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Posted in Screenwriting, Writing

Why You Need to Avoid Play-by-Play Narration in Your Writing

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In her 2012 craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, author Mary Kole says,

A writer often indulges in play-by-play narration when he sees a scene vividly in his mind’s eye and wants the reader to see it precisely, too. Moments with lots of physical action are magnets for this mistake. What some writers don’t realize is that the reader can fill in lots of blanks on her own. In most cases, leave the play-by-play narration to the reader’s imagination and fight the urge to describe every minute detail of otherwise unimportant events or physical actions.

Your writing will always come alive when you avoid too much play-by-play narration.

These last few weeks I’ve been hard at work on the second draft of my new young adult thriller, Fear of Water. This is my twentieth novel in less than ten years, and I’m bound and determined to get this one right! I wrote it in 31 days last summer — so, yeah, really fast — but I’ve been going super slow on the second draft, taking eight long weeks to work my way through the manuscript.

Just yesterday I revised chapter fifteen, about twelve pages of writing where lots of events happen, a couple major revelations are revealed, and an emotional cliffhanger takes place. Reading through this chapter I kept telling myself, this should be more riveting. This should be one of the most powerful chapters yet.

Yet much of the writing of this particular chapter just felt dead on the page. The rhythm seemed off. I wasn’t connecting to the writing in this chapter than I have been in most of my other chapters.

By the final page of the chapter I was getting frustrated, partly because I didn’t think the chapter was working as well as it should have, but mostly because I couldn’t figure out exactly what was wrong with it. Was I just a bad writer??

No. The problem, I discovered, was that there was way too much play-by-play narration.

It actually wasn’t until reading Mary Kole’s terrific craft book that I finally found a name for this.

I’d never called it play-by-play narration before, but I have that name for it now thankfully, and I’ll be keeping a look out for it in the days to come as I continue revising my latest work.

It’s something that completely deadens a scene. That makes it read awkwardly, tiredly. That makes it feel twice as long than it really is, and even just one instance of this early in your novel might tip the reader off that you don’t really know what you’re doing, and that reader might put your book down for good, you never know.

Play-by-play narration is essentially telling the reader every single little thing that happens in a scene. Telling the reader every single time your character walks from point A to point B. Every single time your character lifts her eyebrows or puts her hands on her waist.

It’s essentially treating a scene like it’s playing out in real time, when, just like in movies, you should always get to the heart of the scene… and then get out. Show us what really matters, then move onto the next scene, and the next one after that.

This is something I taught my students in a screenwriting class last year.

You can sort of get away with more play-by-play narration in a novel because you have more space to write than you do in a screenplay. If you want your next chapter to be seventeen pages long, there’s no rule to say it can’t be done. Your chapters can be as long as you want, within reason.

Screenplays are a different beast because, unless you’re Quentin Tarantino or Christopher Nolan, you kind of have to follow the rules about keeping your scenes to about two to four pages.

So many of my students were writing scenes that went on for ten, twenty, sometimes thirty pages, and what I found them to be doing always was writing play-by-play narration. Having a scene begin where two characters walk into a room, and the scene wouldn’t end until both characters left the room.

Think about movies you watch. When a character leaves a house and drives across town to the mall, do we see every bit of the journey? The grabbing the keys, the walking to the garage, the getting into the car, the opening of the garage door, the backing away from the driveway, all ten minutes of the drive itself, then parking the car, getting out of the car, walking to the mall, opening an entrance door, entering the mall.

It’s exhausting, right? And so totally unnecessary. No, you most often will see a character step out of a room, and then boom, in the next shot, they’re entering the mall.

Your viewers can put two and two together. They can figure out what happened between the cut.

You don’t need to give us every detail, whether you’re writing a screenplay, a short story, or a novel.

Again, you might be tempted in your fiction writing, especially in a novel, to write out every single beat of a scene. You have the room to do it, so why not?

Try to avoid doing this whenever possible. Sure, in a first draft, you can write a lot of play-by-play narration. Go nuts if it gets words down on the page, and if it helps get you to the next scene, the next chapter. As I said, I’ve written twenty novels, and I’m certainly guilty of writing lots of play-by-play narration in each of my first drafts.

It’s why I usually end up cutting 10,000 words or more in each of my second drafts. The first draft of Fear of Water was 81,000 words. I still have six more chapters to revise in my second draft… and the book is now at 72,000 words. My second draft might get all the way down to 67,000 or even 66,000 words.

