Wednesday, September 25

Rules for Writing: Helpful or Harmful?

Hi! This is the first article in a series: Helpful or Harmful? Thanks to everyone on Twitter (all three people!) who helped me choose a name. Seriously, much appreciated.

Each post in this series will examine a different rule for writing. I’ll tell you if I think it’s a useful rule and why. I don’t think any rule is 100% helpful, there are almost always exceptions (at the end of this article I will write about a rule I think always applies).

I’ll also look at my favorite authors’ work to see if THEY follow the rule. If Stephen King, Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman don’t follow a particular rule, I suspect it is not a rule worth following.

Are There Rules For Writing?

As you may know, all my life I’ve been curious about what separates a riveting, can’t-put-it-down, stay-up-until-3am story from one you put down after reading two pages.

Now, if you’re thinking: “Writing is art! There are no rules.” You’re right! If one is writing purely for oneself (for instance, in a journal) then, seriously, do not worry about writing any particular way. Look into your heart, be honest, and you can’t go wrong.

Also, if you’re writing a first draft, do not worry about rules. Some writers have reached the point where certain ‘rules’ have become imbedded within them, it’s as though they have a muse who sits on their shoulder as they write, a muse which they ignore at their peril. But, in general, save the rules for the second or third draft.

Finally, if you are doing this as a hobby (you are happy never to make any money from your work) and feel that if others read your work, that’s fine, and if they don’t, that’s fine. If that’s the case, then great! I have known several writers like this and they are gainfully employed in other ways and very happy. I admire them.

BUT, if you want people who are grumpy and starved for time and have a lot of other things to do when they’re not working at a job they hate, if you want these kind of people to read your story from beginning to end, then it’s a good idea to craft your story to be easy to read. It’s a good idea to make your story exciting. 

Yes, I’m talking about popular fiction.

I’m talking about the kind of stories that, when told around a campfire, captivate your audience. You know what I’m talking about. Sometimes when you’re telling a story -- if it’s a good story -- they’re transfixed. They lean forward and look intently at you, they don’t interrupt -- and if someone does interrupt your audience tells them to please shush. You have them on the edge of their seats. THAT’s the kind of story I want to read. And write.

Bricklayers have rules that tell them how to do their job well. So do nurses. So do surgeons. So do writers. There ARE things that differentiate an entertaining story from a boring one.

That said, what rules can never do (and I know I’ve said this, above, but it’s worth repeating) is tell you how to write a great story because that comes from the heart. That’s magic. The rules are never for the first draft, they are never for that first burst of inspired messiness you scrawl across a blank page, bringing characters into being, creating new worlds. They are for the (oh so many) drafts that come later.

A Qualification

BUT, that said, I think I agree with Anne Rice that no one set of rules fits all writers. Each writer, each one of us, has a different style. No one set of rules is right for us all.

And, really, in that sense, there are no hard-and-fast rules.

Here’s an example of a rule that isn’t 100% correct. We are often advised to use simple, short sentences. And that’s good advice. But it doesn’t apply across the board. For example:

“I wonder which is preferable—to walk around all your life swollen up with your own secrets until you burst from the pressure of them, or to have them sucked out of you, every paragraph, every sentence, every word of them, so at the end you’re depleted of all that was once as precious to you as hoarded gold, as close to you as your skin—everything that was of the deepest importance to you, everything that made you cringe and wish to conceal, everything that belonged to you alone—and must spend the rest of your days like an empty sack flapping in the wind, an empty sack branded with a bright fluorescent label so that everyone will know what sort of secrets used to be inside you?” Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

That’s a great sentence! [1] When it comes to writing, if writing is magic, Margaret Atwood is a master wizard.

But, on the other hand, I think there are some rules -- at least one rule -- that applies for all writers all the time: don’t be critical of yourself, of your work, as you write your first draft. 

Your First Draft: Just Finish The Story

When you’re working on your first draft, just write. Maybe your work isn’t grammatical, maybe it isn’t even factual! (Please don’t misunderstand, research is essential, but it should wait until a later draft. Trust me, you’re going to cut a LOT of things from the first draft and it would not only halt the creative process to go and ask Google but it could be a waste of time.)

Your first draft might not even be coherent! Midway through your story your main character might go from having brown hair to having blond hair. His/her name might change. It doesn’t matter. Until you finish the first draft DO NOT GO BACK AND FIX ANYTHING! (And, yes, that needs to be shouted!)

Yes, of course, grammar needs to be correct, characters need to be consistent, and you’ll do that. But in the second (third, fourth, etc.) draft.

When you write the first draft of a story, don’t be critical, just write until the story is done. 

I’m writing this as a person who has fallen short of this particular target many times. But when I didn’t finish a story it made it that much easier not to finish the next story. It became easier to abandon a story midway because I was afraid it wasn’t going anywhere. Don’t do that to yourself. When you begin a story, finish it. Remember, it’s a first draft, it probably isn’t going to be a great story, not yet. Finish your story and then, on each successive draft, make it better. 

Or not. After you’ve written your first draft you may decide to inter it in a shoebox that lives under your bed. Your writer’s trunk. All writers have stories that they would never try to publish. That’s okay! You explored an idea, a theme, and it didn’t work out. That’s fine. Take what you’ve learned from your attempt and start writing your next story.

