Sedentary hunters

Craft Lessons

“Every morning between 9 and 12 I go to my room and sit before a piece of paper,” said the Southern writer Flannery O’Connor, whose famous works include the novel “Wise Blood” and the story collection “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” “Many times I just sit for 3 hours with no ideas coming to me. But I know one thing: if an idea those come between 9 and 12, I am there ready for it.”

There is only one way I know to get the writing down: be there.. It doesn’t matter if you’re tired, or not feeling great (major illnesses and surgery excepting), writing gets done when the writer  is in the chair. More than one of the writers I’ve interviewed recently for this publication have emphasized this. Award-winning mystery writer Bruce DeSilva said, “My years in journalism taught me that writing is a job—something you do whether or not you feel like it. You do not wait to be inspired. You do not search for your muse. You just plant your ass in your chair and write.” It’s how he’s published five novels. 

When Bryan Gruley pursues a nonfiction story in  his day job as a feature writer for 

Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, “doing the work means, for instance, looking at every page of notes, documents, and other materials I’ve gathered in my weeks of research, even though only about 1 percent of what’s there is likely to make it into my story,” he told me. “As a novelist, doing the work is more about sitting at my laptop every morning and putting words to digital paper. Whether it’s 300 or 500 or 1,000 words a day, if I keep doing the work, I know I’ll eventually have enough in front of me that I can begin to see my way to the middle of a book and, finally, an end. I’ve heard writers say, “That story just wrote itself.” If only.” Gruley just published his third crime thriller.

Some days the words will come in a flood. On others, it’s like pulling teeth. While many writers establish a word count and refuse to get up from their desk until they hit it, I don’t think that’s necessary. There have been days where I look up and realize I have written 500-plus words. Stephen King’s word count is 2,000 words, but for me, those two pages are good enough, even though I realize I will have to revise them. Then there are the miserable ones where I have been lucky to eke out a few dozen. But as long as I haven’t missed a day, I am content. Writing every day, or whatever schedule you set, is a promise we make. In a previous life as a newspaper reporter, I had no choice. When deadline came, I couldn’t tell my editor, “Sorry, Boss, the well just ran dry today.” 

In retirement, I have the luxury to put some of those demands aside. For the most part. My blog and newsletter need constant feeding. When I am writing as a contributor to Nieman Storyboard, which celebrates narrative writing, I have to produce a story, whether I am inspired or not. Nothing focuses the mind like a clock ticking toward deadline. You write and hope what you wrote hits the mark. 

 I usually circle the subject at first, convinced I have nothing to say. Then an idea for a lead comes to me. I write it down whether or not I think it’s any good. I need that opening to, in the words of John McPhee, “to shine a flashlight into the story down into the whole piece.”

After that, I start throwing paragraphs up on the screen. I lower my standards. I count the words. I hazard an ending. I let it sit for a day or two. Then I begin rewriting, a word here, a sentence there, shift paragraphs around, until it finally takes shape. It’s a process fraught with uncertainty. Each time I start, I fear this will be the time it won’t work. But it seems to, so I try to remind myself of that. “If you keep working,” sculptor Alexander Calder said, “inspirations will come.” I tell you this in hopes that it might bring you comfort when you face this self-doubt. If you keep at it, it will come. 

“Writers are sedentary hunters,” said writing teacher Donald M. Murray. “We sit in our chairs, and like a hunter in a duck blind, must wait, sometimes in the cold, until our prey comes into sight.” Sitting in his chair every day, Murray produced more than a dozen books, and scores of When your prey comes into sight, are you there, ready for it?

Dismantle your story’s scaffolding

Craft Lessons
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One summer between college semesters, I spent a scary week standing on wooden scaffolding as part of a crew painting a triple-decker tenement house. I was relieved when the workday ended, and I could climb down from our perch 20-30 feet up in the air and regain the comfort of solid ground. The job done, we dismantled the scaffolding, packed the poles and platforms into our truck, and drove away, leaving a freshly-painted house, looking, if not brand-new, a lot better than it did before we began. 

As a writer, I use scaffolding in my work as well. 

I could have used it to begin this column. In fact, it’s how I started my first draft:

This is a story about stories that begin with the phrase “This is a story about…” That is, it’s a story about scaffolding.

What’s scaffolding?  

Scaffolding is the “temporary framework of platforms and poles constructed to provide accommodation for workmen and their materials during the erection, repairing, or decoration of a building,” as the Oxford English Dictionary defines the term.

