Listen: as a four-year-old, you can’t deduct and reason your way out of the mystery of Who Is Santa Claus.
What my sister and I did was sneak out after bedtime to hide beneath the couch in the living room. This was base housing in Tacoma, row after row of identical ranchers. A simple couch in the simple house of an enlisted man.
We waited until a tall man, a giant to us, came into the room and put present after present under the tree.
And as a kid who didn’t talk except to Pam—my sister, interpreter and guardian—this was a brave and grand adventure. I used to stand in front of the fridge until Pam came along, opened it and took out the food I pointed at, with petrified carrots under my pillow as a long-term food supply in case something happened to her.
Hiding under that couch, waiting to learn the identity of Santa Claus, was one of my first memories.
Because hiding under that couch was how the huge mystery got solved: Santa Claus was our father.
This only added to his mythical status to me. He wore an Air Force uniform and disappeared at work for long shifts. All we knew was he worked on F-15’s and other military jets, like the bombers his father flew during World War II and the Cold War.
That he rode motorcycles, could pick us up like we weighed nothing, ate Daddy Go to Work Sandwiches and seemed to know everything.
When the military transferred us to Germany, and then the Netherlands, he drove us on weekends in a white VW van with a kitchen sink and room to sleep. We visited castles all over and saw a lot of Europe, with my sister taking the wrong train once and heading to east Berlin before the Wall fell.
We had a dog that was already trained, so you had to speak Dutch to it to have it sit, and base housing in the Netherlands was unlike any military housing on the planet, with nice brick houses that weren’t boring boxes thrown up by the lowest bidder.
It was an adventure, and I can still recognize F-15’s and F/B-111’s by their profile in the sky or the sound they make roaring overhead. I remember watching second-run movies for a dollar at base theaters, mowing lawns to make money and going to see Star Wars or Indiana Jones once a day all summer. Why not? It was a buck.
I remember my father telling me crazy GI stories, like the one where enlisted men would always drive across Lake Champlain during winter when you could go from base to Burlington, Vermont, except people always had to push it, every year, and drive when the ice was too thin. There’s a fair number of pickup trucks that fell through the ice.
This is the father I knew growing up. The one my wife and son never got to see.
By the time my wife met him when we were in college, he was a disabled vet, long retired, and already sick–diagnosed with cancer when I was in high school.
Our son didn’t see him until ten years after we got married.
So this isn’t an obituary, which I find dry and boring. I wrote plenty of those as a journalist. Obituaries are usually a series of dates and places, recitations of facts that really don’t tell you anything about the real person.
And I’ve seen enough people die by now to have some thoughts about it beyond the raw emotion of grief.
I went through all of my grandparents dying. Some fast, some slow. Losing my grandfather was especially hard, and I’m bothered by the fact that I can’t remember if he flew B-24’s or B-17’s in the Pacific, though I know he flew B-52’s for decades after the war and once had a heart attack mid-flight, with a load of nuclear bombs, and landed on a dry salt lake in Utah.
Robin Boyes, my mentor on speechwriting and rhetoric, found alone in his home, every room filled with books. My boss, Jim Richards, dying unexpectedly last year, right before his son’s wedding.
And I believe two things: that everybody has a list like that, a list that keeps growing year by year, and that your list never gets lighter or easier.
You don’t just mourn the inability to see them again, to talk or laugh or go on a trip. It’s the loss of everything they could ever do, or should have done, with or without you.
I miss the stories my father told about growing up on the farm, like the cow named Stupid that his brother rode, pulling its tail to go left or right and straight up to stop, which worked fine until the cow ran too fast and pulling up made it stop too fast and my uncle flew into a pile of manure.
When he needed my labor after he retired from the service, he’d yell for me and say he required my strong back and weak mind. We re-roofed a barn that’s now falling down and fixed the carburetor on the Plymouth Fury I drove in high school, a beast of a car older than me, one he bought new and put into storage when we moved to Europe.
That car never ran right after we fixed the carb. Tended to stall and die all the time. But I’ll always remember doing that with him.
He was terrible on the phone but great at stories and jokes, and incredibly social when I was growing up.
My wife and son never really got to see him at full strength like that.
So this isn’t for my father, who’ll never read it.
This is for Pam.
This is for my brother Nate, for my wife and son.
And it’s for me, to remember that he was a soldier, a father and will always be Santa Claus.
Listen: I am not one of those people who watches movies or shows to find 23 hidden easter eggs in Baby Yoda’s bowl of bone broth or whatever. I DO NOT HAVE TIME FOR THAT.
