Friday, August 29

Using adverbs in dialogue tags: a matter of style or a sign of timidity?

Using adverbs in dialogue tags: a matter of style or a sign of timidity?

Writers are often told not to use adverbs in dialogue tags. For example:

“You are dead to me,” he said coldly.

Or, worse:

“You are dead to me,” he whispered coldly.

(I bet you cringed just reading that!)

One reason adverbs are discouraged in dialogue tags is it encourages telling rather than showing. As Anton Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

In “On Writing,” Stephen King tells us that fear lives at the heart of all weak writing. Specifically, the fear that readers won’t understand what we’re trying to communicate. King writes:

“I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. If one is writing for one’s own pleasure, that fear may be mild—timidity is the word I’ve used here. If, however, one is working under deadline—a school paper, a newspaper article, the SAT writing sample—that fear may be intense. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.

“You probably do know what you’re talking about, and can safely energize your prose with active verbs. And you probably have told your story well enough to believe that when you use he said, the reader will know how he said it—fast or slowly, happily or sadly. Your man may be floundering in a swamp, and by all means throw him a rope if he is … but there’s no need to knock him unconscious with ninety feet of steel cable.”

Most authors love to use adverbs in dialogue attributions.

Stephen King admits he’s used adverbs in dialogue attributions:

“Is this a case of ‘Do as I say, not as I do?’ The reader has a perfect right to ask the question, and I have a duty to provide an honest answer. Yes. It is. You need only look back through some of my own fiction to know that I’m just another ordinary sinner. [...] When I do it, it’s usually for the same reason any writer does it: I am afraid the reader won’t understand me if I don’t.”

That said, King has used fewer adverbs over the years, both in dialogue attribution and elsewhere.

I say all this not to defend King, since he needs no defense, but to give you a feeling for the lay of the land. What I really want to talk about is not that we shouldn’t use adverbs in dialogue tags but, instead, whether this dislike of dialogue tags is perhaps one of those things that change with the times.

Adverbs in dialogue attributions, past and present.

Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” was my favorite book growing up. There was something about it, some quality. If you pressed me to put that quality into words I’d say it was magical and then feel disappointed in myself for under describing it. “A Wrinkle in Time” was one of the books that shaped how I think and what I like.

“A Wrinkle in Time” contained many tags (about 60) with adverbs in them. To put that in perspective, J.K. Rowling used fewer such tags in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” (about 40) and her book was over 20,000 words longer than L’Engle’s.

The finding that surprised me the most was from “The Goldfinch.” In that novel about 200 of the dialogue attributions contain an -ly adverb. That’s more than are in E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” and James Patterson’s “Along Came a Spider,” combined. Actually, Patterson’s book only contains four such instances.

Even “The Maltese Falcon,” one of my favorite books, contains around 50 such tags.

Could it be that our attitudes, or perhaps our tolerance for, adverbs in dialogue tags has changed over the years? For example, the dialogue tags in “Never Go Back,” published in September 2013, are adverb free. That’s right, the book contains no tags with adverbs.

But, against that idea, “Lord of the Flies” was written in the 50s and only has six or so adverbs in its tags. And Jim Butcher’s latest book in the Dresden Files series, published just this year, contains well over 100 dialogue tags with adverbs in them. 

Perhaps one could argue that, at least in part, whether to use adverbs in one’s dialogue tags is part of one’s writing style. Yes, Stephen King attributes use of adverbs to timidity—and he may well be right—but perhaps adverb use could also simply be a component of an author’s voice.

The most interesting thing that came from my investigations into using adverbs in dialogue tags is that the practice seems to cut across the literary/genre boundary. That surprised me. Of course, this could simply be an artifact of the small sample sizes I’m working with!

What do you think? Is the use of adverbs in dialogue tags a weakness—a sign of timidity—or is it simply a matter of style?

Thanks for reading!

Photo credit: "Boat Abandoned On The Beach" by A Guy Taking Pictures under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, August 28

Six Ways To Rekindle Your Enthusiasm For Your Work In Progress

Six Ways To Rekindle Your Enthusiasm For Your Work In Progress

Enthusiasm. Passion. Inspiration.

These words are pale descriptions, gestures toward the drive that causes us to bury ourselves in basement offices and spend hours writing (and then hours more reading). 

I feel as though I’ve just come off a bender. For a week I’ve had that white hot passion of creation living inside me, almost like a drunkenness burning me up inside, driving me on.

It was wonderful!

And yes, I let everything else in my life slide and for that my apologies. I was programming, something I haven’t done in years, and it felt wonderful to flex those old muscles. 

Now, though, that the program is done the passion has bled away and I woke up today feeling decidedly uninspired.

How To Rekindle Your Enthusiasm

My renewed passion for programming made me think about my WIP and how dispassionate I feel toward it. I was looking for a topic to blog about. I don’t want to saturate you with news about my program and all the cool things I’m discovering, I’ll blog about that often enough in the days and weeks and months to come. But then I thought, well, that’s what I’ll write about, getting one’s enthusiasm back. (And, yes, I do this often; write the blog post I need to read.)

The Great Swampy Middle of Despair

At the moment I’m slogging through the middle bits of a first draft. I’ve adopted Jim Butcher’s terminology for the middle section of a novel: the great swampy middle of despair. (I added the part about despair, but I think it fits.)

You saw or read Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring,” right? Remember the part where Frodo picks his way through the Dead Marshes. That, right there. That’s the great swampy middle.

So, today, I thought I’d write about how to rekindle one’s enthusiasm, how to fall back in love with your WIP.

1. Don’t get out of bed right away.

Close your eyes. Imagine. What story are you working on? If you’re writing a first draft, or are at the index card/outline stage, the first few moments of consciousness can be pure gold.

Keep your eyes closed. Don’t think about all the meddlesome, anxiety provoking minutia of the day ahead (the day crouching before you like a starving tiger). Don’t think about all the boring things, all the tedious tasks, you have to do. Think instead about the story you’re in equal measures discovering and creating.

Where did you leave off? What is the viewpoint character doing? (Or, alternatively, what is the narrator experiencing?) What do they want? Why don’t they get it?

Use this time of creative semi-consciousness to rev up your muse.

(Yes, you may fall back to sleep but that’s what the snooze button is for!)

2. Keep a writing journal ready to hand.

I never know when inspiration will pounce. I’ll be thinking about a problem, trying to solve it, then as I’m walking to my car with my arms full of groceries, bam! My unconscious births a creative solution.

If you’re anything like me you need to write this down. I can’t tell you how many times I had a revelation, one I was sure to remember it was so staggeringly obvious—and then I forgot!

