Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts

12 January 2024


In the past two years, I've become a professional editor in addition to writing. I'm still good at writing as a writer, editing as an editor, and reading as a reader. When I'm doing any one of these things, my brain doesn't want to do the other.

But after fifteen books for Down & Out plus a couple of freelance jobs, some things do make my inner editor scream. One is the inevitable neophyte writer's rant online about "The Rules." We're all familiar with Elmore Leonard's list. 

It's a good list. It's also written based on how Elmore Leonard wrote. Ever read Elmore Leonard? This is how he got good. But his rules and Lawrence Block's rules and Stephen King's rules are all different lists. I'm not talking about those lists. I'm talking about the temper tantrum of a newer writer getting frustrated with the editing process. I recently ran across such a list. My wife found my own "Get off my lawn!" rant toward it quite entertaining. Really, it showed the writer's lack of experience. And it's not unfamiliar to me. I used to think the same way. What were they complaining about?

  • No head hopping - Now this one infuriates me, even if it took me the longest time to understand it. What brought it home was Tom Clancy, an unrepentant head hopper. Clancy would give you whiplash starting in Jack Ryan's head, bopping over to some sonar technician's POV, then ending with some admiral's or politician's. I can't read it anymore. Head hopping is disrespectful to the reader, who has to follow the writer's ADHD-inspired point-of-view shifts. Now, I violently disagree with the "One POV Per Chapter" rule. I always thought that was stupid because it makes for short, short chapters. But one POV per scene should be an ironclad rule. Only four writers I know of since World War II have managed to head hop smoothly: Frank Herbert, Stephen King, George Pelecanos, and SA Cosby. Everyone else needs to remember someone's gotta read this at some point, and more people will if they can follow along.

  • No adverbs. Okay, editors need to really chill about this one, but outright rebellion? That needs to be stamped out aggressively. Mind you, I'm spoiled. I've only beta'd (but not fully edited) one neophyte writer, so the adverbs are usually at a minimum. By the time I get them, they're invisible. But my first professional editing job came from a guy who's been writing longer than I've been alive. (And my puberty began to the strains of Blondie, which was not a bad way for a pre-teen boy to get his hormones flowing. I digress.) So by the time I get most manuscripts, I'm not treated to a flood of "ly."

  • No repeated words. Now let's be clear. I don't have long lists of overused words. I do a crutch word check. I'll leave about 33% of passive voice intact, either for context or because it's been about three pages since the last instance. But repeated words. Yes, you'll use a word multiple times in a manuscript. That's a given. But let's take a word like "peculiar." Unless it's a verbal gambit, that word shouldn't appear again for at least another page. Twice in the same paragraph? There's a reason we do multiple drafts. While I'm not a big fan of thesauruses--I've seen them abused too many times--you may want to pick one up if you find yourself leaning on one word to say the same thing.

  • Show, don't tell. I've got a whole rant about why editors and veteran writers really need to give this one a rest. But I saw this on one of those "lists" and realized writers like this are never going to let editors or veteran writers give it a rest. My problem with show-don't-tell is overzealous beta readers who love rules lists too much and people who can't sell their fiction selling writing courses. (You know who you are.) But ignoring this rule leads to lazy writing. "I don't need to describe Sarah's reaction. I'll just say she was angry.)

    Oh, no. That's precisely why editors and more experienced writers won't ease up on this. The inexperienced writer tends to use this as an excuse to write less. If Sarah's reaction is a minor detail, then yes, just say she's angry. Better yet, cut the anger altogether. It will likely become obvious further into the scene. If Sarah is the POV character, we need to see her jaw clench or fists tighten, hear her growl, see her vision turn red.

There are others. Passive voice, which is abused by experienced writers as well, including this one. The fact that some writers use "that" to join dependent clauses too often. 

But when a writer says they're going to ignore all these rules? That just shows inexperience. I know. I used to say this myself. And a friend who started writing a couple of years ago needed to be guided, particularly in POV issues. He's now an editor for Running Wild Press. And he calls me when he gets overwhelmed by a neophyte writer who thinks the rules are, "Like, oppression, man!"

 The rules exist for a reason. They work when they're applied with nuance, which means you have to know how to use them to know how to break them.  Ignore them at your own risk.

18 December 2023

Writing, writing, writing.

            You really don’t have to write every day.  You can avoid writing for a week, and then spend two days developing carpal tunnel by writing non-stop.  It’s up to you.  The point is to write a lot, because not writing is not writing.  Writing a lot is like playing the guitar a lot.  The more you do, the better you’ll get.  That’s the only advice I feel confident giving. 

            No one has the exact formula.  For you.  Read everything all the writing coaches have to say, then set your own course.  

            In the same way, listen to all the advice from other writers (including this blog post), take it seriously, then do what you think you should.  You’re the goddess, or god, or you own work.  Only you know what will make it work.  And where you’ll do it.  You can have a quiet, private place somewhere in your apartment or house.  Or you can go to a loud bar.  It can be your back porch or your Uncle Bennie’s basement.  It’s yours to discover.  What other writers do is irrelevant.  Their proper place is probably not yours.

             You can try to game the market by writing what you think will sell.  You might hit it, you might not.  Some have done this, and they are now wealthy.  Most have not.  By most, I mean 99.999%.  Some of us win the lottery, some get fricasseed by lightning.  Ignore the press on these matters.  They only focus on the unicorns. 

            Expect to fail.  It’s a lot easier on your mental health than you think it is, because every failure is a lesson.  When you do make it, and you will if you try and have the talent, and don’t give up, it’ll be a pleasant surprise.  But don’t sit there thinking about how your work will succeed in a material way.  Or any way.  Don’t think at all about the idea of writing.  Just do it. 

When Glenn Frey was an aspiring rock musician he was befriended by Bob Seger.  Seger told him. “You know, if you want to make it, you’re gonna have to write your own songs."  And Frey said, "Well, what it they’re bad?”  And Seger replied, “Well, they’re gonna be bad.  You just keep writing and writing and eventually, you’ll write a good song.”           

Do the work you want to do.  What moves you, what makes you feel good to compose.  This is way more fun than trying to write about something you don’t care very much about.  And much more productive.  “Write what you know”, then, is good advice, but it’s not the whole story.  Sometimes writing what you simply imagine can be just as fruitful.  Science fiction is often the result.  But not always.  You can be interested in something you know nothing about, say high school curling competitions in Northern Minnesota.  All it takes is a little effort doing research (Googling, reading, watching a lot of curling matches, interviewing the Minnesota State Junior Curling Champion).  This can also be a lot of fun, and chances are good you’ll learn things that you never imagined, things about the subject that launch you in a totally  unexpected direction. 

           Writing begets writing.  It’s one of the magical things about it.  The very act of composition tends to generate ideas and plot moves, fresh characters, and voices and insights you didn’t know you had.  These are all unavailable to people who think about writing, but rarely actually write. 

