Your goal as a writer is to get published. Probably. If you’re one of those people who writes solely for love of the craft, then more power to you. You’re a better man than I. Most of you want to see your name on the shelf in a bookstore, though.

It’s difficult at best, nearly impossible at worst. Your inclination is to try to write for the market, to try to guess what agents or publishers want to see and give them that.

Don’t do it.

Publishing Lead Time Is At Least A Year

It’s the Internet age, you say. Things move at the speed of cat memes. If the hot thing right now is sparkly vampires, then you’re going to write the best damn sparkly vampire story you can, so you can dip your ladle into the river of money that is publishing.

Despite what you may have heard, or thought, or felt in your bones, publishing is still a very plodding industry. From the moment a publisher accepts your manuscript, you have at least a year until publication. Sometimes two years. That sparkly vampire story on the shelves now? It got the green light twelve to twenty-four months ago.

What’s Hot Now Is Cold To Agents And Publishers

By the time you – a publishing outsider – notice a trend, that trend is already old and stale as far as the publishing insiders see it. They don’t want your sparkly vampire story, they’ve already seen thousands of them in the past two years. Your attempt, no matter how well-done, isn’t going to rise to their notice.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a chance your story will break through. Just like there’s a chance you’ll win the lottery if you buy a ticket twice a week. But you’re probably not that lucky.

Writing For The Market Is Cynical

I know. A cynical writer. What a concept…

But seriously, if you try to write for the market you’re not going to do your best work. If you’re passionate about your project that will show up in your finished product. If you have a story you absolutely need to get out of you and onto paper, your readers will be able to tell. Your work will reflect your sincerity.

If you’re not all that into sparkly vampires, and if you think deep down they’re stupid and wrong (I mean, what kind of vampire is sparkly in the sunlight?), your vampire story is going to be terrible. Not to say that sparkly vampire stories aren’t terrible from jump street, but yours will never rise above the level of background noise. You’ll be spending a lot of effort for what is almost guaranteed to be zero return.

Don’t Be One Of A Crowd

Writers who try to write for the market think they’re the only ones doing so. This is the curse of a solitary passion. You never have office buildings full of writers who talk about writing during lunch breaks. We almost all work alone, and we think the ideas we have are unique. Fresh. Never been done.

If you try to write for the market, you’re just one more hack trying to cash in on a trend. That’s not to say there aren’t very successful hacks cashing in every moment of every day. If you want to be one of them, step up your game. Get good at it. Lead the pack of hacks. Be the alpha hack.

If you want to do good work, if you want to have your contribution be worthy and noticed and appreciated, leave the market-chasing to the desperate writers. The ones who have no confidence in their ability to tell a story. The ones who need someone else to tell them what a good story is. There’s plenty of those writers out there. Don’t join them. Hoe your own row.

You’ll see this advice given to struggling writers: write what you know. Is this good advice, or just well-intentioned bad advice?

‘Write What You Know’ Is The Stupidest Advice Ever Given

I’m sure someday I’ll think of some advice that’s stupider, but ‘write what you know’ is at the top of the list for now. Writers use their imaginations to come up with worlds, characters, and situations that have never existed and likely can never exist. If someone nowadays stuck with writing what they know, then we’d only have stories about people living comfortable, boring, middle-class lives where their biggest problem is dogs barking at the UPS guy.

Did J.K. Rowling do an autobiography about her time at Hogwarts? Did Dan Brown mine his meeting notes about his time with the Knights Templar? Did C.S. Lewis refer to his AAA triptych about Naria? Absolutely not, these writers made that stuff up. They didn’t know anything about those places, events, or characters. They created everything.

Same thing with you and your writing. You don’t have to have been a philanderer to write about adultery. You don’t have to have robbed a bank to create a gripping tale about your character doing so. Your job as a writer is to put yourself and your characters in unique situations, and to bring your readers along with your. Write what you know is bogus.