In the writing trade, the poles and planks of scaffolding are words, phrases, and sentences that help the writer build. The difference between the folks in hard hats and those of us who bang on computer keys is that they dismantle their scaffolding while, all too often, we leave ours standing. 

Writers — and our readers — would benefit if we took ours down, too. 

This is a story about…

“This is a story about” is perhaps the most popular form of journalistic scaffolding.

In many cases, such as book reviews and marketing pitches, “This is a story about…” serves as a piece of necessary information. In news stories, however, it’s become the default lead, a quick, easy, and clichéd way to begin a story, as well as a favorite and flabby device to convey the story’s theme.

Stories need focus. We need to know what the story is about to effectively report, organize, draft and revise. But let readers decide what your story is about based on the evidence you’ve presented in ways that illustrate and buttress the theme.

If you believe your story is about corruption, for example, ask yourself what is the best example you have — the building inspector who lives in a waterfront mansion paid for with bribes from developers? — and then use that information to craft a lead that engages a reader’s interest. 

Scaffolding is an essential part of the writing process. But as my former editor, Julie Moos, pointed out, “Just because it’s part of your writing process doesn’t mean it should be part of my reading process.”

Too many writers are reluctant to dismantle the scaffolding they needed to get started, to continue, to move from one point to another. Scaffolding helps us focus, organize, and assemble our ideas. 

We put it up to get our stories down, but if we leave it there, we obscure the readers’ view with several varieties of pole and planks. 

Some examples:

 Questions. Here are three graphs in a deadline story I wrote about a rooftop drama when a police officer talked a would-be suicide out of killing himself:

The two men talked for nearly two hours as the sun began to fade.

What did they talk about?

“You know, little things, even the way he shined his shoes,” Lawton said. “Anything to keep his mind off jumping or shooting himself.”

I must have thought the question was necessary, and the desk let it stand, too. But I don’t think the reader needs it. A reader’s mind is equally equipped at furnishing scaffolding to make the bridge between thoughts. Give the reader more credit. Cut the middle graph and the story is five words shorter, and, I think, more dramatic.

The two men talked for nearly two hours as the sun began to fade.

“You know, little things, even the way he shined his shoes,” Lawton said. “Anything to keep his mind off jumping or shooting himself.”

Transitions. In the 1970s, the Wall Street Journal influenced a generation of newswriters with front page features that drew on a stable of transitional phrases — “Indeed,” “to be sure,” “what’s more,” “moreover” — to move a story along. They sound authoritative, the verbal equivalent of a supercilious nod. In most cases, they’re unnecessary. Take “indeed” — shorthand for “as a matter of fact.” It’s an adverb, the dictionary says, “often used interjectionally to express irony or disbelief or surprise.” In many cases, it’s used unnecessarily as well.

Parenthetical asides. In the first draft of this column, I used phrases such as “of course,” and “that is” to bridge my thoughts. I realize now that I was making these comments to the reader. “Scaffolding, of course,” is my way of saying “Hey, I know you know what scaffolding is, but I feel the need to present the definition for those who don’t.

Some scaffolds play a valuable role in published work. For example, the hourglass structure story form relies on a device called “the turn.” It’s the part of the story that follows the lead and signals the reader a chronological narrative is about to begin. Usually, the turn is a transitional phrase that contains attribution for the narrative that follows: “According to police, eyewitnesses described the event this way” or “the corruption cases unfolded this way, law enforcement sources say.”

Scaffolding is what we usually produce when we’re trying to get our fingers and brains moving. It’s part of the process of transforming ideas into language. But why not give our readers the benefit of some additional effort? 

My first draft of this column produced a “This is a story about…” lead. Then, I recalled a piece of advice from Mitch Broder, a staff writer for Gannett Suburban Newspapers: “When something is the first thing that pops into your head, yours is probably not the first head it popped into.”

Reprinted from Poynter Online

Craft Lesson: The long patience of writing

Craft Lessons
Patrick Fore courtesy of unsplash.com

No one ever asks a guitar player how you become a guitarist. They know, without asking. You buy a guitar and you practice. For years. Until you learn how to play. If you practice hard enough and have the good fortune to be talented, you may even learn how to play well.

So why do people ask, how do you write? 

If they’re readers, I think they’re understandably mystified. A good story may be magical, but writers are not magicians. A great novel may seem to be a work of genius, but most writers are not geniuses.