When it comes to flexing the muscle, it doesn’t matter what you write, because everything is exercise.  So if you don‘t feel like advancing the novel, there’s nothing wrong with starting a short story.  Or finally writing to your Cousin Francine in Duluth (where they do a lot of curling.)  Essays are good practice.  And letters to the editor.  And outdoing your siblings for Funniest Birthday Card to Mom. 

Charlie Parker played the sax every day, all day and into the night.  His roommates report removing the instrument from his lips when he fell asleep.  Jimi Hendrix, from all accounts, was rarely seen without a guitar hanging from his shoulder.  Stephen King has written about 8 million words worth of novels alone.

It worked out for them.

04 July 2023

Writing Dialog

Happy Independence Day!

Summer is a great time for reruns, so today I present “Writing Dialog,” which has been published in several places and is both a short story and a lesson in writing dialog. Enjoy. — Michael

Writing Dialog

“Dialog is difficult to write,” I said.

“Why?” An attractive young writer, eager to learn the secrets of my success, sat across from me. This wasn’t the first time we’d met to discuss writing.

“Because it must be realistic without being real.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Well, um, I’m not sure I can explain it, but—let’s see—real people, like, they stop and start and, um, they st-stutter and talk in run-on sentences. Or incomplete sentences. And they don’t always think before they, um, open their mouths and stuff. You know?”

“That was bad.”

“Wasn’t it, though?” I said. “I hear people talking like that every day.”

She leaned forward. “So how do you make dialog realistic without being real?”

I considered for a moment before continuing. “Take out the fluff. Don’t start sentences with ‘well.’ Eliminate the ‘um’s and ‘er’s. Eliminate throwaway bits such as ‘by the way.’”

“That sounds easy enough, but that can’t be it. There must be more.”

I reached across the table and patted her hand. She didn’t pull away. “There’s much more, but perhaps we should order a drink before continuing. You game?”

After she said she was, I called the waiter over, ordered a pair of frozen margaritas, and watched him walk away. Then I continued. “That was a good example.”

She appeared bewildered. “Of what?”

“Of knowing when to write dialog and when not to.”

“I still don’t understand.”

“I could have written, ‘I called the waiter over. He introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Bob. I’ll be serving you today.” “Hi, Bob,” I said. “What will you have?” he asked. “Two frozen margaritas,” I told him. “Is that all?” “Yes, Bob, that’s all,” I said. Then I watched him walk away before I continued.’”

“That wouldn’t have advanced the plot at all, would it?”

I smiled. She was beginning to understand. I said, “Not at all.”

“Anything else?”

“Avoid long blocks of ‘dialog’ where a single character does all the talking. Once a character has said more than three consecutive sentences, you’re in danger of writing a monolog or a soliloquy. Even worse is when each of your characters speaks in long, uninterrupted blocks. That creates alternating monologues.”

“That was four sentences.”

“You could have interrupted me and broken it up a bit.”

“No,” she said. She licked salt off the rim of her glass. “I like listening to you.”

I liked what her tongue was doing but I couldn’t allow myself to be distracted. I had much more to teach her.

“The info dump should also be avoided,” I told her, ”especially in dialog.”

“What’s an info dump?”

“An info dump is when the author needs or wants to convey information to the reader and chooses to do it in a block of text rather than parceling it out in bits and pieces as the story progresses.” I took a sip from my margarita and realized she’d already finished half of hers. “It’s especially bad when one character tells the other character something they both already know.”

“Give me an example.”

“As you know, we’re sitting in the bar of Bonita’s, a place you once described as your favorite Mexican restaurant. Bonita’s was opened in 1910 and is still owned and operated by the same family. It started as a hole-in the-wall and has grown significantly since then. What makes Bonita’s unique is that the founding family—the Fitzpatricks—are Irish. It’s the best place in town to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo.”

I saw a twinkle in the young writer’s eye. Maybe it was my charm. Maybe it was just the alcohol. “I did know all that. So why did you tell it to me?”

“Info dump.”

“Will it be important later in the story?”

“I doubt it.”

She caught the waiter’s attention and ordered two more frozen margaritas. I had barely finished my first one when he arrived with the fresh margaritas.

“What else?” she asked.

“Avoid blathering.”

“What’s blathering?”

“When one character asks a question that can be answered simply, but the second character uses it as a jumping off point to ramble on and on.”

“For example?”

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Jo,” she said. “I was named after my uncle Joe, but my parents dropped the ‘e’ to make my name feminine. My uncle Joe was a cool guy. He taught me to hunt and fish. Well, my uncle Joe and my Dad did. They took to me to Clauson’s farm every summer. The Clausons were my mother’s cousins. My mother never went out there with us. She liked to stay home. She said she enjoyed having a little time to herself. She—” The young writer stopped and looked at me. She had beautiful blue eyes. “I’m blathering, aren’t I?”

I smiled and repeated something she’d said earlier. “I like listening to you.”

This time she reached across the table for my hand and our fingers entwined. Then she wet her lips with the tip of her tongue and looked deep into my eyes.

I cleared my throat. “Of course, most of these rules can be broken if the story warrants it. Sometimes you need a character who stutters or one who blathers. But just one.”

She stroked my palm with the tip of one finger. “What else?”

“Always have a good line to exit the scene.”

Jo lowered her voice. “And what do you have?”

I already knew her answer, but I asked because it was the best way to end the scene. “Would you like to go to my place and see my manuscripts?”

26 May 2023

They Don't Write 'Em Like That Anymore

With apologies to Greg Kihn.

I just finished listening to The Iliad on audio. Read by Dominic Keating of Star Trek: Enterprise fame, one got the sense one was listening to Homer riffing in front of a crowd in some Athenian public space. Keating had to read a fairly new English translation, but The Iliad and its companion piece, The Odyssey, are really epic poems. Keating's dramatic read hewed closer to Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellan doing Shakespeare. Homer, especially after listening to some of the translator's background in the intro, probably sounded like Jack Kerouac to those ancient Greeks.

Except I've read Kerouac's On the Road. Incidentally, that, too, is meant to be performed, not read. But I digress. Kerouac's prose is the beat poetry of the fifties laid over the prose of the day, which, like today, has Hemingway in its bones. He's into a scene, and he's out, and the flourishes come from spending short snatches of time in Sal Paradise's bizarre mind.

Homer, on the other hand, does things in The Iliad no editor, even the most forgiving of editors, would let out of the slush pile, let alone into print. The goddess Athena is referred to not merely as the goddess of wisdom or daughter of Zeus, nor does Homer limit himself to the epithets like Pallas Athena. No, she is "Athena, she of the bright, shining eyes." Achilles, who spends most of the story sulking in those final days besieging Troy, is "Achilles of the fleet foot." These are not one offs. Homer uses this or a similar phrase every. Single. Time. 

Mind you, it's an epic poem, and Keating's reading, even after taking out the supplemental material, is almost twenty hours. (Also, Homer likely never ended with "Audible hopes you've enjoyed this program.") And we don't see a lot of epic poems these days. Even its spiritual descendant, rock's concept album, is a bit of a dinosaur. Its last adherent seems to be Roger Waters, and lately, most people wish Rog would just shut the hell up.

