Writing should spark joy–in you and the reader

Yes, that headline is an intentional nod to Marie Kondo and her method of tidying up, where you hold up each possession and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?”

I keep seeing some writers talk about how hard, or even painful, writing can be. 

And sure, writing at a high level isn’t easy. It takes a lot of time, talent and sweat.

Yet I’m going to argue that conventional wisdom here is completely wrong. The entire process of writing and editing not only can be, but SHOULD BE, a joy. And if it’s not, you should switch things around to make it fun rather than torture.

Reason Number 1: A better product

Humans are designed, through millions of years of evolution, to seek out pleasure and avoid pain.

If your writing and editing process are inherently painful, your body and brain will rebel every time you sit down at the keyboard or pick up a pen.

That’s unhealthy and unsustainable. And it makes for a bad product, because you’ll rush through it as fast as you can, to get that pain over with.

I’m not arguing against speed here. Writing fast, and in the flow, is a beautiful thing that should be embraced.

Yet if the process itself is painful, you’re going to (a) avoid it, (b) catch writer’s block a helluva lot and (c) not produce what you’re capable of doing.

Reason Number 2: You have to make a mountain, then let things go

Marie Kondo’s key instruction when tidying up is to make a mountain–of your clothes, your books, your papers, whatever it is you’re cleaning up. Then you go through each item and decide whether it sparks joy. If it doesn’t, you give it away to Goodwill, recycle it or send it off to Never Never Land.

Writing anything important should begin the same way.

Never try to research and edit while your write a first draft. Make a mountain of your research, ideas and notes. Look at each item. Does it spark joy?

Put the ones that spark joy in a special file or folders.

Keep the marginal things in Give Away place, a scratch file. This is also a good way to let yourself edit ruthlessly, and avoid feeling terrible about possibly killing words that took you hours to research and write. You’re keeping them in a safe home. They’ll be fine, and you can recycle them for something else if needed.

Trash what you’ll never use. And surprisingly, doing all this tends to cut your mountain down to a hill that’s only 25 percent of your original pile.

When you’re only dealing with a tiny hill instead of a mountain, writing anything of length becomes insanely easier. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, you feel confident, and all the raw material’s you’re working with spark joy. 

Writing anything of length takes discipline to get through the hard parts. Which will happen.

Joy is the fuel that gets you over those speed bumps. It’s hard to crank away at something kind of boring, like proofing a document, or doing layout, if you don’t have a reward waiting on the other side. If you only anticipate more drudgery and pain, why push through it?

Cutting down your mountain of raw material to a small hill that sparks joy also helps make these tough spots a lot smaller and more manageable. 

Reason Number 3: You have to feel the emotion you want readers to feel 

This is literally the advice we give, as speechwriters, because simply delivering lines without mangling them–in a speech, a play or a movie–isn’t enough.

You have to actually feel the raw emotions you want your audience to feel.

Because an audience doesn’t feel what you TELL them to feel. They mirror your emotions.

And I’ll argue that the best writing and speaking evoke the emotions of joy and wonder.

Sure, there are times in novel, screenplay or speech when you want the audience to feel sad or angry. But you can’t write anything of length that’s entirely angry or 100 percent sad. There has to be a mixture of emotions.

What do people want? They want joy, wonder and laughter. The other emotions, like anger, fear, sadness and horror, are powerful spices you can’t pour into a dish. They need to be used carefully and sparingly.

The best writing I do is full of joy and wonder because that’s what I feel while writing it. And yes, if you’re doing a story or speech about something sad, it’s a good sign that you tear up while writing it. If I don’t cry a little when writing something profoundly sad, then I’m doing another draft. 

And if something buried in your mountain doesn’t spark joy–whether it’s a chapter in your epic novel about elves with lightsabers and the trolls who love them, a play where all the actors are hanging upside down the entire time or the process by which you edit and proof something–try something else. 

Talk to other writers and editors on Twitter, by email or in person at conferences. They’re a friendly bunch. Ask what they’ve figured out to make some of the hardest and sometimes painful tasks into activities that are fun. Personally, I find the final spell-check and editing of a novel to be a long, hard slog, so I’ve turned it onto a game to see how many words I can kill, especially repetitive words or phrases. And now it’s a kick in the paints.

So please, embrace the pleasure of writing and editing. Feel the emotions you want the audience to feel. All of them.

Because writing and reading should do always, always spark joy and wonder. 

Why every man must read a romance – and every woman a thriller

In college, wise men with Einstein hair stood in front of lecture halls to tell you literature isn’t really about verbs, adverbs and dangling modifiers. No. Beneath the surface, lit-rah-sure asks a fundamental question that some believe is just as important as religion or science.

That question is this: “What’s worth living for, and what’s worth dying for?”

Nine words.

But I’m not banging on the keyboard late at night, powered by industrial amounts of coffee, to channel those old men wearing corduroy jackets with patches on the elbows. My closet contains no corduroy whatsoever.

I’m here to talk about those nine words, and why it leads me to one inescapable conclusion: that I do, in fact, know how to spell “inescapable.” Bit surprising. Thought I’d muff that one.

Note: I know there are men who not only read romance novels, but write them. Same thing with thrillers: plenty of women read them and author great thrillers. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing some of those authors. In this post, I’m trying to make the case that people shouldn’t stubbornly stick to their favorite genre. Venture forth. Surprise the good people at Barnes and Noble with the breadth of your bookish selections.

Why every man must read a romance

Not to pick up girls–and not, if you’re married, to improve your odds of staying out of the dog house.

Every man should read a romance for an entirely different reason. It’s the first part of the question, the bit about, “What’s worth living for?”

You could walk into (1) a cubicle farm, (2) factory break room or (3) sports bar and show ten random single men a photo from the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, and ask them, drunk or not, whether they would marry this swimsuit model. I’m only half kidding when I say some of those men would shrug and say, “Sure.” Because we men can be stupid that way.

HOWEVER: We need to get over it, and start thinking about these sorts of things. And yes, a fine first step would be reading a romance novel. Watching a rom-com starring Matthew McConaughey, who’s last name is impossible to spell, does not count. Neither does firing up Netflix for SEX AND THE CITY 3: SARA JESSICA PARKER SHOPS FOR PURSES IN PARIS.

You must read an actual romance novel, with words and sentences, though I’ll leave it up to you whether it involves Men in Kilts.

On the surface, sure, romances are about relationships. How two people meet, how they fall in love, all that.

Beneath that, romances are often about a massively important choice: Who should you commit to and love?

