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. 

You can pitch ANYTHING except quality

Quality matters. Oh, it matters a lot.

Nobody wants to pay money to see a movie that stinks, a book that you can’t get past Chapter 1 or an album where every song hurts your ears.

You want quality. I want quality. Everybody wants it.

But you can’t pitch quality.

And you can’t package it.

So unless you’ve got something else — a quirk, a hook, a unique twist — quality alone won’t get you anywhere.

It won’t get people to look, listen or read in the first place.

So let’s pitch and package random, made-up things. Why? Because it takes practice and because you’re too close to your own stuff to do it right. And because it’s fun.

First up: two different bands.

Band A is a trio: drummer, guitar and bass / lead singer. They’re all recent music school graduates in their late twenties. They’re serious, seriously talented, good-looking and ready to break out. Let’s say they play a lot of punk rock and post-grunge.

Band B looks like a sure-fire loser. They’re all five years old. College degrees in music? Try “Hey, we’re potty trained, and we know our ABC’s.” They don’t know how to read music, write music or understand music theory like the other band. The guitarist knows one trick: crank up the distortion and make it loud. But they know the rough melodies and words to three different Metallica songs, and they do a cover of ENTER SANDMAN that’s close enough to be damned funny.

Here’s a real-life example of this sort of thing. A ton of people — 383,000 plus — have watched this kid sing, DON’T BRUSH MY HAIR IN KNOTS while her brother or neighbor kid banged on the drums.

Alright, here’s your homework: Write a one-sentence pitch for each band. Four words, if you want to ace this. Six words if you feel like a Cheaty McCheaterface.

Do it now. Find a piece of paper or fire up Word and do a pitch for each. Don’t even think about it.

I’ll go find silly videos on YouTube about swamp monsters in Louisiana or whatever.

OK, time’s up. Let’s compare pitches.

My best shot at the music majors: “Nirvana minus flannelly angst.” Four words, and I’m sort of cheating by turning flannelly into a word. Hard, isn’t it? You can’t get anywhere saying any kind of variation on, “This band, they’re really, really good.”

My pitch for the kids: “Kindergarteners cover Metallica.” Three words. Doesn’t have to be poetry here. Are you going to click on a link that says “Nirvana minus flannelly angst” or “this band is amazing?”

No. Not when there’s another link that has five-year-olds playing heavy metal?

Who wins the quality test? The serious music majors, by a mile.

Who wins the pitch and packaging test? The little kids who play bad covers of heavy metal. It’s so much easier. I would have to kidnap reporters to get them to cover our post-grunge band of music majors.

Could I get free ink and airtime with the Heavy Metal Monsters of Hillman Elementary? Absolutely.

Next: two different books

Our quality book is a literary masterpiece that will make you cry while snorting coffee through your nose, then take a fresh look at life and possibly quit your job and join a Tibetan monastery. It’s about a middle-aged man who works in a cubicle farm and lives in surburbia with a wife who’s on industrial amounts of Prozac and a teenage daughter who’s too busy thumbing her iPhone to notice who provides her with food, shelter, clothing and a VW Passat with only 13,000 miles on it. The hero’s life changes when he gets mugged on the way home. Also, a mime is involved, and a janitor who lives in a shack but says witty, wise things before he gets hit by a train.

The other book is a cheesy sci-fi novel with horrible dialogue. The premise: dinosaurs didn’t die off after some asteroid hit. They were smart. Really smart. And they left the planet in a fleet of spaceships to escape Earth long before that asteroid screwed things up for millions of years. Now they’re headed toward earth. And they want their planet back.

Ready? One sentence pitch for each. Four words.

GO.

OK, let’s see what we’ve got. Here’s my instant, no-thinking pitches.

Literary book: “Hell is a cubicle farm.” Five words. More of a title than a pitch. It sings to me, though, in a small, squeaky, off-pitch voice.

Sci-fi nonsense: “Space dinosaurs invade earth.” This is a kissing cousin to “Comet will destroy earth,” which has been the basis for about six different movies, including five by Michael Bay, with the other one starring Morgan Freeman for some reason, despite the fact that Morgan Freeman has ZERO CHANCE of flying up in a space shuttle with Bruce Willis and that dude who is an old college buddy of Matt Damon to blow up the comet,  asteroid or whatever with nuclear bombs.

VERDICT

The bottom line is, quality is one thing. In the end, it’s probably the most important thing.

Yet nobody will read your masterpiece, listen to your amazing album or see you act like no actor has acted in the history of acting-hood if they don’t get hooked by your pitch and packaging. They have to know you exist first.

Quality isn’t a pitch. “You should see that movie — it’s really good” doesn’t work. Your friends and family will ask, “What’s it about?” and if you don’t have four words to explain it, to give them a pitch, then forget it.

The next time to read a book, see a movie or listen to a great new song, think of four words.

How would you package it? What could you possibly say, just to your friends so they could see it, but to a reporter or a TV producer?

Back from the dead!

No, I’m not a zombie, sparkling vampire or Jean Claude Van Damme-ish universal soldier.

I simply haven’t posted in forever, and have missed the readers of this silly blog, who’ve taught me a lot and are always, always witty and entertaining.

So: with a crazy busy session at work, my evil choice was (a) come home and write a blog post, (b) hang out with the wife and son, (c) do laundry, pay the bills and possibly sleep or (d) finish and edit a novel.

I chose everything but (a) and it was the right choice. And now I’m coming up for air.

To folks who are into these things I like to call “books,” here are a few things I learned finishing a new novel, which is the most fun you can legally have as a writer.

(1) Keep switching it up and taking risks

If you keep writing the same sort of story with the same sort of heroes (6-foot-4 and Hollywood handsome) and villains (posh British accent and disfigured somehow) in the same sort of scenarios (stolen MacGuffin could destroy the world!), then hey, it’ll get stale. Same thing with non-fiction, whether it’s newspaper and magazine pieces, speeches or whatever you’re into.

Mix it up. That’s how you grow and learn.

There are endless ways to structure and execute writing. You can steal from anywhere:

  • Stand-up comics are amazing at setups and payoffs, and can do them in the most ruthless shortage of words.
  • Poets make sure every line is a magical spell.
  • Narrative non-fiction is actually a secret treasure chest of great stories that totally work as fiction except they actually happened, and they use the same structural tools as narrative fiction, also known as fiction.
  • Playwrights spell their own names wrong, yet they’re the masters of dialogue.
  • Linked movies and serial shows show you how to plot mega-stories (22 movies by Marvel that all tie together!) and how great beginnings can go completely wrong (Season Eight of GAME OF THRONES). 
  • Screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the evil secret to anything of length. And everything has SOME length.
  • Even if you write stark Nordic mysteries or spy thrillers, romance authors and horror writers show you how to do emotions right, and nothing matters without emotion.

(2) Writers are helpful souls–take the help, and offer help whenever you can

I only started this blog after romance authors found my silly ad to sell the Epic Black Car. 

And I learned an amazing amount from them. Am still learning. 

For a journalist-turned-speechwriter, writing thrillers for fun, romance is the last place I expected to look.

Look in those unexpected places.

Ask questions.

Answer questions from folks starting out.

The other person who taught me an insane amount is my sister, Pam, who won a Nicholl Fellowship for screenwriting. You wouldn’t think screenwriting has anything to do with speechwriting or novels. But you’d be completely wrong. Screenwriters are the absolute best. They’re building skyscrapers that hold up to hurricanes. Meanwhile, other books on writing tell you to build a two-story house out of drywall, then you wonder why the thing falls down after the first rain.

Also: there are authors, writers and editors I met here from around the world, folks who are continually witty, talented and interesting. I want to give a shout out to two in particular — Alexandria and Joshua the Sharp — for their help this year. You two rock.

Keep on meeting people, on Twitter, the Gram, the Book of Face or whatever new thing Silicon Valley invented last week. You never know who’ll turn out to be amazing and will change your life, or whose life you might change. YOU NEVER KNOW.

(3) Take things apart to see how they work

If you read this silly blog (and hey, you’re doing that now), it’s clear just about every post involves taking something apart to see why it’s either (a) horrifically good or (b) beautifully bad.

That’s the interesting and fun part of stories, books, movies, music videos and speeches. How do they work and why?

What could you do to fix a flawed piece or improve something that’s already amazing?

Complaining about something is the easiest thing in the world. You can throw a Nicholas Spark novel across the room (go ahead, that’s kosher any day that ends in Y), walk out of a lame movie or end a show on Netflix after 5 minutes and say, “That sucks.”