These days, if you're going to ramble, as Homer does without anyone really noticing, you have to be Stephen King about it. Going off on a tangent? Tell a story within the story, then circle back to the point. Most editors won't allow that these days. (And I really think current editing dogma is too rigid. Says the editor.)  Otherwise, get to the point (says the guy who likes writing lean prose.) So when a character walks into a scene, the most extreme example of modern description is to find a trait, use that trait as a placeholder, and only change it when their name is revealed. Robert B. Parker did this throughout his career, but it began all the way back in The Godwulf Manuscript. The one I remember best is where Spenser's attempts to rescue Susan Silverman overlap a government black op. Spenser says the agent looks like Buddy Holly, and for a page or two, refers to him as Buddy Holly. I don't remember the guy's name or if he even had one, but I remember him, his job, and most of what he did.

Even Dickens, one of the most verbose writers in modern English, stuck with names or something descriptive, like the Artful Dodger. His name was actually Jack Dawkins, but how many Jacks are their in novels set in 19-century England or America? Hell, Jean-Luc Picard's son is named Jack, named for his half-brother's father. Sometimes, the title or job sticks better. But for all Dickens's wordiness, Artful Dodger is a short, powerful shorthand for a character in Oliver Twist. Contrast that with Dickens's American counterparts, Hawthorne and Melville. One of the reasons I found The Scarlet Letter so unreadable, at least at the age of 15, when I'd discovered King and Tom Clancy, was the constant refrain of "It seemed as though Hester Prynne..."  (And in 2023, my inner editor is going, "HEY! STOP BEATING THAT DEAD HORSE!") On the other hand, Melville scores points for being more episodic in Moby Dick and hanging genius labels on Ishmael's shipmates, such as Starbuck or the cannibal (who ironically doesn't eat anyone in the story.)

Much of this is the function of the culture. Even if we write stories about Greek or Roman or Norse gods, they come off as aliens or superheroes (or supervillains) or both. Marvel built a big chunk of its mythos around Thor and Loki. As far back as Twain's era, we didn't want Athena of the Bright Shining Eyes or Zeus Who Holds the Aegis. Nowadays, we want Wonder Woman's sister or Liam Neeson shouting, "Release the kraken!"* In Homer's day and even into Shakespeare's time, we wanted heroes. Mythical heroes. Of course, until the Enlightenment, we weren't quite as sciencey as we are now. Hence, even Harry Potter has to follow some sort of rules and most conspiracy theories are based on bad science skimmed while scrolling the phone in the bathroom. When we pay closer attention, ignoring Newton and Einstein without an explanation is what writers call "a plot hole."

*Fun fact: He meant the rum, of which I have a bottle, actually. Too bad I don't drink much anymore.

03 March 2023

I'm In The Story, Part Deux:
This Time It's Personal. Or Maybe Not.

Last time in this space, I talked about one of my least favorite types of story: the roman à clef. I used Valley of the Dolls as my example. Roman à clefs are usually bad because they try to force fit real people, dialog, and events into a fictional narrative. Either the disguise doesn't really work, or you get flat characters and wooden prose.

Some people in the comments, however, objected, saying they either read or wrote characters based on real people. I countered that Frederick Forsyth often inserted real historical figures - Well, they were more like present-day notables at the time of the writing - into his work. That's not the same thing. Nor is using a real person as inspiration for a character. That's pulling ideas out of the ether.

In the first novel I wrote, Northcoast Shakedown, I based a few people on neighbors and friends. A couple people read it and picked out who immediately. But George, the apartment complex manager, was not Lee, the neighbor across the way. For starters, I think Lee would have fainted dead away with some of the stuff George had to do. The landlord who died might have looked like my landlord, but his demise was inspired by a neighbor he hired to redo the balconies in our complex. And the building itself just lent itself to the storyline. My coworkers at the time tied themselves in knots trying to guess who, at Terminal Tower Insurance, was really someone among us. I told them I didn't do that because, again, using real people as characters often backfires for one reason or another: bad writing, hurt feelings, or those damn characters doing whatever they wanted.

My stepson had trouble understanding this when I wrote the TS Hottle novella Flight Blade. I had my two pilots try to cover the one's oversleeping by saying they had miscommunicated and did not realize they were leaving early. The flight commander aboard their starship was named for my stepson and a lieutenant commander. "Why am I not an admiral?"

"I named the character after you. He's not you."

"But why am I not an admiral?"

It took a few go 'rounds to explain it. Then I read him the passage.

"Oh. I like that."

To quote said stepson, "Uh-huh."

What a lot of non-writers don't understand is characters are easy enough to pull from the ether. Someone else said every person is actually a hundred people, only one or two coming out in certain situations. The writer is a person who can pull all one hundred onto the page at the same time. One could actually look at a real person and spin four of five characters from them if they know that person well enough.

More often, the real-life inspiration is either an actor or a notable figure. Actors' performances sometimes crystalize an idea. I once wrote a character I pictured as Bill Pullman after seeing Independence Day. However, the way I wrote the character, someone else suggest Denzel Washington. Today, it would probably be Ryan Gosling and Idris Elba. (Actually, Idris would be the better fit if I still wrote that person. He has the same sense of humor, but can turn on the Luther/Stringer Bell intensity when needed. Plus the English accent would totally work.)

Notables are either ones with larger-than-life personas, or compelling life events that may inspire the story itself.

If you must know, I pilfered a couple of names from real life for Holland Bay, though the characters are not their real-life counterparts. I based one character on Ken Bruen after he gave me some input. But then Ken blurbed that book, so now the character is named Kearny. There's no Jack Taylor in Kearny. The others might have taken cues from real people, but they evolved on their own. Branson, Murdoch, and Armand Cole are all cut from whole cloth. Rufus had some television inspiration, as did Baker, who is what another character from another story would be like if the original wasn't a manipulative idiot. In reality, I liked the actor. The original character I couldn't stand. One has to be careful when using fictional inspiration. The gap between custom archetype, homage, and plagiarism is painfully small.

Using real people as a basis for a character is not roman à clef. It might surprise you to learn there was a real-life Beavis whom Mike Judge used as a model for his monumentally stupid creation, Beavis. However, the real Beavis had the name, the voice, and apparently in sarcastic moments, the laugh. But the hideous appearance, lack of intelligence, and disturbing fascination with fire all came after Beavis and Butthead had a few episodes under its belt. Let's hope the real Beavis had a sense of humor. Since he used to hang out with Mike Judge (whose normal voice is that of Butthead without he lisp and a larger vocabulary), I'm going to assume he got a big laugh out of it. A real one, not "Huh huh. Huh huh huh huh huh."

Of course, again, the difference here is the real person - notable or familiar - is the starting point. Once the character is in the story, they're going to do what they want, including flesh out an entirely new backstory. Which is what they're supposed to do.