And that, my friends, is the biggest decision you make in life. 

Nothing else comes close. Not where you go to college, what career you chose, where you pick to live. No other decision comes close.

Classics like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE feature a lot of talking, thinking and scheming about who should get matched up with who. At first I thought this was a lot of gossipy gossip nonsense. But it’s not. These choices are hard, and they mirrored real life. Back then, who a woman married meant everything. It wasn’t like folks had a lot of career choices and birth control options. Could this man be a good provider not just for one or two children, like people might have today. Back then, it could be eight or ten kids. If I were a woman in those days, listen, I’d be insanely careful about this choice. So yeah, there’s a good reason stories back then often featured the archetype of a handsome prince. Tell me that story. Let me live that dream, not the one where I die in squalor giving birth to child No. 9.

High stakes back then. High stakes now, and a big deal for everyone involved.

Who should you marry and have kids with? Can’t think of a bigger decision, and it’s definitely worth thinking about, if not agonizing over. 

A lot of men tend to avoid talking about love and relationships. It makes them uncomfortable. 

I feel lucky. Also, my beautiful and brilliant wife devours novels like candy, including not just lit-rah-sure but romances of all shapes and sizes, and our house is full of books. So I know enough to be dangerous: that there are romances which really dive into the struggle to choose between two different partners and that it’s cheating to make one a villain and one a hero. That there are romances where the choice is binary: is this relationship going to happen at all, which is the A story in ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE.

All of these choices must have merits and demerits. BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY makes you think twice about the handsome bad boy and take a second look at Colin the Firth and his ugly Christmas sweater.

There’s a long list of stories diving into that decision. They’re worth reading, and watching, and talking about.

Because in the end, a lot of people figure out “What’s worth living for?” isn’t about money, fame or spending more time at the office.

Life’s about picking somebody you love and maybe starting a family with them.

Pick wisely, men. Get all the help you can get, and not from your buddies, because they’ll say things like “Dude, the choice is obvious: Kelly the waitress with the sweet Mustang, unless you want to cruise around town in Sarah the lawyer and her hand-me-down minivan.”

Why every woman MUST read a thriller

Thrillers answer the second half of the question: “What’s worth dying for?”

These days, men and women serve in the military, as firefighters and police officers. Which is as it should be. And if you answer the call to serve — as a firefighter or homicide detective, a Marine or a smokejumper, a coal miner or logger — there’s a chance you’ll die on the job.

The question is, how often do you roll the dice? When do you decide something is worth dying for?

Thrillers answer that question in a visceral way, with the stakes raised as high as they go.

  • Should you answer the call of your country and fight a war, taking the lives of other young men with families of their own, and possibly coming home in a body bag yourself — even if you suspect the war is wrong?
  • If a serial killer kidnaps your daughter, do you put your faith in the cops — or turn your CIA training loose and go after the whackjob yourself, despite the risk? Liam Neeson votes for hunting down whackjob kidnappers, which only happens to him every other month.
  • Should your family suffer under the oppressive fist of a planet-destroying dictatorship, or will you risk your freedom and life by joining the rebellion, which probably has the same chance of victory as the Seattle Mariner’s have of winning the World Series?
  • When the only hope to save the world is to get on an armored space shuttle with Bruce Willis, fly to an asteroid, drill deep inside and set off a nuclear explosion, will you go on that suicide mission, knowing that you probably won’t come back, or will you stay behind to enjoy one last week of picnics and bottles of Riesling with Liv Tyler before the world goes kaboom?

Just as betrayal is a common theme in romances, it’s also a huge element to thrillers. Because there’s nothing worse than doing dangerous, deadly work for a boss who is secretly an evil jerk. Not only did you get duped, but you did dangerous things, maybe violent and murderous things, for the wrong cause.

Even though it’s a cliche, there’s truth to the typical action movie nonsense about a lone wolf detective, Green Beret or assassin who’s weary and retired from the game. It takes a lot to convince him (or her) to return to work, having lost faith that all the suffering and sacrifice is worth it. Too many good people have died already. Often, the story proves this to be right. The weary warrior is a cog in the machine, a machine that sees everyone as disposable. And is that worth dying for? No. 

Action movies and thrillers are about the need to make that choice decisively and wisely. There’s no “I’ll go halfway with you on this assault the Death Star thing.” You only die once, except in Bond movies, though I’m not exactly sure why Bond gets to die twice. I do know this: Bond has terrible taste in women. Are they beautiful? Sure. But after they sleep with him, they all turn up dead. EVERY TIME.

Not your usual sitcom nonsense

All this is why romances and thrillers can be epic. The stakes are high and the emotions are visceral. It’s not the usual nonsense you see in a sitcom every night, where Bart Simpson shoplifts for the first time and in 30 minutes learns the important life lesson that stealing is wrong, wrong, wrong. Roll credits.

Harry Potter is really one big long thriller about whether Harry will get Voldemort — a serial killer who happens to be a wizard — before Voldemort gets him.

STAR WARS takes an unexpected twist, with a father sacrificing his life to save his son and free a galaxy from oppression. I expected the new Death Star to simply get blown up in an even fancier explosion than the first time. I did not expect Darth the Vader to toss Emperor Wrinkly Face of the Lightning Fingers down an endless shaft. A father’s love turned out to be the biggest deal in the end. Interesting, though having Darth Vader be a sad old man with a wussy voice was a let-down. J.J. Abrams, I have faith that you’ll do better.

There’s a reason why many thrillers start out with a family being slaughtered and the lone survivor setting out to avenge them. You’re taking away what’s worth living for, and that leads the hero to answer the question of what’s worth dying for. Your family and kids mattered. You can’t let that slide, and you won’t.

Thrillers aren’t as compelling when the hero is aloof and the mission has nothing to do with his emotions, family or country, when it’s just a job where the hero is busy looking cool while wearing sunglasses and shooting guns. There’s nothing behind it. It’s flat and empty. And yes, though I love the Bond movies, they suffer from this. Bond rarely suffers or grows as a person, unless it’s Daniel Craig, who turned out to be a great Bond because he plays up the damage the job does to a person.

Everybody wants something worth living for, to dedicate themselves wholly and completely to something, because otherwise, what’s the point of waking up, fighting traffic and slaving away in a cubicle for thirty years until you die, right? People get that. It’s why people become obsessive fans of the Green Bay Packers or STAR TREK, why people dedicate themselves to politics, religion or a cause. Some folks divert this urge into collecting every Beanie Baby every made. Don’t.