In fact, I have about five minutes to write this, and no, I did not play the Witcher game, or read the novels, so we are not diving deep into whatever Witcher craziness you’re into.
HOWEVER: If you own some form of Glowing Screen, whether it’s (1) a supercomputer in your pocket that was once used to make these things called telephone calls or (b) the lastest 120-inch, 8k television that cost more than my car, even though there is no 8k content to play on your expensive toy, then you should (c) fire up Netflix and watch all of THE WITCHER.
The whole thing. Start to finish.
Skip through the boring bits, though there aren’t many.
Here’s what I think they did right, what they could’ve done better, and why I’m looking forward to SEASON 2: THE WITCHER GRUNTS SLIGHTLY MORE DIALOGUE WHILE KILLING EVERYTHING.
What they did right
All the actors. Seriously.
All. Of. Them.
You may not know the name Henry Cavill right off, though you will remember the last actor who played Superman in a couple of movies, and the bad guy in the last Mission Impossible, and yeah, it’s that guy.
I won’t name all the other characters. The bard is funny, the sorceress is cool, the bad guys are sufficiently bad and scary. It’s well done.
Also good: sets, costumes, special effects. You know, all the things.
What they really did well: building up to a climactic battle where the good guys lose.
What they could’ve done better
Honestly, the only real flaw is jumping around in time.
I didn’t take notes, because nobody was making me write a term paper on this thing.
Halfway through, though, I’m wondering if all the queens in this thing are brunettes, and is this other queen related to the one I remember dying? Then five episodes later, I figure out oh, that’s not the dead queen’s sister or cousin, ruler of some other land, that’s the same dead queen, just earlier in time.
It’s not super clear. And honestly, the story would’ve worked chronologically, which is just a fancy way of saying, “Without jumping around in time like a rabid squirrel.”
Why I’m looking forward to Season 2
Not just because of the good acting, writing, sets, effects and all that.
Mostly because the showrunners had the guts and wisdom to put their heroes up a tree and throw rocks at them.
They really do lose the battle at the climax of the season. Things are not Good.
I like that.
It makes for better storytelling.
If the Witcher killed every monster and won the battle at the end of Season 1, why would you worry or care about what happens in Season 2? You’d expect him to keep on kicking butt. It would be a romp, and yes, romps can be kinda fun, like when your favorite football team absolutely smokes the Patriots, or when the hero of an action movie punches and kicks his way through 492 bad guys armed with meat cleavers and such.
Romps, though, aren’t actually that interesting or fun to the audience.
The Witcher was plenty of fun. 11/10 would watch again.
And just for kicks, here’s the cast of the show talking about it.
As is my custom, and habit, and my Bobby Brown prerogative, I’m going to go with the first page — as printed.
You know, printed with ink at these places we used to call “stores full of books,” where you handed the nice folks who live there paper decorated with dead presidents and they let you walk out with ALL KINDS OF YUMMY BOOKS.
So if you read the first page of this thing on a Kindle or iPad or Atari 2600, your page 1 will doubtless look different and such. Please give my regards to the Complaint Department.
After a line edit of Page 1, we’ll talk about our general literary impressions — about how metaphors are like similes, only different; about how my hatred of semi-colons runs deeper than my loathing of A-Rod; and how somebody wrote a mainstream and incredibly successful novel about sexy nonsense without putting any sort of sexy nonsense whatsoever on page 1.
Note: I’m striking out text, with any replaced text or notes in red, because my version of this novel would be called ONE SHADE OF RED after all the red ink we spill on this thing. Also, I don’t know what happened to this post. A friend wants to use it as an editing example, so I’ve resurrected it and updated the piece a little. Enjoy.
Also: If you have a famous novel with a brilliantly awful first page that needs serious red ink, send me your nomination.