20 November 2022

Murakami Haruki — Professional Tips

We’ve offered up professional tips from many famous authors, but I don’t recall we’ve published any from Japan. Meet Murakami Haruki (Haruki Murakami in Western notation), award-winning novelist, essayist, and short story writer.

He’s been accused by Japan’s literary elite of being too Western, of being unJapanese. Among his influences are Raymond Chandler, Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, and Cormac McCarthy.

From time to time, Murakami has dropped pearls of wisdom vis-à-vis writing. Fortunately author Emily Temple has gathered them into a must-read article. The bullet points are:

Murakami Haruki
Murakami, Haruki
  1. Read.
  2. Take the old words and make them new again.
  3. Explain yourself clearly.
  4. Share your dreams.
  5. Write to find out.
  6. Hoard stuff to put in your novel.
  7. Repetition helps (outside of writing).
  8. Focus on one thing at a time.
  9. Cultivate endurance.
  10. Experiment with language.
  11. Have confidence.
  12. Write on the side of the egg.
  13. Observe your world.
  14. Try not to hurt anyone.
  15. Take your readers on a journey.
  16. Write to shed light on human beings.
  17. No matter what, it all has to start with talent…
  18. … unless you work really hard!

So, starting with admonition № 1, check out the article. Perhaps you’ll find a gem too.

24 June 2022

The Sound Of Music

Music can be a powerful motivator for a writer. Years ago, I heard Annie Lennox's cover of Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down." The image of a dead man lying at the side of a highway as semis (or "lorries," as Young puts it in his lyrics) at sunrise crystalized a series of unconnected scenes. Years later, after putting it on the shelf and dusting it off again, that project became Holland Bay.

Of course, you hope a song exploding in your brain like that pays off sooner. Holland Bay took so long to write that I spun up an entire trilogy and adjacent arcs of novellas by the time I sent it to Down & Out Books. In fact, I had no idea I would be getting back into science fiction when I started.

In the early days, when I wrote about PI Nick Kepler, I wanted a series of prompts to keep short stories flowing. In my misspent youth, I had an obsession with, along with Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, heavy metal gods Deep Purple. I decided I wanted a short story named for a song title from each of their (ever-growing) list of studio albums. That was a start. But "Hush," which spawned a short story about hush money, became "Just Like Suicide," as the hush money involved a murder made to look like suicide. The obscure "Chasing Shadows" involved a witch and a graveyard (the former making a return appearance in the novel Bad Religion) became "Full Moon Boogie," another obscure song by a later iteration of the Jeff Beck Group. So music led to music. But some were obvious.

Deep Purple's second hit, an instrumental called "Wring That Neck," has a title that calls to mind chickens meeting an untimely demise before ending up in a bucket with eleven herbs and spices. Nick Kepler was a creature of Cleveland and its suburbs. However, I had lived briefly in what I now dub Amish Mafia territory, specifically Holmes County, Ohio, where my parents spent their final years. I remember I was culture shocked being fifty miles from anywhere. So Nick went looking for a Romeo and Juliet couple who run off to more rural than rural Ohio. It ends a bit better than Willy Shakes' tragic tale, but Nick is a fish out of water, even slipping in chicken poop at one point. He is less than charitable to his client after that.

Then there's "Flight of the Rat," written about two years after 9/11. Many of us struggled to deal with that event without hitting the reader over the head with it. The song, from Purple's In Rock album, gave me an obvious title. Nick chases a bail jumper into Cleveland's Hopkins Airport on 9/11 and gets away with things he would not be able to do twenty-four hours later. That one, I played the source song over and over while writing it.

Lately, one song came up on Tidal, my streaming service of choice. "Last Plane Out" by one-off band Toy Matinee has shown up several times on Daily Discovery. While inspired by Yes, UK, and, to some extent, Asia, the band featured Guy Pratt, aka Roger Waters' replacement in Pink Floyd. The song, however, has more in common with Radiohead and Coldplay but doesn't take itself nearly as seriously. "Last Plane Out" begins with the line "Welcome to Sodom. How we wish you were here." It goes on to tell the tale of someone living in a land of decadence and vice but hoping for a seat on the titular last plane out. Edge of the apocalypse stuff.

The song is quite catchy, but the lyrics suggest the second season of Jack Ryan, as Ryan and Greer seek to navigate a fictionalized Venezuela. Currently, I'm pondering either going with a thriller and accessing my inner Lee Child or making this a second outing for my science fiction space spy Eric Yuwono, who may return to the land of sin and vice already in a pending novel. "Welcome to Sodom," the Biblical land of violent hedonism, seems an irresistible jumping off point for either a present-day character or a futuristic spy finding himself on a planet about to implode under the weight of its own over-indulgence.

These aren't the only examples. Our own Brian Thornton edited two anthologies inspired by the music of Steely Dan while the same publisher just released one based on Warren Zevon's. (How can you not do crime fiction with a title like Lawyers, Guns, and Money?) And music is all through Stephen King's books, quoted, as themes, and even in the meta fiction. (The Dark Half's main character wrote a literary novel called Purple Haze that may or may not have had an intrusion by his violent dead twin pseudonym, but clearly channeled Hendrix in its tone.)

And why wouldn't music weave its way through our writing? Some writers listen to specific music to set the mood for a scene. Others want a wall of sound to keep the world out so they can concentrate. And sometimes, it just helps you think.

18 March 2022

Out of The Zone

There's a lesson in here. I think.

In October 2017, I posted an article about a writer writing in The Zone in which a writer's narrow focus on a novel or story is sustained through the interruptions of working a full time job and other distractions. It's like being on another plane.

After retiring, I've been able to work nearly 10 hours a day on writing and remained in The Zone – focused like a laser beam – writing in a near trance – characters interrupting meals with their conversations. Scenes interrupting sleep.

In March 2021, during the pandemic, The Zone became elusive. Fear of family, friends, of my wife and myself going into a hospital and never returning. I narrowed my focus and managed to write but not as much.

Now, in March 2022, I feel out of The Zone and must work hard to focus. The lesson here for writers is to keep pushing, keep writing, even if it is only for a short time each day, even if you only get one sentence down. Stay with it and it will come. Over the last year the short stories and novel I wrote crawled out of my computer, but they came and came better than I thought they would going into each. Maybe I'm on automatic. Maybe a writer who has been writing for nearly forty years has developed an inner focus that gets me through.

Face it, writing is hard. I'm talking about the composition, putting fingers to keys and creating a story. Don't give up on a story and especially a novel. If it seems to die on you, let it sit and go back to it but never give it up.

I have always found the solution and if a little old guy like me can, any of you can.

It's not the inspiration but the work put in to get from the opening line to THE END. Others have said it more eloquently, but that's the way it is.

That's all for now.

ONeil DeNoux

08 March 2022

Writing Lessons from Top Chef

I recently became addicted to Top Chef, a cooking competition program that airs on Bravo, and I’ve been binge-watching the program during the past several weeks. I started watching with episode one of season one when I found reruns of the series on Hulu, and I’ve almost reached the end of season eleven. (Bravo recently began airing season nineteen, so, please, no spoilers.)