I hope that didn’t come across as preachy, I have no right or desire to preach to anyone. But I do want to encourage you to write, and to write stories a lot of other people will want to read. I want you to write stories that will inspire others, or perhaps just make them feel cosy on a lonely winters night.

All the best, good writing, and I’ll talk to you again in my next blog post.


1. I found this sentence by writing a small, short, simple Python program that gobbles up a book and finds the longest sentence. 

Monday, September 23

Heroes, Dragons and Treasure

Yesterday I published an article about how to write a sequel that readers won't be able to put down. One thing I forgot to include in that article was another way of seeing the hero’s goal. I'd like to address that here.

By the way, what I’m about to say isn’t unique, but I've recently started to think about the hero's goal in a slightly different way, one I've found enormously helpful. I'm going to talk about this new perspective in the hope that it might help your writing life. Here it is:

The hero's goal in any story -- regardless of whether it is a sequel -- is to slay a dragon, claim its treasure and use it to remake themselves and their community for the better.

I think I’ve been expressing this general idea for years, but I don’t think I ever put it quite this way before.

Let's break this apart.


Above, I used the example of a dragon but, of course, that is a metaphor. But dragons work for this; they’re terrifying! I loved the way Game of Thrones depicted them. Who wouldn’t tremble if he saw something like that slowly emerge from the darkness of a cave?

The essential thing is that, in the story, the reader sees the hero confront the thing that terrifies her the most. That’s the hero’s purpose in the story.


The idea of a hoard of treasure guarded by a dragon is easy to grasp and just plain fun! But there is a serious question here:

Why would the greatest treasure be found with the biggest, baddest, dragon?

On one level that’s obvious. Big bad dragons are the ones who have lived the longest (at least that’s the way I’d write the story!) and so have had the most time to collect a massive hoard of treasure/gold. They’re also the strongest and so could possibly take treasure from other dragons.

On another level, I’m not completely sure. Yes, I can see it in the sense that if you tackle the most difficult task possible then, if you finish it, you’ll be the most elated since the difficulty of the task is related to how happy you are if you succeed!

Also -- and this is true in real life -- if we don’t stretch ourselves we’ll stagnate. There is nothing compelling about a protagonist who doesn’t try to stretch themselves -- and this applies to both heroes and anti-heroes. That’s how characters grow. Even anti-heroes believe in something passionately and, eventually, they put everything on the line to defend it.

There’s also this: The treasure represents what we desire, what we love. So it would make sense that what we love the most would be paired with what we fear the most, with what we most dread. Like two sides of the same coin.

Return Home

If all that happened was that the hero overcame the thing they were most afraid of and gleaned the reward that came from that victory, it could be a good story, but it wouldn’t be a complete story. (And that’s okay, not all stories have endings. I’ve gone to at least one movie like that. I would guess you have too!)

I mean, sure, the hero has the treasure so life is great for her (at least for awhile) -- and since we like the hero we’re glad about that -- but to make the story complete the hero needs to take what she's learnt (the treasure she's won) and bring it back to their community, back to the people they are connected to: their family, their friends, their acquaintances. In this sense, the hero’s victory is the victory of everyone. Even your reader.

And, ultimately, that’s what great stories are about: community. Even though a story generally has only one protagonist, the protagonist is telling a story about the community. It is a story about how the growth of the individual, the success of the individual, betters everyone. [1]


What I’ve been talking about so far is the hero’s journey. What the hero’s journey is all about is MEANING. The hero’s goal gives her life purpose, at least within the pages of the book.

A Note On Story

There are many different kinds of story, and often elements of the hero’s journey are subverted in creative and unexpected ways. Of course that’s fine. Just as one should know grammar before one intentionally subverts it, it’s a good idea to know the elements of the classic hero’s journey before one subverts them.

That said, of course a person doesn’t need to know about the hero’s journey before they can tell a terrific story. Absolutely not. But I think it helps. Also, if you’re writing a story and something feels a bit off, knowing the elements of the hero’s journey can help.


1. That’s one of the many things I love about Dan Harmon’s TV show, Community.

Photo Credit: Syd Wachs, Macro photo of five assorted books, from

Sunday, September 22

10 Rules for Writing a Sequel

In the past I’ve shared articles I thought were particularly insightful about what makes a story a good story. This time I'm sharing a video from PSA Sitch.[1]

IMHO, Sitch is excellent at analysis and I love the quirky style of his video creations. I don’t agree with everything Sitch says, but he makes several insightful points about the nature of an entertaining story -- or at least one specific type of story. I highly recommend his video.

I hope PSA Sitch doesn’t mind my doing this, but in what follows I list some of the insights he shared in this video, ones that made me excited about this wonderful, magical, thing we call storytelling.[2]

I’ll provide a more detailed discussion, below, but here’s an overview:

(BTW, everything I write in this article is specifically about sequels.)
At the end of your first story, your hero has gone through his arc, he has achieved his goal (your particular story’s version of the holy grail) and returned to his community and used what he discovered, his prize, to make it better.  
In your next story your former hero needs to be knocked down a few notches, he needs to be ordinary-ish again. The new, younger, hero finds him, rescues him, and in so doing the former hero is symbolically reborn. The former hero and the new hero head off on an adventure together. As they adventure, the former hero teaches the younger hero and this creates a bond between them, one that makes them both better. Stronger. At the end of their adventure they achieve their goal (their partnership was essential for this) and reinvigorate their community.
So, let's get started!