Except there’s behind those words. Zero intellectual weight. Anybody can kvetch about something that stinks, or gush about artistic things that are seven separate flavors of awesomesauce.

It takes no talent to do those things.

Figuring out HOW things rock or stink–that’s the fun and difficult part.

The best part.

And I hope this blog helps you do 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? 

Storytelling insights from 3 minutes of glorious film with subtitles

tinseltown tuesday meme morpheous

Yes, I watch movies with subtitles, even if they’re in black-and-white, with people smoking French cigarettes while speaking French and watching things happen to other people in some scrappy, destitute part of Paris or, for variety, a tiny farming village in Normandy. 

We are talking about a different sort of foreign film with subtitles.

  • Bonus No. 1: This film is 3 minutes long instead of three hours.
  • Bonus No. 2: There is hardly any talking, or any need to read the subtitles at all.
  • Bonus No. 3: Most importantly, this little film can teach us all great big lessons about storytelling and structure.

Also, unless you have no soul, it will make drops of water drip from your eyes and scurry down your cheeks.

Here. Watch the clip in high definition. Or low def, it that’s your thing. Whatever floats your boat.

Okay. All done?

Let’s take it apart and see what makes it tick.

Strong bones

This little film has strong bones. The structure is a roller coaster: things are bad (son is running away), things get even worse (son nearly dies, is paralyzed), then in the climax, things get resolved and the world is forever changed, at least for this family.

The father is not sympathetic at first, right? My first thought was bad casting. No. Good storytelling. The main narrative question is, “Will they get together?” This is a love story, which doesn’t have to be a rom-com with a high-powered professional woman who eventually gets together with a chubby, unemployed virgin who owns the Largest Comic Book Collection Known to Man, because for some reason, that’s what half the rom-coms are these days.

The other half of rom-coms star Matthew McConaughey.

Back to this little film: if they’re getting together in the end, they must be split apart in the beginning.

Another narrative question is, “How do these people suffer, change and grow?”

The father moves from stern, humorless taskmaster to loving and dedicated. He’s the hero of this little film, because it’s his actions that matter most. The normal thing would be for him to let the doctors do their work, right? But it’s his turn to rebel. He carries his son out of the hospital, out of the wheelchair and back into the world. Rehab isn’t going to be nurses and machines and doctors. It’s going to be father and son, learning to walk again.

And all that suffering and sacrifice pays off. The son also transforms. In the beginning, he’s rebellious and aloof. In the end, he’s loyal and connected to his family.

The mother is a flat character. She suffers, but she doesn’t change. That’s OK. Having two characters go through all this in three minutes is plenty.

Real stories beat Michael Bay explosions

This tiny film, which is a flipping COMMERCIAL, moved me far more than bazillion-dollar CGI blockbusters involving dinosaurs, vampires or robots that transform themselves into Chevies.

You can take those $294 million budgets full of special effects and a scripts credited to five different writers. (Pro-tip: the more screenwriters you throw in the kitchen, the crazier the thing that comes out of the oven.)

Give me a story with strong bones and a tiny budget.

Give me people I actually care about, because I don’t give a hoot about Shia LaBeuf and Megan Fox fighting robots or whether the awkward teenage girl gets together with the Sparkly British Vampire vs some kid who used to be a Power Ranger.

Give me a story. A story like this.

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?

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.

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.

Why writing is EXACTLY like running, except for the part about words

Most of the folks who follow this silly blog are creative types–novelists, editors, journalists, photographers and other brilliant, beautiful people.

So let’s talk about creativity.

Are the arts a habit? Or does the muse randomly descend upon your noggin, so long as you make the right sacrifices and entreaties?

Though my love for the muse is strong, I’m making the case for habit.

All the way.

Because writing–and other creative work–is a hell of a lot like running. Here’s why.

1) The more you do it, the easier it gets

You can take classes about writing (or running), read books, watch videos and listen to experts.

In the end, though, there’s no substitute to getting off your duff and doing it.

And the more you write, or run, the easier it gets.

The first time you run a mile, or write something Serious, it’s painful.

Sometimes so painful that you question why anyone would do this ever again.

But then the next time, you run two miles, or write something twice as long, and it only hurts half as much.

Creativity is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets.

2) You can’t save up and go wild

It’s far, far easier to write 500 words a day, or run 5 miles five days a week, then tell yourself, “Hey, I’m busy this week, but on the weekend, I’ll crank out 2,500 words of that novel or run 25 miles.”

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: trying to cram it all into a weekend, or a single day, is setting yourself up to fail.

A mile a day is easy. You can walk it.

Same thing with 100 words, which you can do with a stubby pencil and the back of an envelope while hanging upside down on a roller coaster.

Two miles a day is still easy, just as 200 words a day is a breeze.

The difficulty goes up exponentially.

Famous novelists in history like Hemingway used to count their words religiously, by hand. They didn’t have a button on Word that did the work for them. And they’d quit for the day after hitting a target like 500 words.

Doesn’t sound like much. Yet that 500 a day is huge.

If you write 500 words a day, every day, that’s 182,500 words a year.

Three novels, unless you’re doing sagas about elves and dragons and such, in which case congrats on finishing that prologue. (I say that out of love.)

Sure, on good days you’ll crank out 1,000 words, and on great days you’ll hit 2,000 and if you’re absolutely on fire, congrats and 4,000.

It’s just that you can’t count on 2,000 words a day, every day, week after week.

Same thing with running. I can do 5 miles maybe three days a week, and work up to four or five days a week after a month or two.

Might do ten miles once a week, if I’m feeling it.

Ten miles a day, every day, isn’t realistic.

Resting all week and running 25 miles on Sunday? Nopity nope nope. Ain’t happening.

3) Loud music and solitude

There are writers I know who can’t write unless the door is closed, to get rid of that feeling that somebody is behind them.

Unless you have a twin, or a great friend who’s in exactly the same shape as you, it’s tough finding a running partner who goes at the same pace and is available to run whenever you can cram it in.

Writing and running are both made for headphones and solitude.

This is one area where running and writing diverge, since I don’t write anything Serious without a fresh cup of joe, while running five or ten miles while carrying a coffee mug hasn’t worked out yet.

4) Coaching, advice and gear isn’t everything, but it sure helps

It’s possible to write only using a pen and legal pads.

Somebody could run barefoot, every day, and be faster than a sedentary person running once a week wearing $225 shoes.

HOWEVER: good coaching, tips and equipment help.

I type faster on an ergonomic keyboard and run faster with good shoes.

Scrivener is better than Word, which is better than a legal pad.

And in both things, there’s always something to learn. One of the wisest men I know says, “Whenever I meet somebody, I learn something.”

Never think asking for advice is a flashing neon sign telling the world you’re an amateur.

Coaching, advice and gear gets more important the better you get at writing or running.

Professional runners and writers don’t tell people, “Yeah, I do this for a living, which makes me an expert, so why would I ask people for help or advice?”

The opposite is true, with the best professionals in the world seeking out the MOST coaching and help, since even a 1 percent boost to their performance matters.

5) Mixing it up is essential

You don’t run the same route, distance and pace every time. You do a hill day, a sprint day, a distance day.

Same thing with writing. There’s great benefit to mixing up what you do and layering it all together.

Journalists should try fiction.

Novelists should give poetry a go.

Screenwriters can gain from checking out rhetoric and speechwriting.

And there’s an order to how you write or train.

Runners and other athletes do workouts in certain progressions: start slow and build up volume. Rest, stretch, massage, ice, heat. It’s not the same thing every day.

Writers have their own progressions. You can’t write and edit at the same time, just like you can’t run and stretch in the same minute. These things happen in series, not parallel.

6) Deadlines focus the mind

Without deadlines, it’s easy to meander along. There’s always tomorrow, next week, next month, next year.

Deadlines make things happen.

I’m running more and more often, and for longer distances, due to a looming deadline: a half marathon in September.

Same thing is true with writing, where deadlines rules.

For the month of August, I did a little experiment. Could I write one post on this silly blog every day, put down at least 500 words a day on the new novel–plus train for the half marathon?

Running got easier, every time. Two miles turned into three miles, then five, six, seven, nine, ten–it flowed.

Without that half-marathon coming up, I would’ve been happy doing five miles forever, and never tested myself to see if nine or 10 would kill me.

Though I missed one Friday with the blog, I doubled up on a different day for 31 posts in 31 days. NOT TOO SHABBY. Pretty sure that’s the most I’ve posted in any month since the dawn of time.

