Posted in Writing

Why You Need to Avoid Exposition in Dialogue


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

Characters should and do deliver information to one another, but it needs to sound like human speech, be in character, and work in the context of the plot. If you don’t know where to stick backstory, avoid the temptation of putting it in dialogue.

One of the ways your writing will be rejected immediately by agents and editors is if the dialogue doesn’t sound true and authentic.

I remember a literary agent saying on Twitter once that after he requests a manuscript, he doesn’t necessarily read the first five pages or the first chapter. He doesn’t start with sentence one. Instead, he goes straight to a scene of heavy dialogue and reads that. If the dialogue sounds awkward, if it doesn’t sound realistic, he passes.

I thought that was an interesting revelation. I always just assume literary agents read your manuscript from the beginning, but some might actually jump to a scene later in the novel, possibly even chapters later, just to get a feel for the writer’s voice, and a feel for the way that writer employs dialogue in the story.

Dialogue is absolutely one of the trickiest elements of fiction writing. Some who aren’t great at it will go long stretches without any dialogue. Some who do have a good way with dialogue with have long scenes of almost nothing but dialogue.

The challenge, as always, is to try to blend dialogue with action and description as best you can. To have a mix of everything and not have too much of any one element.

Another challenge? To avoid exposition whenever possible in your dialogue.

I read once that dialogue should do at least one of two things, if not both: further the storyline and reveal something about one or more of the characters.

I think about that every time I begin writing the first draft of a new scene of dialogue in my short stories and novels. What’s the reader going to discover about the story and/or the characters by the end of the scene? Why does this scene have to be here?

Sometimes when I’m zipping along I don’t ask myself the hard questions and I ultimately have to edit down or complete cut the scene later in further drafts.

Especially with your longer scenes of dialogue, you have to be ruthless in your editing. Look at every single line of dialogue and ask yourself if it needs to be there. There are matters of pacing, sure, but is that line of dialogue doing anything for the story or the characters?

Dialogue is so tricky, and sometimes when you get in the middle of a scene of dialogue you might find yourself wanting to give information to the reader. Exposition that might not be clear in the novel yet. And sometimes you’ll feel compelled to stick that exposition right there in the middle of the dialogue.

Here’s an example of exposition in dialogue and why it’s ill-advised…

“Hi, Jimmy,” she said. “I can’t believe it’s been five years today since your brother died.”

“Thanks, Michelle,” he responded. “I know, can you believe it’s been that long? And for it to happen so close to Christmas, too.”

“Hadn’t you just picked up a Christmas tree? Like, just minutes before he got in that car wreck?”

“That’s right.” Jimmy scratched the nape of his neck. “ I can’t believe you remember that! So many things were different then. My brother was still alive, my parents were still together. Christmas will never be the same.”

“Well, Christmas is next week. Are you going to be all right?”

“Now that my dad’s in jail and can’t come near my mom again, it should be. How about you? Is your grandmother Caroline still coming home for the holidays?”

“I don’t know,” she said, rolling her eyes. “The truth is Grandma can be a bit much sometimes. I wanted to be a writer until she told me art was a worthless pursuit. Maybe I should take her advice and just go into business next year at UCLA instead.”

OK, that’s it, I’m getting a headache. You see how you’re learning things about the two characters but it’s done in such an awkward and forced way that you almost want to burst out laughing?

You want to laugh because nobody in the world talks like this. Nobody talks in that kind of ridiculous exposition. Yes, you’re giving readers elements of backstory, but this is just not the way to do it.

Find other ways to include exposition. Leave it out of dialogue, and you’ll have more success!

There are so many reasons agents and editors will say no to your work, and one of the big ones is if your dialogue doesn’t ring true.

You might be able to get away with a single line of exposition here and there in your dialogue if you truly believe it’s something the character would say, but even then, you’ll want to ask yourself if there’s any other way to express that information to your reader.

My newest novel actually does have a main character whose older brother died in a freak accident five years prior. But I guarantee you that backstory doesn’t come through in awkward dialogue. It comes through in his thoughts, in occasional moments where he reflects. In behavior from him and his parents, and rarely through dialogue.

Exposition is necessary in your fiction writing. You’re going to have to include it somewhere. The trick is to artfully blend it into your prose in a way that feels realistic and compelling, not awkward and stiff.

Find a way to write dynamic dialogue that avoids exposition and instead moves your story along and reveals information about your characters, and you’ll be well on your way!