10 Things That Make an Sequel Worth Reading

1. Fall from grace. 

In a sequel, if the series character, the former hero, doesn't have a fall from grace there can be no character arc. If there is no character arc, if the hero of the first story never changes, the protagonist -- and therefore the story -- will be boring.

At the beginning of the sequel, the former hero has lost his way. We need to knock the former hero off his pedestal, we need to humble them. We need to bring him down to the level of the ordinary person. In the first book, at the end, the old hero was larger than life. Back then, he found the holy grail and saved his community. Now he is just like you or I: ordinary.

2. Make the fall from grace realistic. 

As we know from real life, the older one gets, the more life experience one has, the greater the chance that bad things will happen to us. We lose people we love, the world changes in ways that seem to exclude us, and we have aches and pains in assorted places.

Sitch warns against making this fall from grace too big. But if you want a big event to topple the former hero, make him react to it in a way that is consistent with core aspects of his character.

For instance, if hypocrisy really bothered the former hero before his fall then it should still bother him.

Perhaps his one true love died and he now sees the world as a hostile place.

But the thing that brings the former hero down doesn’t have to be a big tragedy. The world -- the real world -- is chaotic. Bad things happen to good people. Sometimes the things that batter us are big and horrible and sometimes they are multiple and small. And the more the character hurts, the more they become afraid of the future and fear the unknown. [3]

In the beginning of the sequel, the former hero has become disillusioned. He doesn’t want to take risks because he knows what the cost might be.

3. The former hero, even in his fallen state, needs to be recognizable. 

Have remnants of the former character, the qualities that made readers admire him, peek through even though the former hero is a pale version of his former self. Sure, we need to scuff him up a bit but we still need the audience to reconnect with the character, so we need him to be recognizable.

The call to adventure.

In the sequel, the former hero (the protagonist of the series) will initially reject the Call to Adventure.

The former hero has become discouraged, perhaps even cynical. The new hero is the one who needs to come in and reignite the old hero’s zest for life and, with that, his willingness to face his fear and fight for what he loves.

4. Redeem the former hero. 

When the former hero finally accepts the Call to Adventure he is, in a sense, reborn. Back in the day, he used to hit the mark (literally and figuratively) but then he began missing AND he stopped caring.

Hope is reignited. Eventually, the new hero is able to create a spark of hope or ambition or caring in the former hero. (I write more about this, below.)

Thinking about this in a mythic sense, the new hero is the son and the former hero is the father. The new hero (the son) comes along and revivifies the former hero (the father). Again -- and Sitch stresses this -- this redemption, how it is accomplished, should be related to both the main arc of the story and the reasons for the former hero's (the father’s) rescue/redemption.

The new hero -- the child -- breaks down the old structures of society represented by the father (the former hero) and literally 're-forms' them bringing together what came before with what exists now. Essentially, he creates (re-creates) the world.

5. Have your former hero become a mentor to the new hero.

Have your more experienced and slightly tarnished former hero become a mentor to the new hero. At first this mentoring might be reluctant. The new hero might be very similar to the former hero, to how the former hero was like when he was younger.

6. Give your former hero a consistent philosophy/worldview. 

This is perhaps the most important thing to get right. The former hero must have had a purpose. Yes, sure, he has lost sight of this purpose over the years. He has become cynical and no longer believes in anything

Let's talk about what it means to have a purpose. To have a purpose, a character needs to believe something. They need to have a (even a very simple) worldview.

Sitch gives the example of Spiderman: With great power comes great responsibility. That is his guiding light.

This is an aside: This principle doesn't just apply to heroes/protagonists, it applies to any character that has significant pagetime in your novel. Even antagonists. (Perhaps especially antagonists!)

Take Thanos, the villian from Marvel (this is Sitch’s example). Thanos believed that half the population of the universe had to die to prevent starvation and war. While we understood his goal and even sympathized with it -- who doesn't want to end starvation and war?! -- but the means he was using to attain this goal was evil. But his philosophy/worldview was consistent and understandable and it was a bit part of what made him a great character.

A worldview doesn’t have to be something abstract. 

Having a well developed worldview is great, but it's not for every character. You could just give your character something to care about. For instance, having a child immediately gives life purpose because when you’re a parent you have this small person to take care of. Their survival and well-being becomes your purpose.

7. The new hero’s actions should be what saves/redeems/resurrects the former hero.

The former hero teaches the new hero what he knows. He teaches him his philosophy of life as well as whatever skills his has.

This transfer of knowledge serves two purposes. It bonds the characters, makes them a unit. They become mentor and apprentice.

8. The former hero needs their worldview reaffirmed.

I thought that Sitch made an especially interesting observation here. When one person teaches something to another person, and if whatever you teach them helps them to succeed, then it validates your philosophy. When that happens it feels good! The fact that they were able to pass along something valuable gives that character a sense of worth. This is part of the former hero's redemption. This gives them the courage to face their fear of the unknown and risk everything one more time.

(This could be part of an upswing just before the heroes execute their final plan and race to the finish.)

9. Flaws are important.

Don’t be afraid to make your hero a bit flawed. Perhaps the old hero isn’t happy to see their apprentice succeed. Perhaps we see a bit of jealousy lurking in the depths of the former hero’s heart.

This could be one reason why the former hero wasn’t thrilled to mentor the new hero in the first place.

10. Make your new hero incompetent.

At the beginning of your story, when you first introduce the new hero, make him incompetent.