And on the novel, I cranked out 15 chapters, which works out to half a chapter a day, every day.

For structure geeks, that’s 15 chapters out of 36 total in a four-act structure, with nine chapters per act.

Three chapters shy of half a novel is a beautiful, beautiful month.

You don’t complain about that, unless you want the Writing Gods to strike you down with lightning after opening a sinkhole beneath your feet.

I raise my glass to August, for it was Good.

Not good because the muse decided to bless me.

Good because habit, discipline and dedication beats inspiration. Every single time.

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.

One man’s love letter to romance authors and readers

Listen: romance novels don’t get enough respect.

Not for the amazing army of authors. Not for the editors and literary agents.

And not for the millions of loyal readers.

That should change. Here’s why:

1) The world needs books more than ever

If you care about ideas and words, you should care about books.

Newspapers and magazines are below books on the food chain of ideas and insights. I say this as a former journalist who bleeds newsprint if you cut me.

Only books give a writer enough space and time to truly dive deep into a topic.

Every library is an arsenal of liberty and each book is a foot soldier in the war against ignorance, apathy and hate.

We need books more than ever, with propaganda, misinformation and tyrants—or wannabe tyrants—one the rise around the world.

Books matter. When it comes to ideas, they are irreplaceable.

Oh, television and movies make billions. Money isn’t the same as importance. TV, movies and the Series of Tubes can’t replace the role of books.

And the foundation of a healthy book industry? Romance novels.

It’s not even close.

Crime and mystery novels are No. 2, at $728 million a year in the U.S. book market. Sidenote: there are conflicting opinions of what genre is No. 2. I’m not getting into that fight.

Romance novels lap the field with a staggering $1.44 billion a year.

2) Romance is not a fad

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.

You can make a case that YA dystopian fiction was a fad, just like a zombie movies and books were once hotter than the sun but now colder than an icy hand wrapping around your throat at midnight in a graveyard.

There are fads in publishing, just like anything else.

Romance novels, though, are eternal and infinitely varied.

There’s contemporary and historical, futuristic and fantasy, gothic and paranormal, series and suspense, straight and LGBTQ.

Sidenote: I believe a good percentage of romantic suspense novels would get placed on the mystery and thriller shelf if you reversed the genders of the protag and love interest. Switch the genders of my favorite series, the Reacher novels, and bookstores would put those on the romantic suspense section. I own every Reacher novel and they all have a strong romance subplot, with the love interest the most important character aside from Reacher, somebody who gets more time on the page than the disposable villain Reacher will inevitably outsmart before he crushes their bones into powder. The fact that the gender of the protag determines where the book gets placed on the shelves kinda pisses me off.

3) Women rule the book world, yet men dominate book reviews

Women hold 70 to 80 percent of publishing jobs and make up the majority of both literary agents and book buyers.

However: male authors and male critics dominate book reviews.

That’s upside down.

It’s smart business to pay attention to what people buy, and dumber than dumb to ignore the actual market and what your customers want.

If movie critics ignored 90 percent of action movies and only wrote reviews for black-and-white French existentialist movies, the average movie-goer would be hacked off. I don’t care what industry you talk about. Car reviewers who only write about $240,000 exotic sports cars aren’t really helping their readers, who buying sedans and pickups and minivans.

Book critics and book reviews should reflect what book buyers actually put down money to buy.

4) Romance is a story that needs to be told

Literature—and all stories—is really about what’s worth living for and what’s worth dying for.

War and action movies answer the question of what’s worth dying for.

The best stories about what’s worth dying for show how tough this choice can be. CATCH-22 doesn’t say World War II was a bad war. Clearly, Hitler needed to be stopped. The question Yossarian struggles with is truly this: After the war is basically over, do you really need to risk your life flying more missions that will probably get you killed, or should you save your life by becoming a deserter, shunned by your country but still breathing?

Romance novels are about what’s worth living for.

Who should pick as a partner or spouse, to love and cherish and maybe start a family?

That’s a massive, massive question. You better get it right, because getting it wrong can be the biggest disaster ever.

Romance novels show people struggling to make the right choice. Who should you pick as a partner in love and life?

5) Romance authors, editors and readers are strong where male writers are weak

If you’re a male writer, I’d suggest getting editors, critique partners and beta readers with a romance background.

Every. Single. Time.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: Romance folks are strong where most male authors are weak. Seek them out. And when you need a professional editor, hire them.

The opposite is also true. I’ve edited novels for a number of female authors, including romance authors writing thrillers (or romantic suspense), and I think we both learned a ton each time. Strengths and weaknesses should be complementary, and you won’t find that with an editor, critique partner or beta buddy who’s a clone of you.

Also: romance authors and readers have the biggest and best-organized communities, online or in person. They have their act together.

RWA is an army, folks. Do not mess with them.

6) HFN and HEA are squad goals, people

Men should push for tax breaks for romance novels. Seriously.

This is my experience: My wife reads everything. She’s a trial attorney and the mayor, basically working two jobs. And sure, we have all kinds of books in our library and all over the house: books on rhetoric, the classics, non-fiction, thrillers, mysteries. Everything. Yet the last thing she or I want to do after a hard day is to read heavy non-fiction or dense, depressing lit-rah-sure, which on weeknights makes me feel like I have to pull an all-nighter to write a 20-page term paper, and I am done with all that.

Romance novels let her relax. They make her happy, just like reading thrillers makes me relaxed and happy.

Happy wife, happy life.

There’s a reason why if there’s no HFN (Happy For Now) or HEA (Happily Ever After) that it’s not actually a romance novel. Could be a tragic love story, like ROMEO AND JULIET, but not a romance.

The message of romance novels is that despite how hard it can be to pick the right person, and build a strong relationship with them, all of that is worth the effort. That’s why the ending has to be HFN or HEA.

I like that message.

Strike that. I love it.

It’s hopeful, noble and something we all need to hear.

Because in the end, it’s our relationships—not how many digits are in your bank account, or how fancy your car and house is—that really matter in life.

P.S. As a bonus, check out this great infographic from PBS. My only quibbles: at the end, they give FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and the e-book trend too much space, though this was back when that book was huge and e-books seemed like the future. Now, readers are pushing back for more physical books. Because hey, there’s nothing like the smell and feel of a read hardcover.

Hey there

Here’s the deal: I’ve been crazy busy with Other Things, and did not post to this silly blog much lately. And I missed it.

Missed dissecting the first pages of novels, the full three minutes of insane music videos and the reasons why the Series of Tubes will always, always be awash in videos of cats.

Missed talking smack with writers, editors and creative types scattered on every continent.

Missed the whole damn thing.

It’s good to be back here. Am writing a post every day for the month of August (so far, so good) and it’s made writing other things, for work and fun, much easier and faster. A happy snowball.

So: thanks for reading, thanks for commenting or tweeting at me–and thanks to many of you for teaching me a lot.

P.S. Just shout if you have suggestions for posts, such as which novels, music videos or movies (a) desperately deserve to get bled on with a red pen, (b) need to be taken apart to see why they work so well or (c) are so godawfully bad they circle back to good. I may open this thing up for guest posts, even. YOU NEVER KNOW.

Why all writers need to study the secrets of screenwriting

So my genius sister, Pamela Kay, made a series of YouTube videos on how to write screenplays. She won a Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy and knows her stuff. Heed her words, even if you don’t write screenplays, because this field is crazy useful for any sort of writer.

Why? The secret to all writing is structure–and nobody is better at structure than screenwriters.

Not because they’re magical and amazing, though many are. It’s because you can hide bad structure with pretty words in a novel or feature story.

With screenplays, you can’t hide the bad bones of a story, because that’s all people see: the bones.

Writing today has far too many silos, mostly focused on little details, with few notions on structure at all:

  • Writing to inform: Journalists are stuck inside the inverted pyramid, a structure that’s inherently boring for anything of length, which is why journalists typically stink at novels
  • Writing to persuade: Speechwriters know the structure of rhetoric, but it’s not really meant for writing anything to inform or entertain
  • Writing to entertain: Novelists, playwrights, poets and screenwriters all have their own jargon and tricks, like they live on different planets

This reminds me of boxing, wrestling and martial arts before the days of MMA, with everybody doing their own little thing and swearing they’d whip the lesser disciplines. Except boxers got destroyed by the wrestlers, who got owned by the jujitsu people, who later on got wrecked by the boxers who learned how to sprawl. To be truly good fighters, fighters had to set aside their pride and train in every discipline.

