Tag Archives: Writer

How to Take It Easy in Seventy-Eight Incredibly Difficult Steps


Sometimes I wonder what it is that other “aspiring” writers like myself do for a living. For some reason it seems rude to just come out and ask, almost like asking someone how much they make in the year.

It’s not something people volunteer a lot of information about either. Well, some people don’t. People like me who work in dead end soul-sucking jobs, we have the attitude that if we’re going to be miserable, at least people are going to know about it. They’re going to look at us and say, “He is at the bottom rung of the work ladder, but that simply makes him more appealing as an underdog figure. Did not that excellent fellow Chuck Palahniuk write his famous novel Fight Club while he was working at a job he hated? Truly, we must eschew the ever-growing influx of ivory-tower, white-collar writers that the various hosts on NPR seem to love so much. What dedication, what drive, what boundless character this man must have!”

Hey, I can dream right?

But today I’m not here to talk to you about what I do. I’m here to tell you what I don’t do. Because in the flurry of writing advice that I see flying around out there in the blogosphere, it seems there’s a bit of a trend to push writers to work harder and faster all the time. Writers talking about fast-drafting, posting how many words they’ve completed on Twitter, gasping in astonishment when someone like Matt Forebeck resolves to crank out a novel every month for a year. We have National Novel Writing Month, Novel Writing Weekend, books about how to write edit and sell your novel in a year.

And I hope no one takes this the wrong way, but I gotta say…

Slow. DOWN.

I mean really, write at whatever speed you want. If you’re comfortable cranking out five thousand words a day then great. More? Fantastic.

But hear me when I say this: there is no virtue to speed. A faster novel is not a better novel. It’s just faster.

And I wouldn’t even bring this up except, for those writers out there who are like me, who do have jobs and obligations outside of writing it seems there’s a great deal of peer pressure to work faster and faster. And under that pressure, along with everything else we have to do, I fear there are many of us in danger of burning out.

Dedication and hard work are good and admirable things. But the simple fact is, your brain can only handle so much. If you work for eight hours at anything and then you come home and try to write three or four thousand words every day? You’re gonna get sick of that real fast.

People like to go on and on about how life is so short, and I suppose it is, but it isn’t likely you’re going to die tomorrow. And assuming you don’t die tomorrow, I seriously doubt you’ll be laying on your death-bed however many years from now and thinking, “Verily, my only regret is that I wish I had managed to write at least a thousand words on August 28th, in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Twelve.”

What is the right amount of writing for a day? That I can’t answer. It’s going to be different from person to person. But generally it’s whatever amount that you can do and still come back the next day excited about the work.

And maybe wordcount goals aren’t the thing to do. I’ve mentioned here before that most of the time I write within a set time period, the one hour lunch break I have at that dead-end job I was telling you about. I sit down, eat my sandwich, call my wife, and then pull out my Alphasmart 3000 and get cracking. How far does that get me? Well I’ve been working on my serial story Sons of the Damned since around early May and I’ve only recently hit the forty-five-thousand word mark. So we’re looking at a rate of a little better than ten thousand words a month, a whopping three hundred and seventy-five words a day. Not much to crow about. But what I can crow about is that I’m still going, still enjoying the process, still digging the twists and turns of the story.

And there are some days when I’ll be writing other things, this blog post for instance, and so I’ll give myself a break from fiction writing. The story is always in my head. Sometimes I’m actively brainstorming about it, but other times, most times really, I’ll let it sit for a while my subconscious figures out the angles.

In the end I don’t care how much or how fast you write. If you’re out there stringing out tens of thousands of words a day and you’re happy, then go to it. But I reiterate: speed is not a virtue. A book is not good because you’ve written it quickly; you aren’t a good writer because you’ve written something quickly. And you aren’t a poor writer if you plod along like a tortoise while the rest of the rabbits charge ahead pell-mell until their tiny hearts explode from sheer exertion.

It’s not a race; it’s a journey. And it takes as long as it takes.


On the Benefits of Failure

If you’ve been around this space for any length of time at all, you know I’ve talked quite a bit in this space about my struggles with depression, and how it often centers itself around my lack of success as a writer.  Often I’ll become overwhelmed by an obsession with my own failures that sucks me into a spiral of darkness and self-loathing.