The journal doesn’t have to be fancy. I have two, and both are plain. One is a simple lined book with a spiral binding. I keep the cover closed with an elastic band—but it works! The book is small enough to live comfortably in my purse. Now when I have an idea I have a place to write it down. I keep another journal with me during the day—I think of it as my RAM. I write everything in there, lists, little reminders, story ideas. It’s where I scribble out rough drafts for these blog posts! I leave it on my bedside table before I go to sleep just in case I have a story idea during the night.

3. Have a support network.

I have people in my life who know me well enough and like me well enough to badger me, to be the two year old in the backseat: Are you done yet? Are you done yet? Are you ...

Yes, you don’t want too much of that but I can’t tell you how many times just knowing there were people who would realize I was slacking off, how much that motivated me to shake off the blahs, the negative thoughts, and keep going. And not only to keep going, it helped fan the fading ember of enthusiasm, of passionate affection, back to life.

4. Have a system.

I almost entitled this point “outline” but decided against it because, while I think everyone would benefit from having some sort of system I don’t think everyone would benefit from outlining. Different strokes and all that.

Take where I’m at right now. As I mentioned, I’m slogging through the middle of my story, poised right between, right on the cusp, of my kick-ass protagonist confronting the Big Bad.

I think what was bothering me about the scene was that she was too passive. But anyway. I turned away from my slog to do something (for me) infinitely more pleasurable—write a simple VB program in an attempt to find an objective measure for whether (given my tastes and predilections) a book is well written.

That has taken me away from my WIP for almost a week, but I’m able to go back and reengage with my material because I made an outline.

Yes, things in the story have changed, have deviated in small and large ways from the outline. And that’s fine. That’s as it should be. A story is a living, breathing, entity that has a will and a trajectory of its own.

Still, though, my outline keeps me tethered to the main themes, it helps me keep in mind the major beats and why they’re there. It tells me where I’m headed.

So, that’s my advice: Have a system. It doesn’t have to be a detailed system. Your system may be to collect images of what your characters look like from the many interesting recesses of the internet and pin them to various boards using Pinterest. Or you may scout the internet for exotic photos that may become the various locations in your novel. Perhaps you even have it worked out that this location, these people, come onstage in the beginning, then we shift to this board of pictures over here for the middle and then ... and so on.

The important thing is to have something that will help you get back into the groove if life calls you away, interrupts your progress, and steals the momentum you’ve build up.

5. Do something you love.

Do something that feeds your soul. Something that, when you hold the image of it in your mind, makes you smile.

6. Imagine something wonderful.

Writing is imagining. Use your imagination to experience how you will feel, not just once you’ve completed the first draft, but once you’ve done the last edit, once you’ve received your manuscript back from your copy editor and, by god, you’re done! Finished.

It’s quite the feeling, quite the high to have not only birthed a story but shared that story with the world.

Our stories are potentially immortal. They carry with them a bit of who we are, a bit of our souls, ensuring that a part of us will live on. If that’s not something to get excited about, I don’t know what is.

Photo credit: "Canon EOS 1N and Kodak Ultramax 400 - Cat shot" by Kevin Dooley under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, August 25

My Analysis of 16 books: Stephen King is correct, the adverb is not your friend.

My Analysis of 16 books: Stephen King is correct, the adverb is not your friend.
I had a busy weekend.

What was I doing, you ask? I was combing through the contents of my digital bookshelf looking at the words, especially adverbs, my favorite authors (and others) used and how often they used them. 

I was curious whether genre authors tended to use adverbs more than their literary brethren.


Before I discuss the results gleaned from my weekend of wordy exploration let me emphasize two things.

a. So far I’ve only analyzed sixteen books of the millions that exist. Also, most of the books I analyzed were chosen because I love them. As a result, my sample set is profoundly skewed.

I hope to add more books to this analysis in the future and that should help to ease--though not eliminate--this problem.

b. As you probably guessed, I didn’t sit down and read all these books, a pencil in one hand, a pad of paper in the other! I wrote a program. Although I spent all weekend coding (my apologies for not posting on Saturday as I had promised) my program is woefully primitive. In order to get up and running in a relatively short period of time I’ve used approximations. 

For example, ideally no words used in dialogue would be part of this analysis. I tried to take them out but couldn’t make it work in the time I had. 

The Results: Adverbs

There’s so much we could talk about but to start things off, let’s talk about adverbs that end in ‘ly.’

Stephen King famously said in “On Writing” that, “The adverb is not your friend.” He even italicized it. 

King confesses to using adverbs. His admonition is to use them sparingly and with thoughtful deliberation.

But a mischievous part of me wondered: Does Stephen King heed his own advice? And, even if he does now, was he always as conscientious?

I won’t make you wait for an answer. He was.

Though King never used many adverbs to begin with, throughout the years, book after book, he has continued his war with the adverb, gradually diminishing its presence in his work. 

Here are the highlights of my analysis:

Adverb Variety

William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” has the greatest variety of adverbs, while Stephen King’s “Under The Dome” has the least.

Adverb Frequency

Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” narrowly beat out E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” for the most adverbs used. Once again, Stephen King’s “Under The Dome,” had the fewest adverbs, though Lee Child’s “Never Go Back” came in a close second.

Only: the most used adverb

Hands down, “only” was the most used ‘ly’ adverb. (Of course, only isn’t just an adverb, it can also be used as an adjective or an informal conjunction.)

Further, the popularity of “only” isn’t just with genre authors. It was also the most common adverb in “Lord of the Flies” and “The Goldfinch.”

Of the 16 books I included in my analysis only three deviated from this pattern: 

E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey”
James Patterson’s “Along Came a Spider”
Jim Butcher’s “Storm Front”

For these books, “really” was the most common ‘ly’ adverb.

Really, Slowly, Suddenly

The second most common ‘ly’ adverb was “really.” This was true for eight of the sixteen books I looked at. Other popular choices were: 

- Probably (“Never Go Back,” by Lee Child, “Under The Dome,” by Stephen King), 
- Finally (“Along Came a Spider,” by James Patterson), 
- Suddenly (“Salem’s Lot,” by Stephen King),


“Suddenly” is one of the words we are often told not to use. Never. Ever. Which is why I was startled by what my analysis revealed. Six out of the sixteen books I looked at had “suddenly” as one of the most frequently used ‘ly’ adverbs: “A Wrinkle in Time,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “It,” “Salem’s Lot,” “Twilight” and “Lord of the Flies.”

There is no question that “Lord of the Flies” is well written. Golding won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1984. My conclusion: it’s not so much which words are used as how the words are used. 

Don’t be a word snob!

It seems the pros use many of the words we’re told to stay away from. Yes, the pros use them sparingly, but these authors certainly haven’t eradicated them from their vocabulary. And neither should you! It isn’t what you have it’s how you use it.

Go easy on adverbs.