The season begins with twelve to nineteen chefs competing to be the last chef standing and to be named the “Top Chef.” Sometimes the chefs compete singly and sometimes they compete in teams, and each episode typically features two competitions: a Quickfire Challenge and an Elimination Challenge. The winner of a Quickfire Challenge is often granted immunity in the Elimination Challenge and may win a prize. Though the winner of the Elimination Challenge may also win a prize, the loser of the Elimination Challenge must leave the show.

Much like publication editors, the host (Padma Lakshmi ) and judges (Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, and a rotating cast of guest judges) issue a “call for submissions” in the form of a challenge. They provide the competing chefs with a description of what they want, the parameters of the task, and a deadline.

A Quickfire Challenge is much like a flash fiction call for submissions: Create an appetizer using a Milky Way, a prawn, and a kumquat, and do it in twenty-seven minutes. The judges then taste the food, tell the chefs who prepared the worst dishes, who prepared the best dishes, and who won the challenge.

The Elimination Challenges are more complex. The competing chefs must prepare one or more dishes, often to a theme, and often for a crowd of diners. At some point during the season, the chefs are encouraged, or specifically instructed, to “tell a story” with their food.


At some point during the first few episodes of season eleven I began to see a parallel to what we encounter as writers. Editors provide us with guidelines that define what genre of stories they want to see, what elements the stories must have, and how many words we’re allowed to use to tell the stories. Sometimes the guidelines are quite specific, and other times they are vague or even nonsensical.

But the parallels become even more apparent when watching what happens at the Judges’ Table after the Elimination Challenges, both the conversations among the judges and their conversations with the competitors when trying to determine which chef gets the boot.

The chefs’ dishes are judged for adherence to the parameters of the challenge, creativity, and technical proficiency. Editors—though the debates are more often internal than among a group of editors sitting around a table—judge submissions much the same way. Does a particular submission meet the guidelines? While adhering to those guidelines, how creative is the final product? And, has the author displayed technical proficiency through proper spelling, punctuation, formatting, and so on?

And one dilemma that the chefs often face when a challenge involves preparing food for several hundred diners: Should they cook for the crowd or should they cook for the judges? During the seasons I’ve watched, food that seemed well-liked by diners has scored poorly with the judges. The lesson, repeated often through the seasons, is that pleasing the judges is critical to winning, just like pleasing editors is critical to getting published.


Top Chef is a reality show, so we know the stories told over the course of each episode and over the course of each season must be taken with a large grain of salt. How much is real, how much is staged, and how much of what we see has been manipulated to feed viewers particular story lines? Does it matter?

Maybe not.

But what does matter is something Tom Colicciho says, in one form or another, at least once each season: “We can only judge by what’s on the plate.”

Editors make publishing decisions much the same way. They can only judge your work by what’s on the page.

Ensure that it’s appetizing.

Black Cat Mystery Magazine 11 was released at the tail-end of February, and it contains new stories by Mike Adamson, Lis Angus, Marlin Bressi, Mark Bruce, Leone Ciporin, Veronica Leigh, Anita Murphy, David Rudd, Max Devoe Talley, and fellow SleuthSayers Robert Lopresti, O’Neil De Noux, and Elizabeth Zelvin. It also contains a classic reprint by Richard S. Prather.

28 February 2022

Rolling With The Punches

 by Steve Liskow

The last two years have shown the wisdom of not asking "How can things get even worse?" Fortunately, most of us are learning to deal with social distancing and spending time alone, never a challenge for writers anyway. But Life can throw you a high hard one when you dig in.

At the beginning of this month, I went to the hospital for outpatient treatment I've had twice before in the last eight months. I'm usually in and out in six hours with no after effects. I can eat and exercise normally. The day before I went in, I was working on two stories, one a solid second draft I had backed up, and the other a first draft about 3/4 complete. I thought I knew the villain and ending, so I expected to finish that draft when I returned home, maybe even that day.

Barb drove me to the hospital and planned to pick me up again after lunch. Since I only expected to be there a few hours, I left everything at home except my driver's license and Vax card. No biggie.

During that routine procedure, my blood pressure cratered and my temperature soared from my normal 97.7 to 102.8. When I could finally process what was going on ten hours after being dropped off, I was in intensive care with so many lines coming out of my arms that I felt like a motherboard. Needles in both arms, my stomach, and my neck (more about that in a minute) delivered three antibiotics, two blood pressure medications, and two steroids into my system. I also wore a blood pressure cuff and a heart monitor. The doctors knew why and how it happened (and I suspected something less specific), but I spent the next four days in ICU before they discharged me on the eighth day. 

During that time, I forgot the ending for that WIP. I was home five days (and still on an antibiotic Barb and I administered through a Mid-line) before I could focus enough to look at it again. Five days later, I thought I remembered the ending, but it was too weak. Maybe I didn't really remember it. At this point, who knows?

Now the good news. Both nurses in intensive care were terrific. One, who moved from Chicago to take that job in Hartford only weeks before, is an avid reader. She was amazed to learn she was standing only two miles from the Mark Twain house, and she now plans to visit, maybe even taking one of the tours my wife leads. She also downloaded one of my books. 

Better still, she explained what the various tubes and drugs were doing. The line through my neck was threaded into a vein to convey a drug that shrinks veins and helps increase blood pressure. She told me they have to be careful because if they move the line too close to an extremity, it can close down the capillaries and cause tissue death.

"That sounds a lot like gangrene," I said. 

"It is gangrene," she said. "That is why we watch you so closely. It is not just because you are so handsome."

When the hospital discharged me four days later, they gave me a printout of everything they had done, including all the meds. On page seven, I found the name of that drug and remember the symptoms.  I have never written a medical mystery, but now I have a good new way to kill someone.

The other upside is that when Barb finally brought in my phone and I posted about the whole nightmare, I got lots of support from friends. Over 40 reactions came from former students.

Because of all the needles and tubes, my hands are still stiff and sore. I picked up a guitar for the first time in three weeks yesterday. Piano is still on hold. Typing feels like someone is stomping on my fingers.

The time off showed me again how much I love writing. I didn't write a word for over two weeks and it was like going through withdrawal. This blog is about 700 words, and it's the most writing-actually most of the writing--I have done since February first. It feels like being let out of prison.

Now I can hardly wait to look at that story with the weak ending again. 

18 February 2022

You Should Write...

My brother-in-law started writing. Pushing sixty, he's taken to it with a zeal I had in my twenties. At least he knows what he's writing. I dabbled in someone else's sandbox before sending out the first Nick Kepler short around the time we worried Y2K would end the world. Good times!