Also, don’t give the new hero a coherent worldview, make them confused. They don't know what they want to do with their lives, they feel like they don't fit in anywhere.

Why? One reason is that it gives the former hero something to teach, something for them to bond over.

Also, your new hero needs an arc. This means he needs to struggle in the beginning. The way that is done is to put your new hero in situations with characters you've created, characters you've designed to make sure your new hero is NOT going to have an easy time.

What makes a great story? Conflict. Why? Because it forces your characters to struggle. If your characters don’t have to work to overcome obstacles, then when they finally achieve their goal it won't mean anything.

Okay, that's it! Do you have a tip for writing a riveting sequel? Please leave a comment! I’d love to hear from you!


1. Spider-Man DESTROYS Star Wars on Wokeness. As you can tell from the title, Sitch includes a couple of political themes in his critique, but the bits about how to tell a great sequel stand on their own.

2. I would just like to say that all the good bits in this article were taken from Sitch’s video. However, inevitably, I’ve filtered Sitch’s bits of wisdom through my own fallible and idiosyncratic understanding of story. So, if the point I made seemed good to you, the credit goes to Sitch. If, on the other hand, it seemed a bit off, blame me.

3. I'll have more to say about this later, but the solution to this is for the former hero to face his/her fears, to confront them head on. Perhaps he/she will succeed in this at first, but probably he/she will fail a few times before he/she succeeds.

4. A Call to Adventure might occur off the page (or the screen). For example, a very short story might begin after the Call to Adventure.


"Writing with a fountain pen." Photograph by Aaron Burden over at Unsplash.

Sunday, September 8

Adverbs: They Can Be Your Friend

adverbs can be your friend

In elementary school, I was given a thesaurus and told, “Go nuts!” Let's just say that my 4th grade teacher never met an adverb he didn’t like. 

To make a long story short, my 4th grade teacher was all kinds of wrong. 

Use Adverbs Sparingly

Though grammar has never been my strong suit, it helps me understand the truth behind the admonition against purple prose. (Stay with me, I will explain this.)

Adverbs and adjectives help communicate a state of affairs by modifying other words. For example, in the sentence, The lazy cat slept on the mat, the word lazy modifies the noun, cat, because it tells us what kind of a cat we’ve got on our hands.

That sentence (The cat slept on the mat) is okay. But there are other, more active, ways we could communicate the thought that your favorite feline is a slacker. For example: The dog chased his ball, the bunny nibbled her carrot but the cat slept. 

Now (of course!) I'm NOT holding that sentence up as an example of terrific writing, but I think it’s stronger. Why? Because it communicates the cat’s character by introducing other characters and comparing the cat’s behavior with theirs and then leaving it up to readers -- to you -- to draw their own conclusions about what sort of character the cat has: lazy. (Or perhaps the cat is just more chill. I think good writing encourages readers to draw their own conclusions.)

Bad Writing Advice

In a minute, I’m going to say something controversial. I’m going to say that one piece of writing advice you’ve been given all your life, advice that seems very good -- advice that, actually, IS very good -- is advice that the best, most popular writers do not themselves follow.

Stephen King is, hands down, my favorite writer of all time and I think that anyone who is serious about improving their writing -- and we all should be interested in that since we all write, even if the only thing we do is tweet -- needs to read On Writing. 

One of Stephen King’s best pieces of writing advice is this:

“The adverb is not your friend.

“Adverbs, you will remember from your own version of Business English, are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With the passive voice, the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously; it is the voice of little boys wearing shoepolish mustaches and little girls clumping around in Mommy’s high heels. With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

“Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?

“Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day … fifty the day after that … and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late. (Stephen King, On Writing)”

And King is right. That’s fabulous advice. He then goes on to say: 

“I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution.”

So, for example, 

“Put it down!” she shouted

Is okay, but 

“Put it down!” she shouted menacingly 

is definitely not okay.

And I agree. I have no evidence that Stephen King has ever committed that particular sin (putting an -ly adverb after a verb in dialogue attribution). However, when I searched the 726 books in my dataset (I’ve been a busy little programmer lately) I found that Stephen King was one of the writers who most frequently used the form, “bla bla bla,” she said -ly.

Why do I bring this up? Because I think King is both right and wrong. 

Yes. Using adverbs in attributions is something one should avoid. In the best of all possible worlds the reader will already know how the speaker is saying whatever it is they’re saying (angrily, sarcastically, etc.).

No. We’re human. This is not the best of all possible words. I grew up reading writers who used adverbs in dialogue attribution, Stephen King among them. And, IMHO, it works. I’m not saying that it’s something a writer should do -- I try and avoid it -- but sometimes it’s okay. 

When I read one of Stephen King’s stories there’s a point, a threshold, after which I’m not reading words, I’m inside the story. I’m not reading about characters, I’m looking at them. If using adverbs in dialogue attribution gets your readers there, then so be it.

What is the point of writing? What is the goal? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this over the years and, for me, it’s this: To snare my reader. I want to transport them to a world, a universe, created in my imagination and amaze them, I want to make them feel as though the time they spent reading my story was time well wasted.

That’s it!

I’m back posting. It’s been a couple of years and a lot has changed in my life. One thing that hasn’t changed is my love of writing and reading. I’m looking forward to the future.

photo credit: Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Monday, September 11

Writing Prompt: What if scientists could tell what a person looked like from a sample of their blood?

Writing Prompt: What if scientists could tell what a person looked like from a sample of their blood?

