this and come back on Nov. 15, when you’re screaming into pillows because your word count is only 15,000 and there’s no way you’ll crank out another 55,000 words in the last 15 days, not even if you quit your job, divorce your husband and employ baristas in shifts to make sure there’s never too much blood in your caffeine stream.

It’s still true you can avoid all that by not trying to climb this mountain under an insane deadline. Yet part of the fun is that the deadline is cray-cray. I get that.

So let’s chat, you and I. Because there are tons of myths about writing, and even more dangerous myths about writing anything of length, regardless of form and genre:  

  • ONE BRIDGE, ONE LIFE–a 200,000-word fantasy epic about a lonely troll who lives under a bridge and just wants to make friends, but nobody speaks his language, so whenever he opens his mouth, knights and wizards and such try to kill him. And after 400 years of this, he’s had enough and leaves the bridge to finally confront his tormentors.
  • KNITTING HATS FOR CATS VOLUME 6: CROCHET PATTERNS FOR SCAREDY CATS THIS HALLOWEEN–Hold on, because I would buy this book. Somebody please write it.
  • Dystopian non-fiction guides for kindergarteners written by Hollywood actors, such as WATERWORLD AND YOU by Kevin Costner, about learning how to sail, fish and develop gills while searching for for dry land; MAD MAX: BEYOND NUCLEAR WAR by Mel Gibson with a focus on vehicle maintenance and turning pig manure into guzzlelean; and TERMINATORS CAN BE YOUR FRIEND by Arnold Schwarzenegger, so kids learn to get along with their robot overlords being developed right now at Boston Dynamics.


MYTH NUMBER 1: You should write the Great American Novel chapter by chapter

Don’t think like that. It’ll only get you in trouble, and by trouble I mean 25,000 words into a blind corner with no way out.

Writing anything of length is like building a house, and the reason it takes so long isn’t because we writers type so slow, don’t spend enough time banging on the keyboard or can’t string together pretty sentences.

The trouble is storytelling, and storytelling is about structure. The blueprints, skeleton and muscle of your story: setups and payoffs, revelations and reversals, character and pacing.

All that also happens to be the good stuff.

Everything else–description, setting, dialogue–comes second. As in you can happily save going wild on most of those bits for the second draft if you like. (Sidenote: you should, except maybe for dialogue, which is the bomb.)

Writing anything paragraph by paragraph, even something as short as an oped (800 words instead of 80,000), goes smoothly when you have a solid structure.

When the blueprints are shaky or non-existent, you’re looking at a hot mess, if not a dumpster fire.

Wing it paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter, is like pouring the foundation for the foyer, framing it, putting in plumbing and electrical, hanging the drywall, painting and putting up trim. Then stopping to figure out where the kitchen might go, digging and pouring THAT foundation, framing it and so forth until inevitably–listen, it’s a rock-solid guarantee–you notice the dining room can’t connect to the kitchen and the stairs to the master bedroom open up into a closet.

Believe me, it’s actually a lot easier to bring in the writing wrecking ball to demolish a hot mess and start over than trying to fix it.

So you’re not gonna write Chapter 1 on the first of November, Chapter 2 when the calendar has a big 2 on it and so forth until you type THE END at the bottom of Chapter 30 on November 30, with every chapter hitting exactly 2,333 words.

Because first off, every chapter shouldn’t be exactly the same number of words. Some should be short. Others should be long, and there should even be medium ones, too. I KID YOU NOT.

Second, you won’t write the same number of words every day. Life will interfere. Certain days will be full of writing glory and others will stink no matter how long you stare at the screen.

And lastly, winging a first draft chapter by chapter, without blueprints, is just a bad idea for your first shot at scaling this mountain. 

Finally, the Great American novel is an idea that needs replacing. We’re reading amazing stuff getting produced and translated from around the globe, and whenever I hear somebody proudly say they’re writing the Great American Novel without any sense of self-deprecation, that sets off flashing warning signs that what they’re cranking out will be incredibly long, overly serious and full of purple prose. Let’s just write great novels. 

MYTH NUMBER 2: Acts and beat sheets are for silly screenplays, not Serious Novels

If you write chapter by chapter, and end when you hit your word-count goal, you’re gonna run into trouble.

Looking at a mountain of words with chapters as your only signposts makes pacing tough, if not impossible. Better to figure out how many acts your story has, and by acts I mean turning points, not “let’s end Part 1 here because that’s where we hit 20,000 words.”

There are all sorts of ways to tackle this task. Some folks swear by a three-act structure, with the beginning about 25 percent of your total pages, the middle taking up about 50 percent and the ending, your climax, finishing off the last 25 percent.

There are good reasons a three-act structure works for books and movies while plays and TV shows are pretty strict, going with one-act, two-act or three-act blueprints depending on the running time.

Pacing is key, and length determines structure.

Another option for a novel or screenplay is breaking up that long middle bit so they have four acts of roughly equal length, 25 percent apiece. The math is simple, even for we writer types, and it helps avoid the Sagging Middle.

You’ll also run into people with all sorts of variations and twists on how to structure a novel or screenplay. The same techniques apply to either form when it comes to plotting.

I don’t care how you do it as long as it gets done, because winging it can lead to Act 1’s that only run for 15 percent of the page count, chubby middles that eat up 80 percent of your words and climaxes that feel like afterthoughts by only taking up a measly 5 percent of your pages. The pacing will feel completely off.

This is why a lot of experienced writers do the end first. Because when you know the final payoffs in the climax, it’s easy to interweave all kinds of setups, red herrings and subplots in the middle bit that all pay off in the end. All that literary goodness has the added benefit of making the middle part fun and exciting instead of a sagging slog.

Having blueprints–an actual act structure and yes, maybe even a beat sheet–is just a massive, massive head start. So much that if all you do on the first three days of November is map out the basic blueprints you’re using–and yes, add your special twist–you’ll save yourself all kinds of headache and heartache the rest of #NaNoWriMo. 

Put a gun to my head and say, “Listen, mister, you’re gonna write a novel starting Nov. 1 and finish before October rolls around,” and here’s what I would do:

  • Start with the ending, the most important scene. What ginormous payoffs happen here? Which secrets get revealed and positions get reversed? How does the hero suffer, grow and change in an unexpected way, and how does the villain get karmic payback for their sins? 
  • Swing back to the beginning and start to set up all those payoffs.
  • Work on the five biggest scenes, the major set pieces: the inciting incident, the end of Act 1, the end of Act 2, the All is Lost moment and the climax.
  • Raise the stakes. If the villain wins, who cares? How could matter more to the hero, to the public and to the villain?

The rest of the chapters and scenes, in every act, should be in service to your five big monster scenes.

MYTH NUMBER 3: If you hit 50,000 words, hurray, bust out the bourbon, for a novel is born!

Sure, the common goal of NaNoWriMo is 50k. Just don’t think that’s it, you’re done, polish that sucker up and get it printed.

Listen to editors at publishing houses and literary agents like Janet Reid, who laid it out like this: 

100K isn’t “way too much” for most genres. It’s right on the mark for many, and too few for a couple others. 

Here’s the rundown:

Sweeping, epic fantasy: 150K at a minimum. You can’t do it right in less. 
Sweeping, epic, historical fiction: 120 at a minimum. More is better.
Science fiction novels: 75-125K
Romance novels: 65-100K
Women’s fiction: 100K and up
Crime novels: 80-100K
Thrillers: 80-100K
Noir novels: 65K and up but only double digits here, not triple.
YA: 65-100K
MG: 50K
Picture books: fewer than 2000 words

While NaNoMo sets a goal of 50K, that’s for your FIRST DRAFT. Get that draft on paper and then go back and see where you need to develop the story, develop the character. If you can’t see where you need to expand, give it to a beta reader and ask where they have questions, or felt like they hadn’t gotten enough story. The bottom line is word count isn’t something you want to worry about till revisions. Use enough words, and no more, to tell the story fully and completely. You have to be WAY WAY outside the paramenters on word count before it’s an auto rejection. And even then, if your pages are well written and taut, I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt.  Worry less about how many words you’ve got than do you have the RIGHT words.

Janet the Reid isn’t an outlier. You’ll see numbers in this range from different literary folks–believe them.

Sure, shoot for a rough draft of at least 50k, even if the final draft will probably be 70k or 100k. Just don’t freak out if you only hit 30k.

And don’t bust out the champagne if you somehow write 3,000 words a day, every day, and hit 90k. The final number isn’t really the thing. You could crank out 110k of a hot mess and listen, nobody smart would say hurray, you won #NaNoWriMo–or you could put together just 15,000 words of a brilliant, Hollywood-style treatment that includes all the right storytelling ingredients and believe me, nobody smart would say you lost. 