A writer is someone who writes. Full stop.

But that answer doesn’t satisfy many people who ask the question in the first place.

What they want is a rule book, one with secrets to a successful life as a writer, preferably one with the word “Secrets” in the title. They can find plenty of them. I’ve bought my fair share.

I think people hope rule books have the answer because they suspect the hard truth.  Writing is a lonely occupation with no guarantee of success and no expiration date for the training period.

“Writing makes no noise, except groans,” the novelist Ursula K. LeGuin said, “and it can be done anywhere and it is done alone.”

It’s a lot easier to read a rule book than it is to sit in a room by yourself, struggling to free your imagination, to write from within, which is where all good stories and novels come from.

To write is simple:

You sit by yourself. 

And you write.

And you rewrite.

For years.

But you don’t stop there.

You read other writers. You study what they do and try to figure out how they’ve done it.

How they make characters come to life on the page. Write dialogue that sounds like real people talk. Craft sentences, paragraphs, scenes, stories, poems, scripts and novels that hold a reader’s attention from beginning to end. You try to adapt these lessons to your own work.

“Talent is a long patience,” the French novelist Gustave Flaubert said, “and originality an effort of will and intense observation.”

So you also study people. You eavesdrop on their conversations. You notice what they wear, how they walk and talk, how they show affection or disapproval. You take notes.

You become a student of human nature. You meditate on the human condition.

How do you become a writer? The same way you become a guitar player.

You do it.


May the writing go well.

Craft Lesson: The value of keeping it simple

Craft Lessons

William of Occam was a 14th century philospher, monk, and — few people realize — police reporter for the Occam News. (Okay, I made that last one up.)

He is remembered as the father of the medieval principle of parsimony, or economy, that advises anyone confronted with multiple explanations or models of a phenomenon to choose the simplest explanation first. Why Occam’s Razor? Because scientists use it every day or because it cuts through the fog of confusion are two explanations I’ve heard.

“If you hear hooves, think horses,” is one way to understand the principle. Or put another way, Keep it Simple, Stupid. K.I.S.S.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my introduction to Occam’s Razor came in my early 20s, when I was working for a crummy little newspaper and dreaming about becoming a writer, but doing more dreaming than writing,

A friend introduced me to a published writer. I asked her how I could become one, too.

First, she said, you have to read all the time. Read everything — books, stories, newspapers, magazines. Everything. Read. Read. Read.

Okay, I nodded. What else?

You have to write, she said. All the time. Every day. Write. Write. Write.

I leaned forward expectantly, waiting to hear the rest of her advice.

That’s it, she said.

“Thanks a lot,” I remember thinking. “For nothing.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but she was right. If you want to be a writer you have to read all the time and write all the time. It’s as simple as that.


Being a callow youth, I couldn’t accept it. There had to be more to it than that. Some magic formula.

But there really isn’t.

Want to write a story? Sit down and start writing. And then start revising.

Want to get published? Submit that story to a magazine or a literary journal. Write a novel or a screenplay. There’s no guarantee you will succeed, although it’s a safe bet that if you never try you won’t make it either. It’s that simple, and difficult, but well worth the challenge.

What many writers I meet seem to want and need is permission.

Can I do this? Can you do that? Is it okay to…?

My answer is always, yes. Yes, you can. It may suck, you may fail, you may get rejected, but the only way you’ll ever find out is by trying.

Want to write well? Follow George Orwell’s six rules from “Politics and the English Language.”

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Heed the prescription of “The Elements of Style” by Willian Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. A sampling from the classic text:

  1. Make every word tell.
  2. Omit necessary words.
  3. Use parallel constructions on concepts that are parallel.
  4. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.
  5. Use definite, specific language

And finally the simple advice I try to heed for compelling writing.

  • Use short words.
  • Short paragraphs.
  • Short sentences, but don’t be afraid to vary length for pacing and style.
  • Go on a “to be” hunt,’ striking out passive instances of “is, was, was.” Replace with action verbs.
  • Search “ly” for unnecessary adverbs.
  • Trim bloated quotes.
  • Spell checks. Cliche check.
  • Read aloud.
  • Research. Revise. Rewrite. 

Looking back, I wish that writer had been more specific with her advice. Certainly, constant reading and writing and critical ae critical to becoming a writer. but there is so much more to becoming a published writer.

Like her counsel, some of this advice is obvious. But there’s a reason that scientists and other investigators continue to cite Occam’s Razor, more than 600 years after his death. It’s that simple.