It seems Stephen King was right, the adverb is not your friend. One of the things which clearly separated “Twilight” and “Fifty Shades of Grey”—two books which are widely held up as examples of books that are poorly written—from the rest was adverb use. Perhaps adverbs are a bit like salt, or anchovies. A little goes a long way.

Today I’ve concentrated on what we might call weak words, words we’re often advised to steer clear of. Next time I’d like to focus on strong words, words (strong verbs) we’re encouraged to use. Do the pros use more strong words or, again, is it just a matter of how the words are used?

By the way, just in case you’re curious, I did analyze my own writing and, compared to Stephen King, I’m definitely (see that? I just (ack!) can’t help myself) an adverb lover.

Thanks for reading. Cheers!

Photo credit: "Over Looking The Coastline" by A Guy Taking Pictures under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, August 22

Descriptivism and Word Lists

Descriptivism and Word Lists

In the next few weeks and months, in addition to looking at the abstract principles of writing I want to spend time examining actual writing. I want to dissect various novels in an effort to understand how they’ve been put together as well as what makes them work. 

“Very” is a four letter word

A few days ago I came across this article from “8 Words to Seek and Destroy in Your Writing.” It’s a good list. I agree with Mark Twain that the word “very” should be used sparingly, if at all, and there are other words and phrases (“it’s a fact that”) which don’t add meaning to sentences. The more unnecessary words a sentence has, the more difficult it is to read.

But one of the lists I came across included “you” as a problem word. Another listed “as.” Yet another advised writers to eschew “fierce” in favor of “ferocious.” 

Everyone has their own opinions on these things, and that’s as it should be—it would be intensely boring if we agreed with each other about everything—but in my humble opinion advising writers not to use the word “you” is crazy!

Prescriptivists vs Descriptivists

In linguistics there’s a distinction between those who champion one way of speaking over another—prescriptivists—and those who objectively analyze and describe how a language is spoken—descriptivists.

I’m more of a descriptivist. In that spirit, I wanted to spend time looking at various kinds of books and examining how they’ve been put together. I would like to discover, as much as possible, what makes them great (or terrible).

To start with, I think it would be illuminating to take a look at the words most commonly used in various kinds of books. That way, if I’m writing (for example) a mystery story I could look up what words mystery writers tended to avoid as well as which ones they tended to use. 

Note that this exercise isn’t about finding words a writer should use or those they shouldn’t; that’s completely up to the writer. There are no right or wrong words, but I think information about relative word frequency could be interesting and helpful. 

I propose to divide books up into two broad categories:

A. Best selling books.

For my purposes I’m going to count any book that has made it onto a national best seller list. For example, the New York Times Best Sellers list. Also, any book that has had a rank of 100 or less in the (paid) Kindle store is a best seller. (These books would be further divided according to genre.)

B. Award winning literary books.

This list would include books that won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Man Booker Prize, the Edgar Awards, the National Book Awards, and so on.

I’m interested in what are the most commonly used words in books in each of these categories and subcategories. Further, I’m interested in whether particular words are unique to particular categories. However, since I do not have a lot of time to spend on this, I’ll initially limit myself to, say, 20 books in all. That is not going to be a representative sample (not even close!), but hopefully it will be enough to reveal an interesting pattern or two.

Weak Words

I’ve compiled a list of words I’m going to call “weak words.” These are words like “very” and “literally,” words that generally don’t add to the meaning of sentences and so serve only to bloat them, making them harder to read.

As a descriptivist it would seem to stand to reason that if there is a certain word every award winning literary book uses then beginning writers shouldn’t be encouraged to steer clear of it (for example, “you”). Similarly, if no literary book uses a certain word (for example, “very”)—or if only a smattering of them do—then it would be interesting to investigate further and see if there’s a reason for that.

I hope that when I’m finished with my investigation I’ll be able to publish an article entitled, “Top 10 Words Award-Winning Literary Writers Never Use.” (It would be interesting if there was a word that literary writers never used that best selling writers always did and vice versa.)

Although Stephen King generally isn’t regarded as a literary writer, I’m particularly interested in seeing the difference between the 100 most common words in Stephen Kings’ “Under The Dome” and Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight.”

Beyond Words

While I’m at it, I also want to take a look at the first 300 words of a few novels—novels I’ve loved, novels I would have been thrilled to write. I expect it will turn out that many of these novels communicate a lot of information quickly and in such a way that it draws the reader in. 

Specifically, I want to ask the following questions:

1. What is the narrative point of view?

Is it first-person, second-person, third-person? Does the POV alternate between viewpoint characters?

2. If the POV is third-person then:

a. Is the narrator ensconced inside a character (the viewpoint character)?
b. If yes to (a) is the narrator the same entity as the viewpoint character or are they different. For example, does the narrator know things that the viewpoint character couldn’t.

3. Does the narrator float between viewpoint characters?

4. How many of the characters are introduced? What do we know about them from the descriptions given?

5. What are the character’s goals? What is their motivation for pursing their goals?

6. Has the writer set up a time-frame in which the character’s must obtain their goal? (I like to think of this as a ticking clock.)

 I believe it will turn out that most novels establish the answers to these questions in the first few paragraphs.

Short Stories

If this goes well, down the road I wouldn’t mind looking at the first 300 or so words of short stories and comparing the amount of information imparted there to the amount given at the beginnings of novels. It would be interesting to see just how much more information is crammed into the first few paragraphs of a short story.

That’s it! I missed a post this week so I’ll blog again on Saturday (tomorrow) and talk about my analysis of J.K. Rowling’s, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

Wednesday, August 20

Try-Fail Cycles And The Gap

Try-Fail Cycles And The Gap

As many of you know, I’m reading Robert McKee’s, Story. It seems like each page—certainly each chapterhe looks at an old concept in a new way, one that reveals fresh and previously unsuspected dimensions of the writer’s craft. Today, I want to talk about a concept McKee introduces, one related to but distinct from try-fail cycles: the gap. 

Try-Fail Cycles and The Gap

Try-fail cycles

We’re all familiar with try-fail cycles. The protagonist wants something. He tries to get it. A complication is thrown in his way. He circumvents the complication and forges ahead seeking the object of his desire. Another complication gets in his way. And so on until the end of the scene when the character either achieves his object of desire or is denied it. 

You see the pattern: desire, action, result. The protagonist desires something, tries to get it several times, fails each time because of a complication he didn’t foresee and then, finally, either achieves his desire or fails to do so.

The Gap

I think the gap is a part of many, if not most, try-fail cycles. Here’s how McKee explains it in Story:

“The protagonist seeks an object of desire beyond his reach. Consciously or unconsciously he chooses to take a particular action, motivated by the thought or feeling that this act will cause the world to react in a way that will be a positive step toward achieving his desire. From his subjective point of view the action he has chosen seems minimal, conservative, yet sufficient to effect the reaction he wants. But the moment he takes this action, the objective realm of his inner life, personal relationships, or extra-personal world, or a combination of these, react in a way that’s more powerful or different than he expected.