I believe the same is true for writers today. There’s never been more content out there, with scads created every second all around the world, so there’s never been more competition to get read.

From having a toe in journalism, speechwriting and novels, I know you could slave away in one of these fields for years and still miss out on core fundamentals. Not learning from other disciplines is like building a house when all you know is drywall and plumbing–the thing is going to fall down.

Screenwriting is key because structure is why 99 percent of bad drafts are bad. Go look at a bad draft. Line by line, the words are plenty pretty. Structure is what vexes us all.

So: I hope this video gives you a taste of screenwriting and her series sparks something in you. Not so you can write LETHAL WEAPON 7: DANNY GLOVER AND MEL GIBSON BUST OUT OF THE SANTA MONICA NURSING HOME, but so you can learn how to pour the foundation of any sort of story, making it stands strong so you can move on to the wiring (dialogue), plumbing (setups and payoffs) and drywall (description).

Any sort of writing with strong bones will beat the stuffing out of the prettiest words with a weak foundation.

If you want more, here are two of the basic texts, the guide stars: STORY by Robert McKee is a deep dive on structure, while SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder is a breezy little look at genres, beat sheets and story, using movies we all know.

P.S. Pam did a ton of these videos, so I’ll try to post one every Tuesday as long as she keeps making them.

Deep story goodness for writers via The Mother of All Cheat Sheets

kiss-the-librarian-spike

If you’re attempting NaNoWriMo and are on track to finish the Great American Novel, congratulations. Carry on.

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo and there’s no way you’ll give birth to a full novel by Dec. 1 without quitting your job, getting divorced and downing pots of coffee along with stimulants sold by a sketchy long-haul truck driverthen congratulations, this post is for you.

Click with your mousity mouse to read Part1—Why NaNoWriMo is noble nuttiness–and 8 steps to make it easier (big thanks to WordPress for featuring this post on their front page)

Click here to read Part 2— Why first drafts are always flawed and how to fix them

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: given the choice of holding in my  hands (1) an absolutely finished hot mess of 100,000 words or (2) a single page blueprint of a brilliant story, I’d pick B.

Every time.

And you should, too.

Blueprints and structure are also the way you FIX a hot mess of a novel.

You sure don’t fix a train wreck with spell check and diligent proofing.
Continue reading “Deep story goodness for writers via The Mother of All Cheat Sheets”

Part 2 of Why NaNoWriMo is noble nuttiness–Why first drafts are always flawed and how to fix them

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

writing-cat

Hundreds of thousands of people around the world are driving themselves nuts (a) trying to write beautiful sentence after beautiful sentence that (b) build upon each other to (c) craft a novel during NaNoWriMo (National Write a Novel Month).

Go here to read the first post: Why NaNoWriMo is noble nuttiness–and 8 steps to make it easier

The word that matters in that first paragraph is “build.”

You don’t build with beauty.

Because pretty words aren’t what truly matters. Not for anything of length.

Writing is like building a house, except most writers get taught that it’s the surface stuff that matters–the drywall and the paint, the cabinetry and tile work. Then we’re surprised when our pile of 75,000 pretty words crumbles because there’s no foundation.

godzilla-destroys-building

Sure, pretty words can hide a bad structure when you’re talking about something small, like a beautiful wooden beach hut sitting on the sand. You can hang out in there for an afternoon or a weekend. Sooner or later, though, it’ll get blown down or swept away by the waves, because the hut isn’t built to last.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: the longer and more important what you’re writing is, the stronger your foundation needs to be. Continue reading “Part 2 of Why NaNoWriMo is noble nuttiness–Why first drafts are always flawed and how to fix them”

Why NaNoWriMo is noble nuttiness–and 8 steps to make it easier

kermit-the-frog-writer

Every year in November, writers around the world attempt something noble and worthwhile: to not just write a novel–the Toughest Writerly Thing A Writer Can Do–but finish the thing in an insane amount of time, as in the 30 short, rainy days of November.

This is a huge, organized thing, nicknamed NaNoWriMo, the kind of acronym only writers could come up with after a marathon viewing of BLADE RUNNER and THE MATRIX trilogy. (Spoiler alert: first one with Neo is perfect while the second and third will ruin your childhood).

HOWEVER: writing an entire novel in 30 days is would be more accurately described by the non-acronym of Crazytown.

With logic and numbers, I’ll show you: (a) why this is nuts, even if you really, really want to do it, and (b) how an alternative is easier while (c) giving you better results.

When logic and math fail, I’ll resort to dirty rhetorical tricks. You won’t even see them coming.

Sidenote: Yes, many people have successfully completed NaNoWriMo, and you may be one of them. That’s awesome. Get down with your bad self.

The Math, It Is Crazy

Let’s say the finish line for a novel is 75,000 words.

There are 30 days in November, which means you need to hit 2,500 words a day, every day.

Oh, no problem, you say: I’m getting up at 4 a.m. to drink two pots of fine Columbian coffee as I bang on the keyboard for hours. And I type fast. Watch me.

Sure, that math looks easy. Say your average person types 50 words per minute, which equals:

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

No sweat. We’ll crank this thing out in a week.

Except nobody who writes for a living produces 24,000 words a day. Nobody.

And they’re doing this full-time, with all kinds of experience and support, like professional editors and fancy VR helmets that turn thoughts into words. Kidding about that. They get implants and have to insert a sharp cable thing into their skull. I hear it hurts and itches all the time.

matrix-neo-plugging-in

Here come the word counts:

  • 200 words = letter to the editor
  • 500 words = five-minute speech
  • 600 words = newspaper story
  • 800 words = oped
  • 1,000 to 8,000 words = short story
  • 3,000 words = 30-minute keynote speech
  • 15,000 words = screenplay
  • 20,000 to 50,000 words = novella
  • 60,000 to 200,000 words = novel

Believe me, not even the fastest reporter writes 5 stories an hour, which translates into 40 stories a day and 200 stories a week. Most reporters do two or three stories a day. I’m insanely fast, and I don’t know a single professional speechwriter who’s ever cranked out a keynote speech in an hour, much less a keynote an hour, every hour, for a week. Such a person does not exist. Most keynotes take an entire week of research and writing.

As for novels, not even Stephen King, back when he was fueled by illicit substances, produced a novel a week.

This isn’t a function of brains, talent, or being stuck in meetings 3 hours a day when you’re rather be banging on the keyboard.

Writing is more than typing. It’s a sexy vampire (non-sparkly) which sucks out your life force until you’re a dry little husk who needs to recharge. There are only so many words inside you every day until you smash into the wall.

This, for example, does not count as writing.

the-shining-all-work-and-no-play-typewriter

So what’s the floor and ceiling for daily word counts?

The bare minimum? 500 words

Literary gods like Hemingway were famous for counting words and walking away from the typewriter after hitting 500. Then they went off to drink wine, watch bull fights and whatever else Hemingway and other literary gods did with their free time.

Totally fine, if those are 500 world-class words. That’s 15,000 words a month, which is about two novels a year. Wonderful.

So our floor is 500 words a day, as long as those are good words. Yet this won’t get us there: 15,000 words in 30 days doesn’t get us close to a 75,000-word novel.

What’s the ceiling?

If 500 words is our minimum, we want the max, right? Give it to us. DO IT NOW.

Not gonna lie to you: 1,000 words a day is good, 2,000 words is great and 2,500 would be amazing.

You simply can’t count on being amazing every day for 30 straight days.

It’s a lot like running. Sure, plenty of people can run 5 miles in a day (or write 500 words). And yeah, some people could run 5 miles a day for an entire month. Your knees would rebel, but a lot of people could slog through it.

What’s not so possible is running a half marathon every day for a month (13 miles or about 1,300 words). And what’s insane is thinking that millions of amateur runners should try to run a complete marathon every day (26 miles or roughly 2,600 words) for a month. Don’t know about you, but I would be in the hospital after Day Six.

No matter how noble the goal is of NaNoWriMo, it’s setting up a lot of people for failure.

Sure, there are people who train hard and do even crazier things, like the folks who compete in 100-mile ultramarathons because plain old marathons aren’t tough enough. I’m not saying it’s completely impossible for everyone on the planet. People manage to do all sorts of things.

What I am saying is NaNoWriMo is like trying to get average people interested in the sport of mountain climbing by lining them up and attempting to set a speed record for climbing Everest in borrowed snow pants and Moon Boots.

Chances are, a lucky few will make it, as they always do each year, which only makes people who got stuck halfway to the finish line feel like failures.