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. (This may be a world record: bam, in the first sentence, she breaks a cardinal rule of fiction writing: don’t tell readers what the hero or heroine looks like by having them stare into a mirror, gaze upon their reflection in a pond or, I don’t know, whip out their driver’s license and say, “Huh, five-foot-ten, a hundred and twenty pounds, red hair, green eyes and a few freckles. Howbout that?” Ugh. This is not exactly “Call me Ishmael.”)Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal.(Unless the heroine’s hair is crucial to the plot — unless she starts out with unruly hair in Act 1, switches to a bob in Act 2 and shows how much she’s grown and changed by rocking a purple Mohawk in Act 3, the hair, it is Boring, and a Distraction. Also, nobody refers to friends and such by their full name. If she’s your bestie, you say “Katherine.”)I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet.(Enough already with the hair. Seriously. The only two words with any kind of real conflict and potential are “final exams,” and unless she flunks those, and therefore gets kicked out of university and has to live under a bridge in a cardboard box, it does not matter for the story.)Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush.(More about the hair? MORE? Not necessary, not interesting and not entertaining, unless her hair is secretly a sentient being, organizing a plot to take over the world, one follicle at a time. I’m guessing Bruce Willis, being immune from such attacks, will foil this plot.)I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. (Back to the staring-at-the-mirror trick, which has to go. Find another way to describe the heroine.) My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi-presentable.(Now we’re beating the Dead Hair Horse on its way to the glue factory.)
Kate is my roommate, and she has chosen today of all days to succumb to the flu. Therefore, she cannot attend the interview she’d arranged to do, with some mega-industrialist tycoon I’ve never heard of, for the student newspaper. (Awkward. First reference is Katherine Kavanaugh and now she’s Kate — just call her Kate both times, and let’s clean this whole thing up. Also, how many student newspapers score interviews with “mega-industrial tycoons” … who you’ve never heard of? If they’re really mega, then you have herd of them. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and so forth. If they you haven’t heard of them, they aren’t mega at all. Edited text follows in red.)Kate is my roommate and she’s chosen today, of all days, to succumb to the flu. That means I’m stuck interviewing some industrial tycoon for the student newspaper.So I have been volunteered. (Redundant.) I have final exams to cram for, (already said that) one essay to finish, and I’m supposed to be working this afternoon, but no – today I have to drive a hundred and sixty-five miles to downtown Seattle in order to meet the enigmatic CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings Inc. As an exceptional entrepreneur and major benefactor of our university, his time is extraordinarily precious – much more precious than mine – but he has granted Kate an interview. A real coup, she tells me.
Damn her extracurricular activities. (The last sentences were brought to you by the letter E: enigmatic, exceptional entrepreneur, extraordinarily, extracurricular. There are other modifiers that start with the letter E: extraneous, excruciating and ejector seat. I am looking for the handle, because it’s time to pull it.)
Kate is huddled on the couch in the living room.
“Ana, I’m sorry. It took me nine months to get this interview. It will take another six to reschedule, and we’ll both have graduated by then. As the editor, I can’t blow this off. Please,” Kate begs me in her rasping, sore–throat (compound modifier) voice. How does she do it? Even ill
(end of page 1)
Are you kidding me? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?
So this the first bit of a novel that sold a gazillion copies and rocked the literary world. It starts with an extended riff about wet hair and ponytails, as the author tells us how the heroine looks by having her look in a flipping mirror, goes back to the hair, uses every adjective and adverb in her dictionary that starts with the letter E and sets up the incredibly high stakes of whether or not a college student can tame her unruly hair and cram for her finals when she is forced — FORCED — to drive to Seattle and interview some billionaire for her friend.
God bless anybody who sells a ton of books or movie tickets. I adore books and movies, and the more people read books, and see good movies, the better.
HOWEVER: the first page of a book is a lot like the trailer for a movie. You start out with your best stuff, and it’s a rock-solid guarantee that the writing doesn’t get magically better ten pages or 100 pages later. The first page, and the first chapter, get polished and polished until they are a shiny diamond made of words.
Maybe you could argue this book is the one exception to that rule. From the reviews of this book, though, that’s not the case.
Why did it sell so well?
I believe, deep in my soul, that packaging matters more than the product.
The title of a book — or a movie, or a TV show — can save your bacon or kill you dead.
The cover of a book, or poster for a movie, is the next most important thing, because it’s what people see when they decide what to buy in Barnes and Noble or what to see on Friday night at those giant buildings where popcorn costs $9 a bucket.
You can’t pitch quality.
If you gave this a more typical title for the genre, and a more typical book cover, you’d probably end up with a title like A BUSINESS AFFAIR and some kind of Ryan Gosling looking guy wearing a suit on the cover with the heroine nearby, messing with her ponytail while she wears the highest of high heels and a business suit with a skirt that is just this side of immodest. Or the cover would feature a blindfold and a pair of handcuffs. That sort of thing. You know, something like this:
See? Here we go. The cover above isn’t just a good representation of what I’m talking about. I bet it’s a far, far better book. If you gave FIFTY SHADES OF GREY a more normal title like this, and more typical cover, I would bet you my house, my car and my first-born son that the book would not sell like hotcakes and get turned into movies.