Craft Query: What writing advice do you follow?

May the writing go well.

“Photograph by Josh Sorenson courtesy of unsplash.com

The West Wing and the Power of Digressive Narratives

Craft Lessons
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I’m bleary-eyed as I write this. Late last night, I finished several weeks of binge-watching “The West Wing,” all 156 episodes of the nostalgic political series, which ran on television for seven seasons between 1999  and 2006, dramatizing the Democratic presidency of liberal Joshua “Jed” Bartlett and his young, idealistic staff. 

The show has become a kind of televised comfort food for many Americans as the country is swamped by partisan bickering.

The plots are captivating, the dialogue, like its characters, is whip-smart. But while I watched the show for enjoyment, I also viewed it through the prism of a writer interested in story structure. What I found especially fascinating was a particular approach to storytelling that I think can be useful to writers of fiction and nonfiction: digressive narrative.

This is a stylistic device that writers employ to provide background information, describe the motivations of its characters and heighten suspense. They’re sudden detours from the story at hand. 

Writer/creator Aaron Sorkin uses the tool throughout the series, but its power is especially evident and instructive in the first two episodes of the second season. 

 “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” is a two-parter about an assassination attempt on President Bartlett and its aftermath. Using quick cuts, Sorkin toggles between the shooting by white supremacists that wounds the President and Josh Lyman, his deputy chief of staff, and a separate storyline: the creation of an upstart campaign staff that launched the obscure New England governor into the highest office in the land. (You can watch parts one and two on You Tube; Sorkin’s scripts for parts one and two are also available.) 

Novelists and nonfiction narrative writers also use digressions.

J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher In the Rye,” is replete with these departures from the main plot, mirroring the manic personality of its rebellious teen hero, Holden Caulfield.

Digressions seem to stray from the main topic, but their purpose is to heighten the reader’s understanding. A famous one is Holden’s fixation with a pair of nuns he meets at a restaurant. He helps them with their suitcases, feels badly that they are eating just toast and coffee, and gives them a ten dollar donation.

 “That’s what I liked about those nuns,” he reflects. “You could tell, for one thing, that they never went anywhere swanky for lunch. It makes me so damn sad when I thought about it, their never going anywhere swanky for lunch or anything. I knew it wasn’t too important, but it made me sad anyway.”

The nuns reappear in his consciousness as he worries about their poverty. At the novel’s end, he looks for the nuns, wondering if he might run into them collecting donations. Like many digressions, Salinger’s focus is on minor characters. In this case, their only purpose is to tell the reader more about Holden and his concern with morality that is a major theme. 

Nonfiction writers also turn to digressions. In “The John McPhee Reader,” editor William Howarth describes how the narrative nonfiction master’s “diving into the loops and stalls of digression, circling the main subject for a while” that “works his characters into a suspenseful plot.”

Many writers, like Sorkin, use digression as flashbacks. Others like McPhee take literary off ramps from their main story for informative digressions on everything from geology to roadkill. But sudden interruptions have other uses as well.

 “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America,” is Erik Larson’s nonfiction book about two warring enterprises—building and murder—during the construction of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. 

To tell the twin stories, Larson relies on repeated digressions, alternating the story of how the Exposition came to be with a more chilling tale of H.H. Holmes, a serial killer at loose in the city. Each story is powerful in their own right, but switching between them makes for a relentless read. It’s hard to lose interest when you have two suspenseful narratives that you can braid into a single story, which is why digressions can be such a useful narrative strategy.

I didn’t know the term at the time, but as a reporter for the Providence Journal Bulletin in 1981, I employed a digressive narrative to heighten suspense and give background information.

In Sorrow Thou Shalt Bring Forth Children” opens on Jackie Rushton, a young woman about to give birth in a local hospital. An encounter with a nurse convinces her that the birth has gone terribly wrong. “I’ve lost the baby,” she tells herself. “The baby is gone.” The story then switches to the past as I use a digression to take Jackie and her husband Rob through courtship, marriage and parenthood and a new pregnancy. The section ends at a baby shower when Jackie’s water breaks. After the digression dispenses with the requisite back story, the main narrative picks up from the opening scene and without interruption follows Jackie and Rob through a perilous night when they don’t know if their baby will live or not. 