MYTH NUMBER 4: If you already write for a living, hey, this will be fun and easy

Every year, a new crop of journalism-school graduates heads off to work at newspapers, magazines, blogs and television stations.

They love their job. And they love words–so why not write a novel?

Hey, I’ve been there. Journalism graduate. Former reporter. Writing to pay the bills since I was 17, and just like millions of other writers, I had zero doubts. We all took creative writing classes and wrote feature stories, right? We have DEGREES in this and are professional writers, damn it. Don’t tell us we can’t write something. Watch this.

Here’s the thing: fiction–short stories, plays, novels, screenplays–are a completely different animal than journalism. Writing a novel is also way, way different than what speechwriters, copywriters and other professionals do all day.

It’s like pro athletes. The fact you play quarterback for the Bears doesn’t mean you can pitch for the Cubs–or wake up tomorrow and be an NBA power forward, MMA fighter or ultra-marathoner.

Sure, the switch is easier for a world-class athlete than for an average schmoe off the street. That doesn’t mean the switch isn’t extremely tough, especially compared to folks who’ve dedicated their life to a sport you’re dabbling in.

Some switches are easier than others. Others are clearly harder.

Journalism to novels is tough–Reporters are drilled to write short pieces using the inverted pyramid, with the most important information first and additional details going down in importance until the end. This works to inform people quickly and helps editors cut stories to fit available space and time. It’s also the worst possible blueprint for anything of length. Fiction has the opposite structure: the most important information comes dead last, with a complex roller coaster structure instead of the dead-simple pyramid. So it’s like a power-lifter trying to switch to MMA fighting and facing a crash course in grappling, kickboxing, Muay Thai and jujitsu. The fact you can bench press a VW Jetta will not help your cause when some dude turns you into a pretzel and chokes you out. 

Screenwriting to novels is easier–This is a lot closer because they use the same storytelling structures. The format is completely different, though. A screenplay might run 120 pages with a lot of blank space. We’re talking 15,000 words vs. a novel of 70k to 100k. The tough part here is making the switch to fill that space without (a) meandering or (b) cramming in three movies or novels worth of plot. It’s like a world-class sprinter switching to marathons. Both involve running. That style difference, though, is massive. 

This isn’t to say, “Don’t try.” Not at all. Even though words pay your bills–and you have a diploma or three on your wall, along with all kinds of awards–be humble and search out good advice and coaching. Writing a book or novel is the most fun you can legally have as a writer, and you should maximize your chances of having a good time, especially as you embark on 30 days of insanity.

MYTH NUMBER 5: The best advice comes from the best authors

On the surface, this is common sense, right? Look to the best in the world for the best advice.


I’m not slamming the world’s best writers, people I adore and admire. 

This a function of craft. 

There’s a reason writing tips from folks like Stephen King seem like simple truisms. When you’re a world-class writer, rock star or NFL quarterback, you’ve internalized a lifetime of practice, coaching and performing. Nobody needs to teach you how to play chords on the guitar or throw an out route against two-deep coverage.

At the highest level, the tweaks that pros are mostly about what they need to focus on, and how they tune their mind and bodies to peak performance. Those tweaks tend to sound simple because they already spent years of painfully learning all the hard, technical bits and don’t need to relearn them.

I still remember a bestselling author (forget the name, and no, the googles didn’t help) asked by a new writer whether she outlined her books. Her response was telling: Oh, she didn’t do that anymore. But the person asking that question definitely should. 

She wasn’t being cheeky or sarcastic. The author meant it: Don’t wing plot and structure until you’re experienced enough to draw the blueprints in your head. And yeah, that may take five or 10 or 20 years.

The old apprentice-journeyman-master system is the best model here. Skilled trades do a great job with this. When you’re just starting out, you learn the basics from journeymen. The masters don’t give you the time of day, not out of spite, but because you’re not ready for what they teach yet. It’s a waste of your time and theirs. Only after years of being an apprentice do you become a journeyman, teaching newcomers the craft and learning from masters. 

Doctors have a similar system. They don’t hand you the diploma and say hey, you’re done, Doctor, go save lives and deliver babies and do some open heart surgery. There’s tons and tons and tons of work after medical school before you’re set loose.

My orthopedic surgeon told me this story: He’s in his mid-thirties and working poverty wages as a surgical resident, coming off a 24-hour shift in the hospital, and he walks out of the ER for a break and oh, that’s not a sunrise, that’s a car on fire in the parking lot. Not just any car, but his piece of crap car. That man didn’t get a late start. He went straight through: K-12, four years of college, med school, then years of surgical residencies and orthopedic surgery residencies. 

A lot of professions are set up this way, with doctors, dentists, lawyers, architects, engineers, all learning from each other and going to seminars and CLEs and conferences their entire career.

Writers don’t have formal systems like that. Maybe you get a BA in journalism or an MFA in creative writing, then off you go. But that degree isn’t required. There’s no test we have to pass, no bar association determining who can and can’t be a writer, no apprenticeships and required continuing education.

There might be a writing group nearby, or a conference you fly off to attend. It’s all optional.

I’m not saying writers need to form guilds with staff meetings and TPS reports. My allergy to meetings is severe.  

What I’m saying is this: If you’re doing #NaNoWriMo, or attempting your first novel in a month that doesn’t start with the letter N, look past stuff written by masters like Stephen King and search out books, seminars and lessons from journeymen. If you’ve never heard of them, that’s probably a good thing. Journeymen are who can teach you the foundations of the craft, the building blocks every writer needs to hone and practice for years.

Pick the right journeymen. 

My library contains Every Book on Writing Known to Man, from journalism to speechwriting to fiction, and listen, 99 percent of those books are only useful for kindling during the zombie apocalypse. Not because the people who wrote them stink. Their focus is just typically on (a) a special system that works for them, (b) micro issues like grammar, dialogue or description or (c) one long, thinly disguised advertisement for you to hire them to learn the REAL secrets.

Most of the books on writing feel like guides to drywall when what you really want to do is build a house. Yeah, drywall is important. If you screwed it up, the house would look funky. But if you’re an expert on hanging drywall and clueless about pouring the foundation of a home, framing it and getting the plumbing and electrical right, I don’t care how pretty the drywall looks. That house is gonna fall down, flood or catch fire.

This is why I tell folks to check out the following four books on those foundational, big-picture skills:

  1. SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder (or SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL by Jessica Brody)
  2. STORY by Robert McKee
  3. THE FIRST FIVE PAGES by Noah Lukeman

There are other good books out there. I can vouch for those four. Get ’em all four for what, $70-something? Or snag them for free at this magical place they call the library. DO IT NOW.

Read those and take notes. Make some cheat sheets. And if you are a pro writer from another field, hear me now and believe me later in the week: the structures and lessons in those four books will start showing up in your day job. You’ll be surprised, if not shocked, at how much better a writer you’ll become.

MYTH NUMBER 6: If I block out a ton more hours of writing time, I’ll write a ton more

Oh, it’s easy to see how this seems like common sense. Having zero time per day to write definitely means zero words. Let’s burn some vacation time, then, during #NaNoWriMo, and block out a few weekends, and get up at 4 a.m. instead of 5 a.m. to crank an extra hour.

Stockpiling hours means piling up the words, right?

Part of this myth, that more time equals more words, or better words, is just flat-out wrong. There’s only so much juice in the tank. It’s just like any other job: longer and longer hours produce fewer and fewer results. 

Inspiration works best when you’re fresh and happy, not tired and upset about not meeting an arbitrary quota of words for that day.

And my God, if we’re shooting for the bare minimum of a 70,000-word novel we gotta hit a quota of 2,333 words a day, which is nuts.

Even the rough draft goal of 50,000 words means cranking out 1,666 words per day for 30 days.

Nobody writes that much with dead-certain consistency, day after day, month after month. I’ve talked to full-time writers of all sorts: reporters, screenwriters, novelists, speechwriters, you name it. And here’s the deal: 500 words is a good daily minimum, 1,000 words is better and anything more than 2,000 words is a beautiful day.

You can’t pencil into your calendar that Monday will be 700, Tuesday is 2300 and Friday we’re doing 3,000. Creativity doesn’t work like that. The muse doesn’t respond to mandates from on high. She watches you plot out wordcounts and cackles the evil cackle of glee.

Literary giants like Hemingway recognized this fact. Hemingway counted actual, physical words coming out of these things they called typewriters and stopped when he hit 500 in a day. Done. He went off to spend the rest of the day watching bullfights and drinking whiskey. That’s because 500 a day, steadily, is actually a ton. That’s 182,500 words a year.