And the truth is I have had a fair number of “failures” in my life, particularly in my efforts as a writer. But in my days of calm when the clouds of depression aren’t casting their black shadows on my life, I can say that there is a great deal to be thankful for in failure.

Of course it goes without saying that no one wants to fail. No one wants to send out a manuscript and have it rejected. In our minds the perfect world would be filled with one success after another, triumph upon triumph, world without end. But the truth is there are real benefits to failure and defeat.

Failure builds…well most people would say character. Which is probably true, except “character” is a pretty difficult thing to pin down under one definition. So I’ll use my own squiffy words if its all the same to you. Failure builds thickness. Thickness of heart. Thickness of soul. Thickness of skin.

Cuts and scabs and blisters aren’t things anyone would wish for, but when they’ve healed, they leave behind tissue that is tougher and more resilient than it ever could have been before. Failure does the same for the soul. It thickens us up, gives us strength we didn’t have before.

But more than that, failure can be catalyst for innovation and creativity. Consider the plight of the failed writer for a moment. He’s written any number of stories that went nowhere commercially. Over and over he’s read the rejection form letters in his email inbox with a sinking heart. And yet, for some reason, he won’t give up. Maybe he can’t give up. Who can say?

Now consider his successful counterpart. She is the one who sold the first novel she ever wrote, hurtled to meteoric stardom in the matter of a few short months and raked in millions from the sales of her books.

Of these two, who is the one most likely to grow as a writer? Who is the one most likely to take risks, to try new things, to stretch their limits beyond what they’re fully comfortable with? Our successful example may very well find herself confined to the genre and style of fiction that won her stardom. She may consider branching out, trying new things, but before she does she must stop and consider: “What will my fans think?” “How will my public react?” “What if I fail?”

The failure on the other hand is unfettered by these worries. He knows exactly what will happen if he fails. He’s been there. He’s done that. He’s got the kitschy coffee mug.

Out of a hundred failures, what’s one more? Why not try something bold and original? Why not do something no one thinks will work? If falls flat on his face, who will be surprised?

And this, I believe, is the true grace of failure. As an “aspiring” writer, you literally have nothing to lose. Your maybe ten Twitter friends (Oh, sure, you’ve got lots more “followers” than that, but in my experience it’s only ten or so that really care) aren’t going to turn on you like ravenous piranha if you drop of a dud of a door-stopper on them. No one is going to stop you in the supermarket to eviscerate you for writing an entire novel in second-person future-tense.

And that makes you the most important thing in the literary community today. Because who’s going to be the one to break out with something inventive and groundbreaking, a book that through caution to the wind, pulls out all the stops, and charges ahead with wanton enthusiam?

A failure, that’s who. Someone who’s tried everything twice, and couldn’t quite make it work. Someone with absolutely nothing to lose.

This isn’t a call to flip the middle finger to the mainstream. This isn’t a screed against successful fiction writers. But it is a call to stop trying to do what’s cool and popular. It is an appeal to start writing freely and without fear.

Only when you learn to embrace the benefits of failure can you unlock your true potential for success. Only then can you become the writer you were meant to be.

The Quest for Normalcy

There are four words you never want to hear your doctor say. Now you might be thinking those words are something like, “You have bone cancer,” or “Sorry man, wrong leg.” But actually the four worst words your doctor can say are these: “I’m a writer too.” At least they were the worst words that I could have heard when my doctor said them to me.

You might already know how this story begins. It starts with me making a blog post a few weeks back about how I had been fighting some serious depression. I figured I couldn’t be the only one who was going through something like that and I wanted my fellow-writers to know they weren’t alone. Well you people, being the wonderful human beings that you are, responded with many encouraging words, as well as one comment that respectfully suggested I look into some sort of chemical solution to my problem.

At first I was hesitant to even consider such a thing. After all I wasn’t that bad right? I mean, sure I had been having more bad days than usual lately, but was it really worth pursuing medication?

But the more I thought about it the more I realized that I did have a serious problem. Over the last few months my writing output had taken a nosedive, and I had even been affected to the point where I was unable to continue a project that had been very dear to my heart.

So I mentioned it to my wife in passing, half expecting her to dismiss the notion out of hand. But instead she agreed that maybe I did in fact need to try something drastic to get out of the rut I was stuck in.

Of course I put it off for a few weeks even then, but the idea wouldn’t go away, and I knew I needed to make an appointment with my doctor anyway to renew my asthma inhaler prescription, so why not bring up my other concerns at the same time?