Not everyone is a fan of the device. “It’s really hard to jump back and forth in time without giving the reader whiplash,” says New Yorker contributor Jennifer Kahn. Alice Mayhew, the legendary Simon & Schuster editor who died in February at 87 after a storied career bringing best-sellers to print, wasn’t a believer, either. She was known, according to a 2004 profile, for “unsentimentally pruning away digressions, even when — especially when — they are hundreds of pages long. Mayhew’s faith in chronological organization is said to be nearly religious.”

I think you can overdose on them, but used judiciously and with skill digressions, can engage readers who may welcome these temporary departures from the main plot. They’re certainly worth studying. You can start with The West Wing’s “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen”  or “The Catcher in the Rye” and then experiment with your own stories. Have fun!

This post appeared originally in Nieman Storyboard.

The Victory of Failure

Craft Lessons
Photo by Ian Kim on Unsplash

We celebrate the winners of elections. Cheer Super Bowl victors and the rising stock market. 4.0 grades and 800 SAT scores get our attention and praise. So do bestseller lists, the National Book Awards and the Pulitzers.

In our success-driven culture, it’s hard to accept that failure, not triumph, is a routine part of the writing craft, a constant in a writer’s life.

Sometimes we get lucky and the first draft is the final one. Sometimes the fates shine upon us and the first lead we write sings. Sometimes the agent or the editor says yes. 

But on the journey to make meaning with words, we often stumble. The draft is a jumble, the language sinks rather than soars. Rejection follows submission, sometimes so frequently, it’s easy to lose heart, to give up rather than try and lose. Failing is never fun, but it’s essential for those who practice the craft of writing, indeed any art form. 

I’ve been giving failure a lot of thought recently after discovering “The Fail Safe,” a new podcast devoted to writing and failure. Its creators aim to explore “how today’s most successful writers grapple with and learn from failure.” If you’re feeling like one, its guests offer a bracing dose of reality, as well as a modicum of comfort. 

”Being an artist depends necessarily on a  great tolerance for failure. It’s impossible to make art unless you give yourself permission to fail every day.“ That’s Garth Greenwell, author of the best-selling, critically-acclaimed, novel ”What Belongs to You” speaking in the inaugural episode. 

In the second, novelist and short story writer Chris Boucher spoke about the decade it took to write his first novel, “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive.” “If there wasn’t daily failure there was almost-daily failure for a long time,” he said. Boucher didn’t have a plotline for two years. A recent short story went through more than 30 drafts before it was published. “There are so many dead ends, so many false starts,” he said, “that I consider it part of the practice.”

.

Samuel Beckett “came to believe failure was an essential part of any artist’s work, even as it remained their responsibility to try to succeed,” Chris Power wrote in a Guardian essay about the revered modernist novelist and playwright. Beckett couldn’t find a publisher for his first novel. Sales for the short story collection he plundered from the book tanked.

But Beckett refused to surrender to the despair that accompanies failures. 

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter,” he famously wrote in his short story  “Worstword Ho.” “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Failing better eventually brought him success, including a Nobel Prize for literature.

When I consider my own failures— the rejected stories, the elusive prizes, the novel abandoned and the play that I never sent out because I was afraid of rejection — it tends to make me more anxious than depressed. Will the writing well run dry?  Will I ever achieve all my dreams? What I took away from the first two episodes of “The Fail Safe” is that failure and anxiety are strands in the DNA of the artistic life. But there is a way to combat them. 

“The only strategy for making that anxiety bearable,” said Greenwell, “is showing up every day to do the work. Whether the work shows up or not is out of your hands, but you can show up for the work to happen.” After that, he said, the rest is all luck.

These writers have helped me redefine the nature of failure. It is not losing out on prizes or even publication.

“What failure means for a writer is to stop writing,” Greenwell said. “The only thing we have control over is showing up to do the work.” 

“And that,” he added, “means giving ourselves as many possible chances as we can to be lucky.”

So I’ll give myself more chances to be lucky and hope you’ll do the same by doing what successful writers do no matter how many failures they face. They show up and do the work. They court failure every day, hoping for victory.

Day by day: Why writers should keep a diary

Craft Lessons
Photo by Julia Joppien on Unsplash

I started the day in the usual way, dressed and took my dog for his morning walk, brewed a cup of sweet Black Irish tea, quickly scanned the news and then opened a file labeled “Diary 2020.”

I wrote for about ten minutes. 

