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.

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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.

It’s all about structure, right? Until it isn’t.

Structure Is Overrated

Heresy! Structure is everything. You have to create your story in exactly the same way as everyone else who read the same book you did. Because the essence of creativity is conformity.

I swear to Jesus, if I see one more non-writer trying to tell me that Joseph Campbell has all the answers, I’m gonna… overreact horribly. God bless him, but Campbell told us one way to tell one kind of story, which has – thanks to Hollywood bean counters – become the only way to tell every kind of story.

Ignore Hollywood and ignore all the non-writers trying to tell you how stories should be arranged. You wouldn’t take plumbing advice from a non-plumber, would you? Or financial advice from a broke guy? Or weight loss advice from a fat guy?

Here’s all the story structure you need to know: Beginning – Middle – End.

Structure Is Vital

Okay, Don, you’re doing it again. You say one thing, then say the opposite. What’s up with that?

I mean that you need structure to your story. But you don’t need a three-act structure, or 12-beats, or rising action-falling action, etc. etc., etc. All that seems like PhD-level monkey spank to me. A way to sell books about writing instead of a way to tell a story.

At a bare minimum you need a beginning, a middle, and an end. To get more complicated, you need set-ups and pay-offs. You need character development (please don’t call it an ‘arc,’ that sounds so pretentious to me). You need setbacks and victories. You need pathos. You need mystery and you need resolution. All of that is structure. Every bit. But you using a page count to determine when those things happen is sterile and uninteresting. And your readers can tell.

Make Structure Your Own

If you wanted to be a great basketball player, you wouldn’t read a book about it, you’d get out there and practice. You’d also try to emulate a great player, like Walt Bellamy (everybody knows who he is, right?). Same thing if you wanted to be an artist, you’d draw your ass off and reference great works. Writers need to do the same. You learn to write by writing, you learn structure by creating your own and seeing if it works. When it doesn’t work, tear it apart and redo it.

Throw away the books. Do your own thing. Write, revise, rewrite. That’s how you get a story, and that’s how structure is born.

I don’t see me getting any less stir crazy in the next two weeks, so today’s tip is about plotting: how your characters and your plot connect.

Character Drives Plot

This is the first principle. You have events set up, things are gonna happen. But they don’t happen in a vacuum, they happen to your characters. How your characters react to the setup drives the next event in the plot.

Think about it in real life. No two people are going to react to the same stimulus in the same way. Someone can be in a fender-bender and be mildly annoyed, while another person might become a gibbering mess. This can be true of passengers in the same car. What happens to each person next depends largely on how they react. Character drives plot.

Plot Drives Character

Excuse me? Didn’t you just say…?

I did, and that first part is true. This second part of plotting is also true. The events of the plot spur character development. In the fender-bender example above, the person who is mildly annoyed probably wouldn’t think much about the accident other than to register it as an inconvenience. The person who is devastated by the accident, on the other hand, might make changes – good or bad – to their life as a result. They’d be substantially different after the accident than they were before. Plot drives character.

Character Drives Plot Drives Character Drives Plot…

This knot, this dance, is what a good writer masters. There is a feedback loop between plot and character and it’s in this tension that you’ll find the best story.

It’s been a week now that my novel has been available. It’s been delivered electronically, and is slowly arriving by mail, courier, or owl in for those who pre-ordered a physical copy. I’m getting positive feedback, and that’s always gratifying.

So what does it feel like? Having my baby out in the world?

I wish I could tell you. In a grand irony, I’m at a loss for words right now. It’s all too new. I’m excited, of course, and a little frightened, and more than a little curious, and eager, and reluctant… There’s no word for all those things wrapped up together. Maybe in German. Germans have words for lots of questionable, ill-defined feelings.

I am confident I did as good a job as I could, and I’m confident that my publisher was just as interested in putting out a good product as I was. As far as execution goes, I have no problems, questions, or issues. I hope my readers don’t see any of the effort and just enjoy a good story, told well.

I guess that would be a feeling, right? Hope? The feeling that I want readers to enjoy what I’ve done? Anticipation?

What’s next? I’ll keep writing the sequel to this novel, and try to get good at marketing. My publisher is doing their part for marketing, obviously, but I have as big a part to play as they do. I guess I’m not nearly as confident about marketing as I am my ability to tell a story.

What about a marketing goal? Well… I do have one. For years I lived two blocks down from the best independent bookstore in the world, Vroman’s in Pasadena, CA. They have authors speak all the time, and as I was honing my craft, I thought I would know I’d made it when I had a speaking gig at Vroman’s. Fingers crossed it happens one day. If anybody knows someone in charge at Vroman’s pass the word.

I wish I had a better handle on this. I’ll be sure to let everyone know when my thoughts clarify more. Until then here’s Stubby Kaye stopping the show with ‘Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat.’ Because it makes me happy.

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.