Even if you quit your job and focus on doing this full time, you’re not guaranteed to finish the sucker, and that may make you give up on the dream of writing, which would be all kinds of wrong. Our world depends on good words, great ideas and compelling stories. We need more writers, and they need to be healthy and happy, not sleep-deprived wrecks who vaguely remember having a spouse and kids.

An easier, smarter path

Let’s think of a way to get a better product with far less stress and labor.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: it is pritnear impossible to fix a pile of 75,000 words with structural problems. (Yes, pritnear is a word, I kid you not.)

Been there. Tried it many times.

Want to hear a horrible truth? The fastest, most reliable method of fixing a bad draft is this: hold it over the trash can, drop it and wait for the clang to stop echoing. Then start over on page 1.

So even if you succeed in cranking out the required number of words, the end product is probably DOA, which is tragic.

The toughest part of writing is actually drawing up blueprints that work. If you have a solid foundation and good bones, adding the details and finishing the job is a piece of cake, whatever your favorite cake may be: cheesecake, German chocolate (not actually German) or what have you. But not blueberry pie, since that’s pie. Illegal. Not gonna do it.

Instead of quitting your job and holing up in Motel 6 to write 2,500 words a day, no matter what, let’s shoot for 500 words a day. Except those 500 words are foundational and structural.

We’re skipping all the non-essential filler, the description and dialogue, and going to the essence of the actual story: motivations and conflicts, setups and payoffs, reversals and revelations.

You can boil down any movie or novel into what Hollywood calls a treatment. It’s a quick and dirty way of writing the foundation of a movie or novel, plus you don’t need to learn any of the wacky formatting (sorry, sis) screenwriters use in Tinseltown.

Treatments are rough and raw, which doesn’t disguise the fact that the story they tell is pure and beautiful.

So, here’s the easier path to NaNoWriMo in eight steps:

  1. Figure out if your ending is up or down, and make your beginning the polar opposite. There are good reasons for this. Ask me later.
  2. Grab the late, great Blake Snyder’s book SAVE THE CAT and figure out what type of story, you’re telling, which is a different animal than genre or setting. JAWS, FATAL ATTRACTION and ALIEN are not a horror movie, domestic drama and sci-fi flick–they’re all the same primal story, Monster in the House: you’re in an enclosed place with a monster, and it’s going to eat you unless you kill it.
  3. Make a copy of Snyder’s beat sheet and start playing around with the typical twists, reversals and revelations of your type of story.
  4. Start your treatment from the villain’s POV, because they get up early and go to work long before the hero stops hitting the snooze button and finally takes a shower. The villain matters more than the hero. Poor villain = poor story, no matter how interesting your hero is.
  5. Let the villain win, all the time, and in interesting ways.
  6. Make the hero lose, all the time, despite their best and most clever efforts. A hero who wins at every turn is boring–that’s a romp, not a story.
  7. When you’ve cranked out your 500 words for that day, pour a glass of whatever you enjoy and watch classic examples of that story, or read great novels in that genre for inspiration. Take a few notes. Notice how they create setups that don’t pay off until later, all the while managing to (a) keep you curious by raising narrative questions they don’t answer right off and (b) find new ways to surprise you in scene after scene.
  8. When you’re done with the treatment–shoot for 15,000 words–go through and eliminate or combine every character you can. Show no mercy. If somebody only shows up in one scene, kill them off and give that role a core character. Whatever role is played by evil minions, sidekicks and love interests, try to give those jobs to your villain and protag. Make them do their own dirty work.

That’s it. If you do this, at 500 words or less a day, you’ll have the core of a much stronger novel than if you banged on the keyboard like a rabid chipmunk for 20 hours a day.

This is the short version. Look around this silly blog for all kinds of related posts:

Whatever your Evil Writing Plan for this month may be, I wish you godspeed.

Why MAKE ME by Lee Child gets graded on a curve

MAKE ME by Lee Child

I can’t count how many hardcover Reacher novels line the top shelf of my library. Lee Child is that good.

MAKE ME is his latest novel about Reacher, and it’s also good.

Not bad. Not great.

Acceptable.

Once again, our hero is (a) wandering the small towns of America only to (b) bump into a beautiful girl with a gun who (c) is investigating Some Crazy Problem Involving This Small Town.

This is also the plot of about 17 other Reacher novels.

The towns change. The nature of the evil plot changes. The women change.

Reacher never does

Lee Child is one of my favorite authors, the greatest living thriller writer, and Reacher is a great character. The brain of Sherlock Holmes shoved into the body of the Hulk, funny, smart and tough. A great hero.

HOWEVER: Child isn’t stretching a single writing muscle here. Don’t think he even had to warm up.

It’s as if the devil snuck into his bedroom late one night and said, “If I promise you riches and fame, the price being you have to write the same book every year—year after year, until you die—do we have a deal?”

If we’re grading Child against other thriller authors, he gets an A.

But we’re not. There’s a huge body of work, that top shelf full of Reacher novels already written. MAKE ME sits among them.

Not bad. Not great.

Acceptable.

There is proof that Lee Child can blow expectations out of the water, when he does feel like stretching those writing muscles.

One of the few first-person POV novels he did, THE ENEMY, slayed me with clever clues, revelations and twists. I’ve read it again and again. A great mystery, and the only novel featuring Reacher in the Army.

That’s not a coincidence.

No such thing.

I hope the next novel picks up the mold in Reacher’s big, strong hands and smashes it against the asphalt. That it doesn’t feature a beautiful girl with a gun and a badge who teams up with Reacher, sleeps with him, takes down the bad guys and disappears, like all the others.

I hope the villain is memorable and, for once, a match for the hero. I hope Reacher has to truly suffer, sacrifice and change to actually win.

I hope.

Verdict: MAKE ME gets four out of five folding toothbrushes.

Related posts:

  • Six ways to fix NEVER GO BACK by Lee Child
  • ONE SHOT by Lee Child
  • Why every man MUST read a romance – and every woman a thriller

Hard and Complex versus Impossible and Bizarre

This is about why Flappy Bird was such a surprise hit, Taylor Swift’s newest mega-video is meh and why your favorite movies, novels and video games work when others fail.

Here’s why: audiences want something interesting, and entertaining, which means different and surprising. Yet there’s a fuzzy line between Hard and Impossible and a deadly chasm between Complex and Bizarre.

It’s like thinking, “chocolate chip cookies are yummy, so why not chocolate chip cookies with almonds, M & M’s, pecans, Oreo sprinkles, peanut butter and a Snicker’s Bar on top?”

Watch the big Taylor Swift video, BAD BLOOD, then we’ll chat.

Now, this has high production values and great costumes, and I’m sure Michael Bay watched it on an endless loop all weekend. Yet it’s not elegantly complex and entertaining. It’s a hot mess, the music video equivalent of THE EXPENDABLES, with so many random stars thrown in for cameos that I have no idea who’s who. Does it look cool? Sure. Do we care one bit? No. Not even half a bit, or a quarter bit.

Compare that to the simplicity and beauty of Iggy Azalea’s BLACK WIDOW, which is a masterpiece, paying homage to KILL BILL and flat nailing it.

Continue reading “Hard and Complex versus Impossible and Bizarre”

Six smart steps after #NaNoWriMo

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Don’t bother with sending your novel around for beta readers to chew on, editors to edit and proofers to proof. You’ve got 50,000 golden words, right? THEY MUST BE SEEN AND PUBLISHED, TOMORROW, and you’ve already told the dealership to order a black BMW because the advance will be huge.

Forget sending queries to literary agents. Call them on the telephones, right now, or get their cell number and try dinner time, because they’ll be home.

If your novel is truly great, bypass those gatekeepers and fly to the Isle of Manhattan to hail a cab for the offices of Random House with the only copy of your manuscript in your locked briefcase. Make sure there are copyright notices all over the thing and a confidentiality agreement drafted by your attorney before anybody gets a peek, lest they steal it.

Do you have your plane ticket yet? Go get one, right now.

Okay, those folks should be busy on Travelocity while literary agents and editors are hiring a team of former Special Forces soldiers to greet them in the bowels of JFK’s parking garage.

Everybody else, let’s talk turkey, post-Turkey Day.

You may have 50,000 words and a spiffy badge, 34,000 words and a feeling of failure, 13,000 words and a newfound hatred of literature or 3,923 words and a pile of index cards that say things like, “The scene where Emily discovers that she hates her husband and wants to become a nun. Then he makes her ham and eggs. The eggs are soggy but the ham is delicious.”