Two or three books. Plenty.

You can crank out 500 words in a half hour, easy. Ten minutes if you’re inspired and the coffee is any good.

The longer you go, though, the harder it gets to create new things on the page. That’s because this isn’t a factory where you punch in at 8 a.m., make widgets all day and punch out at 5 p.m.

Editing is different. I can line edit all day. That’s not creative work; it’s quality control, and yeah, you can kinda treat that like a widget factory.

Developmental editing is a lot tougher. Maybe four hours a day before you start to bleed a little too much red on the page and need to stop before you punch your way through a concrete wall.

The bottom line is this: Yes, write every day. Always. Even if it’s scribbling on a legal pad while flying from LA to NYC or bringing a little notebook to your kid’s soccer game.

Just don’t think that you’ll write the same number of words, day after day, or that blocking off a full eight hours on Sunday will means you can crank out 8,000 words to make up for lost time.

Now, I’ve heard folks say. “Well, famous authors have no other job, and my favorite novelist goes to their special mountain cabin with no internet, friends or family to bother them as they spend two months in solitude, chopping wood for the fireplace, eating dried venison and only reappearing with a long beard and a ream of paper upon which they’ve written the next Great American Novel.”

There are writers like that out there. Lee Child has done something like that, and I adore his books. Yet tons of other authors, including successful bestsellers of today and yesteryear, keep their day jobs. Scott Turow, Barry Eisler and Bob Dugoni are attorneys. Aurthur Conan Doyle was a surgeon who wrote in between seeing patients. Kurt Vonnegut worked all kinds of jobs, including advertising, teaching English and selling cars. I think half the reason for this is people need steady paychecks and health insurance–and the other half is because you don’t actually write that much more when you have all day to play with instead of 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. before the rest of the house wakes up and asks where the coffee is hiding.

Two hours is kinda all you need, if you’re steady with it. Give me a full two hours, with no interruptions, and I’ll empty my creative tank.

And I can tell you that when there’s no one else in the house, the Hound of the Baskervilles and I get restless after only three hours. We have to walk around town, drink of the coffee, talk to humans and bark at cute dogs. To recharge before coming back.

Chaining yourself to the desk for extremely long stretches just doesn’t work. Don’t schedule it, and don’t count on it saving your literary bacon.

MYTH NUMBER 7: The first draft is the longest, hardest part of writing a novel

Oh, it can take a long time. Fire up the googles and you can find all sorts of authors who spent five years, ten years or more writing a book.

Here’s the cold, honest truth: It can take three times as long to fix a bad first draft as it would to rewrite that thing from scratch. I kid you not.

And most first drafts are bad.

Doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a novel, a speech or a screenplay. First drafts typically stink and that’s typically fine. Because what you’re really shooting for is an interesting situation with interesting characters. All the rest can get fixed up or switched around.

Let’s peel back the curtain for a second. I just wrote the final chapter of a new novel this Sunday.

Good times, right? IS VERY EXCITING.

The first time I tried writing a novel, I was fresh out of journalism school and working at a newspaper while my wife went to law school. We had one beater car and ate a lot of Top Ramen, and on special nights, we’d splurge by spending $3 on the cheapest available frozen shrimp to turn that Top Ramen into a feast.

So writing a novel while she studied torts, hey, that’s cheap entertainment. 

My first draft of that first novel was, as you can imagine, a hot mess. It was a victory just to complete the marathon and learn a few lessons from it.

Later novels had a lot more promise, but it still a lot of hard work to finish that first draft and even harder work to edit it–because pretty words were never the problem. Storytelling and structure were the tough bits, and whenever I’ve seen a flawed first draft–a long newspaper story, a speech, one of my own novels or an author who had me do developmental editing–it has almost always, always been easier to start back with a blank sheet of paper and redraw the blueprints than try to get in there with a bulldozer and redo the foundation and framing while still keeping the thing from falling down on your head.

This first draft I just finished is right around 60,000 words and it’s not even Nov. 1, so I can declare victory. Hey, what could be better than winning #NaNoWriMo before it even started?


It has a four act structure, with 9 chapters in each act, and for pacing the final total should be around 80k. Let’s say 20k per act, roughly, for pacing. Here we are as of Sunday, Oct. 21:

  • Act 1 already sits pretty around 20k.
  • Act 2 weighs in at 12k.
  • Act 3 is light at 9k.
  • Act 4 hops on the scale at a nifty 20k.

I didn’t blow past the middle acts–all 36 chapters are written. The middle two acts simply need to get filled out, with a lot of chapters at about 1k instead of 2k or 3k. But it’s all there. Those chapters will easily beef up to full weight with more description and dialogue.

How long did it take? The first act took a bit, with most of the real work being figuring out the blueprints. The last three acts were quick–about two months and change.

Hear me now and believe me later in #NaNoWriMo: I write crazy fast, even when I’ve only got an hour of free time a day, and will be thrilled to death November only brings me another 20k, adding to the 60k already in the can. Thrilled. Because this is the first draft I can remember where we’re not doing any major renovations, no foundation work, no heavy equipment rentals at all. Don’t need to switch the POV from first to third, combine three characters into one or eliminate the C plot in favor of a sturdier B plot.

That miracle will not happen very often. I won’t count on it happening again. 

Roughly, oh, 99 percent of the time, the first draft will need big structural fixes you didn’t see coming. Heavy lifting. Even if you get lucky, editing is still the longest, toughest and most important part or writing anything of length, especially a novel. 

Which leads to the last myth.

MYTH NUMBER 8: My friends, coworkers and family are the best editors available

Available because they’re nearby and the most likely to say yes without asking to get paid for their efforts.

The best because they like you, if not love you, and have the purest possible motivation to do a good job on something you clearly treasure and sweated hard to create.

This myth is deadly to you as a writer and to your relationships.

Deadly because some of them will say no, which will be hurtful, and some will say yes, which only delays the hurt. Let’s go through the possibilities if they say yes:

  1. Most people will quit before they slog through the entire first draft, because let’s be honest, readers don’t finish every book they got from bookstores after they paid good money for a novel written, edited and published by professionals, and those finished, polished books are not first drafts.
  2. Some who quit long before the last page will lie to make you happy.
  3. When asked for actual edits, the ones who quit just say it’s great, because they like or love you.
  4. A few will take their duties as an editor seriously and bust out an entire packet of red pens to bleed on all 350 pages of your talking cat cozy or dystopian YA romantic suspense thriller. They may tell you, in great detail, how unlikeable your hero is and how many dangling modifiers you have on every page. Or they’ll want to meet every morning to discuss their ideas for reworking the plot to include vampires.  

There’s just no real chance this turns out well. 

Even if you already write for a living, don’t bug a friend or colleague who also writes for a living to do this. Unless they edit fiction for a living, it’s not their specialty, and this is a special kind of editing.

And it’s asking too much. Maybe–maybe–you ask your friend who’s a mechanic to look at your Toyota while he’s over at your house for steak and whiskey, and you hand him a bottle of Riesling for telling you the back tire is going flat because there’s a nail in there. But you don’t him to rebore your engine as a favor during his free time. You wouldn’t ask a plumber buddy to replace your septic tank or tell your cousin, a CPA, that it’d be great if she did your taxes for free.

Editing a novel is a gigantic job that takes a ton of time. Even doing a beta read is a stonking big commitment of time and energy.  

If money is tough, trade with folks who aren’t your coworkers, family or friends.

Swap beta reads with somebody who did #NaNoWriMo just like you.

Look for a journeyman author who might trade copy editing their draft if they do some developmental notes–just a few thoughts on plot and character, not the detailed, brutal job of developmental editing.

Trade writing favors with other writers. 

And if you’re at all serious about this, instead of doing it as a lark, spend a little money. Fire up the googles to find professional fiction editors who’ll take their pen to the first chapter, or first 50 pages. There are editors who do this for an affordable, introductory fee.

You will be shocked by how much you learn about the art of writing fiction, and writing in general, after even a little work somebody who edits fiction for a living. They are Mystical Glowing Beings.

A joy instead of a grind

If you’re doing #NaNoWriMo for the first time or the seventh, I hope it’s fun and exciting, that you wake up every morning to put on a pot of coffee and hop right into it. 

Don’t let it be a grind. Don’t become a slave to deadlines and word counts.

Writing should be a joy.

Throw all kinds of crazy ideas at the wall. Make your situations and characters do things normal people would never imagine. 

Write the first draft of a book you’d want to read, something that you haven’t quite found on the shelves of a bookstore, not even Powell’s City of Books in Portland, where I always get lost.