That’s 15,000 words deleted without changing anything major about the story’s narrative! That’s 15,000 words mostly of eliminated play-by-play narration.

This is of course the very nature and importance of revision. To find those scenes that tell too much and shave it down in a way that gets to the heart of what’s going on, of what the reader truly needs to know.

Mary Kole is absolutely right: you want to leave most of the play-by-play to the reader’s imagination. You want to trust that the reader understands more about your characters, about your scenes, than you think.

So avoid play-by-play narration whenever possible. Your writing will always be the better for it!

Posted in Writing

How to Build the Frame on Which You Hang Your Story

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There are so many ways to build the frame on which to hang your story.

We are all different of course, and we all have different ways that can help us do better work in our fiction writing year after year.

In Chapter One of The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, author N.M. Kelby talks about various ways to get your latest, greatest idea to the page in a few simple steps.

  • You need to begin with your protagonist, which, yes, is important. If you don’t know who your main character is and what they want and what’s going to prevent them from getting what they want, you don’t have yet have the tools to begin writing.
  • You need to establish your time and place. Also really, really important. Does the story takes place in 2019? Why? Why can’t it be set twenty years ago? What about your story makes it need to be contemporary? And then there’s the setting you choose. Why there? Is it just because you know that setting well? Is it because you live there? Is there a different setting you could choose that would enrich your story more?
  • You need to announce the stakes early. Yes, again, very important. In most stories, no stakes early on will be death for the reader. No stakes will result in a lot of rejection slips, let me tell you. Make sure something important is at stake for your protagonist so that your reader is immediately involved in the story and wants to continue reading.

The fourth thing N.M. Kelby talks about is probably the most important way of all to build the frame that hangs your story. Because, in a sense, it mixes in these first three elements, and all the other elements you need to pay attention to.

The most important of all is Organization.

Yes, to be a successful writer, to be a writer who gets things published and things revised and things written, you need to be super organized.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to always be organized with your thinking, especially as you’re drafting your latest writing project. Often the best and most surprising prose come about when you’re not very organized, when you’re more loose with your thinking and allowing inspiration to take over.

Organization, instead, takes place before the writing begins. When you’re first figuring out your framework. And it’s this organization that will help get you to that place where you can push much of that organization in the background and let the creativity take over.

Organization means coming up with your protagonist and picking a time and place and figuring out what the stakes of your story are, yes. It also means doing at least a rough outline of your latest story, putting down some ideas of who your supporting characters are, things like that.

Most especially, at least to me, organization means figuring out everything you can about the story you want to tell and then also figuring out the schedule in the weeks to come for how you’ll best be able to tell it.

I’ve talked often on here why it’s crucial you come up with a schedule for your writing. 1,000 words a day, 500 words a day, 200 words a day. It’s totally up to you. You want to pick an hour or more of your day to do your work, just like you do for exercise, just like you do for making dinner.

Treat writing as an important part of your day, and organize it well. Sit down to write at the same time every day if you can. Have an organized document you can turn to that has your outline, your character bios and descriptions, your goal for the next day’s work, the next week’s work.

Be as organized as you possibly can in your writing life.

Doing so will help you write better stories in the future, and it will also help you write lots more stories in the future.

You’ll discover ways to be more productive with each passing week, and you’ll find that your writing will improve greatly the more organized you are.

Again, organization is only a part of the journey, and you want to allow yourself to be free to change things in mid-stream, start over if something isn’t working well, throw out your plan entirely if you’re inspired to do so.

But organization will most certainly help you immensely in your long writing journey, and it’s the best way to make sure your next story is the best one yet!

Posted in Writing

4 Quotes by Clint Eastwood to Make You a Better Writer

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Clint Eastwood (born in 1930) is one of the most acclaimed film actors and directors still working today. His many great films include Unforgiven, Mystic River, and Million Dollar Baby.

Here are four amazing quotes he has shared over the years that will inspire your storytelling!

1. I’ve never met a genius. A genius to me is someone who does well at something he hates. Anybody can do well at something he loves — it’s just a question of finding the subject.

It’s hard as a writer not to look around at other more successful writers and think there’s something wrong with you. That you’re less than. That you’re a failure of some kind.

Sometimes, at least for me, when I look at the really successful writers who have one blockbuster book after another and millions of adoring fans, I start to believe maybe those writers are geniuses, that they are at a level of talent I’ll never be able to achieve even if I lived to be 1,000 years old.

