Posted in Writing

Why You Want Your Endings to be Awesome


How many times have you watched a movie that you loved all the way through, until its horrible ending? How many times have you been cheated by a film’s ending, or were left confused and unsatisfied?

The filmmakers may have delivered on an opening hook, three-dimensional characters, an engaging narrative. But they couldn’t figure out an ending.

It’s safe to say a poor ending often makes a poor movie, no matter what came before.

This is the same case with your writing.

No matter how fantastic your story or novel may be, if your ending doesn’t work, the whole endeavor was, essentially, for not.

Therefore it’s important to study successful movie endings. Which ones follow through on the promise on everything that came before?

One of the great movie endings is in The Truman Show. For the entire film you want Truman Burbank to break out of his reality show, and enter the real world. The whole movie you want Truman to finally be free.

The last scene not only brings back his famous catchphrase — “In case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening, and good night” — but it also allows Truman to finally achieve his desire to walk through that door into his brand new life.

The ending works because it’s what the character has wanted for the entirety of the film. There’s a sense of mystery as to what will happen next with Truman, just enough to still leave the viewer satisfied.

Your ending should have elements of a payoff to everything that’s come before, as well as a payoff to that mystery.

You want the readers to be satisfied at the end, giving them answers to most of their questions. You want the conclusion to feel authentic and true.

But you also want to leave your readers with enough mystery to keep them thinking about your story long after they’ve closed the final page.

If your story lingers in the minds of your readers, you will make them want to come back to your work again and again!

Here are some things you should think about when it comes to your endings…

Examine the ending of your story or novel. Does it work as a payoff to everything that’s come before, or are there too many unanswered questions? And is there a sense of mystery that will keep readers thinking about it?

For the next three films you watch, pay attention to their endings. Were they satisfying? Why or why not? What does the last scene make you think or feel?

Follow these tips, and you’ll be well on your way to writing an awesome ending to your latest novel or story!

Posted in Writing

5 Quotes from Douglas Adams to Make You a Better Writer


Douglas Adams (1952–2001) died at the early age of 49, but his work lives on for so many generations to come. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy is an iconic book, one that spawned a series that continues to be adored the world over. Adams had such an incredible talent for writing, and thankfully he was able to share with us some of his many wise insights about the craft. Here are five of them…

1. I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

This is Douglas Adams’ most famous quote about writing, and it’s easy to see why. As writers we are often forced into deadlines. If we have signed with a publisher on a manuscript, there’s a deadline for when the manuscript is due, along with a follow up deadline if you’ve signed a two-book deal. I also believe in making up deadlines as a writer to keep you on track.

But sometimes you simply do have to let the deadline whoosh on by. Especially if you’re in the zone. Especially if the writing is coming along well, and you don’t want to yet break the spell.

And if you’re in a bind? Missing a deadline won’t be the end of your career either. Just make sure you tell someone!

2. I remember very little about writing the first series of ‘Hitchhiker’s.’ It’s almost as if someone else wrote it.

One thing that amazes me about pretty much all kinds of art and creativity is that the current project you’re working on becomes for awhile your entire world, your life, hundreds of thoughts throughout the day. You’re immersed in it.

But when you finish, you move onto the next project, and the previous one stays exactly there: in the past. You remember working on it fondly, of course. I have great memories of working on all of my novels.

But after a certain point, definitely years later, your projects often do begin to feel like someone else wrote them. You can barely remember the premise of the thing, let alone all the characters and the scenes. Enough time goes by, and you forget so much about the story.

This is a good thing. You shouldn’t necessarily remember every detail. You should have moved on to the next project.

3. There’s nothing worse than sitting down to write a novel and saying, ‘Well, okay, I’m going to do something of high artistic worth.’

This is the kiss of death for me, whether I’m embarking on a novel project or even a short short project. And it should be the kiss of death for you, too.

To sit down at your desk and think, okay, I’m going to do something of high artistic worth is about the same as saying, I’m going to write a piece of shit.

Because if you’re already thinking that way before you’ve put a word down, you’re kind of screwed. You’ll second guess yourself. The moment you write a terrible sentence, you might not write for a week, or you might quit the project altogether.

Don’t sit down and try write something of high artistic worth. Instead, sit down and tell yourself an incredible story. A story that you believe deserves to be told in the absolute best way you can tell it.

Don’t write to win awards, or to get acclaim. Write to tell a compelling story, and just do the best you can.