“This reaction from his world blocks his desire, thwarting him and bending him further from his desire than he was before he took this action. Rather than evoking cooperation from his world, his action provokes forces of antagonism that open up the gap between his subjective expectation and the objective result, between what he thought would happen when he took his action and what in fact does happen between his sense of probability and true necessity.”

An Example of The Gap at Work: The Matrix

Mckee uses the script from Chinatown to illustrate the gap, and it is a terrific example, but I’m not going to use it. Why? Because McKee used it in his book of course it’s a great example! Of course it works! Instead, I’m going to look at one of my favorite movies, The Matrix.

There’s a scene at the beginning of The Matrix where Trinity is sitting in a room with police officers encircling her, their guns drawn, ready to shoot. Remember it? That’s the scene I want to talk about.

There aren’t a lot of try-fail cycles in this scene. Police officers try to arrest Trinity (as their lieutenant described her, “one little girl,”) and she kills them. Further, she kills them by doing things like running along walls and using visually stunning martial arts moves. (Later on she discovers that agents—beings who can kill her—are after her, but that’s later in the sequence.)

There are three perspectives we can view this scene from: Trinity, the police officers and the audience.

The expectation of the POLICE:
The police officers assume that, though this particular situation may be a little strange, they can handle it. After all, it’s only “one little girl.” 

The reality the POLICE find:
The police find a young woman who has a fondness for black plastic, one who is a killing machine.

The expectation of the police and the reality they find are way off. There’s a huge gap. That’s part of what makes this scene interesting.

The expectation of TRINITY:
Trinity is suspicious that her line was tapped but she believes Cypher when he says it’s clean. She expects to receive the call that will allow her to escape the Matrix.

The reality TRINITY finds:
Not only doesn’t the call come, but police officers surround her, guns drawn. She’s not worried about the police, she knows she can handle them, but now she knows the line was tapped. How is that possible? What does it mean?

The expectation of the VIEWER:
The first time I watched The Matrix this scene was an eye-popper. I suspected Trinity was much more lethal than she seemed, but I had no idea what form that would take. 

The reality:
The entire scene was extreme. First, it is not very often that one of the good guys kills police officers. That was shocking. Second, the way she killed them ... I don’t think anyone had seen anything like it before. The combination of martial arts moves and special effects was cinematic eye candy.

In the end, what matters is the reaction of the audience, but the reactions of the characters feed into this. As we watch, we process the reaction of the police officers. We understand the gap between what they expected and what they found. We also understand the gap between what Trinity expected and what she found. This all goes into our reaction, it adds depth to it.


One of the things I like about McKee’s way of looking at scene building—his notion of the gap—is that it emphasizes the inner world of the character. It focuses the writer’s mind, as well as the readers/viewers, on the character’s thoughts and expectations. In so doing, it emphasizes that this inner world is going to be at variance with the world of the story. After all, if everything was exactly as our characters imagined there would be no story; at least, not an interesting one.

Photo credit: "trinity river, fort worth, texas" by Greg Westfall under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, August 15

Creative Visualization as a Writing Technique

I know some of you are rolling your eyes at the mention of creative visualization, but bear with me a moment. Yes, creative visualization has been embraced by myriads of snake-oil-salesmen as a way to “get rich quick” or to “make all your dreams come true,” to which I say an enthusiastic: bah humbug! (That said, if you’re using creative visualization and you’re getting rich quick, good for you. Ignore me.)

What I’m talking about today is using creative visualization as a tool to help folks meet their writing goals, whatever they may be.

My Attempt At Creative Visualization

As some of you know, I’m smack dab in the middle of my WIP which means that I’ve been slogging through the (cue ominous organ music) Great Swampy Middle of Despair. Predictably, I started to wonder why I ever wanted to write in the first place because I’m obviously horrible at it; and so on and so forth. The old demons of doubt reared their ugly heads and, unfortunately, it’s all too easy to believe them. Thoughts--these kind of negative thoughts--do have power (the power we give them) and can become self-fulfilling. And, let’s face it, it’s easy to find reasons not to write. Oh look, the kitchen needs cleaning and I really should go grocery shopping.

While I was procrastinating yesterday I read a fabulous article, On Giving Up, by Monica Bhide over at one of my favorite blogs, Writer Unboxed. I should mention that when I read Monica’s article I was in full-on panic mode. In her article, Monica wrote about feelings of inadequacy she had experienced and it was as though she was speaking for the both of us.  

Monica Bhide obviously shook off her feelings of inadequacy to write again and, in reading her article, I remembered a technique I used years ago: creative visualization.

I thought, Well, I may not believe it will work but what do I have to lose? So I closed my eyes and spent a minute or so imagining completing my word count; I imagined how that would feel. I imagined the pen in my hand and the feel of the paper as I wrote. 

And you know what? It worked! I astonished myself by writing more than twice the number of words I needed to.

Now I’m not saying, “Close your eyes, think good thoughts, and great things will follow,” (let’s face it, horrible things happen to good people) but I do think that our thoughts can paralyze us, convincing us that we are less than we are, that we can do less than we are capable of. As powerful as these thoughts are, when we understand what’s happening and consciously take steps to balance these negative thoughts with positive ones we can surprise ourselves by what we can accomplish.

That’s my wish for you today, whatever negative, pointless, goal-destroying thoughts you may have, balance them with positive ones. Even if you don’t believe you’ll finish your word count today, close your eyes and spend a minute imagining yourself doing it. Then go write, even if it’s only a word. Put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. You can do it!

Have a great weekend.

Photo credit: "Bee Enjoying The Flowers" by A Guy Taking Pictures under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, August 13

Robert McKee And Characterization vs Character

Robert McKee And Characterization vs Character

I’m reading “Story,” by Robert McKee and kicking myself for not doing this long ago. I’ve reached the part where McKee talks about the difference between character and characterization and says some eye-poppingly interesting things. Useful things.

If you haven’t read “Story,” get your hands on a copy. If you don’t want to shell out 40 dollars for a hardcover, take the book out from the library. You may end up disagreeing with what McKee says--and that’s fine, different strokes and all that--but it can help you grasp the essence of what makes a story absorbing: character and structure working together.

What Is Character? Characterization vs Character

McKee writes:

Characterization is the sum of all observable qualities of a human being, everything knowable through careful scrutiny: age and IQ; sex and sexuality; style of speech and gesture; choices of home, car, and dress; education and occupation; personality and nervosity; values and attitudes–all aspects of humanity we could know by taking notes on someone day in and day out. [...] This singular assemblage of traits is characterization ... but it is not character.” 