Posted in Fiction, Publishing, Writing

My New Short Story was Just Published in a Literary Journal!


I’ve been seriously writing fiction for 10 years now, and I rarely have an experience like this one.

Since I started sending out my work at the end of 2010, I’ve mostly received rejections. I’ve gotten so very used to rejection.

In the past five years I’ve written fifteen short stories, and about half of those have since been accepted to literary magazines or paperback anthologies.

But even the stories that were accepted took a long, long time. Sometimes years. This past spring I had a story of mine, “I’ll See You in the Morning,” finally accepted to a literary magazine after four years on submission and probably twenty drafts total!

And then also this year I had my short story “Character Driven,” which I wrote at the end of 2016, finally accepted for publication, which was made me so happy. I love that story.

That second piece was on submission for about two years before it was accepted. Two years doesn’t even seem like a long time to me anymore. Two years seems almost average.

So it was a total shock to me this past summer when I wrote the first draft of a new short story called “Walter,” revised it a few times, sent it out to five places… and was accepted to one of those dream magazines in mere weeks. From first draft to acceptance was ten weeks, a goddamn miracle!

The story was inspired by a real-life event that happened to me in Portland, Oregon, in March 2019. Sometimes it’s better to come up with a story from scratch rather than piece together a work of fiction based on something that actually happened to you, the writer. But in this case, everything worked out.

And the nice surprises kept on coming!

When I received the initial e-mail that said “Walter” had been accepted to Bosque, I was overjoyed. Ecstatic. I was floating on air for days.

When you get rejected as much as I do, an acceptance of any kind is a truly momentous occasion. In early August I was informed that my story would be published in November, and I figured I wouldn’t have any e-mail interaction with this person until November, maybe late October.

An initial surprise: Mere days after receiving my acceptance letter, I received a follow-up letter from Bosque’s editor informing me I had been chosen as the literary journal’s pick for Fiction Discovery of the Year!

I had to read that e-mail twice, believe me. I didn’t believe it at first. What a lovely surprise this was!

A second surprise? The editor reached out a week later about copyedits. I figured whatever changes she wanted would take me an hour, maybe two. If I was lucky, maybe just thirty minutes.

You know what the editor wanted changed? One word. She questioned one word in the entire story. I agreed with her that the word was unnecessary, so I cut it from the manuscript, and then sent the story back.

That was it. I was done. After spending an entire year with a literary agent who made me revise my book ten arduous times, to be asked to change a single word of my manuscript was definitely a lovely surprise, one I did not expect.

A third surprise? Yes, there was a third one! In mid-September I received another e-mail from the editor telling me I would be paid for my story because of being designated as the Fiction Discovery of the Year. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was a lovely gesture, and I was thrilled to receive a check in the mail a few weeks later, wow!

Were there any more surprises? Yep, the best one of all was this very week!

It’s one of the great surprises you can have as a writer — when the literary journal actually shows up in your mailbox.

It’s happened to me five or six times before in the last few years. And every single time it arrives not expected but as a total surprise because you always forget it’s coming.

I hadn’t thought of Bosque and “Walter” for a month or so. It wasn’t on my radar. I just returned home for a trip and checked my mail to find a package from Bosque, and I gasped! Here it was, hooray!

And oh my God, what a beauty this journal is. I say that every time I see my work in print (well, almost always), but after a decade of writing fiction and getting some of my work published, this is by far the most gorgeous literary journal yet. Here are some pictures below…

This was such a fantastic way to end my first decade of writing fiction. Such a perfect motivation to keep me going strong for many more decades to come.

Although I think of myself as a novel writer, not a short story writer, the success I had with “Walter” inspired me to return to the short form.

Starting in 2017 I promised myself to write at least one new short story a year, and I’ve stuck to that. I wrote a story in 2017 called “39 Pies” that has gone through twelve drafts and has been rejected at least forty times. In 2018 I wrote a long magical realism story called “Gretel” that has been getting extremely kind rejection notices, which is promising. That one’s gone through about ten drafts and I’m confident it will find a home one of these days.

Since ‘Walter’ was accepted so quickly, I decided to write a second short story in 2019, and so recently I completed my last new work of fiction of the decade, a story called “F” that’s written in the second person. I just started sending it out, and so far, only rejections. But hey, who knows what might come of this one in the new year?

Because of the success of “Walter” I have decided to aim for two new short stories a year. And to take risks every single time. I write middle grade and young adult novels, so it’s been fun to write adult fiction in my short stories. To write the kind of story I would probably never attempt at novel length.