4. When you write your first book aged 25 or so, you have 25 years of experience, albeit much of it juvenile experience. The second book comes after an extra year sitting in bookshops. Pretty soon, you begin to run on empty.

I don’t agree with all of this quote, but I definitely agree with part of it. I don’t believe Adams is correct in saying that you run on empty after your first few books and ultimately won’t have anything else to say.

There are so many stories out there. So many I myself have yet to write, that I want to write. There are so many new characters and premises to explore.

On the other hand, I do agree with him that if you fail to live, if all you’re doing is reading books in bookshops and not going out into the world and experiencing new things, your stories after awhile will start to feel formulaic and dry. You might start repeating yourself. You might write a story today exactly like the one you wrote nine years ago.

Make sure you live a little, and then come back to the desk and try writing a new story. As long as you have more to say, and as long as your imagination is in fine form, you’ll be well on your way to delivering something great every time out.

5. This must be Thursday. I never could get the hang of Thursdays.

I included this last quote because it makes me laugh, first of all, it is a little random.

But there’s also some truth in this quote that I have never actively thought about before. I don’t know why, but often Thursday is my hardest day of the week to write. Especially if I’ve taken the weekend off, by Thursday I’m definitely beginning to burn out a little.

Monday I go all in on my newest writing project. Tuesday it still feels fresh. Wednesday I’m still feeling good. And Friday is great because once I finish my writing that day, I often will take a break for the weekend.

But Thursday? Thursday is definitely a day I don’t always get the hang of. It’s not quite the weekend yet, so it’s too early to celebrate. You are a whopping four days into the week now, and so your work ethic begins to slow down.

I always have to press forward a little bit harder on Thursdays, I really do. And it makes me so happy that Adams felt the same way!

Posted in Writing

Why You Need to Write a Reader-Friendly Story


In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

I don’t believe a story or a novel should be allowed outside the door of your study or writing room unless you feel confident that it’s reasonably reader-friendly. You can’t please all of the readers all of the time, but you really ought to try to please at least some of the readers some of the time.

There are so many reasons to write.

To get something off your chest. To explore your fears, your dreams, your imagination. To get a story written down that you feel the world simply needs to read.

When it comes to your fiction writing, you can write whatever you want. If gruesome horror stories are your jam, go for it. If a cozy mystery makes you happy, then by all means, write fifty of them. If you like to write erotica, or westerns, or science fiction, or all three, get started today and not tomorrow.

Write, write, write to your heart’s content!

There are so many reasons to write, and there are also so many things to keep in mind before, during, and after your writing sessions. You want to think about your story and how it progresses. You want to think about your characters and how they develop. You want to think about pacing, structure, themes. There’s so much to keep in mind.

But one other thing you should think about as you navigate the world of fiction writing? Whether you’re writing short stories or novels, please keep this in mind…

Make sure your story is reader-friendly.

Now this is not the same thing as having your story ready to read for readers in terms of revision and proofreading and things like that. No matter what you write, yes, it should be reasonably revised and proofread and typo-free and all that good stuff.

What reader-friendly means is that your story should be compelling for the average reader. There should be something about your story that captivates many, if not exactly all, potential readers of your work.

This is why genre is such a great place to work in when you’re a writer. To write specifically thrillers, or military novels, or romance books.

You always know there are millions of readers out there for each particular major genre.

If you want to write strictly literary novels, or maybe blend genres into something totally unique unto you, then you might find it harder for your stories to be reader-friendly. If you want to write something super complex and weird and off-the-wall strange, it will be all the more difficult to get readers to be open to your story.

This is not to say that your stories should be formulaic.

You might think of writing reader-friendly stories to mean that you need to be predictable, formulaic, obvious. Give the readers what they want and everyone will be happy!

Not so fast. It’s not enough to just give readers exactly what they want.

That might work for a story or two, but your writing will get stale after awhile, and no potential reader of yours is going to want that.

What you should do instead is write stories that are reasonably reader-friendly, with a premise and characters and themes that can translate to great reader interest, while at the same time delivering something each and every time that is original, unique… and totally mind-blowing.

You want to write a story will at least somewhat meet the readers’ expectations while at the same give them something new and amazing.

So, yes, you need to think of both extremes while writing your short story or novel.

Keep your readers’ expectations in mind on one end of the spectrum, but do your own thing completely on the other end of the spectrum.

Don’t waste your time writing something nobody will ever want to read.

However, don’t write something that necessarily everybody in the world will want to read either. As Stephen King says, you can’t please all of the readers all the time, but you should try to please some of the readers some of the time.