McKee goes on:

“TRUE CHARACTER is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure–the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”

True character has to do with whether someone is loving or cruel, generous or selfish, strong or weak, and so on. In life as in art “The only way to know” whether someone is generous or selfish, kind or cruel, and so on, is to “witness him make choices under pressure [...]. As he chooses, he is.”

Yes!! That. What he said. I’ve felt this myself but hadn’t put it into words. Of course Dwight V. Swain, Jack Bickham and Jim Butcher have said much the same thing but for some reason when I read McKee’s “Story” the light went on. 

McKee goes on:

“Pressure is essential. Choices made when nothing is at risk mean little.”

Exactly! And these choices are made in sequels.

The importance of structure–and the reason why structure and character are two sides of the same coin–is that character can only be revealed over time through the choices a character makes. It is the unfolding of these choices we call structure.

For example ...

Character Arc

1. Beginning of story: Characterization

At the beginning of a story, in the setup, characters are described; characterized. Readers are told what the character’s gender is, approximately how old they are, and so on.

2. First choice: The Character’s deep nature is revealed through their choices.

I re-watched The Matrix yesterday. At the beginning of the movie Thomas Anderson (aka Neo) makes a number of choices. 

- He chooses to follow the white rabbit to a nightclub even though he knows he has to work the next day. 
- At work, he has a choice whether to trust Morpheus and do something dangerous or play it safe. 
- At the end of Act One he has to choose whether to take the blue pill and forget all about The Matrix or take the red pill and learn the truth, even though learning the truth will cost him everything.

Notice how these choices build on each other, becoming more difficult (the stakes increase) and, correspondingly, more revealing of Thomas Anderson’s deep nature.

3. Conflict between characterization and deep nature.

Here the writer shows that the character’s deep nature is at odds with his characterization.

McKee calls James Bond a lounge lizard. Bond wears expensive clothes and lurks around nice hotel lobbies chatting up and bedding beautiful, rich women. That’s all part of his characterization. But his character is quite different. The average lounge lizard wouldn’t risk his life to defend his country--he wouldn’t know where to begin.

McKee writes:

“[The character’s] deep nature is at odds with the outer countenance of the character, contrasting with it, if not contradicting it. We sense that he is not what he appears to be.”

4. The character’s choices become more difficult.

After a character’s inner nature, their deep nature, has been exposed they must be driven to make even more difficult choices.

5. End of story: The character--who they are at the deepest level--has been profoundly and permanently changed.

By the end of the story the character’s choices have “profoundly changed the humanity of the character.” 

McKee sums it up like this:

“Whether our instincts work through character or structure, they ultimately meet at the same place.

“For this reason the phrase ‘character-driven story’ is redundant. All stories are ‘character-driven.’ Event design and character design mirror each other. Character cannot be expressed in depth except through the design of story.”

That’s it for today! 

Photo credit: Untitled by Helmut Hess under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0.

Monday, August 11

The Structure of a Short Story: The New Plan

The Structure of a Short Story: The New Plan

So far our story has set a fairly quick pace. We’ve introduced the setting and the protagonist. We’ve introduced the protagonist’s allies and enemies. We know what the protagonist’s goal is as well as the obstacles to her achieving it. We have seen the protagonist devise a plan to make her goal a reality, act on it and fail miserably. Now it’s time to react to this failure, come up with a new plan and put it into motion.


Now the pace is going to slow. The protagonist needs time to react to all that has happened. She needs to sit down, take a breath, regroup and reflect. 

Show the protagonist’s reactions to this loss, show her emotions--or lack of them. What happened? What didn’t go according to plan? Why? Going forward, what are the options? What are the outcomes/stakes for each option? 

Each of the protagonist’s allies might argue for a different course of action but, ultimately, the protagonist must choose between them or, even better, put forward a plan of her own, one that is bolder, more daring, than all the others.

In other words, now’s the time for a sequel. (BTW, for more about scenes and sequels see: Scenes, Sequels, Sequences and Acts & Jim Butcher on Scenes and Sequels.)

Scenes Like a Funhouse Mirror

Short stories often reflect the macrocosm as though in a warped funhouse mirror, speeding through certain parts--or only implying them--to dwell on others. (I think I picked the metaphor of a funhouse mirror because I’m reading Stephen King’s “Joyland.” Wonderful story.)

In my previous posts in this series I mentioned that short stories are different from novels but that they have the same important bits. And that’s true, but sometimes these important bits occur offstage: either before the story began or in the time after it ends.

For example, one of my favorite stories, Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” is (or so I would argue) basically a sequel. There are two courses of action being discussed and the girl, the protagonist, must choose between them. 

I think that, often, literary short stories are sequels. The protagonist reacts to an event that occurred before the story began and the reader tries to figure out what the event was, as well as its significance, from how it affects the characters.

A note about the structure of a short story and how it often differs from that of a longer work

The crisis of the last section (First Complication) occurred more or less at the Midpoint of our short story, though if we were writing a novel this would occur earlier at around the 30% mark. 

 Note that the Midpoint isn’t a point, it’s a sequence that consists of several short fast-paced scenes, each scene running into the next with little pause for reflection. In each scene the protagonist tries to achieve her goal (the story goal) and in each something happens to deflect her. (see: Try-Fail Cycles)

In this sense, a short story is condensed. Where in a novel there would be ample time between the failure of the protagonist’s first attempt and her gearing up for her main assault, this span of time is telescoped in a short story. The protagonist of a short story has to adjust to the conditions of the special world, make friends and allies--as well as enemies--in a few short paragraphs rather than chapters.

Formulate a New plan

What follows are some of the stages/events that often occur after the protagonist’s first big failure. 

This list is not meant to be in any way canonical--when it comes to stories there’s no such thing--but thinking about these points has often helped me figure out why a certain part of my story isn’t working as well as I’d like.

 a. Emotion

At the beginning of the sequel, show the protagonist’s emotions. Show her emotional reaction to the failure at the end of the previous scene. Is she sad? Angry? 

b. Thought/Review

The protagonist reviews the situation and focuses on one or two aspects of the attempt as significant. These are the aspects the writer wishes the reader to dwell upon. This is where much of the protagonist’s character development will occur. 

For example, who does the protagonist blame? Herself? Her friends? The antagonist? I've found that heroic protagonists tend to blame themselves. Especially if one of their companions is injured in her attempt to achieve her goal. 

c. Anticipation/Reason

Show the protagonist anticipating what is to come. What can she do now? Have the protagonist--or her allies--think of two or three ways of achieving her goal. For each goal reveal what the outcome would be; what the new stakes would be.

d. Decision

Have the protagonist decide on a new path of action. The important bit here is that the writer clearly communicates to the reader why the protagonist picked one course of action over another. 