Related: Six easy ways to improve NaNoWriMo and Do not look upon your #NaNoWriMo word count and despair, for there is hope

So what’s next? Six smart steps, that’s what:

1) Put your novel in a drawer.

Yeah, I know it’s probably a Word doc. Stick that thing in a virtual drawer. Don’t touch it, not even to fix that scene where Emily is at work and the serial killer is in the copier room, expertly printing his manifesto on both sides and making the machine staple that sucker in the upper left corner before he kills the CFO with an industrial three-hole punch.

Now go read five great books in your genre. Paperbacks. Popular stuff, nothing a professor would assign for a term paper. Not sure what genre your novel is? Find out. Want a shortcut? Read this: Everything they taught us about stories was WRONG

Writing a romance or a thriller? Read these: Why every man MUST read a romance – and every woman a thriller and Out of fairness, I destroy my favorite genre: thrillers

2) Take the first page of those five great books in your genre and study them. Just the first page.

Now take your manuscript (mss if you’re a hipster) and print the first page. Only the first page.

Compare them all. Different authors have different styles, sure, but you shouldn’t be writing in second person, or first person plural, if all five of the bestsellers in your chosen genre of memoirs are say, first person. Just a guess. For giggles: Top 9 reasons to write in first-person plural

If you want a quick look at taking a red pen to the first pages of famous novels to rip them up, in a good way, check out these:

3) Step back from the writing of scenes and chapters and boil your story down.

Can you explain it to a random stranger at Starbucks in four sentences? How about one sentence?

Get it down to four words. Yeah, I’m serious. Writers, we are doing it BACKWARDS and Writers: can you do it in FOUR WORDS? and Writing secret: Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt

4) Get your novel edited, and not by your mom, husband or best friend.

Because I truly believe this: The evil secret to ALL WRITING – editing is everything

Tempted to join a traditional critique group instead? Don’t. Not the kind where you meet once a month, or once a week, and everybody reads a chapter. I’m serious: Why critique groups MUST DIE

5) Read up. A lot.

Read about the business of books, whether it’s traditional publishing, indie or zipping your manuscript to servers at Amazon to start selling it tomorrow.

Read great fiction in all sorts of genres while your manuscript simmers in the oven of that drawer. Learn about writing a query and synopsis, a little marketing and public relations and social media.

6) After a month, go back and crack open that NaNaWriMo manuscript again.

Listen to your editors. Use what you’ve learned about storytelling and from reading great books in your genre. Fix the ending. Fix the beginning. Kill off every character you can and combine their roles. 

Keep on working on it while you dream up the next novel, which should not be a sequel. Different characters, different setting.

Does the new idea feel like work, or would you happily burn a day off to crank out chapters? Toss ideas that feel like drudgery and hold fast to concepts that make you excited. Because this should not feel like punching a clock in a Ford factory or going to meetings in a cubicle farm about your TPS reports.

Writing it should make your heart beat faster while you smile. You may even cackle the evil cackle of glee. All those are Good Things, and should be encouraged.

Also: The thing about writers and editors is this: they’re friendly, and as long as you’re not a jerk, they’ll chat with you on Twitter and help you out a little. Great people. I LOVES THEM.

Also-also: If you want to know anything, check out The Writer’s Knowledge Base for a massive collection of articles and posts on every topic a writer could want. It’s like a mega-powered and secret google for writers and editors. Plus it’s free. This thing is a public service. Use it, and tell the folks who run it thanks. Send them tips when you spot great posts or stories and some good karma.

Because there’s a lot of good karma among the folks who love books. This isn’t a zero-sum game where somebody has to lose for somebody else to win. People who love books and writing also love fellow writers and editors. We’re brothers and sisters in arms, battling word counts and deadlines and plot bunnies. It shouldn’t be stressful. Because this is fun stuff, the making up of stories to entertain each other.

Top 9 reasons to write in first-person plural

old typewriter, typewriter, antique keyboard, the way people used to access Word and the Series of Tubes before they existed

old typewriter, typewriter, antique keyboard, the way people used to access Word and the Series of Tubes before they existed

Why nine? Because Top 10 lists are popular, and therefore Boring.

But listen closely, for the case is strong for writing in the first-person plural, which we thought at first was second-person plural, and if we thought about it, which we should, first is better than second.

Also, research via the google proved that languages other than English include other amazing options. Just think of a novel written in fifth person past participle without a single letter E in the text. Think of it. Then think of a book cover with black text on a black background with black accents.

That artist from the ’60s who merely painted a canvas black will get sick with jealousy, and does he even know what presumptive mood is? Unlikely. But he’d talk our ear off about acrylic versus watercolor.

And now the list: Top 9 reasons to write in first-person plural

No. 9 — We create an immediate bond with our audience. We hear our voice, and we like it.

The only way to bond more quickly is if we put instant coffee in the microwave, going back in time.

No. 8 — First person is for narcissistic nancypants, polluting each page of text with “I,” “I,” “I,” and, for variety, strings of “me” and “my.”

It’s not about you, first person singular. It’s about us, plural. Don’t we know that now?

No. 7 — The first-person plural has roots in the Greek chorus, a sturdy trunk from Ayn Rand’s Anthem and green, modern leaves with Joshua Ferris and his Then We Came to the End, which has to be doubly good because it also has “We” in the title.

No. 6 — It’s not “the royal he,” “the royal she” or “the royal I,” is it? No, no, no.

Take it from House Windsor: it’s the royal we. Accept no substitutes.

No. 5 — Third person is common, bourgeois and blasé. How many novels are written in third person, and do we ever read all of them?

There are too many, and the quality varies so much. That’s a sign and an omen, our astrology tells us.

No. 4 — First-person plural creates an emotional distance from the readers, which is sometimes necessary.

It’s like having wealthy relatives we don’t enjoy. We don’t have this problem, but if we did, we wouldn’t wish to spend time with them, but we wouldn’t want to get disinherited, either.

Plus, that exquisite distance creates a sense of foreboding and mystery. If they can never know us, and believe we have no feelings, then we are, indeed, unknowable and omnipresent, literary gods. Or half-Vulcans with Underwoods and a hankering for Jeffrey Eugenides. We’re not sure yet.

No. 3 — A singular narrator can be mistaken, unreliable, reliably unreliabe, obtuse, acute but not cute, scalene or perpendicular.

But we are many, irrefutable, infalliable, translucent, effervescent, a closed plane of certainty and confidence.

We are legion, and it is Good.

No. 2 — Great literature is truly poetry, and great poetry uses first-person plural, such as Emily Dickison and her wonderful, “We send the wave to find the wave,/ An errand so divine.”

Do we want to be great or pedestrian? We choose great.

No. 1 — While second-person point of view was employed by Albert Camus, giving it the sheen of respect, and Jay McInerney found success with Bright Lights, Big City, you cannot ignore the massive volume of pulp fiction detective novels cheapening this choice.

Every such novel began in this sort of crude fashion: “You walk into your office and she’s already sitting behind your desk, drinking your Jim Beam and playing with your .38 special. But she’s got ruby red lips, trouble with the mob and legs that just won’t quit, so you don’t do the smart thing and turn around to leave. No. You hang up your trenchcoat, take out your notebook and listen to her sweet, sweet lies.”

Do not look upon your #NaNoWriMo word count and despair, for there is hope

writing meme spiderman dear diary

Say it’s your first time writing a novel, and you’re a smidge behind. On the 15th of November, you should’ve hit 25,000 words.

Do not despair.

Also: For those who’ve burned vacation time, dumped their significant others and sent the kids to boarding school, because you’re going to hit 50k if it kills you, I say this: dance not the dance of victory, because 50k isn’t actually a novel. It’s a novella. You want to hit 80k or 90k to be safe.

However: None of this really matters. At all.

Related post: Six easy ways to improve #NaNoWriMo

For your first draft, word counts mean nothing

I don’t care if you’ve gotten stuck at 12,000 words or you’re already finished with your 194,000 epic involving the king of the orcs and the vampire mermaid who loves him.

Anybody new to writing a novel, of whatever genre, should ignore the word count demons in this first draft.

Say it with me: It’s a first draft and the word count meants nothing.

The word count means nothing.

One more time: I’ve got 99 problems and a word count ain’t one.

Continue reading “Do not look upon your #NaNoWriMo word count and despair, for there is hope”

Six easy ways to improve NaNoWriMo

writing meme spiderman dear diary

Writer peeps tell me they’re doing NaNoWriMo, which is Esperanto for “I’m trying to write a novel in a single month, and I’m 10k behind already, so I’ve quit my job and divorced my husband. I vaguely remember that we had some kids. Ready for a sprint?”