Great stories, whether movies or books, speak to this need to matter, to belong, to put a stamp on life, to give your all, even if it’s bonkers.

And truly great stories take us deeper.

Harry the Hedonist will argue that lovers leave you, husbands divorce you, kids randomly get leukemia, and in the end, we all die, so pass the wine and live it up.

Isaac the Idealist says you should dedicate yourself to great ideas and institutions, which are the only things that last.

Ned the Nihilist trumps that with, “Nothing truly lasts. Institutions don’t care about you and even a killer asteroid, nuclear war or homicidal robots from the future fail to destroy us, the sun will eventually turn into a red giant, doing a burnt-toast number on earth before ruining THE ENTIRE NEIGHBORHOOD by going supernova.”

Do I have video? Yes I do.

But if nothing truly lasts, there’s no point in sacrificing friends and family for an institution or an idea. Be good to others. Do the right thing. Love with all your heart. Or use two cows on a silly blog to explain all of politics and philosophy. (The world explained by TWO COWS)

These questions are tough, interesting and complicated. And every tough, complicated problem has an easy, simple-to-understand wrong answer.

You can get into these kinds of questions with romances and thrillers in a way that Philosophy 402 classes simply can’t touch. Because if you put human faces and names behind the ideas, and real emotions, the neat logic about the deontological notion of equal treatment versus the greatest good for the greatest number turns to dust.

Also, take it from Plato and every dictatorship on the planet: literature and stories are the most powerful, and dangerous, way to talk about ideas. That’s why evil governments burn books and censor movies.

So if you haven’t read a romance, pick something that won an award, or one with Fabio on the cover. But grab one. 

And if you haven’t read a thriller, grab one of those.  My personal favorite is the Reacher series by Lee Child, who should be sending me kickbacks by now.

Then start a literary knife fight in the comment section about Men in Kilts versus Haunted Homicide Detectives Who Are Allergic to Razors.

Plot Ninja – story structure made easy

My library contains Every Book on Writing Known to Man or Woman–journalism, speechwriting, fiction, rhetoric, grammar, speechy journalism, ficitonal rhetoric, whatever–and honestly, they’re mostly good for kindling during the zombie apocalypse.

I’m only half kidding. 

The secret to all writing is structure and editing, and the absolute best in the world at structure are these magical creatures called screenwriters.

This is why I hope readers of this silly blog watch the video above (yeah, you skipped it? watch the thing) and check out my sister’s new course, Plot Ninja.

Don’t do it because she’s my sister, or because she’s brilliant and funny.

Do it because writers of any sort need to steal everything they can from screenwriters.

Because all those different writing books in my library, and yours, are a lot like instruction manuals for plumbing, electrical wiring, drywall, cabinetry and painting. Yeah, that stuff is really important–but not at first.

Here’s the thing: writing anything is like building a house: sure, you can throw together a little shed made of two-by-fours and drywall, and it might hold up for bit, but try to build a house like that and it’ll fall down after the first rain.

None of it matters without a strong foundation and framing, and the only way to get that right is with strong blueprints.

Who actually knows the secrets of story blueprints?

Screenwriters.

Nobody is better. It’s not even close.

Not because they’re the most talented writers. Not because some of them get paid bazillions of dollars.

It’s because screenwriters focus, relentlessly, on the only thing you see in screenplays: the blueprints of a story.

Nobody else teaches the bones of storytelling like screenwriters.

Listen, I have a journalism degree and wrote thousands of newspaper stories. Have a background in rhetoric and have written thousands and thousands of speeches, then I write thrillers for fun. Somebody taught me the structures for journalism, speechwriting and fiction, right? Not in the way you think. A journalism degree with teach you the inverted pyramid and a lot about headlines and ethics and how to put together a newspaper or magazine. Structure and blueprints? Not really.

Same with speechwriting and fiction. You tend to get a lot more instruction about the fit and finish than the blueprints and foundation. 

I find that backward, so when I teach folks, I always start with blueprints and foundations. Tools you can use for whatever you write.

And all the best stuff I’ve learned about strong blueprints came from screenwriting and Pam.

Get the whole toolbox, not a single template

You’ll see a lot of people saying, “Here’s how to write X or Y” and yeah, it’s one way to do it. 

Screenwriters have the whole toolbox and use it.

They don’t say, “This is the only way” unless they’re hawking the hero’s journey, which is not the only story in town. There are all kinds of stories: comedies and tragedies, dramas and melodramas, tales of transformation and redemption. 

Screenwriters have picked up every tool in the box and know all the ways of putting together stories.

And you can build them in all kinds of different ways. In fact, you have to. Try to plot a comedy in the same way as a drama, or a horror story, and it’ll flop.

Those hammers and drills and blueprints are useful for anything you write, whether it’s stories in newspapers and magazines or 200,000-word epics about an evil talking cat and his buddy, the seeing eye dog who’s seen too much, and what happens when they decide to go on a crime spree.

So I’ll try to post more of Pam’s videos about screenwriting every Wednesday, because they’re funny and useful.

And I hope you get as much out of them as I have.

Note: No, I’m not writing about that evil talking cat, his seeing eye dog and their crime spree, though it does sound like fun. 

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.

Sorta.

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.

Nope.

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
  4. WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by Donald Maass

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?

No.

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.
Ethel.
Ethel.
Ethel.
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.
Apples.
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.
Necessity.
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.
Pale.
Pale.
Pale.
Pale.
Pale.
Pale.
Pale.
Near sights.
Please sorts.
Example.
Example.

Notes

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
EXPLOSIONS!

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

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?

ERNEST HEMINGWAY:
To die. In the rain. Alone.

THE BIBLE:
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.

ARISTOTLE:
It is the nature of chickens to cross the road.

CAPTAIN JAMES T. KIRK:
To boldly go where no chicken has gone before.

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

RALPH WALDO EMERSON:
The chicken did not cross the road. It transcended it.

BUDDHA:
Asking this question denies your own chicken nature.

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

KARL MARX:
It was a historical inevitability.

BILL O’ REILLY:
To steal a job from a decent, hardworking American.

DR. SEUSS:
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.

GRANDPA:
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:

BILL GATES:
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.

JERRY SEINFELD:
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?

PARIS HILTON:
Huh?

A BOWL OF WARM MILK AND MURDER

The kitteh is surprised

evil cat, talking cat, talking cat mysteries

I was shocked — SHOCKED — to learn that there are mystery novels featuring talking cats, cats who help old British ladies solve murders and whatnot.