To keep growing as an artist by thinking outside the box and coming up with something no one would ever expect of me.

So if you’re interested in writing short stories, now is a better time than ever to take a risk in more ways than one! Let my journey serve as an example of what can happen when you persevere, when you try and try no matter how much you fail, no matter how many rejections roll in year after year.

If you stick with something long enough, and if you give it your all every time, it’s absolutely true: you will get better, and you’ll eventually start to hear that lovely word yes even if you’re used to that ugly word no.

Let’s all see where our imaginations can take us in the months to come. Here’s to risk-taking and memorable short story writing in 2020 and beyond!

Posted in Writing

Didn’t Win NaNoWriMo? There’s Still Time to Write Your Book.


There have been a lot of inspiring posts the last few days about NaNoWriMo.

If you don’t know, NaNoWriMo is an annual creative writing project that takes place in the month of November where your goal is to write a 50,000 word manuscript. Or, I guess, the first 50,000 words of your manuscript.

I’ve always had issues with NaNoWriMo. I’ve personally never done it before, and I’m not sure I ever will.

However, I do think it can be super helpful to most writers, especially those that work better when they have a strict deadline.

And knowing during the month of November you’re part of a large community doing the exact same thing? Where you can motivate each other each day until you hopefully reach your goal by the 30th?

That is inspiring. Even if you don’t meet the goal. Even if you only get to 10,000 words, 20,000 words. If you got part of your manuscript written, then that’s fantastic.

The issue I take with NaNoWriMo is this idea that come December, you no longer work on the novel.

This has happened at least twice before with a friend of mine, maybe more. The first time I ever heard about NaNoWriMo was five or six years ago. My friend told me she used it the previous year to write 50,000 words of her novel. I told her that’s awesome, you wrote your whole book in a month!

Well, no. She said she hit 50,000 words on November 30th… and that there were at least 40,000 more words to go. It had been six months. She still hadn’t written another word of her novel. Hadn’t even looked at it.

A couple years later she did NaNoWriMo again. Same thing, different manuscript. She said that time she managed to get to 60,000 words, but still, the book wasn’t finished. Months later she still hadn’t reached THE END.

I’ve written twenty novels in ten years. I’ve written books in a month, I’ve written books in three months. I love the idea of NaNoWriMo to get writers started, motivated, excited, willing to put in the hard work.

But this idea that you get super far into the manuscript and then don’t finish it after November 30th?

It just doesn’t make any sense to me.

First of all, the more time you spend away from the book, the harder it’s going to be for you to find motivation to finish it, and second of all, it will be all the harder to get back into the groove of the writing itself.

By all means, take three months, six months, a year even, away from your novel, but make sure you finish it first! You want to reach THE END however possible before you step away from the book for months on end.

I believe it’s in your better interest to write a shorter version of the novel that’s around 50,000 words, and then months later expand upon that and get it to 80,000 words or 90,000 words.

But don’t write the first 50,000 words of an 80,000 word-novel and then just never finish it in early December. It will make you feel good that you did some writing, sure, but you’re not ever going to have success in the novel writing world if you don’t finish things.

You can do a lot with a completed first draft of a novel that’s really, really bad or really, really short. You can’t do much with a novel that’s only 70% completed, remember that.

It’s OK if you didn’t win NaNoWriMo. And it’s OK if you didn’t reach THE END on your manuscript.

And remember, you don’t have to stop the first week of December. You can keep going. You can finish your novel during the upcoming holiday break if you want. You can even continue it in January or February!

Don’t just stop because November is over. Keep going, at least until you finish THE END on the first draft.

And if you didn’t have time to even do NaNoWriMo this year? Again, no sweat. Sure, there might not be as much motivation for you in the writing community outside the month of November, but keep in kind that people write novels all throughout the year. I often write novels in the summer, and between mid-December and mid-January, when I’m not teaching. Other people write different times of the year, whatever works best for them.

So if you have an amazing novel idea, don’t feel you have to wait until November 2020 to get started! Write it this month if you want. There are still 30 days of 2019. You can absolutely write your novel before the end of 2019.

Use NaNoWriMo if it’s a helpful project for you, but don’t think the writing ends when December hits.

If you’re passionate about writing, you should be doing it all year round, and when it comes to novel writing, do it whenever you’d like!

Congrats on any writing you got accomplished last month, whether you did NaNoWriMo or not, and I wish you all the best for your writing this month and beyond.