Jan. 21. 44 degrees this morning. Arctic by Florida standards, Parka, watch cap, gloves to walk Leo. Didn’t blow smoke but the wind cut like a knife through butter. Strange dream last night, David M., lanky, ginger nasty piece of work, tricked me into going to NYC with Neal, only Neal didn’t come and it turned out we were going to help someone move. Met the mother who told their kids they could have “a doughnut and three hot dogs for breakfast.” The work was overwhelming and I tried to quit but he kept tricking me into more. Finally, he stole my shoes and that was it. I ditched him. Only problem, when I looked up, I didn’t know where I was. NYC was foreign territory of high brick buildings. Wanted to go home but felt I should visit the art museum. Found myself in a maze of a mall. Fortunately, Leo’s barking woke me up. Having trouble with the novel. Still keeping to daily sessions but having trouble writing a page a day. Need to follow the advice in today’s post — answer the six questions to drive plot. For some reason, am having trouble switching from pantsing. The sky is a wintry, pale blue. The trees wave slowly, like a monarch parading through commoners in a gilded coach. Axios reports cell phones are banned during the impeachment trial. They’ll be twitching like a junkie jonesing for a fix. Today’s task: draft post about the importance of keeping a diary. 

If you haven’t already guessed, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to keep a diary. It’s not the first such promise. I have at least a dozen notebooks, dated early in the year. But soon the entries peter out and the diary’s forgotten.

The other day,  however, I stumbled upon a quote that made me think I needed to start anew this year.  In a Paris Review interview, the late British novelist John Fowles says, 

“I am a great believer in diaries, if only in the sense that bar exercises are good for ballet dancers: it’s often through personal diaries—however embarrassing they are to read now—that the novelist discovers his true bent, that he can narrate real events and distort them to please himself, describe character, observe other human beings, hypothesize, invent, all the rest. I think that is how I became a novelist, eventually.”

More than one writer agrees with Fowles, I found, thanks to an entry from Maria Popova’s excellent blog, “Brain Pickings.”

Keeping a diary, writers cited by Popova reveal, is an essential part of a writer’s life.

It’s a daily task that exercises the writing muscles, an early morning foray into the unconscious journeys of dreams and observations that can surprise and inspire further writing.

Today’s entry, for example, gives me a description of a departure from Florida’s sunny climate, a caustic take on a high school classmate I could use in the novel I’m composing. What I would do with that bizarre breakfast I don’t know. but I have it stored for future retrieval. 

But a diary’s prose need not be polished. “The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice,”  the English writer Virginia Woolf said. “It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles.”

Looking over today’s entry, I cringe at the cliches, the gaps that make the stories within incomplete. But I like, “lanky, ginger,” as a way to describe this high school classmate and the addict metaphor for the U.S. Senators denied their cellphones. There are seeds that might sprout someday.

I’m comforted if this post, flawed as it is, inspires you to launch a diary. Brenda Ueland, author of the writing advice classic, “If You Want to Write.” advises writers to “Keep a slovenly, headlong, impulsive, honest diary…You will touch only what interests you.”

The act of keeping a  diary, what Popova called “this private art,” is an essential discipline. Madeleine L’Engle (“A Wrinkle in Time“) has three rules for aspiring writers: Read, write and keep a diary or a journal as some refer to it. 

John Steinbeck kept a diary while he was writing “Grapes of Wrath.” The opening was prosaic for a novel that would win the Pulitzer Prize and was cited prominently when Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

May 31, 1938: “Here is the diary of the book and it will be interesting to see how it works out.” he wrote in an entry published in “Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath.”

Later, when he shifted to writing “East of Eden,” Steinbeck began each day by writing a letter to his editor, Pascal “Pat” Covici,”a practice chronicled in “Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters.” It was a warm-up exercise that the author used a baseball image to describe–“a way of getting my mental arm in shape to pitch a good game.”

“If you want to write,” L’Engle says, “you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. Where you just put down what you think about life, what you think about things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair.”

Thanks to these writers, this year I’m sold on the idea. I hope to make it a part of my morning routine, along with walking the dog and sweet tea. I urge you to consider doing the same, keeping it slovenly, headlong, impulsive and honest. Not a bad way to start a writer’s day.  

Craft Lesson: Excuses, excuses

Craft Lessons

I’m too young to make it as a writer.

I’m too old.

Excuses, excuses. These two defenses cripple many writers from doing the work it takes to produce a novel, screenplay, a poem, a nonfiction book or article or an enterprise story. 

I’ve heard—and made—them over the years. They keep writers from achieving many of their writing dreams which is a darn shame. 