I finally set the date and on a beautiful Wednesday morning my wife went with me to the doctors office. But that day there were complications, meaning that the wait time was far longer than anticipated. If there’s one thing in the world I absolutely hate it’s waiting, sitting there with your butt in the same uncomfortable chair for hours on end, thinking about how your never going to get those hours back, wishing you could at least just get up and walk around the building until it’s your time to see the doctor. (That last one might be only me. I can’t stand sitting still for very long.)

So after about an hour and a half I turned to my wife and said, “I don’t want us to waste our whole day here. Maybe we should just go.” Her response shocked me. “No,” she said. “We’re staying. You need this. I need this. Because if something doesn’t change I don’t know how I’ll be able to handle it.”

That was when it really hit me what a burden my foul moods had been on those around me. So I sat my butt back into the chair, buried my nose in my book and waited.

Eventually they called us back, and we waited some more in the room for the doctor to show up. And when he came in I realized this was a new guy and not the doctor I was used to. We got the basics out of the way and talked to him about my asthma troubles, and before I knew it, it was time.

I had psyched myself up for the moment I knew was coming, the moment I was going to have to bare my stricken soul to a total stranger and ask for his help, but when the moment came it was even more difficult than I had imagined. Still, I did my best. I told the doctor about how I hated my job, how that every day I went in and did my work knowing that nothing I did would ever matter or be remembered, how that I had dreamed of being a writer for years and now my failure to attain that dream had turned into a mocking voice in the pit of my soul, a reminder that I was no one and nothing and always would be.

And that was when he smiled and said, “I’m a writer too.”

Oh. Great.

I don’t mean to be dismissive of other’s dreams when I haven’t exactly done very much toward achieving my own, but in my experience when someone tells you they’re a writer you’re usually about to be in for some mind-numbingly bad advice.

This time was no exception. “I’m not sure you need antidepressants,” the doctor told me. “I think maybe you need to keep pursuing your dream of being a writer, so you can get out of the job that you hate.”

Never have I so badly wanted to punch a human being in the face. Follow my dream? Get out of my dead-end job? What did he think I’d been doing for the past five years? Looking at a typewriter and twiddling my thumbs? Did he care that my problem was getting so bad that I couldn’t write anymore?

But I stayed calm. I explained as patiently as possible that I couldn’t climb out of this pit of despair on my own. At which point he said, “Have you ever heard of a guy named Dan Poynter? He’s got some really great books on self-publishing.”

I have looked up Dan Poynter since then, and for what it’s worth he seems to be an interesting guy with a lot of experience in self publishing as well as being, and (this is true) a world premier expert on the subject of sky diving. But on that day I really really wasn’t looking for another self-publishing guru. I just wanted to feel better. I wanted to feel like a real person again. I wanted to have the emotional energy to do the things I loved. That’s why I went to the doctor.

Only after accepting the a card on which the doctor wrote down Dan Poynter’s name as well as the title of his book was I able to convince him to write me a prescription for a low dose of Prozac. (Actually off-brand Prozac, which I was disappointed to learn is not called AmateurZac.)

That was two weeks ago. And in spite of the hoops I had to jump through to get here, I’m happy to report that I’ve been feeling better than I have in a long time. It’s still not all sunshine and roses. I still have down moment here and there, but on the whole I’ve been happy and, more importantly, productive. Of course I still have to sit down and do the work. As far as I know they haven’t yet invented a pill that cures laziness. But now I don’t have to fight against the nagging fears and crushing doubts that plagued my way before.

I was afraid at first that taking antidepressants would somehow change me, make me a radically different person, but I’m happy to report that still feel like myself.

To those of you who offered me encouragement in my dark times, thank you. And if you’ve been going through dark times of your own then let me be the first to say that there’s no shame in looking for help. If you let it depression will crush you and wear down the ones who love you.

But you don’t have to let it. You can fight back.

A Little Less Talk, and a Lot More Action

You know the greatest thing about being a writer? I mean other than the unbelievable fame and fortune. The greatest thing about being a writer is the fact that you get to look back at the stories of your past and say, “You know, I wish I could go back and fix that.” And then you can actually go back and fix it.