For example, continuing my example from last time, let’s say the protagonist’s goal is to stop her grandmother’s house from being repossessed by the bank. Let's say that our protagonist comes up with these three options:

i. Go to the mob and borrow the money. 

ii. Plunder the trust fund her father set up for her so she could go to college and become a doctor.

iii. Beg her cousin to let grams live with her. (The protagonist absolutely hates her cousin and the feeling is mutual.)

If the protagonist chooses (iii) then it shows the reader that she is willing to swallow her pride. That would tell us a lot about the protagonist's character. We would see that she would rather do something she absolutely hated rather than let someone she loved come to harm. 

If the protagonist doesn’t choose option (iii) that also tells us something about her. For example, if she chooses (ii) then she will achieve her goal--her grams house will be saved--but she will have sacrificed both her dream and her father’s dream to make it happen.

The question is: How much does the protagonist’s pride mean to her? Is she willing to give up her dream to save her pride?Her decision will tell us a lot about her. This, right here, is the nuts and bolts of character development. 

e. Action

Show the protagonist begin to act on her new plan. For example, let’s say that the protagonist has chosen to save her grans house by plundering the trust fund her father set up for her. At the end of the sequel we could show her getting in her car and leaving for the bank.

Next time we’ll look at the Major Setback and talk more about how the second half of a story differs from the first. Cheers!

Photo credit: Untitled by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, August 8

Lee Child on Myth, Theseus and James Bond

Lee Child on Myth, Theseus and James Bond

In his short essay, “Theseus and the Minotaur (1500 BC),” which appears in Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, Lee Child discusses and dissects the ancient story of Theseus and the Minotaur, peeling back layers of meaning to expose the structure underneath. A structure that, it turns out, is nearly identical to Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories.

Theseus and James Bond

At first I was skeptical. After all, the myth is about how the son of a king saves Athenian youths from suffering death-by-Minotaur. (Here is one version of the myth: The myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.) 

Lee Child, though, strips away the particular details to reveal the essential points of the tale. He writes:

“The story goes like this: Theseus, the son of the king of Athens, is a privileged but maverick warrior. At the start of the tale, he is away on the coast, attacking and burning enemy ships, in an action that is not fully authorized. He returns home to a crisis. Athens and Crete are in a state of uneasy truce, with Crete holding the upper hand. The price of peace is that Athens must periodically supply young men and women to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, a grotesque creature that lives in a labyrinth on the island of Crete. A demand for fresh victims has just arrived. Theseus insists that he be allowed to go, posing as one of the victims. He arrives on Crete and enlists–by seduction–the help of Ariadne, the daughter of the king of Crete. She supplies him with a ball of string, so that–if he survives the encounter with the Minotaur–he will be able to find his way out of the maze. Theseus descends, unwinding the string as he goes. He kills the Minotaur after an epic struggle. He retraces his steps with the help of the string. He emerges on the surface, ignores Ariadne, and returns home to a mixed welcome.”

That’s a condensed retelling! Child goes on to compare the salient points of the myth to those of the James Bond stories:

-  Athens and Crete were two superpowers who reached an uneasy truce. (The US and Russia)
- Theseus (James Bond) was a young man of rank who acted alone and took responsibility for the necessary outcome.
- The hero makes a strategic alliance with an attractive young woman from the other side. 
- A gadget (the ball of magical twine) was given to Theseus. Further, this gadget was made by an exceptionally skilled craftsman (Daedalus/Q).
- A secret underground facility (the maze/Q division).
- An all powerful opponent (King Minos) with a grotesque sidekick (the Minotaur).
- An epic fight to the death (Theseus vs the Minotaur).
- An escape (Theseus uses the ball of string to find his way out of the maze).
- The femme fatale is abandoned or dies (I’ve noticed that if Bond’s female ally is good at heart then she has an excellent chance of dying). 
- The hero returns home to a mixed welcome. In the Bond films I’ve watched, the hero usually gets taken to task for his high kill rate, his destruction of property and his general recklessness.


- A James Bond story usually begins with “a scene of gratuitous violence or action not related to the main storyline.” Compare this with Theseus’ burning of enemy ships.
- James Bond’s dual nature: is he bold, courageous and heroic? Or is he hotheaded, out of control and arrogant?
- Is M, and the secret intelligence service generally, embarrassed by James Bond, by his antics, by the number of people he kills and by the amount of property damage he does? Or are they proud of his results and his unscrupulously unswerving dedication to his goals?

Mythic Heroes

Lee Child has often said that his own heroic character, Jack Reacher, is based on the myth of the mysterious stranger. This is from an interview Child gave in 2011:

“Retrospectively, I look at the character as an update of a very old figure, who comes out of 1,000 years of literary tradition: the loner, the mysterious stranger, the knight errant who shows up, solves a problem and then leaves. He came out of Scandinavian sagas and English tales of knights and survived into the American West and pop lit. (Q & A: Lee Child on writing, naming and aging Jack Reacher)”

Who or what is your protagonist based on? What myth most closely captures your protagonist’s quest?

Photo credit: "Umgebung / Kornfeld / Sonnenuntergang" by fRedi under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. Text overlay was applied by Karen Woodward, the quotation is from Robert Fulghum.

Wednesday, August 6

The Structure of a Short Story: The First Complication

The Structure of a Short Story: The First Complication

Today I continue my series on the structure of short stories.

Short stories are a terrific way to learn the craft of writing:

It is easier to find beta readers for short stories than it is for novels

A reader can finish a two or three thousand word short story in a few minutes and so requests for feedback are much more likely to be successful.

Writing a short story can help cleanse the palate after finishing the first draft of a novel

Try writing a short story between the first and second drafts of a novel, it will help take your mind off the novel and will help you come back to it with fresh eyes.

Writing short stories can improve one’s writing

Writing is like any other skill: use it or lose it. The good news is that through practice we can develop and deepen our skills. 

In a short story every line has to count. Every line has to either develop character or move the story along. Anything that doesn’t do one of those two things will stand out like a neon strobe light in the dark. 

Also, short stories provide excellent opportunities for trying out new and different techniques. For example, writing in first person present tense, or writing a story from the perspective of the villain, or trying to increase reader identification by using free indirect speech. 

The First Complication

In the first post in this series I outlined six parts that most short stories will have, especially genre stories: Setup, First Complication, New Plan, Major Setback, Climax and Wrap Up. Last time we looked at The Setup so today let’s look at The First Complication.

Last time we talked about the importance of the main character of the story--the protagonist--having a concrete, clearly defined goal. 

In the First Complication the protagonist’s plans run into a snag as an opposing force (the villain) derails the protagonist’s attempt to achieve her goal.[1]

An Example: The Matrix

It’s difficult to discuss the First Complication without also talking about the Call to Adventure, so please indulge me for a moment. In The Matrix Neo’s Call to Adventure was issued by Trinity in the nightclub scene at the beginning of the movie.