If you do it with joy and a sense of wonder, the exact number of words you’ve collected on Nov. 30 won’t mean squat. 

Because you’ll have won the only thing that matters.

Gertrude Stein is a literary train wreck

I know the name Gertrude Stein, and understand that she is a Giant of Literature, so if you did your master’s thesis on Stein, or otherwise like her work, good on you. HOWEVER: For the first time, I truly read some actual words Stein wrote and published. And not something she dashed off on a napkin to pay the restaurant bill, but one of her most famous poems. And listen, she’s a literary train wreck.

Stein isn’t somebody I’d tell a student or new writer to emulate. If I actually cared about the new writer’s sanity and career, I would tell them this: read her words, then do the opposite.

Sacred Emily starts like this:

Compose compose beds.
Wives of great men rest tranquil.
Come go stay philip philip.
Egg be takers.
Parts of place nuts.
Suppose twenty for cent.
It is rose in hen.
Come one day.
A firm terrible a firm terrible hindering, a firm hindering have a ray nor pin nor.
Egg in places.
Egg in few insists.

Here’s another chunk:

All the time.
A wading chest.
Do you mind.
Lizzie do you mind.
Next to barber.
Next to barber bury.
Next to barber bury china.
Next to barber bury china glass.
Next to barber china and glass.
Next to barber and china.
Next to barber and hurry.

This goes on and on. It doesn’t get any better.

It just gets weirder. Here’s another section:

Cunning piler.
Next to a chance.
Apples went.
It was a chance to preach Saturday.
Please come to Susan.
Purpose purpose black.
Extra plain silver.
Furious slippers.
Have a reason.
Have a reason candy.
Points of places.
Neat Nezars.
Which is a cream, can cream.
Ink of paper slightly mine breathes a shoulder able shine.
Near glass.
Put a stove put a stove hoarser.

And here’s my favorite part.

When a churn say suddenly when a churn say suddenly.
Poor pour percent.
Little branches.
Near sights.
Please sorts.


Listen, I get that Stein was being avant-garde, and purposefully deconstructing the stodgy old nature of poetry. I’m not ideologically opposed to literary and artistic craziness, if done well.

This poem isn’t done well.

If you told me a high school freshman turned this in and got an F from their English Comp teacher, I’d say yeah, that’s about right. Because it’s random, like they threw a bunch of words into some kind of spreadsheet and programmed javascript or whatever to compose sentences. Back in the old days, maybe they’d open random pages of the dictionary, pick a word, then riff off that word while stealing from Grandpa’s favorite bottle of gin and replacing whatever got drank with water so he never caught on.

When you’re already famous and you commit this sin against humankind, simply because you can, it’s seven separate kinds of self-indulgent.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: The fact that nobody can understand you doesn’t make you a genius.

Sure, you can become famous by going to extremes, then hopping on waterskis to jump the shark guarding the Outer Fringe of Extremes before you reach the Neutron Star of Complete Insanity.

The first man to paint a canvas black made some news. The second, third, fifth and 30th artist to paint a canvas black–or white, or whatever monochrome shebang you like–doesn’t shock us. And yes, the artist Banksy just had a painting sold that shredded itself as the sale concluded. New and shocking. What’s not shocking is now others will copy him, or come up with twists on the same idea, though none of those attempts will work half as well, or at all, because the surprise factor is gone baby gone.

I read that some of Stein’s later work is more accessible, which is literary jargon for “you might like this better, since it makes A LOT more sense.” That’s cool. I get that she was experimental. Here’s the thing, though: you do all kinds of experiments knowing 99 will fail and hoping for one to just rock. This doesn’t rock. Sure, it’s kinda interesting as a train wreck, in that you can see the pieces strewn about and think about why it’s a mess, and speculate on what she’s trying to say amidst all the wreckage. Yet when you really drill down on it, Stein’s poem is a lot like Bansky’s latest stunt: its only power is shock value, and only because Stein was rich and had all kinds of famous literary friends like Hemingway.

If a student or unknown writer had done this, we would never had known.

The Mighty MacGuffin

If you’re a writer, you’ll need to use a MacGuffin now and then–and a MacGuffin generator is particularly important now, with upwards of a million writers cranking away every year on NaNoWriMo.

This is not a plot device. We’re talking about an item–and it doesn’t even have to really exist, or be seen–the hero and villain are fighting to obtain. Alfred Hitchcock was famous for using MacGuffins in his films. If the hero is on a quest, he needs to be questing for something. Really, it doesn’t matter what. It’s the journey that matters. Hitchcock has a nice way of getting into the topic.

You can see how movies and novels often revolve around a MacGuffin.

Indiana Jones always needs an item to find and fight over: an ark or a cup and so forth.

Spy movies need a microfilm containing the real names and identities of every undercover agent employed by the CIA, GRU or MI-6, with the good guys and bad guys both willing to do whatever it takes to find and destroy that MacGuffin, which the hero happens to pick up by accident in the luggage carousel at O’Hare.

Sci-fi novels need some kind of techno-babble MacGuffin, like a repulsive helix inverter, which can tweak your DNA or whatever and create an army of alien super soldiers.

Fantasy movies need a magical ring that turns you invisible but does nothing about your big hairy feet or the fact you’re the size of a smurf, or maybe an Enchanted Vorpal Sword of Infinite Sharpness that can lop off the head of the invincible Dragon of Instant Fiery Death that killed your father, uncle, grandfather, second cousin, first wife, baby sister and favorite horse.

Generator Number 1

Here’s a spiffy MacGuffin generator by Jordan McCollum.

Use it. Then visit her blog and show her some love. That’s how this thing works. Pay it forward.

Generator Number 2

Technically, this isn’t a generator. You don’t hit refresh on the browser to come up with another MacGuffin.

It’s more accurate to call this the Mother Lode of MacGuffins, with the entire history of the idea–plus with a massive list of the different flavors of MacGuffins with links that dive into each one. This site is a thing of beauty. 

What is your favorite MacGuffin of all time? And which film, TV show or novel wins the prize for Silliest MacGuffin of All Time? (Note: It’s cheating to go with Star Trek, where every other movie or episode involves dilithium crystal nonsense and the warp core.)

Writers, we are doing it BACKWARDS

Oh, it kills me to say this: we are doing it backwards.

Maybe you’re the exception to the rule. Perhaps you’re that rare writer who figured this out 10 years ago.

But I doubt it. Most of the writers that I know — novelists or journalists, speechwriters or screenwriters — go about it roughly the same way:

Step 1) Research, whether it’s six months of intense study or six minutes of looking at Wikipedia and playing Angry Birds “to let it all percolate.”

Step 2) Boil down the research into useful nuggets of meaty goodness.

Step 3) Use their secret recipe of writing methods to cook up their piece (outlining first or winging it, 3 x 5 index cards or spiral notebook, Word 2016 or Scrivener, one draft or six drafts, coffee or bourbon).

Step 4) Hand the draft to our editor, writing partner, spouse, co-worker or cousin Joey to get all coffee stained and edited. 

Step 5) Spend five or fifty minutes thinking about how to present and sell the sucker for suitcases stuffed with twenties.

Those first four steps, they’re essential, right?

Here’s the thing: We writers are incredibly talented at screwing up Step 5.

Backward is bad

Step 5 is the monster lurking under our typewriters. (Yes, I know most of you use computers. Maybe I have a magic typewriter connected to the Series of Tubes.)

It’s the troll under the bridge, snarfing our lunch and saying, “Whatcha gonna do about it, tough guy?”

Now, boiling down a novel clocking in at 100,000 pages is rough. I have author friends who’d rather leap out of a perfectly good airplane, trusting in the bouncy power of their Nike Air Jordans, than write a three-page synopsis. Tagline? Logline? Forgetaboutit.

Doing Step 5 for anything, long or short, is tough.

Tough for screenwriters, who need to boil it down to an elevator pitch.

Tough for editors in newsrooms, who have to write headlines that fit into tiny nooks and corners of the newspaper layout.

Yet nothing else matters if we botch Step 5. Because nobody will see the fruits of our labors, the hard work that went into Steps 1 through 4, if we can’t condense the whole idea into a killer pitch and hook.

Reversing course

Instead of performing the labors of Hercules before even attempting the torture of Step 5, reverse course.

Start there.

Before you invest hours, days,  weeks or months into research. Before you sweat bullets to put words on page after page.

Begin with the shortest and most important words.

The  logline (or pitch, but in a sentence, not a paragraph) — “An alien monster stalks the trapped crew of a spaceship.”

The tagline – “In space, nobody can hear you scream.”

The headline – “Alien devours spaceship crew; heading for Earth?”