The truth, though, is that some writers are just at the right place with the right idea at the right time. Some people work really, really hard and make it, while some people work really, really hard and struggle for years.

Just because a writer is super successful doesn’t make that writer a genius. And you know what? It’s okay that you’re not a genius either.

All that matters is that you go after what you love and do your best every day. Many people never find that subject they love. Many people go through their days just sort of drifting, not really feeling passionate about anything.

If you’ve found that subject you love, whether it’s writing or something else, then you’re already ahead of the game.

It might take you longer to find success in the field you’re passionate about, but as long as you stick with it, and as long as you take joy from it always, you’ll reach that dream eventually.

2. You have to feel confident. If you don’t, then you’re going to be hesitant and defensive, and there’ll be a lot of things working against you.

It’s really easy to feel a lot of self doubt as a writer. To stare at a blank page on the screen and think you have nothing to offer, nothing to write down that will be any good. I have days like that. Every time I start a new novel, I’m absolutely terrified.

The trick is to feel confident anyway, and to remember that you don’t need to get it right the first time, only get the thing finished. You have to believe in the story you’re telling, believe in your characters, and just do your best.

Don’t be hesitant. Don’t be defensive. Don’t stay on the side of negativity and self destruction. You might have worked a year or a longer on a novel that didn’t go anywhere. So what? I’ve had tons of novel failures. I never let it get me down. I just wrote another one, and another one after that.

So should you. As long as you give it another try, you have another chance at success.

Believe in yourself. Believe that you’re already successful, if that helps you. Sometimes that helps me. I sit down at the computer assuming there are millions of readers excited to read my latest work, even though I know very few people would care if I ever put another word down.

This is all on you. You have to respect yourself, and you have to try to be confident when you write. Stick with the writing long enough, and who knows what you might be able to achieve.

3. I keep working because I learn something new all the time.

One thing that always amazes me about Clint Eastwood is how he just keeps working year after year, decade after decade. The man is turning 90 years old next year, and he has another new movie opening soon. He could have retired fifteen years ago and taken his place as a Hollywood legend.

But no. He keeps acting, keeps directing. I believe he told a reporter once that he hopes to be directing films until he’s 101. And you know what? If he stays healthy, it wouldn’t surprise me if a decade from now he was directing yet another movie.

He keeps going because he learns something new all the time. That’s the nature of stories, whether it’s a novel or a film or whatever. Every new project you take on you learn something, good or bad or both.

I’ve written twenty novels in ten years, and I always learn something new on each one, I always take a little piece of that story with me even if it ultimately fails and few people ever read it.

One of the great things about the creative life is that it’s not a 9–5 job you can’t wait to be done with, that you hope to retire from one day. I don’t see myself ever not writing, even if in another five years still nothing has happened with my novels.

I just love it so much. I love creating new stories, new characters. I love immersing myself in a new world I’ve never inhabited before.

So as long as you keep loving the writing, and as long as you keep learning something, there’s no need to ever stop. Stay creative for life, I’m telling you!

4. I’m a mentor to anybody who’s interested.

One other thing I love about writing is that once you’ve been doing it long enough, eventually you’ll have a few things (or a lot of things!) to pass along to other writers, ones who might be younger or who might not have as much experience as you.

It’s the foremost reason why I love what I do here at Medium. No, I don’t have a traditionally published novel in the world yet. And very few people know who I am. But I have written a ton of novels, I have received an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English, and I have a lot of insight into the writing process.

It’s such a gift for me to be able to share my experiences and what I’ve learned with all of you. The same way that Clint Eastwood is a mentor to anybody who is interested, I’m happily a mentor to any aspiring writer who wants to learn more about the process. Who wants to know how to create compelling stories, three-dimensional characters, riveting prose, high stakes. Who wants to discover various ways to succeed.

There’s so much I still want to learn about writing. And there’s a lot as well I’m able to pass down to other writers. No matter what stage of the writing process you’re in, you should always think of yourself as a potential mentor who might be able to share a few things with others that might help, inform, inspire.

It’s what I love to do for other writers here on Medium. And it’s something you can always share as well.

Just keep writing, keep learning, keep discovering always. Clint Eastwood has been acting in films since the 1950s and directing films since the 1970s and it doesn’t look like he’s slowing down anytime soon.