So over the last couple of days, I’ve been going back over my very first book, Ella Eris and the Pirates of Redemption, trying to see how much of it is salvageable. I started by making an outline of the story as it is currently written, a step recommended by Chuck Wendig in his recent post about editing, and…well, let’s just say breaking down  the story into its component pieces reveals more about my past writer self than I really wanted to know.

Because you know what I’ve realized? The characters in my story won’t shut up. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with dialogue, I’m all for that, but it really hit me when I was outlining upwards of three scenes in a row of “Ella goes and talks to Character X” that maybe it would be good if I had something actually happen in my book.

Not that there isn’t any action, but the outline made me realize that it wasn’t evenly spaced, and that there were large chunks of the text that served no purpose in the actual story. But back in the day I didn’t understand the proper ebb and flow of action in the story. I was so focused on getting the words right, but I failed to make the story right.

It’s an important distinction to make. If you’re a beginning writer, then chances are you’re in love with words, with the sounds they make in your head and the way they fit together. And you’ve probably picked up some bestseller or another, leafed through the first few pages and said to yourself, “I can write better than this.” And you may not believe this but, you’re probably right.

But fancy writing does not make for a bestselling book. Not that there’s anything wrong with fancy writing, but if there is anything that reading Michael Connelly has taught me it is that knowing how to tell a story well, is far more important than knowing how to construct a sentence that will make the angels weep with envy.

In my case the structure of my story is all wonky, and the pacing is terrible. Whole chapters turned out to be completely unimportant, and whole new chapters need to be written (hopefully with the characters doing more than just talking).

It took me five years to figure this out. I’m writing this blog post so maybe it won’t take five years for you to figure out what’s wrong with your story.

You’re good with words? Great. But don’t forget that words are just icing. You have to have a cake to spread them on.

This is my appeal to you: learn at least a little about structure, about the way scenes of action follow scenes of contemplation and vice versa. Learn about building tension. Learn about story.

Because that’s the stuff that really matters.

Of Typewriters and Time

The thing both great and terrible about having a blog like this, is that it focuses your thoughts. It’s great because, somehow the act of putting one thought down on paper gives birth to another, deeper thought. But it’s terrible because most of the time you have the second thought, right after you’ve published the first.

Such was the case with my previous blog post. It was only meant to be an encouragement a word of help to writers who might not be keeping up with the faster ponies in the NaNoWriMo pack. But not more than a couple of hours after I wrote it I came across this blog espousing the benefits of something called fast drafting, and it got me to thinking: what is up with our obsession with speed? NaNoWriMo, Book in a Month, Novel in a Weekend, the list goes on. In fact I’m pretty sure that every single month of the year has some kind of “fast drafting” push writer can get involved in.

Now before I get too far into this, let me say I’ve got no problem with fast drafting or any of these other writing initiatives per say. There is a great deal of wisdom in the idea of silencing the inner editor to a point.

But consider these words: “First drafts are supposed to suck.”

If you’ve been entrenched in the writing world for any length of time at all, you’ve probably heard this mantra. In fact I’ve given this advice myself from time to time. But is it true? Or, asked differently, is it helpful?

From one standpoint, the answer is yes. Every writer struggles with doubts. Every story brings with it a certain measure of uncertainty and apprehension that what is being written is utter crap. As writers we have to move beyond these kinds of uncertainty and press forward to the finish.

But there is a danger, I think, in taking it too far. Your task as a writer is not to simply upchuck sentences until you reach your desired wordcount. You do not get to smear literary excrement all over the page and call it a first draft.

I know, I know, you get revisions and rewrites and edits, and loads and loads of chances to make that story better. But I want you to look at something for me. Just take a minute and look.

Isn’t she beautiful? I mean really. When they made this baby, they distilled the archetype of what it means to be a writer and molded it into a single perfect machine. But think about what it would have meant to be a writer with one of these things. Every mistake you make you had to manually white out. Every edit had to be retyped. And cutting and pasting involved actual scissors and glue.

Do you think writers using one of these might have approached a sentence, a paragraph, a story with a little more caution? Do you think they might have lined up the words in their heads before they started hammering away at those keys, to be absolutely sure they were saying what they wanted to say in the most effective manner possible? I dare say they might.

But now computers have made things easy. And in a sense I’m thankful for it. I’m really glad I don’t have to use whiteout every time I misspell a word. But easy doesn’t always mean better, and it seems that words have lost some of their weight now that they can exist only in the ether of the electronic world.