God bless all who sign up for this. I believe a novel is the toughest thing a writer can tackle, and the most rewarding.

It’s just that 30 days is a bit insane, and I say that as somebody who writes insanely fast. Related post: Why are all writers lazy bums?

If a friend of mine said they were doing NaNoWriMo, I’d want them to have a good experience and not pull their hair out because they missed two days of writing at that wedding and now they need to write 3,000 words a day and IT’S NOT HAPPENING.

It’s great that there’s a national month encouraging folks to write a novel. I just don’t want new writers to bang their head against the wall and feel like a failure if it doesn’t happen. You’re not a failure. The math is stacked against you for NaNoWriMo.

So here is what I would say to that friend wrestling with word counts and freaking out, or to anyone considering doing NaNoWriMo next year.

1) Spend all of October training for this literary marathon

For writers, a novel is like running a marathon. You don’t pop up off the couch on Nov. 1 and bust out 26.1 miles. You’ve got to train and build up to it.

Ignore the veteran pantsers and their crazy “I never outline” ways. Anybody writing a novel for the first time on Nov. 1 should spend October doing this:

  • Read SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder and STORY by Robert McKee
  • Figure out what primal story, per Blake the Snyder, you’re going to write—that’s your genre
  • Watch movies (hey, this homework stuff is tough) or read your favorite books in that genre, and see how those movies and books do setups and payoffs, reversals and revelations
  • Map out a three-act story, using Blake’s spiffy Beat Sheet, and if you want to get technical, he breaks Act 2 in half, so you’re really looking at four Acts
  • Figure out your story on that one-page Beat Sheet, and do whatever research you need for the Writing of Many Words

2) The goal is actually more than 50,000 words

You might say, “Hey, mister, fifty thousand words is a lot to write in a month. Don’t make this any harder.”

Sure, 50k is a lot. We’re talking about 1,667 words per day, every day. Except 50k is a novella, not a novel.

It’s more like half a novel.

Google it. Go on, I’ll wait.

Okay, not really. I’m over there, watching funny cat videos.

So: Literary agents, publishers and book peoples have all these standards for word counts when it comes to novels of different genres, and if you’re going to run a literary marathon, let’s make sure you hit 26.1 miles, not 14 miles and call it a marathon.

Chuck Sambuchino is an editor, author and expert on what agents and publishers want in different genres. Here’s a TL;DR version of his post about word counts for novels: “Between 80,000 and 89,999 words is a good range you should be aiming for. This is a 100% safe range for literary, mainstream, women’s, romance, mystery, suspense, thriller and horror. Anything in this word count won’t scare off any agent anywhere.”

Therefore: you’re really shooting for 80 to 90k. Which leads us to Number 3.

3) Make it NaNoDecemberO to stay sane and married

Trying to hit 50k in 30 days is hard. The math, it doesn’t add up.

I know full-time authors who write one book per year. Maybe two. If they wrote 50,000 words a month, they’d be cranking out six to ten books per year.

Which doesn’t happen.

Not even Stephen King puts out six books a year, and he (a) writes faster than anybody, (b) has decades of experience writing fiction and (c) has the money to spend all day doing nothing else, if he wants.

People doing NaNoWriMo typically are not independently wealthy, retired or able to call on decades of fiction writing experience. I bet most folks have full-time jobs and kids and life. So asking them to write at least 1,667 words a day is asking a lot.

Especially when the real finish line is really 80,000 or 90,000 words.

  • 80k words in 30 days is 2,667 words per day
  • 90k in 30 is 3k a day
  • People expect three bullets, except I don’t have another set of numbers on this point, so here’s the start of an infinite set, just for you: 1 2 4 8 16 32 64 128 256 512 1024 2048

That’s crazy talk. Old school authors like Hemingway would count their words, words printed on these things called typewriters, doing it by hand with a pencil. And they’d call it a day when they hit 500 words, going off to drink bourbon and watch bullfights, because 500 words a day is roughly three books a year.

Let’s make it NaNoDecemberO and give you two months to write a full novel instead of a novella.

  • 80k words in 60 days is 1,334 words per day
  • If you go long at 90k, that’s still only 1,500 words a day, less of a workload than NaNoWriMo’s 1,667
  • That’s right: write fewer words per day and actually have a full novel instead of a novella

Therefore: go ahead and turn it into NaNoDecemberO.

It’s okay. The NaNoWriMo police won’t come to your door and take away your keyboard. You’ll get more sleep and your friends and family will thank you for doing something incredibly hard in 60 days instead of 30.

4) No matter what, don’t set a goal of more than 2k a day

You might think, “Hey, I’ve got a free Sunday coming up, and I’ll spend six hours writing, 2k an hour, so that’s 10 to 16k, easy.” Might happen. Probably not.

It doesn’t matter what kind of writing you do or whether you write an hour a day in the morning or all day as your job. Reporters, screenwriters and authors all seem to hit the wall at 2k a day.

Though you can edit all day. Hmm. Interesting. Write 2k, then edit like a madman. There may be something to that.

HOWEVER: Let’s say you can go all out and hit 3k a day, every day. You’re going to miss days. Weddings, anniversaries, holidays, soccer practice, late nights at work. It’ll happen. If you need 3k a day, and miss a day, now you have to make up for it with 6k tomorrow. Ugh. Even spreading that out over a week would be tough.

Don’t be a literary tough guy and set yourself up for painful falls. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. 2k a day or less is smart.

5) Don’t do it alone

Writers are friendly and helpful. Ask. There’s no such thing as a dumb question.

And find some people to trade chapters with and such. You don’t want vague happy nonsense like “it was great” or vague critical nonsense about how they hated chapter 2 and don’t know why.

Find a few fellow writers who need critique partners. Everybody needs beta readers.

Or omega readers. 🙂

Yes, that’s an inside joke. And a good one. I’d throw down a double-sized happy face, if I knew how.

6) Let’s turn January into NaNoEditMo

The secret to all writing is editing—and the longer a piece of writing is, the more editing love it needs.

Don’t bother with critique groups where people read chapters aloud. Are you really going to read 80,000 words to the group? Might take six days. Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.

There are all sorts of books, blogs, web sites and secret societies when it comes to editing fiction. Dive into it. Learn all about editing, and practice on things you steal from the Interwebs or pull down from your shelf.

Because you can’t edit yourself. Not at first. It takes experience bleeding on the pages of others before you can turn your own pages red.

The way to learn is from horrifically beautiful writing and amazingly bad prose. Mediocre stuff doesn’t teach you how to edit.

One thing will pop out fast: story and structure matter more, over the long term, than the quality of the writing. You’ll probably enjoy entertaining trash in the genre you’re writing far more than literary novels where every sentence is a poem, and this is true if the genre novels are insane stuff about a zombie pirate in love with a robot ninja from the future.

Also: Yes, somebody has probably written that exact book. Bonus points if anybody can point me to the cover of that novel. I’ll do a blog about this zombie-pirate/robot-ninja shebang.

Also-also: NaNoScriptMo would actually be fun and practical. A screenplay is about 15,000 words and that’s 500 words a day. Hemingway would approve. Then he’d drink a whiskey and watch a bullfight.

I threw it on the ground — why people stop reading books

writing meme spiderman dear diary

Like you, dear reader, I devour books. I eat them for breakfast, munch on them for lunch and blast through an endless buffet of books in bed, waiting for the Sandman — because books, they are THE BEST.

However: there are books, even famous best-sellers and literary masterpieces that eager graduate students dissect for their dissertations, that are simply unreadable. You start them, you want to be blown away by them and instead, you toss them through the air to test their aerodynamics.

Goodreads asked their peoples about books they started, and wanted to love, but simply couldn’t finish.

Some books at the top of their Couldn’t Finish List include:

  • FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, which is complete trash, and not in a good way. Here’s my take on the first page of that stinker: The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
  • THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, written by a fellow Swede, and I wanted to love this book, I really did, but couldn’t get past page 30-whatever. 
  • ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand, who couldn’t write her way out of a wet paper bag if you handed her a sharpened pencil. I took a red pen to the first page of her most famous book here: The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand
  • CATCH-22, which I’ve read a zillion times and love. Maybe I’m crazy.
  • THE LORD OF THE RINGS, an immense and dense tome that I started to read and despite being (a) on a beach in Maui and (b) chock full of mai tai’s, I couldn’t (c) get past the 60-page introduction to the prologue or whatever because it was massive amounts of academic text lecturing me about the sociology of hobbits and elves, with no story whatsoever, and it put the B in Boring.