Since then, I've discovered I can write crime at a reasonable pace expected by traditional publishers. Holland Bay is done. It's sequel is off to the first reader, and I'm outlining the third in the series. One a year? We can do that. I also found I can spin out scifi pretty much in my sleep. It probably comes from that sandbox I played in during the 90s. The serial numbers are even original, not filed off, though I might rightfully be accused of my one protag aiming to misbehave. (If you've read my stuff and got that reference, you know those two characters would not get along at all.)

So while I've worked in relative obscurity for the past 20 years, I've had a decent output. This inevitably leads to that conversation. I'm not successful enough to get the "Hey, I have an idea. You write it. We split the profits" conversation. I have been in earshot of that conversation, and I cringe every time I hear it. The writer is usually well-known. If I know the person well enough, I can rescue them with, "Hey, [insert writer's name here], Ken Bruen's holding court over at the back table. Let's see if we can figure out who in Ireland he doesn't know." Sidenote: When I was temporarily single and at a mixers event, I rescued a woman who turned out to be a neighbor from a rather obnoxious suitor this way, pretending to be her date instead of using another writer's party as an escape hatch. Five minutes later, I was her date. Who says skills learned as a writer don't apply to real life?

 The version of the conversation I now get when someone looks at the combined output of Jim Winter and TS Hottle is, "You should write..."

Uh huh. Holland Bay took forever to write. And I spent quarantine dictating what is now called the Suicide Arc - 9 books, people. Add to that writing a scene that let me get into the heads of two characters, and last week's output - which was supposed to be a crime short - fell only 2000 words shy of a novella. And yet...

My brother-in-law started text bombing me one night about a character named Mitsuko. Mitsuko plays with swords and automatic weapons and hangs out with space marines. She is a supporting character in the two novels currently out and the star of a novella called Flight Blade. And BIL is a fan.

A huge fan.

I appreciate that. If I had the time to talk up my characters and stories in person, I'd probably sell a lot more books. But BIL took it one step further.

"Hey, I got an idea. You should do a whole series about Mitsuko's kids!"

Um... She's not married at this point or even looking to have kids.

"What if [other character] and her hookup?"

One, they'd kill each other, and two, both would say, "Ew!" at that idea.

It went on like this for about twenty minutes. I had to explain I had the entire arc in the can already, and the stories, including one needing a total rewrite, are pretty much etched in stone. I also explained that Down & Out is expecting a final draft of a novel this spring, and I would like to get a follow-up sliding across the keyboard by then.

And anyway, don't you have a novel to finish, too?

He's not the only one, and part of his enthusiasm comes from discovering writing only last year. It helped him forget a recent health scare, and it's also as addictive as I've found it. Maybe he'll start writing under two names, too. (I hope not. If I weren't married to a woman who's good at refocusing my attention, I'd have no life.)

Someone always thinks I'm the perfect vehicle for their political viewpoint. (Don't do that. It doesn't matter your politics. I hate pundits and will likely hurt your feelings.) Or they really do have an idea but don't want to do the work. Or they don't understand how writing works. It took a month to write Suicide Run but three to write next year's The Dogs of Beaumont Heights. Both burned a lot of brain cycles to create. Plus I'm trying to get back into short stories.

Plus, the way publishing works, were I to get enough traction under either or both names, a Baen, a St. Martin's, a Tor, or a Random House is going to want me to send something completely original. At some point, I have to build a new sandbox to play in, maybe two. I have a couple of ideas on the crime side that can go to the next level, maybe allow me to finish Branson's story eventually. Scifi may prove a tad more difficult. I can't seem to extract myself from my sprawling universe. Maybe I won't, just change characters.

But, reader or writer, we've heard that horror story about someone accosting a writer with "I've got this great idea, and you should write it." Many of them back off when they realize that's not how it happens. Others are a bit disheartened when they realize the idea is not what's copyrighted or what the publisher or readers pay for. It's the execution. My next scifi novel will owe a lot to Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse: Now. Unlike Copolla, though, I finished mine. But aside from a real piece of work named Kurz and a bunch of soldiers sailing upriver, the novel will bear little resemblance to either Joseph Conrad's novel or the movie. For starters, I seriously doubt either Conrad's gone-native madman nor Marlon Brando's incoherent colonel had cause to say, "And I would have gotten away with it if it weren't for those meddling kids." 

There are stories that come from headlines, from those documentaries on A&E and Netflix, and from stories I hear driving Uber that give me story germs of my own. Many who don't do what we do, and even quite a few who do, think that writing is typing. You can write 1000 words an hour, so you should have a novel in two weeks.

I wish it did work like that. For every Road Rules, though, which I wrote in 13 days, there's a Holland Bay, which I started in 2007, rewrote multiple times over the next 12 years, and finally published in November. Those are extremes. Road Rules was a clearly defined story written on a dare. Holland Bay needed a couple of drafts just to finish the world building. Yes, even crime stories need world building.

The stock answer, which has the answer of usually being genuine, is "Why don't you write it?" Sometimes, they take the bait, and off they go down the rabbit hole.

Like my brother-in-law did. He's on Book 2 and is still revising Book 1. Took me a few years to learn that.

12 February 2022

What a Decade of Story Writing Does to You

You should write something.

Probably every writer heard that whisper in their head. Come on. Do it. Write something. After all, how hard can it be?

I'd heard that butt-in-chair siren song. In 2010, I answered finally the call. I wrote something. It stank. I wrote something else. It also stank. The stinking continued a while, but I am a dedicated learner. 2012 brought my first story acceptance, from an obscure Canadian lit journal that folded soon after. A good journal, though, and I felt a million miles tall.

10 candles, y'all
Some ways I've changed since that first acceptance:

#1: I've met the best people.

Most folks probably have friends or family trying their hands at fiction writing. I didn't, back when. Not one. I didn't personally know another living soul who was writing fiction. Non-fiction authors, yes, and everyone's English professor has a chapbook or like that. I've even lived next door to incredibly successful songwriters. But I didn't travel in fiction circles.

So--once my introvert side relented--I started showing up places: meet-up groups, local events, writing conferences, Sisters in Crime. Like everybody who sticks with it, I've since come into dear friends from all walks of life and with a wide variety of publishing goals. I'm happier about that than any publications.

And a special shout-out to crime authors. You would think that people intent on plotting murders and heists would be trouble. You would be wrong. I've never moved in a community more top-to-bottom generous than crime writers. All that plotting must purge negative impulses. 

#2 -- Travel is a whole new world. 

Camargue, 2018 -- We ride after lunch
It's no accident I put my butt in the writing chair soon after I began traveling more adventurously. These days, travel can give me something or somewhere to write about. And to write about a place honestly, I have to travel better. Immerse myself deeper into a place's vibe and culture, into what they eat and drink, the hours they keep.

A quick count shows 12 of my 38 accepted stories emerged from an overseas experience. Museum exhibits (first AHMM sale!), rainforest hikes, wine cave tours. Once, I walked myself to mush in Montparnasse. Had to. I needed to understand the neighborhood feel and how a stranger would take it in if I was pulling off a story idea. Much of that walkathon detail was cut from the accepted version, but that vibe and character perception survived.