Posted in Writing

Do This One Thing to Ensure a Killer Revision


I did something in a revision last week I haven’t done in ages.

And you know what? The revision went really, really well. I was so easily able to see what was wrong with my new short story and I was able to fix the problem, finally. After three long months of trying to figure out what was wrong with the story, why it kept getting rejected, I finally figured it out.

Let’s just this latest revision was killer. (I mean, the story is horror, so it fits!)

I did a few things I always do that helps with the revising process. I didn’t look at the story for about six weeks until I started the new draft, the fifth one to date. I tell other writers all the time one of the best things you can do for revision is not look at or even think about your story for at least a month or longer.

That way, when you pull the story back out you’re able to read it afresh, almost as a reader of the story and not the writer of it, and see with clearer eyes what might be wrong with it. What you might want to add or delete or change.

Often after a long time away from it it’s so totally obvious what you need to do.

Another thing I did was read through the whole story in one sitting before I began the next draft. This is harder to do with novels, of course, but with short stories it’s pivotal that you read through the story from beginning to end once without taking any notes at first.

It’s so easy to just read the first sentence and change a word, delete a phrase, but that’s not really revising at the end of the day, that’s mostly copyediting.

This process might be helpful to fix grammar and spelling errors and typos, but it doesn’t help you see the bigger picture. It helps you fix the minutia but not always the larger problem.

No, you have to do more. You have to find a way that helps you complete the best revision yet.

So what’s the one thing I did to ensure a killer revision? A revision that finally fixed the major issue I believe is the reason why the story keeps getting rejected?

I printed out the manuscript and took notes on the pages by hand.

You want to know the last time I did this for a piece of my fiction writing? 2013. Yes, I hadn’t printed out any of my fiction for revising purposes in more than six years.

The first reason? I feel guilty about using up all that paper.

The second reason? After I finish making all the notes, there’s the essential step of having to transfer all those notes from the page to the computer.

I’ve written more than 10 novels since 2013, and every single revision I’ve done has been on my laptop screen. It saves paper. I don’t have to transfer notes. I can just go through the manuscript page by page and make my changes. It’s easier. It’s more environmentally friendly. It takes less time.

But does it ensure a killer revision? Not exactly.

I can see why printing out a novel manuscript for revision might seem like a lot of work, but I’d still recommend it because it’s just so much easier to see the mistakes in your work both large and small.

There’s something different about reading your words on paper than on a screen. Your mind remains clearer, sharper. The problems pop off the page, I’m telling you. It’d been years since I’d revised a new work of fiction this way, and I was amazed how easier the whole process went.

I was able to cut 500 words from the story and add a few new ones and I absolutely love this latest draft. I just sent it to five new literary magazines, and we’ll see if I have better luck this time around.

All I know is that if one of the magazine editors accepts the story, I’ll have this revision process to thank. I’m absolutely going to do it for every new short story I write from now on. Possibly even my future novels.

So give it a try if you’ve never revised this way before! Printing out your work and taking notes by hand will absolutely ensure a killer revision every single time.

Posted in Writing

3 Things to be Thankful for as a Writer


So much of the writing life is a constant struggle.

You struggle to come up with words to put down on the page. You struggle to come up with new ideas. You struggle to make any money. You struggle to get anybody to believe in the work that you’re doing.

You struggle, sometimes, to believe you have any value as a writer yourself.

I’ve been writing almost every day for the last ten years, and I still feel these things all the time.

But what I try to do now more than ever before is be thankful for everything in my life that writing has brought me. Because even though I don’t yet have a novel on the shelves or have millions of adoring fans awaiting my every word, there’s simply so much to be thankful for.

Here are three of them…

1. The ability to express yourself in ways few people ever can.

I genuinely don’t understand how people get through their days, weeks, months, without at least occasionally writing their thoughts down on paper.

It doesn’t have to be published. Nobody has to ever read it.

But the millions and millions of people out there who never write a word down and just keep their thoughts completely internal for all their lives… how do they do it? How do they not go insane?

Writing is the outlet for me that allows my life to have balance, that allows me to vent my frustrations and ideas and dreams down on paper. Whether it’s thoughts about my own life, or in the lives of imagined characters.

Any kind of writing helps you express yourself, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. It’s therapeutic. It enriches the soul.

And it saddens me that many people out there don’t feel the need or desire to do that. Every single person who ever lived has at least one great story to tell. Every person could enrapture a reader for dozens of pages, if not hundreds. But people prefer to keep it bottled up inside, or simply vent to a family member, friend, or partner.