Test that out, not with friends and family, who are constrained by the need to live with you, and be liked by you.

Try that single sentence on people in line at Safeway or Starbucks, neighbors you barely know, visitors from out of town, tourists, people who won’t wound you forever if they make a face and tell you the idea is stupid.

And to get inspiration, use the series of tubes to check out “movie loglines” and “movie taglines” and “great headlines.” Or head to The Onion and read their headlines, which are seven separate flavors of awesomesauce.

Don’t do a thing until you have a logline, tagline and headline that sing.

Not one thing. Don’t spend six months writing a first draft or six minutes plotting the first chapter.

Go do it. Throw ideas around on a piece of paper or whatever — and not about whatever you’re working on. Dream up a few crazy ideas and write down loglines, taglines and headlines that are shorter than short. Then kill every word you can to make them shorter.

You’re going to notice a few things.

First, the hero doesn’t matter.

Second, the villain matters a whole bunch. If you remove the villain and threat, it kills the logline, tagline and headline. Because stories — even newspaper stories — are about conflict. No villain, no conflict. But if you take out the hero, it usually makes the logline a lot shorter and a lot better.

Here’s another example I’ve used before and will use again, because it is short and sweet and the logline for about six movies that have already been made: “Asteroid will destroy Earth.”

See? We don’t need Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck (Matt Damon‘s buddy, the one who dates & marries Jennifers) in there at all. Heroes just clutter things up.

Third, shorter is better. If you can get it down to three or four words, you are golden.

A new way to write

Let’s get practical. Here’s a new way to write anything.

New Step 1) Nail the logline, tagline and headline.

One sentence apiece, as few words as possible, and yes, it is cheating to have sentences that go on and on forever, sentences with six different commas and possibly semi-colons, which are a sin against the English language in the first place and should be taken out and shot.

New Step 2) Make it work as a paragraph.

Expand it a little, but not too much. Half a page, maximum.

New Step 3) Nail it as an outline on ONE PAGE, treating each side fairly.

Whether you’re writing an oped or an opera, a novel or a speech, figure out the biggest possible difference between the beginning and the end — and do it from both POV’s. The villain and the hero.

So: if it’s a romance where the heroine ends up as a great cook who’s happy and in a great relationship, what’s the greatest possible distance she can travel? On page 1, make her  (a) the worst cook in the world, (b) unhappy and (c) alone. How can you take that up a notch? Make her a nun who loses her sense of smell (and therefore taste) in a car accident. I’m half kidding, but not really. You get the idea. 

If the ending is crazy happy, the beginning better be insanely sad.

If the ending is full of sad, the beginning should be Happyville.

If the hero is a tough guy in the end, the best story shows him start out weak. Only after he suffers and sacrifices does he prevail (THE KARATE KID), and not necessarily by wining (ROCKY).

And you’ve got to make it a fair fight. Nobody thinks they’re a villain. The other side — whether it’s an speech about taxes or THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK — has a point. If you don’t give it credence, your writing will be one-sided and weak. Cartoonish.

I used ALIEN before. What’s the story for the alien creatures? Maybe they’re a dying race. Maybe that crashed ship contains the last of their kind. The stakes just got a lot higher for the alien, right? You are our only hope, little facehugger. Get in that ship and lay some eggs.

Put yourself in the shoes of Darth Vader and the Emperor, who don’t see themselves as enslaving the galaxy. They’re helping people by establishing law and order. If nobody is in charge, it’s chaos and confusion. A strong empire means safety, security and economic growth. The rebels are violent terrorists who don’t appreciate what they have and will kill whoever it takes to gain power.

Now figure out your turning points. Put in your setups and payoffs. Make it work as an outline before you move on.

New Step 4) Research only what you need.

New Step 5) Write and have a professional editor bleed red ink on the pages until the draft is A SHINY DIAMOND MADE OF WORDS. 

You’ll notice that what used to be an afterthought — Step 5 in the original way of writing — becomes the first three steps.

I did that on purpose.

Say you write a beautiful oped, 700 magnificent words about why the death penalty should be abolished or whatever. Now you’ve got to pick up the phone and pitch an editor at The Willapa Valley Shopper or The New York Times.

The first five seconds (aside from the “hello!” nonsense) will determine if they even look at the piece. Maybe six or seven words, if you talk fast. Part of that will be confidence, tone of voice and other things you can’t learn via a blog post.

Your pitch, though, will matter. A lot. A great speaker with a muddled pitch will lose out to a mumbler with a tremendous idea they can convey in four words. That’s what a logline, headline and tagline are really about, three different ways of explaining something in the fewest possible words.

Hollywood calls this five-second kind of thing “the elevator pitch.” There are websites that devote many, many words to it. Use the powers of the google and check them out. They are useful.

Bottom line: those four words matter more than all 700 words of the oped, all 3,000 of the keynote speech, all 15,000 of the screenplay or all 100,000 of your epic novel about elves with lightsabers riding dinosaurs.

Make those four words count.

The secret truth about writing

When was the last time you went to a movie and wanted to stay behind and watch it again?

What was the last political stump speech that made you laugh and cry and want to go knock on the doors of your neighbors to make sure they voted?

When was the last time you read a newspaper story that built up to an amazing climax instead of petering off into boring little details?

More people are writing more things than ever before. Movies and TV shows, blogs and newspapers, hardcover novels and digital e-books. Yet most of it is forgettable. Trite. Boring.

It used to be, blockbuster movies were the ones that had amazing special effects. STAR WARS showed us things we’d never seen before, like lightsabers. Who doesn’t want a lightsaber? JURASSIC PARK gave us dinosaurs that weren’t claymation or puppets. Today, though, any old TV show can afford to have great special effects.

And with the written word — novels, speeches, non-fiction and poetry — every author has the same unlimited special effects budget. You can do whatever you want for absolutely nothing.

So what’s the problem?

College does you wrong

You won’t find the answers in college. Everybody teaches a tiny piece of writing, happy in their little silo, isolated from the rest of the world.

  • Journalism school teaches you writing to INFORM.
  • Rhetoric and speech classes teach you writing to PERSUADE, though hardly anyone studies rhetoric these days. They should.
  • Creative writing classes are supposed to teach you writing to ENTERTAIN, but how many college professors wrote entertaining bestsellers instead of obscure literary novels that went nowhere?

I have a degree in journalism from a great j-school, competed in speech and debate, took creative writing classes and won silly awards from not-so-silly organizations for editing, reporting, speaking and fiction.

None of that really taught me how to write or speak. You get thrown into the deep end of the pool, and you either sink or doggie-paddle. Doggie paddle isn’t good enough.

Your whole life up through college, people are required to read what you write. Your kindergarten teacher gave you a star, right? Your college professor had to read your term paper.

Out in the real world, nobody has to read our stuff. You have to persuade people to read your stuff. And hardly anyone gets an education in rhetoric and persuasion. So there’s a huge switch right there.

Oh, if you have a degree in journalism or creative writing, sure, you can write a lot better than the man on the street. Technically, your writing will be sound. These programs are good.

So tell me: why are so many smart, well-educated people with degrees in creative writing, English Literature or journalism driving 15-year-old Hondas or selling insurance?

Correct is not spectacular

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: Pretty words and grammatically correct sentences don’t mean a thing.

Sure, you’d look like an idiot if you couldn’t string a sentence together. It’s just that correct grammar and well-built sentences are expected. It’s standard.

Think about literary novels. I’m not talking about really good books that aren’t easy to classify as thrillers or mysteries or romance. I’m talking about Serious Literature. If pretty sentences were the trick, then the people who write Serious Literature would be billionaires, not folks like J.K. Rowling, who is now RICHER THAN GOD.

Now, there’s some great stuff out there. I read literature and watch serious, literary movies. Yet some authors of Serious Literature, and makers of Serious Movies, take it as a badge of honor if their book or movie is hard on their audience (“the text is challenging”). It’s seen as wrong to have a happy, “Hollywood” ending, so the endings tend to be intensely dour.

Yes, you can do this right. But it’s easy to make it a tough experience for the reader or moviegoer. The topic also tends to be tough, since a lot of literary novels and movies feature angsty rich people having affairs and spending crazy amounts of money and still being unhappy about it all. Sometimes, to switch things up, literary novels feature miserable stories about grinding poverty or the emptiness of suburban, middle-class life.

Are the sentences pretty? Yeah. They’re gorgeous. Serious Literature can be poetry, and Serious Movies have amazing cinematography and acting, like THE ENGLISH PATIENT. Is it genius? Maybe. It looked great, and the acting was good. Do I want to see it again? No. You couldn’t pay me to sit through it.