You shouldn’t slow down either. Write your heart out every single day, and amazing things can happen.

Posted in Writing

4 Quotes by Ralph Waldo Emerson to Make You a Better Writer

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Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) was a poet, philosopher, lecturer, and essayist, certainly one of the most famous writers of the nineteenth century.

Here are some fantastic words of wisdom from Mr. Emerson to inspire your writing day!

1. He that writes to himself writes to an eternal public.

Look at this, a man who died nearly 140 years ago, and here’s a writing tip that’s still more relevant than ever!

Something that’s so hard to learn about writing, especially when you’re just starting out, is that in the long run you will actually have more success if you write for yourself than if you write for a specific kind of audience, for a specific kind of market.

You want to write a horror novel and you might find yourself trying to copy other horror novels of the last thirty years that were runaway blockbusters. You might try to write a similar kind of story and use similar kind of language.

The problem is that readers can sniff out a phony a mile away. A reader understands what authors are writing stories to express themselves and what authors are writing to try to make a quick buck.

The thing is that you will succeed in the long run if you write for yourself because readers will see the passion in the storytelling. They will see that only you could have written this particular tale, and they’ll want to go with you from now on wherever else you go.

2. The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.

It always boggles my mind to think of people who have the desire the write, and lots of great ideas that fill up their head, and then never write a single word of those ideas down.

Stephen King once said that part of the reason he became a writer was that there were just so many ideas cluttering up his mind and he needed to get them down on the page before he went clinically insane.

I feel that way a lot of the time. In the last ten years I’ve written twenty novels, and those are twenty novels that would still be bouncing around my brain today if I hadn’t done the right thing and written them down.

Whether or not these books make me riches is besides the point. They helped stretched my mind to new dimensions. They’ve made me the writer I am today. One that still has a lot to learn, but one who’s definitely grown a lot. Who’s seen through plenty of failure what kinds of stories I need to gravitate to more often and what stories I might want to leave behind for awhile.

It’s a good thing to be brimming with ideas, four or five or more that are just itching to be put down on the page. They help make you a smarter, more creative person each day you engage in the writing process!

3. The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent.

This is one of my favorite writing quotes I’ve read in a long time. It’s sort of odd and goofy but also extremely wise.

What I believe Emerson is saying here is that when you write your latest story, you’re not always going to get the mark, especially when you’re pounding away at the keyboard on a first draft. I’ve messed up whole sections of my first drafts and have had to start all over months down the road.

In a sense the revision process is like trying to shoot the arrow at the mark, and, almost always, missing. But that’s okay. You have another draft to come. Another chance at shooting an arrow at the mark.

I recently completed the eleventh draft of my MFA thesis novel, a book I started working on in February 2017. That first day I started writing the novel, I had a clear idea in my head of what I wanted to accomplish, what mark I wanted to hit. I didn’t hit that mark the first time, or the second time. I didn’t even hit it the fifth time.

But by the tenth draft I finally started figuring it out, and now that the eleventh draft is complete, I’m finally starting to recognize that the story I’ve been passionate about for nearly three years now is finally coming together in a way I always hoped for.

Sure, not every chapter, every scene, in the book has exactly hit the mark. That’s where throwing your body at the mark comes into play. It’s in doing everything you possibly can to make the book its finest, even if it gets a little violent along the way, your fingers bleeding, your back in pain from all those hours you spent sitting before your laptop.

No matter how many months or years it takes, keep aiming for that mark any way you can.

4. Talent alone cannot make a writer. There must be a man behind the book.

And here’s one more insightful observation from Mr. Emerson that, like all these quotes, is still super relevant for writers today.

There’s so many things that make a writer successful. Sitting down every single day and doing the work is a good place to start. Persistence, just trying and failing seven days a week until you start getting better, until other people start recognizing your work, no matter how long that takes.

You also need to have the courage to tell the stories you want to tell, and you need to believe in the work that you do even when everyone around you is telling you you’re wasting your time.

And yes, talent, of course, is a huge part of the equation. If you have no talent for writing, even years of hard work might not get you very far. You don’t need to be super talented to find success as a writer, but some talent definitely helps. The talent of spinning a yarn, finding rhythm in your sentences, creating fascinating characters. Talent definitely helps.

But Mr. Emerson is absolutely right in that just talent itself is never enough. There needs to be a man behind the book, and what I think he means by that is that you need to live a life first and foremost. You can’t just spend every waking moment in the dark typing away on your keyboard. The more you live, the more you experience, the more you’ll ultimately have to say.