Being a writer means you get to express yourself in a variety of ways that ultimately leads to a life well lived. And how can we not be thankful for that?

2. The ability to escape your own reality and enter the world of others.

Life can get hard at times. And writing down your thoughts on paper isn’t enough.

Sometimes you need to just get away from yourself sometimes. Get away from your circumstances, your reality. You want to escape through any means possible.

Non-writers escape their realities in a variety of ways, like reading or watching movies or scrolling mindlessly through their phones. There are all sorts of ways.

But writers get to take things one step further by completely entering the worlds of other people. By surrendering to a world of fiction that often feels just as real, if not more so, than the life you’re living right now as the writer.

There is this magical place you go to as a writer when you’re zipping along in the newest scene you’re writing, the newest chapter. It’s the Zone. It’s a place that is happy and amazing. A place that allows you to step outside yourself and stay put in the world of your imagination.

Writers get to do this as much as they want. I had it numerous times this past summer writing my latest novel. I had it this past September when I wrote a new short story.

Most people don’t get to escape their own realities in ways that are healthy and good. Writers get to do it every day if they want, how cool is that?

3. The ability to make a difference in people’s lives.

This is, of course, the big one. One of the main reasons I do what I do, especially when it comes to my non-fiction work.

I mean, let’s be honest about something. Most of us would still write even if we knew nobody was ever going to read anything we wrote, and that definitely includes me. So much of what I’ve written in my life honestly hasn’t been read by anybody.

I’ve had the writing bug since I was a kid, and nothing has ever stopped me from writing, even when it was in journals, even when it was just freewriting.

But the ability to make a difference in people’s lives? Now that’s something that means a lot to writers.

Because so often we’re writing for ourselves, and we don’t realize how powerful words can be, that there are readers out there we will never meet who will be moved and touched and changed by the stories we tell.

Whether those stories are fiction or non-fiction. Whether those stories were written for a specific audience or just for yourself.

I know there might be times when you think nothing you write matters, that nobody will ever pay any attention to your stories, that you won’t ever make a difference in a single person’s life, let alone a hundred people or a thousand people. Or even a million or more.

The truth is you will. You can. You already have.

Because you’re a writer. And always will be.

Posted in Writing

7 Quotes by William Faulkner to Make You a Better Writer


William Faulkner (1897–1962) was the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of such classic novels as The Sound of the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Light in August.

Here are seven of his wonderful quotes to inspire your writing!

1. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error.

This is the sad and beautiful truth about writing. Sad because it’s true: you can’t just learn the mechanical way to get the writing done and then produce incredible work. You can’t only master the skills of how to write, and then be able to do it well for the rest of time.

There’s so much that goes into writing something that works, and only part of it is the mechanical aspect. You have to make mistakes. You have to take chances. Try something wild. Attempt a few genres. Do something that scares you.

It’s also the beautiful truth about writing because it’s such a mysterious process to every one of us. If writing well only meant learning the mechanics, then writing would be a boring business. Most people would succeed. Anybody with determination could just sit down and do great work.

It’s not that easy. You need to master the mechanics to become a good writer, yes, but you also need to live your life, and absorb the world around you, and spill your heart out on paper. And, of course, write, write, write. And then write some more.

2. Don’t be ‘a writer’ but instead be writing. Being ‘a writer’ means being stagnant. The act of writing shows movement, activity, life. When you stop moving, you’re dead. It’s never too soon to start writing, as soon as you learn to read.

There’s nothing that makes you less of a writer than constantly telling people you’re a writer but never actually doing much writing. The truth of the matter is that if you want to be a writer, you must be writing, every day if at all possible. It doesn’t have to be your 9–5 job, and for most of us, it simply can’t be. But finding even just one hour each day to sit down and write, now that makes you a writer.

Talking about writing with your writer friends is necessary sometimes, I’m not saying you should never do it. Sometimes you need to kick back and talk to someone about what you’re working on. That can actually be a super pleasurable activity.

But remember, you get better every day by writing more and more. If being a writer is the goal, then be writing constantly. And if you’re in this for the long haul, amazing things can happen!

3. Keep it amateur. You’re not writing for money but for pleasure. It should be fun. And it should be exciting. Maybe not as you write, but after it’s done you should feel an excitement, a passion. That doesn’t mean feeling proud, sitting there gloating over what you’ve done. It means you know you’ve done your best. Next time it’s going to be better.

This is one of my favorite William Faulkner quotes for sure. There’s so much to take away from it. So much truth in it.