I do not intend to discourage you from the practice of writing quickly, but rather I want to admonish you to write with purpose. If you are a writer you have chosen a noble path. You have the power to change the world with words. Do not ever use that power lightly, whether you are on your first draft or your fiftieth.

And if you approach that first draft with the proper focus, if you take the time you need to write the best story you can, it will be far easier to build on that foundation in the following drafts.

Upon Emerging from a Deep and Abiding Funk

You may have noticed that I haven’t made a blog post these last couple days. Probably you didn’t notice.That’s okay too.

Were have I been? I’ve been battling my way through the absolute worst bout of depression I have seen in years. And it was bad. It got so bad, I seriously considered quitting. I thought, if writing is going to bring me this much grief then what’s the point? Why go on with something that hurts me so badly?

Fortunately I have a loving wife who gave me as much encouragement as she could, and put up with my black moods for nearly a week, and that helped me get over my desire to quit writing. Also, Ellie Soderstrom said she’d kill me if I stopped.

However, some things are going to change. Specifically, I’m shifting my attitude about blogging. Trying to get something new posted every day is part of the reason I think I burned out so badly. I had an expectation of what I could do with this blog that fell far short of reality, and it hit me all at once and took me down hard.

So for the time being at least, I’m backing off on that. It’s not that I’m going to quit blogging entirely, but I’m no longer going to strive to put something up for every weekday. After all, it’s not as if I have anything to say writing-wise that you can’t hear somewhere else, from someone better qualified and probably far more interesting.

So, I’m going to give myself permission not to blog when I don’t feel like it. I’m also going to stop trying to hit any kind of arbitrary word count.

Because somewhere in the middle of the terror that was last week, I realized that I wasn’t having any fun anymore. Blogging had become a dull and tedious ritual. I know that there are some things we should do regardless of how we feel. But it isn’t exactly as if blogging is bringing in the big bucks for me. It’s not even bringing in the little does. (Hunting humor: a sure sign you’ve been working in Sporting Goods for way too long.)

Put differently, this is not my job. And since I already get depressed often enough about the job I have, why should I let blogging add to that pile?

It’s possible I’m way off base with all of this. Maybe I should keep pushing through, regardless of how I feel. It wouldn’t be the first time I wrote something that I ended up disagreeing with later. But for now, I’m gonna take it easy. Hopefully it will help me improve my outlook and avoid falling into another nasty week-long funk.

If not at least I can promise you one thing: whatever happens, you can read about it on my blog.

Abandonment Issues

Someone smarter than me (And probably richer too, so why should I bother to look up his name?) once said, “Novels are never finished. They are only abandoned.”

Unfortunately for us tortured penmonkeys, that does not mean that we can just give up in the middle of writing our book and expect someone to pay actual money for it. What it does mean is, “Your book is never going to be perfect, and you can only do so much revising, so eventually you’re going to have to learn to be happy with what you have and just put it out there, bucko.”

It’s a reality that every writer who ever plans to publish anything must face. And earlier this month it stared me straight in the eyes.

I was putting the finished touches on The Mulch Pile. I had done multiple edits on my own, in addition to farming out proofreading work to people nice enough to do it for free. (Speaking of which, huge thanks to Creste Meyer and Ellie Soderstrom for volunteering to help me make my work as pristine as possible.)

I was coming into the home stretch, reading through the story one last time, applying some final edits, when I was struck with a stunning realization:

The Mulch Pile I had written nearly two years ago was not the story I would have written today.

Okay, so maybe it should have been all that stunning. But it was somewhat disconcerting. After all that hard work, writing, rewriting, tweaking, rewriting some more…all of that and yet somehow looking back over it my current writer self was saying, “I could have done this better.”

It’s possible that’s just wishful thinking. It’s possible that everything I’ve learned in the past two years wouldn’t have improved the story of The Mulch Pile at all. But somehow I doubt it. I feel in my heart that if I had it to do over again, I could have created a better, more focused story and crafted a plot with better structure.

And yet The Mulch Pile went live a week later, largely unchanged.

Why? Is it because I’m a lazy bum, and I’m sick and tired of looking at this thing, obsessing over every little word, every turn of phrase and every hidden symbolic clue that no one’s likely to pick up on anyway?

Well, yes. But also, it’s because I’m not the writer I used to be.