‘Write What You Know’ Can Help Your Writing Immensely

Aw… crap. Here he goes again with saying the opposite of what he said before. Make up your mind, Jack…

I just said ‘writing what you know’ is bogus. So how can it help your writing in any way? You not going to write what you know, you’re going to relate what you’ve lived. The two things are very different. Bring your own experience to your writing. Once you do that, the truth can’t help but shine through.

Say you’ve been a waiter. But your story isn’t about a restaurant or about waiters, or about the felonious cook staff who are always stoned and stealing frozen steaks. How do you write what you know there?

Take a step back. Make your experience general. Abstract. Being a waiter is serving in a low-pay, menial job, where you are pretty close to the bottom rung on the social ladder. The only person lower in the restaurant pecking order is the dish dog. Maybe in your story your main character is struggling, trying to pull herself up by her own bootstraps only to discover she’s not wearing any shoes at all. You can make her experience real – even if she’s in a dystopian future hellscape – by tapping into your own experience as a tipped employee/wage slave/menial laborer.

‘Write What You Know’ might better be said as ‘write your own truth.’

Write Who You Know

Do you want to know a secret? Okay… but you have to promise to keep it to yourself.

The secret to ‘writing what you know’ is actually Writing Who You Know.

Who should you know best? Yourself. Now, while that might not be the case for every writer, you really should be familiar with your preferences, foibles, and flaws, especially if you’re not a child any more. You put yourself in your characters, and if you do it right, you make them very real with almost no effort.

But even if there’s a spark of yourself in every character, not all of them can be you. To make your characters unique – and to tell them apart from one another – you should base them on someone you know. When your characters look at the world through a lens that is not your own, then you can’t pretend to be writing what you know. You’re making stuff up again, as a writer should.

Let’s say you have a character who is an overbearing Olympic coach. A real prick, but a guy whose athletes win championships and medals. Who is that guy? You could take your example from any number of real coaches you’ve seen on the news or seen profiled on the Olympics. But wouldn’t it be better if that coach was modeled after your college art teacher, who was an annoying prick who always thought he was right about everything even though he was wrong most of the time? You don’t know an Olympic coach (probably), but you know that art teacher. And you hated him. Except maybe now you understand him a little better.

No. Get back to work.




What? You want more information than that? Okay. Fine.

Writers Aren’t Unique, Writer’s Block Isn’t Real

Have you ever heard of a sculptor who just couldn’t sculpt? Or a baseball player who forgot how to hit a fast ball? Or a nuclear physicist who just couldn’t bring herself to do math any more? Of course not. So a writer who Just. Can’t. Write. does not exist. Writers write.

However… everyone gets in a slump. Sculptors lose their inspiration, baseball players just can’t seem to connect, and physicists get bogged down in details. Writers can get into a slump too. But, unlike other professions, writers have invented a reason to wallow in the slump, and an excuse to abandon the thing they love most. “Writer’s block.”

Fran Liebowitz notwithstanding, you can’t make a living NOT being a writer.

Having A ‘Block’ Means Something’s Wrong

All writers face resistance. All of them. If you talk to a writer who says all his work is effortless and nothing but peak flow, he’s lying, and not even really trying hard at that. We all – ALL – have better times and worse times. Sometimes the muse is at your shoulder, sometimes she’s gone to the convenience store for some smokes. You don’t have any control over when a slump happens.

But when it does happen, it means something’s wrong. And that something isn’t necessarily your writing. Being a writer, like being any accomplished professional, takes enormous concentration. It’s draining, mentally and physically. When you resist working on the thing that gives you joy, you need to realize that something is broken.

Figure Out What’s Broken To Fix The Block

The ‘something’ that’s wrong could be anything. It could be your narrative – this is most common for me. If I’m resisting working on my writing it’s because I’m uncomfortable with the way things are going. Maybe I don’t like the plot twist, or maybe I don’t like the actual words on the page, or maybe I realize I have no idea where the story goes after that difficult part.