So I agree with Goodreads about throwing most of these books on the ground.

Here’s the story with all kinds of comments.

Writers: can you do it in FOUR WORDS?

That’s the acid test for every writer: four words.

If somebody in line with you for the Largest Latte Known to Man asks what you’re working on, can you explain it in four words?

How about eight words?

Because if you can’t, you’re not really done.

What if I told you ... how to get to Sesame Street?

And I don’t care that you’ve spent the last seven years locked away in a French monastery, slaving away 25 hours a day, eight days a week to perfect (a) The Great American Novel, Even Though It Was Written in France, (b) the movie script that will turn Hollywood on its ear and stop it from spending $250 million apiece on Michael Bay explosion-fests involving robots that transform into cars or whatever  or (c) a punk-rock masterpiece with song after song with lyrics so beautiful, and rebelliously ugly, that anyone who listens to it quits working for The Man and buys an electric Fender so they can learn the only three chords you need to know to become AN INSANE ROCK GOD.

So let’s get down to it. If you haven’t already, read these posts to get all educated and such, even though it is technically cheating — because today, there is a quiz.

Writing secret: Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt

Writers, we are doing it BACKWARDS

Writing secret: all you need is CURIOSITY and SURPRISE

THE MOTHER OF ALL LOGLINE QUIZZES

Loglines, which, if you weren’t paying attention, are short little summaries of movies and books and such.

There are two ways to score this quiz, the first involving length and the second quality.

Four words or less gets you an A, five words is a B and so forth.

Quality is subject, but even if your logline is insanely brilliant, anything over eight words gets a big fat F, and F that glows in the dark and follows you around for a week like a bad cold or a moldy metaphor, which is like a simile, but different.

Sidenote: If you are a Literary Muffin of Stud, go ahead and share your brilliant answers in the comments. Then we’ll talk smack.

Sidenote on the side of that sidenote: If you are a shy lurker, as 99.9 percent of writers are, print this and scribble your answers, then share your brilliant answers somewhere, with somebody. Because it’s time you stopped being a shy lurker writer type. YOUR HEAD WILL NOT EXPLODE. Maybe you’ll even make a friend over the Series of Tubes and such, fall in love, get married and move to a former dairy farm in Vermont or whatever. These things have happened.

Quiz Part 1) Write a logline for your favorite movie, but turn the villain into the hero without changing the story.

Example

STAR WARS:  Wise ruler fights to stop murderous rebels, who keep blowing up invaluable public property.

Shot the length rule to bits there. Let’s shorten it to five words.

STAR WARS: Wrinkled leader battles murderous rebels.

There we go. I like it. Could have nailed four words if we smited “wrinkled,” but I don’t care.

Bonus, because we hit five words and give ourselves an A++ and such: Palpatine’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 1.

Quiz Part 2) Take your current project — movie, novel, performance art piece involving a dance number that expresses your feelings about unemployment — and write a logline making fun of it.

Go ahead. Have at it.

It’s more fun than you’d expect.

Quiz Part 3) Write five fresh loglines by twisting or rewriting stupid books and movies that had promise, then took all that promise and blew it to pieces with The 12-gauge of Utter Stupidity.

Examples

MATRIX REVOLUTIONS: Man wins war against robot enslavers.

Six words. It’s a better plot, because not Keanu “Whoah” Reeves doesn’t sacrifice his life to play virus cleaner for the robots, therefore protecting the status quo and ensuring a cycle of endless war and nuttiness. His death actually changes things with this logline. But six words is still too long.

MATRIX REVOLUTIONS: Man frees mankind from robots.

Five words. Too many “mans” in there. Where’s Trinity and such? But it’s better.

ONE SHOT: Tom Cruise is a foot too short to play Reacher.

Yes, I am a bad man. The trailer still looks awful. Couldn’t they find some short actors to play the thugs who Tom Cruise beats up? It looks like junior high bullies hassling a second-grader for his lunch money.

ONE DAY: Man meets girl, loses girl, gets girl back.

That’s the standard plot for every romantic comedy ever, but it’s also 1,398 times better than the actual plot of ONE DAY where man meets girl, man loses girl, man loses girl again, man finally marries girl, girl gets RANDOMLY PANCAKED BY A TRUCK, man is sad, roll credits.

TRANSFORMERS 3: DARK SIDE OF THE MOON OR WHATEVER: Magic robots leave Earth, because why would magic robots need our lame technology and such anyway? Also, Megan Fox buys a pair of pants.

I’m cheating again, though it is fun. Alright, TRANSFORMERS 3: Robot war obliterates Earth.

Much better. Also, it’s right up the alley of Michael Bay, who loves nothing more than blowing up stuff anyway.

The Red Pen of Doom destroys FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen

FREEDOM

By Jonathan Franzen

The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally – (add spaces here to match dash format in 2nd graf) he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now – but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill did were not so loyal to their city as not to (if we can replace 10 words with one word, those 10 words are deader than Charlie Sheen’s acting career) read The New York Times, which ran According to a long, and very unflattering story in the Times, on how Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation’s capital. His old neighbors had some difficulty trouble reconciling the quotes about him in the Times (“arrogant,” “high-handed,” “ethically compromised”) with the generous, smiling, red-faced 3M employee they remembered pedaling his commuter bicycle (maybe bicycle geeks know or care, but humans do not get into bike vs. commuter bike, and I’m entirely unclear whether Walter was a U.S. Senator or a staffer or a lobbyist, and how he made the transition from bigshot in Congress or whatever to 3M employee on a bicycle, or whether he started as a nothing at 3M on a bike and went to D.C. or is now pedaling to work after screwing up big enough to be in the Times yet not go to federal prison) up Summit Avenue in February snow;. (let’s use a period, because semi-colons at the end of endless sentences are for professors and pretentious chowderheads) It seemed strange that Walter, who was greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural, should be in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people. Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.

Walter and Patty were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill – the first college grads to buy a house on Barrier Street since the old heart of St. Paul had fallen fell on hard times three decades earlier. They paid nothing for their Victorian and then killed themselves for ten years renovating it. (contradicts last sentence of the first graf, since buying a beater house and working crazy hard to fix it says there’s something very right about the Berglunds) Early on, Some very determined person torched their garage and twice broke into their car before they got the garage rebuilt. Sunburned bikers descended on the vacant lot across the alley to guzzle drink Schlitz and grill knockwurst and rev engines at small hours until Patty went outside in (Drunken bikers would be afraid of some housewife? Um, no.)

(end of page 1)

Time Magazine - Jonathan Franzen - Great American Novelist

Notes from the Red Pen of Doom

Yes, I know that critics went gaga over this book, and they loved THE CORRECTIONS, too.

I hate this first page. It rubs me wrong, and makes me feel like I’m about to read a 895-page doorstop of a book, something my sadistic Contemporary English Literature professor assigned me to read as punishment for my literary sins.

Here’s the deal: Franzen writes about families in the suburbs. Basically, the same topic that every sitcom has tackled for the last 50 years. Instead of making it funny, he makes it deep and depressing.

Is what Franzen writes – when he closes his eyes and composes after receiving inspiration directly from a muse that circles his head and descends, like a butterfly, or a silken bat, to kiss his unshaven cheeks with the kiss of creative genius – is it fun to read? No.

Don’t care about Walter and Patty as characters. I’d rather read about that biker gang guzzling Schlitz and grilling knockwurst while the talk smack and plan crimes that go epically wrong.

As with all literature – as Camryn Rhys or Elisa Logan would say, LIT-rah-SURE – the beginning is deep and mundane and depressing. It only gets worse from there. While the writing may be beautiful and amazing (though it is not beautiful or amazing on this first page yet) that’s not going to make me want to read more of the story. If I want to be depressed, I’d watch daytime TV.

The first page is all over the place. Also, he adores adjectives and adverbs, while I believe, deep in my dark heart, that all those modifiers simply mean Franzen should’ve picked stronger nouns and verbs in the first place.

It pains me that Franzen is half-Swedish and spent time in Germany as a student, because I am Swedish and lived in Germany as a child. But we are nothing alike, and I care nothing for this first page.

Which is too bad. Franzen has talent to burn. I bet if he wrote about the biker gang instead, it would be seven separate flavors of awesomesauce, and the Coen brothers would make a movie out of it.

Verdict: From this first page, you’d have to hand me stacks of purple euros to convince me that reading FREEDOM would be a good use of my limited time on this planet.