Trinity: “I know why you're here, Neo. I know what you've been doing... why you hardly sleep, why you live alone, and why night after night, you sit by your computer. You're looking for him. I know because I was once looking for the same thing. And when he found me, he told me I wasn't really looking for him. I was looking for an answer. It's the question that drives us, Neo. It's the question that brought you here. You know the question, just as I did.”
Neo: “What is the Matrix?”
Trinity: “The answer is out there, Neo, and it's looking for you, and it will find you if you want it to.” (IMDb)

Neo’s Call to Adventure is a challenge to want the truth badly enough to be willing to risk everything.

But The Call isn’t what we’re interested in at the moment, we’re interested in the First Complication, the first roadblock to this goal.

When Neo arrives at work the next day Agents come to take him into custody. Before the Agents arrive Morpheus gets in contact with Neo and tells him he has a choice: leave the building with the men who have come for him (the Agents) or climb out onto the window ledge and follow it until he reaches a scaffold. He is to then use the scaffold to reach the roof.

The Complication is the Agents and their pursuit of Neo. Trinity has asked Neo whether he wants to find the answer to the question, “What is the Matrix?” Now we find out how badly Neo wants the answer: What is he willing to risk? Does he want to know what the Matrix is badly enough to risk everything?

It turns out the answer is: No. Neo says, “This is insane!” and retreats inside the building to be hauled away by Agents.

The First Complication is a setback but not an All Hope is Lost moment. It is the first resistance to the hero achieving his goal after he has accepted the Call to Adventure. 

The First Complication should do three things:

a. It should give the reader a good idea of what the protagonist is up against, of what the opposition is.

b. It should raise the stakes.

c. It should tempt the protagonist to give up his goal.

The First Complication isn’t a single point in time, it is a sequence, a daisy chain of scenes and sequels.

Sometimes when I think about the important turning points in a story I think of them as discrete moments in time, but these turning points are usually sequences of significant events set off by an unusual occurrence. 

What we have been discussing, the First Complication in The Matrix, is a good example of a startling occurrence setting in motion a chain of events. The event that triggers this sequence is Neo receiving a package, finding a phone inside, and then (this is the startling part) the phone ringing the second it is unwrapped--just as though he is being watched.

That unusual event is like a push that knocks over the first domino in the sequence, in this case a sequence of scenes. In our example the sequence ends with Neo waking up in bed from what seems like a nightmare. Each scene in that sequence took Neo farther away from his comfort zone, from the Ordinary World, and drew him further into the Special World of the adventure. Then, at the end, he is snapped back into the Ordinary World of his mundane reality.


At the First Complication introduce opposition to the protagonist achieving her goal and also raise the stakes. 

For example, let’s say the protagonist’s general goal is to make their grandmother happy. Her concrete goal is to raise enough money to pay off the bank so that her grandmother’s home won’t be foreclosed. 

The protagonist’s initial plan: Raise the $150,000 needed by putting on a telethon at the local television station.

The opposing force: A land developer who wants to buy the grandmother’s land from the bank.

The complication: Not enough people give money. Why? Because the opposing force, the land developer, blocks all incoming calls at the local television station. By the time the protagonist realizes what’s happening and gets the phones working again the telethon is over.

We can up the stakes by saying that when the protagonist’s grandmother hears about the land developer’s dirty tactics, she has a heart attack and is rushed to the hospital. It turns out that Gran will be fine, but she doesn’t have medical insurance, so what money she had saved is now gone. Instead of having to raise $150,000 they now need $300,000 and the bank has used a technicality to move up the date.
(Alternatively, we could have let the protagonist succeed in raising the needed money and then have a thief steal it from her on her way to the bank. The protagonist could be injured during the holdup, making it more difficult for her to raise the money a second time.)

That’s it! What is the First Complication in your work in progress? What is your protagonist’s goal and how do you raise the stakes?


1. For the purposes of this article I’ve made the opposing force a villain, but there are many other options. The opposing force could be society, or nature, or even the protagonist herself.

Photo credit: Untitled by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, August 4

How To Get Over A Fear Of Failure

How To Get Over A Fear Of Failure

Last time I talked about fear of failure. I believe that fear is the number one thing holding most people back, writers especially.

Yes, to be a writer one must write and one must read, but one must do something else as well: one must offer one’s work up to others to be read. (Not everything, to be sure. Sometimes we write a story just for ourselves, or for a friend, or for our family. But I agree with Lee Child that a reader is an essential component of every story. I feel that an unread story is, in some ways, an unfinished story.[1]) 

Today there are more ways than ever to get our work in front of readers. We can send it to book publishers or we can publish it ourselves on places like Amazon and Smashwords and Kobo and iBooks. Those are just a few of the many markets that have sprung up in the past few years. Writers can also--as I’m doing right now--publish a blog post, or serialize their stories through sites like Wattpad.

Many writers are taking advantage of these publishing opportunities. To those of you who are: great! You are doing the work, facing the fear of failure, of rejection, then getting over it, and putting your work out there. When setbacks come--and of course they will; they come to everyone--you brush yourself off, get up, and keep going. Kudos.

A lot of people aren’t like that. It’s not that they aren’t brave, it’s that the sting of past failures, still clear in their minds, paralyzes them; it prevents them from acting and risking failure. And that’s a big problem because to succeed at anything one must risk failure.

The power of writing.

Why do we write? Why do we sequester ourselves from our friends, our families--from the outdoors! From fresh air and family picnics and Saturday night movies and drinks after work with friends. Why do we live like moles in underground warrens--writer’s caves--bathed in artificial light?

Why do you write?

There are going to be all sorts of different reasons but I think that most writers write because they want to create stories that have the power to entertain, that have the power to reach out and connect with the hearts and minds of their audience and make them feel something.

It is a kind of magic. Consider this sentence:

“I’m thinking of a white rabbit.”

And now so are you!

In reading those words, words I wrote, I influenced your thoughts.

People who are both skilled and clever at writing can transform lives and change the course of history.

That sounds like an exaggeration but think how different the world would be without the Torah, the Christian Bible and the Koran. I’m not saying anything about how the world would be better or worse--that’s an entirely different post--but it would certainly be different.

When my father first told me that the pen was mightier than the sword, I scoffed. But swords are wielded by people, and people have ideas and thoughts and beliefs and desires, all of which can be changed by what they read; all of which can be changed by the stories that live inside them.

The stories that live in us, the stories that we tell ourselves, are what shape our lives, are what shape what is possible for us. These stories determine what we will attempt, what we will risk, what we will try.

My point is that, as writers, as creators of stories, we have a lot of power.

To be a storyteller is a heady goal.