Then my mind was blown to itty bitty pieces when I heard this isn’t a fluke. There isn’t a solo author who did this and was magically successful at it. Many, many authors write Talking Cat Cozy Mysteries, and people hand over pieces of paper decorated with dead presidents to buy these novels and read them.

So much so that Talking Cat Cozies are an entire flipping sub-genre now, just like there’s an entire section in the bookstore dedicated to Sparkly Vampires and the Angsty Teenagers Who Love Them.

Everybody knows cats can’t talk. Porcupines, now, talk up a storm.

This made me think, which is always dangerous.

What if somebody wrote a Talking Cat Mystery where the cat … is secretly the killer?

So I wrote the first chapter of an evil talking cat mystery. Here’s the first page.

 

A BOWL OF  WARM MILK AND MURDER

Chapter 1: My Secret

It should not surprise you that I know words. Even the Dog knows words, and does tricks, and he is Simple.

He did not stop chewing his bone while I sat in the lap of the Woman and watched the Glowing Box show a story about a sheep dog that knows thousands of words.

I would not know so many words without the Glowing Box.

I sat beside the Boy as we watched the Sesame Street to learn about letters and numbers and words.

He grew taller. I learned all I could.

When they left the house, I pushed the buttons on the Boy’s ABC toy to know letters and sounds. To spell small words. I learned how to press the button on the small stick to make the Glowing Box come alive and go to sleep. To climb on the boxes in the garage to push the other button to make the Biggest Door open and close, the door they use to keep the Metal Horse asleep in its cage.

Oh, I learned many things. And I know these things must be Secrets that the Woman and the Boy cannot know.

Tonight, I have a bigger secret.

After the Boy and the Woman go upstairs, where I am not allowed, I will sneak out of the Dog’s little door.

I will walk very far.

And then I will kill a Man.

Everything they taught us about stories was WRONG

writing cat, writers, writing, why is writing so hard, writer's block

reading, books, types of stories

Let it be known: Romance authors have a good point when they say, “Romance is not a type of story.”

There are all sorts of different romance stories.

Which brings me to a deep, dark truth that needs to be said: They’ve done us wrong.

All of them.

Teachers and professors, authors and instructors and writing gurus of all stripes.

You’ve been done wrong, bamboozled, hornswoggled 

My secret lair includes a turret that is a library, full of Every Book on Writing, Rhetoric and Journalism Known to Man, and those books are 99 percent useless claptrap about either (a) the correct placement of semi-colons, which I believe should simply be shot, or (b) finding your happy place while you write at the same time every day. These books are only good for kindling during the zombie apocalypse.

Your corduroy-clad creative writing teacher was wrong to say there are only three kinds of stories: man vs. self, man vs. man and man vs. society. Those are three types of conflict. Not stories. Also, there are far too many reference to “man” in there.

Aristotle was full of falafel when he told his eager fanboys there are only two stories: tragedies and comedies.

George Polti made things far too complicated when he gave us 36 Dramatic Situations, when what he really did was list 36 complications and conflicts, and if you want to drive down that twisty path, hell, I can write you a list of 532 Dramatic Situations before noon. If you gave me a pot of coffee, by 5 p.m. we’d get to 3,982 Dramatic Situations. (Yes, Mr. Internet Smarty Pants, you a genius for using the google to find a Wikepedia thing explaining that Polti was merely following in the footsteps of that literary giant Carlo Guzzi, but hear me know and believe me later in the week: Carlo Guzzi was also an overcomplicated doofus.)

Also: just as there is no romance story type, there is no such thing as a Western, though if you watch THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, you are required by law to take a swig of decent tequila whenever Clint shoots a man and down two shots if he actually speaks a line of dialogue.

For you D & D and World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings dorks–I say that lovingly, though I want you to put down the Cheetos and the Playstation controller to go out in the world to kiss a girl, though please make sure she wants to be kissed first, and does not Mace you–there is also no such thing as a sci-fi or fantasy story.

You can set a novel or movie a dusty Arizona mining town in 1875, or put the guts of that same story into a space station orbiting the second moon of Zenon or whatever. Either way, it’s the same story.

You can add dragons, trolls or elves with lightsabers and it’s still the same story in a different setting and context.

Because in the end, story is about structure–how you put the pieces together. Is the ending up, down or mixed? What are the setups and payoffs, reversals and revelations?

They don’t really teach us structure or storytelling

Blake Snyder cut through all this tradition and nonsense with his SAVE THE CAT books.

Blake points out that it’s patently stupid to call FATAL ATTRACTION a domestic drama and ALIEN a sci-fi movie and JAWS a horror flick, because they all three classic movies are the same basic, primal story: there’s a monster in the house. Either you kill it or it kills you.

Period. End of story.

I will not summarize Blake’s book here by giving away all his other evil secrets. He’s boiled things down to ten primal stories, and yes, you can insert as many Dramatic Situations as you want into those ten stories.

Blake has done all writers a great service with his two books, which have silly titles and a cover with a cat. As the writer of a silly blog, I give him slack for that. He’s not pompous, arrogant or overly complicated. Blake was simply a freaking genius when it comes to storytelling, and the world is a poorer place now that he died young.

If you write, and care about your craft, go buy his book. DO IT NOW. Then come back here to talk smack about structure, the real secret to writing of all sorts.

Why are all writers lazy bums?

I don’t really think writers are lazy bums. I just want us all to talk about the elephant in the living room: why does writing take so long?

The average person types 50 words per minute.

And that’s slow. I type about 80 or 90. Faster, if I have coffee. Even quicker with headphones blasting, or on deadline. 

Coffee plus headphones plus a deadline? Fuggetaboutit. That keyboard is gonna sing. 

The thing is, all the speed in the world doesn’t really matter.

Here comes the math

Let’s say you write full-time, all day, every day. No day job to worry about, no cramming in writing at 4 in the morning when the kids are asleep or scribbling forty minutes a day on a yellow legal pad (are there other colors? why yes, there are, including PURPLE) as you ride the train from New Jersey to the NYC.

Say you’re not that fast. Fifty words a minute. 

Fifty words per minute =

  • 3,000 words per hour
  • 24,000 words per eight-hour day
  • 120,000 words per week

That’s a ton of words. An incredible amount.

Let’s do a little more math to see how much we should be cranking out, if we’re not surfing the net, Twittering our lives away and checking out Facebook photos all day.