I read about advances in science and technology and think, ‘This would make an interesting prompt.’ For example ...

Although the technology doesn’t exist yet scientists agree that in a few years we’ll be able to tell what a person looks like from a sample of their DNA. [1]

The writing challenge: Write a piece of flash fiction—fewer than 500 words—that involves the use of this technology. Keep in mind that (IMHO) the essential characteristic of very short stories is that it hints at a complete story. For example:

“I just stood there, in the stifling and cramped semi-darkness, listening to the frenzied beating of my heart. Or perhaps it was the bear’s heart.” [2]
by Tatyana Talstaya, August 9, 2017

If you’re feeling brave, please leave either your story or a link to it in the comments. Good writing!

If you have ideas for writing prompts, please send them my way! Also, if you have any feedback about this prompt, please share. Thanks in advance! 😀

1. Does Your Genome Predict Your Face? Not Quite Yet.
2. Flash Fiction: A summary of very short stories.

Photo by Sweet Ice Cream Photography on Unsplash

Saturday, September 9

How Hobbies Can Improve Your Writing

How Hobbies Can Improve Your Writing

Do you have a hobby? Something you don’t get paid for but do anyway? I do! I never used to, it was writing, writing, writing all day long. Then I let my writing schedule slip for three weeks and ran right into a wall of writer’s block.

To help me get back into the swing of things I gave the protagonist of my WIP an interest in two of my hobbies: baking and fermenting. I do things like bake pies then serve them with a salad dressed with my very own apple cider vinegar.

You likely have other interests: hiking, running, knitting, working out, inventing, electronics, programming, playing cards, climbing, and so many more!

Today I want to talk about how your hobbies, your passions, can help revitalize your writing.

Picking up a Hobby Can Improve Your Writing


While it's true that giving a character a hobby can help flesh them out, hobbies can enrich your own life as well. The bonus is that, if you're anything like me, writing about your hobby will make you ever more excited about it and you'll find yourself pushing your boundaries—going on a new jogging route, trying a new recipe, and so on. This, in turn, will feed back into your passion for writing.

Which brings us to ...

Hobbies Help Inject Passion into Your Writing—and Your Life!

I’m watching The Great British Bake Off—a LOT of folks love—and by “love” I mean go completely nuts for—a well-baked loaf. Which is great! Why? Passion. I think having passion (or, better, passionS) is the key not only to good writing, but to life.


It's impossible to overstate how important passion is to creating a great story. The goal of all storytelling is to evoke passion in the reader. One thing I haven't talked about as much is evoking massion in the WRITER—in you. But your passion is just as important as the readers'. Perhaps more. Without passion there is little motivation to get up in the morning, pick up your pen and write.

I know, I know, professional writers need to write—DO write—regardless of how they feel. If they don’t then they can’t afford to do nifty things like pay rent or eat. I get that. TRUST ME, I get that! But any little bit of interest, of passion, of excitement, of joy, you can find in writing—hell, in life!—the better.

One way to do this is to give your characters attributes that are fun for you, that you would love reading about, that you would enjoy watching.

Write Yourself, Your Interests, into Your Stories

It’s about taking care of yourself, doing things that feed your soul.

Writers often became tired. Disheartened. That’s natural. What helps us keep on keepin' on ARE our passions. It’s the things we care about, the things we are passionate about, that keep us connected to our characters and their fictional worlds. Writing would be much easier if it was a sprint. But it’s not, it’s a marathon that lasts a lifetime.

I think that, ultimately, it’s our passions that make us who we are. Our characters are no different.

If You Don't Have a Hobby

What if you don’t have hobbies? Some folks don’t. My advice: try something out. Google a list of hobbies and pick one. Or perhaps there's something you've wanted to do but just haven't gotten around to for a number of reasons. For instance ...

Too Expensive or Inconvenient

There are hobbies I wanted to indulge in but they were just a wee bit too pricey. Deep sea diving. Hang gliding. Flying.

Or perhaps your chosen hobby is too inconvenient. For instance, you might live far inland but you've always wanted to waterski.

If I want to give one of my characters these hobbies I talk to people who do deep sea dive, or hang glide, or fly, or waterski. I love doing this! I get to hear their stories AND make some new friends in the process.

Another possibility is to save up and treat yourself on a special occasion. For instance, hang gliding on your honeymoon or a significant birthday.

No Interest

Some folks don’t have an interest in taking on a hobby. And that’s fine! Though if you DO like the idea of giving your main character an interest here’s my advice, such as it is: fake it till you make it.

If you don’t really care about much—and some folks don’t—it’s more difficult to write about it.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few years, writing isn’t about the head, about the intellect, it’s driven by the heart. Even by the gut. It's driven by the sticky slightly disgusting messy bits inside us.

It all comes down to truth

Ultimately, it’s about truth. As Stephen King says: fiction is the truth within the lie. Sure, my protagonist doesn’t exist. Sure the world I’ve created for him was spun from my imagination. But the story is told to communicate a truth—the theme. How my characters react to each other and to the setbacks they've had, those emotions are real. True.

The Lessons We Teach

Stories teach us life lessons. They teach us how to make friends as well as how to lose them! They teach us what happens when you do the right thing.

This, of course, is less about Truth than it is about the framework of values we’ve adopted, the things we accept as being mostly true. It’s the truth about the writer, about their soul, their beliefs.

Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, they put a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I'm recommending a book every writer needs if they want to submit to a traditional publishing house: Writer's Market 2018: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published

From the blurb:

"Want to get published and paid for your writing? Let this book guide you with thousands of publishing opportunities--including listings for book publishers, consumer and trade magazines, contests and awards, and literary agents. These listings feature contact and submission information so you can get started right away."

Photo by Nicolas Picard on Unsplash

Monday, September 4

12 Tips on How to Create a New Habit

12 Tips on How to Create a New Hsbit

For me, the key to creating a new habit—or re-establishing an old one—is Seinfeld’s method. This involves putting a calendar on the wall, preferably one that shows a whole year on one page, and drawing an “X” through every day you practice the habit.

After a few days you’ll have a chain of Xs.

Perhaps you’re different but for me there’s something satisfying about seeing the chain grow every day. After you get several Xs in a row you won’t want to break the chain. And as long as you don’t, you’ll form a habit. The trick is getting those first few Xs.

Why does this work?

I’m sure there’s another answer, something more profound, but I’ve found that on any particular day it doesn't seem that it's crucial to do ... well, anything.

For example, I lost 20 pounds and became much more fit because I’ve begun exercising every day. Which is great! I no longer sound like The Little Engine That Could when I climb stairs.

But for any particular day, if I don’t exercise that day, it would make no real difference—or at least that’s the way it seems. BUT if I have a chain of Xs on my wall then I have something visible, tangible. Something I don’t want to break. That helps keep me accountable and gives me motivation.

Even though each day's exercise can seem pointless, my wall calendar shows me that it isn’t. Each day forms a link to the next day, and the next, and so on.

Writing is similar. Being a writer isn't a sprint, it's a marathon. Marathons require resolve. Willpower.

Habits and willpower

Essentially what I'm talking about is the importance of forming a habit. A habit is important because it has inertia.

When a habit is formed it feels physically uncomfortable to break it. This morning I did NOT feel like jogging. I thought about not going. After all, it's just one day, right? But that decision felt wrong. The thought of breaking my habit, of breaking my run of Xs, felt uncomfortable.

So I got my jogging gear on and walked to where I start my jog. And as I walked I began to feel better. Happy. Invigorated. Eager. It was an average run. But afterward I felt TERRIFIC! I had such energy. My body was a limp rag, but I felt great. I'd exercised, I'd connected the Xs for another day.

That made me wonder: how are habits formed and how can I help this process along?

How to Create a New Habit

I want to thank Scott H Young over at Lifehack for his wonderful article, 18 Tricks to Make New Habits Stick. I’m not going to talk about all 18 of SY’s tips and tricks, just those that especially resonated with me.

In what follows the habit I have in mind is a WRITING habit. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has found it difficult to establish—or re-establish!—the habit of writing every day. That said, these are general tips and will help form just about any habit.

12 Tips for Creating a New Habit:

1. Commit to 30 days

Forming a new habit takes time. It would be mind-blowingly fabulous if one could pop a pill and—slam, bam—jump out of bed and write for hours at a time each and every day. But of course it doesn’t work like that. Forming a habit takes time. Probably not EXACTLY 30 days, but I think if a person does something—anything!—every day for 30 days there’s a good chance it will stick.

2. Do it every day

First off let me say that many successful writers DO NOT write every day. And if you don’t want to write every day, that’s fine. It might be more difficult to form a writing habit if you only write every second day or every few days but if that’s the only time you have, go for it.

That said, writing every day is the best and easiest way to create a writing habit. Even if you can only carve out 5 minutes a day, it’s worth it!

3. Write at the same time of day

This is what really helps me. I find that if I crawl out of bed and dive into my writing straight away—before I have my coffee, even before I brush my teeth—it works best.

4. Write in the same place

Make a place for writing, make that pace especially conducive to writing, and then write in that place every day.

What does it mean to make an environment conducive to writing? For me, two things:

First, remove anything that will distract you. For example, disconnect from the internet, get away from Netflix, email, Facebook, etc.

Second, add things that will help keep you on track. I tape inspirational sayings to my monitor. For example, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.”

5. Bribe your inner child

This tip comes from just me and use it at your own risk! When trying to establish, or re-establish, a habit I often bribe my inner child by giving myself permission to drink an unlimited amount of coffee! You might not like coffee, that’s okay. Lee Child drinks enormous amounts of green tea.

The key is to pick something that won’t distract too much from writing (I find that getting up and making the coffee is a distraction, but since it doesn’t take up oceans of time it’s okay) AND isn’t hideous for you health-wise (for example, delicious ice cream). Recently I’ve begun brewing Kombucha and enjoy drinking that as well.

6. Start small

If you want to write for eight hours a day, don’t try and write for eight hours on the first day! Build up to it.

When I was in school training for the high-jump I could only get over the high bar if I started low and worked my way up. It was a psychological rather than a physical barrier.

I think the same is true for just about any activity. Start small and increase the duration and difficulty bit by bit. For example, when I began exercising I jogged slowly for 10 minutes and called it a day. Each week I increased the duration and difficulty until I achieved my goal. And (* knock on wood *) it worked! Writing is no different.

7. Remind yourself

The app I use the most is the Clock app. I set reminders for myself, reminders to deposit a check, to meet with friends, to leave for an appointment, and so on. I’ve also started to set reminders for my writing, when to begin, when to end.