Side note: I also kissed the Blarney Stone in 2010. The story ideas began improving soon after. I; not saying coincidence is causality, but I'm not not saying it, either.

#3 -- I have become a Tottenham Hotspur fan.

It's true. A main character in my great shelf novel was British and a devout football supporter. He needed an English team to support. Now, I was an okay soccer player until everyone else got a bunch larger and faster. As a fan and semi-informed person myself, I went through the various big clubs and decided Tottenham Hotspur was the most fun to say. Go on. Say "Tottenham Hotspur." You just had fun, didn't you? Unless you're an Arsenal supporter.

A character can't just claim to back Spurs. He had to rattle off club history, past great players, the few high years and their lowest lows. I researched it. I watched their games. And kept watching. That manuscript is many years abandoned, but I'm still watching Tottenham's few highs and sudden lows.

 #4 -- Reading is harder. Except when it isn't.

Early on, experienced writers warned that I might never read fiction the same way again. Truer words. Once I understood the base mechanics of fiction--and that fiction must have those mechanics--my reading turned over-focused on a given author's tactical choices. Dialogue tag spacing, word patterns, sentence construction. Nothing kills joy like analysis. 

So I stopped analyzing. I learned to turn off critical thinking and be a reader who digs reading. 

But informed analysis is also a new life skill. Life's too short to read stuff you can't drop into or, better still, wallow next-level in extraordinary work. Last year, I (finally) read Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan. I marveled as Vonnegut alternately nailed and broke conventions and at how he made the sum of those breezy-seeming choices into a beautiful gut punch. It wouldn't have resonated unless I had developed that sort of eye.

#5 -- New York City will never be the same. In a good way.

My first crime story acceptance was to the MWA Cold War anthology, Ice Cold (accepted 2013, published 2014). MWA does anthologies right, with name authors as editor--Jeffrey Deaver and Raymond Benson for this one--and as headliner contributors. The launch party was set for Mysterious Books, and I would've sold a kidney to get there. As it was, I'd had to negotiate a new job offer to include immediate time off for a New York City trip. Smash cut: I made NYC with best wishes and two kidneys, and I sat at the signing table with far more seasoned authors and wondered how the hell I'd made it there. That will always be my first NYC memory. 

#6 -- I had an empathy switcheroo.

Personality assessments over the years said I abound with empathy. I guess so. True, I can step outside myself and sense how others feel about what's going on around us. That's limited by my own experience, but I am not without experience. We're all three-dimensional folks, neither entirely angelic nor irredeemably bad in all things. We all have our own cocktail of ambitions, fears, disappointments, hidden injuries. My sympathy tank is drier than it was ten years ago, but good old empathy is hanging around. 

Writers need a high dose of empathy. It's part and parcel with building characters and forging reader connections. What's happened, though, is the act of writing has become a two-way pipeline. That hard work of empathizing for the page channels understanding back my way. Now my psyche expects the exchange--and I'm disjointed when it doesn't happen. I'm more easily frustrated. Staying in a writing routine gives me more sunshine. Can't explain it, but there it is.  

You should write something. 

Well, I did. If the first decade taught anything, answering that call brings one heck of a journey worth taking.

29 January 2022



MacGuffin, according to Wikipedia, is "an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrevelant in itself."

I like that definition, and I like MacGuffins. I like them so much I used them as the basis for my story "Mayhem at the Mini-Mart," which appears in the current (January/February 2022) issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. The original name for this story, in fact, was "MacGuffins." And by the way, this is the only story, of the two dozen I've sold to AHMM, that involved a title change. Editor Linda Landrigan sent me an email in October asking if I'd mind changing it from "MacGuffins" to "Mayhem at the Mini-Mart" because they wanted to use it for the cover of the Jan/Feb issue and the other title could be more easily used in the cover art. I of course said that'd be fine with me, and it was--but MacGuffins are still the heart of the tale.

Here's a quick summary of the story. Two brothers in the deep south who run a web-design business and love movies are taking a one-day break from work to go fishing together. On their way to the lake they amuse themselves in the car with a game in which one of the two describes a MacGuffin and the other tries to name the movie that features it. When they stop at a filling-station/convenience-store to gas up and grab some snacks, they interrupt a robbery-in-progress by a man who, according to what they heard earlier on their car radio, has already robbed and murdered an attendant at another mini-mart nor far away. And, as it turns out, the movie guessing-game they've been playing is the way they save themselves, and save the day.

At 2300 words, it's a fairly short story--a lot shorter than most of those I've sold to AHMM--and the first half is almost entirely dialogue between the two brothers. That, and the movie theme, made it great fun to write. As for its sale to AH, I suspect it didn't hurt that the term "MacGuffins," although it originated with a film guy named Angus McPhail, was adopted by Alfred Hitchcock and became a common plot device in storytelling. 

With regard to the definition, Wikipedia also describes a MacGuffin as something that is revealed in the first act, then declines in importance, and might reappear at the end of the story. One of the things I like most about the technique is that a MacGuffin serves as a way to link the entire story together, and is sometimes so important to the characters that it drives the plot. Examples: the One Ring in Tolkien's trilogy, the magical suitcase in Fantastic Beasts, the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders.

Anyhow . . . to steal from the text of my story and to include a few other movies I also remember fondly, here's a list of some MacGuffins and the films that used them.

Letters of transit -- Casablanca

The body of a boy hit by a train -- Stand By Me

A giant emerald -- Romancing the Stone

Microfilm of secret government documents -- North by Northwest

A glowing briefcase -- Pulp Fiction

A tattooed map to Dry Land -- Waterworld

A clause from a secret peace treaty -- Foreign Correspondent

Rosebud -- Citizen Kane

A Persian rug -- The Big Lebowski

A WWII soldier whose brothers have all been killed in action -- Saving Private Ryan

A rabbit's foot -- Mission Impossible III

Secret plans for the Death Star -- Star Wars

A black statuette -- The Maltese Falcon

A harmonica -- Once Upon a Time in the West

A coded message in a piece of music -- The Lady Vanishes

Walley World -- National Lampoon's Vacation

An audiotape of a summit-meeting speech -- Escape from New York

A silver necklace with a blue heart -- Titanic

A necklace with a gold-and-red heart -- Vertigo

Radioactive uranium in wine bottles -- Notorious

A red stapler -- Office Space

A consignment of diamonds from a jewelry shop -- Reservoir Dogs

An empty Coke bottle -- The Gods Must Be Crazy

A boy who'll save the world in the far-distant future -- Terminator 2

A baseball bat carved from the wood of a tree -- The Natural

Plans for an aircraft engine -- The 39 Steps

The Holy Grail -- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (among others)

Project Genesis -- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

A pocket watch that plays chimes -- For a Few Dollars More

A child's doll stuffed with heroin -- Wait Until Dark

Do you agree with these? (MacGuffins can sometimes be vague.) Can you think of others? Have you ever used MacGuffins in your own fiction? There's a chance you probably have and didn't realize it--I know I've done that.