The writer I used to be wrote The Mulch Pile. And it’s a good story. Not perfect mind you, but good. And if I let the writer that I am get pulled into constantly trying to improve and rewrite, I could get bogged down with this one story for the rest of my life.

Because the truth is, I’m getting better. I’ve been getting better over those two intervening years, and I plan to continue getting better over the years to come. The writer I am has his own stories to write. And the writer I’m going to be may very well look back on the stuff I’m doing today, and think, “I could have done it better.”

But he won’t. He won’t, because he won’t have time. He’ll be working on his own projects. Because life is about motion. It’s about moving forward.

The Mulch Pile was the best story the writer I was could have written. And with that I am satisfied.

How about the rest of you? Ever have to let go of one story so that you could move on to another? Share your tale of abandonment in the comments. I’d love to hear about it.

A Bit of Exciting News

Oh, hey guys. What’s up with me you say? Well, not much. You know, the usual. Except for one little thing. I’ll remember it here in a second here, what was it- OH YEAH, WE FINISHED OUR FIRST DRAFT!!!!

That’s right folks, a little more than two months after I wrote an email to Ellie Soderstrom  saying “Hey, you ever think about cowriting a story?” we’ve finished the final scenes in the first draft of said story.

Our novel, currently under the working title, Darn, We Really Need to Come with a Cool Title for This Thing is a love story about a boy and girl living in a steampunk version of ancient Persia. When the girl is taken to be a member of the king’s harem, the boy sets out to free her. But in the process both of them become enmeshed in an ancient battle between the stalwart clockwork soldiers known as the Cogsmen and a powerful alien race who men worship as gods.

Wanna read it? Well you can’t. Probably not for a good while yet. After all it is only a first draft. But I gotta tell you, it’s a strong first draft.There are copious amounts of polish needed before you readers can see it, but the story is basically strong. And the main reason for that comes from the strengths of this collaborative project.

I know I’ve talked about this in the past, but there is just something powerful about having someone you can call up and say, “I’m having some problems with this scene,” and being able to talk it out. Add to that the amount of preplanning we did on our characters’ backstories (very little of which made it into the story, by the way) and world building, and you’ve got a great foundation to build a great story on.

And I don’t want to jinx it or anything, but…I’ve got a good feeling about this one. This could finally be the story that lands us an agent and goes the distance to publication. Fingers crossed.

So what’s next? Well for me it’s on to  the final edits on The Mulch Pile. I’ve had them in hand for a while now, but I’d been putting them off in order to finish this project. For Ellie’s part, I hear she’s working on some kind of script thingy (though personally I still have my doubts if this whole “movie” craze is going to really last.)

And after we’ve let it cool for a bit, we’ll come back to our book and sort out what kinds of changes need to happen to solidify the story.

And after that…well like I said. Fingers crossed.

What about the rest of y’all? Got some exciting writing news? Share it in the comments will you? We’d love to hear about it. Also, if you’ve got a great title idea for a romance involving robots and aliens, help us out here. We’re seriously not sure what to call this thing.

The Invisible Conflict

I’ve been writing fiction for about five years. I’d like to think I’ve learned a lot and matured considerably as a writer in that time. But while experience might be the best teacher, it certainly isn’t the most efficient one.

So at the beginning of this year I really started delving into some of the writing blogs on the internet looking for ways to make my fiction more powerful. I learned a lot about writing good dialogue, giving my protagonist goals, and a whole slew of other things.

But the one idea that has impacted me most as a writer in this last year can be summed up in one word: conflict.

Now I wouldn’t say that my writing never had any conflict before I started delving deeper into the mechanics of fiction. At some basic level I understood that things were supposed to go badly for the hero for most of the book, because fundamentally that’s what a story is.

But lately I’ve been looking for it, trying to inject it into every scene. So much so that it’s making me a little bit crazy. When my writing partner, Ellie Soderstrom called me to tell me that she’d finished the scene where our romantic leads finally met up after being separated for several weeks my only question was, “Yes, great, but is there CONFLICT!?”

[Yes, we’re writing a love story. But it has aliens and clockwork robots in it too, so that’s okay.]

But yesterday I was reading through some of the scenes Ellie had written over the last week, and there wasn’t any conflict in them at all. The main character’s goals weren’t being opposed. Personalities weren’t clashing. Things were actually going rather nicely for the protagonist.

And it was perfect.