First of all, he’s absolutely right that we should be writing for pleasure, not for money. Yes, we can all wish and hope to make money from our writing, and that should always be an aspect of the process, but the problem is that when you sit down every day to write for money, your work will suffer, and readers will see that.

Instead, what you want writers to see is the passion you have for writing. It will always come through. As long as you have the mechanics down, and have put your heart into what you’re composing, readers, I’m telling you will see that.

Second, I love that he says writing should be exciting not necessarily as you write, but after it’s done. I definitely feel like this more and more every year, especially when it comes to my fiction writing. Fiction writing is hard. I’m often not necessarily excited during the process of writing the next 2,000 words of my latest novel, but I’m certainly excited about the work once it’s completed.

And another source of excitement, absolutely? I always love it when I feel I’ve done the best I can with my latest project, but know deep down next time it’s going to be better. That the next novel will be better than the last one. If the next writing project won’t be as strong as the last one, then what’s the point? You always want to be getting better and better.

4. I did not develop [my style]. I think style is one of the tools of the craft, and I think anyone that spends too much of his time about his style, developing a style, or following a style, probably hasn’t got much to say and knows it and is afraid of it, and so he writes a style, a marvelous trove.

I’ve written twenty novels in less than ten years now, and something I put pretty much no emphasis on or think about in any great capacity is the style of my writing. My problem with style is that it seems like something that dresses up the story you’re telling, when in the long run you should always be focused on telling the story itself, plain and simple.

Now when you’re just starting out, yes, you should absolutely try different styles of authors you admire and see if anything sticks, see if anything helps you get the story started, and, more importantly, finished.

But I think readers will pretty quickly sniff out style over substance. If the story you’re telling doesn’t work, or doesn’t hold much interest, and you’re trying to make it more important or more powerful than it is through the style you’ve chosen, then your readers might bail.

I personally have no interest in style over substance in a short story or a novel. I have no time for it. What I’m always looking for is great characters and a great story. Always make that your priority. Sure, style can enhance an already great piece of writing, but don’t let it be the primary factor.

5. The only rule I have is to quit while it’s still hot. Never write yourself out. Always quit when it’s going good. Then it’s easier to take it up again. If you exhaust yourself, then you’ll get into a dead spell, and you have trouble with it. It’s — what’s the saying — leave them while you’re looking good.

If you take no other advice from this article, please take this with you: one of the best things you can do as a writer is stop writing when it gets really, really good. I know this advice might seem counterintuitive. You might think if the writing’s going well, you should go another hour, another two hours, give it everything you have at that precise moment!

Sure, I guess if you’re writing a short story on a Saturday morning, and it’s going really well, and you won’t have any real time to sit down and write for a few days, and you just want to get that sucker done, then keep going, maybe.

But when it comes to longer projects, like a novel, you’re going to have more success when you stop writing when things are getting good, because that will make you want to sit down the next morning and write some more.

When I stop writing in the middle of a scene that’s working, I get excited to come back the next day to write. I’m in a good mood for hours. I know I won’t be sitting down the next day having no clue what to write next in the novel. I know exactly what I’m going to write, and I’m excited to do it!

If you can stay in that permanent state while working on a novel, you’ll not only get it done on time, but you’ll do quality work, which will work wonders for you in the long run.

6. I doubt if there can be any rule about [long titles]. I think that anything, the shorter it’s said the better. I think that — that stories title themselves quite often. Yes, in that anything, the shorter it’s said the better it is.

Titles are a funny things. We writers obsess over them. We do everything we can to come up with something that’s memorable, that’s appropriate, that captures the story we told in the best way possible. Some titles come to us faster and easier than others.

Most of my titles I’d say usually come to me before I’ve even put a word of the latest short story or novel done. But sometimes the title is hard, and that’s certainly been the case for my MFA thesis novel. It’s been called three different things since 2017, and I’m still not satisfied with the latest title. Nothing seems to capture the story exactly, and not having the perfect title has certainly frustrated me, especially since it’s my passion project, having done twelve drafts of the thing in nearly three years.

But here’s the truth about titles: they don’t matter as much as you think they do. I mean, don’t give your story or novel a ridiculous title of 22 words that has little or nothing to do with the narrative. At the same time, it’s time wasted to spend too much time agonizing over the title. If your novel sells to a traditional publisher, it’s possible your title will be changed to something completely outside of your control.

Titles are important, but they’re not that important, remember that. And Faulkner is right that when in doubt, go with a title that’s short, not long.