Write what you love, write in the genre that gives you passion, make sure your stories are at least somewhat reader-friendly.

And at the same time, don’t be afraid to take risks!

Posted in Writing

Why You Need to Just Write the Damn Story


At the end of March, I attended the AWP Writer’s Conference in Portland, Oregon. It was a fantastic weekend. I got to see some amazing panels, and catch up with some old friends, and explore the incredible Powell’s Books.

Another thing that happened? I had an encounter with someone during a walk to the Portland MAX line that inspired the nugget of a short story.

Soon after this encounter I knew I needed to write a story about it. 4,000 words. Maybe 5,000. I hadn’t written a short story in a year, and it was time. I had just sent the revision of my new novel to my literary agent and had at least two weeks free to write something short from scratch.

When I returned to Reno that Sunday, I vowed to get up on Monday and start pounding that story to paper. I figured I could write 1,000 words a day and be done by Friday afternoon. By the end of the week, I’d have the first draft of a new short story, woo-hoo!

Last week came and went. I never wrote the story.

Why didn’t I write it? It’s not because I didn’t have the time. There were at least two or three mornings pretty damn free to work on this story. I was even eager to do it, too.

Here are the three main reasons I didn’t write it…

  1. I was afraid the antagonist might be a cliche.
  2. I had no clue how to end it.
  3. I was lazy.

Three decent reasons, I guess. Last Monday morning I was determined to start the story, at least give it a couple hundred words, but I was stuck on how to make the antagonist something unique and not totally banal, not something readers had already seen before in countless other works of fiction.

I also had absolutely no idea what the ending was going to be. I love to know the ending of a story or a novel before I begin writing the project. Without an ending I don’t have a clear vision of where to go, what to do.

Without an ending, I’m lost.

And yes, there was the laziness factor, too. I had just spent three and a half weeks completing the hardest novel revision of my life. Did I really need to add a short story project onto my list of things to do? A short story wasn’t essential right now. Nobody would care if I didn’t write it.

But sometimes stories simply have to be written.

You know how you know a story needs to be written? If it simply doesn’t leave your mind.

In a way it’s actually easier for me to write a story down in a few days’ time than carry that story with me in my head for weeks or months at a time. If the idea of the story pops into your head once or more a day, you can’t just let it sit there forever. You need to write it down!

If the idea floats away eventually, and you never really develop a passion for it? Then fine. Don’t write it.

Move onto something else.

That happens to me, too.

I went on a run about six months ago and found a strange pile of discarded clothes up in the mountains I was sure I would write a story about. I couldn’t imagine that particular day that I wouldn’t write it.

But a week went by, and another week. The idea floated away, and it wasn’t until just now that story idea came back to me. So that’s fine, I can toss it.

Here’s the deal: if the idea is a good one, you need to write it now, not later.

I spent all last week thinking about my newest short story idea, trying to understand the point-of-view of my antagonist, trying to come up with an ending — any ending.

What I should have been doing instead?

Writing the damn story.

You can ponder your story for a little while. You should ponder your story to a certain extent, because if you start writing too early, you might begin in the wrong place and discover halfway through something isn’t working right. You shouldn’t just rush into a new writing project without giving it some considerable thought, I’ll give you that.

But you also shouldn’t wait forever either. You shouldn’t think your story to death, to the point where you might lose the interest you had in it in the first place.

Figure out the basics. Who the main character is, what he or she wants. The setting. The conflict.

And once you have enough to go on? Please, I’m begging you, START WRITING.

Don’t wait for the perfect moment!

Don’t wait until next week, next month, when you might have more time.

Stop making excuses. Write the damn story. Even if you don’t have it all figured out. Even if you don’t have a clue about the ending.

This is definitely a case of do as I say and not as I do. Because I didn’t write my story last week either. I didn’t start when I should’ve.

It took me until today to finally write the damn story. The first 1,200 words of it anyway. And you know what happened as I was writing earlier today?

I figured out how to make the antagonist more original, and I figured out the ending. All in about twenty minutes’ time.

Not while I was thinking about the story. While I was writing the story.

I’ve said it before on here, and I’ll say it again: inspiration is in the doing, not before the doing.

If you have a great story idea, just write it. Just do it. Write the damn thing!

And then see what happens.

Posted in Books, Writing

5 (More) Horror Novels to Read if You Want to be a Writer


One of my favorite genres is horror, and I’m always on the hunt for the next great horror novel. What I especially love are the horror books so well-written that they help me in the writing of my own work!