Because there was conflict. But the conflict wasn’t in the scene. It was…invisible.

What do I mean by that? Well, most conflict you can see. It’s there and perfectly evident that two characters are fighting, or that the hero is facing some obstacle to his progress. As readers we can even “see” internal conflict going on in our protagonists heads.

But there’s another kind of conflict that doesn’t get a lot of press. And yet, when used properly, it can be the most powerful of them all. In spite of the fact that it appears nowhere on the page, you know exactly when it’s happening, because your heart starts to race, and you want to shout at the book in your hands, to try to change the course of the words.

I’m talking about the conflict between the reader and the story.

Alfred Hitchcock famously said that the most visceral kind of suspense was putting a bomb under a table and show the audience that it’s counting down, but don’t show any of the characters.

Think of it: two characters, sitting, having coffee, chatting about life in a completely friendly and nonconfrontational way. And in five seconds you know they’re about to be blown to bits.

Or a character falls deeply and madly in love. It seems like the man of her dreams. She’s finally ready to move on after the death of her true love. Things look wonderful for her. Life could not be better. But the audience knows her true love is still alive, fighting through the zombie hoards to get to her, and the man she’s falling for is pure evil.

Building that urge in your readers to shout out a warning to fictional people in a made up world is one of the most powerful things you can do as a writer. It shouldn’t be overdone, but when done right with characters that the audience cares about it can be one of the most memorable moments in a book.

Because it brings the reader into the story, gives them the responsibility of knowledge, makes them feel as if they could almost step in and change the course of the book. Or at the very least it gets them thinking, “If I was there, I would do something different.”

In other words, it is in those moments that the reader becomes a character in the story.

And it is in those moments that a story truly comes to life.

Hacking Your Way to Better Writing

I just finished reading Larry Brooks book, Story Engineering, and although it certainly isn’t anywhere close to weird enough to feature in its own Bizzaro Book Review, I gotta say, you people really need to pick this thing up, if only for the section on structure.

But while I was reading this book, I came across a theme which seemed to be repeated with alarming regularity. Namely, that some writers simply refuse to accept the idea that there might be a basic format with nearly all good stories follow and that learning and applying that format can vastly improve your chances of getting published.

It boggles the mind to think that someone could write a book saying, “This is the structure on which 99% of all financially successful stories are based. Disregard it at your peril,” and struggling writers would choose to completely ignore it.

It would make sense if you didn’t know about fundamentals of structure, but to know and refuse to apply them seems completely nonsensical. Yet according to Brooks writers do this all the time. And I think I know why.

Writers want to feel special.

Sure, maybe all those other hacks need to pay attention to things like story structure, but not you. You’ve got something unique. And while I don’t want to tear down anyone’s self-image, I do have a bit of cold hard truth for you to swallow:

You’re not special.

I know you’re hackles just went up. After all, you’ve been told that you were special by wonderful well-intentioned people for your whole life. And here’s the thing: pretty much everyone else was told the same thing.

Now, are you unique? In some ways, sure. Do you have something valuable to offer the world through your writing? Probably, yes.

But trust me when I say there are thousands, possibly millions of writers out there who think they’re the ones who’ve really got what it takes if only the big mean publishers would get out of the way and print their stuff.

This is not to say you are not a good writer. You may be a great writer. You may be a great storyteller. (These two things are not synonymous by the way, a topic which deserves a post of its own one of these days).

But the odds are good that as long as you keep thinking of yourself as the next greatest thing in the literary world, you’re not going to be able to learn as much as you need to learn to get better.

Instead, try taking a page from fellow blogger The Hack Novelist. When I first saw Hack’s internet moniker I thought, “Well, that’s odd. I wonder why someone would choose to be so self-deprecating.” But the more I think on it, the more I believe he’s got the right idea.

See, if you start to think of yourself as a hack, it’s very liberating in a way. For one thing you’re freed from the obligation to write the perfect story. After all, you’re just a hack right? You do the best you can and move on to the next project.

You also create a better psychological environment for learning. Because if you’re nothing more than a hack pounding out pulp fiction for the masses, you’re going to be open to any advice you can get.

As always, the single biggest thing getting in the way of your success is you. And the same advice goes double for me. The more I can get out of my own way, the better my chances of success become.

Bottom line: we need to check our egos at the door. It’s a good practice for writers and for life in general. Only through humility can we achieve greatness.