7. You can always find time to write. Anybody who says he can’t is living under false pretenses. To that extent depend on inspiration. Don’t wait. When you have an inspiration put it down. Don’t wait until later and when you have more time and then try to recapture the mood and add flourishes. You can never recapture the mood with the vividness of its first impression.

I’m very lucky to have lots of time in my days to write. I teach a few classes at my local university, and need to plan time to prep my classes and grade papers and teach a few hours a week, but I also am lucky to have lots of hours every day to focus on my writing.

I know it can be hard to have the kind of life where maybe, if you’re lucky, you can find a free hour in your day to write. But Faulkner is correct in that, no matter what, you can always find the time to write. Because the truth is that you can tons of work accomplished if you put in even a little bit of time every single day, seven days a week. I know of writers who have written their novels with just 10 minutes a day. Just 10 minutes a day! We all have 10 minutes to write. And most of us can find at least thirty minutes or more.

The truth is that you want to find that time every day to write because inspiration strikes at all times, and you don’t want to always wait until later when you might have more time. I had the inspiration for a short story in September, and I almost wrote it really fast that weekend, but I decided to wait until later.

It’s November now, and I still haven’t written it, and I’ve decided due to a crazy schedule the next few weeks to write it in the new year. I’m still excited to write it, sure, but the inspiration has sort of been lost. I’m not as passionate about the idea as I was in September. And while I hope I’m able to produce a great story in the new year, I’ll always wonder if the story might have been better if I had written it right when the inspiration hit me.

So just remember, inspiration or no inspiration, what will do wonders for your writing life is showing up every single day to do a little bit of work. Even just 10 minutes of writing a day will produce loads of content in the long run, and will bring lots of success in your long and prosperous writing life!

Posted in Screenwriting, Writing

6 Quotes by Nora Ephron to Make You a Better Writer


Nora Ephron (1941–2012) was the celebrated writer/director of classic films like Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, she was the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of When Harry Met Sally, and she was the hilarious essay writer of I Feel Bad About My Neck and other amazing collections.

Here are six wonderful quotes she left us that will help you in your writing life!

1. Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.

This quote comes from one of Nora Ephron’s many essays that have delighted me for years on end. I actually have two of her audiobooks and still play them in my car to this day. Even though she died in 2012, listening to Ephron’s voice in my vehicle makes her feel like she’s still alive in a way. Still available to inspire me and make me laugh. Ephron is one of my all time favorites.

And I particularly love this quote she shared about reading. Because I feel the same way, don’t you? That reading is everything. Well maybe not everything, but boy is it relaxing to just sit for an hour and read. Especially when it’s for pleasure. Lately I’ve been taking a bath late at night and taking two or three books with me. How had I never really done this before this past month?

Sitting in a warm bath while reading a great book is something almost otherworldly. It’s divine. And reading this quote by Ephron reminds me once again that when life gets hectic, one of the best remedies is to sit and read. To forget my own writing. To forget reading like a writer at all times. To just read for pleasure’s sake. Just read to relax and have fun.

2. I don’t care who you are. When you sit down to write the first page of your screenplay, in your head, you’re also writing your Oscar acceptance speech.

When I sit down to write a new screenplay or a new novel, I’m sort of the opposite — I just hope and pray I don’t screw it up. I’m not thinking about awards this latest writing project might give me. I’m basically hoping I just survive to see the end of the first draft… and maybe, if I’m lucky, that first draft will be halfway decent!

But sure, there is always a little voice in my head when I start something new that says, all that hard work you’ve done for the past decade has led to this moment. That voice tells me, this is the one, this is going to make you lots of money, this is going to be published and become a hit and be adored by millions of reads the whole world over.

None of that ever happens, of course. And I wouldn’t really ever expect it to. But it’s fun to dream about, isn’t it? You’re spending six months or a year or two years (or sometimes longer!) to work on this one creative writing project. You’re putting your heart and soul into the thing. You’re putting hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours into creating something new.

So yes, go ahead and dream a little that this latest manuscript might win you some awards, might win you recognition. There’s no harm in it!

3. I go through periods where I work a great deal at all hours of the day whenever I am around a typewriter, and then I go through spells where I don’t do anything. I just sort of have lunch — all day. I never have been able to stick to a schedule. I work when there is something due or when I am really excited about a piece.