Here come the word counts:

  • 200 words = letter to the editor
  • 500 words = five-minute speech
  • 600 words = news story
  • 800 words = oped
  • 1,000 words = 10-minute speech
  • Up to 3,000 words = profile or magazine piece
  • Up to 8,000 words = short story
  • 3,000 words = 30-minute keynote speech
  • 15,000 words = screenplay
  • 20,000 to 60,000 words = novella
  • 60,000 to 120,000+ words = novel

Of course, people don’t type every second of the workday.

Let’s say half your day is eaten by meetings, research and other things, and you only write four hours a day, or 20 hours a week. Even then, we’re talking about 60,000 words.

That’s most of a novel, four screenplays, 20 keynote speeches or 100 opeds.

In a single week.

Nobody writes that much. NOBODY.

Not even Stephen King, back when he was fueled by industrial amounts of caffeine, nicotine and other substances.

In fact, writers of all sorts are happy to produce between 500 and 2,000 good, usable words a day.

I know novelists who are happy to produce one good novel per year. If you divide 100,000 words by 52 weeks, you get a smidge less than 2,000 words per week and, I kid you not, less than 300 words per day.

I know reporters who crank out two stories a day, five days a week and columnists who do one or two opeds a week.

There are pro speechwriters, brilliant people I’ve known for years, who take two solid weeks to nail down a 30-minute keynote speech (3,000 words).

Before the invention of word processors, writing gods like Hemingway would pound on their Underwoods and count every word, quitting for the day when they hit 1,000–or even 500–that day.

But let’s be generous and say 2,000 words a day is a good day.

Where are the missing words? Why are all sorts of pro writers–reporters, novelists, poets, speechwriters–producing about 20 percent of what the math says?

Suspect No. 1: It’s not really eight hours or even four hours

This looks like the obvious culprit, because it’s the only person sneaking away from the crime scene with a guilty look and blood on the bottom of their shoes.

Reporters have to cover stories, get quotes from sources and meet with editors.

Novelists need to do research, talk to their agent, go on book tours and so forth.

Every writer, reporter and novelist has to do research, travel and attend meetings. Nobody is chained to the desk the entire workday, pounding on the keyboard like a typist. They need to eat of the food sometimes, and drink of the wine, and have a life.

HOWEVER:  A lack of hours isn’t what’s wrong here.

Let’s say even more of the day is toast. Research. Phone calls. E-mail. Lunch with some big important person. Twittering to your buddies.

Fine, let’s go all the way down and say six of your eight hours are toast, and there are only TWO HOURS of actual banging on the keyboard.

3,000 words per hour X 2 hours = 6,000 words a day.

And yet the most writers typically can hit, day after day, is 2,000 words.

Where are the missing words?

Also, I know writers who spend six hours a day in meetings, doing research, returning e-mail and all that — and they still bang on the keyboard at least four to eight hours a day because they’re working crazy hours. A lot of writers work weekends, too. Writing is often a daily habit.

Yet 2,000 words per day seems like a kind of universal wall for writers of all stripes. Why?

Suspect No. 2: We type slower than narcoleptic turtles

This suspect doesn’t even get handcuffed and taken down to the station for a chat.

I used 50 words a minute because it’s the average typing speed of the general population.

Serious and professional writers are typically a lot faster, unless they’re hunting and pecking on an Underwood because that’s what they’ve always done since they first got published in 1926. There aren’t that many authors in that category.

If you dictate your stuff with Naturally Speaking or whatever, it’s more like 100 words a minute.

But let’s be generous again and pretend we all type really, really slow.

25 words a minute = 1,500 words an hour.

Even if we say Suspect No. 1 (Miss Most Hours of the Day Get Wasted) and Suspect No. 2 (Mr. Types Slowly) shacked up in a cheap motel and conspired to murder the creativity of all writers, it doesn’t get us down to 2,000 words a day.

Four hours at the keyboard at 30 words per minute is still 6,000 words a day. Two hours is 3,000 words, which is closer, but not plausible. Professional writers aren’t much slower than average typists–they’re a lot faster.

We need a better theory of the crime.

Suspect No. 3: Writing requires deep, deep thinking

Ah, this one is good. It’s lurking in the shadows.

It’s evil. Hard to refute.

How can you say that writing is shallow and easy?

How can you deny the art required, the creativity?

This isn’t an assembly line. It’s not a factory where we churn out widgets. Writers create something original, whether it’s a 500-word story for the newspaper or a 100,000-word novel.

Except I know better. Because I’ve been watching.

Going off my own experience wouldn’t be proof of squat. Maybe I’m an anomaly. Maybe I type 80+ words per minute (true) and separate writing from editing (also true).

But I know writers of all sorts. Reporters, speechwriters, novelists, you name it, and just about everybody who writes for money bangs on the keyboard at least four hours a day, and they’re all faster than 50 words a minute. That’s 3,000 words per hour.

Even going with four hours a day of actual writing, we should be at 12,000 words a day. Except we’re not.

Suspect No. 4: We’re creating while destroying

This is our killer. I’ve seen him at work.

I’ve helped other writers catch the evil scumbag, convict him and send him upstate so he can’t do any more damage.

We are typing away on the keyboard, and we’re not doing it at 10 words per minute. We are writing fast. It’s just that we destroy those words just as fast.

Why do we writers destroy more than we create?

Not because the words aren’t pretty. Sentence by sentence, they’re fine.

It’s because the structure is wrong.

I’ve looked at bad drafts that hit the roundfile. The sentences were pretty. It was the structure that failed.

We spend so much time trying to fix these things because we nobody teaches us structure.

Oh, they taught me the inverted pyramid in journalism school, which is the best possible blueprint for a story if you want to give away the ending right away and put people in a coma the longer they read.

Creative writing professors teach us characterization and the three types of conflict in creative writing.

Rhetoric professors give us logical fallacies and different types of arguments in speech and debate.

Journalism profs teach us hard and soft headlines and the different types of ledes.

Yet that’s not really structure. It’s tiny bits and pieces.

Building a house one room at a time, without blueprints

They way most of us write is like trying to build a house one room at a time. Winging it, without any blueprints.

Pour the foundation for the front door and foyer.

Frame it. Wire it for electricity. Drywall it. Paint it.

Now dig the foundation for the kitchen and build that.

Where should the living room go? OK, we did that, but forgot to put in stairs to the second floor, so we’ve got to tear it all down and start over.

That’s how I used to write. It’s how most writers I know do it.

You start at the beginning and work your way through it, trying to fix any problems with structure along the way.