Sometimes the problem could be in your life. Maybe you have money troubles, or partner troubles, or health troubles, or you see the sorry state of our culture and can’t help but despair. We’ve all been there. This too shall pass. When you figure out what’s the root cause of your resistance, you can sweep it away.

Name It And Shame It

Once you figure out what the problem is – which may take you some time, I admit – call it out. And I mean out loud. Verbally. When you name the thing that’s holding you back you gain power over it. When you have power over it, it no longer has power over you.

Often, when you name the problem and call it out, your resistance will disappear. At least that’s how it works for me. You’ll realize how silly it was to let that one thing dictate how you work at your passion And it’ll make dealing with the next time (there will be a next time, guaranteed) that much easier.

Now get back to work.

If you get online, you’ll see this kind of advice: ‘you’re only a real writer if your write every day.’ Is this a real thing or bullshit gatekeeping? What do you think?

Only Write Every Day If You Want To

First off, why would you let some random schmoe decide you are or are not a writer based on habits he himself probably doesn’t have? Who the fuck is that guy? Nobody. Treat him like it.

I’m tired of unworthy gatekeepers. Gatekeepers in general, actually. Do you write? At all? Do you want to make a lifelong craft of it and get better with every day? Then you’re a writer, and screw anyone who says otherwise.

You do NOT have to write every day to call yourself a writer. If you’re a financially-independent hermit then, yes, I would expect a great deal of output from you. Thousands of words a day. But you live in the real world with the rest of us, and your families, and your 9-to-5 jobs, and your obligations to others that all of us have. So give yourself a break, and don’t pressure yourself to write every day.

And don’t listen to random schmoes on the the internet. In case you’re wondering, I’m no random schmoe, I’m a very definite schmoe.

Make A Schedule And Keep It

What does that mean, if it doesn’t mean every day? If you’ve set yourself a goal of writing, say, every other day, then honor your commitment to yourself and try very hard to keep that schedule. Every other day. Or every Saturday at 10 AM, or M-W-F at 8 PM. Whatever works for you.

But keep your schedule. It’s like going to the gym, people have different schedules than their neighbors because their lives are their own, but the people who are a success at working out make a point of adhering to their schedules. Life happens to everyone, and sometimes your schedule gets interrupted. But you can’t let life keep interrupting your schedule, or it’s not a schedule at all. Right? You can miss a day, but don’t make a habit of it.

In other words, don’t skip twice.

You want to write every day? Knock yourself out. But don’t say you’re going to write every day and then only get three days a week. That’s just lying to yourself and setting yourself up for disappointment and failure. Set a reasonable goal and stick to it. You can always increase your goal later.

Word Counts – It’s A Trap!

You’ll sometimes hear ‘you have to write at least 500 words a day, or you’re not a real writer.’ Says who? The writing police?

Daily word counts are a trap, don’t fall for them. If you’re not under contract, if you don’t have a deadline, then your output is a big ol’ bag of nobody else’s business. If you tell yourself you have to write 500 words a day, when you don’t make that goal – and you won’t – then you’re setting yourself up for disappointment again.

A better goal than word count would be a scene. That’s what works for me. I need to finish this scene right here. That’s it. It can take me half an hour, it can take me three hours, or two days. Whatever. But my goals tend to be story elements, blocks that constitute a beginning, middle, and end. Arbitrary word counts don’t do it for me. Concrete progress towards a finished product rocks my world.

‘Show don’t tell.’ That’s pretty solid writing advice, right? I mean, it’s advice almost everyone has heard. But what does it mean?

Exposition Is Bad – Usually

When you hear ‘show don’t tell,’ what someone is trying to tell you is to avoid exposition. Rather than telling your reader very explicitly ‘Lex Luthor is a bad man,’ you need to reveal his character through his interactions with others. SHOW us that Lex Luthor is a bad guy; maybe he forecloses on an orphanage, or kicks a dog, or forecloses on a dog orphanage.