Last week I looked at 5 awesome horror books, and here are 5 more…

1. NOS4A2, by Joe Hill

NOS4A2 is a superb horror novel that reminded me of some of the best classic work by my favorite author, Stephen King. Of course it doesn’t hurt that Hill is the son of King, and has been publishing adult horror fiction under a pseudonym (Joe Hill King is his birth name). Much of his father’s talent has passed down to Hill, who has talent for descriptive horror imagery, complex characters, and tension-filled pacing that is at times nearly unbearable. I loved the epic scope of this 700+ page novel, too, with its long span of time (about twenty-five years) and large cast of characters who all play important roles in the narrative.

2. Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin

This is an example of a mid-twentieth century horror novel that, like The Exorcist, caused a whirlwind among suspense readers of the time, and for the most part I was enthralled with this celebrated classic. First, I was impressed with the eerie foreshadowing of the horror to come, little nuggets of dialogue and information Levin would drop in the first half of the book. I also admired how Levin explores both the highs and the horrors of pregnancy throughout this book, not shying away from Rosemary’s suffering. He explores in great detail how Rosemary’s pregnancy at one point hurts her body and her mind, and does so in an authentic, chilling manner. I also liked Levin’s use of suspense throughout the book, which really ratchets up in the final forty pages. And I love the surprise twists at the end, and that gloriously memorable final scene.

3. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go is outstanding in almost every way, a riveting and thought-provoking read from beginning to end that works as coming-of-age, as dystopian science fiction, and as dread-inducing horror. It also works beautifully as a literary novel. Some may argue that it’s not a horror novel. Coming-of-age, sure, and science fiction, okay, but horror? Although I agree that Never Let Me Go is not horror the way N0S4A2 is more obviously horror, this is absolutely a novel about a horrific circumstance that can’t be avoided no matter how much the main characters want to, and Ishiguro provides enough suspense and terrifying images to suggest that there’s something dreadfully frightening about this world.

4. Cirque du Freak: A Living Nightmare, by Darren Shaw

This is a great series to read for any aspiring YA horror writer. There’s a lot here that works well, and I was legitimately surprised by some of the twists along the way. I also responded to the use of the double-I POV in this novel, as it turns out Darren Shaw himself wrote the book we’re reading, and therefore he’s looking back over his life and trying to recreate these important moments on the page (Darren Shaw is the actual author of the book, too, making the double-I almost meta in a way).

5. Misery, by Stephen King

One of my favorite novels by my all-time favorite author is Misery, and it was a thrill to read it again for the first time recently and teach it for a class! Almost everything works about this wild ride of a book, especially the weird, memorable, three-dimensional antagonist Annie Wilkes. In addition, King offers startling, fresh prose from beginning to end. He must have been a kid in a candy store writing this book, clearly close to the mindset of his protagonist Paul and delighting in the various ways Annie emotionally and physically tortures him. The tension is superb throughout the novel, never waning at any point, and I admired King’s use of interiority that makes us care deeply about Paul every step of the way.

Posted in Writing

Why You Need to be Careful about Flashbacks in Your Writing


Have you ever been super engaged with a movie, up until the point it cuts to a flashback, disrupting the narrative flow?

Have you seen flashbacks that feel forced, basically shoved in, just to give you information that couldn’t be expressed through other means?

Awkward flashbacks can be death to a movie.

And they can be death to your writing, too.

A flashback can be a useful device. It can deepen a character. It can reveal a twist in the story.

But it can also stop the narrative cold, and take the readers to a place they may not want to go.

The current drama will always be more interesting in your story, so you have to ask yourself: which of my flashbacks is absolutely essential?

Some successful films are told nearly all in flashback, like Citizen Kane and The Usual Suspects. They use long flashbacks to enhance the central mysteries of their respective stories.

The legendary film Casablanca uses a shorter flashback around its midpoint to reveal Rick and Ilsa’s happier times. We see them laughing and smiling in the car. We see them kissing in the dark.

The current narrative suggests that they were once in love, but only with this flashback are you able to fully see the strength of their relationship.

You want your flashbacks to add to your narrative, not subtract from it.

You want to use it to build on a character’s dreams and fears.

But you don’t want to use it if you don’t have to.

If what can be done in a flashback can be done through other means in the current narrative, avoid the flashback.

If flashbacks are necessary to tell your story, pay close attention to where they should go and how they enhance your characters and your world.

Try these two steps to help you with your flashbacks…

1. Examine the flashbacks in your story or novel. Is each one necessary? If yes, how are they necessary? And if your work has no flashbacks, do you think it may be in need of one? Why or why not?