The unusual title and cover isn’t a side issue. I believe it’s the entire reason this book went viral.
True story: guess what the author of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO wanted as a title for his novel? Go ahead. Guess.
Here’s the answer: MEN WHO HATE WOMEN.
Raise your hand if you think that title would have set the world on fire and led to hit movies.
The title and cover — the packaging — are 90 percent of the battle.
The packaging matters more than the product.
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is an interesting, literary title. The cover photo of a grey tie is also atypical of the genre and really stands out. The combined effect gives the book a literary veneer.
Some people might feel embarrassed getting on Flight 435 to Frankfurt and pulling out a paperback with A BUSINESS AFFAIR on the cover with a blindfold and handcuffs on the cover. And you can bet the male audience for such books is hard to find with a microscope.
Give it the gloss of lit-rah-sure, though, and that makes it okay for some people to read what they might never do: romance and erotica.
And hey, I respect the hell out of romance authors. Have learned a ton from them. So I’m not talking smack about the genre here–I’m specifically talking smack about the first page of this specific book. There are far, far better examples of romance out there. Amazing writers. Go support them.
FIFTY SHADES reminds me of the early Eric van Lustbader novels, like THE NINJA, which I think were hot sellers because they slipped in naughty bits to readers — mostly men — who expected, I don’t know, ninjas sneaking around at night and fighting. It was like a James Bond movie where they didn’t fade out when 007 kissed the girl. I can tell you 14-year-old boys around the globe had their minds blown. You can print this kind of stuff without getting arrested? I can buy it at the store and they don’t ask for ID? NO WAY.
And let’s give respect where it’s due: there’s an editor somewhere who came up with this title, and a cover designer who thought up the idea, got the right photo and nailed it.
Open up that brilliant cover, though, and you eventually get to the first page, which is a hot mess. And from the reviews, it doesn’t get better on page 2 or 152.
I truly thought, deep in my soul, that you couldn’t top the first page of THE FOUNTAINHEAD for a famous novel that is famously bad. But yes, we have a new champion.
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.
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?”
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Firing up Word is fine for writing anything short. For anything big–novels, screenplays and such–you need specialized tools.
Believe me. I’ve done it both ways, and trying to do something large and important on a word processor will drive you to drink.
Word processors don’t cut it
Writing a big project is like building a house. To keep on track and make sure the thing doesn’t fall down, you need (a) solid blueprints and (b) heavy equipment.
Short writing projects are like the little bits you can tackle in your garage, with the tools sitting around and the scrap wood in the far corner.
And sure, you can try to wrestle Word into doing heavy lifting by going wild with navigation options and headings. It’s sorta possible.
Yet no matter how hard you try to force Word into being able to handle a giant project, it’s like trying to excavate the foundation of your new house with a shovel instead of a bulldozer.
Even if you try to organize a single Word file that is organized enough to hold all three acts of a screenplay or all 100,000 words of your epic tale of when the elves rose up against the great tyrant, Santa the Claws, there’ll be all kinds of OTHER files hanging around.
A file about settings and another for characters. One for ideas and notes.
Another for loose text you cut out of a scene but might want to use elsewhere. You get the idea.
Switching between all those files is tough. Just getting a feel for things are is hard. How many words are all the chapters in Act 2 right now versus all of Act 1? Dunno. Get ready for a whole lot of highlighting and scrolling.
One tool to rule them all
I don’t care what you pick–Scrivener, yWriter, Manuskript, OneNote, Atomic Scribbler–as long as you test drive a bunch. For starving artists and writers out there, some of those choices are open source and free.
Try them all and pick one. You won’t go back.
There’s nothing like being able to see the whole project at a glance, then dive into different bits without digging around for which Word file or folder you put in all that stuff about pickpockets in Istanbul.
I just typed THE END on a novel written in Scrivener (yes! very excited about this one, and to beta readers, let’s chat). Am in the middle of transferring into Word for the final formatting and editing. Believe me, writing 80,000 words in Scrivener was a happy walk in the park compared to when I climbed that mountain using Word.
Haven’t used every single alternative, though I use OneNote at work and home and it’s both (a) pretty common and (b) pretty good.
A few lessons learned from my own silly mistakes
First, don’t get in a hurry to export your screenplay, Great American Novel or picture book about knitting hats for cats from Scrivener into Word.
You don’t want to export the whole thing right off because there’s an excellent, excellent chance you’ll have to import it all back in, which is a massive pain. Because once you look at it all in Word, you’ll spot six zillion structural things to fix that are a sweaty endeavor in a word processor and far, far easier in something like Scrivener.