I’ve sat with writers who, with sincerity and some madness, make them. Here’s what I want to tell them:


Langston Hughes published his first major work when he was 19. Stephen King, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez were 20. 21: Bret Easton Ellis and Mary Shelley. 22: Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury. Worried you’re too young? Read the rest of this list.

James Michener wrote 40 books after he turned 40.  Raymond Chandler was 43 years old when he published his first novel, “The Big Sleep.” Anna Sewell started writing “Black Beauty” when she was 51; she was 57 when she sold the book. Frank McCourt published his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, “Angela’s Ashes” when he was 66. Harriet Doer’s first novel, “Stones of Ibarra” won the National Book Award. It was published when she was 74. Worried you’re too old? Read the rest of this list.

Here’s another potent excuse, one fueled by what psychologists call the “Victim Mentality.” 

I’m quitting because I was rejected. Do you think you’re the first?

“First, we must ask, does it have to be a whale?” That was the response of one of the multiple publishers who turned down Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” .

“An irresponsible holiday story that will never sell.” That was the rejection Kenneth Grahame received for his classic “The Wind in the Willows.”

“An endless nightmare. I think the verdict would be ‘Oh don’t read that horrid book.’” H.G. Wells got this rejection for “The War of the Worlds,” still in print more than a century after it was published. 

Joseph Heller got 22 rejections for his satirical masterpiece “Catch-22.” One of them read, “I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.” For more on famous authors and their rejections, read the rest of the list here

There are lots of other excuses writers make. I’m too tired. My friends give me a hard time because I don’t have time for them. I’m not inspired. Revision means I’ve failed. I don’t have enough time.

Go ahead and use them. You’ll get nowhere fast.

But here’s what I’d rather say. Challenge them. You can make time. Mothers write during their baby’s nap time. When I was working demanding jobs, I got a lot done just by setting my alarm a half-hour early and writing. Scott Turow wrote the first of his best-selling thrillers, “Presumed Innocent,” on the train to his job as a federal prosecutor.

Good friends understand. Inspiration happens when you’re at your desk. And revision offers unlimited chances to make your writing better.

 Excuses try to release a person from blame. When it comes to writing, as with many other endeavors, most of the time there’s no one to blame but yourself. It’s easy for me to say take responsibility, but what I’d rather say is you don’t need to make excuses. Do the work.

“Getting good as a writer, or any kind of storyteller, seems to me a lifelong pursuit,” says Jacqui Banaszynski, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and editor of Nieman Storyboard which celebrates narrative nonfiction. “And one that demands we realize there is always another level to reach and dare ourselves to take some creative risks as we get there.”

Keep that counsel close. Dare yourself. And just bear in mind that if there’s anything the history of publishing demonstrates, it’s that writing success has no shelf life, and there’s no accounting for taste. 

Six Questions to Drive Your Story’s Plot

Craft Lessons
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There are two types of writers: plotters, who plan out their story, sometimes in great detail before they begin, and “pantsers,” who prefer to write without knowing the outcome in advance,  content to sit at their desk and discover as they go along. I’m one of the latter.

But recently I pulled a book from my shelves that has led me to reconsider my approach. “Plot” is a 1988 primer by Ansen Dibell that takes a comprehensive look at this crucial element of storytelling. 

“Ask someone what the plot of their favorite novel or story and they will tell you what happened in it. That’s useful shorthand when the conversation is about finished stories, but when it comes to writing one, it’s like saying “that a birthday cake is a large baked confection with frosting and candles,” Dibell says. ” It doesn’t tell you how to make one.”

“Plot,” says Dibell, “is built of significant events in a given story — significant because they have important consequences.” She gives two examples. Taking a shower isn’t a plot, nor is braiding your hair. Neither have any consequences. They are incidents.

But if it’s Janet Leigh stepping into the shower while homicidal maniac Tony Perkins waits to pounce in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” or the mega-long braid that is going to let a prince climb up the tower where Rapunzel is being held by a witch, these mundane incidents are transformed into plots. 

For two months, I’ve worked nearly every day on a novel. I’ve written scenes and dialogue — the foundations of dramatic narrative — and summary narrative that leaps across time and space. But until I read Dibell’s book and other sources that discuss plotting, I didn’t realize I may just have been spinning my wheels because I didn’t ask some critical questions before I started.