A character’s true nature comes across in their interactions with others. This is especially effective when you can employ dramatic irony (I did a post on dramatic tension already).

Make Your Prose Style Match Your Character

This is really a pro tip. If you can pull this off you’ll bring your reader that much further into the story without them knowing why or how.

When you make your prose match your character, you change your own writing style to suit the character who is the focus. (This assumes, of course, that you have more than one character as your focus). If you have a sharp, no-nonsense character, when they’re the focus your prose should be equally sharp and no-nonsense. Use shorter words, shorter sentences, less florid description

When your character is more sympathetic, however, more in touch with their feelings, your prose should match that outlook. More introspection, more value judgements, more doubt.

This is hard to do, especially when you’re trying to figure out your own writing style. But if you practice it, and do it well, it’s a seamless way to show, rather than tell.

Sometimes Exposition Can Be A Good Thing

I know, I know, I keep saying one thing, then saying its opposite. What a tool… But it’s true, sometimes exposition is the best way to show something rather than telling.

That is, if you have a character tell. In their own voice. Think of the reveal for almost every police procedural you’ve ever seen. One character usually does the explaining, laying out the connected details of the crime. Not only is this the payoff for the story you’ve built, it’s the ‘show don’t tell’ part of revealing the criminal’s true nature. It’s the one time exposition is better, so you can’t do it all the time. But it absolutely works.

I learned this technique as an actor, and it’s invaluable for bringing authenticity to your performance. So why not use it in your writing?

Characters Don’t Exist In A Void

Just as your life is a continuum from birth to death, so are your characters’ lives. And every scene you put your characters in has context in those lives. In order to bring veracity to your writing, you need to think about what your characters were doing JUST BEFORE the scene started.

Their emotional states prior to the scene will inform their actions within the scene. For instance, if a character had just been in a fist fight before a scene in an emergency room, the fallout from that fight will inform their attitudes – even their dialogue – in the emergency room scene.

Nothing happens in a vacuum.

The Moment Before May Not Be Anything You Write

That is to say, it may not be anything that appears in your novel. Unless a scene is a direct follow-on from a prior scene, your readers will most likely never see the moment before. But you will know it. And your characters will live it and react to it.

That said, sometimes it’s helpful to write out the moment before, just as in acting you and your scene partner may improv the moment before. Don’t think of it as wasted time, or wasted words, think of it as making concrete something that was abstract in your head. That’s always a worthwhile effort.

The Scene You Just Wrote Is A Moment Before Another Event

You only have so many scenes to finish your story, so pick and choose them wisely. The scene you just wrote, with its moments before for the characters, is itself a moment before the next thing to happen in your characters’ lives.

The subsequent scene may not be one you write, but it is one that will then be the moment before another scene, etc. etc. etc. Think of events in your characters’ lives as pearls on a string. Each is precious, even if you only focus on a few rare, exceptional ones. They all matter.

There’s a lot of ink spilled about ‘concept.’ When someone focuses obsessively on ‘concept,’ though, you can almost be assured they’re not a writer. So what is ‘concept’ and how do you explain your story to someone who thinks ‘concept’ and story are the same thing?

‘Concept’ Is For Bean-Counters

This comes from Hollywood, where people with more money than good sense finance movies. They want to know what the movie will be about, without bothering with nuance or subtlety, or even how to tell a story in the first place. This shortcut to ignorance has spilled over into books.

‘Concept’ is a one-sentence description of your story, that grabs someone’s attention and lets them know all they need to know in order to commit millions of dollars to making movie magic happen. Yeah. Once sentence. Your 80,000 word labor of love distilled into one sentence. Impossible.

So ditch the idea. Unless you’re going to be in the office of some Hollywood mogul – and let’s face it, you’re probably not anywhere close – forget about what ‘concept’ your story has.