The secret truth about writing is THIS ISN’T ABOUT PRETTY WORDS.

The trick is persuading people to read your stuff, watch the movie or listen to the speech when they have 5.9 million other things they could be reading, watching or doing.

Now, I love newspapers, novels, speeches and movies. But I’m not everybody, and I know a lot of folks who think like this instead: Why listen to some politician speak when you can watch the Packers beat the Bears? Why buy a novel when you can pretend to be a space marine and shoot aliens on the Playstation? Why read a newspaper story about a natural gas refinery blowing up in Texas when you can go to a Michael Bay movie and watch all sorts of stuff blow up in super slow motion while Megan Fox tries to emote in short-shorts and a tank top?

So if it’s not about pretty words, what’s the evil secret to writing?

The inverted pyramid MUST DIE

Big city newspapers love to do these monstrous investigative stories that start on Page One and jump inside for two or three more entire pages.

I’m an ex-reporter who still loves newspapers, and I can’t drag myself through these never-ending stories. Is the writing bad? No. Reporters spend serious time polishing the words on these pieces.

It’s the flawed structure of newspaper writing.

The inverted pyramid is great for short pieces and headlines, for telling people the most important thing first and the least important thing last. However: the inverted pyramid should be taken out and shot, because it’s a horrible blueprint for anything of length.

The inverted pyramid is like (a) having an amazing honeymoon on your first date, (b) kissing on your second date and (c) holding hands on your third date.

It gives you payoffs without setups, events out of order and people popping in and out of the story randomly. It doesn’t take the reader on a journey. Instead, it teleports the reader directly to the best part, then beams the reader all over the damn planet until you don’t care anymore. It’s not showing a gun in Act 1 that goes off in Act 3 — it’s just a gun going off in Act 1. You don’t know why.

I know the inverted pyramid inside and out. I’ve studied it, used it and abused it. It sucks like Electrolux and needs to be retired. It’s part of the reason why people are reading The Economist and blogs — because they’re going back to the roots of journalism, which was “somebody’s journal.”

That journal, those journalists, started out as first-person accounts. The reporter wrote exactly what they saw, felt, smelled, touched.

Early novels were disguised as journals.

First person again. Visceral, emotional and personal.

The dog was yellow

When I worked as a reporter, I’d write 10 to 15 stories a week. Let’s say 500 stories a year. And yeah, I won awards, but if I’m publishing 500 freaking stories a year, 200 of them should be pretty good, 12 should be amazing and six should rock the house.

A while back, I wrote one freelance newspaper story the entire year, about a man losing his dog on top of a mountain, because that man was my friend. The dog, too. My friend — and a bunch of old mountaineers nicknamed the Silver Panther Rescue Squad — went back to that mountain and rescued his dog from a cliff, just off the summit.

That solo story won an award. I batted 1.000 that year, and not because I’d grown so much as a writer since my cub reporter days.

Oh, my sentences were a little prettier. Just not THAT much prettier.

It was because I took the inverted pyramid out back behind the barn and shot it between the eyes.

If I’d had written the story using what they’d taught me in journalism school, the headline would give away the ending — “Man rescues dog on top of mountain” and the lede (first sentence) would be something like this: “After four days of being stuck on a cliff without food or water, one lucky dog is happy to be back home with his owner.”

The story would only get less interesting from there. The last line of the story would be what editors could chop if they were short on space. That last line would be something like, “The dog was yellow.”

To hell with that. I wrote it like a story, because giving the ending away in the headline and first graf is CHEATING THE READER.

College types call this “narrative non-fiction,” which is an overly fancy way of saying storytelling.

Good storytelling is the hardest thing any writer does.

It’s also the most powerful, and the most fun you can legally have as a writer of any sort.

Structure and storytelling, not grammar and comma splices

I don’t care if you’re (1) a speechwriter for a U.S. senator, (2) a romance novelist writing a novel about Men in Kilts and the Women Who Love Them or (3) a screenwriter sipping margaritas by a pool in Hollywood while you pen a movie about a zombie attack during a high school musical.

Storytelling and structure is the hard part.

The bodywork is not the most important part of the car. The engine under the hood is what makes the car go fast.

What they teach us — in college, in most books in writing and at writing conferences — is mostly bodywork.

I don’t care how pretty the car looks. If the engine is a mess — or is completely missing — your readers aren’t going for a ride. At all.

Storytelling and structure is why every Pixar movie has been a blockbuster. The other computer-animated movies look just as pretty. The folks at Pixar simply are ten times better at telling stories.

It’s why novelists who frankly are pedestrian, line by line, sell millions of books while brilliant literary novelists who write gorgeous sentences, every phrase a poem, starve in obscurity.

Clive Cussler may have an ugly bare frame, a glorified go-cart painted seven different shades of bondo. Next to the shining Lexus of a literary novel, his car looks horrible. However, Cussler has a honking V-8, while the Literary Lexus has a lawnmower engine put in backwards.

Cussler, John Grisham and Stephen King understand the structure of stories. They draw the blueprints. They spend most of their energy on the storytelling engine and a lot less time polishing the chrome.

And right there, with those three authors, you see three entirely different levels of writing ability:

  • Cussler is meh.
  • Grisham is workmanlike.
  • King is great. I’d read his Safeway shopping list, because he could make it epic.

Yet all three made it big despite the vast differences in writing skill, because all three mastered an entirely different skill: THEY KNOW HOW TO TELL A DAMN STORY.

Do I hate Cussler’s writing style? Yeah, it grates on me. Do I want to know what happens next? Yes.

Does Stephen the King sometimes ramble on too long and give you a 1,000-page novel when 400 would do? Yes. But we forgive him, because he is a God of Writing and Storytelling, and also because he looks kinda scary, like he might kill you if you pissed him off.

Bad blueprints make people forget beautiful writing.

Good blueprints make people forget bad writing.

It’s not the intensity that matters — it’s the distance you travel

Think of any B-movie, and they all have the same flaw. The structure is bad. The storytelling is horrible.

You might say, hey, it’s a low-budget flick. That’s what you get. No. Indie movies with no budget can be great.

B-movies are bad because they’re built wrong. They’re full of repetition without a purpose.

Right now, you and I can write a better story than the script of TRANSFORMERS 2, which had an army of screenwriters who got paid — I kid you not — something like $4 million for a script about explosions and computer-generated robots born from a cartoon meant to sell toys to seven-year-old boys in the 1980s.

Here’s a short version of the script for TRANSFORMERS 2.

ACT 1:
Megan Fox in shorts and a tank top, washing a car or whatever
Humans running, robots fighting

ACT 2:
Megan Fox has a rip in her short-shorts
Humans running, robots fighting

ACT 3:
Megan Fox has some dirt on her cheek
Humans running, robots fighting
EXPLOSIONS! Bad robots die, but they’ll be back for the sequel.

This also works, in a pinch, as the script for TRANSFORMERS and TRANSFORMERS 3.

Is it intense? Sure. Lots of running, lots of fighting, lots of explosions.

Yet it’s boring in the same way most martial arts films get boring, and I love those movies. Here’s the problem with them: Oh, look, it’s another fight. Man, it’s been almost three minutes since the last battle. Why is the hero fighting the blue ninjas? Three minutes ago, he was getting chased by a gang of fat shirtless dudes waving meat cleavers.

After an hour of this, you start praying for a training montage with the old wrinkled mentor who farts a lot and picks his nose and teaches the hero some secret fighting technique before the Big Bad Guy snaps the old man’s spine and kidnaps the old man’s daughter, who happens to be hot, and now the hero will go fight 4,082 different henchmen until he gets to the Big Bad Guy and battles him on a rooftop with rain and lightning going crazy. Yeah. You know I’m right.

B-movies have the same intensity throughout the movie. They crank it up to 11 and stay there.

If every scene in a movie — or every paragraph in a speech — has the intensity cranked up to 11, then you’re shouting at the audience. It becomes noise, and it makes for a flat ride. There’s no momentum, no velocity, no meaning.

Don’t shout at your audience

Most bad speeches have the same B-movie problem. People shout their way through them, confusing volume with passion.

The structure for 99 percent of speeches is also wrong. Listen to any random stump speech from that and there’s nothing holding it together. There’s no story being told, no setups and payoffs, no real structure. This is why the rare candidate who says something different gets hailed as a political rock star.

Ronald Reagan wasn’t a great speaker in a technical sense. He had a lot of verbal tics. What he was great at was telling a story from his days as an actor. He knew that audiences didn’t want to hear just about policies and programs. He made sure to talk about people, too.