I’m guilty of spending too much of my time writing and reading books and watching movies rather than go out and experience life as much as I should. It’s something about me as a writer that’s definitely a work in progress.

The trick is to try to blend the two as much as you can. To write every day and give all your talent over to it, at the same time living your life and doing things often that scare you, that surprise you, that are new.

Keep writing, and keep living, and there’s no telling how far you will go in this wonderful profession, one that lifted the spirits of Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 1800s… and that certainly lifts the spirits of all of us in 2019 and beyond!

Posted in Writing

How to Write a Killer First Line

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In her book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole says,

What is a first line specific to your novel that can’t launch any other book? What questions or mysteries does your first line raise? None? Add some. There should be a spike of tension in every first line, something that makes the reader think, ‘Tell me more.’

First pages are really difficult in writing. You know what’s even harder? First lines.

Trust me, I should know. I’ve written twenty novels in ten years. And every first line is really, really difficult. Every first line fills me with anxiety.

I ask myself, is this the best place to start the story? Is this the way I want to draw my readers in?

Studying what other writers have opened their successful novels with is always a good place to start. Here’s a sample of famous first lines…

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

They shoot the white girl first.

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.

I’m pretty much fucked.

See how commanding these opening sentences are? How much they make you want to read on?

Yes, many readers will give you pages and even chapters before they decide to continue on, but others won’t, that’s the sad truth. There are readers out there who will read your first page, your first paragraph, your first sentence, and if there’s nothing about it that strikes them, they might put the book down and start searching for another.

This is why openings are so difficult. You can spend three years of your life revising your novel to perfection, but if that opening chapter, page, sentence, aren’t dynamite, all that work can be for nothing!

Mary Kole is right that the first line should offer the reader a spike in tension.

I agree with her that the line should be unique, it should tease a mystery perhaps, but it should absolutely offer a spike in tension.

Sure, you could probably cite for me a dozen examples of classic novels that open with a line where there’s no tension, but usually it’s a crisis in that opening sentence that makes me want to continue. If not a crisis, at least the promise of potential conflict to come.

Here’s my favorite first line of one of my recent novels…

My parents were dead on the living room floor, and my brother was screaming.

Now I’ve actually changed how this particular manuscript starts in later drafts, but boy, that first line always seemed like a winner to me, the way it sets up a major crisis for the lead character. Parents dead? Screaming brother? Who wouldn’t want to read on?

Here are a few other first lines from my more recent novels…

Micah was about to step inside the eye doctor’s office when he heard a strange voice echo through the air.

The nightmare was real.

Miranda was clearly looking for something, or someone.

The zombie shuffled up to the house, hungry for flesh and ready to kill.

There’s a tooth on my front porch.

Some of these first lines work better than others, and a couple of these right now are a work in progress. There are pros and cons to each of the sentences I believe.

There’s definitely a spike in tension in a few of them, but in looking at these opening sentences one after another, it’s clear that many of them are too vague to really grip the reader right off the bat.

In your own writing, you want to give the reader a first line that’s unique. Open your book with something we’ve all seen before, and you might lose your reader fast.

As long as you open with something different, something that promises a potential crisis or conflict, and teases tension to come? Then you’re well on your way.

First lines are important, but in the beginning of the process, don’t panic about your opening.

It’s essential that you write a killer first line, a killer first page… and it’s also essential that you remember to relax because you can come back to the opening later.

So many writers will just stare at that blank page and feel too scared to write anything down, worried that opening line might not be perfect.

Yes, day one of starting a new writing project is always difficult, and you do spend more time on that first page or two than you do on, say, page 157, but you need to remember that what’s most important is that you keep writing day after day and finish the project no matter what.

Even if your opening line stinks, you can change it later! You can revise it fifty times if you want. You can try different opening lines and pages and share them with writer friends and get their feedback. You can keep refining that opening until it’s as perfect as can be.

By the time you start showing your work to people who can make a difference in your writing career, you absolutely should have a killer first line. One that is clearly you and no one else. One that teases potential mystery, conflict, suspense, tension. One that makes the reader simply have to read sentence number two.

Never forget that a super compelling opening, and a killer first line, will work wonders in getting more people to read your work and increasing your chances for success in the future!