You can probably distill your story into a shorter description than you have so far, but you’re too close to it to do so. That’s why you have friends. Ask them to read your story and tell you what it’s about. You’ll probably be surprise by how concise they can be describing your rambling tale.

Focus On What Your Story’s About

Beginning – Middle – End. That’s your story. There’s liable to be a theme or two in there, and maybe a lesson or message. But at a bare minimum, your characters start somewhere, go through some stuff, and come out the other side different than they were before. Maybe better, maybe worse, maybe a little of both. That’s your ‘concept.’

Can you tell your story in one sentence? Unless it’s a really long run-on, probably not. So don’t worry about it. Make the best story you possibly can. Think about how you would describe your favorite book to someone who’d never read it. There’s NO WAY you could distill it to one sentence. So don’t try with yours. You do your thing, leave the marketing to people better suited to it.

I wasn’t going to write about COVID-19. Really. There are enough hot takes out there without my adding to the clutter. But I’ve seen a shift in the last few days that bothers me, and I need to say something.

Any Action Is Not Necessarily Better Than No Action

I’m seeing some good things out there, some actions – mostly by local government – that make sense and are clearly well-considered and taken with the greater good in mind. But I’m also starting to see ‘take sensible precautions’ turn into ‘shun your fellow man or you’ll surely die.’ COVID-19 is serious, no doubt, but it’s not a virus apocalypse. It’s far more fatal than the regular flu, but it’s not nearly as fatal as you’d think from the news.

You’re Probably Going To Get Infected

I’ve seen estimates from epidemiologists that over half the US population will likely get infected by COVID-19. The social distancing we’re doing now is to keep the infection curve low, so the problem cases – pneumonia, mostly – don’t pile up in emergency rooms and clog the medical system. If you think you’re going to dodge the virus by keeping away from everyone, you’re wrong. When things re-open, as they have to, infections will continue, and if you don’t have it now, you’re likely to get it later.

Operate From A Position Of Strength

The shift I noticed in the first point – to shun all human contact – is not only counter to everything we know that makes us human, it is also a shift from a position of strength – take sensible precautions – to a position of fear – that guy over there is likely to get me killed. When you operate from a position of fear, you’ve already lost. When you’re afraid, nothing you do is a positive effort, it’s all a negative reaction. I’m seeing that now with people who were scoffing at social distancing now taking to the opposite extreme, making it social isolation. Which is bad. Don’t do that.

Listen To Frank Herbert

Here’s where I show my nerd cred: you should learn and remember the Litany Against Fear, from the Bene Gesserit of Dune.

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

People read fiction for the story, and that story should be dramatic. Nobody wants to read about my morning routine, or my drive to the grocery store, and I don’t want to write that. But if I write about a broken family trying to come back together… yeah, there’s an audience for that.

No matter how good your setup, though, or how well-considered your story, if there’s no dramatic tension there’s really no reason to read it. Or to write it, for that matter. There are many ways to create dramatic tension in a novel, and I’ve outline four good ones below.

1. Get Your Reader To Ask Questions

You want people to become immediately involved in your story, and the way to do that is to get them to ask a question. Just one, at first. It could be about the plot, it could be about a character, it could be about a relationship between characters, but you should get them to ask that question.

For instance, you could start the story with a main character on the road, destination unknown (to the reader) but it’s clearly somewhere the main character would rather not go. Throw in an encounter with someone who recognizes the character (from where?) and knows where they’re going. Now the reader is hooked, they have to know where the character is compelled to go, and why, and what’s going to happen when she gets there.

2. Create Character Conflict

There’s an awful lot to this one, as it incorporates characterization, plot, and pacing. Conflict between your characters will (almost) always drive your story.

But it can’t be pointless conflict. The conflict has to serve the plot, and move things along. Does the conflict resolve? Well… usually. But not every time (see #3).