8. The more the merrier

If you can find a group who want to create habits, people willing to share their victories and setbacks, this can be an enormous help. Facebook and even Google Groups are great for this.

That said, be careful to....

9. Hang out with people who have the same goals as you

Chances are, you’re trying to form good writing habits because you’d like to write more.

If you visit with people who don’t have good writing habits it will be harder for you to form those habits. Conversely, if you visit with people who have the kind of habits you want, you’ll find it easier to develop them. At least, that’s been true for me!

10. Use a trigger

Scott Young suggests creating a kind of ritual to mark the start of your activity, he calls this a trigger.

It helps if the trigger is something you don’t do any other time. So, for instance, if you’re like me and are nuts for yogurt you could splurge and buy yourself the pricy yogurt you usually pass up. You could then use this as a trigger by enjoying some yogurt just before your writing session begins.

Keep in mind that you only need to use the trigger to establish the habit. Sure, it would help to carry it through but you don’t HAVE to. Once a habit is established it seems to create its own inertia and become rather difficult to snuff out.

Using coffee as a trigger wouldn’t work for me because it needs to be unique and I drink several cups throughout the day.

If you try using a trigger I’d LOVE to hear about your experience, what you used and how it worked.

11. Visualize

Visualize yourself doing whatever it is you want to accomplish. I picture myself sitting at my desk—butt in chair—completing a chapter of my manuscript.

I also visualize my finished book. I see myself holding it, I feel the immense satisfaction of having my baby published and out in the world.

12. Forgive yourself

Chances are in the beginning you’ll miss a day or two or three. The key is not to give up. Hardly anyone succeeds at anything without failing first. One thing is absolutely certain: if you don’t keep trying the habit won’t form. Don’t let failure discourage you. Keep at it!

At the end of 30 days you might decide you don’t want to form the habit after all. That’s okay! The important thing is that you stretched yourself and tried something.

Further reading:

For more on habits and forming new ones see Owen Shen’s article, Habits 101: Research and Techniques.

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash.

Friday, August 18

How to Write Again after a Break

How to Write Again after a Break

You may have noticed I took an unscheduled leave of absence. Sorry about that. I was ticking something off my bucket list: being involved with the making of a movie!

And by “being involved” I mean that I wanted to do something that would give me a fly-on-the-wall perspective, something that would allow me to watch and think about what was going on. Being an extra (or ‘background actor’) gave me that opportunity!

Unfortunately, because of the pesky NDAs I signed, I can’t say more about it than that. If you ever have a chance to be an extra or background actor in a show, go for it! Of course, make sure it’s a legitimate offer, but if it is you’ll meet some VERY interesting people—your fellow background actors!

Okay, enough about that!

What I want to talk abut today is getting back in the groove. In my case, the writing groove which REALLY hasn’t been easy.

I know I’m procrastinating if my office is tidy—a-place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its place tidy. That, and I start to make journals. Currently, I’ve made enough journals to last me for at least a year!

And I suppose that even writing that, drawing this out, is a form of procrastination.

Oh! And brewing Kombucha.

Okay, so, my point: that even though it is taking a while to get back into the swing of things, since I have a pattern, a structure, (dare I say) a PROCESS, I have something to fit myself back into.

So I guess that’s what I’m writing about today, fitting back into old patterns and, in so doing, re-invigorating them.

Nothing Stays the Same

Heraclitus said that one can never step into the same river twice. The point being that the essence of nature is change. Not only do we change but the world also changes around us.

Perhaps the trick is figuring out how to change and still keep the things about ourselves we like. Or perhaps those are the bits, like Stephen King’s darlings, that need to be given up. I can never tell.

Sound difficult? It is! Especially if it’s radical change, the kind that shreds our lives. The kind that breaks us into a billion pieces, sets those pieces on fire and then smears them with napalm and incinerates them.


When we go through change AND come out on the other side we can put our characters through the same hell—er, “learning process”—and our story will be much more believable.

My feeling is that once I experience a particular something, a particular experience, it’s easier to write about believably. And since the hero’s arc is all about—or should be about—change; Intense, deep, destructive, life-shattering change—our writing is that much stronger.

And so there’s that. I guess my life has gone through quite a bit of change lately. There’s a temptation, an impulse, to walk away.

One thing I’ve found that does work for me is this: I sit my ass down in a chair and don’t let myself leave until I write something. By the way, the not leaving part is metaphorical. Bathroom breaks are fine and you get to eat but NOT cook anything. (Believe me I know what a delicious, scrumptious, diet-killing ribbit hole cooking can be.)

Which isn’t to say writers can’t be happy! But there is a reason so many of us have been friendless dreamers who live alone and drink WAY too much. I’m not trying to drive folks away from the profession, but just sayin’.

Back to the point.

The Beauty, The Utility, of Having a Schedule

Here’s my point: If you have a schedule then, even if you break that schedule, even if you shatter it into a million, billion little pieces, you’ll still have something, a structure, to come back to. Yes, things will be different, nothing is ever the same, but it will make possible what would otherwise be impossible.

And then the trick is to do it again.

Tuesday, July 18

Update: Writing and Acting

Sorry! I know I’ve disappeared for the past month. My deepest apologies.

I’m fine, nothing dire has happened. Just the opposite! I’ve been checking something off my bucket list: being an extra. Or, as we say in the biz, “background actor.”