Posted in Writing

6 Quotes by T. S. Eliot to Make You a Better Writer

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T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) is one of the most famous authors in English literature. Here are six of his quotes to help your writing!

1. Writing every day is a way of keeping the engine running, and then something good may come out of it.

There’s so much you can do to be a better writer. Read a lot of books. Try different genres. Write poetry, write screenplays. Give it your all every single time you sit down at the laptop.

But for me the absolute best way to improve your writing is to do it every single day. Not three days a week. Not every time you feel inspired.

When you write every day, you keep the engine running, and the creativity, and the inspiration. Many of those days you might sit down and produce crap. But some of those days you might produce something truly great!

As long as you practice your writing every day, even it’s only for twenty to thirty minutes, you will get better eventually.

2. The poet’s mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.

When it comes to any kind of writing, really, it’s important that you absorb everything you hear and see as you go about your life. I always make the time to observe everything around me when I’m not writing. Just listen. Watch. Take note of unusual sights and sounds. Take note of sights and sounds that make you happy, that make you sad.

And then use it later in your writing! It’s important to practice every day, yes, but it’s also important to not live in such a bubble that you never have anything significant to write about.

The important thing about living is that it gives you lots to play with later when you’re putting words on the page. If you’re not paying attention, your writing might became stale, and nobody wants that.

3. A play should give you something to think about. When I see a play and understand it the first time, then I know it can’t be much good.

This is true of any kind of storytelling. Sure, there are times when we want to watch a funny comedy or a scary horror film that gives us little to think about, but most of the time we yearn for stories that make us ponder and reflect long after the final page has been turned or the curtains have closed or the end credits on the screen are rolling.

Especially when it comes to novels, I feel like the author is doing the reader a disservice if the book is about nothing more than the plot. If all the author is doing is getting us from point A to point B, I will often put the book down pretty early on.

Everything you write should be about something more than just the plot. You should find something you want to say, even if it’s subtle. Any way you can make the reader leave your latest work with something to think about, you have a higher chance at success, and a higher probability that lots more readers will want to check out your work.

4. What profession is more trying than that of author? After you finish a piece of work it only seems good to you for a few weeks; or if it seems good at all you are convinced that it is the last you will be able to write; and if it seems bad you wonder whether everything you have done isn’t poor stuff really; and it is one kind of agony while you are writing, and another kind when you aren’t.

Sometimes you need to read quotes like this one to give yourself a laugh, and to understand that much of the writing life for everyone out there is spent in quiet doubt, questions, frustrations, and torment. To think it’s all fun and laughs and big checks and adoring fans is a place of delusion.

As Tom Hanks says in A League of Their Own, it’s the hard that makes it great. Honestly, I don’t know if I would have ever started writing fiction if I had known ten years later I’d have twenty novel manuscripts under my belt and still no traditional publishing contract. There’s so much waiting, so much disappointment.

And yet there’s also so much fulfillment too. I have my bad days, sure, but I mostly have many, many good days where I love what I do and have a total blast writing or revising my latest work, trying to make something just a little bit better, trying to tackle my latest project that might very well be the one.

This game ain’t easy, and that’s something you might not want to hear. But as long as you understand writing is a long marathon and not a sprint, that you’ll likely have years of failures and setbacks, the journey is going to be worth it in the long run.

5. The last thing one discovers in composing a work is what to put first.

Beginnings are the hardest, aren’t they? Beginnings are always a nightmare when I get started on a new project. You’d think after twenty novels I’d have a strong handle on how to open a story, and yes, it has gotten a little easier.

Still, especially in a first draft, it’s important to not fixate on the beginning of your story. To not obsess over whether you’re starting too early or too late in the narrative. If you should open with a line of dialogue or a paragraph of description or whatever.

Because here’s the deal — often you find out much later in the process exactly how you should begin your narrative. Sometimes as you’re reaching the end of it, you understand the best way to rewrite that opening page or chapter.

This happens to me on almost every novel I write. I think I’m starting in the right place, and then when I finish the first draft, I recognize actually where the story should start. And I change it later, which is fine. Remember, you can always change it later.

The important thing is to write the entirety of the manuscript. Again, you can go back and fix the opening later. Focus on the next scene, the next chapter. And reach THE END no matter what.

6. The Nobel is a ticket to one’s own funeral. No one has ever done anything after he got it.

What T. S. Eliot is saying here is that getting big awards for your writing can sound all well and good but ultimately can actually hinder your creativity and productivity in the years to come.