Family conflict is great, there’s always tension and conflict between people who’ve lived in the same household. But there can be workplace conflict too, or neighbor conflict, or business conflict. Any time one character wants something, but another character wants the same thing – and there’s only one of that thing – there’s conflict. Or if a character wants something, but another character wants the exact opposite, there’s conflict. Or, maybe the best, is when two characters want the same thing, but disagree on how to go about getting that thing. Both want world peace, but one sees that possible only through war while the other sees it possible only through peace.

3. Use Cliffhangers

This term was coined for the very old movie serials, where the hero would be literally hanging from a cliff at the end of one episode, with the promise that there was no way he could survive, but to come back next week to see if he would anyway.

You should use these within your story, as structural elements and chapter breaks. I would STRONGLY caution against cliffhangers at the end of novels, especially for main plot elements. Nothing will turn your reader against you quicker than your refusal to answer a central question you raise in their minds.

I favor cliffhangers at chapter breaks. Think of them as the button right before the commercial on a TV show. You want your reader to get a payoff from what you’ve set up so far, but you want to give them a reason to turn the page and find out what happens next.

4. Employ Dramatic Irony

I touched on this in a prior post, but dramatic irony is delicious, it’s the sizzle on the steak that is your story. Dramatic irony is that perfect situation where your reader is clued into a truth that the characters are not. Or, better yet, that one character knows but another does not.

Here’s a concrete example: remember that Futurama episode where Fry finds the fossilized remains of his dog from a thousand years before? He spends the episode wondering if he should have Seymour cloned so he can have his dog back, but ultimately decides not to, reasoning that he only knew his dog for a short time and Seymour lived a good long life after Fry disappeared. Except we, the viewers, know that Seymour spent his long life waiting for Fry to come back. (makes me cry every time)

The dramatic irony is that Fry does the right thing, by every measure. Except it’s the WRONG thing, and only we, the viewers know it.

I bought a new car a few months back. My other car, my daily driver, I bought new twenty years ago, so it was past time for it to go. My new car has twenty years better performance, twenty years better safety, and twenty years fewer years than my old car. A much-needed upgrade.

But it also has twenty years newer technology. Which is not necessarily good.

For instance, I discovered the other day that my new car knows where I live. I pulled into the garage, turned off the car, and looked at the little display between the speedometer and the tach. It told me that I had gone 17 miles, that the trip had taken me 24 minutes, and that I got 20.4 miles to the gallon.

Clearly, my car knew that I was home, even though I had never, ever provided it that information.

In my day job I’m a high-speed, low-drag tech guy. So I got to thinking, how would I program my car to determine if I were home? GPS coordinates, clearly, but also time spent at those coordinates. I work from home, so my car stays put in the same spot for long periods of time. Maybe it counts overnight? Which would mean it has to read the clock and time between starts… At any rate, my car’s navigation system has determined where I take trips to and from, and how long I spend there. It calls that home. And it’s right.

I don’t like this at all.

Think it through. If my car knows where I live, then so does anyone with access to those records, whether I’ve given them my home address or not. And all that data is synched to a server somewhere. They know my home, where I buy groceries, where I buy gas, how fast or slow I drive, which junk food places I frequent, where I go to the gym (or if I even go), how often I go to the doctor or dentist, where I spend my Monday afternoons, how frequently I leave my home GPS coordinates after midnight… Everything I do in my car. Which, because I’m an American living in the suburbs, is pretty much everything my life consists of.

I deal with data in my day job, so I know how simple it is to tie my driving behavior to, say, my credit card purchase records, or my arrest records – assuming I have any – or to my CVS club card activity. It’s a wealth of minutia, that can spell out any person’s life if you put it all together. And it’s so, so, so easy to put it all together.

What can I do about this? Nothing. The genie is out of the bottle and he’s not going to let us stuff him back in. The only thing to do is manage the situation. Which means I’m going to have to start driving to places I’d never otherwise go. Like a scrapbooking store. Or Forever 21. Or a tuxedo rental place. If someone’s going to track my daily movements, I might as well make it entertaining for them.