My old friend and mentor, Robin, was guilty of this. He’d spend a week on an oped, which is only 800 words. He was a brilliant man, one of the smartest I’ve ever known, and a good example of why mixing research, writing and editing into a single process slowed everything down to a snail’s pace. He’d create and destroy thousands and thousands of words before he had 800 on a final draft.

Doing research, writing and editing all at once is no way to run a railroad. It’s building a house without blueprints, blindly hoping the beginning will magically connect with the middle and an end you haven’t figure out yet.

I’ve had houses designed and built. If a contractor tried to build a house the way we writers work, it wouldn’t take six months to finish it. It’d take six years, or forever.

So this is our killer, our time-suck, our nemesis.

Question is, how do you DO structure — and how do we, as writers, learn to draw good blueprints, so we stop spending 80 percent of our time at the keyboard destroying what we created?

Romance novelists are a secret, epic army

Let it be known: we men must rethink our natural manly instinct that romance novels are something to ignore or avoid, like SEX AND THE CITY 2, which is indeed worthy of scorn, and woe unto any man whose girlfriend or wife coerced them into wasting two hours of their life to see that stupid thing. No bribe is sufficient.

Romance novelists are not only smart and funny, but many can write circles around most writers I know. These women are more talented than many folks writing about serial killers, elves or dinosaurs in spaceships (yes, this is a thing, try the googles) simply because there is so much freaking competition with romance novels.

Are there bad romance novels out there? Sure, just like any genre. But with so many books and writers, it’s like throwing 10,000 authors into the Thunderdome, tossing in a single chainsaw and refusing to unlock the door until there’s only one woman left. That woman is going to kick tail. She will be a writing goddess.

And the message is good. Romance novels don’t want men to be to be office drones, worried about TPS reports, or moody, over-educated basket cases like the men you read about in literary novels.

Romance novels want men of action and charm, packing swords if not guns, and sometimes guns and swords. Any man can learn this from hitting checking out romance novel covers. IT IS AN EDUCATION.

romance novels, fabio, romance novelists, rwa
Fabio and a sword is all you need. Shirts are optional.

Another bonus: romance is the largest part of the book business, which we need more than ever. If you care about books, literature and ideas instead of whatever is on the glowing tube today about the Kardashian idiots, you want to keep a healthy foundation of romance in the world’s fortress of books.

If we are truly men of action, we should band together, pool our resources and give romance novels serious tax subsidies. I’m not kidding here. Because romance authors and readers are a secret army doing a $16.5 billion public relations campaign for men everywhere. And, yes, the genre is bigger than that. It’s a big push for love of all stripes, which is a good thing, damn it. Life isn’t about having the biggest pile of dead presidents. It’s about family and who you love. As a husband and father, I get that.

So, romance novelists and readers, I am holding a mug of Belgium beer, which I raise your direction. Keep up the good work.

The Red Pen of Doom embraces THE AX by Donald Westlake

the ax by donald westlake, the first page of novels

Listen: it’s hard to slog through the first page of a novel by Snooki, a literary zero.

And beating up the first page by a literary hero, F. Scott Fitzgerald, feels rebellious, as if I’m giving sending a chunk of English teachers and profs into therapy. Even so, it doesn’t feel good. Giants of literature need to remain giant and omnipotent in our minds, not bogged down with meandering prose that doesn’t go anywhere for a full page.

So as a palate cleanser, this week we’re dissecting page one of a brilliant, relatively obscure novel by Donald Westlake, a master of the craft.

THE AX by Donald Westlake

I’ve never actually killed anybody before, murdered another person, snuffed out another human being. In a way, oddly enough, I wish I could talk to my father about this, since he did have the experience, had what we in the corporate world call the background in that area of expertise, he having been an infantryman in the Second World War, having seen “action” in the final march across France into Germany in ’44—’45, having shot and certainly wounded and more than likely killed any number of men in dark gray wool, and having been quite calm about it all in retrospect. How do you know beforehand that you can do it? That’s the question.

Well, of course, I couldn’t ask my father that., discuss it with him, Not even if he were still alive, which he isn’t, the cigarettes and the lung cancer having caught up with him in his sixty-third year, putting him down as surely, if not as efficiently, as if he had been a distant enemy in dark gray wool.

NOTES FROM THE RED PEN OF DOOM

This is an intense thriller, with an everyman anti-hero who responds to getting laid off in an interesting way: taking out a fake job ad, then collecting those resumes and killing off the competition for his specialized trade (managing paper mills, if I remember right). It’s a short, intense, amazing book by a master of his craft.

So, I didn’t get itchy pencil on this page one, though there are some easy edits. The run-on sentences are clearly on purpose, a little conversational tic of the narrator. My personal feeling is they get just a bit annoying early on here. Pretty easy to kill a few words and make it more readable.

What’s truly great is how Westlake strikes at the heart of his anti-hero, and the novel, not just on the first page but in the very first line.

You rarely see that. Not in movies, not in books.

Westlake takes a carpenter’s hammer and smacks you in the nose with this first line and I could not love it more.

The whole novel is like that.

If you’re a fan of BREAKING BAD, this is a similar story with a different ending. It’s not a tragedy, with a hero falling, sinning and dying due to hubris. This is a story of a suburban schlub who suffers, sacrifices and does terrible things to provide for his family…and wins in the end. He gets the job. The house doesn’t go into foreclosure, his family isn’t on the street. He wins, not that Westlake is saying what his character did is right and good.

BOTTOM LINE

This is a great first page that doesn’t meander around, and a terrific way to put the reader into the essential question of the story, a neat twist on “What’s worth living for and what’s worth dying for?”

The Red Pen of Doom reluctantly nukes THE GREAT GATSBY

I take great pleasure in dissecting the first page of Popular Novels Which Actually Stink, or finding first pages that absolutely sing and figuring out why they’re so glorious.

The first page matters. A few examples:

The Red Pen of Doom puts a stake through TWILIGHT

The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

The Red Pen of Doom guts THE NOTEBOOK

The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand

By request, today we’re taking on page one of a classic of lit-RAH-sure: THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Sidenote: There are 5,832 various editions and such, so you’re page one may end on a different sentence and such. I tried to stop at the end of a paragraph, though as this is an older book, back when paragraphs lasted longer than most CBS sitcoms, this is kinda hard.