It’s been amazingly, fantastically fun! There was a lot of filming where I used to live and I always wanted to peek behind the metaphorical curtain and see how movies are made. Being a background actor is giving me the opportunity to do just that!

So far I’ve only been on set for about 3 hours a day, the rest of the time I spend in holding (which is a huge air-conditioned tent). And when I’m working it’s difficult to look around. It’s really only when I’m asked to wait out of camera range that I can watch the process of filming. But, still, what I’ve seen has been interesting and (of course!) I can’t help but relate it to writing.

It seems to me that an actor going on an audition is similar to a writer sending their work off to a publisher. Perhaps I’m wrong, though. Please tell me what you think!

Similarities between writing and acting:

The part could have been already filled.

I’m told that occasionally a production must audition for a role even though the director already knows who they are going to cast.

WRITING: Often magazines have enough stories for several future editions, but they don’t close their submissions page.

Not what the director/production was looking for. 

When I was in high school (low these many years ago!) a troupe came in and showed various ways Hamlet and Ophelia could be played.

You’ve heard of character studies. When playing a character an actor develops a detailed idea/concept/notion of the character they are portraying.

But, even if they completely nail their portrayal of the character, it may not be what the producer was looking for.

WRITING: You can submit a terrific story but if its not what the publisher is looking for it’s not going to be accepted.

Of course, there are differences. I talked with a background actor who had a successful audition when he was in the right headspace and a horrible audition (for the same part) when he wasn’t able to get back into character.

With writers it’s a bit different, although even here you could argue there are similarities. Sometimes, whether a person thinks your story is a good read depends on their mood, even their surroundings. Have they had an argument with someone recently and would like to punch a wall? Are they in the middle of the renovation-from-hell? Are they reading your story between speakers at a crowded convention? If so, chances are that even if your story is exactly what they’re looking for, it will be rejected.

The moral: Take heart! Just keep on doing what you’re doing. Writers write AND submit their work (or self-publish!). Rinse and repeat.

I promise to return to a more regular blogging schedule when my stint as a background actor is over. And after the story I’m a part of has been aired I can talk more about the details of my very fun adventure!!

Sunday, July 2

Writer's Block and How to Beat it

Writer's Block and How to Beat it

I've been trying to write this blog post all day but the words wouldn't come.

I know all writers have experienced writer's block and know what a horrible feeling it is.

I know some folks deny there's any such thing as writer's block, that professional writers can't afford it. And they DO have a point.

But sometimes the words hover just out of reach. They peek around the corner then run screaming.

An hour ago I realized what was wrong: I had writer's block because I wanted to write something else! My muse wanted to work on the murder mystery I'm writing, but I NEEDED to write nonfiction.

The Secret to Curing Writer's Block: Compromise

Living with one's creative self, one's muse, is a bit like any serious long-term relationship: the key is compromise. I worked on my murder mystery for an hour (I set a timer!).

After the hour passed I sat down to write this blog post and the words (finally!) flowed.

Another thing that works is to write—or to TRY to write—for half an hour (or whatever span of time) and then, after half an hour, give yourself permission to do something else for ten minutes.

I find that, often, I end up working past thirty minutes because I've found inspiration. But it's important I know I have the very real option of stopping after half an hour.

Writing is about truth (at least, IMHO), and in order to write truth one has to be true to oneself. If your muse is leading you in a certain direction, try it out!

Do Something Else Creative

Take a break from writing and do something else creative: paint, draw, or cook. Do anything creative that strikes your fancy!

Chicken Noodle Soup: A Recipe

My favorite creative activity is cooking. I cook and I write. Today I made chicken soup. Here's my recipe:


4 large mushrooms
1 zucchini, cubed
1 crown of broccoli
1 stalk of celery
1 bunch of spinach
1 sweet onion
1 head of garlic, crushed and cut up
5 medium tomatoes
4 or 5 chicken drumsticks or thighs
chile flakes
civicha sauce (optional)


- Cut up the vegetables into bite sized cubes, including the mushrooms.
- Sauté the onions until almost translucent.
- Add garlic and sauté for 5 minutes or so.
- Add chicken and brown. I don't bother deboning the chicken, but it's up to you.
- Add enough water to cover everything, plus an inch or so.
- Add chile flakes.
- Cut stalk off broccoli and cut into cubes. Add to pot.
- Add celery.
- Add salt and pepper.
- Add cubed tomatoes.
- Simmer for 15 minutes or so or until the chicken is cooked.
- Add zucchini and mushrooms and cook for 5 minutes or until the zucchini has reached desired doneness.
- Taste the soup and add salt and pepper as needed. If it's not spicy enough (I love mine spicy!) I had a teaspoon or so of civicha.


Put a handful of spinach in a large serving bowl and ladel the soup on top. Stir the soup, making sure the spinach is limp.

That's it! Add whatever vegetables you'd like, I sometimes roast them first (especially root veges) and add them at the same time as the zucchini.

If you try the recipe, let me know I'd love to find out what you've created. :-)

Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, they put a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I'm recommending a reference book I have on my bookshelf, one I consult all the time. Next to Stephen King's On Writing, It's one of the most useful books I own. I'm speaking of Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark.

From the blurb:

"Ten years ago, Roy Peter Clark, America's most influential writing teacher, whittled down almost thirty years of experience in journalism, writing, and teaching into a series of fifty short essays on different aspects of writing. In the past decade, Writing Tools has become a classic guidebook for novices and experts alike and remains one of the best loved books on writing available."