Barack Obama was quite different. He also isn’t technically perfect; there are flaws in his delivery that you don’t notice because he and his speechwriters really care about the bones of a speech, about making sure the pieces fit together. They work on the engine first, THEN make it look pretty. Obama’s best speeches are structurally amazing. You can take them apart and see how the pieces intertwine. Or turn an Obama speech into an epic music video.

Velocity and power

No matter what you’re writing, what matters is the journey you take the audience on, the distance traveled. That’s what gives you velocity and power.

This is why tragedies have worked for 2,000 years.

You start UP, say with a wealthy, powerful man. You end DOWN after he falls from grace through hubris. There’s power and velocity there, because it’s a big fall from King of the World way on down to Hobo Begging for Change.

The opposite — Rags to Riches — works as a structure because it’s a big jump.

The bigger the trip, the better the story.

Little jumps don’t work.

This is why most literary novels about grinding poverty go nowhere, because a Rags to Riches story would be too happy-happy Hollywood, right? That sort of text is not challenging! So instead, things go from really bad to even more miserable.

Except that’s a bad structure, because it’s a small hop. It’s not a fall from the top to the bottom. It’s going from the gutter to a different, less desirable gutter, where the food scraps are inferior and the cardboard boxes aren’t as roomy.

Non-jumps don’t work, either.

If you’re a French existentialist director, the last frame of the movie is the hero being hit by a bus, not because he deserves it, but because life is random. There’s a reason why only college students trying to be hip take their dates to French existentialist movies. That reason is this: the movies stink. Give me something that will make me laugh, make me cry, scare me silly. Don’t give me “Life is random and pointless, so let’s have random and pointless things happen to characters for two hours.”

Tales of redemption are powerful because you’ve got the full a roller coaster: UP, DOWN and UP again.

Here’s an easy example: all six STAR WARS movies are really about Darth Vader’s redemption. Luke is only in the last three movies. Vader is in all six. He was good, then he turned bad, and in the end, he sacrificed his life to save his son and kill the real bad guy, the Emperor with Seriously Angry Wrinkles.

Take the audience somewhere

For any kind of writing, this is a law: Take your audience on a journey that actually goes somewhere.

If you’re going to have a down ending, you need an up beginning.

Together to alone.

Democracy to dictatorship.

Life to death.

If the ending is up, the beginning better be down.

Alone to together.

Dictatorship to revolution and democracy.

Hopelessness to hope.

Here’s a non-story example. I bet you’ve seen a lot of TV ads about drunk driving. A tough issue. The usual way people talk about drunk driving — or any problem — is wrong. You’re trying to persuade them to DO something. To take action. The typical way is to beat the audience over the head. “This is a problem. It’s bad. Really, really bad. I’m serious: the problem is bad. Just look at these numbers. Don’t let it happen to you.”

Not persuasive. Not a good structure. It’s all down, isn’t it? Just as flat as a Michael Bay explosion-fest or a literary novel swimming in misery and angst. Sure, the ending should be down. It’s not a happy topic. Then the beginning better be up. And like Reagan, you should talk about real people instead of numbers. So let’s start talking about a real person:

At 7:15 a.m. last Thursday, eight-year-old Ashlyn hugged her daddy goodbye and got into the Subaru with her mom, Jane, to drive to school. Across town at 7 in the morning, Billy Wayne was getting out of the county jail. At ten in the morning, Ashlyn practiced singing the national anthem, which her third-grade class will sing at halftime during the high school homecoming game. Half a mile away, Billy Wayne stole a twenty from his baby mamma’s purse and drove down to the Qwik-E Mart to buy two six packs of Corona Light. At a quarter past 3, Jane picked up Ashlyn from school and they met Billy Wayne at the intersection of Broadway and Sixth Street, when he blew threw a red light at fifty-six miles an hour and his Chevy pickup turned that Subaru into a pile of smoking metal. It was the fourth time Billy Wayne got arrested for driving drunk. People like Billy Wayne get second chance after second chance. Little Ashlyn and her mom won’t get a second chance. But we can change the law. We can lock up chronic drunk drivers.

That’s a far more moving than statistics. Even something tiny like this — it’s less than 200 words — needs structure, because that’s what gives it emotional heft and persuades people. Statistics can come in later.

Those words I just wrote are rough and raw. Not pretty at all. The thing is, they don’t need to be pretty. There’s an engine in there.

Is that plot? Sort of. Except if I’d looked up what specific plot fit this situation and tried to cram in inciting incidents and turning points and all that nonsense in there it would take hours to write instead of two minutes and make my head explode.

All I needed to know was the ending was down (death) and I wanted a big contrast (life) without giving it all away in the first sentence. So there’s tension in that single paragraph.

Emotion matters most

Cussler, Grisham and King understand that fun is OK, that people like a good story that makes them laugh and cry, to feel thrilled or scared out of their minds.

People want to FEEL something.

Misery is actually fine, if you start with misery and take people on a journey that ends in joy. Or if you do the reverse. What you can’t do is pile misery on top of misery for 100,000 words or two hours in a dark room where the popcorn costs $15 — or even two minutes at a podium.

And you can’t stack joy on top of joy.

Also, you want to run far, far away from the Invincible Hero problem, which explains why Batman (no powers) is beloved while people sorta kinda hate Superman (invincible) because it’s never a fair fight. No villain has a shot and you know Superman will win without paying a price.

The only books on writing worth anything, I learned from my genius screenwriter sister, were about screenwriting, because it’s all about storytelling and structure. There’s no way to hide bad structure with pretty words, not in a screenplay. It’s pared down to bare bones anyway. Setups and payoffs. Public stakes and private stakes. Emotion. Turning points. Revelations. Raising the stakes. Building to a climax.

Asking questions without answering them. Will they get together? Who’s the killer? Can the planet be saved from the aliens / comet / zombies?

Let’s fix THE MATRIX, right now

Movies are the easiest to talk about because most people have seen them.

THE MATRIX was amazing. Both sequels were terrible. Why? Same writers and directors, same cast, same crew. Giant budget.

The sequels sucked like Electrolux because of structural problems. Story problems.

The first movie had a down beginning and up ending.

The last two movies were flat and boring, despite all the action and fights.

I didn’t care about the last scene of the last MATRIX movie because I wasn’t watching it with some fanboy who could explain to me why the Oracle made a deal with the Architect or whoever, with the deal being the robots take stupid pills and declare a truce after Neo dies killing Agent Smith, when any five-year-old would know that if they continued to fight for three seconds, they’d wipe out the rebel humans once and for all.

Maybe I’m too stupid to fully enjoy the ambiguity and philosophical BS involved. Or maybe the last movie sucked, and the fact that the first movie rocked, making the train wreck the second and third movies all the more painful.

Let’s fix it. Right here, right now.

Who’s the real villain in THE MATRIX? Not Agent Smith — he’s a henchman, a virus.

The real villain is whoever controls the robots while keeping humans as slaves and batteries.

Neo is alive in the beginning and dead in the end. It’s a big leap, a real journey. We can roll with that. His death simply has to mean something other than preserving a bad status quo and an endless war. What are the stakes? Freedom vs. slavery. Life vs. death. Humans are slaves in the beginning. A good ending — a true leap — would have all the humans be free.

Here’s our new ending: Neo sacrifices his life to free the humans and win the war, leading the humans as they finally beat the evil robot overlords and retake Earth.

This way, you’ll care about the last scene, and root for Neo to take out the Evil Robot Overlord in the Most Amazing Fight Scene Known to Man, because if he wins, humanity wins. If he loses, every human starves. We are wiped out.

The stakes are raised, aren’t they? Yeah. Can’t get any higher. Plus, I’d much rather have Neo fight something like the Borg Queen than endless clones of the same stupid henchman he’s been fighting since the first movie.

Take things apart and put them back together

You learn to write by editing, and you learn to edit by taking a red pen to what other people write. Where we need to switch it up is how we edit. Not line by line. Don’t worry about pretty sentences. Worry about pretty BONES. The bodywork of the car can wait until the V-8 under the hood can pur and roar. Focus on that storytelling engine.

Take something short — a newspaper story, your favorite movie, a column by Paul Krugman or George Will — and outline the structure, the bones.

Roughly. Quickly. Without overthinking it.

Circle the setups and payoffs.

Is the beginning up or down? What about the ending?

Does the writer make it abstract, talking about ideas like freedom or justice — or are there real paper in there, with names and families?

You can learn from amazing writing and horrible writing. Mediocre writing is frustrating. To hell with it. Ignore that stuff.

Look for the best of the best and the worst of the worst. Take apart the best to see how the author put it together to make it magic. Restructure the worst to make it work.