And, perhaps for that reason, perhaps because the end result is so potentially powerful, there is a bar to entry: the fear of failure.

The boogyman.

We all fear something (though probably not the same thing!). Many writers, though, have two fears in common:

Writers often fear that not only will their work, their stories, be cruelly rejected but that, as a result, they will be rejected as well. 

The fear is that our friends will laugh at us behind our backs, that our families will be disappointed in us. The fear is that, because of our story’s failure, we will amount to less.

For many of us, this fear has its root in having been bullied. This is the fear of someone tearing us down, ridiculing us, perhaps even beating us up, all because doing so makes them feel good. It is all because diminishing us makes them feel bigger, better.

But let’s examine this fear, let’s shine a light on it. Let’s take an objective look at what failure could mean for a writer.

The upside of failure.

Failure, like death, is inevitable. We will fail at something. Probably many somethings.

Failure can be devastating: 

If brakes fail to work properly, people can die.

If a surgeon fails to hold his scalpel steady, his patient can die.

If a parent fails to care for their children adequately, they can die.

If a writer fails to sell a book--if the book fails--then ... what?

Well, no one is going to die.

(Note: In what follows it may seem as though I’m saying it’s okay to be sloppy, it’s okay to publish a book that hasn’t been proofread, it’s okay to offer a book for sale before the author has solicited feedback from beta readers. I’m not saying any of those things. Every book published should be the best the author can possibly make it.) 

Ask yourself:

What is the worst thing that can happen if you publish your story or send it off to a traditional publisher? 

One thing that could happen is for a reviewer to leave a scathing one star review that goes beyond criticizing the story--which is fair--to criticizing the author--which isn’t fair--and doing so in a way that is intentionally destructive. 

I know a lot of people experienced bullying when they were kids and, unfortunately, even as adults. A person does something someone else finds weird or strange, something that--to them--is objectionable, and instead of limiting their criticism to what you did they criticize you.

Perhaps you’re worried that if you publish a book that sucks that your friends and family--and even complete strangers--will tell you you’re hopeless, you’re a joke, you’re a terrible person. Perhaps you’re scared that you’re going to lose all your friends. No one will like you or respect you or listen to you anymore. 

The fear of being abandoned by those we care about most, the fear of losing all you hold most dear, is often what lies at the heart of the fear of failure. And the fear doesn’t have to be rational. I once watched an interview with a billionaire in which he confessed that he was still terrified of losing all his money and being homeless. As he said this there were tears in his eyes. Is that likely to ever happen? No! But it doesn’t matter. That’s the fear that drives him.

Our fears are often wildly unrealistic. 

For the sake of argument, let’s say you publish--or send to a publisher--a book that sucks. Let’s say you wrote the worst story ever. Yes, you checked the manuscript for grammatical errors but you missed them. To make matters worse, you describe your story as an action/adventure when it’s really a confused romance, and the story question--whether the protagonists will become a couple--is never answered. Or maybe it’s just terribly boring, better than warm milk at putting readers to sleep.

What is the worst that could happen? 

A. Readers download the book, perhaps it was free and they didn’t bother looking at the first few pages. They begin to read, realize it’s a horrible story badly written and either leave a disgruntled review or just close the book and never look at it again.

B. Readers are so upset that they waisted time on the book that they leave scathing one star reviews that skewer not only the work but the author of the work. Not satisfied with this, they stalk the author and leave one star reviews for all her books without even reading them.

If either (A) or (B) happens, so what? (Again, I’m not advising people to publish sloppy work, I’m just looking at a worst case scenario.) 

Chances are no one is going to remember your name (and, if you’re really worried, you can publish under a pen name). I have trouble remembering the names of authors whose books I DO want to read, I don’t have any brain-space left over for authors who I don’t want to read, nor do most people.

(B) is probably not going to happen. I would say you have a better chance of being struck by lightening or winning the lottery. Yes, there are some authors who some people love to hate but these authors are usually successful. I’m writing this post for people who want to share their work with a larger public but who haven’t yet because they are afraid of what the price might be, not those who are experiencing some of the drawbacks of success.

What is the best thing that could happen?

This isn’t at all likely, but look at what happened to Hugh Howey. That sort of success didn’t happen right away, he published many books before he made it big with Wool, a story he thought wasn’t going to sell well. Because of Wool he was able to quit his day job and become a successful full-time writer.

What is most likely to happen?

If this is your first publication and you have no presence on the web then even if you publish an awesome story chances are it won’t sell and you won’t receive any reviews.

If you do have a presence on the web, even a modest one, or if you do some promotion, then you likely will get some downloads and, if it’s a terrible book, you may get a few reviews like (A) above. The good news, though, is that there are many ways to ensure your book is not terrible:

- If you have the money, send your book to a content editor, one you’ve researched thoroughly and who is highly recommended. If you don’t have the money, work out an exchange with other authors who write the same kind of books you do. In addition, you can run your story through online critique groups such as

- Run your story through a grammar checker. I use MS Word. If you have the money, also send your book to a copy editor, someone who can check for grammatical errors and logical inconsistencies.

- Put the story away for as long as you can stand, weeks or months, and then take it out and read it. You should be able to see it with new eyes and decide for yourself whether it is something you want to share with the world.

Note: There’s a big difference between a story being terrible and it simply not being someone’s cup of tea. For example, I could write the best romance story ever written but if a reader hates romance stories they aren’t going to like it.[2]

It’s easy to do something unskilled that almost everyone loves. That’s porn. It’s difficult to do something that takes skill where the possibility of self-immolating disaster lurks, ever-present, in the wings. Writers are those people who find it in themselves to rise from their own ashes and continue writing.


1. The other day I went through a few of my trunk stories. Many of them had been written so long ago I only dimly remembered writing them. I think that when we write a story then put it away for days or weeks or months, or even years, and then come back to it and re-read it we can be almost objective. We come back to the text as a reader not as its creator. Because of this, I think that a writer can be their own reader, their own audience, if they have sufficient distance from the work.

2. There is a reader for every book. Whatever kind of story you write, if you love the story then there are other people who will love it too. The trick is to find them. Further, what determines whether a person can make a living from their writing is how many readers love the kinds of stories you write. I believe that most one star reviews come from people outside a book’s target audience; they come from people who, instead of loving that kind of story, hate it. It is not the fault of the storyteller or the story; the book just wasn’t for them. Given this, if a person (say) makes their work free on Amazon and thousands of people download it, it’s quite likely it will get a few negative reviews--as well as quite a few positive ones. (It’s interesting how writers have the capacity to remember that first cutting one star review till the end of time while completely ignoring all the five star reviews!)

Further reading:

Seth Godin – Full Stop Failure over at Turnaround Magazine.

Photo credit: "First Kitten, First Home" by Laura D'Alessandro by Creative Commons Copyright 2.0.