And yes, I’ve made this mistake. As in last week.
Heavy equipment, right? If you’ve got a choice between hundreds of hours with a shovel versus two hours with a bulldozer, pick the dozer.
The second thing is don’t ever export the entire project.
Seriously. Do it in pieces.
Sure, every program out there has some kind of magical option on the menu tree that saves your entire creation as a .docx, PDF or whatever. Resist temptation.
Put the first few scenes of your screenplay or novel into Word for that final editing and polishing. Meanwhile, keep on doing heavier work on the later stuff of Act 2 and 3.
Only export scenes or chapters into that Word file when they’re truly, truly ready.
The third thing is that paragraphs that seem short and sweet in something like Scrivener–especially if you have a big screen–turn ginormous when you pop them into Word on double-spaced pages.
Finally, get religious about making backups. OneNote, Scrivener and similar programs work their magic in mysterious ways, especially in how they save all those separate bits. It’s complicated. I believe quantum particles and gravitational waves are involved.
The way these beasts save their files is nothing like a Word doc, where you can see that solitary file and copy the thing to a thumbdrive or email it to yourself. OneNote in particular is tricky with saving. I’m still not sure where, exactly, it’s saving things half the time. Be careful out there.
But those are little tips and tricks. There are no giant tradeoffs, like a choice between a moped and a pickup truck. The switch to heavy writing equipment is always worth it. The only real question is what type and brand of literary bulldozer you should drive.
P.S. What heavy writing equipment do you use today–and what other ones have you dated or divorced?
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.
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.
100K isn’t “way too much” for most genres. It’s right on the mark for many, and too few for a couple others.
Here’s the rundown:
Sweeping, epic fantasy: 150K at a minimum. You can’t do it right in less. Sweeping, epic, historical fiction: 120 at a minimum. More is better. Science fiction novels: 75-125K Romance novels: 65-100K Women’s fiction: 100K and up Crime novels: 80-100K Thrillers: 80-100K Noir novels: 65K and up but only double digits here, not triple. YA: 65-100K MG: 50K Picture books: fewer than 2000 words
While NaNoMo sets a goal of 50K, that’s for your FIRST DRAFT. Get that draft on paper and then go back and see where you need to develop the story, develop the character. If you can’t see where you need to expand, give it to a beta reader and ask where they have questions, or felt like they hadn’t gotten enough story. The bottom line is word count isn’t something you want to worry about till revisions. Use enough words, and no more, to tell the story fully and completely. You have to be WAY WAY outside the paramenters on word count before it’s an auto rejection. And even then, if your pages are well written and taut, I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt. Worry less about how many words you’ve got than do you have the RIGHT words.
Janet the Reid isn’t an outlier. You’ll see numbers in this range from different literary folks–believe them.
Sure, shoot for a rough draft of at least 50k, even if the final draft will probably be 70k or 100k. Just don’t freak out if you only hit 30k.
And don’t bust out the champagne if you somehow write 3,000 words a day, every day, and hit 90k. The final number isn’t really the thing. You could crank out 110k of a hot mess and listen, nobody smart would say hurray, you won #NaNoWriMo–or you could put together just 15,000 words of a brilliant, Hollywood-style treatment that includes all the right storytelling ingredients and believe me, nobody smart would say you lost.
MYTH NUMBER 4: If you already write for a living, hey, this will be fun and easy
Every year, a new crop of journalism-school graduates heads off to work at newspapers, magazines, blogs and television stations.
They love their job. And they love words–so why not write a novel?
Hey, I’ve been there. Journalism graduate. Former reporter. Writing to pay the bills since I was 17, and just like millions of other writers, I had zero doubts. We all took creative writing classes and wrote feature stories, right? We have DEGREES in this and are professional writers, damn it. Don’t tell us we can’t write something. Watch this.
Here’s the thing: fiction–short stories, plays, novels, screenplays–are a completely different animal than journalism. Writing a novel is also way, way different than what speechwriters, copywriters and other professionals do all day.
It’s like pro athletes. The fact you play quarterback for the Bears doesn’t mean you can pitch for the Cubs–or wake up tomorrow and be an NBA power forward, MMA fighter or ultra-marathoner.
Sure, the switch is easier for a world-class athlete than for an average schmoe off the street. That doesn’t mean the switch isn’t extremely tough, especially compared to folks who’ve dedicated their life to a sport you’re dabbling in.