THE GREAT GATSBY

In my younger and more vulnerable years, (missing a comma here) my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

He didn’t say any more, (this feels like odd, unplanned repetition of the “any one” in the previous graf, so strike “any”) but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. (Listen, we’re on the third graf already, and I’m not inclined to reserve all judgment, seeing how you’re coming off like a veteran bore.) The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was became privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought — frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon.; for the intimate revelations (“intimate relations” twice in this sentence, so close together, doesn’t work at all) of young men, or at least The terms in which they express them, (comma deleted) are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, (here we get repetition with a purpose for once and it does work) a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth. (This is an awkward mouthful)

THOUGHTS: This is 100 percent interior monologue, which isn’t required by law to be boring. Though it sure leans that way.

Maybe it sets the mood.

However: If you’re basing a tragic hero’s entire motivation for making a ton of money to become a rich snob to impress a girl he loved and lost, and you’re hell-bent on starting page one with interior monologue about backstory, MAKE IT ABOUT THE GIRL.

Not the narrator. Not the narrator’s dad.

Not boring people who tell the narrator secrets while he pretends to sleep.

Make it all about the girl and Gatsby.

A huge part of the novel is throwing fancy parties to impress each other, right? I’m going off my memory from doing my own term papers on this thing. Never saw the movies. And when I do a first page, I try NOT to cheat by reading plot summaries and such, even if I’ve read the book.

Put a gun to my head and I’d delete this first page and start with the real inciting incident, which should be Gatsby and the narrator meeting the girl at a party way back when, so you can echo that later.

Or make it about about a small betrayal, from college or back during the war, to foreshadow the bigger betrayals and tragedies to come.

VERDICT: Doesn’t make me want to read more, which I wouldn’t unless the English 101 prof gave me no choice.

Sorry, F. Scott F.–can’t lie and say I liked this. Nuke the first page and go with a better hook.

Writing dialogue

Notes: So my genius sister, Pam, won a Nicholl Fellowship and does this series on the YouTube, which is worth watching no matter what you write: screenplays, regular plays, novels, newspaper stories or speeches.

First, because we need to tear down the artificial walls between different disciplines of writing. Second, because screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the secret to any sort of writing. And third, because she’s insanely good at cutting through the nonsense and getting at what really matters, which isn’t comma splices and the proper use of gerunds.

Plus she’s funny. Thanks for doing these, sis. Hugs. 🙂

The Red Pen of Doom destroys A SHORE THING by Snooki

Listen: the first page of a book shares something in common with the first moments of a song, the first five minutes of a movie, the first date, the first dance, the first steps of your first-born child.

It should be magic.

Raw and beautiful. Powerful and pure.

So on this silly blog, I pay particular attention to the first page of novels. Because you can bet Grandpa’s farm and every cow in sight that a brilliant page one foreshadows a good book, while a terrible collection of clichés and drivel on the first page will not suddenly improve by page 302 to make us laugh, cry and change our life forever.

The first page matters. Behold:

The Red Pen of Doom puts a stake through TWILIGHT

The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

The Red Pen of Doom guts THE NOTEBOOK

The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand

Today, we take on A SHORE THING, allegedly written by Snooki, though we all know she didn’t actually write it.

A professional ghostwriter did the boring “typing of words” part. Snooki did the hard work of cashing the check.

You will be shocked to learn her fellow castmates also got publishing deals, with Jwoww and The Situation also getting checks from publishers to put their infamous names on book-like substances.

Many trees gave their lives to give their words life.

I will pour one out for those trees tonight.

Here’s the text of page one, with edits and comments in red:

A SHORE THING

Life was hard. But a pouf? That should be easy. (Whoa, starting out a novel with a three-word cliché is a bold, bold move. Risky. And it doesn’t pay off here. Because anybody who says “life is hard” and follows that with an extended riff on the difficulties of Big Hair doesn’t actually have a hard life at all.)

Giovanna “Gia” Spumanti was a hair-raising pro. She’d been banging out poufs since age eleven, or as soon as her fingers were long enough to hold a bottle of Deluxe Aqua Net. (Maybe this is intentional, but the innuendo in the first two sentences of this graf is more juvenile than clever.) After ten years of trial and error to find the right combination of spray, twisting, and shine serum, Gia could add four inches to her overall height—which as five feet flat, she could use. Gia’s pouf defied the laws of gravity. It was her crowning glory. (“Crowning glory”–oh, how punny. Please riff on that more in the next sentence.) Although she’d love to wear an actual crown (here we go, as the prophecy foretold) of rhinestone tiara whenever she left the house, it just wasn’t practical. It could fly off on the dance floor and take out an eye. The pouf, however, wasn’t going anywhere (but up). (Wait: seriously? This is like one of those bad SNL skits with one joke they repeat for 10 minutes.)

Tonight, humidity was a bitch. Her thick black mane refused to cooperate. Gia brushed it out to start over—again—feeling discouraged. Her first night out in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, she wanted to present the best version of herself. Hundreds of guys would get a look at her, and she’d be searching among them for her near future fling(s). (I read a ton of fiction, and non-fiction, and this is the weirdest use of parantheticals I’ve seen in forever. Doesn’t work. Also, protags should be likable, and this graf of backstory just makes the reader see the protag as completely self-absorbed.) After the year she had back home in Brooklyn—landing and losing a couple of jobs and boyfriends—she deserved the sexiest summer ever.

Gia hoisted the front section of her hair, holding it high over her head with one hand.

COMMENTS

I binge-watched the first season of JERSEY SHORE while visiting my sister in H’wood, so I know enough to be dangerous about Snooki, The Situation and the entire sordid thing.

And no, this novel meant to be lit-RAH-sure.

However: Entertaining trash should still be entertaining, and well-done. This first page is neither.

In this sort of story, sure, you’re going to get a lot of interior monologue, including self-centered nonsense like this.

A full page about hair, though, is a bit much even if you put it in the middle of this kind of novel.

Dedicating the entire opening page to hair and backstory, plus backstory about the hair? My God. 

Here’s the lesson I take from this hot mess: life is hard, and what’s even harder is turning a reality show villain into a fictional hero.

Because that’s what the stars of JERSEY SHORE are: comic villains absolutely swimming in a sea of nasty hubris.

Every comedy targets an institution.

Your average sitcom pokes fun at families, marriage, kids and suburban life.

M*A*S*H* attacks the military and war.

FRIENDS put the bull’s eye on young singles.

The producers of JERSEY SHORE knew Snooki, The Situation and the rest of the gang were comic villains. They’re only fun to watch to see what kind of trouble happens, and every piece of trouble is far from random. Nobody gets hit by a bus while they’re using a crosswalk. Every episode is all about chaos and craziness that comes straight from the hubris of cast members.