  1. Is there something at stake? Plotting is the way you show things matter.
  2. Have I identified a protagonist, the person, in writing coach Jack Hart’s words, “makes things happen”?
  3. Can I summarize my plot in a sentence, the shorter the better, even if it takes hundreds of pages to play out?  Two more examples from Dibell. “A group of British schoolboys, attempting to survive after their plane crash lands on a tropical island, begins reverting to savagery. That’s the plot of William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.” “The police chief of a New England vacation community, although terrified of the ocean, sets out to destroy a huge killer shark.” “Jaws.”
  4. Have I established the sequence of events “that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves,” which is two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative writer Jon Franklin’s definition of story.
  5. Have I identified plot points, “any development that sends the story spinning off in a new direction,’ in screenwriting teacher Robert McKee’s formulation? These will help me plan my story trajectory.
  6.  Is my story going somewhere? Do I have an ending in sight, or at least in mind? Knowing your ending allows you to establish foreshadowing that can help build suspense and forge your story’s meaning.

Pantsing is fine for some writers, and has worked for me in the past, mostly with short stories when the journey is relatively short. But as the word count of my book rises, I realize I’m not sure where I’m going. And I don’t feel like spending a lot of time creating a spineless mass of prose that I may end up jettisoning or face a massive rewrite.  With these questions in mind, I’ve decided to stop spinning and start thinking first, pansting less and plotting more. If you’re struggling with a story, you might want to do the same. 

Attitude is all

Craft Lessons

When I think of the hundreds of writers I have coached over the years, the best ones impressed me with their intellect and creativity. But what stands out most are not these strengths, important as they may be. Instead, it’s their attitude that makes them special in my eyes.

Three decades of working with writers and editors have convinced me that attitude—a way of thinking that is reflected in a person’s behavior matters more than talent.

“Most people place an undue emphasis on talent,” influential designer Milton Glaser said. “I don’t doubt that it exists, but talent is essentially a potential for something. The issue is really not talent as an independent element, but talent in relationship to will, desire and persistence. Talent without these things vanishes and even modest talent with those characteristics grows.”

Talent may open the door, but attitude gets you inside the room. And as legendary coach Lou Holtz said, “The attitude we choose is by far the most important one we make every day.”

A good attitude can pay off. That was the case for David Maraniss when he was writing investigations and series at The Washington Post. When news broke, he was one of the first to pitch in. “Even if I’m doing a series,” he once told me, “I say, ‘Look, if you guys need me, I’d be happy to do something.’ I try to be in a position to say yes, and I try to volunteer so that I can have enormous freedom the rest of the time.

“I find that so many reporters keep banging away at their editors and having frustrating confrontations about what they have to do or don’t have to do. I’ve always found it much more effective to do what I want to do by doing some things for them.

“I like newspapers, and I love to write on deadline. And so I volunteer. But one of the reasons I do that is so that there’s a fair exchange, where they know that I’m always around when they need me, and then in return, I get a lot of freedom the rest of the time to do what I want to do.” Maraniss has gone on to write a string of best-selling critically acclaimed books.

Writing is a craft. It relies on a set of skills: the ability to generate ideas, excellence in reporting and researching, writing and revision (and more revision), understanding structure, and facility with language, syntax and style. Mastery requires years of study, work and, above all, patience. Malcolm Gladwell famously estimated that achieving mastery in many fields requires 10,000 hours of work. True or not, there’s no doubt that becoming a good writer takes an enormous expenditure of time and effort. Without the right attitude and the willingness to do that work, the chances of success are slim to none. 

In a field where so much — success and rejection for starters — is out of the writer’s hands, attitude is the one thing that we can control. We can decide whether to procrastinate or write every day no matter how uninspired we feel, give up or commit to one more revision, try our hand at a different genre, or learn from other writers rather than be consumed with jealousy about their achievements.

Inspired by the wisdom of Maraniss, coach Holtz and designer Glaser, I found myself musing about the nature of attitude and its importance to writers, including myself, who seek success. It’s a list I printed out and keep close as I work. I hope it may be of value to you.

  • Attitude matters more than talent.
  • Attitude makes the difference between giving up or sticking with a story.
  • Attitude means making one more phone call, writing one more draft and burrowing into that draft one more time to refine and polish your story.
  • Attitude means a collaborative relationship with editors rather than a toxic one.
  • Attitude sometimes means submerging your own interests to contribute to the greater good.
  • Attitude means submitting a story again the same day someone rejects it.
  • In the end, attitude is what makes the difference between failure and spectacular success.