Some switches are easier than others. Others are clearly harder.
Journalism to novels is tough–Reporters are drilled to write short pieces using the inverted pyramid, with the most important information first and additional details going down in importance until the end. This works to inform people quickly and helps editors cut stories to fit available space and time. It’s also the worst possible blueprint for anything of length. Fiction has the opposite structure: the most important information comes dead last, with a complex roller coaster structure instead of the dead-simple pyramid. So it’s like a power-lifter trying to switch to MMA fighting and facing a crash course in grappling, kickboxing, Muay Thai and jujitsu. The fact you can bench press a VW Jetta will not help your cause when some dude turns you into a pretzel and chokes you out.
Screenwriting to novels is easier–This is a lot closer because they use the same storytelling structures. The format is completely different, though. A screenplay might run 120 pages with a lot of blank space. We’re talking 15,000 words vs. a novel of 70k to 100k. The tough part here is making the switch to fill that space without (a) meandering or (b) cramming in three movies or novels worth of plot. It’s like a world-class sprinter switching to marathons. Both involve running. That style difference, though, is massive.
This isn’t to say, “Don’t try.” Not at all. Even though words pay your bills–and you have a diploma or three on your wall, along with all kinds of awards–be humble and search out good advice and coaching. Writing a book or novel is the most fun you can legally have as a writer, and you should maximize your chances of having a good time, especially as you embark on 30 days of insanity.
MYTH NUMBER 5: The best advice comes from the best authors
On the surface, this is common sense, right? Look to the best in the world for the best advice.
I’m not slamming the world’s best writers, people I adore and admire.
This a function of craft.
There’s a reason writing tips from folks like Stephen King seem like simple truisms. When you’re a world-class writer, rock star or NFL quarterback, you’ve internalized a lifetime of practice, coaching and performing. Nobody needs to teach you how to play chords on the guitar or throw an out route against two-deep coverage.
At the highest level, the tweaks that pros are mostly about what they need to focus on, and how they tune their mind and bodies to peak performance. Those tweaks tend to sound simple because they already spent years of painfully learning all the hard, technical bits and don’t need to relearn them.
I still remember a bestselling author (forget the name, and no, the googles didn’t help) asked by a new writer whether she outlined her books. Her response was telling: Oh, she didn’t do that anymore. But the person asking that question definitely should.
She wasn’t being cheeky or sarcastic. The author meant it: Don’t wing plot and structure until you’re experienced enough to draw the blueprints in your head. And yeah, that may take five or 10 or 20 years.
The old apprentice-journeyman-master system is the best model here. Skilled trades do a great job with this. When you’re just starting out, you learn the basics from journeymen. The masters don’t give you the time of day, not out of spite, but because you’re not ready for what they teach yet. It’s a waste of your time and theirs. Only after years of being an apprentice do you become a journeyman, teaching newcomers the craft and learning from masters.
Doctors have a similar system. They don’t hand you the diploma and say hey, you’re done, Doctor, go save lives and deliver babies and do some open heart surgery. There’s tons and tons and tons of work after medical school before you’re set loose.
My orthopedic surgeon told me this story: He’s in his mid-thirties and working poverty wages as a surgical resident, coming off a 24-hour shift in the hospital, and he walks out of the ER for a break and oh, that’s not a sunrise, that’s a car on fire in the parking lot. Not just any car, but his piece of crap car. That man didn’t get a late start. He went straight through: K-12, four years of college, med school, then years of surgical residencies and orthopedic surgery residencies.
A lot of professions are set up this way, with doctors, dentists, lawyers, architects, engineers, all learning from each other and going to seminars and CLEs and conferences their entire career.
Writers don’t have formal systems like that. Maybe you get a BA in journalism or an MFA in creative writing, then off you go. But that degree isn’t required. There’s no test we have to pass, no bar association determining who can and can’t be a writer, no apprenticeships and required continuing education.
There might be a writing group nearby, or a conference you fly off to attend. It’s all optional.
I’m not saying writers need to form guilds with staff meetings and TPS reports. My allergy to meetings is severe.
What I’m saying is this: If you’re doing #NaNoWriMo, or attempting your first novel in a month that doesn’t start with the letter N, look past stuff written by masters like Stephen King and search out books, seminars and lessons from journeymen. If you’ve never heard of them, that’s probably a good thing. Journeymen are who can teach you the foundations of the craft, the building blocks every writer needs to hone and practice for years.
Pick the right journeymen.