I don’t see myself ever winning a major writing award like a Novel or a Pulitzer, but I could definitely imagine such a thing stifling my writing more than giving me the confidence to go on. It’s why I always marvel at film directors who manage to follow one major success with another major success. It’s why I’m inspired by bestselling authors who keep growing and improving and taking chances.

Something that keeps me going is the lack of success I’ve achieved so far. Every new writing project is a blank slate, a chance to take control of something that might finally propel my career further than I could ever imagine.

And whether you’re a success right away or take a few years trying to navigate your way through the literary world with no big successes at all, it’s important to remember that every day you have the chance to create.

So keep creating, won’t you? And try to enjoy the journey as much as you can.

Posted in Writing

I’ve Never Done NaNoWriMo and I Don’t Think I Ever Will

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First off, let me be clear: I love the idea of NaNoWriMo.

I wrote my first novel nearly ten years ago, and ever since I’ve had the desire to join in on NaNoWriMo. I at least wanted to try it once.

There’s an infectious quality to the writing community out there, after all. To work hard on your novel while knowing that so many other writers out there are drafting their own novels, too.

I think the program itself is fantastic, especially for writers to track their progress and get in as many words as they can in November. If I had never written a novel before, I’d probably make more an effort to take part in it, too.

The thing about writing that’s so hard is that often you don’t have any deadlines. And when there’s no deadline, it’s easy to lose track of your latest manuscript, it’s easy to push it aside to next month or next year, or the next decade.

NaNoWriMo gives you that much needed deadline. You need to hit 50,000 words of your novel by the end of November 30, and that’s a great thing.


Unfortunately, I’ve never actually taken part in NaNoWriMo. And I don’t think I ever will.

I would say there were three years, at least, where I felt like it was finally time to tackle NaNoWriMo. At least do it once. But things would always fall through for one major reason: school.

Since 2011 I’ve either been a student in November or teaching in November or both, and it just never seems feasible to write an entire novel at the same time. As a teacher, November is actually one of the busiest months of the year for me. I’m doing a lot in my classes before the Thanksgiving holiday, and by the end of November I’m grading the big final research papers.

I’m immersed in everything teaching this month, and it’s hard just to find an hour a day to revise my novel, let alone write something new from scratch.

This is why I’ve written many of my novels between mid-December and mid-January. At the college level, there’s this window of about four weeks or so where I’m not grading or prepping, and I make use of every single day to work on my latest creative project. Sometimes that’s a revision, sometimes that’s a new screenplay. And sometimes that’s the first draft of a new novel!

I wrote my latest middle grade novel last winter break, for example. I put in the final grades for my college classes, then the next day wrote Chapter One. When I finished the first draft in mid-January, I wrote THE END, e-mailed the manuscript to myself, then the next day began prepping my spring classes and working on my new syllabus!

Summer is also a great time for me to draft a new novel, again, because my teaching load is lighter. I find I do better work when I put all of my focus into one thing, not separating hours of my day to this and that and the other thing.


NaNoWriMo is something you should do if it works for you. If it helps you write your novel.

I’m lucky enough to have windows of time where I can write my latest novel with few distractions. Many of you don’t have that. You don’t have a four-week chunk of time to dedicate fully to your novel, whether it’s January or July or November, or whatever.

If that’s the case? Then absolutely you should give NaNoWriMo a try. After all, I do believe you have a better chance at completing your manuscript if you commit to it hard for thirty days straight, rather than just work at it in small doses here and there.

For me, I’ve written enough novels now to understand how to get them written fast and get them completed fast. It doesn’t have to be November 1st to November 30th for me. I can start working on a novel in the middle of a month, or at the end of a month. Whenever I start it, I give myself a strict deadline, and I make that deadline every time.

I could only see myself doing NaNoWriMo if I didn’t teach for a fall semester, and if I had no vacation plans for Thanksgiving. So maybe, just maybe, I’ll do it one of these years, but still, I don’t think I ever will.

Do it if you feel like it will help you. I’m excited for every single one of you attempting it for the first time, or the second time, or the fifth time, whatever it may be. Again, anything that helps you get your novel written is a great thing.

But at the same time don’t feel like if you fail NaNoWriMo you’ll never succeed as a novel writer either. There are eleven other months of the year, after all. There might be better times for you to write.

Do what works for you… and never give up.