I had never heard this quote from Ephron before, and I love it — even though I disagree with her writing schedule. From what I’ve read from her, Ephron seems like the kind of artist who would work like this. Who wouldn’t stick to a schedule necessarily and just write when she’s inspired or excited by a project, or when there’s a pressing deadline. She did work in journalism for much of her young life, after all.

However, I’ve suggested since day one that one of the best things you can do for your writing career is to create a schedule for yourself, and stick to it. When I’m writing the first draft of a new novel, I write 2,000+ words a day until it’s done. When I’m revising a novel, I’ll usually work on one chapter every day until that’s done. When I write a screenplay, I’ll try to write 5 pages a day every day until I complete it.

I think if you’re talented and super disciplined, you can sort of get away without having a proper schedule. If the writing bug is within you, you’ll probably write most days of the week anyway, like I do.

But if you’re someone who hasn’t written a whole lot and who wants to write more, if you’re someone who tends to procrastinate often and never finish anything, then you should absolutely stick to a schedule at all times.

4. I try to write parts for women that are as complicated and interesting as women actually are.

Something Ephron is really known for is writing tremendous parts for women in her screenplays. Consider the lead female roles in Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, Julie & Julia. She creates women who are complicated and interesting and flawed and courageous and memorable. She’s written some of the best women roles certainly in romantic comedies in the last thirty years.

And something you should always be thinking about no matter what kind of material you write — short fiction, novels, screenplays, plays — is to create memorable roles for both men and women. I’ve written twenty novels to date. Many of those novels feature male protagonists, and only a few of them feature female protagonists, but in every new novel I take on I try to create three-dimensional female characters that feel in every way as important to the narrative as the male characters.

You can’t just write guy after guy if you’re a guy. You have to include more female characters in your fiction. You have to include more diversity in your fiction. Don’t just write characters similar to yourself. Take chances and evolve and create a character in your next creative piece that’s unlike anyone you’ve written before. Make her interesting, make her an integral part of your narrative. Always make the women in your storytelling as complicated and interesting as real women actually are.

5. I just want to go on making movies, and some of them will be completely meaningless, except, of course, to me.

Something every artist needs to do if they are serious about writing is to just keep going always. Whether or not your last five projects failed. Whether or not your last project was a monumental success. Nora Ephron had highs and lows in her career definitely. She was nominated for three Academy Awards and had a handful of major success in her long career, but she also had huge flops, too — Lucky Numbers, anyone?

She could have stopped after a couple of those flops, but she kept going anyway, and the final film she made before her untimely death is one of my favorites — 2009’s Julie & Julia, starring Meryl Streep as Julia Child. Even after a flop here and there, Ephron kept going because each new project held meaning for her, even if it held no meaning for anyone else.

You want to think about this in the same way with your own writing. Even if you haven’t published anything yet. Even if you’re just getting started. You have to keep in mind that some, possibly many, of the writing projects you take on won’t actually go anywhere, might end up in a drawer in a year’s time. So that’s why I always tell writers to work on projects they’re passionate about. Don’t write something because you think it will make you money. Write something that has some kind of meaning to you.

If the project has meaning, then you won’t have any failures, not really. And when that meaning is there, often readers will see it, and want to read more from you.

6. All I do when I write scripts is think about food: ‘Have I worked long enough to justify a walk to the kitchen?’

Finally, I couldn’t leave a piece discussing Nora Ephron without bringing food into the conversation! Ephron of course was one of the ultimate foodies. You would know that if you watch her movies closely (and if you watch any five minutes of Julie & Julia), but you would especially know it if you read her essays. She doesn’t just love a great meal. She would literally think about food all throughout the day. Ponder what she might eat next. Dream about what her next dish might be, and get excited for it.

Although I do think you should maintain a flow in your writing schedule, and that it’s not in your best interest to get up every twenty minutes to peruse the fridge or the pantry, I do believe in giving yourself celebratory snack breaks when you reach a new word count or milestone in your latest project.

The snack break I like to take is when I hit another 1,000 words in my latest first draft. I will sit down at 9am or 10am or whenever and decide I’m going to write 2,000 words of my latest project today. I won’t get up all the time, but I will get up once, when I hit 1,000 words, the halfway point— and take a 5-minute break to treat myself to a yummy snack. I feel like 1,000 words on the page is justification for a break.

And then, once you hit 2,000 words and have reached your goal for the day, then you can go nuts in the kitchen! Make a lavish lunch if you want. You should of course be completely focused on the story you’re telling and not on the food you want to eat next, but if you’re a foodie like Nora Ephron, then go ahead and treat yourself!