Who will get drunk and start a bar fight?

Who’s so desperate tonight that they’ll hook up with anything and everything?

Which member of the cast is such a self-absorbed dipstick that they’ll get on the phone and try to order a pizza or a cab and give his last name as “Situation” and first name as “The”?

I haven’t read the rest of A SHORE THING and never will.

The feeling I get, though, is this is meant to be a comic romp, with the Snooki character, Gia, set up as the protag. That we’re supposed to laugh with her instead of laughing at her.

Sorry. Comedy doesn’t work like that.

VERDICT: Kill it with fire. Nuke it from orbit.

Honor your muse

Notes: So my genius sister, Pam, won a Nicholl Fellowship and does this series on the YouTube, which is worth watching no matter what you write: screenplays, regular plays, novels, newspaper stories or speeches.

First, because we need to tear down the artificial walls between different disciplines of writing. Second, because screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the secret to any sort of writing. And third, because she’s insanely good at cutting through the nonsense and getting at what really matters, which isn’t comma splices and the proper use of gerunds.

Plus she’s funny. Thanks for doing these, sis. Hugs. 🙂

How to format your screenplay’s title page

Notes: So my genius sister, Pam, won a Nicholl Fellowship and does this series on the YouTube, which is worth watching no matter what you write: screenplays, regular plays, novels, newspaper stories or speeches.

First, because we need to tear down the artificial walls between different disciplines of writing. Second, because screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the secret to any sort of writing. And third, because she’s insanely good at cutting through the nonsense and getting at what really matters, which isn’t comma splices and the proper use of gerunds.

Plus she’s funny. Thanks for doing these, sis. Hugs. 🙂

How to sell a screenplay

Notes: So my genius sister, Pam, won a Nicholl Fellowship and does this series on the YouTube, which is worth watching no matter what you write: screenplays, regular plays, novels, newspaper stories or speeches.

First, because we need to tear down the artificial walls between different disciplines of writing. Second, because screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the secret to any sort of writing. And third, because she’s insanely good at cutting through the nonsense and getting at what really matters, which isn’t comma splices and the proper use of gerunds.

Plus she’s funny. Thanks for doing these, sis. Hugs. 🙂

 

Four reasons why COBRA KAI completely obliterates THE KARATE KID

Unless you live in an ice cave, you’ve seen THE KARATE KID—and by that I mean the classic from the ‘80s, not the remake with Will Smith’s kid and Jackie Chan which had the same title, and sort of the same plot, except it was set in China, was about kung fu instead of karate … and was just an achy breaky big mistakey of a movie.

COBRA KAI isn’t just another cheesy remake or TV spin-off.

It’s actually better than the original movie.

Let’s say that again: COBRA KAI is better.

Here’s why:

1) A dark, gritty treat for adults

Go back and rewatch the original movie, even for five minutes. Daniel LaRusso is the good guy and Johnny Lawrence and his buddies are the bad guys. There are no shades of gray.

What makes the film work is this isn’t a traditional action movie where the hero is tough and sexy from the first minute of the movie and doesn’t really change or grow by the time the movie ends. The only thing that changes is the pile of dead bodies created by the traditional action hero in the process of saving the world.

ROCKY and THE KARATE KID are the rare exceptions where the hero is a loser in the beginning, a total underdog. The joy in both films comes from their struggle and sacrifice to climb up from that gutter.

COBRA KAI isn’t simple. It’s dark, gritty and complicated, and that’s what makes it great.

2) It’s much, much funnier

Sure, there are cute moments in the film, and some jokes that’ll make you laugh.

COBRA KAI, though, will make you snort milk through your nose.

3) Even minor characters shine

THE KARATE KID doesn’t give minor characters much to chew on. They’re part of the scenery. Pop quiz: can you name any of Johnny’s gang? I can’t. Interchangeable thugs.

 

COBRA KAI fleshes out as many characters as possible, and it does this with efficiency and grace.

4) Crossing character arcs, as rare and beautiful as a triple rainbow

In most movies or novels, the hero suffers, sacrifices and grows. The mentor, the love interest, the villain—everybody else typically stays the same. They serve as catalysts and examples (good or bad) but they don’t change.

Back in THE KARATE KID, Daniel definitely suffers, sacrifices and grows through the catalyst of Mr. Miyagi’s teaching, but Mr. Miyagi doesn’t go from nasty curmedgeon to sweetie pie. Same thing with the evil sensei who runs the Cobra Kai dojo in the movie: he’s bad in the beginning and bad in the end.

COBRA KAI tries something bold and amazing with multiple crossing character arcs. They’re juggling chainsaws here, and they pull it off.

Season One shows us the redemption of Johnny Lawrence as he moves from bad to good. You root for the man.

His protégé Miguel actually moves from good to bad, and it hurts you to see a good kid turned into a jerk. In the final episode, Miguel winning the tournament should be a moment of triumph. It’s what Johnny wanted and worked for—yet it’s ashes in his mouth. And the writers know they don’t need dialogue to do this. It’s all there in Johnny’s face and it slays you. Miguel gets what he wanted, too, and finds out he cares less about the championship and more about the girl that got away.

There’s a similar contrasting journey with Daniel LaRusso, a fallen hero turned villain, using his power and money to torment his old high school karate rival.

It’s only through teaching Robbie, Johnny’s son, that Daniel finds his balance again and returns to acting like a hero.

Robbie has the opposite journey, suffering and sacrificing to move from bad to good through his new relationship with Daniel and the LaRusso’s.

The writers and showrunners went further by giving minor characters real, meaningful arcs. The best example is Hawk finding his confidence, then taking it too far and becoming a villain, while bad girl Moon finds redemption by ditching the mean cool kids to hang out with Hawk and the dorks.

Finally, it’s a nice tough that the big bully at the start of season one, Kylar, falls from Big Man on Campus to loser after being beat down in the cafeteria by Miguel, his previous victim.

The only other show I can remember with this many deep, crossing arcs for major and minor characters alike is BREAKING BAD, a tragedy where Walter White is the hero and the villain, going from good to bad while meth cook Jesse climbs up from the gutter to redemption.

VERDICT: Put a gun to my head and I would have never expected the folks behind HOT TUB TIME MACHINE to pull off an amazing series like this. The structure of episode one is strong, supple and fascinating. Just a thing of beauty. If you haven’t seen it, give it a shot. Here is episode one, which you can watch for free.