Slaying sacred cows

Maybe all this is sacrilege and rebellion. It could be that my pet theories are completely insane and that what you really should do is sign up for journalism school or get a master’s in creative writing or attend seminars about the correct use of semi-colons in headlines and how to write dialogue that sings.

Frankly, I don’t care what you do — follow your heart. Not selling anything here. What I do know is this: every day, I see writers, professional and aspiring, banging their head against the wall, spending hours and hours destroying a house while they’re building it, taking six days to write something that should take sixty minutes.

I see other friends of mine holding something it took them ten months to write, something they slaved over and just can’t fix with line editing because the bones of the story are broken, and they have to hold their baby over the round file and let all those pages, all that work, hit the bottom of that trash can.

It makes an awful sound.

I don’t want to hear that sound.

I don’t want my friends thinking they have to suffer when they write.

Writing doesn’t have to be painful.

It should be fast.

It should be fun.

And it should be magical, for the person banging on the keyboard and for the people who read it.

The Red Pen of Doom sends LIKE A FOX ON THE RUN into hyperspace

This isn’t my usual thing–it’s not the first page of a Classic Novel professors decided in some secret meeting, probably in a Best Western outside Cleveland, they’d force all of us to write term papers on. And it’s not a bestseller which absolutely stinks.

It’s a random book I saw on the Twitters.

I did read out the first page of the prologue, and the first chapter. The cover and synopsis are more fun to play with, though.

Let’s check out the cover, then the synopsis / back page text, and we’ll chat.

The cover

like a fox on the run novel

The synopsis

Southern Syfy has arrived in this “Dukes of Hazzard meets Buck Rogers” adventure tale.

In a future spawned from the headlines of today, enter a world of contrasts, where Man has conquered the heavens, while at the same time becoming quickly obsolete on his own world. A world where science and technology brings exotic fantasy creatures to life … for the right price. Where hot rod rockets and redneck “spacers” rule the skies.

Tiger Thomas was a rocket pilot during the Great Space Rush, when humankind colonized the Solar System in the twenty-second century. Now, all that’s winding down, and so has the demand for old spacers like him. He makes a living now doing whatever jobs he can find, legal and otherwise.

Returning to his hometown of Huntsville, Tiger looks forward to a relaxing weekend back on Earth. Who knows, he might even re-kindle that old flame with Lulah Carter, “the one that got away” years ago. A dinner and dancing … who knows what might happen.

But when he rescues a genetically engineered, anthropomorphic fox girl from a clan of vicious, hillbilly thugs, his homecoming quickly turns sour.

Somebody wants this sexy, furry darling back. BAD! And they’ll do whatever it takes, including killing anyone who stands in their way. Tiger and newfound companion soon find themselves on the run from a deadly, high-tech unit of bounty hunters. And if that ain’t bad enough, revelations about this beautiful vixen starts to disturb him. Is she really a victim? Is there more to her than just a pretty face and a bushy tail? Is there something else? A part hidden and dangerous, waiting for the right time to manifest itself? And with all that to ponder on, there’s also one other small problem … he finds himself irresistibly attracted to her.

Oh, and then there’s that whole Lulah thing again. As if things weren’t complicated enough.

Well, so much for a relaxing weekend.

Edits and notes

The cover: Hey, I like it, especially given this looks like an indie book on a low budget. Does the job for a sci-fi novel just fine. Thumbs up.

The synopsis: This is what got me to write a post. You had me at “Dukes of Hazzard meets Buck Rogers.”

Here’s a shot at the synopsis to pump up the wild stuff and slay boring bits:

Southern Syfy has arrived in this “Dukes of Hazzard meets Buck Rogers” adventure tale.

In a future spawned from the headlines of today, enter a world of contrasts, where

Hotrod rockets and redneck spacers rule the skies. Man has Yet conquering the heavens made man  while at the same time becoming quickly obsolete on Earth, his own world. A world where science and technology brings exotic fantasy creatures to lifefor the right price. Where

Tiger (If your love interest is a fox-woman, don’t make your hero’s first name Tiger–confusing, and no, you can’t call him Tiger and reveal in Act 3 that he’s a genetically engineered tiger thing) Thomas was a rocket pilot during the Great Space Rush,  when humankind colonized the Solar System in the twenty-second century.but now that space is civilized, he’s a cast-off, all that’s winding down, and so has the demand for old spacers like him. He making a living now doing whatever jobs he can find, laws be damned. legal and otherwise.

Returning to his hometown of Huntsville, Tiger Thomas looks forward to a relaxing weekend back on Earth. Who knows, he might even re-kindle that old flame with Lulah Carter, “the one that got away” years ago. A dinner and dancing … who knows what might happen.

But when he rescues a genetically engineered, anthropomorphic fox girl from a clan of vicious, hillbilly thugs, his homecoming quickly turns sour.

Somebody wants this sexy, furry darling back. BAD! And they’ll do whatever it takes, including killing anyone who stands in their way. Thomas Tiger and his newfound companion soon find themselves on the run from a deadly, high-tech unit of bounty hunters. And if that ain’t bad enough, revelations about this beautiful vixen starts to disturb him. Is she really a victim? Is there more to her than just a pretty face and a bushy tail? Is there something else? A part hidden and dangerous, waiting for the right time to manifest itself? And with all that to ponder on, there’s also one other small problem … he finds himself irresistibly attracted to her.

Oh, and then there’s that whole Lulah thing again. As if things weren’t complicated enough.

Well, so much for a relaxing weekend.

Edited synopsis as straight text

Southern Syfy has arrived in this “Dukes of Hazzard meets Buck Rogers” adventure.

Hot-rod rockets and redneck spacers rule the skies. Yet conquering the heavens made man obsolete on Earth, where science and technology brings exotic fantasy creatures to life–for the right price. 

Thomas was a rocket pilot during the Great Space Rush, but now that space is civilized, he’s a cast-off, making a living doing whatever jobs he can find, laws be damned.

Returning to his hometown of Huntsville, Thomas looks forward to a relaxing weekend. Who knows, he might even re-kindle that old flame with Lulah Carter, “the one that got away” years ago.

But when he rescues a genetically engineered fox girl from a clan of vicious, hillbilly thugs, his homecoming turns sour.

Somebody wants this sexy, furry darling back. BAD! And they’ll kill anyone who stands in their way. Thomas and his newfound companion find themselves on the run from deadly, high-tech bounty hunters. And if that ain’t bad enough, revelations about this beautiful vixen starts to disturb him. Is there more to her than just a pretty face and a bushy tail? Is there something hidden and dangerous, waiting for the right time to manifest itself? 


Feels faster and smoother. Mostly, it’s a matter of killing words. Could we have killed even more words? Maybe. Always worth trying, though I was working hard to edit with a light touch. Itchy Pencil is a real disease. There is no known cure.

The other bit I wanted to delete is everything dealing with his old flame, which felt like the B plot. You don’t see her on the cover, and there are no high-tech Boba Fett types chasing her around the galaxy. The fox girl as the A plot, though fox girl NEEDS A NAME if she’s so important to the story, and that name better not be something like Fox Amber Harrison, or I will throw the book clear across the room.

What say you–how else could we give the synopsis of “Dukes of Hazzard meets Buck Rogers” a boost into orbit?

A tour de force of writing styles

You don’t need to read an author’s body of work to understand their writing style.

I can give you a page – or a paragraph – from a famous writer and you can probably guess who it is. Well, if they’re famous enough.

A little experiment: How would some famous authors and celebrities answer the question, “Why did the chicken cross the road?

To die. In the rain. Alone.

And God came down from the heavens and He said unto the chicken, “Thou shalt cross the road.” And the chicken crossed the road and there was much rejoicing.

It is the nature of chickens to cross the road.

To boldly go where no chicken has gone before.

The fact that you are at all concerned that the chicken crossed the road reveals your underlying sexual insecurity.

The chicken did not cross the road. It transcended it.

Asking this question denies your own chicken nature.

The point is that the chicken crossed the road. Who cares why? The end of crossing the road justifies whatever motive there was.

It was a historical inevitability.

To steal a job from a decent, hardworking American.

Did the chicken cross the road? Did he cross it with a toad? Yes! The chicken crossed the road. Why it crossed, I’ve not been told.

In my day, we didn’t ask why the chicken crossed the road. Someone told us that the chicken had crossed the road, and that was good enough for us.

New bonus answers:

I have just released the new Chicken 7, which will not only cross roads, but will also lay eggs, file your important documents, balance your checkbook and compete with Apple’s Smooth Eagle.

Why does anyone cross a road? I mean, why doesn’t anyone ever think to ask, “What the heck was this chicken doing walking around all over the place, anyway? What is wrong with that chicken?