One last point: I've heard that the key part of the word MacGuffin is "guff," which means utter nonsense. And maybe that's true.

But it works.

24 January 2022

Seven Steps

Nancy Pickard is a U.S. crime novelist. She has won five Macavity Awards, four Agatha Awards, an Anthony Award, and a Shamus Award. She is the only author to win all four awards. She also served on the board of directors of the Mystery Writers of America.

I don't remember exactly when I met Nancy Picard, sometime in the early 90's is my guess. That was when I began to first be published and Elmer & I opened our mystery bookstore in Austin in 1990. I remember she & both were very early members of Sisters in Crime and Nancy is a past National President of S-in-C. I do know I've always admired her mystery novels. Reading Nancy's books are like peeling an onion back to  add to the story and destroy your early guesses. Naturally, you must keep turning pages and peeling layers until you get to the end & the solution. 

When I read this article about Nancy's book: Seven Steps on a Writer's Path, I knew I wanted to share this information with all of you. Her book is available in both Paperback & Kindle formats. Page numbers refer to the trade paperback edition.                                                                                                                — Jan Grape

As Nancy Pickard looked back over her own career and that of her many writer friends, she saw herself and most of them struggling through stages of unhappiness, of wanting, of commitment, of wavering, of letting go, of immersion, and of fulfillment. It looked very much like a path to her, and it felt true, in the way only actual lived experience does feel.

"And thus was born the Seven Steps on the Writer's Path. At first it was a workshop given   by me, then it was a retreat presented by Lynn, and now it is a book written by both of us." p. xii


by Nancy Pickard

Starting Out

"Writing is a path as full of darkness as it is of light, and so the way ahead is hard to see. There are so many ominous shadows, unpredictable gusts of wind, unexpected blinding shafts of sunlight. It’s easy to get lost, to trip over our own hidden roots, or plunge unaware into unexplored caverns in our psyche. As writers, we hardly ever know where we’re going. The only thing most of us know how to do is to keep putting one foot after the other in the darkness and trust that eventually we’ll get there." p. 1

When Lynn and I each started our own writing careers, we didn’t even know there was a path, much less that there are steps along it. We hope that knowing these things will give you an advantage that writers who came before you didn’t have.

Step One: Unhappiness

"Call this step in the creative process what you will, according to your own experience of it. Name it the 'creative urge,' if you like. Call it an 'itch' or 'creative tension' or 'restlessness' or 'discontent.' Regardless of what label any of us gives this step, it’s a common state and the first step for all of us.

"Unhappiness, to one degree or another, is where all creativity begins." p. 9

What a way to start a book, with unhappiness! But we had to, because that’s where the writing starts… or the drawing… or the music… or any other form of creativity. We discovered early on that the steps in this book apply to any creative person, not just to writers.

Step Two: Wanting

"It sounds so simple. All you have to do is want. But it must not be that simple in real life, or else why wouldn't more people be writing what, where, when, as much, and as well as they want to? Instead, they're still languishing in a state of unsatisfied desire. They're stuck back in step one, Unhappiness, and they can't seem to get out of it, no matter how bravely they face it or how honestly they acknowledge what they want from writing.

"The trouble may be that most of us tend to assume that wanting is only about feeling. Certainly, depth of desire is part of the answer, but what we're missing when we stop there is the second part of wanting, the action part…" pp. 38-39

This chapter required Lynn and me to be excruciatingly honest with ourselves and our readers about what we really want in our lives and our writing. It was good for us. It'll be good for you, too.

Step Three: Commitment

"Some people might joke that writers need to be committed, rather than to have commitment, and sometimes we feel as if we can only agree with them. It’s probably true that we're all at least a little bit crazy. But then, truly committed people usually look a little-or very–crazy to the outside world. If you don't look just a little bit nuts, you’re probably not committed enough. Writers like L. Frank Baum -- whose The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was rejected dozens of times -- who keep sending their manuscripts to publishers look like crazy fools to people who will be only too glad to tell them so." p. 70

Step Four: Wavering

"Wavering tends to arrive when it’s least expected and least welcome. Certainly, you'd never willingly invite it, but surprise, here it is. Such as when you're forty pages into a book and you thought it was going to be smooth sailing from here on out, but now you’re stuck. Or like when you’ve submitted your poems to magazines and you're feeling really good and hopeful about them–and the rejection letters start coming in. Or like when you've arranged to write for a couple of hours every day, and then other responsibilities crop up, just when you thought you had them beat down." p. 103

This is one of those steps where it's truly wonderful to know that you have lots of company. You're not alone. You're not the only crazy one. I'm there with you many days. So is Lynn. So is every writer we know and all of the ones we don’t know. We all waver. We all hate it. We all get through it, one way or another, and having each other's hands to hold is a big help and comfort.

Step Five: Letting Go

"Letting go is the magic moment when you step off into space, trusting that you won't fall on your face. As the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, when we make a leap of faith, it is the actual act of stepping out that creates a bridge to see us safely to the other side." p. 137

This is my favorite step of all. I adore this step. This is where miracles happen. This step sometimes terrifies me. A lot of times in my life I have wanted, oh how I have wanted, to take this step, but I just couldn’t do it. And then sometimes I do take it, and oh, the joy of that!

Step Six: Immersion

"… be loyal to your writing. Be just as loyal as you are to your dearest friend or loved one. If your friend or your child really needed your attention, would you let your attention wander? Or would you ignore the telephone, put everything else on hold, and turn fully toward him or her? Your writing deserves that kind of loyalty and attention, too. If you can't or won't manage to show as much loyalty to your writing as you show to your friends and family, we guarantee that while you may experience moments of writing bliss, you'll never experience the satisfaction of going all the way.

"Be loyal." p. 177

It's hard for a lot of people, some women especially, I think, to be loyal to their writing, or even to think of it in that way. They let everything and everybody pull them away from it, as if they couldn't care less. But they do care, we know they do, and they suffer for it. If only they knew, their writing wants their love and attention, too!

Step Seven: Fulfillment

"So we have to ask you: where’s your cart, and where’s your horse?

"Here are some telltale things that writers say that alert us to improper horse/cart placement. You'll have to pardon us if our answers sound a bit jaded; we've heard these more times than you'd care to know: 'Should I copyright it first?' (You should write it first.) 'What if I send a query to several publishers and they all want it?' (You should only have such problems. Just worry about writing it.) 'What if somebody steals my ideas?' (Just write the damned thing. If you're worried about burglars, get a gun.) 'I've written three chapters of a novel. Should I start sending it out to agents now?' (No, you should write Chapter 4 now.) 'I was thinking of sending my poems out now and waiting to do my rewriting after I hear what the editors have to say.' (We're thinking you should rewrite them now, or you will never hear from any editors.)" p. 208

Dare to dream big, we say in this chapter, but keep dreaming small at the same time. Go ahead and visualize your name on a best-seller list, but also visualize yourself writing that next sentence, paragraph, and page.