My library contains Every Book on Writing Known to Man, from journalism to speechwriting to fiction, and listen, 99 percent of those books are only useful for kindling during the zombie apocalypse. Not because the people who wrote them stink. Their focus is just typically on (a) a special system that works for them, (b) micro issues like grammar, dialogue or description or (c) one long, thinly disguised advertisement for you to hire them to learn the REAL secrets.
Most of the books on writing feel like guides to drywall when what you really want to do is build a house. Yeah, drywall is important. If you screwed it up, the house would look funky. But if you’re an expert on hanging drywall and clueless about pouring the foundation of a home, framing it and getting the plumbing and electrical right, I don’t care how pretty the drywall looks. That house is gonna fall down, flood or catch fire.
This is why I tell folks to check out the following four books on those foundational, big-picture skills:
SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder (or SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL by Jessica Brody)
There are other good books out there. I can vouch for those four. Get ’em all four for what, $70-something? Or snag them for free at this magical place they call the library. DO IT NOW.
Read those and take notes. Make some cheat sheets. And if you are a pro writer from another field, hear me now and believe me later in the week: the structures and lessons in those four books will start showing up in your day job. You’ll be surprised, if not shocked, at how much better a writer you’ll become.
MYTH NUMBER 6: If I block out a ton more hours of writing time, I’ll write a ton more
Oh, it’s easy to see how this seems like common sense. Having zero time per day to write definitely means zero words. Let’s burn some vacation time, then, during #NaNoWriMo, and block out a few weekends, and get up at 4 a.m. instead of 5 a.m. to crank an extra hour.
Stockpiling hours means piling up the words, right?
Part of this myth, that more time equals more words, or better words, is just flat-out wrong. There’s only so much juice in the tank. It’s just like any other job: longer and longer hours produce fewer and fewer results.
Inspiration works best when you’re fresh and happy, not tired and upset about not meeting an arbitrary quota of words for that day.
And my God, if we’re shooting for the bare minimum of a 70,000-word novel we gotta hit a quota of 2,333 words a day, which is nuts.
Even the rough draft goal of 50,000 words means cranking out 1,666 words per day for 30 days.
Nobody writes that much with dead-certain consistency, day after day, month after month. I’ve talked to full-time writers of all sorts: reporters, screenwriters, novelists, speechwriters, you name it. And here’s the deal: 500 words is a good daily minimum, 1,000 words is better and anything more than 2,000 words is a beautiful day.
You can’t pencil into your calendar that Monday will be 700, Tuesday is 2300 and Friday we’re doing 3,000. Creativity doesn’t work like that. The muse doesn’t respond to mandates from on high. She watches you plot out wordcounts and cackles the evil cackle of glee.
Literary giants like Hemingway recognized this fact. Hemingway counted actual, physical words coming out of these things they called typewriters and stopped when he hit 500 in a day. Done. He went off to spend the rest of the day watching bullfights and drinking whiskey. That’s because 500 a day, steadily, is actually a ton. That’s 182,500 words a year.
Two or three books. Plenty.
You can crank out 500 words in a half hour, easy. Ten minutes if you’re inspired and the coffee is any good.
The longer you go, though, the harder it gets to create new things on the page. That’s because this isn’t a factory where you punch in at 8 a.m., make widgets all day and punch out at 5 p.m.
Editing is different. I can line edit all day. That’s not creative work; it’s quality control, and yeah, you can kinda treat that like a widget factory.
Developmental editing is a lot tougher. Maybe four hours a day before you start to bleed a little too much red on the page and need to stop before you punch your way through a concrete wall.
The bottom line is this: Yes, write every day. Always. Even if it’s scribbling on a legal pad while flying from LA to NYC or bringing a little notebook to your kid’s soccer game.
Just don’t think that you’ll write the same number of words, day after day, or that blocking off a full eight hours on Sunday will means you can crank out 8,000 words to make up for lost time.
Now, I’ve heard folks say. “Well, famous authors have no other job, and my favorite novelist goes to their special mountain cabin with no internet, friends or family to bother them as they spend two months in solitude, chopping wood for the fireplace, eating dried venison and only reappearing with a long beard and a ream of paper upon which they’ve written the next Great American Novel.”
There are writers like that out there. Lee Child has done something like that, and I adore his books. Yet tons of other authors, including successful bestsellers of today and yesteryear, keep their day jobs. Scott Turow, Barry Eisler and Bob Dugoni are attorneys. Aurthur Conan Doyle was a surgeon who wrote in between seeing patients. Kurt Vonnegut worked all kinds of jobs, including advertising, teaching English and selling cars. I think half the reason for this is people need steady paychecks and health insurance–and the other half is because you don’t actually write that much more when you have all day to play with instead of 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. before the rest of the house wakes up and asks where the coffee is hiding.