2. For the next three films you watch, take note of any flashbacks. Did they enhance or hinder the story? What did you learn at the end of each flashback that you didn’t know before?

Taking on these exercises will help you considerably when it comes to the use of flashbacks in your storytelling!

Posted in Writing

6 Quotes from Ray Bradbury to Make You a Better Writer


Ray Bradbury (1920–2012) is one of our most famous storytellers, and it’s easy to see why. His writing soars with great characters, fantastical premises, and extraordinary imagination. His Fahrenheit 451 is still one of my top ten favorite novels of all time, and to this day I’m still flabbergasted by the prolific nature to the guy’s writing, often coming up with a new short story every single week. The guy loved to write, and it showed in all the work that he did.

Today I’d like to share with you six quotes from Ray Bradbury that I try to think about when I’m writing my fiction. If you’re ever in need of some quick inspiration, always turn to a great Bradbury quote like any one of these…

1. “I know you’ve heard it a thousand times before, but it’s true — hard work pays off. If you want to be good, you have to practice, practice, practice. If you don’t love something, then don’t do it.”

As I said, Bradbury often wrote a new short story every single week. And the more months and years that passed, the better and better he became, and the more and more stories he started to sell!

When it comes to writing, hard work is everything. Practicing is essential. You can’t sit down at you computer once a week and be brilliant. You have to love writing, be passionate about writing, and be willing to do it every single day.

2. “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”

I made a key decision a few years back, and I still think about that decision, especially when I’m feeling down and having a not-so-great day. I made the decision to, whenever possible, to just get totally drunk on storytelling. Reading books. Watching films. Writing stories. It’s my motto, and my new publication here on Medium: Read. Watch. Write. Repeat.

When I spend most of my day reading great books and watching great films and writing, writing, writing, I’m happier. Sure, I need to also leave the house occasionally and maybe have coffee with a friend. But for the most part, reality cannot destroy you if you spend much of your day in other worlds, in other stories. Whether you’re reading them or watching them or writing them.

3. “Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You must simply do things.”

This quote is so true. You can sit around for days and weeks thinking about your story. Thinking about your characters. Thinking about what you want to do. But at the end of the day, that’s a small part of the puzzle. And eventually, yes, you need to write.

Have you been thinking about writing your first novel? Is there a story idea you’ve been mulling over for a long time but haven’t put a word down?

Just do it. Get started. Write 500 words. Write a first chapter. See what happens. You can always cut it later. Don’t think too much. Thinking is important at the beginning, but after awhile, you simply must write.

4. “Ideas excite me, and as soon as I get excited, the adrenaline gets going and and the next thing I know I’m borrowing energy from the ideas themselves.”

There’s nothing like getting a great idea for a story. When something hits you, often from out of nowhere, and then doesn’t leave your subconscious until you simply have to put it down on paper. This happens to me with novel ideas mostly. Most of my ideas are big, and not appropriate for a short story. But occasionally tiny ideas for a story hit me too, like it did last week in Portland.

You can work on something over and over to death, revising for all eternity, but for me the true excitement in writing comes from getting that original idea and then getting started, doing exactly what Bradbury says — borrowing energy from the idea. When you discover a great idea, don’t let go of it. And the excitement of it stay with you for as long as possible.

5. “There’s no one way to be creative. Any old way will work.”

One thing you have to remember when it comes to writing is that there is no one way to write. To finish your novel. To be creative. Sure, there are some rules you should try to follow. Like, try to write a little bit every day.

But Bradbury is right in that there isn’t a single perfect way to be creative. In the end, you do you. Do what feels right. Don’t try to replicate what other people do, and don’t try to be something you’re not. Do what makes the ideas flourish and makes your creativity soar. Whatever that is, hang onto it for as long as you can.

6. “The answer to all writing, to any career for that matter, is love.”

If you want to be a writer, you have to love it. As I’ve said on here many times before, I’ve been at this game a long, long time. I’ve written nineteen novels. I’ve received two Masters degrees in English. I have been writing non-stop since childhood and I don’t intend to slow down anytime soon. You’re going to be rejected, a lot. You might have years and years of constant failure.

Don’t let negativity stop you. Whether it’s from people in your life telling you to get your act together, or whether it’s from constant rejection and failure. If you love to write, keep writing. Don’t stop. Keep at it, year and year, and amazing things can happen.

They did for Ray Bradbury. And they can for you, too.