Two hours is kinda all you need, if you’re steady with it. Give me a full two hours, with no interruptions, and I’ll empty my creative tank.
And I can tell you that when there’s no one else in the house, the Hound of the Baskervilles and I get restless after only three hours. We have to walk around town, drink of the coffee, talk to humans and bark at cute dogs. To recharge before coming back.
Chaining yourself to the desk for extremely long stretches just doesn’t work. Don’t schedule it, and don’t count on it saving your literary bacon.
MYTH NUMBER 7: The first draft is the longest, hardest part of writing a novel
Oh, it can take a long time. Fire up the googles and you can find all sorts of authors who spent five years, ten years or more writing a book.
Here’s the cold, honest truth: It can take three times as long to fix a bad first draft as it would to rewrite that thing from scratch. I kid you not.
And most first drafts are bad.
Doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a novel, a speech or a screenplay. First drafts typically stink and that’s typically fine. Because what you’re really shooting for is an interesting situation with interesting characters. All the rest can get fixed up or switched around.
Let’s peel back the curtain for a second. I just wrote the final chapter of a new novel this Sunday.
Good times, right? IS VERY EXCITING.
The first time I tried writing a novel, I was fresh out of journalism school and working at a newspaper while my wife went to law school. We had one beater car and ate a lot of Top Ramen, and on special nights, we’d splurge by spending $3 on the cheapest available frozen shrimp to turn that Top Ramen into a feast.
So writing a novel while she studied torts, hey, that’s cheap entertainment.
My first draft of that first novel was, as you can imagine, a hot mess. It was a victory just to complete the marathon and learn a few lessons from it.
Later novels had a lot more promise, but it still a lot of hard work to finish that first draft and even harder work to edit it–because pretty words were never the problem. Storytelling and structure were the tough bits, and whenever I’ve seen a flawed first draft–a long newspaper story, a speech, one of my own novels or an author who had me do developmental editing–it has almost always, always been easier to start back with a blank sheet of paper and redraw the blueprints than try to get in there with a bulldozer and redo the foundation and framing while still keeping the thing from falling down on your head.
This first draft I just finished is right around 60,000 words and it’s not even Nov. 1, so I can declare victory. Hey, what could be better than winning #NaNoWriMo before it even started?
It has a four act structure, with 9 chapters in each act, and for pacing the final total should be around 80k. Let’s say 20k per act, roughly, for pacing. Here we are as of Sunday, Oct. 21:
Act 1 already sits pretty around 20k.
Act 2 weighs in at 12k.
Act 3 is light at 9k.
Act 4 hops on the scale at a nifty 20k.
I didn’t blow past the middle acts–all 36 chapters are written. The middle two acts simply need to get filled out, with a lot of chapters at about 1k instead of 2k or 3k. But it’s all there. Those chapters will easily beef up to full weight with more description and dialogue.
How long did it take? The first act took a bit, with most of the real work being figuring out the blueprints. The last three acts were quick–about two months and change.
Hear me now and believe me later in #NaNoWriMo: I write crazy fast, even when I’ve only got an hour of free time a day, and will be thrilled to death November only brings me another 20k, adding to the 60k already in the can. Thrilled. Because this is the first draft I can remember where we’re not doing any major renovations, no foundation work, no heavy equipment rentals at all. Don’t need to switch the POV from first to third, combine three characters into one or eliminate the C plot in favor of a sturdier B plot.
That miracle will not happen very often. I won’t count on it happening again.
Roughly, oh, 99 percent of the time, the first draft will need big structural fixes you didn’t see coming. Heavy lifting. Even if you get lucky, editing is still the longest, toughest and most important part or writing anything of length, especially a novel.
Which leads to the last myth.
MYTH NUMBER 8: My friends, coworkers and family are the best editors available
Available because they’re nearby and the most likely to say yes without asking to get paid for their efforts.
The best because they like you, if not love you, and have the purest possible motivation to do a good job on something you clearly treasure and sweated hard to create.
This myth is deadly to you as a writer and to your relationships.
Deadly because some of them will say no, which will be hurtful, and some will say yes, which only delays the hurt. Let’s go through the possibilities if they say yes:
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.
Some who quit long before the last page will lie to make you happy.
When asked for actual edits, the ones who quit just say it’s great, because they like or love you.
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.